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.

split

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.


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.


aceh

rex quondam…

For roughly two weeks, I have been pondering the concept of anarchy. In the present political climate of the United States I have heard members of both major parties accuse the other side of wanting anarchy. One calls their rivals proponents of lawlessness, the other follows suit. It does not matter if one side is correct or if neither argument has a foundation in fact. What are they actually suggesting?

Apart from this conflict – one that may have no resolution – there may not actually be any such thing as lawlessness and, therefore, no anarchy as the term seems to be understood à l’esprit de l’époque. If every human being is individually comparable to a nation then each person’s code of conduct amounts to their body of laws. Where a number of people choose to follow the same code, the result is a culture.

It is not irrational to propose that we all follow such a code whether consciously aware of it or not. The patterns that drive the sociopath and psychopath may be deduced. The criminal may be profiled. Such patterns and profiles are evidence of a code.

A completely chaotic environment is imagined of so-called failed states. History demonstrates, however, that society will resort to some form of might makes right after a collapse of the previous order. A warlord seizes power and imposes his or her code. A strict new system of law is implemented. Kant called this despotism. He offered the formula of a dominant force in control of the people without providing any law or for any freedom as barbarism. That’s precisely what most seem to think anarchy is.

Anarchy is actually the same as a republic, again following Kant, with one exception. An anarchic state rejects the use of force. The term originally implied the absence of a leader. There seems to be a tendency in human nature to demonize any person or group that make different choices about facets of a code of behavior – whether that’s a foreign power, a minority group or subculture, or an outlaw. Instead of being challenged to offense by other options it might cause less societal woes if the challenge accepted it to reexamine past choices.

The anarchist has a bad reputation that may only be deserved if the objective is to tear down a government and no replace it with something to address the functions of government.

For some time the work of T. H. White has been bumping about in my mind. In his tales of King Arthur the central figure is transformed by Merlyn into a variety of different animals. Each species and how it lives is a metaphor for a form of government. The goose serves as the emblem of anarchy. Young Arthur is to learn alternatives to might makes right by these experiences and he ultimately prefers the ways of geese.

The cause of war, White concludes, is twofold: dividing people by borders and making resources harder to reach will result in conflict. The goose is tolerant to a point – until another seeks its food or progeny. Each member of a flock of geese takes a turn on land as a sentinel while the others feed and as the tip of the v-formation in the sky. The position of “leader” rotates in all situations. Borders are circumvented and fresh resources are discovered by flight.

Camelot for anarchy

Arthur might never have become king. While living as a gander he learned to prefer their society to that of humans or that of any animal Merlyn forced him to examine. Just before the old wizard restored Arthur to human form the future king had proposed marriage to a goose named Lyo-lyok.

Given that, it’s a wonder King Arthur didn’t have a goose on his shield or banner. And given all of the above, I’m not convinced lawlessness can exist. Some of these musings and some other parts of T. H. White’s work have gone into the socio-political environment of Astral. There likely won’t be geese, though.


straight on ’til morning…

Respect and trust are commonly referred to as being earned. Other aspects of human interaction are sometimes included but only these two are held in quite this regard. We speak of both, in a sense, as social commodities.

When doing so, it is often part of a critique of someone’s behavior being insufficient to warrant such credits. We also take this stance as a reminder to those who demand admiration or belief.

Imagine if society had a literal system of accounting for behavior and personal qualities. If human interaction were directly comparable to an economy, what currency buys respect and trust? What can they in turn be used to purchase? Imagine this Confidence Exchange.

Desire would drive this market just as it does real financial systems. Reputation plays a role in these hypothetical stocks in the same way real investments are effected. Given that forms of monetary transactions predate recorded history, the idea that we’ve been participating in the Confidence Exchange (and without knowing it as such) all along may not be far-fetched.

Although coin and paper currency would come later, money existed before most early legal codes. Both Hammurabi and Ur-Nammu dealt with the role of money in civil society (among other matters, of course).

The scales of the market were borrowed to serve as the near-universal representation of justice. There is then, still, an implied pessimism in the symbol – from back in the traders’ stalls where proof of a good deal was required by real measurement.

Spoken language predates barter but for the entire course of recorded history our thinking has been driven by market-based factors we don’t spend much time considering. Case in point, how we spend our time, not to mention the idea that time is money, may have grown up with the economy more than any other aspect of civilization.

There is no symbol for the intrinsic value of a person or society. There are no signs for loyalty or honor. The Anglo-Saxon and Scandic systems of weregild may have provided small, financial comfort in the aftermath of loss but the cost in coin could not reflect the nature of the person(s) lost.

Religious symbols represent institutions, tenets, and adherents but rarely (if at all) any specific virtue. Where are these signs?

It won’t catch on but I have an idea for a symbol for Hope and Optimism.

On April 12, 1981, Space Shuttle Columbia stood on Launch Pad 39A. I was in my last year of high school and four generations of my family sat in relative silence listening to journalists and scientists trade jargon and speculation. They too fell silent when the shuttle began to rumble. With seven seconds to go, the hydrogen burn-off igniters made it look like they sparked the launch into being.

