Sunday, March 28, 2010

Getting Serious by Getting Silly: Meet Galaxy Cadet Aster Alpha

I've decided to get serious about the graphics side of story-telling this weekend: so I played with DAZ Productions Bryce. I've found that I learn more, faster, when I've got a picture of what sort of result I want in my mind and the excellence or lack thereof of the result is relatively unimportant.

In this case, I wanted a cityscape, seen from the air, with vast acreages of big buildings and other structures in the middle distance: and 'good grief, how big are they' buildings behind them.

Here's what I got:

The 'foreground' structures are from the Rigel Orionis Megalopolis product. Those weird airships are the Bryce Flying Steamer. My oldest daughter tells me that they're done in the 'steam punk' style. I created what's on the horizon in Bryce.

That picture isn't related to any story or setting I'm working on. The flying steamers are - sort of - but that's still pretty vague.

So, why bother? I need to re-learn how to use Bryce - and how to make more effective use of it - if I'm going to make quite a few of my projects work. Putting that picture together helped. Quite a bit.

Getting Serious About Being Silly

Galaxy Cadet (Heroics and Hairspray in the 27th century) is a project that's been on the back burner for years.

Baum Media Productions is a fictional company - part of Loonfoot Falls' world. (Loonfoot Falls Chronicle-Gazette features a 250-word column from the equally fictional town paper each week.)

I don't have the resources to do what BMP did - create feature-length animated Galaxy Cadet movies - but I think I can have a shot at writing stories about Galaxy Cadet. Her name's Aster Alpha, by the way, and after a brief but spectacular mission on the Stellar Guard carrier Wotan, she's been assigned to the fringe patrol ship Albatross.

That was the most remote, obscure, isolated, dead-end spot they could find. And yes: there's a story behind that.

That's Aster Alpha again. I have no idea where that picture was taken. Some sort of planetside port facility, apparently.

If those names don't sound like the sort of terribly serious stuff I've been talking about - you're right. I think I need to loosen up a bit: and following Galaxy Cadet's career may be a good way to do that.

Related posts:

Saturday, March 20, 2010

You'd Think the IRS Would Give Writers and Artists a Break?

Taxes are due April 15 here in America. Yesterday afternoon I learned that I've got two days to get everything ready, instead of the nine I thought I had. ("Lemming Tracks: Tax Time Surprise ," Apathetic Lemming of the North (March 20, 2010))

I don't buy into the idea that artists, other creative people, and those with intellectual interests (and - occasionally - intelligence to match) are a breed apart, whose talents entitle them to special consideration. And, for some, 'beyond good and evil.' (I've quoted Nietzsche's one-liners from time to time, but I don't buy his philosophy. ((A Catholic Citizen in America (June 15, 2009))

I've played the idea for laughs, though, in Narcissus-X. That terribly earnest and ingrown artist's rants are a little too easy to write, but that's another topic.

There, I've done my shameless plugs for the day.

Like I said, I don't accept the idea that creative people and intellectuals are better than everybody else. Except in the sense that I think athletes are "better" than other people: in the sense that they were born with the potential to excel in athletics, and made an effort to develop that potential.

It's a good thing, too, since I'm a writer and artist. I'd call myself an intellectual, too: but that term implies a sort of elitism that I really don't like.

I've put just about everything else I do on hold for the weekend. I expect to be done by 8:00 a.m. Monday morning. I also expect to be exhausted by then, with about as much creative energy as a sleeping gerbil.

Maybe I'll let Narcissus-X do a rant. That could be fun.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I'm Blaming Daylight Saving Time: or, Not

I suppose I could see Daylight Saving Time as the Federal Government enabling me to enjoy jet lag, even though I seldom travel.

But I don't.

I suppose it could be worse: in addition to reducing consumption of electricity by moving our clocks back an hour in the fall and ahead an hour in the spring, we could reduce water consumption by having the months of May through August shortened by two days each, with the days re-assigned to October through January.

Hey, it makes sense: America is in the northern hemisphere, where May through August are the warmest months. Warm people sweat more: so they take more and longer showers. Obviously, if we reduce the number of days in those months, people won't be exposed to warm weather so much, and will use less water, showering.

Can't argue with logic like that.

My guess is that Daylight Saving Time made sense, over 90 years ago. Either that, or American and European leaders wanted to give the impression that they were really 'doing something' to save energy.

A few things have changed since then.

Oh, never mind.

For one reason or another, I didn't get to bed until about 5:30 Sunday morning. I'd fallen asleep downstairs earlier. Not one of my shining moments.

I was in a fog for the rest of the day, but got to bed - and sleep - at a less rational hour. Slept fine, woke up: and the fog outside was matched by banks of the stuff wafting through my head.

I got the absolutely-have-to tasks for the day done: not well, but done.

The creative work I'd scheduled? Forget it. If I believed that the Muses were real, I'd have assumed that the flight was canceled due to inclement weather.

So today I woke up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed? Ha. The good news is that the fog seems to be lifting.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Interstellar Empires, Imagination, and an Occasionally-Sozzled Detective

I suspect that there's a bit of megalomania in many writers of science fiction/speculative fiction. Or should be.

Think about it: your typical detective novel writer writes about people who live in the contemporary culture. If the story is set in, say, Chicago, the author may want to do a little research. It'd be embarrassing to write a story that takes place in Chicago's Rockefeller Center. There's a Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, but the place with the skating rink is in the Big Apple.

Any story written in a contemporary setting, though, involves at most elaborating on, or re-imagining, an existing locale: and then providing characters whose job descriptions are in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles.

It's not that stories set in a close analog to the world we all live in aren't imaginative. On the other hand, their settings are largely off-the-shelf material.

Which may be why the settings of so many science fiction/fantasy/whatever stories are so - familiar. Sometimes there's good reason for having the action of a speculative fiction setting take place in a world where people go to shopping malls, get stuck in rush hour traffic, and watch television.

