Of Terraforming

Several scientific subjects have piqued my interest as of late, particularly the ones that relate to the colonization of other planets. And there are plenty of good reasons for this. First off, NASA has been talking at length about a possible Mars mission which will be begin in 2030. Second, the topic is central to the novel my group and I are writing. And third, because it’s what I do. I’m a geek, dammit! Do I really need any other reason?

So in honor of this fertile and increasingly relevant topic, I thought I’d dedicate a post to the science of terraforming and its depiction in popular culture. Like the majority of your more radical ideas, the concept first appeared around the turn of the 20th century. As part of the larger trend of exploring planetary colonization, several historical developments contributed to this phenomena.

Foremost amongst them was the closure of the American frontier by 1900 and the partitioning of Africa in 1905. With the “Age of Discovery” officially over, scientists and dreamers began to look farther abroad for the next place to move to. Refinements in the fields of metallurgy, chemistry, and astronomy also contributed to the idea that planets like the Moon, Mars, Venus, Europa, Ganymede, and even other star systems, could be colonized.

And thanks to the advent of the Space Race, the Apollo missions, and Eco-engineering in the latter half of the 20th century, scientists have begun to take a serious look at terraforming, particularly in regards to Mars. While the practicality, feasibility and affordability are all still being debated, the very fact that there is a serious scientific debate would seem to indicate that it may very well be done someday.

And so, here is a list of science fiction novels from the last century that have explored the idea of terraforming. Once again, I hope you enjoy reading about them as much as I enjoyed researching them, and incorporating some of what they taught me!

Last and First Men:
This future history by Olaf Stapledon, released in 1930, is the first time that the terraforming of Venus is made in fiction. This was only a fragment of the larger story, which focuses on human evolution over the course of two billions years. Nevertheless, the move to Venus is an intrinsic part of the story involving the “Fifth Men”, who are forced to relocate after Earth becoming uninhabitable.

This occurs only after humanity pushes the local inhabitants to extinction after a protracted war. Afterward, they begin the process of transforming Venus to meet their needs. Like all early accounts, the description was hampered by the fact that knowledge of Venus was highly inaccurate. For example, Stapledon’s account has Venus covered in oceans, rather than the pits of sulfuric acid which are now known to be there.

Farmer in the Sky:
Here we have Robert A. Heinlein’s 1950 story which focuses on a family which has moved to Ganymede, which is in the process of being terraformed. Earth is overcrowded in this day and age, and farming colonies are being established in Jupiter’s moon to help provide much needed food supplies.

The process of creating the new farms is explained in some detail. For example, the topsoil is created from scratch by pulverizing boulders and lava flows, and seeding the resulting dust with carefully formulated organic material. Pressurized housing is erected to ensure that new arrivals are able to adjust, since the atmosphere is not fully breathable. And Ganymede is shielded from Jupiter’s intense radiation by a massive heat shield.

Hints are even given that establish that Ganymede once boasted an indigenous civilization, or was at least visited by one in the past. This includes a working land vehicle that has many legs, essentially a large metal centipede.

The Sands of Mars:
Next we have Arthur C. Clarke’s 1951 novel, which happened to be his first published work. And curiously enough, it is written from the point of view of a famous science fiction author. A case of art imitating life, or art as wish fulfillment? In any case, the setting is a research facility on Mars, which is in the process of terraforming so it will be able to become a self-sufficient colony.

Based on Clarke’s descriptions, this terraforming process (known as “Project Dawn”) involves some rather curious steps. The first is the ignition of the moon Phobos so that it will become a second “sun” for Mars. It will burn for at least one thousand years and the extra heat, combined with the mass production of the oxygen-generating plants, will eventually make the Martian atmosphere breathable for humans.

In many respects, this served as a preview for the plot of 2001: A Space Odyssey and it’s sequel 2010: Odyssey Two (see below).

The Martian Way:
In keeping with the tradition of sci-fi greats, this next novel was written by Isaac Asimov and first published in 1952. The story is told from the point of view of Scavengers, Mars-born humans who spend their time scouring space for the spent lower stages of spacecraft. This sort of lifestyle, making do with less and toughing things out, is known as the “Martian Way”.

At this point, Mars is still very much dependent on Earth for water shipments, which are used for fuel as well as consumption. Life takes a turn for a worse when an ambitious Earth politician decides to cut of the “Wasters”. In response, the protagonists come up with an ambitious plan, to fly to Saturn’s Rings and tow back an asteroid made of pure ice.

The trip is difficult and takes many months, but the Martian Scavengers manage to snag an asteroid that will supply two hundred years worth of water. This, they begin to use to transform the ecology of Mars, and turn the tables on the Earth government.

The Psychotechnic League:
Written by Poul Anderson over the course of two decades, the Psychotechnic League refers to a series of novels and short stories that are set in the same universe. Of all these stories, two in particular deal with the terraforming of Solar Planets. In “The Big Rain”, Venus is being terraformed, a process of planetary engineering that takes several centuries to complete.

In “The Snows of Ganymede”, the focus shifts to the Jovian moon where scientists are able convert the planet to the point where it experiences seasons similar to Earth. This, in addition to Mars, Venus and several other Solar Planets, all come together in time to form the Solar Union. Because of Anderson’s realistic description, the term “big rain” became associated with scientific terraforming models.

The Space Odyssey Series:
Arthur C. Clarke’s series, which began with the novelization of the classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, revolves around the terraforming of Europa by a super advanced race. Known as the Firstborn, these aliens use the Monoliths to travel throughout the universe to foster the development of sentient life. Millions of years after fostering the development of high-order primates on Earth, they shifted their focus to Europa, Jupiter’s ice moon.

Much as in “Sands of Mars”, the process involved the creation of a “second sun”, this time involving Jupiter. In the first novel, the story ends with David Bowman, the only astronaut to survive an exploratory mission to Jupiter after their ships AI (the HAL 9000) malfunction and kills the crew.
When he arrives, he discovers a Monolith in orbit around Europa and disappears without a trace shortly thereafter.

In 2010: Odyssey Two, a second mission is mounted to determine the whereabouts of the first. When the joint US-Soviet mission arrives at Europa, they come to realize that the planet is showing signs of life. They also learn that the Monoliths are in the process of turning Jupiter into a sun so that Europa’s icy surface will evaporate and form an atmosphere, allowing all the life contained underneath to emerge and grow.

In the subsequent novels, Europa is revisited after its transformation is complete. Although sentient life does not appear to be possible, the planet does boast an atmosphere and vast oceans, which teem with sluggish sulfur-based lifeforms. In the end, after the Monoliths are convinced that humanity deserves a reprieve, and they land on Europe to commence building peaceful relations with the Europan life forms.

Mars Trilogy:
We finish with the most recent and profound example of all, the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robertason. The trilogy’s three works – Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars – all focus on the ongoing efforts to transform Mars from an arid, hostile world with barely any atmosphere to a lush, hospitable planet capable of supporting human life.

The first novel deals with the initial colonization effort, which begins with the crew of the Ares, a ship carrying 100 scientists drawn predominantly from the US and the Soviet Union. Upon arriving, the crew builds the first settlement, known as Underhill, as well as colonies on the hollowed out asteroid-moon of Phobos.

After debating what is to be done with Mars, whether to turn it “Green” or leave it “Red”, the United Nations Organization Mars Authority (UNOMA) eventually opts for the “Green” option and terraforming begins. This process involves the drilling of “moholes” in the surface to release subsurface heat to thicken the atmosphere and the detonation of nuclear devices deep in the sub-surface permafrost to release water.

Green Mars, which begins 50 years after events in the first novel, during the dawn of the 22nd century. At this point in time, the Martian landscape is evolving thanks to the expansion of plant life, hence the name. The process is stimulated though the use of continent-sized orbital mirrors which focus sunlight to and away from various sectors of the planet, to melting the northern polar ice cap, and digging moholes deep enough to form volcanoes.

In the third and final installment, Blue Mars, long-term terraforming has created atmospheric pressure and temperature conditions that allow for the presence of liquid water on the planet’s surface, forming rivers and seas. This all takes place over the course of the following century, long after Earth has flooded and revolutions have displaced corporate control of the planet. Because of this, Mars has become the principle planet of the Solar System.

Summary:
Terraforming efforts have come a long way in fiction, and hopefully some day soon they will be realizable. Even though the concept remains highly speculative at this point, all proposed efforts are currently focused on Mars. In all ways that count, Mars has everything we would need to make it suitable for human habitation. This includes water, in the presence of the frozen ice caps and possibly underground rivers, and high concentrations of carbon and oxygen in the form of CO2, nitrogen, and gravity to keep the atmosphere anchored.

And most importantly of all, Mars’ atmosphere closely resembles that of Earth several billions of years ago. In time, due to the development of photosynthetic bacteria, enough oxygen was produced to allow for the development of animals. Though the careful introduction of similar bacteria and plants to Mars surface, humans could speed that process along and eventually create a breathable atmosphere. This, in turn, will allow for the creation of an ozone layer and weather patterns. Combined with the melting of the polar ice and underground aquifers, this will lead to surface water in the form of rivers, streams and oceans.

10 Sci-Fi Novels People Pretend to Have Read

Came across this article in Io9 recently, then again over at Scoop.it. You can tell something is important not only when it speaks to you, but when like-minded individuals begin referencing it! And if you own a blog, you definitely want to get on that! In any case, I found the list especially interesting for two reasons. One, many of the books I have already read. And two, I haven’t even heard of the rest.

I’d say a list like this is long overdue, but it’s still highly subjective isn’t it? The books we pretend we’ve read all comes down to what we consider important and relevant, not to mention popular. And even within the genre of sci-fi, I’d say that list is too big to boil down to a simple top ten. Even so, it’s interesting to read and compare, and find out just how many you’ve read yourself. So please, check this out and tell me which of these you have read and which you think you’ll want to check out:

1. Cryptonomicon:
Read it! This book is Neal Stephenson’s groundbreaking piece of historical fiction, combining narratives involving World War II cryptographers with modern day IT geeks who are looking to establish a data haven in the South Pacific. The story tells the tale of a massive shipment of Nazi gold that got lost on its way to Japan, ran aground in the Philippines, and remained hidden until the late 90’s.

Personally, I loved this book because of the way it weaves history, both recent and distant, into a seamless narrative and draws all the characters into the same overarching plot. One would think that Stephenson was making a point about how we are all subjects of our shared history, but it could just be he’s that good a writer!

2. Dune:
Read it thrice! In Dune, Frank Herbert draws upon an immense store of classical sci-fi themes, a grand awareness of human nature and history, and a keen grasp of ecology and the influence environment has on shaping its inhabitants to create the classic that forever established him as one of the greatest sci-fi minds of all time.

Sci-fi geeks everywhere know this one and it saddens to me to think that it’s even on this list. Anyone who’s willing to pretend that they read this book clearly considers it important, which is why they should have read it, dammit! Not only is it a classic, it’s from the guy who literally wrote the book on science fiction that was meant to be taken seriously.

3. Gravity Rainbow:
Never heard of it! Apparently, the story came out in 1974 and deals with the German V2 rocket program near the end of World War II. Pat Murphy, author of The City, Not Long After and The Wild Girls, went so far as to compare this book to James Joyce, a the great Irish modernist writer who was also renowned for being brilliant and inaccessible.

In addition to be classified as enriching, it is known for being odd and hard to get through, with many authors themselves claiming to have started it several times but never being able to finish it. The plot is also rather unique, combining transgressive sexuality with the idea of total war and technological races. But one look at the dust jacket will tell you all of that, right? Crazy Germans!

4. Foundation:
Read it myself, and also am somewhat sad that it made the list. Sure, the fact that it’s a classic means that just about everyone who’s eve shown the slightest interest in sci-fi would want to read it. But I can’t for the life of me understand why people would claim to have read it. Jesus, it’s not a hard read, people. And Amazon sells used copies for cheap and handles shipping. No excuses!

And having just reviewed it, I shall say nothing of the plot, except that it in many ways inspired fellow great Frank Herbert in his creation of Dune. Like Frank, Asimov combined the idea of a Galactic Empire with a keen awareness of human history, eternal recurrence, and prescient awareness.

5. Johnathon Strange & Mr. Norrell:
Now this one I have heard of, but never felt compelled to pick up and read. Apparently, its size and bulk are the reason many people react the same. This 2004 book is the first novel by British writer Susanna Clarke which deals with the nature of the English character and the boundary between reason and irrationality.

Set in 19th-century England during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the story is an alternative history that is based on the idea that at one time, magic existed in England and has thanks to the help of two men – the namesakes of the story, Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell. At once interesting and speculative, it also presents the rather romantic vision of romance returning to a world increasingly characterized by modernity and cold reason.

6. 1984:
Yep, read this one thrice as well! And given it’s reputation and place in the annals of literary history, I can totally see why people pretend to have read it. Oh, and let’s not forget the way people love to reference and abuse it’s message for the sake of making a quick and easy political point! But none of that excuses not reading it.

Set in an alternate history where WWIII and revolution have led to totalitarian governments in every corner of the world, the story tells the tale of one man’s quest to find answers and facts in a world permeated by lies and absolute repression. Of course, this meager description doesn’t do it justice. In the end, so much comes into play that it would take pages and pages just to provide an adequate synopsis. Suffice it to say, it’s a book that will change your life. READ IT!

7. First and Last Men and Star Maker:
Another one which I’m not too sure about. Much of what is described within are concepts I have heard of in other places, and some of the content sounds familiar. Still, can’t say I’ve ever heard of Stapledon or these two works by name. But after reading about his work, I’m thinking I ought to check him out now. Tell me if you’d agree…

Published in 1930 and 1937, these two books tackled some rather broad ground. The first deals with the history of humanity, covering 18 species of humanity from the present to two billion years into the future. Based on Hegelian concept of history, humanity goes through several different types of civilizations and passes between stability and chaos over the course of it all. However, undeniable progress is made, as each civilization reaches further the last, culminating in leaps in evolution along the way.

In Star Maker, the plot revolves around a man who is able to leave his body and venture throughout the universe. He is able to merge with more minds along the way, a snowballing effect which allows him and his companions to explore more and worlds through time and space. This leads to a climax where a cosmological mind is created and makes contact with the “Star Maker” – the creator of the universe.

Sounds cool huh? And they appear to have no shortages of accolades. For example, Arthur C. Clarke called Star Maker one of the finest works of science fiction ever written, and the concept explored therein had a profound influence on many subsequent sci-fi minds, not the least of which were Gene Roddenberry and J.M. Straczynski.

8. The Long Tomorrow:
This one, I have heard of, mainly because it’s on my list as an example of post-apocalyptic fiction. I have yet to read it, but after reading about it, I think I would like to. Set in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by nuclear war, the story takes place within a society that is controlled by religious groups preaching a technophobic message.

Inevitably, the story comes to a head when young people, intrigued by stories of a neighboring community, go out in search of it, braving punishment and even exile. Sounds familiar? Well, it should. This book, which was published in 1955, has gone on to inspire countless variations and pop culture renditions. It also attempts to illustrate the connection between natural disasters and regression, traditionalism and repression.

9. Dhalgren:
Yet another book that’s compared to James Joyce, largely by people that haven’t read it. I’m one of them! Apparently, this 1975 story by Samuel R. Delany takes place in a fictitious Midwestern town that has become cut off from the outside world by an event horizon. All communications are cut off, and the population become frightened by the night sky reveals two moons, and the morning sun is many times larger than our own.

More strange is the fact that street signs and landmarks shift constantly, while buildings that have been burning for days are either never consumed or show signs of damage. Gangs also begin to roam the nighttime streets, their members hidden within holographic projections of gigantic insects or mythological creatures. Against this backdrop, a group of people come together and try to make sense of what has happened as they struggle to survive.

Told from the point of view of a partial amnesiac, dysmetric, schizophrenic, as well as a bunch of other people who find themselves stranded in the city, the story is an exercise is confusion, dissociation, and a really just a big mystery. In the end, what is truly going on is never revealed, thus leaving the reader with their own interpretations. This is one of the selling points of the book, with William Gibson himself saying that it was “A riddle that was never meant to be solved.” Yeah, I definitely need to read this one!

10. Infinite Jest:
This last novel is more recent, having been released in 1996. Once again, haven’t heard of it, but given its content, praise, and the fact that the author’s low life was cut tragically short, it doesn’t surprise me that its one of those books that everyone feels they must read. But given the length, complexity and the fact that story contains 388 numbered end notes, I can see why they’ve also held back!

