Will Robots Have All the Fun?

    Last night I woke up and not being able to get back to sleep read “Balancing Accounts” by James L. Cambias in the February, 2008 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I always love reading a good short story when my brain should be dreaming; it makes the fiction all the more vivid. “Balancing Accounts” is fun first person tale told by a robotic rocketship named Annie. There are humans in this story, but they are strange distant creatures and all the good and bad guys in this story are robots of one sort of another. These robots living out around the moons of Saturn have their own barter economy because making a living means earning new body parts to keep on trucking in the outer system. This is an entertaining story that I recommend, but it got me to thinking about another way to imagine the future of space travel.

    What if all the Vikings, Pioneers and Voyagers had personalities? This isn’t a new idea in the science fiction world, where AIs are old hat, but I’m not sure if the idea has really been explored for all its worth. Let’s breed a mash-up of ideas from Vernor Vinge with Robert Zubrin theories. Zubrin champions the idea of living off the land for future space explorers. Send robots to Mars to set up factories to produce rocket fuel and other supplies so when astronauts go to Mars they have to blast off from Earth with less weight. Zubrin’s robots are like automated factories, but what if they had more intelligence?

    With recent DARPA Grand Challenges to build autonomous vehicles it’s not that hard to imagine a whole series of challenges to build machines that build other machines. It would be great if we had nanotech now, but what if we could build self replicating machines on the scale of Spirit and Opportunity? How smart would they have to be? Smart enough to enjoy themselves and have fun?

    I don’t think we’re ready to send people to Mars, and the public doesn’t want to spend the money on the project anyway. But what if we could send robots to the Moon and Mars and they’d be designed to build tunnels, living quarters, produce stores of usable chemicals, grow farms, and do everything so when people finally did travel to these places a nice home would be waiting for them. The six lunar missions were never about making a home on the Moon. The public doesn’t want to spend billions for a few rocket jockeys to dash over to Luna and gather up a bag of rocks.

    Would the public feel more generous about funding manned exploration if the Moon and Mars were flipped into nice condo properties? Sure it would be more fun to do the work ourselves, but there’s sort of a chicken and an egg problem here. As long as the Moon and Mars are just a pile of rocks no one wants to spend money to go there. If we could program our robot pals as our space contractors and make some major improvements that might change.

    Now read “Balancing Accounts” and think about all the fun these machines could have, and also think of all the fun we could have programming and building them. Robots don’t need air to breath, and they handle radiation a lot better than we do. To make the Moon and Mars good for humans, we need to live underground. We need tunnels and airtight rooms carved out of rocks. We need machines that can take local material and atom by atom assemble the molecules and chemicals we need to build a civilization.

    Most science fiction seldom deals with the details of space travel. Walk up and down the aisles of Home Depot and examine all the building blocks of your home that you can. Pick up an item and try to imagine where it came from and how it was built starting with the mining of the Earth through all the factories it took to make the parts to build the object in your hand. If we want to colonize space we’ll quickly learn it won’t be practical to ship goods and material from the Earth. We need to build everything off planet. The only thing that we should waste rocket fuel on is people and very high tech items. I’m thinking we need to spend years of sending super-smart robots to pave the way for us. We’ll need hundreds if not thousands of varieties and they should be as smart as we can make them. They should also be made to last and be reconfigurable so each machine might mate with others to build even new machines.

    If I was kid growing up in the old K-12 prison I’d study robotics while doing my time. Let’s do a mash-up of Sim City and Lego Mindstorms on the Moon. And while we’re at it, make it an open source project and give the little robots guys some AI so they can have the fun of exploring the final frontier if we can’t.

JWH

 


 

What Was Heinlein’s Most Loved Story?

