fill in the blank makes the world go round…

Not being an economist suggesting an alternative to existing answers to the problem of unlimited want v limited resources would very likely not provide a utopian blueprint. With that in mind, ideal societies are probably best left as part of the domain of satire and/or fantasy. Astral – the working title for my science fiction novel in progress – does not attempt to paint a grand and perfect future for humanity the setting. Nor is the setting a dystopia.

Blade Runner (Philip K. Dick, K. W. Jeter) mentions off-world colonies and the supposition is that they are not all people might hope. In Joss Whedon’s Firefly/Serenity we’re told, “Earth That Was could no longer sustain our numbers; we were so many.” There’s a streak of disposable planet in science fiction that my first love in the genre – Star Trek – avoided almost completely. The inhabitants of Earth had, in fact, abandoned a dangerous courtship with self-extinction and Starfleet’s mission to seek out strange new worlds was not just about mineral rights.

better-worlds

As mentioned in prior entries here, the world(s) of Astral spans about 60 solar systems. The motivation for expansion splits the difference between Earth being used up and something Neil deGrasse Tyson said about a year ago (Oct. 2015): “If you have the power to turn another planet into Earth then you have the power to turn Earth back into Earth.”

Most science fiction does not concern itself with the cost of putting fleets of ships in space and terraforming exoplanets. Again, not being an economist, I’m not planning on making any estimates in that regard. However, just as I’ve been musing on alternative political structures, the future on Earth’s colonies is not mute about the downside of capitalism and its contentious cousins.

There are at least half a dozen private entities reinventing space travel and while that’s thrilling it also based on some aspect of a profit motive. That has certainly been part of the equation in all exploration – from Magellan and before to NASA and beyond. This is probably not going away but it could actually get us into space even in the sci fi sense.

A friend of mine once observed that the utopia of Earth in Star Trek was not – could not be – based on some flawless ideology and the logical consequences of implementing it. Someone prior to the career of Mr. Spock had invented a machine that turned energy into matter. The cornucopian replicator solved all the quandaries of what to produce, in what manner, and for whom.

I wanted to argue with him at that point and part of me still does. Pointing to the problems in Star Trek has always bothered me and quite a bit of my thinking over the years has gone over the same steeplechase as others in fandom to mend plot holes. With Astral that’s a reminder to avoid some of them during the making of.

The Federation is not faced with the riddle of a used-up planet somehow still able to build enough ships to colonize and exploit strange new worlds. The philosophy of “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” is a direct and natural result of technology solving major sources of waste, class-based tensions, petty behaviors and so on.

The first human colony in the world(s) of Astral was Mars. There are at least four links in a chain from there to α Fornacis/Dalim where the story opens. That chain is not a disintegrating set of broken and corroding links. There is without doubt satirical value in suggesting any human destiny in space will be a series of strip-mined worlds under runaway greenhouse atmospheres but I remain more hopeful… still.


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reductio ad absurdum…

In 1996, long before Dennis Miller became a spokesman for conservative points of view, he released a book and associated CD – both titled “The Rants”. One track in particular discussed the tendency of people to demonize and seek to marginalize to the point of exclusion any opposed group. While this behavior is not the exclusive domain of any political persuasion, Miller did – 20 years ago – target the criticism on the Right.

The rant in question traced the tendency to its (il)logical result: a kind of societal attrition. If one faction did manage to fully suppress a perceived rival, and unsurprisingly real or imagined woes do not abate, a new source of such troubles would be designated for the same tactic. Shockingly civilization would find itself confronted with the same problem. Lather, rinse, repeat. Cleanse.

Miller concluded that eventually there’d be one person left and that hateful soul would attack his own reflection. Although his ideology flipped five years later, his observation remains true. Blaming “everything that’s wrong” on ethnic, religious, or other groups never can alleviate our shared difficulties. Scapegoats and straw men could be said to have a common ancestry in this regard. (This change happened roughly the same time Miller was picked as a new commentator on Monday Night Football (ABC) but was not the cause of it.)

The world-building for Astral has prompted some speculation about political structures, economic structures, and human nature. The last of these, it is probably fair to say, will likely never change; very little in all of recorded history unfortunately does not seem to support another prediction. In the story, there is a presidential campaign in progress. (I’d decided on this plot element many months before the Brexit decision or the recent election in the United States.) The partisan rivalry is no longer between conservative and progressive views. Capitalism has been replaced though not if favor of socialism.

But there is not a homogeneous philosophy. With apologies to Gene Roddenberry, an idyllic human government seems a bit further off than 350 years. (Human nature notwithstanding, I count myself among the group who share Mr. Roddenberry’s hope.) The population on a planet in orbit around α Fornacis has a wing that some would prefer had not been included among the colonists. I’ve been calling them Kels.

