I’ve read a few science-fiction books in the past several years, many of which I’ve enjoyed, and a few of which I haven’t. One of the most common things about a book, especially a new one, is the blurbs that appear on the back cover, as a way of selling the book. These blurbs may also appear in catalogs of books, again as a selling point. The blurbs are short quotes from reviewers, either paid or unpaid, posted in print or online journals. They’re used by authors or publishers to try to drum up support for the book by giving the reader a taste of what a professional author/reviewer/whatever has to say about it. Presumably the casual buyer, scanning the books in a bookstore or supermarket or airport shop, will read these quotes and decide to buy the book. Why? Because someone said it was good or great or astonishing or fantastic, or some other superlative. Personally, I don’t think they work very well.
The reason I don’t think they work well is two-fold. First, I don’t pay much attention to them. I’ve never bought a book based on a blurb on the jacket or in a catalog. In fact, I rarely even read them. I buy based largely on the first chapter. Some people may decide to buy a book based on the blurbs, but if I’m one who doesn’t, there may be others who don’t either. Second, I wonder about the blurbs themselves. Some are so far over the top I find myself questioning what the reviewer was thinking when he/she wrote it. Either they’re exaggerating, or they’ve been off the planet for a while. Here’s a few examples.
“The best book I’ve read in ages.” (Ages?)
“The world-building is incomparable.”
“The zombie novel Robert A. Heinlein might have written.” (How would the reviewer know that?)
“The most original fantasy since The Lord of the Rings.” (Yeah, right.)
“This book is definitely your new crack….” (That’s hitting below the belt.)
“…will keep the reader impatiently waiting for the next book.”
“I don’t think a books [sic] like this come along more than a few times in a lifetime.”
Part of the problem with these blurbs is that they reflect only the opinion of the reviewer. Another reviewer might feel considerably different. So, I really wonder why the exaggeration. Do the reviewers really feel that way? It’s rather puzzling. In any event, I’m not sure I want overstatement and hyperbole like that on my book. (When I get my book(s) published, that is.) Personally, I think I’d rather have an honest assessment of the book by an honest reviewer. Let the reader make up his/her own mind.
Several months ago I read a story, probably on the Yahoo news, about a planet that doesn’t orbit any sun. It’s just out there, moving through the darkness of outer space all by itself. They’ve termed it an “orphan” planet. That’s a good term. It must be lonely out there. No sun, no light whatsoever, except from the stars, and that’s not much. No radiation striking its surface to power the development of life forms. No one seemed to know where it came from, or where it’s going. It’s just an orphan, doomed by fate and the fickle bonds of gravity to explore the galaxy all by itself. The philosophical implications are considerable.
It had to come from somewhere, though. Almost certainly it was born circling a star. It probably condensed out of the dust and gas that surrounds new stars as they themselves are born. But somehow it got ejected from an orbit around the star and was thrown into the void to wander around, a menace to celestial navigation. At least by those civilizations capable of navigating the galaxy. Star Trek anyone?
There is a theory among some astronomers that our solar system originally had three large gas giant planets approximately the size of Jupiter and Saturn, and the third one, in the early stages of the solar system, got ejected in a sort of planetary power struggle and is no longer with us. The theory says that Jupiter and Saturn were opposite in position from where they are now, that is, Saturn was closer to the sun. But in the re-alignment of the planets as the solar system matured, and as Saturn and Jupiter switched places, the third gas giant was kicked out. Whether or not the planet that was spotted by astronomers is that planet I can’t say. Probably not. There may be many such “orphan” or “rogue” planets out there. If we, in our infant ability to spot extrasolar planets, can spot one orphan, that suggests many more may exist.
As for life on that planet, it’s doubtful. That planet must be awfully cold. It may have a hot interior, as Jupiter does, but its surface may be frigid. I find myself wondering if it, or another one like it, might find its way into our solar system and collide with a planet of ours. Even Earth. That would make an interesting science-fiction story. We could see it coming long before it collided with us. There would be a tremendous scramble to leave Earth in whatever type of spacecraft we could find or make. If we had explorers on Mars (to postulate one scenario) they might be forced to watch as the two planets collided and their home destroyed in a huge explosion. No more supplies from Earth, folks, you’re on your own. A huge planet two or three times the size of Jupiter would probably engulf the Earth and continue on its way without much visible change. Perhaps it might even go into orbit around the sun in a sort of astronomical game of bait and switch. Perhaps I should say, “engulf and switch.”
On the other hand, suppose the orphan planet is a hard, rocky planet, the size of Uranus or Neptune. The surface might also be cold, but perhaps an intelligent civilization could have survived by living deep below the surface. They could gain heat from the interior and make electricity to power all sorts of gadgets, including life support systems. An interesting possibility. Maybe I’ll do something with that story line in the near future. Before it collides with Earth.
