All Dressed Up and No Place to Go

    Among science fiction readers and space explorers the consesus is manisfest destiny is no longer in the direction west around the globe, but up and out into space. Scientists, engineers and rocket jockeys are all ready to build and blast, but congressmen and bean counters keep asking why? While most of the world have their heads in ancient religions and think that death is the only ticket off Earth, a small percentage of the population feel that traveling into space is the meaning missing from our meaningless lives. The trouble is space travel won’t be like traveling in NCC-1701 Enterprise or the plush rides of Star Wars, no it will be like traveling in a WWI German U-boat. Living on the Moon or Mars will be a cross between McMurdo Station and 1849 gold miners.

    The prime real estate off Earth will provide at best underground condo living with the outside weather offering extreme temperatures, unbreathable atmospheres or vacuum, lots of radiation and stark scenery that only a rock hound could love. The dirt on the Moon is so dirty that it will probably wreck machinery and space suits in a matter of days. Colonists will probably find living underground in highly engineered environments their most comfortable habitats off Earth. This means conquering space is really just occupying other worlds and making a rabbit warren of tunnels as cozy as possible. Given centuries and luck we might migrate to another steller system and find another Earth-like world, but that might not happen for a very long time.

    For us humans, Earth may be our only fishbowl. It’s too bad we don’t take better care of it. Realistic science fiction should probably envision futures where we’re stuck on Earth for all eternity, or at least till the end of our times. Copernicus told the world that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe – but the religious still believe humans are the center of God’s attention. Is that really so? It appears that existence has preceded humans by an infinite long time and will continue on without us for just as long. I wonder why in Genesis that God didn’t mention making so many other worlds.

Creationists freak out over scientists claiming the Earth is much older than the few thousand years. What I’ve got to wonder about is why don’t the creationists get in a hissy fit over the number of worlds and size of the universe too? If the fourth dimension pains them so much, why aren’t they bothered by the first three? When God said, go forth, be fruitful and multiple, why couldn’t he have meant, spread out across the stars and fill up the galaxy? The religious have always been preoccupied by heaven, but why aren’t they moved by the vastness of the heavens above us?

The dreams of science fiction fans have always appealed to the few, with the majority of Earth’s inhabitants never desiring to go much further than down the street or maybe as far as Disneyworld. Science fiction sold a false bill of goods when it promised easy trips to the stars, and exploring exotic inhabited worlds. And I’ve got to wonder if I would even travel to some ET Riviera when I won’t even bother to fly to France. And how many people would hang out with space aliens when they want to ban illegel aliens?

I think we’re all dress up with no place to go because Earth is more appealing than anything science fiction has ever dreamed up. The religious like to claim there are no atheists in foxholes, but if heaven is just beyond this life, why don’t more believers embrace dangerous living, if not suicide? We may all pray in the foxhole, but we’re praying to stay here on Earth. This makes me wonder if the old saying really shouldn’t be: There are no theists in foxholes. I wonder if the only source of death was suicide, how long would the average stay on Earth be?

Where does that leave us? I think we could have built space ships a long time ago if we wanted. People could have been living on the Moon and Mars back in the 1970s. We could have built nuclear rocket drives to take us to the next notch in specific impulse by the 1980s. And we’d been working on all kinds of new rocket drives by now if we hadn’t stopped the space program back in 1972. The obvious conclusion is the vast majority of humanity has no interest in traveling to the stars.

We are reaching an age that transcends the superstitions of ancient religions, but we lack the philosophical motivations beyond the programming of our genes. We have the built in guidance to eat and survive, reproduce and organize into small groups, but beyond having a good time we don’t know what to do with our extra time. Our focus has shifted from Let There Be Light, to Let There Be TV. If you don’t get me go read about television coming to India and China. If Marx was writing today he’d pick a new opiate when refering to the masses.

When I think about how big the universe is, and when I think of how long the human race might be around, I’ve got to wonder if there isn’t more to life than just looking forward to next Monday and the new episode of Heros. Now that the human race has television and video games, is that all we’re going to do while the centuries roll past?

The Lights in the Sky are Stars

    “Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” – Bob Dylan

    I think people forget we live in a fantastically large universe. We’re bacteria living in a drop of water and imagine the few molecules we swim in are the crown of creation, the darling of God’s eye. Light polution has stolen the Milky Way from our lives and shrunk our universe. Most people never look up any more and speculate beyond the event horizon of their lives. Sense of wonder and philosophy has been replaced by gossip about Anna Nicole Smith. Is it no wonder that the uneducated of the world crave their old time gods? DVDs and iPods can’t give the young transcendence. We live in the most exciting time of all history but the only philosophers we have are ones that tell us how to cope with stress, lose weight, invest money, or quibble over left and right politics. Where are our transcendental explorers? Our population seems divided between people who want to ignore reality by partying till they die or those who ignore reality by feverishly studying ancient religious texts and praying for a rebirth in another reality – one that is simple and easy to understand.

