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Monday, February 28, 2011

Three Shining Moments

Some fans of science fiction and fantasy have never attended a convention, while others cons as a way of life, traveling to and attending as many as they can voraciously take in.  Some only attend the big ones, such as Worldcon or World Fantasy, while others specialize in niche cons devoted solely to particular aspects of fandom such as comic books, anime, or media properties such as Star Trek.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, the first one I mark on each year’s calendar is Condor, and it was those three days of programming that I enjoyed this last weekend.  Some years it may be better attended than others, sometimes a Guest of Honor (as well as other guests) lends a particular flavor to the panel discussions that particularly inspires, while other years it is another aspect of the convention that I walk away remembering most strongly.  This year’s Condor offered three highlights, pleasant and inspiring moments that I am sure I will remember for years to come.

Steven Spielberg is not only a great director: he has become an icon within the TV and movie industry.  The second movie I saw in a theater, one that I subsequently viewed many, many times, was Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Sadly, I could not say that I derived the same level of enjoyment from his remake of H. G. Wells’ classic story War of the Worlds.  So I am grateful to the San Diego Vintage SF Society for screening the 1950s version on Friday afternoon.  This movie had it all: humor, likable characters, great action, and of course, a love story.  It also showed a respect for the sustaining role that Faith plays for people experiencing turmoil and crisis.  I am sure the new version has its advocates, but for me, the earlier vision revealed humanity at its best, which is how I prefer to view our species.

That is not to say that the collective actions of humanity are always laudable.  One of the issues we face right now is the rapid transformation of our planet known as Global Warming.  Dr. Gregory Benford, this year’s Guest of Honor, summarized some of the geo-engineering studies that he has been involved with in the past few years.  I know there is a great deal of debate out there regarding how much the level of warming is due to human activities versus the planet’s natural processes, but one of the arguments that he made is not a scientific one, but is Biblical in origin.  While every country is scrambling for new ways to generate more power for its citizens, we, the populace and the government, must also remember that we are the stewards of this planet: it is up to us to do what we can to care for our home: not only for our own use, not only for future generations of people, but for all life which now or will dwell upon it.  In a very real way, we are the present day Adam and Eve. 

After attending movie screenings, perusing the dealer room and art show, and sitting through various panel discussions, I was looking for something different.  So I welcomed the visit of Herb Jefferson Jr., who played Boomer in the original Battlestar Galactica TV series, to Condor.  Instead of delivering a prepared speech, he answered any and all questions from the audience, and proved by far the most personable speaker of the weekend.  The answers, anecdotes, and the laughter flew thick and fast, and he always made sure he satisfied the curiosity that generated each particular question.  As I look now on the photograph he autographed for me: I cannot help but smile, remembering the warm dialogue we shared concerning a show that marked not a high point in his acting career, but in mine as a young fan.

A screening of a 1950s movie.  A discourse on Geo-Engineering.  A dialogue with the actor who portrayed a beloved TV character.  I would never had guessed that these three moments would be the ones that I look back on most fondly, but that is what I love about Condor: it always surprises.  I’ve already purchased my membership for next year, and look forward to what that 2012 con will offer up.  How about you?  Will you join us for next year’s convention?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Defining Moment

Many of his fellows might regard Bradley Reynolds as an alien.  He was never motivated by a desire to accumulate wealth, so in his waning years he has given away all that he earned during his life.  He never desired power for its own sake, so he now lives happily in seclusion.  The aging populace of Earth see him as a hero, due to his earlier exploits, so in section three of Dr. Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund’s novel If the Stars are Gods, he spends his days within the protective walls of a monastery.  For his expertise and opinions are still valued, and government officials continue to seek him out.  These he asks his monastic brothers to turn away, so that he may pursue his contemplation undisturbed.

One day, a representative arrives with a unique piece of news.  After years of listening to space, the scientists have received a genuine alien signal, which they have labeled the Alpha Libra puzzle.  So far, they have only deciphered enough to determine that the aliens’ homeworld must be a gas giant.  This makes no sense to Bradley: what kind of intelligent alien life would live on such a planet?  His opinions and advice on this new development are sought by the government’s Science and Astronomy committee.  Yes, it is an interesting puzzle.  But he is now in his eighties.  He is someone quite different from the man who preached the merits of space travel, who walked on Mars, and who talked with aliens.  Nevertheless, he tells the government representative to wait while he decides whether or not he will respond. 