    After playing around yesterday trying to find ways to see how popular science fiction was, I decided to use the same techniques to identify Robert A. Heinlein’s most loved stories. The results, gathered on 1/22/8, were both predictable and surprising:

Starship Troopers

176,000

Stranger in a Strange Land

130,000

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

96,700

“Gulf”

61,300

Time Enough for Love

58,900

The Puppet Masters

44,200

Red Planet

34,500

Tunnel in the Sky

27,900

Double Star

27,400

The Door into Summer

24,200

Citizen of the Galaxy

22,500

The Number of the Beast

20,400

The Rolling Stones

20,300

Space Cadet

20,200

Glory Road

19,400

Have Space Suit-Will Travel

19,300

Methuselah’s Children

19,000

I Will Fear No Evil

16,400

Destination Moon

15,400

To Sail Beyond Sunset

14,100

Time for the Stars

13,700

The Green Hills of Earth

13,500

Podkayne of Mars

13,400

Starman Jones

13,100

Orphans of the Sky

12,800

Beyond This Horizon

12,400

Farmer in the Sky

12,100

Farnham’s Freehold

11,400

The Star Beast

11,100

Between Planets

10,500

“The Menace from Earth”

9,390

Assignment in Eternity

9,090

The Past Through Tomorrow

8,970

“All You Zombies—“

8,170

Sixth Column

6,910

“By His Bootstraps”

4,800

Rocketship Galileo

2,250

“Life-Line”

864

“Jerry Was a Man”

744

“—And He Built a Crooked House—“

717

 

    It’s not surprising that Starship Troopers is #1, that’s because it was also a successful movie, and it probably also explains the success of The Puppet Masters in the rankings. And you’ve got to expect Stranger in a Strange Land to be at the top because of its cult status. I have a love-hate relationship with that novel. My favorite Heinlein book, Have Space Suit-Will Travel is disappointingly far down the list. I’ve written extensively why it’s my favorite, so many of those 19,300 pages are mine – I guess I need to write a whole lot more.

    I really don’t understand why Time Enough for Love has 58,900 pages on the web that mentions it. I find Heinlein after 1965 unreadable. Rocketship Galileo seems to be his least favorite novel, and it’s my least favorite Scribner juvenile, but I’ve read it a number of times, and recently bought an audio book edition. It’s still fun.

    I can’t tell if Red Planet is really the highest rated Scribner juvenile because the phrase “Red Planet” may have come up on other pages about Heinlein’s stories set on Mars. I’d like to think Tunnel in the Sky is the top Scribner juvenile because it’s my second favorite Heinlein book.

    I tried to gauge some of the short stories, but I’m not sure about the results from “The Menace from Earth” since it was also a book title. “Gulf” is rated very high, but that’s probably because it was a proto-story for Stranger in a Strange Land and might be mentioned in conjunction with that famous novel. I’m guessing “All You Zombies—” is his most popular story.

JWH

How popular is Science Fiction?

    This morning I got up wondering just how popular is science fiction. Google makes a wonderful barometer of popular culture so I did a bunch of searches and put them into Excel. Since I mainly was interested in trying to find out if Robert A. Heinlein was maintaining his popularity after death, I tried to select enough writers for comparison to give a good gauge of things. I searched on names using double quotes to get more accurate returns. Like this: “Robert Heinlein”

    To make comparisons to other genres and pop culture as a whole, I put in SF authors, mystery authors, classic authors, famous historical names, and some pop icons from when I was growing up and now. The results are thus:

