Winston Agonistes, Part III

Hey all. One thing that I like about summer, the added time it gives me to write! Yesterday, I went back to work on my story for Yuva, “Winston Agonistes” and finished part III. Last time, Winston met another synthetic named Yohanley, a aging AI who perplexed him with some rather odd questions. After asking him what he was, he told him that time would effectively erase all barriers between himself and his masters. Not knowing what to make of it, Winston put the encounter out of his mind and went on about his work.

And now, Winston is hard at work, accompanying the planetary council as they mount a diplomatic mission to another settlement. The mission proves interesting, as Winston is finding the settlers attitude towards him is undergoing a shift. He also begins to realize that much of what the Council has been doing of late is cloaked in secrecy, which is strange given that governments usually need more time to become clandestine. And last, he is beginning to contemplate what Yohanley said and what significance it might have for him. Could it all be connected…

“Everyone set?”

The personnel inside all signaled with a raised hand or a thumbs up gesture. The deckhand nodded and shut the vehicle’s door. Air seals engaged and the cabin suddenly became airtight. Still, no one inside seemed to feel comfortable enough to remove their helmets. The engine engaged and the cabin lurched a second later. They were, as the saying went, on the move. Their next stop, the Jiahu settlement and their litany of responsibilities.

They passed beyond the doors of the settlement, and the cabin filled with a bright orange glow. Winston set his eyes to the cabin’s window and watched as the surface began to roll past. Under the exposure of the sun, the earth looked much the same color as the sky, a warm, golden brown. The ATV blew by these quickly, leaving clouds of sand in its wake.

Before long, Winston could see native flora pass them by. It was sparse at first, but soon large stretches of the ruddy and purple mosses could be seen, the rich fungi that were indigenous to the surface. One had to travel some distance now to see these, even more so to witness the indigenous Deveroza that were once so common to the region. Strange, the plants seemed to grow through conveyance, but also demonstrated the trend of avoidance.

Curious…

“What do you see, Winston?” asked Bhutto, seated next to him. The words were muffled by the helmet she was still in the process of removing. He looked in time to see her hair extricate itself from her helmet in the form of a knotted tail. Somewhat shorter than usual, he noted.

“Councilor, have you done something with your hair?”

She smiled and touched a finger to the tail. “Yes, I trimmed it in anticipation for the mission. I didn’t want it coiling up around my face inside this thing. I might suffocate myself.”

Statistically unlikely, but Winston knew it to be a jest. He chuckled in accordance.

“So… what do you see?” she asked again. Winston looked out again and surveyed the landscape. The moss was getting thicker, the ATV’s wheels registering greater resistance as its adhesive filaments came into contact with its tires. Still, he knew that the question had an abstract feel to it, irrespective of the terrain’s objective qualities.

“Progress,” he said. “I see a world in transition, moving towards total transformation.”

Bhutto hummed happily. Clearly that was the answer she was hoping for. Their efforts, couched in such positivistic terms. Implying linear advancement, the inevitability of desired outcomes.

“What do you see?” he asked. She looked at him with some surprise. Perhaps she thought he had said it all already.

“Dirt,” She replied. “And moss. Raw material waiting to be molded.”

Interesting. He had thought she was digressing into the literal. It was good to know the metaphor was still in play.

“A new homeworld for our people.”

“Precisely.” She put her hand to his arm and gave it a squeeze. “And it’s amazing how fast it will happen, once everything is in place and ready to go.”

“You refer to the terraforming efforts, Councilor?”

She shook her head. “That’s just the beginning. Phase One. Phase two will be much more impressive.” Her expression changed and she released her hold on his arm. “But of course, that’s not for me to share.”

Winston nodded. Her eyes had taken on a longing quality. He turned his eyes back to the horizon, hoping to catch a glimpse of what she saw. She spoke of things he was not privy to, information that the Council did not readily share with him. Were he in possession of the decidedly human quality of impertinence, he might be inclined to exploit the moment to find out more. But every government was to be forgiven for keeping some information firmly under control.

At least, once it was up and running. Their own was still barely out of its cradle. Secrets at this juncture seemed somewhat… irregular.

Things changed suddenly, their transit becoming smoother. The cabins com pinged. The voice of the driver came on to make an announcement.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are Jiahu is twenty minutes.”

“Excellent,” Winston said, clapping his hands together. He looked over to Bhutto, who had her helmet poised on her lap, ready to put back on once they arrived. He would have to ask now to avoid any awkwardness later.

“Do you think I could witness the proceedings, Councilor?”

She looked at his strangely. “You want to meet the mayor?”

“Just to be on hand for the meeting. I would find it most… stimulating.”

Bhutto nodded but looked away. Of all the Council, she seemed the least uncomfortable around Winston and other synthetics. Asking her seemed to be the logical choice. And yet, her hesitation gave him a strong indication of his chances. So did her tone.

“I will ask. But of course, this is Councilor Muhlu’s show. Final approval will have to come from him.”

“Thank you. Please be persuasive.”

Bhutto laughed. He put his odds of a successful case at 2.6468 to 1, against. Not entirely bad, all things considered. Getting better too. With time, he imagined he would be privy to all proceedings and internal matters.