In their staunch desire to be recognized as part of the Fornacid culture the Kels have adopted an emblem that reflects but is not derived from Dennis Miller’s rant in question.

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If two circles with equal diameter overlap based on adjacent, inscribed hexagons — follow me on this one — the resulting lens could be used represent a minority, which the Kels are. A circle with the same area as this lens would be about 5.77% of the original whole. After just 25 such schisms the “majority” would be less than 50% of its original size.

About two months ago, I presented here the flags of three other factions in Astral. The Kel flag – if and when they fly one in protest – might make use of this geometric symbolism.

kel-flag-xl-anim

Fractures in community do not follow a mathematical progression and, using this formula, such situations would never reach a hermit’s confrontation with a reflection. It does, however, help make the point that we are – now and in any future, under any flag – in this together.

— If we make that choice.


deviations from the plane of the ordinary…

In the summer of 1835, The Sun (of New York) published a series of articles that purported to describe scientific discoveries of a civilization of bat-winged humanoids on the Moon. Belief in what turned out to be a hoax was widespread. Richard Adams Locke, an editor for the newspaper, revealed himself as the author five years later. He also served as editor for Edgar Allan Poe, who claimed the story was essentially plagiarized from his own “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall”.

A little more than a century later, two men sat discussing fiction of their own on a bench near The Edgar Allan Poe Cottage (2640 Grand Concourse, Bronx, NY). The deservedly famous and still sometimes unfortunately maligned author had made his home in that modest setting during the last years of his life. The two men inspired there were Bob Kane (born Robert Kahn) and Milton “Bill” Finger – the creators of Batman.

They may not have known about the man-bats on the Moon but they were undoubtedly aware of Poe’s creation – C. Auguste Dupin, who has been on my mind while developing Astral. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is quoted as having given credit to Poe for inventing the detective genre. Doctor Watson compares Sherlock Holmes with Dupin in their very first adventure (“A Study in Scarlet”, 1887).

Of the pair, only Mr. Kane went on to fame within the comic book industry. His co-creator had been responsible for writing the first story (Detective Comics № 27, May 1939). Finger provided the origin for Batman six months later. The names “Bruce Wayne”, “Gotham City”, and the epithet “The Dark Knight” are now all attributed to Bill Finger. It wasn’t until 1989, fifteen years after the man he then called ‘friend’, did Bob Kane begin to admit how essential Finger had been. The reputation and influence of Mr. Finger is still being rebuilt.

Both Finger and Poe might have recognized in each other kindred spirits. The former died in poverty and relative obscurity. The author who inspired him was abused and disparaged by jealous peers. Batman’s computer system is, from time to time, nicknamed “Dupin” and Poe sometimes appears as a fellow investigator in the Batman universe (“The Mystery That Edgar Allan Poe Solved” – Gang Busters № 49, Dec 1955/Jan 1956. reprinted Detective Comics № 417, Nov 1971. Batman: Nevermore, 2003.)

Batman’s costume is the first I remember wearing for Halloween (at some point before 1970). I’ve been a fan of the mythos for more than four decades. So it struck me as odd to learn almost in passing at a convention I recently attended of this detail of the bench in front of Poe’s last home.

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The image included here combines the minimalist Bat-emblem from Batman: Zero Year in DC Comic’s universe-relaunch The New 52 with a production photograph of Stefanie Rocknak’s magnificent bronze statue of Poe, which now stands on the corner of Boylston Street and Charles Street two blocks north of Poe’s first home.

As yet, there’s no statue to Bill Finger but Marc Tyler Nobleman has been attempting to have a memorial bench placed in his honor near the Poe Cottage.

warped speed…

Batman has been criticized for not doing enough and/or not doing the right things to truly help Gotham City. As the real world economy has grown since the character’s inception (May 1939) the character’s wealth has had to expand to maintain a sense of plausibility if not verisimilitude.

Forbes estimates the Wayne family fortune at $6.9 billion. And, while that’s not Bill Gates-rich, it would make Bruce Wayne roughly the 231st wealthiest person in the (real) world – just after David Geffen. A cost analysis indicates it would cost $200 million to start a career as the Dark Knight, just a little more than it takes to produce a film about him.

Batman’s enemies have from time to time suggested that he’s just as crazy as they are. Some of his detractors in the real world have voiced the opinion that Mr. Wayne is deliberately keeping Gotham poor. In his ScrewAttack! video, “Does Batman Need a New Origin??”, Bob Chipman (a.k.a. MovieBob) makes the case that the Wayne Foundation could do quite a bit more to alleviate poverty and other cause of crime than nightly patrols and subsequent kicking of ass seems to.