In Star Trek The Motion Picture, the character of Spock is faced with such a moment of decision.  He has spent his time in seclusion, in preparation to receive a great mark of respect from his people: Kolinahr.  For most Vulcans, this would be a worthy accomplishment.  But Spock is not only Vulcan, he has a human half as well.  He has worked long and hard to divest himself of that aspect of his personality.  Indeed, those who oversee this period of testing believe he is worthy to receive this honor.  Yet somehow, he senses that his skills and abilities are needed elsewhere, and that his human half is necessary to meet this unwanted task.  He could ignore this new calling.  He could finally receive the respect from his fellow Vulcans that he has long sought.  Yet he decides to be honest with the Vulcan leadership.  He reveals that he is unworthy to receive this honor, and leaves to pursue a task he neither requested nor desired.

In contemplating the emissary’s request, Bradley Smith realizes what it will take to fully decipher the Alpha Libra puzzle.  To understand aliens who live in such an environment, humans must live near a gas giant.  A space station must be built in orbit around Jupiter so they can search out what type of alien life lives there.  And who has the popularity of the aging citizenry of Earth?  Who has sufficient prestige to convince the government to undergo such a monumental effort?  As much as Bradley Smith had believed his life of public service was over, is it possible that he is not just the right person for this task, but the only person carrying it to completion?

Like Spock, Bradley Smith has accomplished much in his life.  He has earned his retirement, the right to spend his final years in comfort and peaceful contemplation.  Yet he decides to leave the monastery, not only because he feels the yearning to once again try to communicate with the other forms of life who might await us among the stars, but for the good of his fellow man. 

Would we be so willing to abandon our comfort zones, if a similar request were made of us?

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Fictional Role Model?

Imagine you have lived your life with one mission: to promote mankind’s future in space.  Earth cannot be the sole repository of life in the universe, you have preached to any and all.  We must do more than listen for alien signals and send unmanned probes into space.  We must leave our planet and search among the great ocean of stars.  The persuasiveness of your arguments, as well as your skill as an astronomer, has justified your inclusion in mankind’s space program.  You have even participated in a mission to Mars.  But after decades exploring space, no proof of intelligent alien life has ever been found.

Then one day an alien space ship arrives in our solar system, and you are sent from the moonbase to be mankind’s representative.  To your surprise, the aliens don’t wish to learn about humanity.  They are not here to orchestrate interstellar trade, or to welcome us into a galaxy-wide federation.  Their sole reason for settling into orbit is to learn from you about our sun, and the knowledge they seek has nothing to do with its spectral classification or luminosity.  No, their question is simple: Tell us about your relationship with your star, and how it has personally affected your life.

This is the situation Bradley Reynolds encounters in section two of Dr. Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund’s novel If the Stars are Gods.  These aliens see their own star in personal terms, as a sentient being who possess great wisdom and assists them in making important decisions such as choosing a mate.  If they arouse its anger, it will punish them.  Nevertheless, it cares for them, and forewarns them of impending tragedies.  When Bradley tries to explain how humans see the Sun, the aliens are dumbfounded.  Why would humanity have ventured into space if they do not perceive their star as a conscious being?  His superiors want Bradley to lie, to string the aliens along with a fabrication of his personal relationship with the Sun so that they can learn more about the aliens and their space ship.  But Bradley cannot bring himself to lie to these aliens, and so he wields his own deal with them.  If they allow human scientists to study their ship and answer the scientists’ questions, as well as teach him how to talk to the stars, Bradley will help the aliens, as best he can, to understand Sol.

On his next visit to the space ship, the alien who will instruct him begins to sing, and his song awakens something in Bradley Reynolds.  He cannot define it in logical terms, but the song invigorates him, fills him with new life.  He finds his voice merging with the alien’s, and somehow knows that his song is going out into space.  Through their shared song, he senses an entity great and wise and powerful and ancient.  He cannot doubt the validity of this experience: it is simply something that he knows is real.

Science Fiction writers have long shared their dreams with us of humanity putting aside its various differences (whether they be racial, cultural, or otherwise) to solve the world’s biggest problems and to launch us toward the stars.  Yet today we are still as divided as ever, and the problems that beset our world seem no less than those faced by previous generations.  Many now doubt that our race will truly reach the stars.  In their character of Bradley Reynolds, Dr. Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund portray a scientist who experiences a genuine spiritual transformation.  In the novel, he will go on to successfully merge those two oft-warring factions of Faith and Science in his outlook on life.  We could do worse than learn from such a fictional role model.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dilemmas in the Darkness

Every day we are beset by choices.  From selecting what to wear, to choosing what (and where) to eat, to deciding to answer an email or interrupt a meeting to take a call, we weigh our desires against the perceived urgency or importance of each menu item each day offers us.  In an earlier era, instead of carrying the burden of making a given choice, we might seek out our family patriarch, and let him make the decision.  Today’s world values independence: those who defer choices we regard as weak, while those who seem to consistently make the right decisions we promote as leaders, regardless of the motivations that drive them.  It goes without saying that, for one later judged by society to have made the wrong choice (regardless of his or her intentions at the time), the consequences can be terrible.