Two terms about people in North America, one coined recently and one that’s been around for a while, have caught my eye and ear over the years and I’ve come to the conclusion that they aren’t all that accurate. In both cases they don’t adequately or properly describe the groups they represent and should be changed. Take a look at the terms below and make up your own mind.
The first is “The Greatest Generation.” This term was the title of a book by Tom Brokaw (now retired from NBC News) about men and women who fought in World War II. He was impressed by the commitment of these people and the “effect members of the World War II generation had on…the world we occupy today.” [From the Acknowledgments section in the book.] Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to belittle or run down what those men and women did during the war. Not at all. Their contribution was immense, no doubt about it. My only concern is that the term, by inflating the impact of those who fought in WWII, reduces the impact of those who fought in wars after WWII, such as Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, and those who are presently fighting in Afghanistan. They’re just as good as anyone in WWII. Their commitment to what they did and they’re now doing and to what the US is trying to do in those countries is as intense as that of anyone in WWII. Like many who fought in WWII, they came from all over the US to fight in a foreign war, knowing little about what they were getting into. Yet they went anyway, either because they were drafted or voluntarily signed up. My father fought in WWII and while I can’t speak for him, I suspect he might be similarly inclined to tone down his contributions and those of his colleagues. In my opinion, the men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan are making as substantial a commitment to their effort as anyone in WWII. Certainly the WWII generation was a great bunch of people, but so are the ones who lived and died in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and all the other places around the world where the US has seen fit to send troops.
The second term I’m concerned about is “Native American.” This term (apparently first used in 1925 according to my dictionary) refers to those who trace their heritage back to the indigenous peoples who lived in North, Central, and South America before Columbus, and even before the Vikings. I question the term because the name “America” wasn’t applied to this continent until the 16th century. But if these people were here before then, how can they be “American?” This is a term that reflects the arrogance of us of Anglo-Saxon heritage forcing our terms (and our lifestyle) on the indigenous people. They certainly aren’t “American” in the broadest of definitions, though they may be American in legal terms, especially citizenship. What we need is a term from the ancient language of the indigenous people which reflects their ultimate heritage. I don’t speak any of their languages well enough to suggest a word. Anybody got any ideas?
This blog post may be a little different from the ones I usually write. Mostly I write about science or writing or the environment. This time I want to get somewhat more philosophical than I usually do, and not about science or writing. This time I want to write about something that has been on my mind for many years: history.
This time I want to ask a few questions about history. Questions to which I don’t have the answers, though maybe you as a reader of this blog do have. Questions I’ve wanted to ask, but never found the proper venue. (Actually, this blog isn’t really the proper venue, but it’s all I’ve got.) Here goes.
What is history anyway? The dictionary defines it as a record, frequently in chronological order, of significant events that have occurred in the past, and that are important to us in the present, and sometimes with a description of the causes of those events. While that’s strictly true, that’s merely a description of what we see when we look at history. We see the people, places and events; we see the historical record; and we see the particulars that constitute history. What we don’t see is the underlying concept of history.
For example, does history exist automatically, or does it exist only if someone writes it down? That is to say, would there ever be history if someone didn’t write down all the events that have happened that make up history?
When did history begin? At the big bang? Or a millisecond after? Since history is a record of past events, then it certainly couldn’t exist from the beginning. But how soon after the beginning did history begin? A millisecond? A microsecond? A nanosecond? A year? Two years, three months and four days?
Will history ever stop? If it does, what happens then?
Is there a history of events that took place before the big bang?
Will there ever be a history of the universe after the universe is gone? All those stars and planets and galaxies and comets and asteroids and all the other stuff out there have their own history, but what happens to that history when they are all gone?
Will there ever be a history of history?
Do historians make history? Or do they simply record it? Is there a difference?
As I say, I don’t have the answers, but I can ask the questions. It’s interesting to cogitate on the questions, though, even without the answers.
About a month and a half ago I finished reading the Star Wars book, Kenobi, by John Jackson Miller. This book, part of the long-running Star Wars saga, tells the story of what happened to Obi-Wan Kenobi after he went to Tatooine to watch over Luke Skywalker. It sits between the third and fourth episodes of the Star Wars movies. But my reason for bringing up this book is not to write a review of it, but to critique one particular aspect of the book. As an aside, I certainly do recommend the book if you are a fan of Star Wars. It’s basically a western in science-fiction clothing.
What bothered me about the book was it’s use of the term “human” to refer to certain characters. I assume “human” characters were like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, or Han Solo. (The last three never actually appear in the book, I’m using them here only as examples.) These characters were played by human-looking actors in the movies, in contrast to others who were in costumes of alien characters. Chewbacca, R2-D2, C-3PO, Grodo, those in the cantina scene, and so forth. The term “human” was apparently used in the book to distinguish one from another.
The real problem I have with using “human” in this way is that it is basically incorrect. Keep in mind that all Star Wars episodes take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. There are no humans in that galaxy. Granted, as I noted in a blog post on January 12, 2014, there are a huge number of worlds out there that could contain intelligent life forms that look and act just like humans. There may even be many of them. But even though they may look and act like humans, they aren’t human. They can’t be. Humans exist only on Earth.