For example, the animated series, "Ghost in the Shell," is set in the 'day after tomorrow.' Well, not quite: but we're very close to having quite a bit of the technology. Cultures haven't changed all that much by the time of "Ghost in the Shell." Which shouldn't be much of a surprise: thing's have changed a bit in the last, say, 50 years. On the other hand, styles notwithstanding, we're wearing pretty much the same sort of clothing: and even using many of the same buildings.

While I'm thinking of it, related posts in another blog:

Tales of the Far Future and Galactic Exploration

I started out with megalomania. That's "a psychological state characterized by delusions of grandeur". (Princeton's WordNet)

Maybe not exactly the idea I had in mind - but that term's close. Someone who's serious about writing speculative fiction/science fiction somewhere past 'the day after tomorrow' and this Earth of ours is making the tacit assumption that he, she, or they have what it takes to imagine a complex, internally-consistent universe. That'll probably involve at least a few items from this list:
  • Humans who aren't quite like us
  • People who aren't human at all
  • Jobs that don't exist today
  • Ditto economic and political systems
  • Worlds with life
    • As we know it
    • As we don't know it
    • As we don't recognize it
      • Until we start messing with something it's interested in
"Delusions of grandeur?" Maybe.

But that's what I'm having a shot at doing.

It may help, if I don't take myself - or what I'm writing - too seriously. Two gifted (my opinion) cartoonists wrote - and have re-issued - a series of comic books about an alcoholic detective who's down on his luck: in the early stories, anyway.

Sound almost drearily familiar? It's a sequence of detective stories - pretty much - set in a vast interstellar civilization with weird-looking aliens by the bushel.

I don't think the Foglios intended Buck Godot - zap gun for hire to be taken very seriously.

On the other hand, they put more thought into their setting than I suspect many dreadfully earnest authors did. Two excerpts from a sequence of text sections of the Buck Godot cycle:
"...Even so, one of the real reasons races stay is the realization that there are wonderful things to be learned from those other races, even those annoying fellows with entirely too many ears. Things that, once explained, one can do ones self for free. To be sure, this annoys some of the races that have brought some of these wonderful ideas to the Galaxy's notice; such as the Choaten, who tried and failed to patent the concept of blue as a source of nutrition. Happily, most races realize that since there are more of 'Them' throwing ideas around than there are of 'Us', you tend to get more out of it than you brought into it. This is a universal concept that appeals to everybody...."
Buck Godot - zap gun for hire (January 3, 2008)
Hats off: There's a certain appreciation for the long-term benefits of trade here. In some settings, freely sharing the knowledge your ancestors collected and developed over generations is not being altruistic. Not if other people are doing the same thing.

Getting a meeting ground like that started might be a challenge. Once started, though, I think it'd be so mutually rewarding that most members would pitch in to keep the intellectual 'free lunch' coming.

That business of "blue as a source of nutrition"? Maybe it's just silliness. On the other hand, blue is one of the wavelengths that plants absorb to feed themselves. "Plants" have stayed put and photosynthesized while "animals" moved around and ate plants - and other animals - for the last few hundred million years here on Earth.

But I don't see why that has to be the way to run life. For that matter, I photosynthesize a small but important chemical component in my biochemistry. If you're human, you do too: vitamin D.

Odds are very good that's why my ancestors were so melanin-deficient. They lived in a part of the world where for months at a stretch they'd do well to get sunlight on their face for a few minutes each day.

I'm getting off-topic again.

Writing about these 'trade' centers:
"...these are primarily organizations dedicated to promoting communications, and the vast majority of sentients cannot directly communicate with each other. Some species operate on different time lines, or are out of phase with the four dimensions we can perceive, are too small or too large or, if they had to acknowledge us, they would have to kill us. So even when an atomic matrix life form that feeds off the microwave hum left over from the Big Bang and excretes time lines is in the same solar system with your typical silicon-based life form that eats rocks and excretes hydrogen, communication between the two may be close to impossible...."
Buck Godot - zap gun for hire (March 19, 2009)
Hats off again. Again, I'm not so sure how serious the Foglios were: but they were thinking about what forms people might have - and be 'people' in a reasonable sense of the word.

Good grief. I've set a comic book about an inebriate detective as my standard of excellence.

Vaguely-related posts:

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Well, That's Interesting: Brooklyn and the Names of Things

I touched base at Google Translate and discovered that "Brooklyn" is 布鲁克林 (Bùlǔkè lín) in simplified Chinese.

That's actually closer to the original than the English take on at least one city in India. I speak American English, so as I grew up I knew the place as "Bombay." "Bombay" may have come from an Englishman trying to pronounce "bom bahia": Portuguese for "good bay". Which the place is.

Folks who lived there, and weren't Europeans, apparently called it Mumbai.
"...The city was called Bombay for much of the last four hundred years. The origin of the name is obscure, but is often said to come from the Portuguese phrase bom bahia meaning 'good bay'. The name Mumbai has been used in the main local languages for as long, and is ascribed to the local goddess, Mumba (ai means mother in Marathi). The name of the city was changed to Mumbai by an act of the parliament in 1997...."
(The Mumbai Pages, "By any other name" - More in their FAQ)

Things Change

I wrote a little about names, language, and history before. (February 26, 2010)

We might be calling that big city on a river in Britannia Londinium to this day, if the Caesars had managed to hold their empire together. But that's not how it happened. Romans founded the city, began developing that outpost of their empire, and retreated: leaving ruins and legends; and a shaken Roman's description of a huge, red-haired and very scary woman. They really could have handled Queen Boudicca with more finesse. But that's another topic.

Centuries after the Romans had retreated, leaving memories of a day when roads were built and order maintained, boatloads of French-speaking Vikings landed and picked up where the Romans had left off. Which is yet another topic.

Today, those Vikings are speaking the language that emerged from a sort of philological Cuisinart that imposed quite a lot of French and Latin on a Germanic language. We call it English. Which is yet again another topic.