In section one of the original hardcover edition of If the Stars are Gods, Dr. Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund present us with a mission to Mars which has suffered repeated misfortunes.  The only survivor of the original survey team is not its leader, but Bradley Reynolds, a young astronomer.  Bradley is intent upon carrying out the team’s original mission: to confirm the reports of life sent back by previous unmanned missions.  But up in orbit, Major Paul Smith is alone, and needs another person to help pilot the ship back to Earth.  Understandably, he wants Bradley to return immediately.  When Earth appears to agree with Smith, Bradley is faced with a dilemma.  Should he attempt to fulfill his teams’ original mandate, or should he, as a good team player, obey orders and return to the ship?  If Bradley finds what he is searching for, society will judge him a hero; if he carries on and some new tragedy prevents his return to the ship, his decision will not only have cost him his life, but that of Major Smith as well.

Alone on Mars, Bradley Reynolds decides it is more important to honor his deceased team members (and everyone back home who worked so hard to get him there) than play it safe and return to the ship.  He disobeys orders and continues the survey, only to be rewarded with an even greater dilemma.

Bradley discovers an old Russian probe, which has spread contaminants upon the surface of Mars.  Are the supposed signs of life merely Martian mutations?  Or is there life on Mars untouched by this contamination?  Out of time and resources, he cannot make this determination.  But what if his superiors (and the politicians) use his discovery to argue that all life on Mars must have originated on Earth?  Like Matt Bowles in the novel Jupiter Project, Bradley Reynolds believes exploration is essential to humanity’s future.  Thus, any action which endangers the space program must be wrong.  Surely there is proof of authentic Martian life, which a subsequent team will find, he reasons.  He thus decides not to report the discovery of the Russian probe, hoping that this lie of omission will lead humanity to find a greater truth.

Leaders occasionally make decisions based upon their beliefs rather than the facts at their disposal.  The facts available to them are incomplete or misleading, they argue.  Reality will prove out with their beliefs, and anyone who disagrees with them lacks vision.  And strangely enough, sometimes the future rewards them for their decisions, despite all the facts that suggested otherwise.  Was Bradley Reynolds right to put Major Smith’s life at risk and remain on Mars?  Was he right to shield his discovery of the Russian probe from his superiors?  While we might comfort ourselves with the knowledge that Bradley Reynolds is a fictional character, it seems likely that those we send into the darkness of space will face similar dilemmas. 

Let us prepare them well, and be understanding of their human frailties.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Invisible Enemy

In their novel, If the Stars are Gods, Dr. Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund cover five defining events of their central protagonist’s life.  These are followed by four epilogues, which extend his story and relate how he impacted those around him.  At times, the authors’ focus appears to waiver.  Viewed in its entirety however, the novel masterfully portrays a man who, through the significant phases of his life, sought to explore the universe, not because such a search would bring him power, wealth, or fame, but because he yearned to be in communion with all forms of life. 

Benford and Eklund let their intent gradually emerge as events impact their characters’ lives.  In the first scene of the original hardcover edition, the authors introduce us to Major Paul Smith, who is piloting a craft in orbit over Mars.  During a routine check-in, his signal with Colonel Kastor, the head of the landing party, abruptly cuts off.  Before they left Earth, Mars had seemed so full of promise, but Smith finds himself fighting a growing despair, which this interrupted signal only feeds.  He realizes how vulnerable he is, should some mortal tragedy strike the survey team.  For it takes more than one person to pilot the ship back to Earth.

In subsequent scenes of Section One, we learn the reason for the interrupted communication: a quake strikes without warning, flipping one vehicle, killing a member of Kastor’s survey team, and destroying much of their supplies.  Later, after Colonel Kastor dies in an accident, we view events from the perspective of Loretta Morgan, who believes that Fate has frowned upon their mission.  Gripped by fear and despair, she reaches out to Bradley Reynolds, who initially mistakes her affection for love.  One evening, with the winds of a Martian storm shrieking outside their environment tent, she can no longer tolerate the doom she believes awaits her.  After making love with him, she sneaks outside.  By the time Bradley realizes that she has left the tent, and that both environment remain inside, it is too late.