With the tremendous increase in new planets being discovered over the past several years, life, including intelligent life forms, will almost certainly be identified on one or more of them. Eventually (though not within my lifetime or yours) we will discover some that look like us. They may be “human-like,” or “humanoid,” or “pseudo-human,” but they won’t be human. Not at all. Not even if they look like us, talk like us, see like us, smell like us, hear like us, and have exactly the same physiologic and anatomic features. Not even if they have DNA that can recombine with human DNA. (Now, there’s a sci-fi story.)
I propose that the term “human” should be reserved for those of us on this planet, the one we call “Earth,” in the Milky Way galaxy. To use it for other races on other planets diminishes its value. It dehumanizes us as a race of unique biological entities. Let’s leave “human” for us, and us alone.
Writing is a form of daydreaming. Actually, I like to daydream. I could spend my whole life thinking up and thinking about stories, fictional as well as non-fictional. Of course, it would be ultimately self-defeating because I’d never get anything else done, and there are necessities that have to be taken care of in order to live out the entirety of one’s life. Eating, sleeping, laundry, etc., etc. You get the idea.
But writing is a different matter. Writing puts down on paper or on a computer screen all those daydreams and makes them come alive. Outside the confines of a limited brainstorm. If I think up a good premise for a story, while I’m working on it in my head, I can’t visualize every little detail and nuance that makes the story real and logical, even if it is a science fiction piece. I have to work it out; I have to check each action of each of character against all those of the others to make sure everything is reasonable, and that the story proceeds in a convincing direction. Many times I’ve thought up a story or a part of a novel only to find that when I got it down on the com screen, it wouldn’t work either as a story by itself or as a part of a larger piece because in my mind I couldn’t take care of every detail. Small details can make a big difference. All of that takes time, sure, but it results in a story that not only makes sense but can be pleasing and entertaining to someone else. The satisfaction of that cannot be overestimated.
Some people get their kicks by drinking alcohol or snorting drugs or smoking pot or whatever. I get my reward from the feedback others give me about my writing. Especially if it’s good feedback. Daydreaming is just the first step. Probably all authors daydream to one extent or another. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if all people daydream. An author is simply a person who puts his/her daydreams down in a tangible format so that others can enjoy them. It takes a certain amount of time to master the techniques of writing so that a story is smoothly and logically told, but writing is basically just a way of taking what seems to be wasted time and making a living out of it.
Astronomers like to project. Now that sky studies have demonstrated that many other stars out there in our galaxy have planets orbiting around them, the race is on to find the first planet outside our solar system that can support life. Not necessarily life that includes intelligent, sophisticated, sentient beings like us, but any type of life. It may be life based on the carbon atom, as ours is, or based on some other element or molecule. Whatever it is, it’s going to be interesting to see where the first planet is that can support life. And the presence of life on another planet outside our solar system presupposes the presence of life on many other planets in the Milky Way Galaxy. There could be as many as one hundred million planets in our galaxy that have the potential to support life.
But there’s more. The current estimate is that there are at least one hundred billion stars in our galaxy. That’s a 1 followed by 11 zeros. (I’d do the numbers in scientific notation using a 10 to the eleventh power, but as far as I know, Word Press doesn’t support exponents.) If we assume an average of five (5) planets per star, that’s five hundred billion planets. That makes an average of one habitable planet out of every 5000 stars. All of that is possible, although with the data we have now, that’s just an estimate.
There’s still more. Approximately one hundred billion galaxies exist in the observable universe. Every one of those galaxies contains billions of stars, in some cases a hundred billion or more. Let’s assume that the proportion of stars with habitable planets is about the same as ours, that is, one million to one hundred million, depending on the size of the galaxy. Take 10 million as an average. (These numbers are getting huge.) So, if we multiply 10 million stars with habitable planets per galaxy by 100 million galaxies, we get a figure of one quintillion planets that could possibly hold living organisms. That’s a 1 followed by 18 zeros. Can you wrap your mind around that? I have difficulty.
That’s just planets that could conceivably incubate life. Those that hold sentient beings would certainly be a smaller number, perhaps one percent of that, around 10 quadrillion planets. (1+16 zeros) Thus the chances that there is another earth-like planet out there somewhere reaches virtually 100 percent. There could be another you out there. Another me (God save us all.) A fifth Kardashian. Luke Skywalker may really exist (or have existed) in another galaxy far, far away. A planet like Krypton from which Superman came is less likely because the physics of that planet is different from the physics we know of for our universe. But who knows, perhaps the physics of the Andromeda galaxy is different from ours, though it’s unlikely. Is the charge on the electron in a galaxy billions of lightyears away the same as in our galaxy? In any event, the sheer size of the numbers makes anything a science-fiction author can come up with seem almost possible. It staggers the mind and fertilizes the imagination.
Jean-Luc Picard anyone?