Where was I? Londinium. Right.

That name hasn't changed all that much. From the sounds of it, a syllable or two dropped out - and I'm pretty sure the vowels aren't quite what the Romans used. There's a whole lot more going on: but I don't know as much about linguistics as I'd like to.

16 Centuries is a Long Time

Quite a lot can happen in 1,600 years. It's been that long, about, since Alaric succeeded in capturing Rome, but failed to hold the city.

Alaric's conquest wasn't an isolated incident. Germanic tribes and Huns were making life so hazardous, that some - but not all - Roman citizens were abandoning their cities. There's pretty good reason to think that quite a few Romans from Padua, Aquileia, Altino and Concordia, for example, fled into a (relatively) nearby marsh.

It looks like those Romans set up a sort of refugee camp. A thousand years later that camp was Venice: a sort of Mediterranean analog to New York City. Today, it's a city that looks quite a big like it did in its heyday: which is a good thing for its tourist trade.

It's possible to use Alaric's sack of Rome as a milestone, marking the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire. But not Rome's influence.

For a very long time, north of the Mediterranean, the only language you could be fairly certain that someone in the town you were in was Latin. The language of the Caesars was still taught when I was in school: but by then English was the language you were most likely to find in spoken somewhere. (More: "Why isn't there More Mandarin on the Web?," Apathetic Lemming of the North (April 4, 2008)) Those Britishers were everywhere.

Another 1,600 years, and things will have changed. Again. Still.

A 'good enough for a story' educated guess is that China will have finally sorted itself out, and be a major player on the world's stage. My take on what's coming is that they'll have emperors again - and that what we're seeing today is one of the messier inter-dynastic 'warlord' periods. With some moderately weird foreign ideologies mixed in.

Yeah: my guess is that people who are serious about putting the Middle Kingdom (中国, or Zhōngguó) back on the map will not want to keep reminders of colonial days around. Not even the time when they were trying to adapt the foreign ideas to their ways.

I've written about what I think is likely - possible, at least - with urban developments on the east coast of North America. ("Daniel Boone and the Megalopolis" (March 5, 2010))

I'm not assuming that the Boston-Washington D.C. corridor will still be heavily built up because I'm a red-white-and-blue-blooded American. The cities there have a reason for being there - mostly as break-in-bulk points for trans-oceanic trade. I don't see that changing.

Look at it this way: Rome is on an important river crossing, and more-or-less centrally located. And, after a rough patch after the awkward transition from Empire to recovery, an economically important part of - we're calling that part of the world "Italy."

So, why was I looking up what simplified Chinese is for "Brooklyn?"

Today, Brooklyn is a place sitcoms and comics can use as a locale for ditsy, amusing not-rich people. It's also a major seaport with industrial potential.

New York City is the "Big Apple" of course. And probably will be for quite a while. It makes a pretty good place to put financial enterprises and the upper end of other economic interests. And it's got that name: "New York City" still has a bit of panache.

It still may, 1,600 years from now. Or, not so much. I'm willing to guess that Brooklyn / 布鲁克林 / Bùlǔkè lín won't be just like it is today, either. I'm guessing that Bùlǔkè lín could be pronounced "Bulookeh Lin" and still be recognizable. Or, not. It's got a nifty exotic/familiar look to it, though.

Welcome to the Bustling Metropolis of Bulookeh Lin

Having visited the quaint Antiquities Preservation District of Niooyueh Shì, come see the hub of Greater Nyok, Bulookeh Lin.

Okay: I'm running out of time, but briefly: I see no reason why Brooklyn couldn't become a more central part of the New York City area. For starters, it's got what Manhattan doesn't have: square footage. upwards of 71 square miles.

Those names? I'm still thinking about that.

Related posts:

Monday, March 8, 2010

Dinosaurs, Ancient Astronauts, and All That

Mix dinosaurs, ancient astronauts, a dash of paleontology and a handful of imagination. Shake well. It's been done before, but the K-T boundary has been in the news again.

Besides, I haven't got much else to write about today: and I'm scheduled to post something on this blog today.

The Chicxulub Consensus May Not Last Long

First, the news and background, all from background:Excerpt:
"A mysterious basin off the coast of India could be the largest, multi-ringed impact crater the world has ever seen. And if a new study is right, it may have been responsible for killing the dinosaurs off 65 million years ago.

"Sankar Chatterjee of Texas Tech University and a team of researchers took a close look at the massive Shiva basin, a submerged depression west of India that is intensely mined for its oil and gas resources. Some complex craters are among the most productive hydrocarbon sites on the planet. Chatterjee will present his research at this month's Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America in Portland, Oregon.

" 'If we are right, this is the largest crater known on our planet,' Chatterjee said. 'A bolide of this size, perhaps 40 kilometers (25 miles) in diameter creates its own tectonics.'

"By contrast, the object that struck the Yucatan Peninsula, and is commonly thought to have killed the dinosaurs was between 8 and 10 kilometers (5 and 6.2 miles) wide...."
(Geology Times (October 17, 2009))
It's early days, but my guess is that that international consensus reported in (March 4, 2010) is already starting to fray around the edges. That's not a criticism: We've known about the Chicxulub event for decades, and this Shiva crater seems to be a relatively new find.

What jumped out at me was the apparent coincidence: Two major impact events happening almost simultaneously (maybe), on the geologic time scale.

Let's say that the a five-mile wide hunk of rock, and another one 25 miles across hit Earth at almost the same time - on a historic time scale.

When All Else Fails, Throw Rocks

Dinosaurs and the other big critters on Earth, 65,000,000-plus years ago, don't seem to have been as consistently dim-witted as we once imagined them: But I think it'd snap the willing suspension of disbelief to write a story where they were as smart as we are. Not if the story was supposed to be even vaguely serious.

I'm about as certain as I can be that whatever long shot may have happened when the K-T boundary was created was a natural event.

On the other hand, what if it wasn't.