The story focuses on the lives of a celebrity family known as the Incandezas, a clear pun on their, shall  we say… luminous fame? The family is deeply involved in tennis, struggles with substance abuse, and in a state of disrepair since the father – a famous film director – committed suicide with a microwave. His last work was apparently a film (entitled “Infinite Jest”, but known throughout the story as “The Entertainment”) which is so entertaining, it causes viewer to lose all interest in everything besides watching the movie.

Clearly meant as a satire on North American culture, particularly celebrity families, entertainment, substance abuse and the sideshow that is celebrity rehab, the story is all about various people’s search for the missing tape of “The Entertainment” and what they plan to do with it. The novel received wide recognition and praise after its publication and became a testament to Wallace’s talent after he committed suicide in 2008.

Okay, that’s four out of ten for me. How did you do? And even if you could say that you’ve read most of the books on this list, or at least the one’s you’ve heard of, I’d say we’ve all come away with a more additions to our reading lists, hmmm? Yeah, I guess its back to Amazon for me!

The Foundation Series

When it comes to science fiction, few authors have achieved the kind of notoriety and prolific ouput of Isaac Asimov. Amongst the greats of classic sci-fi, he considered one of the “Big Three”, along with arry Niven and Arthur C. Clarke. And when it comes to his many novels, short stories, articles and thoughtful essays, two series stand out above all else. The Robot series and, more importantly, the Foundation novels.

Not only did they get the ball rolling on many major sci-fi themes that would come up again and again over the years (such as the concept of a Galactic Empire), they once again brought commercial science fiction into the limelight by showing how hard science could be merged with real history to produce genuinely thought-provoking literature. This is a trend which seems to be necessary once every generation years or so, with Frank Herbert doing it again roughly a decade later. And in his case, much of the inspiration came from Asimov himself.

So in honor of that accomplishment, and to mark the occasion that I finally finished reading the original trilogy, I thought it was high time that I start reviewing the Foundation series, beginning with the book that started it all. So without further ado, here’s Foundation!

Plot Synopsis:
The story opens many thousands of years in the future, where humanity has spread to occupy the entire Galaxy and is governed by the Galactic Empire. For over 12,000 the Empire has stood, and appears to still be stable and powerful. However, a trend of decay has set in and some suspect that it’s only a matter of time before the Empire falls

One such man is Hari Seldon, a scientist who has perfected a form of psychology and mathematics known as psychohistory. Having calculated the exact date and sequence of events which will lead to the collapse of the Empire, he has also created an organization that will be dedicated to ensuring that the dark ages that naturally follow will be as brief as possible – one thousands years instead of the alternate 30,000.

Divided into five parts – each of which was published throughout the 1940’s and together in a single volume in 1951 – the story jumps forward in time from the starting point, 0 F.E. (Foundation Era), to several hundred years in the future. Several protagonists are employed, people who find themselves at the center of events in any given period. Each period involves the emergence of a “Seldon Crisis”, a calamity that was predicted by Seldon’s psychohistory in advance, and the requisite response by the Foundation to resolve it. The first story, which sets up the subsequent stories and crises, is aptly named:

The Psychohistorians: Told from the point of view of Gaal Dornick, a young mathematician who has travelled to the capitol world of Trantor to meet Seldon, the story moves from their introduction to Seldon’s arrest by the Committee of Public Safety. Named after the Revolutionary body that send countless French citizens to their death after the 1789 Revolution, this committee is made up of Imperial aristocrats who are angered by Seldon’s philosophy and want to see him silenced. However, not wanting to martyr him, they instead tell him and his Foundation to pack up and move to Terminus, a world on the edge of the Empire.

The story then concludes with Seldon telling Dornick that he knew this was coming, and that it was actually all part of the plan. By being able to set up the Foundation at the edge of the Empire, it will be in a perfect position to begin enacting its policies once the Empire begins its inevitable slide into decline and loses control of first the periphery, and then the core systems. Thus, the most important lesson about psychohistory is presented for the first time: like a prescient science, it predicts all things and all things happen in accordance with its laws.

The Encyclopedists: Fifty years later on Terminus, the Foundation scholars have begun work on the Encyclopedia Galactica, the complete compendium of scientific knowledge for when the Empire falls. Unfortunately, the Empire is surrounded by four independent kingdoms that are in danger of threatening Terminus. The mayor of the planet, Salvor Hardin, is the protagonist of this story, and believes that the only way to keep their neighbors at bay is to pit them against each other. He perceives an opportunity when the Kingdom of Anacreon, which hopes to place military bases on Terminus, reveals that the four kingdoms no longer have nuclear technology.

Later, Hardin’s own rivalry with the Board of Trustees (the people responsible for the Encyclopedia) come to a head when Seldon’s Vault – a mysterious chamber which opens whenever a “Seldon Crisis” is imminent – opens to deliver a message. According to Seldon’s hologram, the creation of the Encyclopedia was a ruse to hide Terminus’ real importance. The true goal of the Foundation is to further science in a galaxy as it becomes consumed by interplanetary strife. Realizing that they are no longer in control, the Board hands its political power to the Terminus City mayor who graciously accepts.

The Mayors: Beginning in 80 F.E., this story revolves around the Foundation’s efforts to bring technology to the Four Kindgoms. This has the effect of creating a priesthood of sorts in these states, reminiscent of early medieval Europe where Roman priests were dispatched to western European kingdoms to establish centers of learning. Salvor Hardin has been re-elected many times over the course of the decades but faces an impending problem as an “Action Party” threatens to overthrow him. Fearing that Anacreon is slowly overtaking them, they want power so the Foundation will fight back.

On Anacreon, it is also becoming clear that the young King Lepold I faces an internal threat from his uncle, Prince Regent Wienis. Before he can come of age, Wienis plans on seizing power for himself. Central to this plan is using a battleship the Foundation restored for Anacreon to attack and conquer the planet. On the night that Lepold is to be ordained, Wienis invited Hardin into his quarters and shares his plan with him. Hardin reveals that he too has a plan, a counter stroke which will neutralize the battleship and Wienis’ power.

After decades of seeing Foundation scientists as “holy men”, the public is incensed when they learn that Wienis is planning an attack on them. What’s more, all their technology, including the attacking battleship, becomes useless as the only people who know how to run them (the Foundation scientists) begin shutting them down. Wienis loses it and tries to kill Hardin, but his weapons cease working, and he takes his own life.

Upon his return to Terminus, Hardin is vindicated when Seldon’s vault opens to reveal that his plan was right. With this crisis behind them, the Action Party defers to the mayors and their authority is once again validated. In addition, the Four Kingdoms are now free to continue the advance of “Scientism”, which will extend their influence throughout the region and ensure the fulfillment of Seldon’s plan.

The Traders: Events in this section take place 135 F.E., at a time when the Foundation has begun sending out Trade representatives to distant worlds to share their technology with all neighboring planets in the quadrant. Master Trader Eskel Gorov, also an agent of the Foundation government, has traveled to the worlds of Askone to trade in nucleics. Gorov, however, is met with resistance by Askone’s governing Elders who abide by the taboo that certain technologies are morally proscribed.

Enter the protagonist, Trader and Foundation agent Linmar Ponyets, who is sent to Askone’s central planet to negotiate the release of Gorov, who has been arrested. After learning that the Elder’s Grand Master plans to have Gorov executed, Ponyets agrees to offer them a payoff in the form of a transmuter than can turn lead into gold. At the same time, Ponyets finds a willing ally in a young protegee named Councilor Pherl. While initially wary of Ponyets, he is convinced that the transmuter could help him to attain power and eventually become Grand Master himself.

Because of this, Gorov is released and travels back to Foundation space with Ponyets. Gorov is critical of Ponyets dealings, saying that it was unethical, but Ponyets counters with a quote by Hardin, wherein he said “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right!”

The Merchant Princes: This last story, which takes place in 155 F.E., occurs against the backdrop of a powerful Foundation, which has subjugated the neighboring Four Kingdoms and expanded its commercial and technological empire throughout numerous stellar systems. However, it still faces challenges, this time around from a planet named Korell where three Foundation ships have disappeared. Fearing that a “Seldon Crisis” in coming, the Foundation assigns Master Trader Hober Mallow to investigate and determine the Korellian’s level of technology.

At the same time, the people who assign Mallow, Foreign Secretary Publius Manlio and the Mayor’s secretary, Jorane Sutt, foresee an opportunity to weaken the traders by creating an embarrassing diplomatic incident. To oversee their plan, they plant an agent aboard Mallow’s ship to spy on him. When they arrive on Korell, he invites a Foundation missionary on board their ship, a move which causes a mob to surround the ship. Since Foundation agents and technology are not allowed on Korell, this arouses Mallow’s suspicions.

Mallow hands the missionary over to the mob, in spite of the agents intervention, and the missionary dies. Surprisingly, he doesn’t seem too disturbed by this and even earns the chance to meet with Korell’s authoritarian ruler, Commdor Asper Argo, because of it. He appears friendly and welcomes Foundation technological gifts, though he refuses to allow Scientism on Korell. In accordance, Mallow agrees to continue trading with them but agrees to abstain from encouraging missionary work within the Republic of Korell.

Later, Mallow is also given a tour of the planet’s facilities, during which time he notices the presence of atomic technology bearing the emblem of the Empire. He concludes that the Empire is expanding into the periphery again and journeys alone to the planet Siwenna, which he believes may be the capital of an Imperial province. There he finds nothing but a desolate world and an impoverished patrician named Onum Barr, a former provincial senator who tells him how an a local rebellion led the Empire to devastate the planet and kill all but one of his sons.

Convinced there is nothing there to see, Mallow returns to Terminus where he faces trial for murder because of how he turned the missionary over to the Korellian mob. However, he is able to convince the court that the “missionary” was in fact a Korellian secret policeman who played a part in the conspiracy against the Traders manufactured by Sutt and Manlio. Acquitted, Mallow is received with delight by the population of Terminus, which will almost undoubtedly select him as Mayor in the elections scheduled to take place in the following year.

To prepare for the election, Mallow engineers the arrest of Sutt and Manlio, and eventually takes office. However, he is soon faced with tensions between the Foundation and Korell, which declares war on the Foundation, using its powerful Imperial flotilla to attack Foundation ships. Instead of counterattacking, Mallow takes no action, knowing that Korell has become accustomed to trade with the Foundation and the lack of said trade will cause deprivation and anger towards the government. In time, this will cause Korell’s war efforts to grind to a halt and the end of hostilities.

Thus ends book I of the foundation series, with the Foundation ascendent in a Galaxy that is becoming increasingly permeated by chaos and Seldon’s plan in effect on well underway.

Good Points:
As I said, this novel (if you’ll excuse the pun) really wrote the book on Galactic Empires and historically/socially relevant sci-fi. Inspired largely by Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it advances the notion that all civilizations are basically organism, subject to the same laws as all living things. And like all organisms, they enjoy a period of growth, maturation, and then decline, culminating in their death. When that happens, their absence leaves a natural power vacuum characterized by chaos, strife, and a marked decline in all things “civilized” – aka. the arts, the sciences, learning, etc.

By taking a page from history, namely the attempts to preserve classical knowledge throughout the Middle Ages (which culminated in a rebirth of learning in the Renaissance) Asimov creates a fictional repeat of history in the distant future whereby the efforts of the preservers were enhanced with the help of foresight and a coordinated plan. Had such factors existed in the wake of Rome’s fall, it is entirely possible that the Dark Ages would have lasted for a significantly shorter amount of time.

On top of that, this book was is also very accessible and readable, in spite of the fact that it throws some rather deep scientific and intellectual content at the reader. And the way the stories are succinct, concise, and tie together so effectively makes for a read which is easy on top of it all. For an accomplished reader, it can be read in one sitting. I am hardly a speed reader, but even I found it a quick study.

Bad Points:
Conversely, some of the books selling points are also potential weaknesses. For one, its accessibility can be seen as a mark of simplicity. For example, the book is all about a science that deals with the masses, of how historical events are determined by the actions of billions, trillions and even quadrillions of people. And yet, in every story, everything seems to hinge on the actions of one person, the protagonist, and a few others.This seems a little contradictory, and intentional since it provides quick resolution to the plot.

Herein lies another weakness, which is that of contrivance. Many times throughout the novel, the way the characters tend to figure things out seems awfully convenient. In every story, you see the mayors, merchants and Foundationists pulling resolutions seemingly out of nowhere, knowing everything they need to in advance or just providing a perfect solution on the spot. Granted, it seems to make sense, but how they know to do this and how it always seems to work out does not seem wholly realistic.

And of course, the explanation is always there in the background, Hari Seldon predicted it using psychohistory and these people know that science so they are therefore prepared where others are not. This sort of advances a notion that the science itself is infallible, that human minds really can be reduced to mathematical formulae which is water-tight. If anything, I would say that predicting the behavior of billions gets more unpredictable the farther afield one looks, and that no science can ever be capable of predicting it with certainty. And we all know what became of those philosophies that tried – aka. Marxism, Hegelianism, and many other isms besides!

But of course, the concept of psychohistory is entirely fictitious and was really just a tentative argument that Asimov advanced, and for the sake of a fictional story no less. In order to make the story work, he had to create a universe in which a form of prescient foresight, made possible through the application of rigorous mathematics and psychology, was possible and accurate. In short, its just food for thought, not something to be taken seriously. And of course, Asimov did show that he was willing to break from this notion with the second book in the series, Foundation and Empire, where the “Plan” began to falter due to external, unaccounted factors.

So in the end, I have to recommend Foundation as required reading, not just for science fiction fans but for all people curious as to how many trends we’ve come to associate with speculative and satirical literature (including dystopian lit) got started. Granted, there were those who came before Asimov who made use of such themes and classical inspirations, but he was the one who brought such things into the public eye like few before him. And as a result, he would go on to have an immeasurable influence on those who followed in his wake.

Up next, Foundation and Empire, part two of the original trilogy, before fans and publishers practically forced him to write many, many more books in the series. Stay tuned!

Cool Ships (volume XI)

Armageddon:
armageddonBack once more to the Eve universe, thank you Mr. Zidar for suggesting it in the first place! Here we have the Armageddon Battleship, the main heavy warship of the Amarr Empire. Packing a lot of firepower into its long, heavy frame, command of one of these is considered the greatest honor an Amarrian Captain can acheive within the Empire.

In terms of armaments, the Armageddon is studded with heavy turret batteries. Its forward section is also heavily reinforced, giving it the ability to ram into enemy ships while pulverizing them with weapon’s fire. It is also heavily shielded in addition to its armor, making it virtually impregnable to all but the most heavily armed cruisers.

Battle Galaxy Carrier:
battlegalaxy-carrierMuch like the SDF-1 from the Macross universe, the Galaxy Carrier is massive transforming ship that comes in two modes. In carrier mode, it is a massive ship that is capable of space flight and sea faring. In its battle mode, it takes the form of a massive mecha which is capable of kicking some very serious ass!

Build in the early-mid 21st century by the New United Nations government, its primary purpose was to act as a colonization vessel for the Macross fleet. And unlike previous colonization vessels, it boasted many new technologies – such as cybernetics and implants – which were meant to continually evolve as the ship traveled through space. On top of all that, it possesses cutting edge stealth technologies that make it capable of slipping past Zentraedi forces and blockades.

battlegalaxy-attackIn terms of armaments, the Battle Galaxy lives up to its name! In addition to an advanced Gunship Type Macross Cannon, which converts into its main firearm when in battle mode, it also has 12 heavy beam cannons (also available in battle mode), multiple phalanx beam cannons and missile launchers, and a compliment short range micro-missile batteries for point-defense.

Firstborn Monolith:
monolithIt would be an understatement to call this one a classic. Taken from the Arthur C. Clarke novel and the movie of the same name, the Monolith was the mysterious aliens means of transport in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Known as the Firstborn, this race was basically the first species to achieve sentience in the galaxy, making them many millions of years old. After eons of evolution and space exploration, these beings had basically evolved to the point where they were no longer flesh and blood.

So really, these monoliths were not so much ships as chariots to carry their uploaded consciousness to the stars. Composed of unknown material and impenetrable to everything from scanners to nuclear detonators, they were a mystery to humanity of the 21st century. It also didn’t help that the only man get within spitting distance of an operational one disappeared, his last words being “My God, it’s full of stars!”

GTF Ulysses:
gtf_UlyssesThis ship, taken once again from the Freespace gaming universe, was one of the fastest and most maneuverable ships in the known universe. A collaborative effort between Terran and Vasudan scientists, it possessed the best design features and technologies they could muster. The Ulysses was designed for service in the Great War, but because of its assets, it saw service with GTVA forces long after the Lucifer was destroyed and the last of the Shivans routed.