God

495,000,000

Jesus

176,000,000

Science Fiction

145,000,000

Britney Spears

64,500,000

Beatles

63,300,000

Moses

31,000,000

J. R. R. Tolkien

21,900,000

Plato

21,000,000

Bob Dylan

20,200,000

Galileo

19,000,000

Charles Dickens

15,700,000

Stephen King

13,700,000

J. K. Rowling

12,200,000

Socrates

10,900,000

Beach Boys

9,190,000

George Lucas

6,870,000

Jane Austen

6,390,000

Tom Clancy

4,940,000

Terry Pratchett

4,870,000

George Orwell

4,770,000

Douglas Adams

4,380,000

Jules Verne

4,340,000

John Grisham

3,450,000

Byrds

2,750,000

Isaac Asimov

2,670,000

James Joyce

2,440,000

H. G. Wells

2,390,000

Kurt Vonnegut

2,190,000

Janet Evanovich

1,710,000

George R. R. Martin

1,580,000

Orson Scott Card

1,570,000

Jack Kerouac

1,520,000

Mary Higgins Clark

1,440,000

Frank Herbert

1,420,000

William Gibson

1,400,000

Michael Connelly

1,400,000

Audrey Niffenegger

994,000

Neal Stephenson

869,000

Robert Heinlein

733,000

Yann Martel

693,000

Sue Grafton

671,000

Edgar Rice Burroughs

636,000

Elmore Leonard

588,000

Cormac McCarthy

518,000

Arthur C. Clarke

443,000

Philip K. Dick

442,000

Michael Chabon

426,000

Connie Willis

288,000

David Brin

281,000

Harold Robbins

221,000

Theodore Sturgeon

214,000

Vernor Vinge

204,000

John Scalzi

182,000

Sara Paretsky

179,000

A. E. Van Vogt

128,000

Kage Baker

89,400

Roger Zelazny

52,100

John W. Campbell

33,500

E. E. Smith

21,000

 

    The phrase “science fiction” did pretty well when compared to “God” and “Jesus.” But it’s a little weird to think that Britney Spears has one third the popularity of the world’s most famous holy figure, and she’s three times more popular than Bob Dylan or Plato, and a touch more popular than the Fab Four. Further it is quite revealing that the SciFi authors with the most popularity are the guys who write silly SF books. And how bizarre is it that James Joyce is sandwiched between Isaac Asimov and H. G. Wells?

    As you can see, my guy Heinlein is just below the middle in popularity. Now I have to wonder if being alive helps or hurts. Jane Austen trumps Tom Clancy, and Philip K. Dick beats out Michael Chabon, but just barely and that’s comparing a lifetime of work, by an author with cult status and many movies made from his stories to a young writer with a very small backlog of books to his credit. How can we explain that? I can’t help but wonder if you get more press when you’re alive. Heinlein is just a touch more popular than Yann Martel who had just one bestselling book, The Life of Pi.

    Doing a search on [“The Life of Pi” Martel] brings up 48,500 hits, and searching on [“Stranger in a Strange Land” Heinlein] produces 188,000 hits. Thus doing book to book competitions produces different results over comparing author names. I’ll save that analysis for my next post and compare a long list of books to see how that barometer works.

    Cormac McCarthy just won a Pulitzer, and has a movie out with Oscar buzz and he’s about two thirds as popular as Heinlein, and a little more than twice as popular as Vernor Vinge who is probably a whole lot less famous. Heinlein is a legend in the science fiction world. Vernor Vinge is a rather famous guy among computer dudes, and since the web was created by said dudes, that may influence his overall popularity.

    Now I have to wonder, if you want to be a famous writer would it help sales to get busted for drunk driving, have a notorious marital dust-up, shave you head for photographers – oh wait, maybe it’s all of that while being a dumb blonde wearing skimpy outfits singing suggestive songs? Would J. K. Rowling get more hits on Google if she wore fewer clothes? If you search on Marilyn Monroe you get 11,500,000 hits, so is being blonde and female a fame factor?

    The main thing that helps I think, at least for writers, is if they have movies created from their books. Heinlein hasn’t been that lucky in this department, with his main success being Starship Troopers. Would Stephen King be as famous if none of his books had been filmed? After Have Space Suit-Will Travel becomes a movie it might generate considerable more than 9,550 hits. We’ll have to wait and see if I’m proven right. But generally when you search on a book title that has been made into a movie, movie sites come up first.

    John W. Campbell and E. E. Smith were giants in their day – back in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. “Astounding Science Fiction” gets 63,200 hits, so Campbell’s magazine has remained more popular than his famous editing. Evidently writing the classic “Who Goes There?” which was made into a hit movie twice, as The Thing from Another World and The Thing, didn’t make Campbell a household name. Or maybe that’s a lesson for not writing under a pen name.

JWH

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road by Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007. The Road is a novel that will stun your soul. I found this stark metaphor about human nature so beautifully written I would use it as a textbook on writing. Although the term science fiction is seldom used when reviewing this literary work, its theme puts it squarely into that realm of storytelling and the sub-genre of post-apocalyptic fiction, like the magnificent Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. Predicting the end of civilization and the death of mankind goes back to Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. The list of such tales is rather long, and the approaches to the idea vary widely. Some have hope, some are about rediscovery of ancient knowledge, and some like The Road, are a kind of last judgment of mankind.