I know: It's been done. In a Dr. Who two-parter, "Earthshock" (1982), for example. That time the blast was caused by a spaceship hitting Earth.

There are many other options, of course.

Let's try this on for size:

The war had begun long before. Neither side was willing - or able - to surrender. And neither side had a significant advantage over the other: hardly surprising, as they were both descended from the same people. Not that either side's leaders would admit that this was the case.

They had established rules of conduct for the conflict. Both had found that people - intelligent races - were a rare phenomenon. Both believed that intelligence was important, although they differed on how it should be applied.

And so they agreed that their war would not be a threat to any people they might find.

Each side were, in their own way, quite ethical.

Which made the current situation so revolting.

A warm, damp planet had recently been found. It was virtually useless to both sides: The climate was not within their comfort range, and lacked the aesthetic appeal they demanded of their homes.

Besides, even if they had wanted to do so, neither side could settle there. An exploration team had found - not people, but creatures which showed great promise of developing intelligence.

So the planet was declared off limits.

The star this planet circled, however, was ideally positioned for one side to use as a - let's call it a "listening post." Such an installation could easily be placed in orbit around any of the star's planets, or in orbit around the star itself.

Instead, they built installations on a planet. The warm, damp one. Two installations, actually, near the equator but on opposite sides of the planet.

This was a brazen violation of a long-standing agreement: but the installations remained. They had been made self-sufficient, and so blockade was out of the question. They had defenses which were more than adequate to repel the largest force that their enemy could mount.

And the installations were gathering valuable information, which could easily break the long stalemate.

Something had to be done.

Finally, in desperation, the side which was now losing assembled a vast fleet and took control of the space around the damp planet's star. Then diverted two asteroids toward the damp planet, after mounting a formidable defense system on both.

The two installations could have destroyed any missiles directed against them, and were effectively protected from directed-energy weapons by the damp planet's atmosphere, and their own shielding.

The designers of the installations had even built adaptive intelligence into their defenses, so that as the enemy developed more sophisticated weapon systems, the installations could develop more sophisticated defenses.

The designers had not foreseen that the enemy would throw large rocks.

The larger of the two projectiles was already blasting a crater in the planet's surface while its remaining defenses, on the 'upper' side, were neutralizing a formation of missiles directed on its smaller companion.

Both installations were destroyed, of course.

The war ended not long after.

A few research teams returned to the damp planet. Most of the species which their predecessors had cataloged were gone. The researchers studied what was left, made their reports, and moved on to other tasks.

After a while the researchers stopped coming. Some life remained on the planet, small scurrying things which had somehow survived the twin cataclysms: but the species which had shown so much promise was gone, along with - as far as the researchers could tell - all similar creatures.

New creatures emerged, and changed as the damp planet turned cold. Several species of strange animals which could grasp branches with all four feet developed. One of these moved out of the forest, walking on its rear hands: which had lost most of their grasping function.

In time the descendants of this species chipped Troodon fossils out of rocks which had been sand and mud when incandescent waves of rock engulfed lands around the now-forgotten installations.

Okay: It's Not Shakespeare

Troodons were smart, sort of: probably about as bright as an ostrich. And they had hands. Again, sort of.

No, I do not think they were people. But there could be people built along the same general lines. We might find that we're the oddballs among this galaxy's races.

Assuming that there are any besides us, of course.

Which is another topic.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

With a Brain Like Mine, Who Needs LSD?

This post is a bit off-topic, but I'm releasing it anyway. Most of Drifting at the Edge of Time and Space is a sort of working journal of my efforts to write stories. Or tell stories - not quite the same thing.

Today, while meditating (that's another topic), I realized that I was dredging up memories, and making associations, that might be worth sharing.

Or, not. I've been wrong before.

The Sixties Weren't All That Now and Wow

The stoned artist isn't a product of the sixties. Long before Jimi Hendrix started a trend for celebrity overdoses, the literary world was paved with the booze-drenched droppings of inebriate poets and authors. The fellow who put the town I live in on the map, Sinclair "Main Street" Lewis, was a case in point.

I doubt, however, that he could attribute his Nobel Prize (1930) to being sozzled. The man actually could write.

Coleridge and Opium

Then there was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I grew up in the sixties, and had the connection between Coleridge's use of opium to "Kubla Khan" drummed into me. Make that addiction to opium.

What sets Coleridge apart from the stoned poets of Haight-Ashbury is that artistic wannabes of the sixties, some of them consciously following Dr. Timothy "turn on" Leary's advice, thought that scrambling their circuits would make them more creative. (Depending on your muscle-fat ratio, body mass and metabolism, anywhere from a beer to a six-pack will do the same thing. You'll feel like the biggest thing since [insert your favorite singer/whatever].)

Coleridge got hooked on opium, thanks to state-of-the-art medical practices, ca. 1800. Opium was a wonder drug then: and widely (over-) used as a pain killer.

Coleridge's run-in with doctors wasn't a total loss. We got "Kubla Kahn" out of it, and his was one of many cases that finally convinced doctors that they might want to take a look at the long-term effects of psychoactive drugs.

The Sixties and Me

I'm no Coleridge. Or, by the grace of God, Sinclair Lewis.

Somehow, I got through the sixties without turning to drugs: booze or the groovier sorts. No virtue there. Wanting to get high wasn't on my priority list.

I did develop a serious drinking problem, but that was later: and another story. Wondering if getting sozzled didn't really make me more creative? It didn't. I occasionally felt like a hotshot: but I read what I wrote, later. Ouch.

Want some 'inside' advice? If you have to drink something while you write, make it coffee. But don't be surprised if you can't sleep afterward.

I've learned, recently, that for most people the teen years aren't Purgatory on steroids. I believe it. I also believe that some people don't look back on their adolescence as 'the best days of their lives.'

I'm one of the latter sort.