For several minutes we sat without a word. My siblings and I hadn’t seen the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs; everyone else in the room had. To them this launch seemed different. Human desires that had survived on little more than hope for 15,000 years were arcing into the sky.

Finally, the eldest person in the room, my great grandmother, spoke. “When I was a little girl they brought milk to my house in a horse-drawn cart.”

I was then and remain truly awestruck by that observation. It’s probably the only aspect of my point of view that has a timestamp. If the space shuttle is a horse-drawn cart how astonishing will the future be?

So, I offer the space shuttle as a symbol of the value and virtue of hope.

Shuttle-for-blog


 

exerceat histrionem…

During the history of cinematography, at least since the end of the Victorian era, at least one film adaption of a play by Shakespeare has been made every year but nine*. The enduring allure of the playwright’s work is not the tales themselves nor particularly the quality with which they’re perceived. In his own day, critics viewed him as ambitious beyond his talent. Today, apart from the Greek dramatists – most particularly Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides – it’s difficult to name a rival if measured by the duration of popularity.

When number of portrayals by an actor is considered (again in motion pictures and television), the most famous creations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker get more attention than Beatrice or Viola. In terms of time, Shakespeare’s work would have to fade completely then Dracula† and Holmes‡ would both still need almost three centuries to catch up.

In ancient Greece the focus on the stage was morality, usually through the exaggeration of undesirable traits. The Bard’s emphasis was less on the literal influence of mythological beasts and beings than on the metaphoric demons that drive our passions and lives.

The Great Detective and the Vampire Count are both power fantasies albeit in profoundly different ways. Taken as a whole, this very brief survey of noteworthy drama all concern the human road between some day and last day. That’s why they last as opposed to nostalgic efforts like Happy Days or That ’70s Show and dated entertainment not old enough for nostalgia to set in.

What we read and watch as a society is a little different from the same during an individual’s experience with fiction; it’s less about the human condition, more the condition of humanity. It’s impossible to predict whether Doctor Who will continue regenerating from actor to actor for the next 500 years. However, the scope of human history distills to the substance of just ten (or twenty) activities of people in groups.

We’ve been obsessed as a species with the following: ➀ Defense and Security, ➁ Information and Communication, ➂ Resources and Industry, ➃ Education and Labor, ➄ Culture and Weal (or Well-being), ➅ Transportation and Commerce, ➆ Planning and Governance, ➇ Law and Justice, ➈ Utilities and Services, ➉ Science and Technology.

Fortress

Any aspect of plot, notwithstanding a given hero’s specific journey, will fall into at least one category pair. The same is true of society in real life; these are all of the parts of civilization. What changes over time is the degree of sophistication in each. Without any prediction of whether Astral will survive for centuries, the story mainly involves 5, 8, and 10 (with the last being due to sci fi as the genre chosen).

It’s very easy to imagine that humans 500 years from now will still have forms of entertainment and that they’ll feature fictional humans. I’m having trouble picturing a future society that wouldn’t be described in terms of its approach to my [“DIRECT-PLUS”, © Thom Truelove] theory as stated.


* The missing years being: 1901-04, 1930-32, 1934, 1945

† Dracula has been portrayed in more than 270 films.

‡ Sherlock Holmes is short about 20 for close second.

ceteris paribus…

Neither the future nor science fiction should frighten us. Both may raise questions; any lack of preparedness to face them is where fear should lie. Given that we pride ourselves on our intellect relative to every other form of life on the planet – what is there actually to fear?

One of humanity’s greatest powers, with due respect to the domestication of fire and the worthy and opposable thumb, is our capacity to craft definitions. We apply this ability even to ourselves. How we define ourselves is, in fact, one of our obsessions.

In terms of sci fi there are two forces that potentially imperil our comforting view of we humans: augmentation – either by prosthetic or genetic means. During the mid- to late 1980s the first of these defined a large part of cyberpunk fiction and gaming. Robots and cyborgs, however, are older concepts.

Hephaestus in Greek mythology and Ilmarinen of Finnish folklore are both said to have created artificial people. In the first case, these inventions were vessels for some of the aspects humans celebrate about themselves – most notably intellect and wisdom. The Scandinavian example presents a being deficient in what we seek from others. Most fictional androids fall into this latter category and that reflects our concern in defending our definition of being human.

There are nervous jokes made about potential robot overlords. Artificial intelligence is very rarely portrayed as anything but a cause for suspicion. Genetic engineering does not fare better and there are more examples from history to explain why. The idea of using an understanding of DNA to improve humanity is about a century old. Within a generation of the suggestion eugenics earned a bad name. It still summons overlords of a different sort and often paints the consequences as grim. Even basic cloning gives some qualms.

We want to be better creatures and we’re impatient with evolution. At the same time we’re afraid of what may result from taking shortcuts. Cyberpunk, the roleplaying game by R. Talsorian Games, warned of cyberpsychosis and marked the upper limit for augmentation by a loss of Humanity Points. Arthur C. Clarke warned us in 2001 (technically beginning in 1948 and revisited twenty years later) that AI can go dangerously, artificially insane far faster than any biological mind.

