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In the previous entry in this series of blog posts about the possibility of alien life in our galaxy, and especially about such life visiting us here, I speculated about the wide disparity between the knowledge we’ve obtained about the universe—which is substantial—and our ability to move around in that universe—which is miniscule. We’ve only just gotten to the moon. Is that the reason we’ve never been visited by aliens from other star systems—that the distances are just too immense and space travel is not as easy as our science fiction stories make it out to be? Or is it that they are really nowhere to be found?
There’s certainly no shortage of stars in our galaxy around which planets could form that potentially could harbor life. But before any civilization can visit us here, a lot of things have to happen. It has taken us 2 billion years and several major extinctions for us to reach the sophisticated level we’re at right now. We can see galaxies that are billions of light years away, but we’re a long way in time from journeying there. We’re a long way from visiting even just the nearest star for crying out loud! Any other intelligent civilization almost certainly has to go through that same process of learning about the cosmos before they can make the leap from simply knowing about the presence of other suns out there, to actually visiting them. That’s a huuuuuge step.
So, I’m wondering, how many civilizations out there have actually made that step? Or is there a limit to what a civilization can do?
There’s a hypothesis about alien civilizations that postulates a “Great Filter” that has prevented most if not all civilizations from reaching the ability to travel the galaxy and visit us here on Earth. Somewhere, the Great Filter suggests, in the evolution of a civilization, the inhabitants of a planet reach a stage where their ability to continue is blocked. That’s a legitimate argument, especially as there are at least two processes that could possibly prevent us on Earth from moving on to visit other planets and star systems—annihilation either by nuclear war or by global warming. We haven’t done a particularly good job in reducing the risk from either one lately. But it’s one thing to postulate that, on the one hand, these processes are a risk for us on Earth, and, on the other, transferring those possibilities to other planets. In some respects, the Great Filter seems almost too anthropomorphic, that what happens on Earth must, of necessity, happen on other planets.
One thing we can be sure of, however: that an alien civilization must acquire knowledge about the universe and the galaxy in which we live in order to visit us here, and it must develop the means of transportation around it. But where does that knowledge lie that would allow them to close that gap? Does it exist? Don’t look to science fiction for the answer.
It’s entirely conceivable that a breakthrough will occur in the (near?) (far?) future that will allow us to travel to distant star systems. I’m not ruling that out. And it’s also possible that knowledge is available to any and all civilizations which can reach the highly sophisticated stage where they have access to it. It’s more a question of a civilization being able to make it to that stage. How many civilizations have reached that stage? None? Or does that knowledge even exist? At least that would answer the question: “Where are they?”
This is likely to be the first of three postings on a topic that has intrigued me for several years—the prospect of intelligent life on other planets. Enrico Fermi posed his famous paradox, basically “Where are they?” in 1950. He was referring to the question of why highly intelligent, highly sophisticated visitors from another planet haven’t visited us here on Earth. With the tremendous number of planets out there, say 50 to 100 billion in our galaxy alone, surely the chances must be around 100 percent that other life forms have developed, and a small population should have attained the ability to travel the galaxy in some form of advanced spaceship, perhaps with a drive system we can’t even conceive of. Many planets out there must be older than ours, giving their inhabitants sufficient time to develop space drives that can cut travel time from star to star down to a reasonable value. And that’s what I want to limit my comments to here in this post—the concept of actually travelling the galaxy. Keep in mind, I’m not trying to answer the question of “where are they,” just give some possible reasons why they aren’t.