From reading autobiographies of the Apollo astronauts, and watching movies and TV shows based upon their lives, it’s safe to say that not all of them were the best of friends.  Unlike their trips to the moon however, a mission to Mars would take much longer.  Imagine being crammed into a space ship for eight months with people you dislike and don’t get along with.  Once you arrive, a dangerous survey mission demands that you interact with these people that much more closely.  But your time with them doesn’t end with your last experiment on the surface.  For another eight months, you must interact and work with them, smell their body odors, breathe in their expelled air, and touch the controls and surfaces they’ve touched. 

At some point, despair attacks everyone.  Sadly, most of us have known someone who, like Loretta Morgan, eventually succumbed to its debilitating power.  As I journey through my life, I periodically find myself in a seemingly endless tunnel.  The way ahead always seems pitch black, but I’ve learned that if I simply keep walking, eventually I will reach the tunnel’s end. 

As Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund make clear in their novel, astronauts will face problems caused by their remoteness from Earth, as well as from the inevitable fallibility of the machinery that sustains their lives.  Thankfully, few will experience events as dire as those faced by the crew of Apollo 13.  But all of them, particularly those assigned to long missions, will be threatened by the invisible enemy of despair.  Knowing this, I find myself respecting them--and their achievements--all the more.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Beautiful Mystery

In discussing Jupiter Project by Dr. Gregory Benford, I felt as if I stood upon solid ground.  By contrast, the first time I read through If the Stars are Gods by Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund, I found myself sinking into sand, fighting to keep my head above the surface.  After a second read-through, this time taking careful notes, I managed to fight the quicksand’s pull.  Still, I cannot pull myself completely free: at best, my lower-legs are still buried below the surface.

Some stories are like that.  Perhaps the most famous case is the film version of Arthur C. Clarke’s story 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Unlike the Peter Hyams-directed sequel 2010, which set off with the purpose of answering questions (and which left you on much firmer footing), the original film seems to ask more questions than it answers.  Reactions to Kubrick’s film divide into three camps: 1) Those whom it utterly mystified; 2) Those who feel absolutely certain as to the meaning of the film; and 3) Those who have fought to gain a tenuous grasp upon its questions and themes, but for whom each time they watch the movie, they still experience a sense of mystery.  I find myself in the third category.

Awhile back, the leader of my reading group assigned the novel Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams.  Unlike his contemporaries C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, I initially found this writer’s prose more difficult to come to grips with.  Our group covered a chapter or two each week; I studiously reviewed previously-discussed chapters before each meeting.  Re-reading, combined with the group leader’s comments, began to suggest that a tremendous depth hid beneath the surface plot.  Perhaps Williams had interwoven themes and ideas within the novel like an engineer designing the numerous layers within a printed circuit board.  When I later tried to explain my “enhanced understanding” of the novel to John Clute, a great historian of the Science Fiction and Fantasy field (and someone who has a greater understanding of Williams’ work than I), he very kindly responded with no more than a bemused expression.

Similarly, when my book group was reading through some of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, I found myself locked in battle with the leader of the reading group.  I believed I perceived “the truth” behind the themes within the particular story, and had accurately divined the intent of the writer in her depiction of a peripheral character.  The leader then read from a letter in which O’Connor responded to a fan’s questions: I found my face grow progressively hotter as the writer divulged an intent with the work different than I had perceived, and revealed a marked distaste for a character I had felt sure she secretly admired.

If the Stars are Gods deals with numerous issues, and ponders daunting questions.  The novel is split up into several sections, and is a rewrite of an award-winning novelette.  (To further complicate matters, I studied the original hardcover version; the later paperback edition, which I am working through now, contains notable differences).  The novel deals with matters both scientific and spiritual.  Given that my understanding of the authors’ work is less than I would hope, I find myself reticent to discuss the novel.  I wonder if I am alone here, or if reactions to this novel are as varied as they are toward 2001: A Space Odyssey.  My hope is that, through writing down what I believe I understand, and musing on what I know I don’t, that my grasp on the story will grow a little firmer. 

If the Stars are Gods by Dr. Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund sets before me a beautiful mystery, one that may well challenge me for years to come.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Jupiter Project: A Final Word

As depicted in Jupiter Project,
life in space could be fun.

