News from Mars: Soil Good for Growing!

Mars_GreenhouseWith numerous plans for a manned mission to Mars, some of which are scheduled to one-way settlement projects, the question of how and what people on Mars will eat is an important one. What will the Martian diet look like? How will they grow their food? Will it people subsist on endless supplies of freeze-dried rations, or will they get all the veggies, fruits and protein they need from hydroponic produce?

Well, according to Dutch ecologist Wieger Wamelink, the Martian settlers might just be able to grow their food in the local soil. In a series of experiments using soil tailored to fit extra-terrestrial environments, Wamelink was able to make a mustard seed sprout. The soil was provided by NASA, a sample which they had collected from the desert, dried out, and cleansed of certain nutrients that’s meant to replicate what Martian and lunar soil would be like.

martian_plantWamelink had ordered more than 100 pounds of each type to his research greenhouse in the Netherlands to see what kinds of plant life might prosper in greenhouses on other planets. He and his team planted tomato seeds, stinging nettle, carrots, rye, and a host of other wild species in the soils in a series of 840 pots, then published their results in PLOS One late last month.

As Wamelink, who works for the Alterra Institute at the University of Wageningen, explained:

I think we’re really the first to do that. We have looked at how plants see what [nutrients are] available in these soils, and it was unknown to NASA. They were very happy when we sent our results.

MarsGreenhouse2What was perhaps most impressive about the results was how well some plants fared in the imitation Mars soil. Some seeds germinated after just 24 hours and flowered within 50 days, something Wamelink had never expected. He knew that nitrogen might not be available in alien soils, but when he analyzed the Martian soil compared to nutrient-poor sand from the banks of the Rhine, he found that Mars actually had much more going for it than he thought.

The Martian atmosphere contains nitrogen, and gusts of gases from the sun charge the nitrogen into a form that is digestible for plants. The planet also contains phosphorus, ammonium, and nitrates – all essential for plant growth. Field mustard and a tough, wild Dutch species called “reflexed stone crop” produced some of the best results. Lunar soil, by contrast, didn’t provide very friendly turf for earthling plant species.

apollo_11_bootprint-e1405838911229Soil on the moon is thin, dusty, and full of aluminum and other heavy metals. Martian soil also contains lots of heavy metals, but it is aluminum that most plants don’t do too well in the presence of. So for the time being (or rather, if and when we settle the Moon), Lunar greenhouses will have to look to imports of Earth soil while Martian settlers can simple scoop the soil they need from outside their airlocks.

However, there are a few snags. For starters, even though Wamelink’s study provided some of the first evidence that species of Earth plants can grow on planets other than Earth, it still doesn’t show how eating those plants might affect humans. The Martian surface experiences lots of radiation, and eating radioactive plants full of heavy metals might not be the best idea for the human digestive system.

mars_growopNevertheless, Wamelink believes that some aspects of the Martian climate might actually be beneficial for plant growth. On a planet with a third of the gravitational pull of Earth, he suspects that plants might be able to grow taller than they ever would on their home planet. In his mind’s eye, he pictures plants encased in skyscraper Martian greenhouses. Alas, not all scientists agree with him, and he admits its an unresolved issue.

Still, its an exciting one that is loaded with potential. And who’s to say that after a little processing and decontamination, Martian soil would have everything the settlers need to grow their own food? The very fact that it is being considered and examined so seriously shows our commitment to making an enduring human presence on Mars a reality someday. And as that day get’s closer, more and more questions are likely to be addressed.

terraformingAnd figuring out how to grow our own crops in Martian soil will provide inevitable feedback on how we could use Earth plants to one day convert the ecology of the Red Planet and make it into something a little more suited to full-scale habitation. Who knows? In a few centuries time, Red Mars may become Green Mars. And perhaps even Blue Mars. Oh, Kim Stanley Robinson, you daring dreamer, you!

Source: fastcoexist.com

A Look at “Living Mars”

Living-Mars With the confirmation that Mars with once home to oceans and rivers, and with speculation that a terraformed Mars will once again, there are many who wonder what a “Blue Mars” would look like. As it happens, a software engineer named Kevin Gill took it upon himself to create a series of images showing what a “living Mars” might look like.