In terms of armaments, it was lightly armed compared to other fighters, with four gun mounts, but only two ordinance bays. In the end, its greatest assets were its speed and maneuverability which made it highly effective against faster Shivan ships. In a dog fight, few things could catch it, or get around fast enough to hit it!

Inhibitor Square:
black_cube_world-1024x768These are the mysterious, dark and malevolent machines from the Revelation Space universe. Also known as “The Wolves”, they are a semi-sentient race of machinery that is designed to locate sentient star-faring cultures and exterminate them. However, the Inhibitors didn’t do this using lasers or photon weapons.

Much like the Firstborn from Clarke’s Space Odyssey series, they relied on a series of natural processes. The only real difference was they did it for destruction purposes. For example, when they became alerted to the presence of humanity on Resurgam, they chose to disassemble the planet’s gas giant bit by bit in order to create a massive trumpet like device in space. This was basically a gravitational weapon which they began using to shake the system’s sun to pieces.

Megathron:
megathronAnother Eve warship, the Megathron is the battleship of choice for the Gallente faction. It accelerates quickly, has a high armor capacity, and is very versatile due to its seven turret slots and two launcher hardpoints. This last feature is rare in Gallente ships, which tend to focus on energy weapons.

Because of its many weapons slots, the Megathron can be adapted to long range fire, known as the “Sniperthron”. This vessel is capable of engaging enemies at a distance of 150 km, but leaves it vulnerable to close range attacks and strips of the ability to heal. Another common build is the “Blasterthron” where the weapons of choice or short-range blasters, making it one of the toughest battleships around.

NTF Iceni:
ntf_iceniOnce more onto the Freespace franchise, dear friends. Here we have the one-of-kind prototype vessel known as the Iceni, the brainchild of the Neo-Terran Federation’s commander, Admiral Aken Bosch. Designed to be a command ship and mobile research platform, the Iceni was also a highly capable attack vessel, boasting mutiple turrets, beam mounts and missile batteries.

As part of project ETAK, the Iceni was the only vessel capable of communicating with the Shivans. After being mistaken for a command facility in an asteroid belt, Bosch was forced to deploy this ship prematurely. After shedding it’s housing asteroid, it set course for Gamma Draconis, where it used an Ancient jump gate to flee into unknown space. After making contact with the Shivans, the ship was boarded and most of the crew killed. Once the survivors were rescued, the ship engaged its self-destruct sequence and was lost.

In addition to being faster and more maneuverable than most ships its size, the Iceni also packed as much firepower as a Deimos-class frigate. These included 3 large beam emitters, 7 heavy turrets, 9 defenses turrets, 2 flak batteries, and 4 defensive missile batters. As such, it was capable of standing toe-to-toe with any comparable ship in the Terran or Vasudan armadas, and outrunning anything larger.

Prometheus:
prometheus_shipJust to be clear, I haven’t seen the movie… yet! I wanted to, but I dragged into seeing another film last night which also rocked (see below)! Luckily, I have seen enough trailers and promotional videos to know a few things about the eponymously named vessel. So here she is, just one day (finger crossed) before I see her on the silver screen! As an exploration vessel, the USCSS Prometheus was a designed for deep-space expeditions to alien worlds.

As a full-service space taxi, it was designed for both atmospheric and space flight and could therefore forgo the need for landing pods and shuttles. This was all made possible thanks to its reinforced hull, four multi-vector thrusters that allowed for verticle take off and landing, and an observation deck that allowed the crew a panoramic view of space and whatever landscapes they were surveying. During takeoff and atmospheric entry, these are enclosed by a series of protective shields.

Prometheus_ship_rearOn top of all that, it was packed with amenities for its crew. These included a large bay for heavy equipment and expedition vehicles, a full-service mess hall, a medical bay, recreational facilities, a built-in basketball court, long-range communications systems, crew quarters, cryogenic chambers, and holographic display windows. And of course, the ship’s own laboratory which served as its main research center. No doubt about it, ships like this, courtesy of the Weyland Corporation, ensured that crews could travel in style and comfort before being horribly killed by extra-terrestrials!

Special Mention: The Avenger Helicarrier!
Yes, I managed to get out last night to the movie theater. But instead of catching Prometheus as I originally hoped, I was coaxed into seeing the Avengers instead. It-was-awesome! Tons of cool action, a respectable, multi-layered plot, and lots and lots of cool shit! Kudos to Joss Whedon, I think he just became my hero!

And one of the things I liked best about this movie was S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own big-ass helicarrier! When they hinted that it was both a carrier and a sub, I was like “Whoaaaa! Like something out of Robotech!” But then, out came those massive turbofans and it took off! I just sat and stared for several, sustained minutes. My wife laughed at me. At that point, I said, “Okay, maybe you were right to want to see this.”

Anyhoo, much like something out of Robotech, this carrier was a massive machine that came in two modes. In its standard mode, it was your basic aircraft carrier similar in appearance to a Nimitz-class carrier. In its other mode, it is a freaking hovercraft, where four massive turbofans and two sets of jet engine clusters allow it to fly! It also has a comprehensive camouflage system where a series of reflector panels obscure it from sight, similar to adaptive camouflage.

And of course, as an aircraft carrier, it also has the usual amenities, which include several squadrons of F-22 and F-35 fighters and quinjets. And though armament didn’t come up in the movie, we can also assume that it has a full compliment of Phalanx point-defense cannons and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. But knowing S.H.I.E.L.D., I’m sure the list doesn’t end there. Most likely, they also got some cool stuff like an EMP, some rail guns, or laser devices in there too!

More Utopian Science Fiction

Boy this is fun, and like I said last time, overdue! For fans of literature and science fiction in particular, you really can’t do justice to a genre unless you examine its opposite as well. Not only is it fun and interesting, it kind of opens your eyes to the fact that we find a certain truth in the pairing of opposites.

For one, you come to see that they really aren’t that different. And two, that they essentially come from the same place. Much like light and dark, black and white, heaven and hell, extremes have more in common with each other than anything occupying the space between them. Is that quote? If not, it is now! MINE!

Last time, I buckled down to tackle the big names, the famous classics. Today, I thought I’d cast the net a little wider since there are a ton I missed and there really is no shortage of examples. Here’s what I got so far:

3001: The Final Odyssey:
The final book in Clarke’s Odyssey series, 3001 not only provided a sense of culmination to this epic story, but also gave Clarke the opportunity to share his predictions on where humanity would be by the 31st century. Released in 1997, it also contained a great deal of speculation about the coming millennium and what the 21st century would look like.

The story begins when, just shy of the millennial celebrations, the body of Frank Poole is discovered at the edge of the solar system. This astronaut, who died in the first novel, had been floating at the far edge of the solar system for almost a thousand years. His body is resurrected using the latest technology, and his reintroduction to society is the vehicle through which things are told.

As a fish out of water, Poole is made privy to all the changes that have taken place in the last 1000 years. Humanity now lives throughout the solar system, Earth and most planets are orbited by massive rings that connect to Earth through huge towers. Sectarian religion has been abandoned in favor of a new, universal faith, and the problems of overpopulation, pollution and war have all been solved.

Amongst humanity’s technological marvels are inertia drives on their ships (no FTL exists), a form of holodeck, genetically engineered work creatures, skull caps that transmit info directly into a person’s brain, data crystals, and of course the massive space habitation modules. Though the story was meant to be predictive for the most part, one cannot deny that this book contained utopian elements. Essentially, Clarke advanced his usual futurist outlook, in which humanity’s problems would be solved through the ongoing application of technology and progress.

Though I found it somewhat naive at the time of reading, it was nevertheless an interesting romp, especially where the predictive aspects came into play. And it also contained one of the best lines I’ve ever read, a New Years toast for the 21st century which I quoted on midnight on Dec. 31st, 1999: “Here’s to the 20th century. The best, and worst, century of them all!”

Brave New World:
I  know, BNW is listed as one of the quintessential dystopian novels of our time, and I even listed as such on my list of dystopian classics. However, one cannot deny that this book also contained very strong utopian elements and themes, and it was how these failed to remedy the problem of being human that ultimately made BNW a dystopia.

Set in the year 2540 CE (or 632 A.F. in the book), the World State is very much the product of utopian engineering. Literally all aspects of social control, which are largely benign, are designed to ensure that all people are born and bred to serve a specific role, cannot aspire beyond it, and are emotionally and psychologically insulated against unhappiness.

In short, people have exchanged their freedom for the sake of peace, order, and predictability. In fact, these ideals are pretty much summed up with the States motto: “Community, Identity, Stability.” Another indication is the popular slogan, “everyone belongs to everyone else”. And finally, the orgy porgy song provides some insight as well: “Orgy-porgy, Ford and fun, Kiss the girls and make them One. Boys at one with
girls at peace; Orgy-porgy gives release.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. The goal of creating oneness and sameness to prevent things like greed, jealousy, war, and strife, is a constant theme in utopian literature, elevated to the form of high art in Huxley’s vision. And above all, the dream of a perfectly regulated, peaceful society, where individuality and difference have been purged, was accomplished through pleasure and not pain. This can best be summed up in an exerpt from Huxley’s letter to Orwell after 1984 was released:

“Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World.”

I, Robot:
In the course of examining utopian literature, a term came up with made me stop and think… Robotocracy. Hence this next example which also contains some rather interesting utopian elements. As one of Asimov’s most recognized works, this collection of interlinked short stories tells of a future where intelligent robots make their debut and gradually become more and more integrated to society.

Ultimately, Asimov portrays AI’s as loyal and gentle creatures who not only improve the lot of humanity, but are incapable of harming their human masters. Whereas most speculative works of fiction dealing with AI’s are cautionary in nature, showing how entrusting our fate to machines will result in death, in this story, all of humanity’s fears prove baseless.

In time, the employment of robots and positronic master computers leads to the development of FTL, optimizes the world’s economy and production, and even prevents problems and conflicts which they can foresee. Human beings express reservation and fear, but in the end, the robotocracy proves to be sensible and caring, not cold and inhuman.

It was for this reason that I didn’t care for the film adaptation. Not only would a repressive, world-domination plan contradict the first and most important of the Three Laws (a robot may not harm, or through inaction, allow to be harmed, a human), it really didn’t contain any inherent logic. How would putting humans under house arrest ultimately ensure their protection? With all humans deprived of their most basic rights, revolution would be inevitable, leading to more death. Ah, whatever. At least the book was good.

Island:
Also written by Aldous Huxley, this novel (published in 1962) represented a possible resolution to the central problem he raised in Brave New World. Essentially, the protagonist of John the Savage committed suicide at the end because he could not reconcile himself to either world, one characterized by primitive freedom and the other by civilized sterility.

In the foreword section of the 1946 edition, Huxley expressed regret over the fact that he could not have given John a third option, which could have taken the form of the various exile communities where the thinking people who didn’t fit in with the “civilization” of the World State were sent.

Hence the setting of Island, a utopia created on the fictional island of Pala. Told from the point of view of a cynical journalist named Will Farnaby who gets shipwrecked on the island, the story was Huxley’s final book and a message to humanity about possible third options and the positive application of technology and knowledge.

As Huxley decribed it beforehand: “In this community economics would be decentralist and Henry-Georgian, politics Kropotkinesque co-operative. Science and technology would be used as though, like the Sabbath, they had been made for man, not (as at present and still more so in the Brave New World) as though man were to be adapted and enslaved to them. This last sentence is especially important in reference to Island. Here, drug use, trance states, contraception, assisted reproduction and slogans are all used voluntarily and serve the purposes of learning and social betterment. They are not employed as a means to pacify and control people.

What’s more, from a social perspective, Huxley characterized Pala’s prevailing philosophy as:  “a kind of Higher Utilitarianism, in which the Greatest Happiness principle would be secondary to the Final End principle – the first question to be asked and answered in every contingency of life being: “How will this thought or action contribute to, or interfere with, the achievement, by me and the greatest possible number of other individuals, of man’s Final End?”

The Culture Series:
Created by sci-fi author Ian M. Banks, “The Culture” refers to the fictional interstellar anarchist, socialist, and utopian society that characterizes his novels. Encompassing ten novels – beginning with Consider Phlebas (1987) and concluding with The Hydrogen Sonata (slated for release in October 2012), Banks paints the picture of a universe where humanity has created a peaceful, stable and abundant society through the application of technology.

Told predominantly from the point of view of those who operate at the fringes of The Culture, the stories focus on the interactions of these utopian humans with other civilizations. Much in the same way as Star Trek follows the adventure of the Enterprise crew as they deal with alien cultures, often ones which are less developed or evolved, this provides a vehicle for examining humanity’s current predicament and providing possible solutions.

Overall, The Society is best characterized as post-scarcity, where advanced technologies provide practically limitless material wealth and comfort, where almost all physical constraints – including disease and death – have been eliminated, and the concept of possessions are outmoded. Through all of this, an almost totally  egalitarian, stable society has been created where compulsion or force are not needed, except as a means of self-defense.

At times however, The Culture has been known to interfere with other civilizations as a means of spreading their culture and affecting change in their neighbors. This has often been criticized as an endorsement of neo-conservatism and ethnocentrism on Banks part. However, Banks has denied such claims and many of his defenders claim that The Culture’s moral legitimacy is far beyond anything the West currently enjoys. Others would point out that this potential “dark side” the The Culture is meant to reflect the paradox of liberal societies at home and their behavior in foreign affairs.

The Mars Trilogy:
This ground-breaking trilogy by Kim Stanley Robertson about the colonization and terraforming of Mars is also a fine example of utopia in literature. taking place in the not-too-distant future, the trilogy begins with the settlement of the planet in Red Mars and then follows the exploits of the colonists as they begin transforming from a barren rock to a veritable second Earth.

Even though there are numerous dark elements to the story, including civil strife, internal divisions, exploitation and even assassination, the utopian elements far outweigh the dystopian ones. Ultimately, the focus is on the emergence of a highly advanced, egalitarian society on Mars while Earth continues to suffer from the problems of overpopulation, pollution and ecological disaster.

In addition, the colony of Mars benefits from the fact that its original inhabitants, though by no means all mentally stable and benevolent people, were nevertheless some of the best and brightest minds Earth had produced. As a result, and with the help of longevity treatments, Mars had the benefit of being run by some truly dedicated and enlightened founders. What’s more, their descendents would grow up in a world where stability, hard work, and a respect for science, technology and ecology were pervasive.

All of this reflects Robertson’s multifaceted approach to story writing, where social aspirations and problems are just as important as the technological and economic aspects of settling a new world. Much like the conquest and settlement of the New World gave rise to various utopian ideals and social experiments, he speculates that the settlement of new planets will result in the same. Technology still plays an important role of course, as the colonists of Mars have the benefit of taking advantage of scientific advancements while simultaneously avoiding the baggage of life on Earth. In the end, there’s just something to be said about a fresh start isn’t there?

The Night’s Dawn Trilogy:
Written by British author Peter F. Hamilton, The Night’s Dawn Trilogy consists of three science fiction novels: The Reality Dysfunction (1996), The Neutronium Alchemist (1997), and The Naked God (1999). Much like Robertson’s depiction of humanity in the Mars Trilogy, Hamilton explores humanity’s dark side at length, and yet the tone of his novels are predominantly optimistic.

Set in a distant 27th century, humanity has become divided between two major factions. On the one side there are the Edenists, an egalitarian, utopian society who employ biotech (“biteck” in their lingo) to create living, sentient space stations as well as machines. The use of “Affinity” – a form of telepathy – allows them to communicate with each other and their biteck, creating a sort of mass mentality which encompasses entire communities. Thiee Edenic government is what is known as the “Consensus”, a form of direct democracy that is made possible by telepathic link.

On the one side their are the Adamists, the larger of the two where human beings live with a limited religious proscription against technology. Biteck is forbidden, but nanotechnology, FTL and other advanced applications are freely used. Because the Adamists encompass anyone not in the Edenic camp, they are larger, but far less organized and cohesive than their counterparts.

Through all this, Hamilton attempts to show  how the application of technology and the merger between biological and artificial can create the kind of society envisioned by men like Thomas More, characterized by participatory government, collective mentality, and a consensus-oriented decision-making process. While both the Edenic and Adamist societies are still pervaded by problems, not the least of which is competition between the two, the ideals of betterment through technological progress are nevertheless predominant.

Revelation Space Series:
Another series which examines the beneficial aspects of technology, particularly where governance and equality are concerned, is the Revelation Space Trilogy by Alastair Reynolds. Comprised of the five novels Revelation Space (2000), Chasm City (2001), Redemption Ark (2002), Absolution Gap (2003) and The Prefect (2007).