    If you wake up to The Today Show, come home from work to the ABC World News Tonight, and go to sleep with Eyewitness News and Jay Leno, then your view of our monsterously large multiverse is rather tacky and small. Watch the Discovery Channel in High Definition – it is the Henry David Thoreau of our times. A telescope will help you learn how small you are and a microscope will teach you how big you are. Ask yourself this question: What should I be doing in this immense creation that has no guidebook or instruction manual. For most of history our philosophers have asked: “Why are we here?” Up till now people have answered that question by believing in the silly idea that we’re being judged on our behavior and assume the judgement determines our immortal life in the reality after this one. Imagine if ants thought one human judged their every action.

Get over it. There is no reason why. We’re not being judged and there is no reality after this one. This reality is our final destination – our only vacation from oblivion. We’ve all gone to Hawaii and all we do is sit in our hotel room and watch reruns of That 70’s Show. How lame is that. We need to remember every moment of our lives that the lights in the sky are stars.


Who Is In Control Here?

    I am reminded of the classic sci-fi novel Mindswap by Robert Sheckley where the main character, Marvin Flynn mind travels to alien worlds and ends up in a body of a giant beetle like creature who has a snout ring with a bomb in it. “On Celsus V, the giving and receiving of gifts is a cultural imperative.” Marvin our hero can not refuse the gift, which explains why the former owner of the body elected to mindswap. Marvin Flynn’s adventures in this hilarious novel illustrate life without control. We like to believe our lives are controlable, and that we are in the driver’s seat of our bodies, looking out the windows of our eyes, driving through life. What throws us is when we crash into a situation where we have no control.

    From an early age we learn to live with a lack of control. At first we just cry until we get what we want. Eventually we develop drives, skills, ambitions and we get pretty good at getting what we want. However, life sometimes parks us between a rock and a hard place and we can’t do anything about it. The most intense and intimate of these places of no control is failing health. My heart arrhythmia reminds me of that ticking snout ring. For the most part we go about our lives ignoring the obviousness of death. It’s not until some vital component in our body starts telling us knock-knock jokes that we have to whisper, “Who’s there?” to Mr. Death.

    The weird thing about health is how easy it lets you forget about disease. My heart can act nuts for several days taking me on a roller coaster ride of thrills, and then settle down for a day and I can forget all the scary lessons almost immediately. Feeling good makes the future seem bright, even if it’s just for a moment. When Mr. Death starts thumping one of your vital organs you have these amazing revelations. For instance, “Oh, that’s why we’re supposed to exercise and eat healthy,” comes to you in a Zen like clap of enlightenment. Your mind swears you’ll never eat another french fry again. But as soon as the thumping stops for a moment and you have a brief instance of feeling good, it’s “Hey, guys, let’s go to McDonald’s.”

    Who is in control here? I’d like to think I was, but I’m learning what a silly notion that is. If I was in control I should have become a health fanatic the first time I over ate and puked up as a kid. Or at least the first time I drank too much and puked up. Or, one of the other zillion times I got sick or hurt. But I didn’t. When my heart dances like I’m jogging when I’m reclining in my La-Z-Boy I know I should have lost that extra fifty pounds decades ago, but that doesn’t put me in control. I can pop a beta-blocker my doctor gave me and get my heart to beat to the time I want, but is that being in control? I can pretend I’m healthy, but inside my heart is like a cartoon character, boinking around. I know it wants to get out of its chemical straight-jacket so it can sing and dance again to its own tune.

    What I learned from conversing with my body parts is there’s a vast divide between body and mind, and the trouble is, the body is in control, not me. In fact, you end up pleading and begging with your organs to behave by swearing you’ll do anything they want if they’ll just be nice for a little while longer. This does open up a whole can of philosophical worms. In this bag of flesh there are countless components with their own drives and desires, so which one is the one who wants to eat Ben & Jerry’s every night with Oreos? Egotistically, I’d like to say it’s me, the mind, that makes all the choices, but I know there is some chemical process that I can’t name working with cells I can’t identify that talk to other cells and organs that shanghai me, the mind, to buy and eat the B&J.

    I do have some control. The more I know how the body works the more I can consciously try to influence it. I’ve read studies that say only 1 person in 20 can lose weight and keep it off. Does that mean five percent of the population has will power or that five percent have a body with a variable set point for weight? I know I can make my heart happier if I lose weight, eat right and exercise every day, but do I have the control to do that? I consider myself trying to do all that for thirty years and I’m still fifty pounds overweight. Who is in control here?


What Happened to My Future?

    In 1965, at the age of thirteen, I was confident that long before the 21st century rolled around I’d be living on Mars. It wasn’t a fantasy, but faith in the future. At twelve I had given up Christianity and God, exchanging that belief system for science and the acceptance in my heart of hearts that the manifest destiny of humankind was in traveling to the stars. During my junior high school years I acquired a sense of existentialism that told me there was absolutely no meaning in the universe. Our job was to go forth make our own meaning – with the silly understanding that we’d find it light-years away. It wasn’t a bleak nihilistic headspace, but one freeing me from the past burden of superstition and theological brain washing. I was a skinny geek who discovered science fiction.