I want to start by looking at the development of life on Earth and see if we can extrapolate into the future. The Earth is, of course, the only planet we are aware of on which intelligent life has developed, and that could mean it isn’t the best model on which to build an example, but it’s the only one we’ve got so I’m going to use it. Life began on Earth around 2 billion years ago. (There’s some evidence life may have evolved earlier than that, but I’m going to use 2 billion as a nice round number.) In those 2 billion years, life has not once died out completely. There have been extinctions, sure, and large numbers of species have been eliminated, but life has managed to remain continuous in one form or another since then. Even the grand extinction which resulted in the eradication of the dinosaurs around 65 million years ago didn’t completely eliminate all life. Small mammals survived the asteroid impact, and even the dinosaurs themselves were not totally eliminated—they survived into today as birds. Up to that time, reptiles were the dominant animal life form. They were the ultimate, the top level, the upper crust. They basically formed an endpoint, as far as evolution was concerned at that time, and it took an outside event to force a change. Now, I suppose, mammals are the top animal life form. We dominate the planet, and have made changes no other animal could ever conceive of making.
Over the last few thousand years, we humans have learned a lot about the universe in which we exist. We’ve built telescopes which can probe well beyond our own galaxy and see millions of others. We’ve learned what goes on in the interior of a star, in its core, in the atomic and subatomic interactions which produce the light and heat and all the other emissions that the star puts out. We can even detect the faint, wispy neutrinos the star emits. We know there seems to be unseen forces and masses in the galaxy which make up the majority of all mass and energy in it. We’ve seen stars and planets and asteroids, and even planets that just haven’t had quite enough mass to start the fusion reactions that make a star what it is. Behind this has been the development of elaborate mathematics that has made it possible. There’s so much knowledge we’ve accumulated over those several thousand years. All in all, we’re pretty damn astute about our knowledge of the universe and our place in it. We can be proud of that.
Yet, for all our sophistication and knowledge, we’ve never sent humans out into the void of space any farther than the moon. We’ve sent a couple of spacecraft to the edge of our solar system, but those are piddly jumps compared to the size of the universe or even the galaxy. Traveling the galaxy is a hell of a lot harder than looking at it. That’s why science fiction writers have to develop complex, intricate, and ultimately a little naïve spaceships to get their characters around, because there’s no real way to do it. Light travels at the speed of light; we travel at the speed of rocket ships. And the difference is telling.
All this suggests that if there are highly intelligent and sophisticated life forms out there capable of traveling the galaxy, or even from one galaxy to another(!), they would have to have knowledge and space drives so far beyond us they would be impossible for us to conceive. Perhaps harnessing a force we can only guess at. (Read more science fiction for a few good guesses.) Pardon the pun, but even in our sophistication, we’ve got a long way to go.
Well, the Bubonicon Science Fiction convention #50 here in Albuquerque, NM is over for 2018. It ran from August 24 to 26, and as I do every year, I attended as much of it as I could, hoping to grab a rare tidbit of information or advice, or perhaps a little dirt or the real scoop on some facet of science fiction or fantasy or even real science. This year’s theme was the “Golden Age of Science Fiction and Fantasy,” playing off the fact that the Convention (the “con”) is fifty years old this year (its golden anniversary), and taking a look back at the “Golden Age of SF and F, which, from what I was able to gather, lasted from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, or thereabouts. Many of today’s sci-fi writers lived through at least a part of that time, and cut their sci-fi teeth reading the popular authors of the day. A number of authors acknowledged the role that all that reading paid in the development of their writing. A debt I can well understand. I even got a few books autographed.
I will have to admit, though, that I am somewhat unfamiliar with the works of that era. I came to science fiction late in my career, and though I grew up during that time, I read more non-fiction (science mostly, especially biological sciences) than fiction, and what fiction I did read tended to be related to real life. So, in many of the sessions of this con I had difficulty identifying with the lives of the older writers. I did find it interesting learning about the development of sci-fi through the years, though. I had read a few of the works of Robert Heinlein (“Starship Troopers,” “Methuselah’s Children”) but that was about the extent of my sci-fi reading before I entered college and began concentrating on science, especially microbiology and virology (the biology of the teeny-tiny). It wasn’t until almost time for me to retire from paid scientific work and shortly after the time I began my first sci-fi novel that I read Heinlein’s most popular work, “Stranger In A Strange Land.” About that time also, I began reading quite a number of science fiction works of many other authors (I generally eschew fantasy, however). Sci-fi is my life now; I’ve graduated from science to science fiction. It’s been quite a ride.