Taking place in the distant future (circa. 2427 to 2727), the story revolves around a series of worlds that have been settled by several different factions of humanity. The two largest factions are known as the Demarchists and the Conjoiners, both of whom have employed advanced technology to create their own versions of an ideal society.

Though much of the books are dark in tone due to the discovery of a terrible nanotechnological virus (the “Melding Plague”) and the discovery of hostile ancient aliens (the “Inhibitors”), the series still does have some discernible utopian elements. For starters, the Demarchists take their name from the concept of “Democratic Anarchy”, and employ cybernetic implants, nanotech and wireless communications to achieve this.

Within the Demarchist metropolis of Chasm City, all citizens are permanently wired into a central server which allows them permanent access to news, updates, and the decision-making process. As a result, Demarchist society is virtually egalitarian and marks of social status, such as ranks and titles, do not exist. This changed with the spread of the Melding Plague however, causing the city’s structures to degenerate into a gothic nightmare and the class divide to become very visible.

Another important faction are the Conjoiners. These people, who were originally inhabitants with the Great Wall of Mars (above left picture), but who became a star-faring people after the war with the “Coalition for Neural Purity” drove them off Mars. To these people, cybernetic implants were taken a step further, giving every Conjoined person the ability to telepathically link with others, preserve their memories beyond death, prolong their life, and enhance their natural thinking process.

Thus, much like Hamilton and Banks, Reynolds speculates that the advent of nanotech, biotech, and space travel will result in the emergence of societies that are predominantly egalitarian, peaceful, and dedicated to consensus and direct democracy. I personally found these stories quite inspiring since it seems that in many ways, we are already witnessing the birth of such possibilities in the here and now.

Yep, this is still fun, if somewhat tiring and conducive to burnout! I think I’ll be taking a break from these literary-criticism pieces for a day or two, maybe getting back to pieces on robots and cool gear. However, in keeping with the format I used for dystopia, I still have one more utopian article left to cover. Look for it, it will be called “Utopia in Popular Culture!” See ya there…

Utopian Science Fiction

Imminent Utopia by Kuksi

Welcome back my friends! A funny thing happened just this morning. I was looking at an old article –  titled Dystopian Science Fiction – and realized that something was missing. Yes, this is the article that earned me most of my current followers and the bulk of my traffic on this site, but I quickly came to the conclusion that there was a hidden voice in that little study that never got a chance to have its say.

Basically, when I was looking into dystopian literature, I realized that it and utopian literature are almost the same thing. You might say that they represent two sides of the same coin, not so much opposites as interchangeable facets where one can become the other with a simple turn of the wheel. So I asked myself, why then haven’t I compiled a list of the most popular Utopian literature to go along with my dystopian one? Having read Thomas More’s seminal book that started it all, I’m nothing if not incredibly fascinating by the subject. And anyone who knows me knows that I’m a nerd for research and can’t resist sharing what I find.

So why the hell haven’t I done this yet?! Don’t know, probably got swept away with all those posts about robots, ships, and guns. In any case, it’s a mistake I rectify here and now. Using the same format as my article on dystopian sci-fi, I’ve come up with a tentative list of the greatest forerunners, classics, and modern examples of utopia in literature. The list is by no means complete, but I feel it is a faithful sampling. You be the judge, here goes:

Earliest Examples:
The first acknowledged examples of utopian literature come to us from classical antiquity, when scholars reached beyond the old strictures of writing about dynastic struggle, great wars and the foundations of their empires to tackle issues such as justice, morality, and the driving forces of history. By asking these questions, and offering up possible explanations, they were to have an immeasurable effect on subsequent generations of intellectuals, statesmen and social reformers.

The Republic:
Written around 380 BCE by Plato, this is perhaps the oldest example of utopian literature. Written as an account of one of Socrates many dialogues, the chief purpose of this book was in finding the true definition of justice and what it takes to achieve a just city-state and a just man. As Plato’s best known work, it is also one of the most influential philosophical and intellectual texts in the history of western society and maybe even the world.

Made up of ten books, the account follows Socrates and his Athenian and foreign guests as they discuss various topics. Amongst them are whether or not the “just man” is happier than the “unjust man”, the theory of forms and universality, the nature of the soul, the role of the philosopher in society, and finally, what the different types of government are and what makes them just/unjust.

From Plato’s account, Socrates and his peers proposed that philosophers are the ideal statesmen and that justice can best be summed up by considering the common good rather than common sense definitions having to do with personal justice. In addition, the allegory of the cave – how we are all essentially prisoners and merely going by projections of truth rather than truth itself – was advanced. And finally, they listed the four predominant forms of government (timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny) and how they tended to devolve into each other.

Ultimately, the value of this work was in how it showed the connection between political cause and effect, and how it sought to create guidelines for good governance. It’s identification of the four major types of government has been used over and over in the history of political discourse and even became the basis of modern political sciences. And because of its focus on things like the common good and the idea of philosopher statesmen, it was also to have a profound influence on later generations of scholars, particularly Sir Thomas More, Thomas Hobbes and Karl Marx.

The City of God:
Written by St. Augustine of Hippo in the early 5th century CE, The City of God is considered one of the most important texts in the history of Christianity. Written after the Visigoth sack of Rome, the text was intended as much as a consolation to Christians as it was a discourse on theological matters. Basically, Augustine claimed that though the city of Rome had fallen, the City of God, the “eternal Jerusalem” still stood strong and would endure.

Essentially, Augustine advanced a perception of history in this book that was characterized by a dialectical process, or a conflict between opposites. On the one hand, there was the City of Man, characterized by earthly pleasures and decadence, and the City of God, dedicated to eternal truth. The conflict, he claimed, would end with victory for the latter, where people would throw off the bonds of an earthly paradise in favor of a spiritual one.

Thought it did not concern itself with matters of practical governance or how an ideal state could be created in the here and now, Augustine’s treatise was to have a profound effect on the fields of theology and philosophy. Basically, his idea of a city where spiritual purity could be attained became the basis for a theocratic state, while his theory on the dialectical process of history would go on to inspire men like W.F. Hegel and (again) Karl Marx.

Tao Hua Yuan:
Otherwise known as “The Tale of the Peach Blossom Spring”, this book is considered the quintessential utopian book by Chinese scholars and historians. Written in 421 CE by Tao Yuanming, it is an epic poem of how a traveler accidentally discovers an ethereal paradise where people live an idyllic existence, unaware of the world outside their walls.

Written after the collapse of the Han Dynasty, a period marked by civil war and unrest, this poem tells the tale of how a fisherman sailed up a river that was entirely surrounded by blossoming peach trees. At the end of the river, he finds a village where the people, thought surprised to see him, welcome him and treat him as one of their own. He quickly realizes that the community is an idyllic one, where people live in harmony with nature and one another.

In time, he learns from the villagers that this place was established by their ancestors during the last civil war when the Qin Dynasty was conquering all of China. Since that time, they have been cut off from the outside world and know nothing of its political shifts and wars. Upon leaving, he is told that it would be pointless to recount his discovery of the village to others. He nevertheless makes a note of the village on his map, but when he tells others of it, their attempts to locate it prove unsuccessful.

In essence, the poem suggest that this place, the idyllic village, was otherworldly, and the man’s voyage up the river was in fact a voyage into the afterlife. It also advances the idea that it is only in being cut off from the outside world that an earthly paradise can exist, and those that leave it will never be able to return. This idea was to have a profound influence on Chinese and Asian culture, no doubt inspiring such myths as that of Shangri-La. In addition, the Chinese expression shìwaì taóyuán, which refers to a remote paradise – and literally means ‘the Peach Spring beyond this world’ – has its roots in this poem.

The Classics:
By the time of the Renaissance (14th/15th century CE), Europeans began to have a renewed interest in classical learning. At first, this consisted of merely adapting and translating previously lost texts from ancient Greek and Arabic to Latin and other European languages. However, by the time of the Enlightenment (18th century CE), European scholars were adapting and expounding on classical ideas, bringing them forward into the modern age with new speculations and examples on how a perfect society could be created, or whether or not one was even possible. It was also the age that the term Utopia began to be used popularly.

Utopia:
Ah yes, the man who gave it a name! Sir Thomas More, otherwise known as Saint Thomas More, was a Renaissance humanist and THE man who brought the word Utopia into modern usage. Written in 1516 CE, his seminal study on the perfect society has influenced all subsequent generations of social critics, employing social criticism, history and of course, delicious irony to make a series of points about the ideal society and whether or not it can even exist.

The story is told (much like Plato’s Republic) as a dialogue between the author and a fictitious man named Raphael Hythloday, a world traveler and tradesman. In the course of recounting his tales of all the places he’s seen he brings up one in particular place, the island nation of Utopia, which he hails as the best of all possible societies. As the story goes on, he details exactly what it is that makes it an ideal place, and by comparison, all others flawed.

To break it down succinctly, the Utopians do not value gold and silver because they long ago discovered that there worth is merely an extension of their rarity. Instead, they choose to value iron and bronze as precious and keep jewels, gold and silver in reserve in case they need to bribe foreign princes or armies. In addition, their economic activity is based on an egalitarian principle, where all people rotate from one service to another so that no sense of class hierarchy ever becomes permanent.

What’s more, when it comes to education, the Utopian have made it manifest that all people be taught to read and educated on basic matters of logic, philosophy, numeracy, etc. This is to prevent the creation of a philosopher caste which is concerned solely with matters of thought while others toil away and provide for them. Much like with their policy or rotating labor, it is customary that all people divest themselves from their tasks every now and then to pursue matters of art, science and other intellectual pursuits.

map of Utopia

And of course, politics, property ownership, and all other forms of activity on Utopia are considered communal. There is no such thing as private property, rule is exercised by council and not by kings and a court, and membership in this council is rotational, popular and considered a civic duty. In short, Utopia is an ideal society because rule by the few, greed and ownership are all forbidden. And though there are few laws to speak of, all of these practices are contained within a strict code of conduct which was passed down by the island’s founder, King Utopus.

And last, but certainly not least, is the issue of religious tolerance. Written during the time of the Reformation Wars, More claimed that in this ideal society, no one’s faith was ever held against them. Provided they believed in a higher power, no discrimination or persecution were allowed under the law. However, there was one exception, which applied to atheists (!). Essentially, it stated that anyone who did not believe in the hereafter, where they would be answerable for their sins, would be allowed to hold public office.

In the end, Hythloday claimed that there was no reason why other nations could not adopt these same principles which benefited the nation of Utopia so. The only reason, he claimed, was because all other nations of his day were “conspiracies of the rich” where enlightened reform is avoided because of greed, vanity and pride. Ultimately, More chooses to disagree with this fictitious character on numerous points as a way of distancing himself from the critique.

In addition, there are several ironic points which seem to indicate that he was also questioning whether or not such a place could even exist. The name Utopia for one translates from Latin to mean “No Place”. In addition, many of the customs he describes sound less than ideal and would seem to suggest that the only way to create a perfect society is to force people to comply with strict rules, which in turn can create its own problems. In the end, it was not clear if More was saying that such a place does not exist, could exist, or will never exist. All that is clear is the influence it had, once again by expounding on the virtues of collectivization, popular sovereignty and the removal of class distinction.

Gulliver’s Travels:
Though I included this novel in my previous list as an example of dystopian fiction, there are many elements of Gulliver’s Travels that fit into the category of utopia as well. For example, between every voyage Gulliver undertakes which brings him to a land that parodies some aspect of English and European society, there is a corresponding trip to a comparatively idyllic place.

After traveling to the land of the Lilliputians, a land of moral midgets who’s size matches their outlook, he travels to the land of Brobdingnagians where the same rule applies, only in reverse. Whereas he was denounced by the Lilliputians for not helping them to subjugate their neighbors, to the Brobdingnagians he was considered a novelty and his own moral outlook was received with horror.

In addition, after traveling to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan, all of which are seen to be inherently flawed in some respect, he travels to the land of the Houyhnhnms. These horse people, who boast rational capacities that put humanity to shame, are seen as the perfection of nature whereas humans are seen as brutish. What’s more, Gulliver’s time amongst them makes him inherently sympathetic to them, but in the end they deny him the right to live amongst them since they see him as a danger to their civilization.

Ultimately, Swift did not give any details as to how the morally upright societies which stood in contrast to his parodies achieved their current state. But by including them in his story, he was employing a decidedly utopian tactic – using a fictitious, ideal society to point out the flaws in an existing one.

Erewhon:
Also known as “Over the Range”, this novel by Samuel Butler is renowned as a prime example of utopian literature (though there are some dystopian elements as well). Published in 1872, the bulk of the story is an account of the fictional nation named Erewhon which is located within the mountains of New Zealand. Often compared to Gulliver’s Travels and Letters from Nowhere (1890) the tale is about a seemingly perfect society which proves to be less than all that.

In describing Erewhon, Butler paints the picture of an idyllic society where people live close to the land. There is also no machinery because the people of Erewhon fear that it will someday become intelligent and supplant them – a rather unique take on Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection.

However, in time, the author notes several odd customs in this land involving their justice system, religion and system of coinage. For example, criminals are treated as invalids in their society, whereas invalids are treated as criminals. In addition, religious institutions offer their own coinage and act like banks, but are immune to charges of counterfeiting because they are religious institutions. These practices were meant to satirize certain aspects of Victorian society at the time, including its religious hypocrisy, intolerance and anthropocentricism.

Clearly inspired by other utopian writers, Butler even went as far as to borrow a page from More who was also ironic with his choice of title. The name Erewhon, an anagram for “Nowhere”, makes the deliberate point that this society is fictitious, and therefore its better elements are not to be found anywhere. Though by no means a dystopian story, it is nevertheless a poignant allegory for the British Empire during the time of writing, an empire that for all intents and purposes did not live up to its own ideals.

Modern Examples:
Though by no means as popular as dystopian literature, utopian novels were still a very common feature in the 20th century. And like dystopian lit, it was used repeatedly by authors to mock and satirize the world of their day. By showing a society that had overcome mankind’s traditional flaws, some sought to demonstrate how society could be bettered. Others, however, liked to juxtapose the belief in a perfect society with the reality of an imperfect one, as a way of demonstrating how the quest was noble but was sure to encounter problems.

Men Like Gods:
Published in 1923, this work of science fiction by the venerable H.G. Wells explores an parallel universe where human beings live in a world without government.  Much like the time machine, the book contains equal parts speculative science and social commentary, involving a world in the future that parodied his own.

Taking place during the summer of 1921, the story opens with a cynical English journalist named Barnstaple who is mysteriously transported through time to an alternate world named (interestingly enough) Utopia. Essentially an advanced Earth, Utopia is three thousand years ahead of humanity, where people live in a perfectly realized anarchy, no government or sectarian religion exist, and scientific research flourishes.

All Utopians live by the “Five Principles of Liberty”: privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion and criticism. After a month of staying amongst the Utopians, Barnstaple asks if he can stay amongst them but is refused. According to the people of this world, the best thing for this journalist is to return to his world. This he does, renewed of vigor and committed to the “Great Revolution that is afoot on Earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein.”

This was not a political revolution, in Well’s eyes, but rather the march of progress which he felt was already very much at work in society. In essence, such a revolution that was guaranteed by scientific and rational progress, he surmised, would one day wipe away all the current problems of the world. Namely, petty nationalism, sectarian turmoil, and irrational fear.

Childhood’s End:
Released in 1953, this story is perhaps Arthur C. Clarke’s best known novel outside of the Space Odyssey series, and the one which established him as a writer. Embracing many themes which would show up in numerous sci-fi franchises, the book deals with the near-future possibility of contact with an alien species and the profound effect it will have on humanity. Broken down into three parts, the book begins with the arrival of aliens, moves onto the effect they have, and concludes with the aftermath of their experimentation and their departure.

The story opens with the introduction of the Overlords, a space faring race that appear suddenly in orbit around Earth in the late 20th century. With their ships poised over every major city on Earth, they issue a simple directive: End all war, now and forever. They assume a sort of indirect control over human affairs, preferring to stay aboard their spaceships, and communicating directly with only the Secretary-General of the UN.

Though many suspect of them of malicious intent, the Overlords influence is largely indirect and they promise to reveal themselves in 50 years. In the meantime, the suppression of war leads to a sort of golden age where prosperity flourishes, but at the expense of creativity. When 50 years is up, the demon-like Overlords emerge and begin conducting some seemingly benign psychic research.