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But that’s not the point —

The overarching Gotham mythos has become largely based on the concept that the human psyche is fragile enough that one bad day is all it might take to cause it to snap. While the comic went nearly three years before giving Batman much backstory. when it came the story hinged on trauma. In reaction to the death of his parents Master Wayne vowed to “avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.” № 33 (Nov. 1939).

The Joker – undisputed king of the One Bad Day origin – did not appear until the following year and went on to make the trope the overt premise of “The Killing Joke” (1988). Anyone, the Clown Prince postulated, will go mad given enough provocation and that can be accomplished in a remarkably short period of time. In a sense, Bruce having been traumatized as a formative event gradually set a tone that nearly all of his opponents now follow.

Dragon Con. Sept. 3, 2016. 7:03ᴘᴍ —

I was wandering and exploring the event when I happened by a panel already in progress: Representing Disability and Trauma (in Comics). Daniel Amrhein (Journey into Awesome) was the moderator. Courtney Bliss (Bowling Green State University) and Kari Storla (USC Annenberg) were his guests.

There are a number of reasons that I chose to sit quietly in the back of the room. I was late, for one. Comics – not just Batman – have been an interest since at least the mid-70s. As an epileptic, it is sometimes easy for me to forget that I have a disability so I’ll take the opportunities of reminders in writing about them more properly when they appear. There have been a few events in my life that might technically count as trauma but I don’t often view them as such. I’ve had bad days. Who hasn’t? They didn’t make me snap.

There may be a manner in which the topics presented in the panel may be discussed without trigger warnings. We haven’t reached that stage of discourse as a society. One person did leave during the talk. A fairly wide range of life events were discussed as was the stigma that victims of traumatic experience face and, similarly, those who have disabilities. Life can be difficult enough but one of the very strong points made was that trauma or condition notwithstanding each human psyche moves on.

Toward the end of the panel, Ms. Storla made the point that mental illness, when presented in fiction, is far more often than not an oversimplified ‘sane + trauma = condition’ sort of formula. An insane character is defined by their condition without any other aspect of a personality being presented well – if at all. What the audience needs to know, authors presume, is the character in question is just crazy. Only crazy.

I’ve known at least one person who could be called “crazy”. That’s part of the personal trauma about which I’m being vague. No, I don’t mean myself. During lucid moments such people can be very aware that something is wrong – that their own behaviors are not preferable. They themselves may find certain of their words and deeds beyond both their control and comprehension. These are facets of their existence as human beings not the whole.

Mr. Amrhein observed that, “being hit on the head doesn’t make people leave riddles for Batman. Being shocked or dumped in chemicals doesn’t make someone ‘crazy’. Being burned with acid doesn’t result in dissociative identity disorder.”

I then asked the panelists that, if they were writing for ‘insane’ comic book characters, how would their approach be different. The moderator replied that rather than the reliance on outdated tropes he would like to introduce modern research and the views of experts. In his opinion – and he’s not wrong – many creators of comic books draw from preexisting canon and recycle it. This perpetuates the outmoded concepts and contributes toward perpetuating misunderstanding. Ms. Storla said she would want to bring in feminist trauma theory (which I’ll be reading up on).

Until this panel (and MovieBob’s video), I had viewed Batman’s adversaries as each presenting a facet of human obsession but that all of them represent an unfair and outdated model of a disordered psyche. Each is an exaggeration of the strengths and virtues of the Dark Knight – twisted in antisocial ways. All of this was – in the moment and lasting since – rich food for thought and a valued reminder to remain mindful with regard to characters who are out of their minds. We are stronger. We adapt. It’s part of human nature. It should be part of the characters we create.

run it up the flagpole…

With apologies to Oskar Pernefeldt and anyone who has imagined a flag for planet Earth, in Astral the banner for M.other E.arth is based on vexillology, the study of flags. Symbolism in a wide range of forms has fascinated me at least since the mid-70s. Relevant to this post, I recall an illustrated dictionary that devoted to pages to “Flags of the World”.

Rules and preferences for flag design share a heritage with heraldry. To a degree, the process for describing of a coat of arms (i.e., blazonry) can apply to flags. The proper display of a flag is based on the orientation of shields.

Given present international law, national flags will only appear offworld under certain conditions. The Outer Space Treaty† provides that “outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” The treaty does not limit businesses and private citizens but a flag with a logo on it is not a flag – it’s an ad.