Walk into any bookstore, and you are confounded by an infinite number of books.  Even segregated into helpful categories, more titles await your perusal than you could ever read in a lifetime.  All too often, educators and employers force on us a simple choice: read this assigned work, or face my displeasure.  After thus equating reading and work in our minds, some of us opt to read little more, and if we do, these tend to be books which make no demands of us, such as light entertainment or ones that explore our interests or hobbies.  Some of us aspire to do more than this, to dedicate at least a portion of our reading to books of importance: ones valued by previous generations, or that speak to current issues.  So why can’t we do all three, you ask?  Why do we find it so difficult to identify those special books that not only inform us in vital ways, that not only fill us with delight, but speak to issues pertinent to generations both previous and present?  I, for one, believe that Jupiter Project, by Dr. Gregory Benford, is one such book.

Firstly, Jupiter Project is both important and fun.  For those who want factual reading, the novel explains how we could live beyond the confines of Earth, touching on such fundamental issues as space station design, how to build shuttles and satellites, even how to extract necessities like air and water from a distant world we might wish to colonize (in this case, Jupiter’s moon Ganymede).  Like Huckleberry Finn and the Heinlein juveniles, Benford’s novel stirs the blood with rousing adventure.  His young protagonist, Matt Bowles, confronts crucial issues from past and fights against those who would bar him and those he loves from choosing their own destinies. 

Secondly, while Fantasy novels are currently in vogue, Jupiter Project offers just as much escapism for children as it does for teens and adults.  Children could imagine themselves putting on Matt’s space suit, walking out of an airlock, and floating through space.  Teens could imagine themselves piloting a shuttle like Matt, or performing satellite maintenance using an electronic device of their own design, while Jupiter rotates below them, its storm clouds spinning and clashing before their eyes.  Adults could imagine taking their families with them (like Matt’s parents) to live on the space station JABOL, or exploring the mysteries of Jupiter and its asteroid belt as JABOL’s crew members do, or building the big reactors for Ganymede’s Atmosphere Project, so that their grandchildren could live unassisted on its surface.  While previous generations thrilled to Captain Ahab’s attempts to capture and kill Moby Dick, people of all ages can revel in Matt’s death-defying effort to save JABOL from closure.

Lastly, Jupiter Project is a book everyone should read because it speaks to timeless issues, and because it challenges us to consider the direction in which we, as a society, are headed.  For previous generations, Lewis and Clark were heroes.  The great American dream was to leave behind known society and settled territories, and forge a new life in distant lands full of possibilities they could only imagine.  Today we relegate a few weeks each year to our personal explorations, and that’s if we have the funds and can get the time off work to do so.  Instead of taking on the wilderness and converting it to our desires, we repaint our rooms, remodel our homes, and re-landscape our yards.  When these efforts at transformation fail to satisfy, we consult books and experts on how to re-prioritize our lives to make them more productive.  A young president once charged us with a different dream, one that he believed we should pursue, not because it would make our individual lives easier or more pleasant, but because it would constitute a noble achievement for all humanity. 

Visionary writer Arthur C. Clarke is credited with saying that the remarkable thing was not that we made it to the moon, but that we stopped going there.  We’ve all heard variations on this self-help mantra: if we can conceive it, and we can believe it, we can achieve it.  Yet we’ve allowed the accountants and bureaucrats to tell us that our dreams of exploration and colonization beyond this world are too costly, too impractical, too hard.  In so doing, we’ve relegated those dreams to the trash cans of history.  Are we content to let them remain there?  In Jupiter Project, Dr. Gregory Benford suggests a way forward for us all, if we will only rededicate ourselves to the goals we once dared to believe that we really, truly could achieve.

Dragon Dave

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Matt Bowles: Renaissance Man

Inspired by someone extraordinary.

Even the most gifted teachers struggle at times to hold their students’ interest.  One can hardly blame the students, who often fail to see the connection between the classes society forces them to take and the jobs available to them after graduation.  What if children grew up on the frontiers of space, where the dangers of everyday life were coupled with discoveries just waiting to be made?  In his novel Jupiter Project, Dr. Gregory Benford presents us with a young man who clearly sees a connection between his studies and his desired career, one who will never simply settle for less than he is capable of achieving.

In addition to taking Calculus and other courses in space station JABOL’s Education Center, Matt Bowles has an Electronics class in Mr. Jablon’s lab.  There he learns to make new circuits and simple devices.  When he designs an improved version of the Faraday Cups for JABOL’s orbital satellites, his instructor helps him build it.  Such practical “study” is coupled with work experience in Monitoring.  For several hours each day, he not only monitors all nearby satellites to make sure they are functioning normally, but looks for asteroids, rocks, or anything else orbiting Jupiter that could put a hole in the space station or destroy one of its satellites.  While he enjoys this work, he yearns to explore his interests further, such as by maneuvering the shuttles, skimmers, and one-man jetters that service JABOL.  What more could the station do to spur on Matt’s ambitions, you wonder?  How about requiring all teens to take a periodic vacation on Ganymede?