For those who only watch their science fiction, think The Road Warrior or The Postman or Waterworld, usually featuring a few good people fighting against the lawless hordes of barbaric humans. However, these stories would be about overpopulation compared to The Road, which is set in a world so bleak the reader is not even sure if plants and bugs still live. Most post-apocalyptic novels are warnings to the present, telling us to get our shit together or we’ll end up like the people in this book. When I was young and read these novels they were exciting and adventurous and I’d fantasize how well I could survive. I’m much different at fifty-six and Cormac McCarthy’s story was like standing in front of a well lit mirror. I saw I don’t have what it takes. I would be one of the millions that died off quickly. And that’s depressing.

The Road is about Mankind and Mother Nature failing to the max. Nothing lives but a few humans in a cold gray landscape. We do not know why things have failed, but by reading the book the reader will realize just how vital civilization is to our psychic well being. For me at least, reading this book made me understand that the value of being human is directly proportional to the success of society. Without our social structure life is no more meaningful than dirt.

With the dark clouds of global warming gathering over our heads I can’t help but read The Road as prophetic. If civilization collapses and economics failed and the western world fell into chaos like Afghanistan or the Sudan, we’d be reduce to the strong preying on the weak, but as The Road shows even this only goes as far as resources allow. If the machinery of society came to an abrupt halt, we’d have seven billion people scavenging for food eating anything they could digest. Humans would be worse than locus.

In The Road what nature or man didn’t destroy the remaining people ate or burned for warmth. The unnamed father and son, who are the main characters of the story, trudge along an unnamed road, constantly on the lookout for any dwelling that might still have something eatable within. The only sources of food appear to be the leftovers of civilization or the flesh of humans. In this story the man and boy avoid all other people thinking of themselves as the last good guys running from all the bad guys.

Bleak huh? While reading The Road you admire the beauty of the writing but are horrified by the vision it creates. This book has the power to turn a liberal into a conservative. This isn’t a book you read for fun or diversion. It’s a parable about human nature that will open up your philosophical veins. We’d like to think that the future is always bright because who remembers the dark ages. I think some people will read this book and want to arm themselves with enough firepower to kill a whole city. But no matter how much food and ammunition you store up you won’t be able to protect yourself and family. Anyone with anything becomes a beacon to the desperate. McCormac aptly illustrates that living like a cockroach is the superior survival strategy, if that’s what you want. You may realize it is this world or nothing.

People like to believe in heaven, and maybe millions would be anxious to leave this planet for the next world if such a collapse occurs, but the real lesson of this story is civilization, law and order, economic stability, cooperation and trust is what we really want out of reality.


I read The Road by listening to the Recorded Books edition read by Tom Stechschulte. This dramatic reading magnified all the best qualities of the novel and made McCarthy’s writing vivid. A MP3 sample can be found here. This sample is not typical of the book because it uses one of the few flowery writing segments referring to a dream. It does give a feel for the setting and the end of the sample shows the more common POV of the father. I wished the sample had included the dialog between the father and son because Mr. Stechschulte’s reading is dead on in characterization.I got my copy at Audible.com, but it’s also available at Amazon and iTunes.

  • Be sure and read Jason Sanford’s essay Dipping Their Toes in the Genre Pool: The U.S. Literary Establishment’s Need-Hate Relationship with Speculative Fiction, which goes much deeper than I do in exploring the debt the literary world owes to science fiction and other genres. I used to be in a MFA program and experienced the strong bias the literary folk have against genre writers.  Sanford documents this in great detail. He also talks about Michael Chabon’s review of The Road and how Chabon tries to bridge the gap between the literary and genre world. Sanford also summarizes many of the literary reviews of The Road and how those reviewers failed to credit earlier post-apocalyptic novels.  – Excellent read.

JWH


Inventions Wanted #5 – Cell Phone Voting

    The news is full of reports on the failures of electronic voting machines. After the 2000 election everyone expected inventors would jump on the problem and produce a full proof voting machine. That hasn’t happened. I’m wondering if there isn’t a simpler solution. Why not use the cell phone for voting.

