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.


ѱφ

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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.

uespa

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).

 

 

Meanwhile, Fortius…

Civil War.jpg

By the numbers, with five on Team Red and six on Team Blue, one might be tempted to predict Captain America’s side [Blue] will win. That said, evaluating each individual character and collectively by the sides chosen shows more actual superpowers in Iron Man’s faction [Red].

Marvel sometimes rates its characters in six categories of a Power Grid:

  • Intelligence
  • Stength
  • Speed
  • Durability
  • Energy Projection
  • Fighting Skills

These are measured on scales from 1 to 7, with 2 considered the score for the normal person – regardless of category. Red is more powerful in all but the last rating. Tony Stark’s stance in Civil War and those who support it are – in total – almost a third again better than the First Avenger and his troops. Advantage: Red Team!

Given the leadership and tactical advantages Steve Rogers can be presumed to possess, his side will almost certainly have the better strategy (without actually determining a way to avoid a physical conflict). Advantage: Blue Team!

The most powerful single heroes in the fight are Vision for Red and Scarlet Witch for Blue. The synthezoid delivered the coup de grâce against Ultron via the Mind Gem and therefore, if used against any member of the opposing side, would be more than sufficient. As the mutant’s powers have been portrayed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the only member of Stark’s faction that might be immune is Vision.

The respective powers of these two both count as Energy Projection and they are  equivalent according to the Power Grid in that aspect. Logically, the fight should boil down to just them and, with regard to every other rating, Vision is superior. Victory: Red Team!

But…

Joss Whedon is well-known as a geek. This includes playing Dungeons & Dragons – so we can guess that he’s experienced in overcoming the numbers on any character sheet to triumph. He’s also not stranger to chance influencing the outcome; he’s probably rolled his fair share of Natural 20s. Maybe losing side before the third act will get unexpected help from Spider-man in some way (making him the Random Encounter).

In addition, although I’ve never played D&D with Mr. Whedon, he will twist the rules as much as serves the story – and maybe a little more. Even taking that into consideration, there are a few things I doubt he’ll avoid.

Expect to see most of the following…

  • The MCU’s two newest, Ant-Man and Black Panther, will make trouble for each other – demonstrating what they’re capable of in a “fresh” way.
  • The two women will engage is some manner of one-on-one conflict and it will probably be more or less a draw. The audience probably expects this but it’s been done to death.
  • Some moment of brotherhood between two of the three characters of African descent is likely and, if handled well, could enhance the story.
  • Hawkeye will last longer than he should given the odds and any form of sense.
  • There will be a nod to Scarlet Witch and Vision potentially having a relationship at some future point, if the film parallels the comics that is.

Mr. Whedon has written many actual comic books, including the first 24 issues of Astonishing X-Men. (It’s ironic he can’t use those characters in the film.) We know from his body of work that he features and favors the underdog. Buffy, its extended franchise, and Firefly/Serenity (i.e., almost his entire oeuvre) all demonstrate that he’ll kill a beloved character.

These factors in conjunction mean the underdog pack will almost certainly win but it will cost them at least one of their (our) favorites. Prediction 1: In Captain America: Civil War, Blue will win the day but the titular character will “die” just as he did in the comic book arc on which the film is based.

“Tahiti is a magical place.”

Since Agent Coulson’s death and return, that is a new euphemism for the comic book death trope. Prediction 2: The post-credits stinger(s) will show all of this is playing into the hands of Thanos and then remind us of Valhalla while hinting at Cap’s return from it.

Only uncle Ben is staying dead but that’s another franchise.


Keep ’em flying, son…

Marvel Comics announced last year that a female version of Thor would feature in a new storyline. Given that an African-American would assume the mantle of Captain America was announced at about the same time, it seems a reasonable suspicion that Marvel executives might have issued a “More Diversity” directive.

There was a degree of push-back on both Thor as a woman and Cap’ as a black man. I didn’t agree with the opposition to either character and still don’t. I’m very much in favor of stories that encourage an understanding of diversity. There is great value, particularly in entertainment that appeals to children and young adults, in a reader finding heroes that are readily seen as “like me” by said reader. This should not be limited to fiction either.

But I do understand why there was opposition. People are very resistant to change. In fairness, I don’t care as much about the dozen other characters who have taken up Captain America’s shield. If it isn’t Steve Rogers

So, these additions to the Marvel Universe met with immediate and vociferous objection from many – including, in the case of Thor appearing as a woman, from fauxminist Joss Whedon. If there was a memo, he seems to have missed it. According to Variety, the creator of Buffy and director of Avengers said via Twitter:

A female Thor? What the hell makes them think THAT would be cool?”
July 15, 2014

The likelihood that I’ll meet Mr. Whedon to discuss this seems a poor one. As he identifies as an atheist, I’m not sure his negative reaction to Thor as a woman is the one in which I’d most be interested. There are practitioners of Ásatrú (i.e., those who actually do worship Thor and other members of the Norse pantheon) and I’d rather chat with them about Asgardians in comic books – should I ever meet any. A far, far distant second place would be actual readers of Thor comics.

I was able to speak with a vocal protestor of the Thor-as-a-woman panic (who will be anonymous in this entry – as a courtesy). The objection boiled down to his confessed inability to glean as much meaning from a story when the central character is female. In essence, that renders every fictional woman an Unreliable Narrator. It would not be fair to suggest that this anonymous opponent of the female Thor went on to say the same lack of apprehension applied to true stories told by non-fictional women. He did not. And I hope not.

With the prospects of Ms. Thor, the objections seemed to go deeper and in a different way than Black Cap’. There was far more bile and venom thrown up about a “God” of Thunder portrayed as a woman. Nevermind that at least three women have lifted the Hammer in past comics. Fans don’t seem to have objected as much – if at all – when Loki appeared as a woman. (And why was that okay? There’s an entire other set of questions that could raise.)

Isn’t it likely that the gender and/or sexual preference of fictional persons is rarely the point of the work of fiction in which they appear? Tales are made of emotions, decisions, and words. English, unlike such languages of Greek and French, does not gender its words. Why, then, is our thinking so gendered? When we are defensive, what are we defending? And is it really under any attack?

I learned in preparation for this post that the Thor-aswoman title is selling better than the Thor-asman issues. It was also news to me that the Captain America of at least one fictional future is Danielle Cage (the daughter of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, a.k.a. Power Man).

danielle-cageIll have to put Ms. Cage as Cap’ on my reading list.