As the ion cruiser Sagan is parked in the Can’s hollow interior, Matt suits up, leaves through an airlock, and utilizing a safety line, space-walks to the ship.  Once he arrives on Ganymede, he is assigned a bunk in the dormitory, and then heads for the life dome, where he can take off his suit and just have fun.  When he’s not performing amazing turns and maneuvers on the small ski slope (in that moon’s 1/3 G), Matt can explore the narrow valleys and foggy marshes, tour the experimental farm, or play soccer and other games with his friends.  But Matt’s interests are too great for him to spend his entire vacation at play, and his schooling and work experience qualify him for any number of jobs.  He opts to spend the remainder of his vacation not in the dome, but working in remote areas of the moon. 

The next day, Matt suits up and goes out to where the walkers are parked.  His walker, nicknamed Perambulatin’ Puss or just Cat, stands six meters tall, on six legs.  Living and working quarters are in the bubble on top.  Matt climbs up the entrance ladder through a jumble of hydraulic valves and rocker arms, then sets the vehicle in motion.  Setting an easy pace of forty kilometers-per-hour, he heads out across the moon’s surface.  For the next five days, he will stop at remote sensors to perform maintenance and take samples.  Ganymede is constantly changing: the big fusion plants are throwing out enormous amounts of heat and gas.  This transforms the ice fields into churning ammonia rivers.  Recorders and pocket laboratories have been placed all over Ganymede to monitor the air and temperature changes occurring far away from the big reactors.  Matt’s journey allows him to experience this changing landscape first hand. 

Yearning to become someone extraordinary.

Perhaps not every child growing up on JABOL would accomplish feats worthy of the history books.  But with Jupiter just outside a window, with space just outside the front door, with a moon being terraformed just a short flight away, how many of the next generation would be content to live out their lives just getting by?  How many more might be inspired to become truly extraordinary?

Dragon Dave

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Jupiter Project: Life on JABOL

Living space may be cramped, but I'd love to visit.

A viable, long-term space station promises numerous, valuable discoveries for the human race.  But would anyone want to live on one?  Up to the present day, space stations have been cramped, unromantic structures.  Too small to be self-sustaining, they have thus been in constant need of resupply and repair.  Astronauts travel to these remote outposts to endure lives of isolation and sacrifice; the aging structures are eventually abandoned, left to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.  But what might life be like on a space station large enough to be self-sustaining?  Dr. Gregory Benford offers us a more palatable vision of life on one in his novel Jupiter Project.

Most of us would never willingly leave our families behind, for years at a time, to undertake a job on a space station.  On JABOL such sacrifice is unnecessary.  By allowing station staff to bring their spouses and children with them, the Can not only ensures a low-turnover and a continuity in its work force, but benefits from staff who remain content and grounded.  After a long workday, crew can relax at home with their families, or go out to eat or to take part in the numerous activities and entertainment the station offers.  Family members also benefit from this “normal” interaction.  While Matt enjoys watching old movies with his mom and dad, he also competes in various tournaments (such as for Chess and Zero-G Squash), plays guitar and acts in station-wide talent shows, and hangs out with his friends Zak, Jenny, and Ishi.

As to the family members of hired staff, their lives can provide as much meaning and satisfaction as any lived on Earth.  There are always plenty of jobs on offer in the Can.  While the father of protagonist Matt Bowles works in Monitoring, his mother spends each day working in Hydroponics.  Who wouldn’t enjoy gardening in space, and gain satisfaction from growing necessary food for your community?  Teens can find part-time jobs more interesting than flipping burgers or waitressing.  Matt works in Monitoring, Yuri in Atmospheric Studies, Zak with computers, while Ishi and Jenny work in Shuttle Maintenance, which also involves taking these vehicles outside the station to perform necessary repairs.  Younger children might not perform such necessary tasks, but they also benefit from smaller class sizes and receiving one-on-one instruction from a computer personality in the Education center. 

By remaining together, parents can reinforce cultural values and practice those traditions they regard as meaningful.  At one point, Matt, Zak and Jenny spend an evening of conversation with their friend Ishi, whose parents’ idea of throwing a party consists of having the teens sit together on Tatami mats, eating rice and fish and drinking tea.  Yet, later in the novel, eighteen-year-old Matt and Jenny go out together for alcoholic drinks, so clearly the community is anything but puritanical.  When Matt is confused by the various fads and trends he reads about in magazines from Earth, Zak argues that fads don’t stand a chance of catching on there: residents don’t need to search for artificial ways to build up their ego and or boost their self-image.  Clearly, this small-town mentality offers all the Can’s residents a sense of belonging and purpose superior to that they would find on Earth. 