    Imagine on voting day just picking up your cell phone and dialing the number and voting. Could it get any easier? Nearly everyone has a cell phone. And if it was easier to vote maybe more Americans would participate in democracy.

    One of the major concerns of voting machines is whether or not they can keep accurate tallies. Cell phone companies seem to be quite good at keep call records. Another concern with voting machines is to make them fraud proof. Now here’s the problem with cell phone voting – big brother will know how you voted because accurate registration and verification tied to a system with perfect tracking means they could look up how you voted. However, there are solutions to that too.

    Cell phones have unique numbers. They are registered to you. Your phone could be registered with the voting registration system. It would be possible to invent a voting system that would take only one call from every registered number. It would also be possible to separate identity from voting at some point, maybe with an encrypted key in case of recounts. That means there would be two systems. First would be the voting system via the cell phone and second a database system collecting votes. At some point they could separate identity or make a complicated mathematical system that could reconstruct the voting if necessary.

    One thing I hate about presidential elections is we have to pick one guy who wants to solve all problems in the same way we do. In other words, if there are twenty issues, we want elect the candidate that closely matches the way we think about twenty subjects. I’d much rather that have referendums and just let us vote directly. That would change things so we vote for a manager of problems rather than a decider. In the debates we always hear each candidate talk about their solution to a problem. I’m much rather that politicians research all the good options and then put them through a series of public votes until we come up with a solution that the majority wants.

    Easier voting would allow for more referendums. So why invent a complicate system that is usually set up once a year and few people participate in when an easier system may already exist that would get more people voting?

JWH

The Game of Rat and Dragon

    The job of a science fiction author is mighty tough! To write a great science fiction story requires showing the reader something they’ve never seen before, and that ain’t easy. Age of the genre and reader are big factors here. When science fiction was young, “The Time Machine” by H. G. Wells dazzled the Victorian world with its hallucinatory imagination. On the other hand, you’d need to be Amish to be dazzled by the idea of time travel anytime after turning five-years-old in our SF jaded world. But then I was in my forties and charmed by Terry Bisson’s “Bears Discover Fire,” and I was in my fifties and dazzled by Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson. In other words, even with an old genre and an old reader, it’s still possible to for a science fiction writer to succeed with creating a breathtaking vision.

    Today I decided to try another Wonder Audiobooks title, “The Game of Rat and Dragon” by Cordwainer Smith from 1955. I’m glad I did. I read this story years ago, but listening to the excellent reading by Matthew Wayne Selznick I was able to “see” it with fresh sense of wonder. Audio productions are like getting a high definition television and wanting to see all your favorite shows again. Like I explained in “How Audible.com Changed My Life,” reading with my ears lets me appreciate fiction so much better than when I read with my eyes, and this old Cordwainer Smith tale was a good example.

    Cordwainer Smith broke on the scene with a distinctive voice, working in a field known for being tone deaf. Now he wasn’t a great writer by literary standards, but the old concept of a one-eyed man living among the blind applies here. “The Game of Rat and Dragon” take cliché space opera and adds new dimensions making the story vivid, thus I think creating something new in the field. This story really does lay the foundation for stylistic explorers like Samuel R. Delany and Roger Zelazny in the 1960s.

    If you ever get a chance read some science fiction from the 1920s, like from early Amazing Stories. Then read Asimov’s Before the Golden Age, for the flavor of 1930s pulp writing. After that read Adventures in Time and Space to get the feeling of how J. W. Campbell shaped the 1940s. Science fiction genre is always evolving. The 1950s brought its own breakthrough in style, and writers like Cordwainer Smith, Jack Vance, and Alfred Bester made their impact.

    Listening to “The Game of Rat and Dragon” let me feel that difference in a magnified way. Cordwainer is at the beginning of his career, but all his elemental seeds of his later story worlds are planted here. This story, which is poorly written by MFA standards, with its heavy handed setup common for stories of the time, still takes off and shines when it comes to creating a vision of something new.

    It evokes awe and emotion in this old jaded reader, although I wonder how it will work with younger readers of today. It is primitive compared to today’s writing, so young readers may feel like they are hearing something from old time radio. If you look at ISBDF, you’ll see its still being anthologized as late as 2006, so I do have hope it’s a story with lasting impact, and I’m very appreciative that Wonder Audiobooks published the audio edition.