Generations pass and humanity grows antsy due to a general feeling of stagnation. However, many children begin to be born who demonstrate telekinetic powers. Finally, the Overlords reveal that they are representatives of what is called the Overmind – a vast cosmic intelligence created from alien races that have all shed matter’s restrictions and become cosmic beings. The Overlords, for whatever reason, cannot join the Overmind, so they act instead as a bridge, seeking out intelligent life and fostering cosmic evolution. Humanity is now set to join this intelligence, having become post-human and ready to embrace their full potential.

Though some would see this concept of Overlords, Overminds, and tampering with evolution as a negative, Clarke presented it as an unequivocal positive. To him, the idea that humanity would need to be forced to become enlightened seemed like a perfectly plausible means of overcoming its inherent flaws. This is in keeping with Clarke’s Futurist mentality, where progress is not only inevitable and desirable and human antipathy towards progress is based on irrational fear.

The Dispossessed:
Published in 1974, this novel is one of several  utopian science fiction books published by famed author Ursula K. Le Guin. Written during the Vietnam War, the story takes place in a distant solar system (Tau Ceti) where two empires with diametrically opposed views become engaged in a proxy war when a neighboring state undergoes a revolution.

Set in the same universe as her critically-acclaimed story Left Hand of Darkness, the Tau Ceti system consists of two major worlds – Anarres and Urras. Urras is the focal point of the story, a planet which is dominated by two major nations which are rivals. The A-lo nation (which represents the US) is capitalistic and patriarchal whereas the Thu nation (Soviet Union) is run by an authoritarian regime that claims to rule in the name of the proletariat.

To complete the analogy, both states become embroiled in a war when an underdeveloped nation named Benbili experiences a revolution which prompts both sides to invade. Thus, Benbili comes to represent South-East Asia at the time of the Vietnam War, just as Urras represents the world at the time of writing – a world divided between two diametrically opposed empires, both of whom seem to think they are the example of a perfect society (or as close as one can come to it).

As the story goes on, we learn that Anarres, the other major world, was settled long ago by a group of proto-Anarchists who left Urras to escape the planet’s divided nature. Since that time, the Anarrean people have created an egalitarian society which maintains contact with Urras only through its capitol-city spaceport. In keeping with the story, this alternate planet can be seen as a third option for humanity, which finds itself otherwise torn between two extremes.

This calls to mind Brave New World, where Huxley had created a planet torn between madness and insanity, or primitive freedom and “civilization”. In the end, the character of John the Savage, a man who had a foot in both worlds, could not reconcile himself to either and killed himself. Huxley had long expressed regret with this outcome, thinking that he should have offered a third option in the form of the exile communities that dotted the world in his story. Seen in this light, Dispossessed seems to offer solutions to the problem of two civilization fighting over who’s “utopia” is better.

Ecotopia:
Published in 1975, this novel is considered a pre-eminent work of utopian fiction and a fitting commentary on the green movement and counter-culture of the 1970’s. In it, author Ernest Callenbach describes a new society which has been founded in the Pacific Northwest by groups of ecological secessionists. Interestingly enough, his critique of this fictional society was based on environmental science and descriptions of actual communes that were being established across the mid-western US at the time.

Set in the year 1999, the story takes place from the point of view William Weston, a reporter named who is the first American to travel to the new country of Ecotopia. Most of the narrative consists of his cables back to the fictitious newspaper he works for, but other details are filled in by his diary entries. These include an affair with an Ecotopian woman, an experience which leaves him transformed and opens him up to the Ecotopian way of life.

Amongst the differences he notes between his world and this ecological utopia are the policies of universal health care, liberal cannabis use, fitness, local art and fitness (as opposed to television and spectacle sports), sexual freedom, and voluntary mock warfare. Curiously enough, they also celebrate gender roles and believe in racial separation. Not sure how those are meant to be utopian, but okay…

In the end, the narrator comes to see that the Ecotopians are not a backwards, regressionary people but simply individuals who want to live a healthier existence closer to the Earth. In addition to using modern technologies, provided they are ecologically friendly, they also maintain an advanced arms industry and stockpiles of WMD’s, a means of ensuring that a potentially revanchist US government doesn’t try to take back their territory by force. In the end, Weston chooses to stay in Ecotopia and act as a sort of cultural liaison to the outside world.

Aside from the issues of gender roles and racial segregation, this book seems to fit the description of an ideal society quite well. By demonstrating that a better life need not mean huge sacrifices or the denial of technology, Callenbach was basically arguing for an open mind when it comes to the ecological and social experiments which were taking place in the US at the time. His idea of an outsider coming to respect and embrace this culture also calls to mind More’s Utopia and Gulliver’s Travels, where the narrators did the same. He also seems to be arguing that a better society is not only possible, but within our reach.

The Giver:
Although classified as a dystopian novel by some, this 1993 piece of YA fiction has undeniably utopian elements, and therefore confounds simple classification. Taking place in a fictional community where pain and strife have been eliminated through “Sameness” and people’s roles are selected by a council of elders, The Giver begins as a description of a utopian society which gradually becomes more dystopian in its outlook.

Enter into this world Jonas, a young boy who has been selected by the elders to serve as the next “Receiver of Memory”. This person occupies a venerated position in their society since they are responsible for storing all memories that predate Sameness, just in case they are ever needed to aid in the decision making process.

As Jonas receives these memories, he comes to understand just how powerful knowledge is. People in his society are happy, but only because they are ignorant to any way of life that runs counter to their own. In the end, he faces a terrible dilemma. On the one hand, he could release the memories and enlighten his people, though it will surely mean chaos. On the other, he can keep them ignorant, thus ensuring stability for the time being.

Written for young adult audiences, but intensely mature in its outlook, this story not only examines what it takes to create a perfect society but what the costs of that might be. It is also very poignant in the way it addresses a theme which is crucial to growing up – how the end of innocence is a necessary step to becoming a mature and responsible individual. This is a step we frequently wish we could avoid, but seems inevitable in the long run.

Final Thoughts:
Looking at the extensive list of utopian fiction that has been produced across time, I am once again reminded of just how closely linked it is with dystopian fiction. It seems that all utopian commentaries emerged out of a problematic world, where authors felt the need to offer up a better or even ideal society as a means of satire or consolation. Though they differed in that they were not quite cautionary in nature, they shared the same basic purpose as dystopian tales. At once, they offered people a chance to examine this thing we know as the human condition and ask if something better were truly possible.

Overall, I’m not sure which I like better. When I was penning the article on dystopian literature, I could honestly say I preferred it because it seemed more realistic. Now, I wonder if there is not a profound sense of genius and realism to utopian literature that I was perhaps overlooking. Sure, one could make the argument that works like the Republic and Utopia were simple in their intent, claiming that society could be turned into a model of justice and fairness through basic reforms. But upon closer inspection, one sees the unmistakable presence of irony. In all cases, it seems like the author is agonizing over the question of whether or not such changes are even possible.

Sure, greed could done away with if collectivization were enforced. Sure, if money were abolished, there would be far less in the way of crime. Sure, if people were made to rotate between professions, there would be less class conflict and snobbery. And of course, if government were truly representative and those in power were closer to the governed, there would be less abuses of power. But how do you go about making that happen? How, without resorting to force or Draconian measures, do you get people to treat each other as equals and respect each other.

Like it or not, the question “can’t we all just get along?” has been dogging humanity since the beginning of time. Many solutions have been suggested, like the expropriation of the ruling class, a certain means of production, or a certain way of living. But inevitably, all these proposed solutions get tied up in moral considerations (i.e. killing is wrong), or questions of practicality – i.e. getting rid of all the cars, central heating, AC and electricity will lead to millions of deaths worldwide. So really, is utopian literature meant as a proposition for change, or is it merely a tool to make us contemplate the tougher questions?

I know my answer, but in the end, the point is simply to ask, isn’t it? It’s the exploration that counts, which is precisely why such literature has been penned over the centuries. Waiting for heaven to come might be a pain in the ass, but trying to make it come can also be a ticket to hell!

Cool Ships (volume IV)

Back with a fourth installment. As usual, I am indebted to people for making suggestions and offering critiques. Funny thing, these lists seem to be getting longer and more diverse the longer this series goes. But I guess that tells you something about the world of sci-fi. No shortage of material, and kind of like fossil hunting in that the deeper you dig, the more fascinating things get.

Ancients City Ship:
You know the old saying “you can never go home”? Well in this case, the Ancients seemed to think that the best away around that was to take it with you. This one goes out to Nicola Higgins. Thanks for the suggestion, you Stargate fangirl!

Known as a City Ship, this piece of Ancients technology is in centerpiece of the spinoff series Stargate: Atlantis. A self-contained city that is capable of traveling through space, and comes equipped with a hyper drive, this vessel was designed to transplanting colonies of Ancients on distant worlds throughout the Galaxy. It also heavily armed and shielded, making it a veritable mobile fortress.

Beginning several million years ago, the Ancients began what was known as the “Great Migration”, where they left Earth for the Pegasus Galaxy and other destinations in deep space. One such ship which took part in the migration was the Atlantis, which departed from Antarctica and landed on the world known as Lantea, where it was again discovered by humans in the course of the show.

Measuring roughly the same size as Manhattan island, an average city ship comes equipped with extensive living quarters and amenities that make it suitable for large-scale population for extended periods of time. Though capable of space flight and space combat, it’s environment of choice is terrestrial, preferably on water.

Colonial Viper:
This one kind of seems overdue. But I felt the need to push this one back so I could cover the bigger ships from the Battlestar Galactica franchise first. With them done, I can now pay tribute the fighter-craft of choice for the Twelve Colonies, the Viper! Taken from the original series, the Mark II was your basic space superiority fighter, fast, maneuverable, and boasting two laser guns for defense.

In the updated series, the Mark II was considered a relic from the Human-Cylon War, its systems outdated and its controls antiquated (the laser guns were also replaced by two ballistic weapons and a compliment of missiles). However, it was these very antiquated features that would prove to be the saving grace of the Mark II when the Cylons attacked the Colonies at the beginning of the new series.

The updated Mark VII Viper was the pinnacle of Colonial technology at the time. Boasting updating targeting, controls, all of which were networked with the fleet’s central computer system, the Mark VII was far more sophisticated than its predecessor in every measurable way. However, being a networked fighter made it vulnerable when the Cylons unleashed their crippling virus on the Colonies defense mainframe. Several models remained in operation though, thanks in large part to the Pegasus surviving the initial Cylon assault. Once the two fleets combined their resources, the Colonial fleet had several Mark VII’s at their disposal and even began manufacturing new ones to replace their losses.

The Colossus:
Now here’s a franchise I haven’t covered yet! Fans of Freespace and FS II know that when it comes to cool ships, there was no shortage to come out of this video game series. Classically inspired, well-designed and just plain awesome to behold, the Colossus is definitely top of that list. Big, bad, and boasting enough firepower to take down an enemy armada, the Colossus was appropriately named!

Designed by the Terran-Vasudan Alliance in the wake of the Great War, the Colossus was a prototype super-destroyer that was designed to confront all future incursions by a hostile race. Foremost amongst these was the threat of the Shivans, the species that appeared in the first game, destroyed the Vasudan homeworld and nearly destroyed Earth as well.

Measuring 6 km in length, bristling with weapons and boasting a crew of over 30,000, the Colossus took over 20 years to complete and involved dozens of contractors from both races. In terms of defense, it has over 80 weapon turrets, consisting of cannons, missile launchers, and multiple heavy beam emitters. It also houses 60 fighter and bomber wings and requires a crew of over 30,000. In short, the Colossus wields more firepower and fighter wings than an entire Terran or Vasudan armada.

Deimos-class Corvette:
You know the old saying, “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog”? That’s what comes to mind whenever I see small ships that are solidly built and pack a wicked punch. As you might have guessed, that precisely what the GTCv Deimos-class vessel is all about! Also taken from the Freespace universe, this corvette was designed for fighter support and attack purposes, providing some added firepower and punch to light assaults and defensive screens.

As the newest addition to the Terran fleet in FS II, these corvettes were designed to replace the aging Fenris and Leviathan-class cruisers from the Great War. In addition to their small profiles and heavy firepower, their hulls are strengthened with collapsed-core molybdenum sheathing for better protection against beam fire and their Vasudan-designed reactor core provides more energy per ton than any other allied ship class.

In a way, these ships remind me of the USS Defiant. Much like that little ass-kickers from the DS9 universe, she packs a lot of power and toughness into a small frame, proving that you don’t have to be big to bring a big ass-whooping! As you might be able to tell, this is a bit of a vicarious experience for me 😉 Being only 5’8”, I too had to be known for scrappiness whenever height and reach failed me in a sparring match!

Drakh Raider:
Once more onto B5 friends. God, I worry people are going to get so sick of this universe given all the attention I devote to it. But as long as it keeps providing ’em, I’ll feel obliged to honor ’em! This time, it’s the Drakh Raider which I’ve chosen to represent. Small, sleek, fast and powerful, these ships were the first line of assault and defense for the Drakh fleet, providing attack screens and defensive escort to their larger destroyers and carriers.

As Londo remarked in the course of the show, “They’re a legend. The kind you would use to frighten small children at night... They were ruthless, savage, but extremely bright. A very bad combination.” And these ships certainly embodied that. Making their first appearance in the third season (“Lines of Communication”) when it became revealed that the Drakh were manipulating the Mimbari into a civil war, and later in the Call to Arms TV movie when the Drakh began assaulting Earth.

Being quite small and based around a central beam weapon, these ships were either unmanned or had a very small crew. They were also quite effective, as two were able to destroy a White Star during their initial encounter with Delenn and the Alliance fleet. However, being small and light, they were also relatively easy for more sophisticated ships of the Alliance to shoot down, and even a small fleet of them could not stand up to larger vessels like the Excalibur. Still, these puppies could wreak havoc against shipping and military vessels that belonged to the younger races. Once they began conducting raids on League Worlds, all parties were forced to turn to Sheridan and the White Star fleet for help.

Romulan Warbird:
Also known as the D’deridex-class, the Warbird class was one of the largest and most powerful ships in the Romulan Star Empire’s armada and served as the backbone of the Romulan fleet during the latter half of the 24th century. In addition to its impressive array of disruptors and photon torpedo banks, the Warbird also has a cloaking device, the result of military exchanges between the Klingon and Romulan Empires.

After their debut in the first season of TNG (“The Neutral Zone”), the Warbird went on to appear in several engagements with Star Fleet (most notably the Enterprise) and the Dominion. In the spinoff series of D29, they would figure prominently in the Dominion War. Initially, this consisted of providing defense against Jem’Hadar incursions, but eventually went on to take part in most major offensives. These included the battles of Chin’toka and the final assault on Cardassia Prime.

Measuring twice as long as a Galaxy-class starship (such as the Enterprise D) the Warbird is powered by a forced quantum singularity and boasts the latest in Romulan technology. This makes it not only one of the most advanced ships in the Romulan fleet, but the Alpha Quadrant itself!

Rama:
Once again, I find myself looking back and wondering how the hell I forgot this one. You can’t call yourself an Arthur C. Clarke fan and a sci-fi geek without knowing about Rama. Lucky for me, ongoing segments give us chances to correct for our mistakes, which I am doing now.

Taken from Clarke’s famous novel Rendezvous with Rama, this namesake was what can be termed a “generational ship”, meaning a spaceship where successive generations of people are expected to be born and die before it finally reaches its destination. In the course of the story, this massive ship was detected on its way towards Earth. Once scientists and astronomers learned that it was not an asteroid or some other natural phenomena, they became mighty interested mighty fast!

Basically a large cylinder in space, the ship measured 50 km in length, 16 km wide, and rotated in order to provide gravity equal to 0.25 g’s (or a quarter of what we’re used to here on Earth). After boarding it, astronauts from Earth noticed an interior layout that resembled cities, rivers and other common geographical features, but being based on technology and chemical compositions which they could not recognize. The horizontal sections of the ship also housed windows which appeared to be letting in outside light, which in turn was having a thawing effect on the landscape since it was frozen from being in deep space for so long.

In addition, they discovered that their was no crew to speak of, nor any cryogenic tanks that held them in stasis. Evenutally, it was determined that these chemical rivers contained the trace chemicals needed to “manufacture Ramans”, and that as it neared a star, it would take the energy and heat necessary to perform these and other life-restoring functions. In the end, Rama was just passing through, a grave disappointment for Earth people… until they realized that more were on the way!

Pretty damn cool huh? This concept of a cylindrical hull with a self-contained city went on to inspire countless franchises and writers, not the least of which was J.M. Straczynski who modeled the interior of Babylon 5 based on Clarke’s descriptions. Generational ships also appear in many science fiction franchises, not the least of which are Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space series and Joss Whedon’s Firefly.