No complaints: There were many bright spots, but I wouldn't wish the experience, as a whole, on anybody. For a variety of reasons I was under a lot of stress, from about the time I was thirteen on.
Psychedelic Music, Disco, Techno, and Me
Lately, I've been listening to music from the sixties and following lately - some of it using those strange sound distortions. You may have heard it: voices that sound like they're at the bottom of a well, Dopplered tones, that sort of thing.

For me, that sort of thing evokes something that's about as close to nostalgia as I'll feel.

I've read - and believe - that those sounds, and the weird light shows, were an effort by people to replicate the sensations they experienced while high.

I've experienced pretty much the same thing. But, apart from post-operative anesthetics, I've never 'done drugs.'

Fatigue and Stress as Psychoactive Agents

I didn't need to, sort of. I can remember, in my teens, watching the walls and ceiling of a room wobble like Jello. They'd stop as soon as I concentrated on them: but my memory faithfully records the movement. Then there was the time I looked at a lighting fixture and 'saw' it as a sort of spiky starburst. Again, concentration quickly sorted it out into a normal appearance.

That wasn't, quite, a hallucination: I think. The light was one of those with a radial set of grooves in a semi-transparent hemisphere. I'm pretty sure what I was "seeing" was a template in my visual cortex: one that's used to handle bright objects with strong radial elements.

Drugs? No. Booze? Oddly enough, again no.

Stress and fatigue? I think so. Extended over a couple decades.

Again, no complaints: I learned a lot about managing my brain during those years; although it wasn't until recently that I've been able to get back to my pre-teen efficiency. Wonderful things, those serotonin-uptake inhibitors.

Trick Wiring

I don't know if it's 'polite' to say this, but I don't think that everybody's exactly alike. Which is just how I like it. A world full of people just like me would be - scary.

Some of us are taller than average, some shorter: and I'm convinced that not all of us have exactly the same wiring in our heads. I'm fairly bright, in an academic way, but can't figure out the sort of associations that people use to solve those 'where's the key' puzzles that some American communities have as fundraisers.

My brain is great at integrating data, solving problems, associating ideas and perceiving patterns: sometimes patterns that are as real as the Canals of Mars. No bragging: it's the equipment I was issued. All I'm doing is making use of it.

On the other hand, when I relax and 'take my hands off the controls' - - - well, that's where my Narcissus-X posts come from. The trick for that blog is to decide on a place to start, and then enjoy the ride. They're not 'stream of consciousness' writing - each time something interesting shoots by, I grab it, go into 'normal' mode and write a phrase or two about it.

Think of it as surfing the space-time continuum. The trick is to avoid wiping out.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Daniel Boone and the Megalopolis

I've been thinking quite a bit lately, about the world of 3650 or thereabouts.

Since I'm making some moderately non-pessimistic assumptions, I figure that people won't be any stupider in the next few thousand years than they have in the past. Also that we'll have around 780,000,000,000 people on Earth by then.

Not a typo. And not, really, all that much more than the 6,790,062,216 or so we have now.

Overpopulated? That depends on your frame of reference.

Daniel Boone and Manhattan's Lower East Side

Although Daniel Boone apparently didn't move each time he could see the smoke from a neighbor's chimney,1 I suspect that he'd not feel at home in the Washington, D.C. - Boston megalopolis.

I lived in San Francisco, a few decades ago, mostly in an area that was between five and 15 levels deep, apart from streets and sidewalks. I thoroughly enjoyed sharing the end of a peninsula with a sizable fraction of a million other people.

My children grew up in a small town in central Minnesota: the population topped 4,000 recently. I love it here, too: but the ambiance is very different. And some of my kids are acutely uncomfortable even in a relatively lightly-developed area like the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area.

A great deal depends, I suppose, on what you grow up with. But then, I grew up in the town that's across the river from Fargo, North Dakota: and I loved living in a rather built-up city.

The appeal that San Francisco had for me were the opportunities to directly experience the micro-cultures in the city. I lived on the edge of Chinatown (the real one: not that tourist strip), where folks don't have the Western aversion to bright colors on buildings; I could - and did - walk or take public transport to book stores, museums, art galleries - you get the idea. To manage that sort of activity here in the upper Midwest, I'd have to have access to my own aircraft - and even then I'd be eating up too much time going from place to place.

Yeah: There are advantages to having a lot of people in a small area. We're social creatures, and there's a lot of energy generated when we're able to meet each other.

The Internet has helped me keep in contact with the world: I 'drove' around the lower east side of New York City earlier this week, via Google Maps. It's not the same as being there, of course - but I was able to take a good look at my surroundings, which I wouldn't have been able to if I were driving. And I could move a whole lot faster than I could, walking. Or driving, for that matter.

Back to New York City, ca. 3650.

My, How You've Grown!

The megalopolis we know today has grown. North America has what's essentially a new mountain range, running from Florida northwards: several miles high in most spots.

And yes: That'd have an effect on weather patterns. My guess is that there'll be 'reverse wind farms' here and there, forcing winds 'uphill' to maintain what we think of as 'normal' climate. Weather control? I suppose you'd call it that.

New York City itself would be one of the higher areas, I suspect. It's an excellent natural harbor: and ocean-going vessels would still be a reasonably efficient way to transport large volumes of material. There'd probably be more than a hundred times as much traffic, though: so we're probably looking at offshore port facilities, too.

How would I feel about living in a city that was essentially one building, several hundred miles long by about three miles deep?

Today, I live in central Minnesota, where water is a mineral for a large part of the year: and I'm not a winter sports enthusiast.

Don't get me wrong: I love it here. But the prospect of living inside 24/7/365, in a place that'd 'feel' like the Mall of America, with climate-controlled pedestrian access to analogs of the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the Grand Ole Opry, Broadway, the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

Plus whatever people come up with in the next sixteen centuries?

If I did a 'Buck Rogers,' woke up in that era, and wound up living near the east coast: I might find it a bit crowded. Also extremely exciting.

Old MacDonald Had a Farm

All those people will eat. I've mentioned this before.