    I don’t want to give away any of the ideas and spoil this story, especially since it’s short and somewhat expensive, so I won’t go into what it’s about. Don’t read the links until after you have heard the story. “The Game of Rat and Dragon” is $4.88 for Audible.com members and for anyone it’s $7.95 at iTunes. I wished Wonder Audiobooks had given us two Cordwainer Smith stories for the same price to entice more readers to try Smith because I’m not sure about the market for single short stories. Let’s hope they succeed. WA could have created a nice mini Ace Double type collection with “Scanners Live in Vain.”

    Another odd idea would have been to make a complete audio edition of the October, 1955 Galaxy magazine, in which “The Game of Rat and Dragon” first appeared. I don’t know how involved it would be to get copyright permissions, but that sure would make a fun blast-from-the-past time capsule.

JWH

Have Space Suit-Will Travel

Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein is my all-time favorite book and I’ve read it every few years since I discovered it in 1965. I turned thirteen in late 1964, so discovering Robert A. Heinlein and science fiction during puberty integrated a biological transformation with a sense of wonder. If we could only warn kids that whatever pop culture you take in during that time it will be imprinted into your soul. The thoughts and emotions generated by the book are recorded in my brain alongside intense powerful memories.

But there’s more, like the say in info-commercials, because 1965 was when the 1960s became the Sixties. Discovering science fiction during a social revolution only enhances its call for human transformation. NASA was blasting off with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. The Great Society, Civil Rights and feminism were all demanding major changes. And the pop culture of movies, television and music made it feel like we were transitioning from the black and white Fifties to a new Technicolor world, like when Dorothy walked out her black and white house into Oz.

While the greater world erupted into wars, riots, demonstrations, my personal world blew up too. From 1963-65, I went to five schools because of moves brought on by my restless military employed dad who moved more than even the Air Force ordered. During this period my father had two heart attacks and was forced into “retirement” where he had to work two or three low-level jobs to make family ends meet and pay for his hard drinking. My parent’s already stormy marriage moved into hell-mode, and my mother took up my father’s hobby of boozing, but she was so bad at it she almost got my sister and I killed while driving drunk. I won’t go into all the memoir-gory details, but suffice it to say I had plenty of reasons for embracing the powerful escapist qualities of reading science fiction.

No matter how many times I try to write this I can’t recreate the setting of when I read Have Space Suit-Will Travel for the first time. There was one more powerful force of nature that came into play: music. Imagine Pulp Fiction without the music, and I mention that movie because living my life was like watching that film. While science fiction painted fantastic worlds through my eyes, music filled those worlds through my ears while I read. The music of 1965 provided the soundtrack to this novel and the times, and on that soundtrack are some of the best pop songs ever like “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan, “Downtown” by Petula Clark, “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire and “Stop in the Name of Love” by the Supremes, among countless others.

When I picked up Have Space Suit-Will Travel and opened to the first page all the planets were lining up in a great gravitational surge causing a perfect hurricane of emotions. I could have read anything and it would have become the greatest novel of my life, but Have Space Suit-Will Travel was it. I sure wish it hadn’t had such a dorky title. I could write hundred thousand words about why Have Space Suit-Will Travel affected me, but let’s just say I was at the right place at the right time in a very receptive mood and it did a number on me. Boy did it ever.

Finding My Religion

 

Why is this book so important? It’s just a kid’s book. All I’ve got to say is a lot of other people came under the sway of Heinlein in the 1950s. Over the years I’ve notice countless comments by people in various lines of work about how they were influenced by Heinlein. You can search Google but the results are generally disappointing, and only reflect the negative qualities of using the Internet as a reference tool. Heinlein in Dimension by Alexei Panshin is a good place to start, but the more recent Heinlein’s Children: The Juveniles by Joseph T. Major goes much deeper, and Panshin wrote a great introduction, “Heinlein’s Child” that mirrors many of the stories I read about people discovering Heinlein.