Relying on his own imagination and a series of combined source material, the Red Planet gets a makeover, with aesthetically pleasing results! In an interview via email, Gill said the following of his process:

“This was something that I did both out of curiosity of what it would look like and to improve the software I was rendering this in. I am a software engineer by trade and certainly no planetary scientist, so with the exception of any parts derived from actual data, most of it is assumptions I made based on simply comparing the Mars terrain to similar features here on Earth (e.g. elevation, proximity to bodies of water, physical features, geographical position, etc) and then using the corresponding textures from the Blue Marble images to paint the flat image layer in a graphics program.”

Living-Mars.2For example, the view above is of the western hemisphere of Mars, with Olympus Mons on the horizon beyond the Tharsis Montes volcanoes and the Valles Marineris canyons near the center. The placement of clouds and the atmosphere was mainly to achieve a sense of scale and grandeur, but the rest is in keeping with information obtained by NASA over the years.

And these are just some of the images Gill has made over the years. His Flickr is awash in visualizations, many of which are of Mars, the Moon, and of course Earth, all of which are rendered from orbit. He also makes 3D models of geographic features, which comes in handy when its time to construct large-scale models.

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.

Remembering Ray Bradbury (1920 – 2012)

Ray Douglas Bradbury (August 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012)

Yesterday, one of the greatest sci-fi minds of the 20th center, Ray Bradbury, died at the age of 91 after a lengthy illness. His publisher, HarperCollins, were apparently the ones to break the news to the world. Best known for his seminal dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury quickly joined the ranks of authors like Orwell, Huxley, Clarke, and Asimov, in that he was a speculative author who’s predictions rapidly came true.

Amongst such things were the emergence of ATMs, wall-sized televisions, interactive entertainment, and live broadcasts of fugitive car chases. In addition to Fahrenheit 451, he also penned the Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and Something Wicked this Way Comes, and over 600 other works of fiction, articles and essays. As such, his influence and legacy are truly immeasurable.

So, in honor of this sci-fi great, whom I waited a very long time to read, I shall delve into his best known works and try to explain exactly why they were so enduring and influential. Let’s start with the book that earned him his reputation in the first place:

Fahrenheit 451 (1953):
This dystopian piece of speculative fiction takes place in the late 20th century, when American culture has degenerated into a form of brutal escapism. Nuclear war looms on the horizon, books have been banned, and for the majority of people, cocooning in their homes in front of their wall-sized monitors seems like the perfect distraction.

The story takes place from the point of view of a Fireman named Guy Montag, who’s job consists of located offenders and burning their books. This is the role of firemen in the future, who instead of fighting fires are responsible for starting them. Montag is unhappy with his life and suffering from a deep sense of disquiet.

Until one night when a young woman named Clarisse shakes up his worldview. Whereas most people in Montag’s world seemed numbed and dead, she is vital and alive, and questions just about everything. Shortly thereafter, she dies in a tragic accident, which shakes Montag’s world up even more.

He too begins questioning the rules, he steals books from jobs he is meant to pull, and begins reading them. Realizing he is now in violation of the law, he seeks out other offenders for answers. This brings him into contact with Faber, a former English professor that Montag knows can help. In time, Faber is convinced to bring him into this confidence and reveals that he is part of a circle that is dedicated to the preservation of written knowledge.

Eventually, Montag is found out and must flee. His boss, it seems, has known for quite for some time what he is up to but extended him some courtesy because he knows what he’s going through. More enlightened than the average person, Montag’s boss explains to him why books have been banned and why they must destroy them. Rather than the result of forced censorship, the process was entirely voluntary. People chose mindless entertainment, distraction and fast cars over reading, reflection and learning.

Montag’s escape from his house and the police becomes the subject of the evening news. He manages to elude the authorities and meets up with the reading circle down by the river. Interestingly enough, he flees the city just in time to witness being destroyed from a nuclear attack. It seems the build-up to Armageddon has finally ended and nuclear war has come. Montag leaves with the group, who’s mission now has become one of preserving civilization as well as literature.