Let's go for high Earth orbit!

Mankind has lived in space, for periods of short duration, from the early 1970s.  In addition to the United States’ Skylab, the Russians launched nine stations into orbit previous to Mir.  Today we have the International Space Station, but how many of us will ever visit it?  How many of us would even opt to live there long-term, were we lucky enough to be granted such a select opportunity?  In their respective novels Downstation Below and Lightpaths, last year’s Guest of Honor C. J. Cherryh and frequent Condor guest Howard Hendrix offered us glimpses of how full and meaningful a life lived on a self-supporting space station could be.  With JABOL in Jupiter Project, Dr. Gregory Benford offers us another.  Not only would life there be a wonderful experiment, but every day could be full of meaning, purpose, and wonder.  Imagine that: living out each day, filled with a sense of wonder. 

Dragon Dave

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

JABOL: A Space Odyssey

Just a taste of what we can accomplish together.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, after our simian precursor hurls his bone into the air, we find ourselves in space, where amid satellites orbiting Earth, we catch our first glimpse of Space Station 5, a magnificent, rotating wheel.  JABOL, the space station in Dr. Gregory Benford’s novel, Jupiter Project, might not utilize the double-ring design as in Kubrick’s film, but Benford has clearly put a great deal of thought into engineering a place where mankind could live and work in space.  Over the course of the novel, the station becomes a character in its own right, one that the reader comes to care about, perhaps even love.

JABOL is short for Jovian Astronomical-Biological Orbital Laboratory.  Those who call it home refer to it as the Can or the Lab.  Indeed, the Lab resembles a can rotating in space, only the interior is hollow to allow for the docking and storage of shuttles and other spaceships.  Its central axis houses a telescope, facilities where Zero-G experiments can be conducted, and (perhaps equally important to its inhabitants) a Zero-G Squash court.  Numerous levels allot rooms for the Bridge, the Monitoring section (also known as the Hole), Administration, and various other offices.  Personnel live with their families in the housing level, and can compose tasty meals in their kitchens from the food grown in Hydroponics.  (Alternatively, food is available in the recreation room, where residents can eat with colleagues and friends).  Instead of a formal school, minors are taught by scientists in their labs, and receive one-on-one instruction from a computer personality named David in the Education Center.  (“Dave?  What are you doing, Dave?”)  While personal space may be limited, sufficient room has been set aside for an auditorium where the entire crew can gather as needs dictate.

The Can resides at the frontier of humanity’s current expansion into our solar system.  It follows a million kilometers behind Ganymede in its orbit around Jupiter.  Just like Space Station 5 in Kubric’s film, the Can serves as an effective transport hub, in this case for personnel and cargo traveling between Earth and the base on Ganymede.  In turn, the moon installation provides the Can with water from its ice fields, and meets numerous other needs faced by JABOL personnel during the thirteen-month intervals between visits by either Argosy or Rambler, the nuclear-powered ion rocketships that travel between it and the Earth.

Despite all that the Can contributes to science, its continued existence is endangered by a familiar foe: tightening budgets back on Earth.  Just as public fascination fell when Neil Armstrong set foot on Earth’s moon, popular interest in JABOL’s activities has dropped.  This time, however, the waning interest is due to failure rather than success.  After all the probes the Atmospheric Studies department has launched into Jupiter’s atmosphere, JABOL has yet to accomplish its primary mission: to find signs of alien life.  All who live and work on the Can understand the ethical arguments being deliberated back on Earth.  How can the World Council continue to pour money into the International Space Agency (which funds JABOL), when the basic needs of an ever-growing population rise every year?

Let's explore!

Humanity has achieved a taste of life in space with Skylab, Mir, and now the International Space Station.  Dr. Gregory Benford’s vision offers us so much more. JABOL affords its residents many comforts while giving them the opportunity to work on the frontiers of space, scientific research, and exploration.  Some, like our protagonist Matt Bowles in Jupiter Project, might argue that the human race needs to explore to ensure its continued survival.  A station like this could aid our understanding of the universe.  From it, we could learn how to live on other planets, and how to harness the tremendous resources that are out there waiting for us.  Ultimately, that knowledge and those resources could launch us to the distant stars.  Imagine all we could accomplish.