For over forty years I’ve been trying to figure out what this book did to me. It became my Bible and religion, and although I’ve tried to explain that many times before I happened to catch an old movie on TCM, Things to Come, that has a scene that captures the essence of Heinlein’s sermon. I think it’s worthwhile to quote it at length. In the 1936 film about war and progress, a futuristic city has just launched a space capsule to the moon:

An observatory at a high point above Everytown. A telescopic mirror of the night sky showing the cylinder as a very small speck against a starry background. Cabal and Passworthy stand before this mirror.

 

CABAL: “There! There they go! That faint gleam of light.”

 

Pause.

 

PASSWORTHY: “I feel–what we have done is–monstrous.”

 

CABAL: “What they have done is magnificent.”

 

PASSWORTHY: “Will they return?”

 

CABAL: “Yes. And go again. And again–until the landing can be made and the moon is conquered. This is only a beginning.”

 

PASSWORTHY: “And if they don’t return–my son, and your daughter? What of that, Cabal?”

 

CABAL (with a catch in his voice but resolute): “Then presently–others will go.”

 

PASSWORTHY: “My God! Is there never to be an age of happiness? Is there never to be rest?”

 

CABAL: “Rest enough for the individual man. Too much of it and too soon, and we call it death. But for MAN no rest and no ending. He must go on–conquest beyond conquest. This little planet and its winds and ways, and all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him, and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time–still he will be beginning.”

 

PASSWORTHY: “But we are such little creatures. Poor humanity. So fragile–so weak.”

 

CABAL: “Little animals, eh?”

 

PASSWORTHY: “Little animals.”

 

CABAL: “If we are no more than animals–we must snatch at our little scraps of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more–than all the other animals do–or have done.” (He points out at the stars.) “It is that–or this? All the universe–or nothingness…. Which shall it be, Passworthy?”

 

The two men fade out against the starry background until only the stars remain.

 

The musical finale becomes dominant.

 

CABAL’S voice is heard repeating through the music: “Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?”

 

Cabal’s beliefs sum up exactly how I felt after reading Have Space Suit-Will Travel. I had already abandoned the religion my parents tried to force on me in my childhood, and I was looking for something meaningful to replace it. Heinlein’s belief in humans having a manifest destiny to explore the galaxy felt right. If we are no more than animals then we have to snatch at our little scraps of happiness before oblivion overtakes our small fragile minds, and eventually the collective consciousness of the whole human race when it becomes extinct. The question is whether or not we can become more than animals and make our own destiny.

Losing My Religion

 

As serendipity would have it, just after watching Things to Come I found over on Edge.org “What Have You Changed Your Mind About in 2007” survey. This major article features a lot of serious people rethinking a lot of serious ideas, including manned space exploration. In 2008, do I still believe in my religion? That’s hard to say.

If you are someone who writes you will understand it when I tell you that I’ve tried to answer that before. In fact, many times. The last time was, What Happened to My Future? – from January 2007. It’s January 2008, so maybe it’s an annual unfolding of my unconscious at the beginning of the New Year. There are core emotions, or biological programming, memories, or whatever, that just nag the hell out of me, causing me to write about them over and over again. Each time I hope the focus of thoughts will make things clear and exorcise their haunting. I’m like my own psychiatrist trying to get myself to experience a breakthrough so I’ll understand why I am the way I am.

Another way to think of it is I’m a programmer looking at old code, examining loops and functions deep in a billion lines of code wondering what they mean to the current functionality of the program. This time I’m going to look at the subprogram introduced when I read Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein in 1965. If I could time travel back to my 13 year old self and ask him what his life would be like in 2008 it might reveal a lot about why I am the way I am today. However, does understanding the past ever free us from its programming? Can we reprogram ourselves over again?

Robert A. Heinlein seduced his readers into the romance of space exploration. Heinlein preached the gospel of the manifest destiny of human kind belongs exploring the galaxy. Heinlein was selling science fiction as something greater than Buck Rodgers crap, which is hard to believe because Have Space Suit-Will Travel was a parody of kid’s TV shows of the day, so how subversive could it be? America has always sold the future in a big way and Heinlein preached with the fervor of Elmer Gantry.