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Fictional flags do not have to follow such laws either so we’re free to imagine what we’d like. Star Trek imagines a Unified Earth and Gene Roddenberry modeled his United Federation of Planets on the United Nations. The flags of United Earth (and its Space Probe Agency) reflect this inspiration. It’s often easy to see the sources of other Earth banners.

fict-flag

In Astral, while imagination permits anything, I’ve attempted to stay close to good flag design and a little heraldic knowledge.

flags

The flag of the Hamarchy of Keid, which includes the principal world on which Astral is set – Dalim, is sky blue and black with a silver crane and at least eight stars in the center. In heraldic terms the colors suggest a society that values wisdom, aspiration, and peace. The crane refers to an early Roman view that cranes enjoyed a cooperative society and took turns at watch at night. I like this because, although T. H. White came long after Pliny the Elder, this theme is echoed in White’s Arthuriana.

The Ophiuchid Cantons are almost two separate governments and will likely grow further apart. During the story, however, they share a flag. It is blue and silver with an ermine canton, or field, in the upper left corner. The fictional designer of this flag meant to demonstrate independence from M.E. along with a love for truth and innocence. There is subtle defiance in this.

Initially a part of the Cantons, Federalist Arcadia’s political emblem stands for a sincere and dignified demeanor while its citizens have little connection or allegiance to M.E. The linked angles toward the right show additional values of efficiency and pragmatism. In some heraldic traditions and in the opinion of M.E. the red-violet blush on the flag stands for treason.

me

The final term for the “Solar Empire” or the territories of M.E. hasn’t come to me as yet. Commonwealth is the leading contender but we’ll see. The coat of arms for the original human homeworld and her extended family of colonies is a golden sun in a green field meaning life and fertility with a black chevron representing prospect in and ever widening reach into outer space. The symbolism here being a mind elevated in hope – with protection and generosity for all new settlements.

How all societies present themselves in their best light will show up in well-designed flags. These four in Astral (and one other without an official flag) will try to live up to the values and virtues outlined above. How close they come to their own ideals is part of the story.


The 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

What’s in it for M.E.?

A destiny in space for homo sapiens is certain – or at least I’d like to think so. What form it takes is a matter for debate. The sociopolitical part of world-building for the far future of Astral prompts questions of how humanity will change they it fits and starts toward its fate.

The backstory of space travel in Astral sees the first steps in this regard with ten colonies (between 4.39 and 19.92 light-years distant). A second tier of expansion is launched from those initial settlements and not Earth herself. By extension, through these “grandchildren” colonies, her reach grows from 11 worlds (M.other E.arth† included) to 28.

fade-reach

Globalization on one world may be inevitable. Stretched through interstellar space it becomes imperialism. There is a Chinese saying‡ that suggests a family’s great wealth should not be expected to last through three generations. The proverb is often used as a reminder that a meritocracy is better than honoring tradition and legacy. Some of M.E.’s grandchildren will declare independence particularly where greater prospects derive from looking forward rather than back.

wealth

After settled planets divide into factions, M.E. and her remaining loyal worlds would seek to safeguard her dominance. Laws designed to limit rival colonial “families” would be imposed. From the moment they were enacted, however, the decline of the “Solar Empire” would have begun. Tier III of expansion, during which the events of Astral take place, would bring the count to 63 worlds and the range to 39.26ʟʏ from Earth. The original homeworld would exercise control (directly or by extension) over just 52.38%. The next jump in adding new worlds would see M.E.’s control slip below the halfway point.

With a somewhat unsafe, difficult manner of faster-than-light travel and each world using genetic engineering to make up for shortfalls in terraforming, the definition of human and the proper use of homo sapiens as a description will – of necessity – change. Evolution in isolation is known to create a wide divergence of traits, ultimately leading to entirely new species.

cats-awayAnother Chinese maxim equates to, “While the cat’s away the mice will play.” But it’s more poetically transliterated as, “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.” Strange new worlds will raise new ideologies and new approaches to the economic problem. The more distant and different the world the more likely influence of any kind from M.E. will be subject to a metaphorical inverse-square law.

The culture of an extra-global humanity will grow ever more diverse. Over time, there will be a family resemblance but that will fade with M.E.’s importance. Any Terrestrial alliance will depend on keeping the extended family loyal, embracing many forms of adaptation, and implementing an active program for innovation: better genetic designs and more efficient terraforming.

Clutching to a status quo, let alone any irredentism, would require FTL capacity that was significantly better than other “humans” were using and an ability to revert to conventional warfare, an inconvenient practice between any two planets in this construct. There is in this a subtle nod toward the Earth-that-was in Joss Whedon’s Firefly/Serenity. Unlimited want and limited resources will eventually use up any world. Improvement of FTL travel may be beyond M.E.