I’m beginning to look forward to Bubonicon 51 in 2019. See you there.
In recent weeks (I’m writing this on August 19, 2018) we’ve heard from the President of the United States that he wants the US to set up a “Space Force,” for what reason I’m not exactly sure. The main result of this force will be the presence of weapons, particularly atomic, in outer space. I wonder why.
As someone who writes science fiction and has more than just a passing interest in outer space, and as someone who has a scientific degree (although not one in space science), and as someone who blogs occasionally about outer space, I think I will lower my blogging standards a bit and comment on the proposed US Space Force. Keep in mind that I don’t by any means feel obliged to comment, nor am I an expert in space sciences, nor do I feel the world is breathlessly awaiting my opinion. I’m just throwing out my two-cents-worth for anyone to read and/or comment on.
As I see it, there are two fundamental reasons for desiring a Space Force, and each can be subdivided into offensive and defensive categories. The first is to have an armed force to attack or defend against aliens from outer space that may invade Earth. This has got to be the stupidest reason for having a Space Force I can think of. Why? Because there’s nothing out there. There aren’t any aliens poised to attack Earth. The Earth has been around for over four billion years and in all that time, especially recently, there has not been any credible evidence whatsoever in any way, shape, or form that any alien from beyond the stars has landed here or abducted anyone, or left a calling card, or anything. It’s just us science fiction writers who say that. Note that I said “credible” evidence. Sure, some people have come forward to say they’ve been abducted by aliens, and lots of people believe that an alien craft crashed near Roswell, and lots of people have seen UFO’s, and so on and so forth. But there’s no credible evidence that those ships or green lights or whatnot contained aliens. We’ve been listening for signals from outer space for I don’t know how long and haven’t heard anything. Not one damn thing. Let’s face it; there’s nobody out there. Fermi’s paradox about “where are the aliens?” is just a valid today as it was when Enrico Fermi proposed it back in the 1950’s. So it seems to me that taking the extraordinary step of putting dangerous weapons in outer space to defend or attack aliens is pure nonsense.
Now as for the second reason. This has to do with putting weapons in orbit around Earth in order to attack or defend one or more countries on Earth’s surface. Militarily, this is a good reason. Orbit is high ground, and in warfare, that’s always good. We’ve had spy satellites in orbit for years. Now we are proposing Putin weapons on those satellites to attack someone. Only God and a few strategists at the Pentagon know who at this time. I’m sure the military loves this possibility. It gives them a considerable advantage over ground-based weapons. Theoretically, it could be possible to detect the launch of an ICBM from, say, Russia, China, North Korea, or wherever, earlier than by ground-detection alone, and then respond with a weapon launched from a satellite directly on the offending country. I’m no military expert, but even I can see that, and I strongly suspect the current administration wants weapons in space for this main reason.
The most important facet of this entire argument is one we should never lose sight of: do we really want weapons in outer space? Do we want nuclear (NEW-clee-are, not NUC-u-lar) weapons floating in orbit above us, or shall we continue the generally-agreed on policy of not putting any sort of weapon in outer space AT ALL, a general concept that has been around since shortly after the first satellites (Sputnik, Explorer) were launched. All countries that have ever launched satellites have (I hope) adhered to this idea. Space has been for peaceful exploration ONLY. Not even the Apollo or Shuttle astronauts had weapons. (Why would they? Who’s going to invade the shuttle or a tiny, cramped Apollo capsule on the way to the moon?) I say keep it that way. Unless there’s a credible threat from little green men from Mars (H. G. Wells notwithstanding) or from beyond the solar system, let’s keep space, from low Earth orbit to infinity, weapon free. Star Trek is fiction. There are no real Klingons out there.