About two months ago, I asked a number of friends what aspects of animal DNA they would want woven into their own genetic code. In science fiction terms this is part of what’s known as wetware. The answers boil down to a few categories.

Improve what works well. A more efficient metabolism and better respiration system would be key examples. The most preferred feature from this set was the regeneration of lost limbs and damaged organs.

Increase what is not adequate. The wish to be stronger, faster, and more durable is not exclusive to professional athletes. Many answers here pertained to making our sense of sight far better than it is now, up to and including the ability to see infrared and ultraviolet light. None of the other four faculties called to mind by the word “sense” were among the answers although both proprioception and equilibrium were found to be a bit lacking.

Add cool new features. Without any apparent concern for sensory overload, some would like to sense electric fields, as can sharks and bees. The core of what it means to be a homing pigeon (and to any human who doesn’t want to rely on maps or GPS) depends on magnetoreception and this was also a desired acquisition.

Establish a better perimeter. The chameleon’s talent for camouflage, the signature of the electric eel, and all venomous/poisonous creatures were also envied along with claws and fangs.

It seems odd that no one mentioned immunity to toxins or disease. Also absent was mention of the immortal jellyfish (Turritopsis dohrnii). And, while plants were left out of the initial question, no one went outside the envelope to suggest something from that kingdom.

Cyberpunk’s Chromebook series offered about 400 pages of comparable features and benefits from the technology-based potential sources of human modification.

RememberIn another century, we would probably recognize humans by our definition of the species and culture. That’s only five generations from now — the great great grandchildren of Jane and John Q. Public. People from one millennium past are, all things considered, not that different from us. Would cyber- and/or wetware actually change the contents or just the packing material?

Until innovation extends a lifespan along with the capacity to find an answer, I’ll offer this with hope: We may define ourselves as human so long as we remember to do so.


dear Brutus…

dna chain

In mid-May of 2014, at the 60th anniversary of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) was quoted as stating the equivalent of “There’s no gene for invasion in Chinese people’s blood.”

In late June of that year, Jürgen Klinsmann, the head coach of United States Men’s National Soccer Team (USMNT) said, “It’s not in the U.S. DNA to go out and play for a draw, nor is it in the German DNA, we’ll both be playing to win.”

The phrase “not in our DNA” has long been a bête noire for me. The connotation is, more often than not, used to state an aversion somehow built in to the behavior of a person or group. As such, it is a reversal of the late ‘90s business jargon of “corporate DNA”. In that context it was meant to express what was part of a company’s vision, mission, and culture. It has evolved into what could become a dangerous misconception based on casual misuse.

While technically correct, behavior is not dictated by DNA, the metaphor has become very common in American political discourse. In May of 2011, then presidential candidate Herman Cain voiced the opinion that being No. 2 economically and militarily is not in our DNA. This bad habit is not limited to the GOP either; their critics often charge that “unlike the conservatives, it’s just not in our DNA.”

Often this is used to hint at one position having moral superiority over the opposing side. Last year, President Obama opined that discrimination casts “a long shadow and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on.”

Misuse of “DNA” and what result it may or may not produce is probably unrelated to doubt of or actual opposition to science. For the most part, we trust doctors to use true understanding of genetics to treat or prevent disease. Increasingly we expect forensicologists to employ the same discipline either to convict or exonerate in matters of jurisprudence.

But at the same time the suspicion that the moon landing was a hoax persists and the anti-vaxxer subculture has been gaining strength for more than a century; it’s nothing new.

If we’re not careful about science, whether from ignorance or Luddism, in fiction or reality we run the risk of making potentially tragic mistakes. The Inquisition tried Galileo for heresy in 1633. He was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. Pope Urban VIII had acted out of anger and fear of science and its implications. Considering other acts of the Inquisition, Galileo got off lucky. It took the Vatican almost 360 years to come full circle on their decision with Pope John Paul II finally admitting the errors of the Catholic Church in that regard.

Misapprehension of science including genetics did not spare Alan Turing unfortunate and severe persecution. The father of artificial intelligence and hero of breaking the German Enigma cipher machines during WWII was honored in 1945 with induction to the Order of the British Empire. Six years later he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

The following year he was convicted of gross indecency (homosexuality was considered criminal in the United Kingdom from 1885 to 1967) and given a choice between imprisonment and probation. He chose the latter but that forced him agree to hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido. It is a widely held belief this judgment led to Turing committing suicide.

It may be hyperbolic to suggest that “It’s not in our DNA.” could lead to future attempts to cure racial or ideological diversity. There probably won’t be further recourse to medicine to enforce conformity with regard to gender binary. But misconceptions, like their cousin – superstition, die hard.

There are dangers in a political climate where one side seeks to make opposition illegal, or worse, misuse science to eradicate it. I can’t – and I don’t think we should – avoid the worry that any belief that fault lies in our stars (i.e., that our behavior is chained to our DNA) could end in catastrophe.