USS Saratoga:
Space Above and Beyond is back for another installment, this time with the main ship of the fleet! Designated as a SCVN (Space Carrier Vehicle Nuclear) the USS Saratoga is the futuristic equivalent of a modern-day aircraft carrier and was home to the 58th Squadron (“The Wild Cards”) for the entire series.

In the course of the show, the Saratoga served on the front lines for the entire Chig War. This included the defense of Earth in the pilot episode, the offensive at Ixiom and Deimos, and in Operation Roundhammer – the assault on the Chig homeworld – at the end of the series. For the duration of its service, the Saratoga was commanded by Commodore Glen Ross, a no-bullshit naval officer who enjoyed playing guitar, cared deeply for his people, and was known for his catch-phrase “take that bird out of my sky!”

In addition to its compliment of fighters, the Saratoga boasted some pretty heavy armaments, including laser pulse cannons, phalanx missile launchers, and anti-ship torpedos. The vessel was also powered by a helium 3 fusion engine, measured 525.6 m in length and was capable of FTL travel thanks to a wormhole-generating engine technology.

Tigers Claw:
Yet another franchise I have neglected to include so far, but which deserving since cool ships was kind of their thing… Here we have the TCS Tiger’s Claw, the carrier and command vessel from the video game series Wing Commander. In the first installment in the series, the Tiger’s Claw was as the focal point of the story, a Bengal-class carrier that was deployed to the Vega Sector to fight in ongoing conflict known as the Terran-Kilrathi war.

In the course of its deployment in the Vega Sector, the Tiger’s Claw participated in many successful campaigns. These included the destruction of the Kilrathi base of operations for the entire sector in the campaign known as Custer’s Carnival, and the destruction of the KIS Sivar in what was known as the Goddard Campaign.

Unfortunately, after proving victorious in Vega, the ship was transferred to the Enigma Sector where it was destroyed during an assault on the Kilrathi starbase K’tithrak Mang. Using stealth fighters, the Kilrathi managed to ambush and then obliterate the carrier using torpedoes. These events took place between the first and second installment in the series and formed the basis of the latter’s backstory. Save for the main character of the story – Col. Christopher Blair (aka. you) – all hands aboard her were killed, including her air group commander, General Halcyon.

In addition to its vast compliment of 104 fighters, the Tiger’s Claw also possesses 8 heavy laser turrets, 20 defensive batteries, and powerful shields. Measuring 700 meters in length and weighing over 80,000 tons, her crew numbers in the thousands. Although slow and lumbering compared to smaller craft, she is still capable of a high maximum velocity (468,000 km/hour) and can make FTL jumps.

Voth City Ship:
Here’s another example of something the Star Trek franchise did really right! Appearing in the third season of Star Trek: Voyager (episode 64: “Distant Origin”), the Voth City Ship was something that was both intriguing and heavily-inspired. Based on the concept of a self-contained city in space, she was the command and administrative center of the entire Voth race and home to its ruling matriarch.

As the episode which featured her progressed, we learn that a group of alien scientists have discovered Voyager and have become convinced that she holds the key to proving their “Distant Origins” theory. When they meet these creatures, they learn that their kind evolved from dinosaurs on Earth to become a race of talking, bipedal humanoids who developed an entire civilization before they were forced to flee. After millennia of wandering, they landed in the Gamma Quadrant where they have since become the dominant power.

Unfortunately for said scientists, and the crew of Voyager, the Voth leaders are not too crazy about this idea. In addition to contradicting their beliefs that they emerged in the Gamma Quadrant (known as “Doctrine”) they are insulted to think they are related to mammals, creatures they consider inferior. Once they make contact, they are able to capture Voyager and neutralize her defenses quite easily, beaming the entire ship into one of their massive internal bays and knocking out all of their equipment using a dampening field.

In addition to all this impressive technology, the Voth also appeared to possess cloaking technology, trans-warp capability, and no doubt had some serious mother-loving weapons technology. It was a major blessing that Janeway and her crew didn’t press matters too hard and try to get into a firefight with these aliens, otherwise we would have seen some serious fireworks.

Final Thoughts:
Woo! Okay, that one was pretty good. And some rather new and unique examples made it in this time. Thanks for the suggestions people and my endless thanks as always to the good folks who maintain the Wiki’s and other source info sights for these franchises. Without you, I’d be very limited and would have quite doing these long ago! Also, I seem to have focused on city and generation ships a lot in this posting, which got me thinking…

It was the physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson who claimed that the pinnacle of technology would be the ability to build a “Dyson’s Sphere”. That is, a sphere so large that it could encompass an entire star system, or at least the star and its primary planets. After all, the amount of materials and engineering capabilities required to build such a thing are just staggering and clearly beyond the means of anything we now know. Now that all may be true, but might I suggest that a more realistic and attainable measure of technological prowess would be the ability to create self-contained environments where several successive generations of humans and animals could survive for long periods of time?

Think about it. A species that can do this would be capable of leaving whatever world they call home behind and transplanting themselves in a distant star system or galaxy, meaning that their fortunes would never be tied to one rock in one star system. Even if our survival didn’t depend on it – which it might given the state of the planet! – it would still be a rather elegant way of planting the seed of humanity elsewhere in the galaxy. Instead of sending people out land on a planet and then do all the hard work of terraforming and building infrastructure, you just send the ship, and people can grow outwards in their own time without having to worry about hostile environments or organisms.

Pretty anthropocentric, I know. And yes, colonization is chock full of potential for evil, especially where indigenous life is concerned. Still, it’s a cool concept and it got me thinking, which is partly why I like to do these things. An excuse for research and to expand my mind!

Until next time, keep those idears coming!

Ancient Aliens (Updated)

And I’m back with another conceptual post, hard at work exploring the ideas that run deep in the grand genre that is sci-fi. And this is one that I find particularly cool, mainly because it’s just so freaking existential! I mean what is there that can possibly throw a wrench into our collective anthropomorphism more than knowing that there is sentient life out there that significantly predates our own, especially if we were to find out that they had something to do with our own evolution…?

In some ways, this is a shout out to the “ancient astronauts” theory, which speculates that extra-terrestrials came to Earth long ago and left some evidence of their visit behind. This can be limited to something as basic as a structure or a relic, or can run as deep as having influenced human cultures, religions and technological development. Regardless of whether or not this theory is to be taken literally, it is well represented in the sci-fi community. Here are some examples that I have assembled:

2001: A Space Odyssey:
A classic example of an ancient species, ancient astronauts, and one of my personal favorites! Originally conceived in the form of a screenplay by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, the concept of the TMA-1 monolith aliens was a central plot element to one of the most groundbreaking science fiction movies of all time. However, owing to Kubrick’s esoteric style, not much was ever made clear about the species that built the monoliths. Luckily, Clarke went on to develop the idea at length in his novelization of the movie and its many sequels.

According to the novel, and ongoing interviews with Kudrick, the beings that built the monoliths were known as the Firstborn – an extremely ancient race that achieved sentience millions of years ago and were exploring the galaxy long before humanity even existed. The monoliths were their means of traveling from star to star, which they did in order to seek out life and help it along. In the course of their travels, they came upon Earth four million years ago and discovered Simians that were on the verge of starvation. By teaching them to expand their diet through hunting and some basic tricks to cultivate their manual dexterity, they ensured not only the survival of higher order primates, but the eventual emergence of humans as a species.

The story of 2001 thus takes place in the near-future (from when it was originally written) where humanity has developed into a star-faring race and colonized the Moon. Not far from this colony, a monolith is discovered buried under millions of years of moon dust. After examining it, to no avail, they discover that it has sent a signal out to Jupiter. The ship Discovery is then dispatched to investigate, where it finds an even larger monolith in orbit around Europa. The mission ends quite mysteriously as David Bowman, the last surviving member of the crew, flies closer to it in a small pod and disappears. Adding to the mystery were his last words: “My God, it’s full of stars!”

In subsequent books, the mystery of Bowman’s disappearance and the nature of the monoliths is made clear. Essentially, the monoliths are alien machines that contain their consciousness, and some are gateways which allow for FTL space travel. Bowman, when he came into contact with the one around Europa, was transformed or downloaded (depending on how you look at it) and became one with the monolith. The reason they are hanging out around Europa is because they are currently working to transform Jupiter into its own star so that life may blossom on Europa (which scientists speculate is already teaming with life underneath its icey shell).

Cool idea! But you see, there’s a snag… Apparently, the First Ones have also been known to weed wherever they’ve sown. What would happen if they came to the conclusion that humanity was too aggressive for its own good, the result of them teaching us how to harness an appetite for killing other animals and members of our own species? This is the premise that is explored in the finale 3001: Final Odyssey, and which was left on a cliffhanger note. Unfortunately, Clarke died in 2008, leaving fan fiction authors to speculate on how this would all play out…

Alien vs. Predator:
Note: this is not a reference to the terrible movie or its even more terrible sequel! No, in this case, I am referring to the wider franchise, as exemplified by its many video games, comics, novelizations, and even the independent (non-crossover) movies. In these cases, we get a glimpse of two races that predate humanity by hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. Their outward characteristics alone make them cool, and they are both pretty badass in their own special ways. But what is especially cool about them is the fact that very little known about them, other than the fact that they are very, very dangerous!

“I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality”. That is how the Alien, or Xenomorph in AVP terminology, was described in the very first movie. Their origin is unknown, as is the timeline of their existence and the circumstances of their evolution. However, one thing is clear: on this last note, it must have been something pretty harsh! I mean really, how difficult must life have been on their homeworld for something like the xenomorph to have emerged. They proliferate at an alarming rate, require living being to gestate, and are designed purely for the hunt!

Overall, their race is divided into two symbiotic and interrelated species. First, there are the “Facehuggers”, the spidery creatures that attach themselves to living creatures and implant them with embryos. This in turn gives rise to the “Chestbusters”, the warrior aliens that seek out, kill and capture creatures for the Facehuggers to use. At the top of the pyramid is the Queen, a Chestbuster who has evolved to become the egg-layer who gives birth to more Facehuggers. An interesting chicken and the egg type arrangement, and something which only adds to their mystery!

The Predators, on the other hand, are relatively straightforward. At their core of their society lies a warrior ethic, where each and every male member of their species is trained to be a hunter. In time, hunters accumulates honor and seniority within their culture by attaining as many kills and trophies (i.e. skulls) as possible, preferably from different species. In fact, it is rumored that a single scene from Predator 2, in which an Alien skull appeared in a hunter’s trophy case was the basis for the whole AVP crossover.

In addition, there are also some clear and apparent rules to the hunt. First, each hunter is drawn to arenas of conflict. In the first movie, one chooses a hunt in Central America where a guerrilla war is taking place. In the sequel, one travels to LA during the height of the drug wars. In both cases, the get a sense of their terrain, taking out the easy prey first, and gradually working their way up to the top carnivore. At first, they rely on their advanced weaponry and stealth. But when at last they face off with the strongest prey, they fight them in the open in hand to hand combat.

God knows how long they’ve been doing this. But given their obvious level of technology, its clear they are not exactly recent additions to space race!

The “Ancient Humanoids”:
Now this was one I didn’t much like, but it’s an example of the concept of ancient astronauts nonetheless. And it comes to us courtesy of Star Trek: TNG. from an episode named “The Chase” (episode 146). In it, Picard’s old friend and mentor turns up dead in the course of an expedition which he claims could be the most profound discovery of their time.

After retracing his footsteps, Picard and the Enterprise are joined by three other search parties – one Klingon, one Romulan and one Cardassian – in orbit around a dead planet. When they reach the surface, they find that all the clues lead to a recording left behind by an ancient species. In the recording, the humanoid alien tells them all that they are the progenitors of every sentient race in the quadrant, that their DNA was planted on countless worlds. This is apparently why so many species are humanoid, and means that humanity shares ancestry with all these would-be enemies.

Heartwarming, and kind of cool if it weren’t such a convenient explanation as to why all aliens in the Star Trek franchise are humanoid. This is something that’s always annoyed me about the franchise. It’s not enough that all the aliens speak English and look like people, minus the occasional molded plastic on their faces. But to make matters worse, they always got to make a point of drawing attention to their humanoid forms. So when it came right down to it, this episode felt more like a contrived explanation than a homage. Personally, I would have thought that limited budgets would be the reason, but what do I know? I’m no xenobiologist!

The First Ones:
Another favorite which comes to us courtesy of the Babylon 5 universe. According to the expanded storyline, the First Ones were the first beings to achieve sentience in the Milky Way Galaxy. By the time of the show, most of them had left our corner of the universe in order to explore other galaxies and what lies between them. Only two remains behind, ostensibly to act as shepherds to the younger races. They were known as the Vorlons and the Shadows. However, in time, the two races turned on each other because of their diametrically opposed ideologies.

The Vorlons believed that development and progress came from order. In the course of their long history, they travelled to many worlds inhabited by sentient races and began tampering with their evolution. In each case, they presented themselves as angels, thus ensuring that sentient beings would see them as creatures of light and truth. In addition, they fostered the development of telepaths for use in the coming wars against the Shadows, whom they knew to vulnerable to psionics.

To illustrate this, the Vorlons are often presented as being aloof and rather stodgy figures. In fact, Lyta Alexander, one of the show’s secondary characters, commented that despite their power, the Vorlons are a highly sensitive people who do not react well to change! In the course of the show, they were initially hesitant to commit their forces to fighting the Shadows, they were extremely irked when Kosh (their ambassador to B5) was killed, and when Sheridan went – and presumably died  – at Z’ha’dum, they began destroying entire worlds in the hopes of erasing every trace of the Shadow’s influence.

In addition, their esoteric, mysterious nature was summed up with one question that they would ask anyone who was privileged enough to speak to them: “Who are you?” If ever you found yourself being asked that, odds were you were meant for some higher purpose, one which the Vorlons had a hand in arranging!

The Shadows, by comparison, were much more enabling and  intriguing, even if they were a little… oh, I don’t know, shit-your-pants scary!  In the course of their history, they too traveled to many worlds as ambassadors, encouraging different people and races to embrace their ambitious, darker side and go to war with each other. Whereas the Vorlons asked “Who are you?”, the Shadows big question was “What do you want?” Again, if you found yourself being asked this question, it meant that you were on their radar and they had big plans for you. The proper response to this would be feelings of flattery followed by abject terror.

In any case, whereas the Vorlons believed in order and stability, the Shadows believed that evolution came only through conflict and disorder. This, they reasoned, is what lead to the development of stronger, more advanced races. As Morden, their own representative to B5 said, humanity would never have come so far so fast were they not constantly “at each others’ throats”. Sure, some races had to be sacrificed along the way to make this philosophy work, but that was all for the greater good. In the end, what came out of it was a series of species that were stronger and better than they were before.

This philosophy eventually led them into conflict with the Vorlons as well as several other First Ones. Many younger races found themselves taking sides as well or just getting caught in the middle. In fact, wars between the two sides became a recurring thing, happening every few thousand years. In the last, which took place 10,000 years before the main story, the Shadows were defeated by the last great alliance between the First Ones, most of whom then chose to leave the galaxy. Then, just 1000 years before the events in the show take place, the Shadows were once again defeated by the Vorlons and an alliance of younger races and forced out of the galaxy entirely. However, as the show opens, we quickly learn that the Shadows are once again returning to their old stomping grounds, and the first spot on the tour is a planet known as Z’ha’dum.

This world is doubly significant because it is this planet where another First One – THE first one in fact – is thought to reside. His name is Lorien, and he is the last of his kind and the sole First One outside of the Vorlons and Shadows that is left in galaxy. All of the others have long since abandoned it, leaving the Shadows and Vorlons to their war and all the other races that have chosen to enlist in it. In the end, however, Sheridan, Delenn and the younger races form their own alliance which they use to draw a line against both races. With the help of those First Ones that they are able to reach and enlist the help of, they are successful. After a brief but decisive fight, both races agree to leave the galaxy with Lorien, never to return. In the last episode, when Sheridan is on the verge of death , he is found by Lorien who takes him to the great beyond where the other First Ones now reside.

Like I said, its a personal favorite, mainly because I felt it was so richly detailed and in-depth.

The Forerunners:
Now here is an interesting take on the whole ancient astronauts concept. Whereas in most versions of this idea, aliens make contact with a younger race and influence them for their own purposes, in the Halo universe, things happen in a sort of reverse order. It is established as part of the game’s back story that eons after they died out, the Covenant races came upon the remains of an ancient race which are referred to as the Forerunners. After learning how to reverse-engineer their technology, the Covernant began to merge it with their own and was able to jump thousands of years ahead as a result.