Are you having trouble thinking up a good plot for your next story? There are many ways of doing that, of course, but here’s one way writers have used for years that can result in a story (any type of story: novel, short story, flash fiction, whatever) that will keep readers turning the page. Take any sort of everyday story line—going downtown, flying in an airplane, running a routine mission in special ops—and change one or a small number of details to a point where the story becomes extremely unlikely in today’s world. That’s the operative word, here: unlikely. I’m not suggesting you write science fiction, don’t go that far. Just make one or a few small changes that puts the story in the realm of the improbable, or incredible, or even strange and unbelievable, something that makes the story unique, something that puts it in a one-of-a-kind category. It won’t take much, changing a few details may work.
For example, let’s take the classic novel Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. The story is about a whaling captain, Ahab, who lost a leg to a white whale and vows to revenge the loss. Melville, who spent time at sea in a whaling ship, knew what he was writing about. It’s not too unlikely that there might have been whaling captains at New Bedford in the 1800’s who lost limbs to whales, and wanted revenge. That’s understandable. And there might really be white whales (probably albinos) out there, but what Melville does is juxtapose those two unlikely possibilities. He puts two improbable situations together to form the basis for a classic novel. Either one alone would be unlikely to result in the tension necessary to carry the novel, but together they work. They’re small changes in the otherwise staid life of a New England whaling town to be sure, but that’s all it takes to make a great story.
Perhaps another example will illustrate what I’m talking about. Take the movie, “Rocky.” The first one, the one that started the franchise. Rocky Balboa is a small-time boxer, nowhere near heavyweight contender level. Yet Sylvester Stallone, who wrote the script, added one small, highly unlikely change to the story of Rocky. Stallone has the heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed, pick Rocky out of nowhere to fight the champ. Why Rocky? I don’t know, and I doubt that any self-respecting state boxing commission would ever approve such a fight. The match-up is too one-sided. Rocky himself even admits he could get hurt. And Apollo Creed would never have any way of knowing that Rocky would turn out to be such a worthy opponent. But that one little change, however inconceivable it might be, makes for a very intriguing story, and spawned a well-known series.
In short, a small change in the direction of a story toward the highly unlikely, can transform an otherwise regular, drab event into a tale that holds the reader’s or viewer’s attention, and produce a fascinating story. I’m sure you can think of other examples. Like William Shatner on that airplane in the Twilight Zone episode. A funny-looking apparition on the wing of an airplane? Hardly. Yet, it works.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s this funny green light shining through my window.
I had a chance a few months ago to see (twice, as a matter of fact) the movie “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” on television. These were the first times I had seen the movie since it came out in December, 1954. As an impressionable junior high school student with an interest in flying and with a father in the US military, it became one of my favorite movies, though I never had a chance to see it more than once back then. Since such a long time had passed since I’d first seen the movie, I’d forgotten a lot of the details about it, especially the ending. It was that ending that made such an impression on me as I watched it earlier this year (2018). And it is that ending I want to comment on here.
The movie takes place during the Korean War, and concerns a US Navy fighter pilot, a Lt. Harry Brubaker (played by William Holden) ordered—as a part of a lager force of jet fighters—to attack and destroy a group of bridges a the North Korean town of Toko-Ri. The bridges carry a major part of the traffic of supplies and materiel the North Koreans need to sustain their invasion, and they’ve become a major target for the UN forces. The planes attack and the bridges are destroyed. Then they continue to an second target and bomb it. But here, in this attack on a somewhat less important target, Holden’s plane is damaged, and he’s forced to crash land in North Korea. He can’t make it back to the aircraft carrier. A helicopter from the carrier arrives to try to pick him up, but the helicopter is shot down too, and now two more Navy guys are stuck on the ground with Holden, with no way to escape. This is where the ending takes an unusual turn. All three Americans are killed. Not rescued. Killed.