    This was a couple years before Star Trek when there were few science fiction fans. 1965 was a transitional period between the fading out of the Happy Days 1950s and the Psychedelic 1960s. The Vietnam War had begun in earnest, the Great Society was the political keyword of the day, battles for civil rights were in full swing and the race for the Moon was well underway with the Gemini rockets taking men into space for two week trips. Science books of 1965 painted a panoramic future unfolding step-by-step that would take men to the planets. Was I so wrong to believe I could be walking on Mars by the 1990s?

    What went wrong? I’m not the only person who took up these beliefs. There were millions like myself. In 1965 the Earth had three billion commuters riding around the sun. One percent would have been thirty million people. I doubt the hard-core believers in science fiction ever numbered more than three million. One tenth of one percent of the population doesn’t make critical mass to change the future. Today, I would guess there are far more people calling themselves science fiction fans in the United States, but all that means is they like Star Wars and Spielberg movies. I don’t think the percentage of science fiction fans that are true believers of space exploration ever grew greater than it was back in 1965.

    In 1965 science fiction meant you believed in space travel. All the other tropes of the genre were just gee-whiz sense of wonder roller coaster riding. No true fan believed in time travel, psychic powers, supermen or immortality – those ideas were just repackaged myths. Serious speculation was spent on robotics and artificial intelligence but no one even dreamed of the Internet. All the hard core believers thought about two things: traveling to the stars and meeting intelligent aliens.

    Space travel never took off and for all our efforts to find little green men we find ourselves alone in this universe. Forty years later science fiction has woven a baroque wealth of fantasies but we’re still all living on Earth and the future seems no more than waiting for next fall’s TV season or maybe the next generation iPod.

    Would my life have been that much better if I was living on Mars? Is the failure of a childhood fantasy all that tragic? If I had made it to Mars, the reality of such a life would be harsh beyond anything I can comprehend. Was it the challenge that I miss? Living on Mars would have meant living underground, struggling with limited resources to survive in an enviornment of rusty rocks and little to breathe. And even if mankind had gone to Mars, it’s doubtful that I had the right stuff required to get there. I think why I’m really disappointed is because no one lives on Mars! In the future of my thirteen year old self, people were heading to the stars – whatever that meant. My life has been one of work and watching humans destroy their environment and kill each other in endless petty wars. Maybe I’m disappointed in the human race.

    The other transcending fantasies of my sixties upbringing was sex, drugs and rock and roll. I still listen to the old music, but drugs and free sex never panned out because of their cousins: death and disease. Stranger in a Strange Land, the epic wish-fulfilling sci-fi novel of the hippie sixties, is a pathetic story advocating nudity, wife swapping and an endless supply of subserviant nubile young women for old men. Sure it promised life after death, pantheism and the unlimited power of thought, but so has a bunch of other religions. I remember being kids in the sixties waiting for the school bus and discussing the coming revolution – so many of us expected to grow up in a brave new world. At least I got computers and the Internet.

Strangely enough, many of the young Internet billionaires are putting their money into space travel. The dream doesn’t die. However, there is still no critical mass that wants humans to colonize space. President Bush advocated returning to the Moon in his plans for NASA two years ago, but the new Congress is already planning to remove that money from the budget. Most young people seem content with science fiction movies, books and video games – preferring fantasy over reality. I doubt if I wait another forty years if the future will ever catch up with my childhood dreams.



The Religion that Failed to Achieve Orbit

    For seventy-five years during the 20th century there flourished a minor religion called science fiction. Most religions speculate about life in the heavens after death – this radical religion promoted life in the heavens during life – a startling proposition for its prophets. By advocating the power of mankind over the power of God it attracted millions of believers. Sadly, this unique religion was short lived because the miracles promised by science fiction were undermined by gritty details of reality. The priests of science fiction failed to observe that any religion that makes promises about the here and now fail quickly.

    Science fiction held that applied science would lead to transcending everyday life on Earth. This was science fiction’s major appeal because most of the 20th century aptly demonstrated the success of applied technology. Science fiction suffered its ironic collapse due to the success of space travel. Six manned trips to the Moon quashed all desire for further explorations of the heavens by the general public. It was rocks, more rocks and icy rocks all the way to the stars. Mars the most romantic of science fiction’s destinations turned out to be paradise that only geologists could love.

    The tenets of science fiction were often similar to older religions, and it eventually parried the promise of everlasting life after death with immortal life on Earth. Science fiction told its adherents not to seek to be the children of God, but instead told them to bury God and become the creators of their own destiny. Science fiction even named its rockets after gods – Mercury, Atlas, Saturn and Apollo.

    Why did this remarkable religion fail? Did it promise miracles it could not deliver? Could it be resurrected with a new testament? Is it possible to satisfy humans with a transcendental experience based in the physical world? Why do the majority of humans prefer the promises of the next world over the reality of this world?

    Science fiction like many failed religions before it has become the providence of fanciful mythic tales. Years from now, such as the distance in time from the ancient Greeks to our times, humans will marvel at the fantastic beliefs of the people from the twentieth century.     

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