Dragon Dave

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Fellowship of Condor

Locals call San Diego “America’s Finest City.”  It offers tourists attractions that residents enjoy year-round, including Sea World, the museums of Balboa Park, and a world-famous zoo.  It also hosts world-renowned events.  For example, tens of thousands of Science Fiction and Fantasy fans (including our good friends Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard) descend on our downtown each summer to celebrate ComicCon.  But it is another local SF event, Condor, that I mark down as a must on each new calendar.

Condor offers up a full slate of programming, with a stable of knowledgeable and fun guests that keep the panel discussions from growing stale.  What it lacks in bags of swag and lavish media presentations, it makes up for with its quieter, less-hectic atmosphere, and the accessibility of its guests and panelists.  Each year brings a new Guest of Honor whose wealth of experience in writing fiction gives members plenty of talk about, as well as a role model to learn from.  This year’s special guest will be Dr. Gregory Benford, an author whose Hard SF stories have won major awards. 

If Science Fiction is Fantasy with rivets, then Hard SF not only provides schematics for the rivets that hold a fantasy world together, but demonstrates what happens when the rivets fail.  Few SF works that I have read in recent years reveal those rivets, in quite an easy-to-comprehend way, as Jupiter Project by Dr. Benford.  In this early novel, JABOL, a space station orbiting Jupiter, is threatened with closure due to tightening budgets.  His young protagonist, Matt Bowles, has spent most of his life on JABOL, and fears being forcibly relocated to Earth.  Dr. Benford paints such a compelling portrait of Matt’s life and work on JABOL (as well as operations on Ganymede, which supports the station), that by the time the novel is over, I, like Matt, have fallen under JABOL’s spell.  Perhaps of greater importance, the novel highlights the potential importance of a space program to Earth, and warns of the implications for humanity, should we fail to ascend to the stars.

To prepare for Dr. Benford’s upcoming visit, I’ve read several of his early novels.  They reveal a visionary author of growing skill and tremendous range.  I hope you will follow along as I celebrate these entertaining stories, starting with Jupiter Project.  If you live nearby, come and enjoy The Fellowship of Condor’s Members, and meet an author who has been entertaining and inspiring us for over four decades. 

Dragon Dave

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Blogging Wars: My Hope

A long time ago, in a city far, far away, the Internet was born.  While Christ spoke of an individual being “born again,” the Internet exists in a constant state of rebirth.  Like George Lucas’ gargantuan Walkers, human invention and innovation march relentlessly onward.  It used to be that only the most technically savvy operated their own blogs and websites.  Suddenly, everyone was doing it.  In last month’s Locus magazine, award-winning author James Patrick Kelly cites somber statistics compiled by the Pew Research Center: in 2006, 28% of teens and young people were bloggers. Then Twitter and Facebook emerged as super-power, and captured whole swathes of internet users.  By 2009, those earlier percentages had fallen by half, suggesting that blogging is a dying art.  Given this bleak outlook, perceptive individuals blessed with Hercule Poirot’s gray cells might ask: Why are you starting a blog now?

The above-mentioned issue of Locus featured a section celebrating “Science Fiction in the Digital Age,” with interviews and commentary from noted authors (and active bloggers) such as John Scalzi, Neil Gaiman, and Charles Stross.  Publishers and editors such as Toni Weisskopf and Lou Anders spoke of how their respective publishing houses have waded into the digital waters with their various non-print offerings, while Patrick Nielsen Hayden of Tor spoke of the continuing role and Making Light (a blog he and his wife created) play in keeping the conversation going between fans of the genre.  Other publishers and authors astonished me with how many online magazines offered new fiction every month, as well as the surging popularity of podcasting.  But who are you to dive into this ocean teeming with so many established stars and deserving personalities? you may ask.  What will you offer that we cannot get from established, more creditable sources?

A logical question, a certain Vulcan might observe.

All the writing texts offer this little gem: Write what you know.  A question asked of writing students by their teachers is this: What do you care about?  Or: What are you most passionate about?  It has been said that the popularity of science fiction and fantasy rests less in books than in the power of ideas, and that the purpose of great storytelling is to propel that conversation of ideas forward.  If there’s one thing I love, if there is one thing that I crave, it is to emerge from reading or watching a great story, and come away changed: to see the world in a different way.  Therefore, this blog will be dedicated to celebrating the work of those gifted souls who devote their time, talents, and perseverance to creating such memorable stories.  I hope you will join me on this quest, and enrich this blog with your participation.

Dragon Dave