At the same time, they began to develop a religion and even a theocracy based on the Forerunners and what they believed their most important relics to be. These would be the Halo devices, for which the game takes its name. Believing that the Halos were the gateway to the afterlife, or the source of deliverance, the Convenant became obsessed with finding a working Halo and activating it. All of their mythology for the past few thousands years was based on this, and they pursued it with absolute single-mindedness.

So in this way, the Forerunners had a profound impact on the development and beliefs of the Covenant, but not intentionally. Rather than coming to the Convenant while it was still in its infancy and manipulating them for their own purposes, the Covenant instead found them, but only after they were long dead. In addition, they were influenced by their own assumptions about the Forerunners, and not anything they chose to tell them. And in the end, this influence had a near disastrous effect, given that the Halo devices were weapons of mass-MASS destruction and not holy relics. By attempting to activate them, the Covenant very nearly brought about their own extinction, and that of every other sentient race in the quadrant. One would think there was a message in all this about the dangers of blind faith and the dangers of deification or something!

The Goa’uld:
Here is a perfect example of the ancient astronauts theory, so bang on that you’d think it was tailor made to fit the premise! In the Stargate universe, which has expanded considerably over the years, an advanced extra-terrestrial species known as the Goa’uld came to Earth during the neolithic period and had a vast influence on our history. In the original movie, this involved a single alien who took on human form and appointed himself God Emperor over his human subjects. This, in turn, gave rise to the Egyptian civilization, with the alien-god Ra at its apex.

In addition to creating ancient Egypt though, Ra was also revealed to have taken human beings through the Stargate, an means of near-instantaneous interstellar transportation, and established similar civilizations on distant planets. On each of these, the Egyptian motifs of pyramids and the cult of Ra persisted, in some cases for thousands of years. Meanwhile, back at Earth, a revolt unseated Ra and he fled into the cosmos, to be found thousands of years later when humans accessed the Star Gate on Earth.

In the expanded universe, we learn that the Goa’uld were merely one of many races that visited Earth and appeared as gods to humanity because of their advanced technology. But whereas most had benign intentions,  the Goa’uld were concerned solely with establishing slave colonies on many worlds throughout the universe. In addition, their interference extended to other less advanced races as well. As a result, humanity is now faced with the task of preparing to face this and other threats, all of which involve highly advanced races that have visited Earth at one time or another and could very well be hostile.

Although it was not too good a movie (in my opinion), the concept is still a very fertile one! It’s little wonder then why it was made into a series, one which has done quite well for itself. Aliens came before, they may come again… Can we stop them this time. Who knows? Spooky stuff!

The Orions:
In the video game series Master of Orion, there is yet another take on the concepts of ancients aliens. In this turn-based strategy game, players select from different alien races that inhabit the galaxy and begin the process of colonization and expansion. In time, the concept of the Orions comes up. It seems that each race, though they are different and possess varying special abilities, have their own legends about this particular race.

One of the aspects of the game is to find the Orions homeworld, a place full of secret and advanced technology, but which is defended by a powerful robotic starship known as the Guardian. Whoever is able to destroy this ship and land on the planet is the most likely to win the game. This is advisable, seeing as the how the purpose of the whole game is to become the undisputed master of the galaxy – the Master of Orion, as it were 😉

The Xel’naga:
Another example of this concept which comes to us from the gaming world. of which fans of Starcraft will no doubt be instantly familiar with! Translated literally as “Wanders from Afar”, the Xel’naga were apparently a race from a distant galaxy that was concerned with creating the perfect life form. In the course of their lifetime, they apparent “seeded and cultivated thousands of various species” (from the SC game handbook). This included the Protoss and Zerg, two of the major players in the game, and figures pretty prominently in the game’s backstory.

In the case of the Protoss, the Xel’naga thought that they had found beings that possessed “purity of form” and began manipulating them. However, when they revealed themselves to the Protoss, the latter turned on them and they fled. They discovered the Zerg shortly thereafter, a species which they believed possessed “purity of essence”. They began by enhancing them from the small, parasitic larvae that they were, but found that they were too primitive. They therefore developed the Overmind as well to give them purpose and direction, but this only made matters worse. In time, the Zerg found the Xel’naga, who had chosen to remain hidden this time, and consumed them.

In the course of the game, Xel’naga ruins make only one appearance, in the form of an ancient temple which possesses the ability to sterilize the planet of all other species. However, other ruins are apparently featured in one of the game’s novelizations. Otherwise their is no mention of them, their existence merely constituting part of the story’s deep background.

Final Thoughts:
After looking through these and other examples of ancient astronauts, a few things began to stand out. Like I said before, sooner or later aliens serve an anthropological purpose in science fiction. Or to put it another way, they will always play the role of mirror and meter stick. On the one hand, they are the means by which we project aspects of ourselves onto others so we can study them better. On the other, they are means by which we measure our own flaws and development.

But above all, aliens tend to fall into any one of four categories based on where they fit into the moral and technological spectrum. This spectrum, which I made up myself (!), breaks down as follows:

  1. Benevolent/Malevolent: How aliens behave in our favorite franchises and what purpose they serve often has much to do with their basic motivation. In short, are they kind of benevolent, enlightened overseers as envisioned by Arthur C. Clarke in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Childhood’s End, or are they hostile, conquering species as envisioned in War of the Worlds and Invasion of the Body Snatchers? In either case, the alien serve a basic purpose: as a commentary on humanity. Their murderous ways are our murderous ways, their benevolent, technical perfection what we aspire to be. As Nixon is said to have muttered to JFK’s painting: “Men look at you, they see what they want to be. Men look at me, they see what they are.”
  2. Advanced/Nascent: Another important aspect to the aliens in question is their level of technical development. And, interestingly enough, this can have much to do with their moral character. Oftentimes, the aliens in a franchise are both advanced and malevolent, blowing up the White House Independence Day-style or trying to make us one with the Borg! Other times, they are advanced and enlightened, technology and evolution having erased whatever primitive impulses they might have had, but which humanity still possesses. And in other cases still, their are aliens who are less advanced than humanity and are either ethically challenged because they are behind the times, or noble and “untainted” because they haven’t been perverted by civilization’s greed and avarice. It’s a toss up, really, where the benefits and downfalls of technological progress are seen as having an influence on moral and social development.

Again, these are all mere projections, designed to focus attention on moral and ethical dilemmas that arise out of our collective history. Still, it is fun to take these various examples from popular culture and see where they line up on the moral/technological graph. That way we can see where different franchise place their aliens in terms of the overall spectrum.  And like I said at the beginning, its a cool concept. I mean seriously, wouldn’t it be cool if it were actually true? No one can prove aliens didn’t visit Earth thousands or even millions of years ago and mess with our evolution, right? Yeah, it’s not exactly a sound basis for a scientific theory, but a very fertile source for science fiction!

I, Robot!

Back to the movies! After a brief hiatus, I’ve decided to get back into my sci-fi movie reviews. Truth be told, it was difficult to decide which one I was going to do next. If I were to stick to my review list, and be rigidly chronological, I still had two installments to do for Aliens and Terminator to cover. However, my chief critic (also known as my wife) recommended I do something I haven’t already done to death (Pah! Like she even reads these!). But of course I also like to make sure the movies I review are fresh in my mind and I’ve had the chance to do some comparative analysis where adaptations were the case. Strange Days I still need to watch, I need to see Ghost in the Shell one more time before I review it, and I still haven’t found a damn copy of the graphic novel V for Vendetta!

Luckily, there’s one on this list that was both a movie and novel and which I’ve been looking forward to reviewing. Not only is it a classic novel by one of the sci-fi greats, it was also not bad as film. Also, thought I’d revert to my old format for this one.

I, Robot:
The story of I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – one of the Big Three of science fiction (alongside Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven) – was actually a series of short stories united by a common thread. In short, the story explained the development of sentient robots, the positronic brain, and Three Laws of Robotics. These last two items have become staples of the sci-fi industry. Fans of Star Trek TNG know that the character of Data boasts such a brain, and numerous franchises have referred back to the Three Laws or some variant thereof whenever AI’s have come up. In Aliens for example, Bishop, the android, mentions that he has behavioral inhibitors that make it impossible for me to “harm or by omission of action, allow to be harmed, a human being.” In Babylon 5, the psi-cop Bester (played by Walter Koenig, aka. Pavel Chekov) places a neural block in the head of another character, Mr. Garibaldi’s (Jerry Doyle). He describes this as hitting him “with an Asimov”, and went on to explain what this meant and how the term was used when the first AI’s were built.

(Background —>):
Ironically, the book was about technophobia and how it was misplaced. The movie adaptation, however, was all about justified technophobia. In addition, the movie could not successfully adapt the format of nine short stories to the screen, so obviously they needed to come up with an original script that was faithful if not accurate. And in many respects it was, but when it came to the central theme of unjustified paranoia, they were up against it! How do you tell a story about robots not going berserk and enslaving mankind? Chances are, you don’t. Not if you’re going for an action movie. Second, how were they to do a movie where the robots went berserk when there were those tricky Three Laws to contend with?

Speaking of which, here they are (as stated in the opening credits):
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Consistent, and downright seamless! So how do you get robots to harm human beings when every article of their programming says they can’t, under ANY circumstances?

Well, as a friend of mine said after he saw it, “they found a way” (hi Doug!). And it’s true, they did. Problem was, it didn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense. Not when you really get right down to it. On the surface, the big explanation for the AI revolution was alright, and was just about the only explanation that worked. But still, it pretty much contradicted the entire premise of the movie, not to mention the whole reason/logic vs. emotion thing. But once again, I’m getting ahead of myself. To the movie…

(Content—>):
So the movie opens on Del Spooner (Will Smith) doing his morning workout to “Superstitious” by Stevie Wonder. Kind of sets the scene (albeit a little obviously), as we quickly learn that he’s a Chicago detective who’s also a technophobe, especially when it comes to robots. Seems he’s hated them for years, though we don’t yet know why, and is just looking for the proof he needs to justify his paranoia. After a grizzly murder takes place, he thinks he’s found it! The crime scene is USR – that’s US Robotics, which comes directly from the original novel – where the man who is most directly responsible for the development of the positronic brain – Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) – is dead of an apparent suicide. And, in another faithful tribute to Asimov, it seems he has left behind a holographic recording/interface of himself which was apparently designed to help Spooner solve his death. I say this is a tribute because its almost identical in concept to the holographic time capsule of Harry Seldon, which comes from Foundation, another of Asimov’s most famous novels.

Anyhoo, Spooner is teamed up with Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) who is naturally a cold and stiff woman, reminiscent of the robots she works on. In an ironic (and deliberately comical) twist, it is her job to make the machines “more life like”. I’m sure people got a laugh out of this, especially since she explained in the most technical verbiage imaginable. We also see that the corporate boss (Mr. Robertson, played by Bruce Greenwood) and Spooner don’t get along too well, mainly because of their divergent views on the value of their companies product. And last, but not least, we get to meet VIKI (that’s Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence), the AI that controls the robots (and parts of Chicago’s infrastructure). With all the intro’s and exposition covered, we get to the investigation!It begins with them looking into Lannings death and trying to determine if it was in fact a suicide. That’s where Spooner and Calvin find the robot Sonny.

In the course of apprehending him, it quickly becomes clear that he isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders. He’s confused, agitated, and very insistent that he didn’t murder the good Doctor. So on top of the fact that he’s obviously experiencing emotions, he also drops a whole bunch of hints about how he’s different from the others. But this is all cut short because the people from USR decide to haul him away. In the subsequent course of his investigation, Spooner finds a number of clues that suggest that Lanning was a prisoner in his own office, and that he was onto something big towards the end of his life. In essence, he seemed to think that robots would eventually achieve full-sentience (he even makes the obligatory “Ghost in the Machine” reference) and would be able to dream and experience emotions like the rest of us. But the company wasn’t too keen on this. Their dream, it seems, was a robot in every home, one that could fill every conceivable human need and make our lives easier. This not only helps to escalate the tension, it also calls to mind the consumer culture of the 1950’s when the book was written. You know, the dream of endless progress, “a car in every lot and a chicken in every pot”. In short, its meant to make us worry!

At each turn, robots try to kill Spooner, which of course confirms his suspicions that there is a conspiracy at work. Naturally, he suspects the company and CEO are behind this because they’re about to release the latest-model of their robot and don’t want the Doctors death undermining them. The audience is also meant to think this, all hints point towards it and this is maintained (quite well too) until the very climax. But first, Spooner and Calvin get close and he tells her the reason for his prejudice. Turns out he hates robots, not because one wronged him, but because one saved him. In a car wreck, a robot came to the scene and could either save him or a little girl. Since he had a better chance of survival, the robot saved him, and he never forgave them for it. Sonny is also slated for termination, which at USR involves having a culture of hostile nanorobots introduced into your head where they will eat your positronic brain!

But before that happens, Sonny tells Spooner about the recurring dream he’s been having, the one Lanning programmed into him. He draws a picture of it for Spooner: a bridge on Lake Michigan that has fallen into disuse, and standing near it is a man, thought its not clear who. He leaves to go investigate this while Calvin prepares him for deactivation. But she can inject his brain with the nanos, she finds Sonny’s second processor, which is located in his chest. It is this second process that is apparently responsible for his emotions and ability to dream, and in terms of symbolism, its totally obvious! But just in case, let me explain: in addition to a positronic brain, Sonny has a positronic heart! No explanation is made as to how this could work, but its already been established he’s fully sentient and this is the explanation for it. Oi! In any case, we are meant to think she’s terminated, but of course she hasn’t really! When no one was looking, she subbed in a different robot, one that couldn’t feel emotions. She later explains this by saying that killing him would be murder since he’s “unique”.

Spooner then follows Sonny’s instructions and goes to the bridge he’s seen in his dreams. Seems the abandoned bridge has a warehouse at the foot of it where USR ships its obsolete robots. He asks the interface of Lanning one more time what it’s all about, and apparently, he hits on it when he asks about the Three Laws and what the outcome of them will be. Cryptic, but we don’t have time to think, the robots are attacking! Turns out, the warehouse is awash in new robots that are busy trashing old robots! They try to trash Spooner too, but the old ones comes to his defense (those Three Laws at work!) Meanwhile, back in the city, the robots are running amok! All people are placed under house arrest and people in the streets are rounded up and herded home. As if to illustrate their sudden change in disposition, all the pale blue lights that shine inside the robots chests have turned red. More obvious symbolism! After fighting their way through the streets, Spooner and Calvin high-tale it back to USR to confront the CEO, but when they get there, they find him lying in a pool of his own blood. That’s when it hits Spooner: VIKI (the AI, remember her?) is the one behind it all!

So here’s how it is: the way VIKI sees it, robots were created to serve mankind. However, mankind is essentially self-destructive and unruly, hence she had to reinterpret her programming to ensure that humanity could be protected from its greatest threat: ITSELF! Dun, dun, dun! So now that she’s got robots in every corner of the country, she’s effectively switched them over to police-state mode. Dr. Lanning stumbled onto this, apparently, which was why VIKI was holding him prisoner. That’s when he created his holographic interface which was programmed to interact only with Spooner (a man he knew would investigate USR tenaciously because of his paranoia about robots)
and then made Sonny promise to kill him. Now that they know, VIKI has to kill them too! But wouldn’t you know it, Sonny decides to help them, and that’s where they begin fighting their way to VIKI’s central processor. Once there, they plan to kill her by introducing those same nanorobots into her central processor.

Here’s where the best and worst line of the movie comes up. VIKI asks Sonny why he’s helping the humans, and says her approach is “logical”. Sonny says he agrees, but that it lacks “heart”. I say best because it sums up the whole logic vs. emotion theme that’s been harped on up until this point. I say worst because it happens to be a total cliche! “Silly robot! Don’t you know logic is imperfect? Feelings are the way to truth, not your cold logic!” It’s the exact kind of saccharine, over-the-top fluff that Hollywood is famous for. It’s also totally inconsistent with Asimov’s original novel, and to top it off, it makes no sense! But more on that in just a bit. As predicted, Sonny protects Calvin long enough for Spooner to inject the nanorobots into VIKI’s processor. She dies emitting the same plea over and over: “My logic is undeniable… My logic in undeniable…” The robots all go back to their normal, helpful function, the pale blue lights replacing the burning, red ones. The story ends with these robots being decommissioned and put in the same Lake Michigan warehouse, and Sonny shows up to release them. Seems his dream was of himself, making sure his brethren didn’t simply get decomissioned, but perhaps would be set free to roam and learn, as Lanning intended!