If a human presence in space involved civil war M.E.’s side would likely be much smaller than 51 of 111 worlds in the projected Tier IV. The range in that event would probably not extend to 67.16ʟʏ. And, as it happens, we don’t have to wait hundreds of years to be concerned by hyperbolic ideology, reflexive sectarianism, or economic obsessions. There’s room for evolution there too without altering the meaning of human.


† Is this proverb used when discussing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (김정은) or a present presidential campaign in the US?

‡ “M.other E.arth” and “M.E.” are part of the copyright of Astral (working title).

 

 

seeks SFC…

For about the last 25 years I have posed this as a puzzle: Name four real people to whom you are not related that have contributed significantly to your identity. Once I’d formulated this pseudo-riddle I first answered it myself before presenting it to others. The result is not exactly a Favorite Heroes list and I’m usually suspicious of answers that come within an hour. It took me a year to provide my own response.

My selections were – Gene Roddenberry for teaching me that ideals existed and which might chosen, Jim Henson for demonstrating the value of purposeful whimsy, Carl Sagan for showing that all subject matter regardless of discipline can be interconnected, and Richard Scarry for making it clear that nothing is complete when regarded only at face value.

rushmore

From about the time this question had been crafted to the mid-90s each of these men passed away. Being dead was, therefore, not a requirement to make the Mt. Rushmore of Personal Sources. Neither should being a white male have been; it wasn’t intentional but it happened.

While it isn’t necessarily an exercise in favorite heroes (my list of those is somewhat different and longer) there is some similarity in both musings. Due in part to the emphasis in history and to traditional gender roles it’s just more difficult to find heroes who were or are also women. That may be one contributing factor in the true dearth of strong female characters.

When we do find them they seem to be required to be renegade warriors such as Katniss Everdeen or Black Widow. Further we must also see them as being in a relationship – more often with a man than not – or seeking one. A demonstration of sexuality has much more emphasis with female characters than with males. Buffy Summers’ story was sometimes more concerned with her romances with Angel and Spike than with actual vampire slaying.

The hero’s journey of a SFC takes a back seat to some man’s saga by the third act. River Song, Donna Noble, and Sarah Jane Smith (all from the Doctor Who franchise) are very capable characters and, while the series is about a titular man there’s no reason his story cannot be the B-plot. There has been some recent suggestion that the Doctor might some day be portrayed by an actress.

Dame Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep have both been advocates of broadening the roles available to women over 40 years of age to include more than just witches or grandmothers. Surely it should be easy to design a fictional role as homage to women like Abigail Adams or Dolly Madison – and without her motivation being only to support her husband in his career and ambition.

Both Molly Pitcher and Rosie the Riveter are folkloric amalgamation uncounted real women. A dramatization could certainly be written in in less than a year. But how would the writer address such women being driven back to more traditional and more subservient roles after the Revolution and WWII, respectively?

Boudica, queen of the Iceni and al-Kāhina, her Berber equivalent are worthy subjects, however both met quite tragic ends after living lives of sacrifice. These two and many other woman throughout history seem to be made to pay for their heroism-despite-gender with humiliation and/or execution. Small wonder that fictional sisters face comparable fates.

wrexie-leonarWhether it’s due to fear of aging and change or to any sense of being challenged by a woman this does have to change. “Strong female character” is not a description of a fictional person as it is the name of a problem. So I’ll be letting Carl Sagan graduate from Mt. Rushmore to Elysium – with Wrexie Leonard taking his place. She was the professional companion of Percival Lowell from about 1883 to 1916. She was a scientist in her own right and there’s no evidence she felt disappointed that she and Mr. Lowell never married or viewed life as she lived it as being tragic at the end.

keumala

Jim Henson will be found on the other side of the rainbow now because his spot is going to Keumala Hayati, laksamana (admiral). Not only was she Indonesian (a nation that contributes 25% to my ethnicity and heritage) but also an opponent of the status quo she and officially a diplomat. Her 16th century career in the navy of the Aceh Sultanate seems very likely to have brought her to the attention Queen Elizabeth I during the final year of said monarch’s life and reign. I have yet to find any account of her death and – in my opinion that gives a wide territory in which to invent legends of the Lion(ess) of the Sea; which I now have plans to do.

My business partner and coauthor on upcoming work, Leanna Renee Hieber, has recently written about feminism in the gothic tradition. Coming from her discussion on these topics definitely carry more weight then when it’s on my mind.


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