What was enduringly brilliant about this book was not so much the predictions about technology or the emergence of book banning, but the reasons for it. Capturing the zeitgeist of his age, Bradbury essentially felt that a shocked and fearful society would seek escape by the most convenient means available to them. And whereas most dystopian novels involve ignorance and illiteracy being forced by a brutal regime, Bradbury believed that the process would be entirely voluntary. In this respect, he captured the same essence as Huxley, another dystopian critic who believed man’s appetite for distraction would be it’s undoing.

The Martian Chronicles (1950):
Though written before Fahrenheit 451, the MC gained notoriety more slowly, but eventually became recognized as one of the great works of science fiction. A collection of loosely based stories rather than a single novel, the book follows the future history of colonization on Mars, dealing with all kinds of speculative, existential and scientific questions.

The overall structure of the book comes in three parts, punctuated by two catastrophes. The first is the near-extinction of the Martians, while the second is the parallel near-extinction of the human race. In first part of the book takes place at the end of the 20th century and details mankind’s efforts to reach Mars, and the various ways in which the Martian natives keep them from returning. However, towards the end (in the story “—And the Moon be Still as Bright”) it is revealed the majority of the Martians have died as a result of a plague brought from Earth.

This opens Act II, taking place in the early 21st century, where humans begin colonizing the Red Planet. On occasion, they have the opportunity to make contact with the surviving Martians, but mainly are concerned with building a second Earth. However, many settlers begin to pack up and leave as looming nuclear war on Earth causes them to want to get back and be with their families. The outbreak of this war signals the end of Act II and the opening of the third act.

In the third and final act of the book, all contact has been lost with Earth when the nuclear war takes place. As the war passes, those humans who have survived on Mars have began building a distinct civilization and having children who have only known life on the Red Planet, effectively becoming Martian themselves. This prospect allows the book to return to its beginning, as it is suggested that new waves of colonists will soon be coming and conflicts are likely to emerge as a result.

This book was not only brilliant in that it addressed a great deal of scientific and existential questions that are sure to come when actual colonization begins (if ever). It also managed to capture a sense of timeless truth and lessons which come from real history, or the “Age of Discovery” as its known. These included the destruction of native inhabitants, the push-pull factors which lead to colonization, severance from the homeland, and eventual adaptation as new people begin to embrace the new environment as their home.

Much like KSR’s Mars Series, this book should be required reading if ever any Ares missions get underway!

The Illustrated Man (1951):
Much like the Martian Chronicles, this book is a collection of short stories linked by a common theme. Through its exploration of humankind, the recurring theme is one of conflict between cold mechanics and technology and the basic nature of human beings. Many of these stories have been adapted into film over the years and been used in schools as educational tools. Some examples include:

“The Veldt” – in this story, we see a family who’s children have become terribly attached to the houses’ high tech nursery. Like a holodeck from Star Trek, the children use this to create virtual environments – in this case, the predatory environment of the African veldt. When the parents threaten to take it away, the children lock them inside and they are apparently consumed by the lions. thought it is not outright said, it is implied that the children have reprogrammed the unit to become real and have been “feeding” people to it for some time.

“The Other Foot” – in this exercise in turnabout, we learn that Mars has been colonized solely by people of African descent. When they learn that a rocket is coming from Earth with white travelers, they decide to institute a system of racial segregation similar to that of the Jim Crow Laws of the American South, in retaliation for the wrongs of history. However, when the rocket lands the traveler tells them that most of the Earth has been destroyed in a nuclear war and the people realize that discrimination is harmful in all its forms. They rescind their discriminatory laws and welcome the new crew as equals.

“The Man” – A group of space explorers land on a planet to find the population living in a healthy state of bliss. Upon investigation, they discover that an enigmatic visitor came to them, who they eventually conclude was Jesus (or some other religious persona since He was never named). Some decide to spend the rest of their days rejoicing with the natives, while another decides to continue on in his spaceship in the hopes of catching up with this person. While he spends the rest of his days in hot pursuit, always one step behind and never quite catching up to him, the other learn that “he” is still on the planet with them. Hello metaphor!