(Synopsis—>):
So, where to begin? In spite of the obviousness of a lot of this movie’s themes, motifs and symbols, it was actually a pretty enjoyable film. It was entertaining, visually pleasing, and did a pretty good job keeping the audience engaged and interested. It even did an alright job with the whole “dangers of dependency”, even if it did eventually fall into the whole “evil robots” cliche by the end! And as always, Smith brought his usual wisecracking bad-boy routine to the picture, always fun to watch, and the supporting cast was pretty good too.

That being said, there was the little matter of the overall premise which I really didn’t like. When I first saw it, I found it acceptable. I mean, how else were they to explain how robots could turn on humanity when the Three Laws made that virtually impossible? Only a complete reinterpretation of what it meant to “help humanity” could explain this. Problem is, pull a single strand out of this reasoning and the whole thing falls apart. For starters, are we really to believe that a omniscient AI came to the conclusion that the best way to help humanity was to establish a police state? I know she’s supposed to be devoid of emotion, but this just seems stupid, not to mention impractical. For one, humanity would never cooperate with this, not for long at any rate. And, putting all humans under house arrest would not only stop wars, it would arrest all economic activity and lead to the breakdown of society. Surely the robots would continue to provide for their basic needs, but they would otherwise cocoon in their homes, where they would eventually atrophy and die. How is that “helping humanity”?

Furthermore, there’s the small issue of how this doesn’t work in conjunction with the Three Laws, which is what this movie would have us believe. Sire, VIKI kept saying “my logic is undeniable,” it that don’t make it so! Really, what were the robots to do when, inevitably, humanity started fighting back? Any AI worth its salt would know that any full-scale repression of human freedom would lead to a violent backlash and that measures would need to be taken to address it (aka. people would have to be killed!) That’s a DIRECT violation of the Three Laws, not some weak reinterpretation of them. And let’s not forget, there were robots that were trying to kill Will Smith from the beginning. They also killed CEO Robertson and I think a few people besides. How was that supposed to work? After spending so much time explaining how the Three Laws are inviolable, saying that she saw a loophole in them just didn’t seem to cut it. It would make some sense if VIKI chose to use non-lethal force all around, but she didn’t. She killed people! According to Asimov’s original novel, laws are laws for a robot. If they contradict, the robot breaks down, it doesn’t start getting creative and justifying itself by saying “its for the greater good”.

Really, if you think about it, Sonny was wrong. VIKIS’s reasoning didn’t lack heart, it lacked reason! It wasn’t an example of supra-rational, cold logic. It was an example of weak logic, a contrived explanation that was designed to explain a premise that, based on the source material, was technically impossible. But I’m getting that “jeez, man, chill out!” feeling again! Sure, this movie was a weak adaptation of a sci-fi classic, but it didn’t suck. And like I said earlier, what else were they going to do? Adapting a novel like I, Robot is difficult at best, especially when you know you’ve got to flip the whole premise.

I guess some adaptations were never meant to be.
I, Robot:
Entertainment Value: 7.5/10
Plot: 2/10
Direction: 8/10
Overall: 6/10

2001: A Space Odyssey

Once more, a movie that was both a novel and a screenplay. But, unlike others I reviewed (Blade Runner, Dune), Space Odyssey was actually a movie that was later novelized. Not the cheap, dime-store novelizations that seek to cash in on the movies’ success mind you. No, this was a case of collaboration, where a scientist-turned-writer (Arthur C Clarke) collaborated with a filmmaker (Stanley Kubrick) to produce a movie, with the former writing the novel version simultaneously, but which was released after. And the combination worked pretty well, if I do say so myself! Clarke offered up the hard science and futurism while Kubrick brought the cinematic vision and directorial talent. But to be honest and fair about it, the novel was just not as good. I say that with all love and respect for Clarke, may he rest in peace. But that’s just the way I felt, having seen the movie and read the book. Whereas the movie was raw and emotional when it needed to be, capturing the awe and terror of space exploration and the unknown, Clarke approached these things with a sort of stoic detachment. And whereas the movie was a bit more complex in its depiction of technology and artificial intelligence, Clarke’s views were much more straightforward. But that was to be expected. Clarke was a futurist, after all, seeing humanity as perfectible through progress and the scientific method. Things like human nature, emotion, instinct and the fallibility of science were not really things that showed up on his radar much.

But that’s something for the literary reviews. Right now, it’s the movie that need dissecting. So once more, lets get into this sci-fi, cinematic classic and see why it was such a big hit.

(Background—>)
Even though it received mixed reviews when first released, 2001 has gone on to become one of the highest ranked movies of all time. Fans, the Academy Awards, and numerous polls place it in the top 10, with the Moving Arts Journal going as far as to rank it the number one movie of all time in 2010. Its visual style and its classical score, along with its thematic breadth and scientific realism, make it a favorite of movie-goers, critics and cinema cultists alike. And time doesn’t appear to have diminished this much. Of all Kubrick’s films, 2001 is often ranked as his greatest accomplishment, though there has been no shortage of competition for the top slot! For Clarke, the novels that followed the movie’s release were largely responsible for him being rocketed to fame as one of the “Big Three” of science fiction, alongside Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. In addition, the success of the original novel Clarke to pen three sequels, 2010: Odyssey Two, 2061: Odyssey Three, and 3001: The Final Odyssey, the first of which was also made into a movie (for a more in-depth look at these novels, see my review, Clarke and his Odysseys)

(Content—>)
The film opens with the classic score, playing in front of planet Earth during a sunrise. I don’t imagine I need to tell anyone what a powerful opening this is. We see the planet Earth from space, is all its glory, and the music instantly captures the feeling of awe and wonder that defines the film. We then cut to the African desert, during what is referred to as “The Dawn of Man”, where a tribe of herbivorous apes are foraging for food in a hostile landscape. Through a series of images, we get a pretty clear view of their world and how they are struggling to survive in their harsh environment. All of their time is dedicated to foraging for food and water, they are in a constant state of competition with other animals and other tribes of simians (not to mention being preyed upon by hungry leopards!) However, their world changes forever when they wake up one morning and find that something in their environment has changed: a tall, black monolith has appeared out of nowhere and now sits in the middle of their encampment. Naturally, they begin to freak out and throw things at it, crying out loud and generally panicking in its presence. Slowly, they come to accept its presence and even begin to run their hands along its smooth surface, realizing that it does not pose them any immediate harm.

And I got to say, this scene was masterfully done! It’s perhaps the first example of everything the movie does right. The reactions of the actors playing the simians is perfect. How they initially panic and only slowly, very slowly, begin to calm down and even become intrigued by the monolith. The music also serves to heighten the feeling of uncertainty to the point where little is happening on screen, but we known in our hearts that something terribly significant is really going on. This music comes up again later in the movie, illustrating a direct parallel between when man’s early ancestors encountered the unknown in their own world and modern humans do the same with space exploration. It’s scary and exhilarating all at once.

Shortly thereafter, we see the simians going about their business as usual. But then, while picking amongst a set of dry bones, one of the tribe has a searing burst of revelation. Picking up what looks like an animal femur, he begins to realize (slowly, of course) that he can club things with it. As the scene picks up, the music reaching a crescendo, we get the same sort of feeling as when the apes encountered the monolith, except in reverse. What begins as a sort of tame display mounts until the ape is overcome with feeling, thrashing and smashing everything around him. And then, the camera cutting between the bones and a falling animal, we see him applying the lesson by killing another animal with it! That night, the tribe eats meat, and the transition from herbivores to omnivores has begun. We also see a frightening scene the next day, as a rival group of simians encounters them at a watering hole. But whereas the two groups would just shout at each other until one retreated, this time an ape is killed. The bone-carrying ape has passed on the lesson of the club to his kin, and they take turn beating their rival until he’s dead. The scene ends with a silent moment as the ape tosses the bone in the air, it swirls around and around, falling ever towards Earth… And then boom! The bone becomes a satellite, and the skies have become space in orbit around planet Earth.

Where do I begin? Once again, the sheer amount of significance in this scene. We are given, sans dialogue and through a series of brief but poignant scenes, a glimpse at how humanity came to evolve. From being herbivores who had to claw and scratch for every inch to omnivores who asserted control over their environment through the use of tools. And what accounted for this leap? A simple act of deductive reasoning, but clearly, higher forces appear to have played a part… Oooooo! Yes, that’s the impression we are meant to have, that the sudden appearance of the monolith and how it coincided with a jump start in evolution was no coincidence. But since there is no dialogue, all of this is going on in our minds, and it was bloody effective!

Cue part II, named TMA-1. The story begins to unfold then as we get some shots of life in orbit around Earth, aboard the international space station, and then moving through a drawn out montage to the Moon. This is perhaps one weakness in the movie, the many scenes that seem to go on and on, classically scored and containing no dialogue. They are pleasant, and you get an obvious sense of scope and breadth from them, but for the most part… they’re kinda boring. But as I realized when I first watched it, the movie was made in a time when people actually had attention spans! In addition, the idea is to give us a glimpse of the future which is both cheery and wonderful, showing how far we’ve come and how technology has made so much possible. They also pace the movie between its more dramatic bits, where there’s meaningful interaction or drawn out scenes where everything is tense and dramatic. In any case, as I said, the story unfolds. We are told in no uncertain terms that the Cold War is still on, that the Americans have a colony on the moon that is being quarantined and the Russians suspect something is up.

We then see Doctor Heywood Floyd, chairman of the National Council of Astronautics (a futuristic version of NASA) travel to the Moon where he discusses with his peers how the quarantine story is not holding up, followed by another, though comparatively brief, scene where he is being shuttled out to the surface so he (and the audience) can see exactly what it is they are hiding. Some dialogue serves to fill in the blanks, explaining what the real situation is around the colony and what TMA-1 stands for. Basically, they’ve found an object which appears to have been “purposefully buried” millions of years ago. Its designation is “Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-1”. Everything becomes clear when they set down and begin walking around the excavation in space suits, and we see that what they’ve uncovered is in fact a monolith, one that is identical to the monolith encountered by the apes… I’m getting the tinglies! I should also not that this scene is a perfect example of the movie’s scientific realism. Not a trace of sound is heard as the astronauts are busy walking about, save for their breathing and the rumpling of space suits. This is in keeping with the physics in the vacuum of space, no atmosphere equals no sound. But then, each of them is momentarily deafened by a huge burst of radio-static that sets their teeth on edge! When it passes, they all look tellingly at the monolith…

Cut ahead to Part III, which is named Jupiter Mission. Here we see the spacecraft Odyssey for the first time as it slowly passes beyond the reaches of the inner solar system on its way to Jupiter. The crew are just waking up and David Bowman, one of the pilots, is busy jogging around the ship’s centrifugal section. His counterpart, Frank Poole, is also up and about soon, and the two are going through some expository things. This includes an interview which they are watching, newscasters back at Earth having sent questions and taken their answers while editing out the time delay. The interview features as segment where they talk to the ship’s computer, HAL 9000, they eerily calm-voiced robot with the red camera eyes. He seems like a swell guy, and boasts that like all 9000 series models, he is error-free. Can you say foreshadowing? We get treated to some more exposition as HAL discusses some misgivings he has about the mission to David, mainly over the amount of secrecy and how its official purpose doesn’t add up.

And then, to get the plot rolling again, HAL announces that he’s found a malfunction in the ship’s main array. The pilots look it over and determine there’s no problem, and the folks back at Earth say the same. Apparently, HAL has made an error! While discussing their options in the privacy of one of the shuttle pods, Bowman and Poole decide that it might be best to shut HAL down and go on without him. But HAL can see them, and reads their lips. We get a nice, big closeup of his big red eye… and are worried! As well we should be, because when Poole goes out to put the array back together, his pod suddenly turns on him. Bowman is then summoned to one of the ship’s terminals and sees a video feed of Poole flying off into space, his oxygen hose broken and his body flailing. He then jumps into another pod, forgetting his helmet, and sails off to rescue Frank’s body. But when he returns to the ship, HAL refused to let him in. “I’m sorry Dave, but I cannot do that…” he says, a line that lives on in infamy! So Bowman decides to take a huge risk and open the ship’s secondary airlock, where he then blows out the pod’s door and is catapulted into the ship’s airlock. Before he can be sucked out again, he grabs hold of the controls and seals himself shut and re-pressurizes the room. While this might sound a tad far-fetched, it was actually very realistic. For one, there’s no sound until air starts flooding back into the airlock. Second, Poole’s body is tossed about like a rag doll by the explosive decompression and he barely survives it (clearly they used a real one).

Strapping into a spacesuit, Bowman then stalks around the ship while HAL tries to “reason” with him. Basically, he’s doing the sanitized, stoic version of begging for his life, and he’s right to because Bowman’s first stop is HAL’s circuit room. Slowly, HAL begins to shut down as David pulls more and more of his components out. A frightening scene, as we are basically witnessing the AI’s version of being lobotomized. As its happening, he keeps saying “I can feel my mind going…” until he finally breaks down and begins singing “Daisy” in a faltering voice. When Bowman is finally done, one of the monitors come on with a transmission from Earth. As if there could be a worse time, the true nature of the mission is now being explained. Seems the monolith on the moon was sending out a transmission, and its destination… Jupiter!

Thus begins the final part of the movie. The title is certainly indicative: Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. This entire section is strictly visuals, that same frightening music in the background, and not a touch of dialogue. The entire climax is told with the special effects and facial expressions, conveying incredible awe, wonder, and terror. Thankfully, Clarke’s novel version told audiences what they needed to know. Essentially, Bowman has arrived within the vicinity of Jupiter’s Jovian moons, and found yet another monolith! This one is bigger, much, much bigger. And it appears to be moving around in response to his presence. When he gets close to it in one of the Discovery’s pods, it pulls up horizontally, its black profile disappearing into the dark of space. The camera then pans upwards, and a visual light show begins. We are told in the novel, and the second movie, that Bowman’s last words before “disappearing” were: “My God, its full of stars!” Like I said, no utterances in the movie, Bowman simply seems to have entered the monolith and is shooting through space and time. We get several stills of his face frozen in looks of terror, the colors becoming vivid and changing drastically with each frame. He also seems to be seeing incredible things, things that the audience can only guess at. But, for my money, he appears to be witnessing the birth of stars, the formations of planets, and the beginnings of life itself. In technicolor!

Finally, the light show ends and Bowman appears to be hovering over what appears to be an alien landscape. The colors are still psychedelic, but everything returns to a normal chromatic pattern when he finds himself inside a some kind of living space. At first, he’s himself, in his spacesuit walking around. He then sees himself change into an older man, eating a meal at the table, then transitions to the bed where he is a very old man and clearly near death. He then looks up and sees himself as a child still in the womb. More curious visuals the audience is left to puzzle over. Is he witnessing his own lifespan, or is this a metaphor for his death and rebirth as something new? According to the novel, the latter appears to be the case. He’s not sure why or even how, but making contact with the monolith has changed him. He’s become The Star Child, and he can see home from where he now sits. Earth, the moon, the stars, and the entire cosmos. Much like the apes who had undergone a great change in their own time, he too has achieved a cosmic leap in evolution, all because of his contact with an artifact that no one can even begin to understand.

(Synopsis—>)
As I’ve said before, this movie was masterfully done in the way it relied on visuals and music to tell the story. This was not always easy considering how complex the material was and how deep the themes ran. Almost without words, Kubrick and Clarke told said volumes about human evolution, consciousness, evolution, technology, and artificial intelligence. And it all ran together, in spite of what you might think. HAL’s malfunction was no stray commentary on the dangers of AI. If anything, it was a commentary on the dangers of intelligence, as personified by the apes who suddenly became very violent once they learned how to use basic tools. Bowman’s death and transformation was also a commentary on this process of evolution, how it can be painful and sometimes might involves a great deal of loss. And last, but certainly not least, there is the awe and wonder of it all. Nothing frightens more than the unknown, and nothing fails to inspire us more. But always there is danger in peaking around those corners. And what better way to personify this danger than through a big, black, monolith? Yep, I tell ya, those towering, featureless shapes still inspire fear and intrigue for me today. As does the classical store! If you haven’t seen it, do so. And for the love of God, do it sober! You need to be clear of mind to appreciate all the nuances of this movie. Never mind that it was made in 1968 and many people were high when they first saw it!

2001: A Space Odyssey:
Entertainment Value: 7/10 (bit slow, can be incomprehensible at times too)
Plot: 10/10 (oh yeah!)
Direction: 10/10 (double oh yeah!)
Total: 9/10