I don't think today's sewer system could handle the load of a three-mile-deep New York City. But then, I don't think that Rome's system, two thousand years back, could handle the volume that contemporary systems do: and the Romans were good engineers.

The point? People aren't stupid. We adapt. When what we're doing doesn't work, we improve our methods, or develop new ones. Some of us do, anyway. Others complain and wait for someone else to fix things. That's a different topic.

I really don't think we'll be dumping all that waste into the Atlantic. Remember: all those people are going to want to eat on a regular basis. That sewage just about has to get treated and sent back west to the farms.

Disgusting? I don't think so: but then I live in a town where we can tell when someone upwind has turned their manure bed. Let's get real: Everything on Earth has been eating recycled, ah, stuff for hundreds of millions of years. All that's different about my world of 3650 or so is that we're managing the process a lot more than we are now.

Those farms won't look like those quaint old fields you see in 'visit Ireland' brochures. Think a greenhouse, many levels deep, with "sunlight" generated locally for all but the top level. Livestock? that'd be elsewhere, but not too far away: you don't want to have to haul silage any farther than you have to.

Horribly artificial? Artificial, yes. Horribly? That's a matter of taste. I think Ord ("The Dream") wouldn't like the world 16 centuries out - at all. Or today's world. Me? It'd take getting used to. But then, my ancestors would have had a few adjustments to make, if they'd been taken out of Roman Europe and dropped here in 21st-century Minnesota.

Where's all that energy coming from? Well, that's another topic, for another day.

And I haven't even gotten into the specialized gourmet/recreational business of free-range cattle.

More-or-less-related posts:
1 "Daniel Boone: Myth and Reality," Gregory McNamee, Encyclopedia Britannica Blog (October 23, 2007).

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Artificially Enhanced Human Beings: That's So 20th Century

Many GEICO commercials play with a disconnect between the (once) popular notion that "cavemen" were "primitive" - and what we've been learning about people who lived before some maniac got the bright idea of planting seeds and waiting for them to grow.

For example, about 800,000 years ago people in one place, at least, lived in a place with a distinct kitchen. Granted, it didn't have a GE Energy Star Dishwasher: but the residence had areas for specific functions like food preparation.

The people who lived there most likely looked a bit like the fellow in that picture. We call folks like him Homo Erectus, and around 1,000,000 years ago our ancestors almost certainly looked a bit like that.

I'm not bothered by the idea - but then, I've seen old family photos. I look a bit like my ancestors: but not quite. For example, on the Campbell side, we lost the characteristic 'wry mouth' several generations back.

Change happens.

The more we learn about our distant ancestors, the more like us they seem - in my opinion. As I wrote in another blog, about that stone age kitchen:
"...But - human? Pretty much like me, basically? I don't see why I shouldn't think so. Their brains were between half and two thirds as massive as ours, on average, but that archeological dig shows that they may have thought more-or-less the same way we do.

That artist's impression doesn't look 'human?' I'm not so sure. You're not likely to see that expression in people's photos today, outside supermarket tabloids, but think of him saying something like, "you want three rocks? You carry one!"

Or, "whaddaya mean, they only come in green or gray?!"...
(Apathetic Lemming of the North)

Eugenics: It Seemed Like a Good Idea At the Time

For decades after World War II ended, the idea of replacing most of us with superior human beings was 'well known' to have been the work of those nasty German Nazis.

Since by then many people seemed to realize that they weren't on the 'preferred' list, improving the race wasn't a very popular concept. In fact, if you were around then, or your parents were, your skin may have crawled when you read "Nazis" and "improving the race."

It hasn't always been that way.

Right up until the national socialist party in Germany started 'improving' the human race - arguably, until places like Auschwitz and Dachau hit the news - applying modern science and Victorian ideals to weed out inferior classes and pep up the race seemed like a really good idea.

At least among well-bred, educated Englishmen and their cousins in America.

Science fiction written before WWII had quite a number of examples of what the new-and-improved human race would be like:
"...Over all, John comes across as a sort of socialist version of the Nietzschean ideal with a couple of the rougher edges rubbed off. In other words, human morality has no call on him, but he occasionally feels mild guilt. This is supposed to indicate his superior moral plane, but he comes across more as an odious, amoral little tick. Stapledon assumes that human superiority over lesser animals is quantitative rather than qualitative. In other words, we enjoy our position over the animals because we have more of some quantity called intelligence rather than some unique quality; be it sentience, self-awareness, or an immortal soul.

"Or to be blunt about it, morality is something shared between the strong and denied to the weak.

"Because of this, Stapledon's supermen are allowed to rob from, seduce, exploit, manipulate, dispossess, and even murder 'lesser' people when they get in the way of the supermen's plans due to the higher moral need to advance the interests of the master race. This sort of an argument has an unfortunate track record and Stapledon could just get away with this in the '30s. In less than ten years, however, a certain group of would-be supermen put such ideas into practice and the world is still trying to wash the taste out of its mouth...."
(Tales of Future Past > Future Man > "Odd John")

'It Can't Happen Here?' Don't be Too Sure

The word "eugenics" still hasn't quite regained the panache it had before the forties: but the idea is back. Phrases like "quality of life" are used: but the same old approach of eliminating the unfit is there. Except now it's for 'benevolent' reasons.

I don't think killing people who don't live up to some standard of physical perfection is a good idea. But then, I'm one of those defective products of conception that aren't living a quality lifestyle. Being used in a medical experiment didn't help - but that's another story. (A Catholic Citizen in America (February 3, 2009))

Defective or not, on the whole I prefer being alive to the alternative.

What's With All the Quotes?

I've started using David S. Zondy's Tales of Future Past website as a reference and resource. Partly because he's done a marvelous job of bringing together vintage science fiction virtual memorabilia and ideas. Partly because he seems to see the world in roughly the same way I do.

I don't want to shock anyone, but I think that the physical world is real, not an illusion; that God exists; that some things are moral and others aren't; and that people have souls. And I want to write speculative fiction?!