Why is this so unusual? Lt. Brubaker, the protagonist of the movie (and of the book by James Michener from which it was adapted) dies in the end. And in a rather gruesome way. He doesn’t make it back after going through so much to destroy two targets. He does what he’s asked to do by the US Navy, yet he doesn’t get a hero’s welcome. In so many books I’ve read, and perhaps the most common ending for novels, especially action/adventure stories, the hero lives. His/her return may be to the accolade of comrades, or it might be a quiet return with little fanfare and no recognition, but he/she returns alive to fight another day. Picture the ending in the first “Star Wars” movie. Hip-hip-hooray. Uplifting martial music. Highly polished droids. Happily ever after. Princess Leia as you will never see her again.
But in Toko-Ri, Brubaker is dead. And two other guys, too. And in an ugly, sewage-filled ditch in North Korea.
That type of ending surprised me, though I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s different. It’s not wedded to a stereotypical ending of “happily ever after.” It represents the triumph of imagination over the standard or conventional. The hero in a novel doesn’t always have to win and live to fight again. Sometimes he’s blown away in a hail of bullets. I suggest taking this type of ending into consideration. Even if you’re not writing a military book. Heroes do die.
A few weeks ago I attended a writers conference (or writer’s conference, I’m never sure which is correct) and one of the topics discussed was that of book covers. The cover of a book is important and lots of attention is paid to book covers. The cover—so they tell me—has a lot to do with selling a book. People do judge a book by its cover whether we authors like it or not, and publishers take considerable time and care to produce a cover that will help sales. A good cover can actually spur sales. Colors seem to be particularly important in book covers: some say reds and yellows don’t sell well, others disagree and look for a lot of red on their covers. I’m not one to say much about covers since I haven’t had one designed for my books yet, though I’m hopeful I will be going through that process soon. What I do want to talk about here is the presence of representations of people—presumably one or more of the characters of the book—on the cover
One of the main subtopics of discussion in the meeting was the use of people, either in face or whole body, on the cover of a book. Not all books use a figure, though many do. But I was struck by the dichotomy of the discussion about how to use a character’s likeness. If you put a man on a cover, either as just a face or an entire figure, then it’s a man. Period. But if you put a woman on the cover, it must be a strong woman, a weak woman—heaven forbid!—will not do. A man, okay; but not just any woman, a strong woman. No one ever says, “We have to put a strong man on the cover.”
We seem to have divided characters of fiction into two broad groups, men and strong women, as though any man is acceptable as a protagonist, but not just any woman. A male character is assumed to be a strong man, but female characters are divided into weak and strong, and no one wants anything to do with a weak woman. Especially not on the cover of a book. I’m not sure I can name any weak women off the top of my head, perhaps one or two of the March sisters from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. But strong female characters are all the rage now, and if you’re writing a book about a female character, it must be about a strong one. Physically strong, as for example, Wonder Woman, or endowed with strength of character, as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With The Wind.” Agents and publishers are not looking for weak-willed women. Not a good role model. But does anyone ever question whether a male character is strong—in the same sense that we require a female to be strong? Certainly if someone wrote a book about a man who is constantly run over or put down by his peers, as for example, Caspar Milquetoast of the comic strip “The Timid Soul,” or Mr. Peepers, played by Wally Cox, of the TV series in the 1950’s, it might not even be picked up by a publisher. The “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series by Jeff Kinney has sold well, though. Yet, in some ways, those characters had qualities that gave them a type of strength we can admire. If not “strength” in the physical sense, then in a “persistence” sense. They picked themselves up and continued on, only to be knocked down again. They didn’t quit; it was not in their nature. I wonder if a book or TV series about a woman who is similarly kicked around would work.
But a “weak” woman on the cover of a book? Not likely. Eventually I hope we will be able to divide the heroes of books—and this is true especially of science fiction—into two groups: male and female, without having to use a modifier for females. The protagonist of any story has to be strong, of course, but do we need to divide by gender into men and strong women? I suspect that when agents and publishers say they want stories about strong women, they’re really saying is they want stories about women who, if you were to replace them with a man, would be a likeable and saleable character. Nobody wants weak men or weak women, except in very unusual circumstances.