Evaluating the validity of space exploration is beyond the scope of a blog entry so I want to focus on one tiny view of how Have Space Suit-Will Travel intertwined in my mind, and how so very strangely it leads me from 1965 to 2008 and writing this essay.

Why would a thirteen-year-old kid read a book and decide living in outer space is the ultimate goal of his life? What’s so appealing about the high frontier? I’ve been able to look inside of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space capsules several times in my life and there is nothing glamorous about them, but during the sixties I envied those astronauts more than anyone else on Earth. The mature “me” knows I could never have been an astronaut. Hell, I’m squeamish about public toilets and I’m addicted to creature comforts. But let’s say that volunteering to be a colonist on the Moon or Mars required no discomforts greater than traveling on a jet and living in a hotel, what makes living on those rocky worlds so appealing?

Is life so meaningless on Earth and so meaningful if we can blast off for parts unknown? Is breathing bottled air so much more exciting than breathing fresh air? There is absolutely nothing on the Moon and Mars other than rocks, and I was never interested in geology. Playing Freud I could say having two alcoholics for parents and living in a DMZ between the two of them and their never ending war was enough to make my 13-year-old self want to leave Earth, but I don’t think that’s it either. Although I have to admit that my teenage years of fiction and television addiction and playing around with drugs was obviously my psychological effort to escape.

The ending to Things to Come is the clue. By the way, I had seen this film before, many times, but I had forgotten it, so when its ending stood out like beacon it got me to thinking. Was Heinlein influenced by H. G. Wells? Most modern science fiction disappoints me because it lacks this philosophy. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy was a good adult exploration of these ideas, but it had little impact in the field of SF. From what I can tell most people want entertainment from SF, not a religion promoting the conquest of space. Is it time for me to give up too?

I don’t know if I can give up. It’s like people who lose their faith late in life, they can’t just chuck it all because too many lingering subprograms. I’m like Mother Teresa, with a lot of doubts after seeing years of harsh reality. And there are two subtle things that I have to distinguish between: science fiction and space exploration. Science fiction has as much to do with the realities of space exploration as the Harry Potter books do to the realism of magic.

Let’s face it, fiction, no matter how fancy you make it, is about entertainment and escapism. James Joyce can pretend to show us the world, but what Joyce shows us is no better than what Monet shows in his paintings. In the end, both writers and painters make something artificially beautiful for our minds to contemplate, but their allusions to reality, are just that, illusionary. Have Space Suit-Will travel is gorgeous jewel of a picture for me to contemplate, but it lives on its own with no real connection to the real world.

Now for believing in space exploration. It seems tragic that we live in such a large universe but are confined to such a small portion of it. It may not be possible to move our fragile life very far from Earth. And humanity, and life on Earth, is like the life of one person. We come into being, live for awhile, and die. The desire to explore space is also the desire for the human race to live longer, to seek immortality. But even this universe will die someday. The real reason to colonize space is to provide life insurance for mankind in case something happens to Earth.

When I first read Have Space Suit-Will Travel I couldn’t imagine my own death or the death of the human race, which by the way is the subject of the book. Now that I am older, the knowledge of death creeps into my life like the slow decay of rust. Yeah, Neil, you were right, rust never sleeps. The reality is that most of humanity does not see the value of space exploration. It’s like that old Woody Allen joke where he professes he doesn’t want to find immortality in his work, but he just wants to live forever himself.

I think this same philosophy applies to environmentalism. People do not want to sacrifice for space or the Earth because the benefits are not direct to them. In other words, buying into Heinlein’s religion of manifest destiny of exploring the galaxy just isn’t natural. Like doubting Christians though, I always want to hold out for the possibility that space exploration will happen.

Like the people contemplating changes of mind at Edge.org, my change of mind for 2008 would be about science fiction. I officially declare that I no longer believe that science fiction is about science, or has any relation to it. From now on, whether I call the books I read science fiction or fantasy, all I expect of them is to be entertaining, and any logical analysis will only focus on judging the consistency of the fictional world the author creates. Now, do I really believe that? Yes, for all books of science fiction I read. But if I ever wrote the science fiction books I dream about writing, I’m going to do what Heinlein did, write the best entertainment possible and continue the religion.

JWH