Back to Mr. Zondy and making supermen. He wrote an uncharacteristically serious few paragraphs about eugenics:
"...One of the obvious ways of producing your superman is one that was taken so seriously in the last century that it was actually tried. Ever since the basic ideas of Darwin and the mechanism of genetics were understood, the idea popped into the mind of Sir Francis Galton that what can be done to dogs and pigeons can be done to men, so if you want to create Homo Superior, why not simply breed human beings selectively?

"This wasn't just idle speculation, he was dead serious and many a philanthropist, scholar, scientist, businessman, and politician became determined advocates of improving the lot of the human race by making sure that the 'best' of the breed intermarried while the sick, feeble-minded, and generally undesirable were prevented from reproducing...."

"...Needless to say, Auschwitz and the Nuremburg trials put paid to the Eugenics movement and gave the world a very stern lesson of what happens when you stop seeing people as children of God and more as laboratory animals.

"What is even more frightening is that we have been so slow in learning our lesson and so quick to forget it. We've made great strides in medicine, particularly in genetic research, but in doing so we have reached the point where we are in danger of doing far more harm than good. If not to our bodies, then to our souls. Our society is tampering with things such as contraceptives, fertility drugs, genetic engineering, selective abortion, infant euthanasia, in vitro fertilisation, designer babies, and artificial insemination with so little real discussion of the ethics of what we're doing that we face a very real risk of one day turning 'round and discovering that we are not becoming genetic supermen, but moral monsters...."
(Tales of Future Past > Future Man > "Eugenics")

The Importance of [Not] Being Earnest

Stories where the author has a Point To Make and hits readers over the head with it are as likely to stir my stomach as my heart. Dreadfully earnest stories happen so often that Television Tropes & Idioms has a whole page about being "Anvilicious."

Not that I think there should be no message in a story. Even if it's as basic as 'don't mess with the big guy's wife until you're sure he's dead.' Homer's Odysseus / Ulysses wouldn't have had quite as exciting an ending, if the war hero hadn't cleaned house at the end in a style worthy of Arnold Schwarzenegger's action heroes.

And, as another page in Television Tropes & Idioms puts it: "Some Anvils Need To Be Dropped." Think Aesop's Fables.

The trick, I think, is finding a balance. How? Having somebody else read the story isn't the daftest approach.

I may drop a few anvils as I go along: but I'll try to be careful about it. Apart from artistic and aesthetic considerations, I don't think it's generally the best way to make a point.

Mutants, Cyborgs and Meddling With God's Handiwork

I think Mr. Zondy is right on at least one point: particularly with the sort of power that people have these days, we should think about the ethics of what we do: not just whether or not we feel like doing it.

On the other hand, I don't have a problem with Man Tampering With Nature. In my view, that's what we do, just by being human. We've come a long way from weaving cloth and knapping hide scrapers: but we were messing with 'the natural order of things' long before we started selecting which seeds to use for the next crop.
Isn't It Different With People?
Even if I didn't feel like it, I'd have to be concerned with cruelty to animals. It's in the rules (A Catholic Citizen in America (August 17, 2009))

I'm even more concerned with cruelty to people. I don't think people should be bought, sold, or killed - even if it's for personal profit or convenience. And the way I view the world, the stakes go up when the person is helpless. But I'm getting off-topic.
What About Cyborgs: Those Inhuman Amalgams of Man and Machine?
Don't expect me to be too upset about mixing a human being's original equipment and artificial add-ons and replacements. I'm focusing on the monitor right now with clip-on lenses, My hands and wrists have been surgically altered, quite a few of my teeth have metal parts, I've got two metal hip sockets, and my belly's got plastic mesh in it. Even my brain's been altered, chemically, to clear up some glitches.

And I'm okay with that: I haven't messed with anything that was working smothly in the first place. What's been done to me since about age four has been better described as "repairing" than "tampering."

These models who get surgically altered to match some current fashion: that's dubious, in my view.

It's Just Starting to Get Interesting

I've read that Intel has announced a neural interface, due for release around 2020. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (December 2, 2009)) Some of the obvious applications for that sort of technology is people who've suffered brain injuries from stroke or accidents. That, I think, is a very promising development.

The technology will, of course, be misused. People misuse things sometimes. We've killed each other with rocks. My guess is that somebody's going to use those brain chips in ways that'll make what happened at Auschwitz look like a Sunday social. You think we've got problems with malware now?!

But that doesn't make rocks bad: or brain chips. We've cobbled together rules for how to use rocks, and I'm pretty sure we can do the same with brain chips.

We may not be quite the same as we were when we learned how to knap flint: But I don't think we've gotten any stupider.

If At First You Don't Succeed - - -

As a rule, I think persistence is a good idea. But like just about every other human characteristic, it can be misapplied.

The national socialist party's efforts to clean up their gene pool and make room for a master race had unpleasant consequences. I don't think anybody's going to try that approach again.

But the idea of 'perfecting' humanity is so appealing to many, I don't think it'll go away. I'm also pretty sure that someone's going to try again. And again, and again.

The more spectacular blowouts, like what happened in Germany around the 1940s, may put a moratorium on most efforts for a few decades. But too many people are too convinced that humanity would be so much better - if only 'improvements' were made - that I think we're likely going to see superman projects now and again for the foreseeable future.

Some of what I've read about - like making repairs at the genetic level to eradicate conditions like leukemia - seem to make sense. How they should be implemented: that's where things get interesting.

Meanwhile, superman factories and people who think they've evolved beyond good and evil will provide a writer of speculative fiction a warehouse of material.

Some of which I've already used:Vaguely-related posts:

Monday, March 1, 2010

New York City, 3650

I've been thinking about New York City quite a bit more lately than I usually do. Partly because one of those nifty ideas that's been wandering somewhere in my brain's infrastructure popped out into the front office last week.