The Exiles” – taking a page (no pun!) from Fahrenheit 451, this story revolves around the concept of burning books and the immeasurable nature of knowledge being lost forever. It begins with stating that numerous works of literature have been banned and burned on Earth. The fictional characters of these books are portrayed as real-life entities who live in a refuge on Mars. These characters are vulnerable however since once all the books on a character are destroyed, that character vanishes permanently. When the group of characters learn that some people are coming for them, they stage a counterattack, but are foiled by the astronauts who burn the last remaining books from Earth, unknowingly annihilating the entire colony.

“Marionettes, Inc.” – A man attempts to escape his marriage by replacing himself with a robot to fool his wife into thinking he hasn’t left and tells a friend about it. The man comes back and tells the robot to go back into the box, and the robot disobeys him saying he has fallen in love with the wife. The robot then proceeds to put the man in the box and replaces him for real. Sound familiar?

“The Illustrated Man” – The namesake of the book, this story involves an overweight carnival worker is given a second chance as a Tattooed Man, and visits a strange woman who applies skin illustrations over his entire body. She covers two special areas, claiming they will show the future. When the first is revealed, it’s an illustration of the man strangling his wife. Shortly after this comes to pass, the carnival workers run the man down, beat him, and look at the second area, which shows an illustration of the same beating they are doing. Can you say self-fulfilling prophecy?

Most of these stories would probably sound familiar in one way or anther, but that’s because they’ve been adapted, copied and referenced by countless pop culture sources. I myself recall watching “The Veldt” in school and being chilled by its eerie and dystopian tone. “Marionettes Inc.” has been adapted into comedy format numerous times, and the theme of prophecy and fulfillment in “The Illustrated Man” has inspired countless stories, not the least of which are The Butterfly Effect and perhaps even PKD’s Minority Report.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962):
A somewhat off-beat work for Bradbury, who’s works consist mainly of speculative sci-fi, this fantasy/horror novel has nevertheless become a household name for fans of the dark and weird. Set in modern a day Midwestern town, the story revolves around a visiting carnival and its mysterious director, Mr. Black.

Enter into this the story’s protagonists, two 13 year old boys, Jim Nightshade and William Halloway, who witness the arrival of the carnival and become immediately enthralled with it. They quickly realize that everyone who works there has been lured into Mr. Dark’s service through the promise of being able to live out their fantasies. For most people, these involve become younger, a gift he confers on several characters through his “magic” carousel.

In time, they come to realize that Mr. Dark holds these people under his sway and has a tatoo of each of them on his body, a symbol of his control. Charles Holloway, William’s father, looks into Mr. Dark’s past and realizes he can be defeated through love. It is unclear what this entails, but after the boy’s are kidnapped, he comes to the carnival and begins destroying it’s structures and Dark’s protectors by expressing laughter and joy. He and his son use the same tactic to eventually bring down Mr. Dark and bring Jim back from death, who was stuck on the carousel and rapidly aging.

Though different from most of his other works in terms of genre, this story did contain many elements which were present in his other stories. For example, the concept of the carnival and the tattooed man was the basis of “The Illustrated Man”. The nostalgic feel of the story was also to be found in his novel Dandelion Wine, and is often paired with this novel as presenting both the lighter and darker sides of childhood. And of course, the novels resolution, where good prevails through purity of heart, is to be found in many of Bradbury’s works.

Because of its focus on good versus evil, childhood, and coming of age, this story was to have a profound effect on several authors, the most notable of which is Stephen King. Citing Something Wicked as his inspiration, King attributed a debt to Bradbury for helping to write It and Dreamcatcher.

Final Thoughts:
In the end, Bradbury was known for many things: originality, depth, vision and genius. But the thing that sticks with the most about him was his views on the preciousness of literature and knowledge. Basically, he expressed several times over how when something is lost, it’s lost forever. I can only assume then that he would take great comfort in knowing that he left the literary legacy that he did. Though he may no longer be with us, his works will live on and serve to inspire many generations to come.

I think this is a lesson we could all draw from. Though our time on this Earth may be short, we have the ability to leave our mark and ensure that some trace of us stays behind. So make those footprints people, write those manuscripts, and most importantly, tell the people you love how you feel. Do not leave things unsaid or undone, because someday, we will be gone…

So than you, Mr. Bradbury, for your many, many contributions. You did it right, and now you go on to join the other greats of your time. Rest In Peace.

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…