The basic idea isn't anything new: it's a setting for what could be a sequence of 'club tales.' Sort of like the 'Mr. Mulliner' short stories by P. G. Wodehouse (which are not speculative fiction at all); or A. C. Clarke's "Tales from the White Hart" (which is).

The best location for this place, I decided, would be on Earth, in a major city, and about 16 centuries from now. Almost any period after the advent of the short circuit would do: but that's roughly when my 'Blue Buzzard' stories are, so I'd only have to do background research once for both sets.

So, what would a "city of the future" look like? Probably not quite like this:
"This painting by Frank R. Paul's of a city of the future and is pretty typical of such predictions. The city is a massive pile of steel, plastic and glass put together in a way that not only has no past, but actively rejects it. It is a place of heroic technology with skyscrapers the size of whole districts, roof-top aerodromes, wide pedestrian boulevards, and metal roadways strangely devoid of traffic. There are even urban space launch pads where giant rockets are winched upright before blasting off to the heavens. Noise regulations, Shmoise regulations...."

"...If there is one thing that united the artist-prophets, it was a fascination with gigantism. Since the most impressive engineering feats of the early 20th century were bigger and better dams, bridges, canals, and whatnot, it seemed only reasonable that the cities of future ages would look as though they needed a round of thyroid treatments...."
("Future City," "Skyscraper World," Tales of Future Past)
David S. Zondy, creator of Tales of Future Past, has a point: those illustrations from the 20s and 30s of cities of the future showed huge buildings. And, quite often, elevated roadways.

Now that megamalls are news only when something newsworthy happens in them, maybe it isn't quite so cool to imagine megastructures.

Cool or not, New York City in my 37th century is going to have to have some fair-sized buildings. Or I'll have to radically change what I've got planned for Earth in my stories.

Starting with a population somewhat northwards of 100 times what we have now.

Flint Knives to International Harvester: Change Happens

We couldn't feed that many people today. But I've done a little research: and that's not a crazy-high figure. Of course, it would mean bringing agricultural technology up to 1975 state-of-the-art around the world. Just as important, we couldn't have too many countries where the primary function of most people was keeping dear leader supplied with fresh lobster. But I'm getting off-topic.

A Hundred Times as Many People? However Will Earth Survive?

My 37th century Earth won't look just what we've got today: but I'm not talking about the 'dying planet' stuff mentioned in "Avatar" (2009).

What I think many doomsters forget is that human beings are biological entities. We consume organic material, water and oxygen. But it doesn't stay inside us. On a time scale of seconds to hours, most of what went in comes out again. We can't consume what we excrete, at that point, but quite a few organisms can: and eventually we, or someone like us, will get the same molecules again. It's a system that's been working for hundreds of millions of years: and I think is likely to keep recycling, whether trilobites, dinosaurs, or we are pushing part of the process along.

Will it be different, with more than a hundred times as many people around as there are now? Of course. It's different now, compared to the 'good old days' when there were only a few million of us. (See " 'The Dream' - a Short-Short Story," for a look at today's world as a hideously-overcrowded future)

Back to New York City, ca. 3650

As it stands today, New York City can't handle another 99 people for everybody who lives and works there now. But quite a bit can be changed in 1,650 years.

I did a little checking, and found that many (most, where I looked) buildings around New York City's Central Park were about 15 stories tall, with some around 20. Near the south end of the island, they're taller, of course. But that 15-story range gave me something to start with.

You can't just add more floors to a building and leave it at that. Aside from structural considerations, people in the upper floors will want to get down to ground level now and again. We manage that in today's skyscrapers with elevators. Which takes up floor space - books have been written on the subject: the bottom line is that there are limits with the technology we have now. 'Sky lobbies' are a partial solution.

We might wind up with something like those old aerial roadways, after all.

With a blithe wave of the hand, I took New York City's skyline, and multiplied in by a hundred. Vertical transport? I'll figure that out later.

Those buildings around Central Park would be 15 x 10 x 100 = 15,000 feet tall. That's almost three miles. The park is less than a mile across. The place would be a trench: "scarier than it is now," as my oldest daughter put it.

Just How High Will We Build?

I did a quick check, and found out that five kilometers is almost the limit for how far up you'll find cities - Wenzhuan is 16,730 feet, or 5,019 meters, above sea level.

People can live there, obviously - but I'm not sure how much higher we'd go before the air was uncomfortably thin.

So my Central Park is surrounded by buildings around 15,000 feet tall? No problem: Air's breathable at that altitude, and I'm still not worrying about vertical transport.

Central Park's being at the bottom of a three-mile-deep trench is an aesthetic issue - which I'll ignore for now.

Incremental Growth?

There was a story where New York City was destroyed and rebuilt as a cube, two miles on a side. ("City Cube," Tomorrow's Skyline, Tales of Future Past)

That could probably be done. Napoleon III's government leveled good-sized parts of Paris, laying out the groundwork of what we've got today. ("Streets of Paris," James Chastain (1999, 2004)) There's pretty good reason to believe that the streets of Paris today are so wide and straight because the civic leaders wanted the citizenry exposed to light, air and cannon fire.

The mid-1800s were a colorful period. And another topic.

Apart from phenomena like Napoleon III and urban renewal, though, cities tend to grow one piece at a time. That's why today's New York City has brownstones, modernist architecture, and a jumble of other styles being used side-by-side.

I rather like the effect, myself.

Right now, I'm playing with the idea that 1,650 years from now New York City will have grown more-or-less gradually. No two-mile-high cubes.

A quick sketch of the south end of Manhattan with a height limit of about 15,000 feet didn't look too crazy. I don't know whether to look at making that end of the island taller - or spreading out the 'downtown' area.

To keep the buildings from looking like improbably elongated mega-pencils, I've assumed that Manhattan will continue to be high-value property: valuable enough for organizations to buy several blocks and build a single structure over them.

We've got something like that happening in Chicago. But that's yet another topic, and it's getting late.

Vaguely-related posts:

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.