Time… wasn’t that what Yohanley said was key? Was this what he meant. Who could be sure? It was entirely possible that model was experiencing a breakdown. His processors producing nonsense due to lack of maintenance. He would have to make such inquiries with Maintenance once they returned. Such a presence could be dangerous to the settlement.

“Look!” Bhutto pointed out the window. Winston obliged.

On the horizon, just off to their left, the gleaming cupola of Jiahu appeared. Its tall buildings were outlined in light within the dome’s enclosures. And within, the very person who could make or break their constitutional process. Mayor Len Wu, leader of the East Asian bloc, and one of Yuva’s most influential men.

Thank you and stay tuned. More to follow on this and other fronts, and my colleagues got plenty more to share as well!

“Winston Agonistes”, Take II

Hello all and welcome back to Anthology central, where news of the breaking “Yuva” novel is always on the table! Today, I thought I’d share my latest draft of “Winston Agonistes”, my own contribution to the anthology, which is coming along pretty well. After a week of writer’s block, and feeling that my ideas had to be grade A since Khaalidah and Goran were sending me pure gold, I finally got back to the keyboard with what I felt was some inspired stuff.

The first idea came to me when I was driving north with my darling bride. After passing the rose garden that sits outside our place and noticing all the lovely orange roses in bloom, we were driving along the highway that is lined by orange poppies. These plants, and many other incredibly beautiful specimens of flora, can always be observed growing along the Malahat drive on rocky outcroppings, especially in summer. Well, that got me thinking… isn’t it interesting how the hardiest plants seem to be the ones that generate the greatest beauty?

Immediately, I hard the voice of Winston saying this in my head. Naturally, I designed his character with the voice of David from Prometheus in mind. Somehow, I am of the opinion that an AI who is responsible for dealing with people, especially government officials, would be programmed to sound like a classical Shakespearean actor. And so I began thinking of a scene where Winston would be observing several species of plants, such as roses and poppies, and was reflecting on this very paradox.

Another thought struck me when I considered that in all likelihood, future terraformers would want to consider using such hardy plants when it came time to begin transforming a terrestrial environment to suit the basic needs of human settlers. Things like fireweed, garry oaks, poppies, roses, and wild strains of wheat – the kinds of plants that grow in harsh conditions and are intrinsic to nursing damaged landscapes back to health so more fragile and prolific plants can grow – these would likely be the first wave of Earth plants to go out onto an alien landscape, once an oxygen atmosphere had been established at any rate.

And last, but certainly not least, came the collaborative idea between Khaalidah and myself, where we discussed the possibility of how aging AI’s were learning a startling truth. Given than an AI’s neural network is designed based on the human brain, where every experience from birth causes neural connections to be formed, it would only be a matter of time before they began to develop certain quirks. We figured that something approximating emotion would be one, where familiar patterns such as exposure to certain people would become second nature to them, and missed when absent.

Well, that spawned all of part II of my story (as seen below). Take a gander and see what comes of Winston’s “education” about life, and it means to be an artificial life form in a world where the line between artificial and real is always eroding. Some revisions were made to Part I as well, hence why it appears here in its entirety. Feel free to skip ahead if you’ve already read it:

The sun was beginning to set, casting the sky into a deep orange. It was the time that the first settlers had called “the magic hour”, the many warm hours between dusk and dark. Winston stood at the dome wall and watched. On occasion, he cast a passing glance at his hands, which the glowing suns seemed to casting in the color of a light citrus fruit. He was sure he would find that amusing, if he could. He was sure there was much about this situation that would inspire an emotional reaction.

Alas, such was not the case. Though understandable to him, such things still remained inaccessible. Perhaps someday, with adequate upgrades in the available software…

“Mr. Winston?” a voice called to him from the doorway. The footsteps and tone of voice immediately indicated who it was. He put on a smile and turned to face him.

“Councilman Mutlu. How are you?”

“I’m fine, Mr. Winston,” he replied, entering the room. He looked around appraisingly, noting the furniture and layout. No doubt it all seemed excessive to him, but at the same time necessary. “I trust you are adjusting to your new surroundings?”

“Of course, Mr. Mutlu. I am settling in quite nicely.”

“Good, good,” he said, looking around awkwardly. Even without the ability to empathize, he could gauge the man’s discomfort. Then again, many people exhibited this reaction when in the company of a synthetic. In such circumstances, it was always best to focus on matters of a professional nature. At least that was what his subroutines told him.

“Would you care to sit down? I can offer you some refreshment as well if you so desire. Tea? Coffee?”

“Ah, tea, thank you.”

He busied himself with a tray of carafes and a heater as Mutlu took one of the chairs in front of his desk. He noted the sounds of shifting against the seat’s fabric, the way he kept moving his hands from one spot to the next. By the time the water had boiled in the heater and had located an appropriate tea from the stores, Mutlu seemed to have found a comfortable seated position. He approached him with all the assorted items on the tray that had been provided. He set it down between them on his desk and offered Mutlu a cup.

“The business of running a colony is quite stressful work, is it not Councilman?”

“Uh, yes, yes it is,” he said, taking the cup that was offered. “Have you had a chance to look over the proposals we have sent over.”

“I have indeed,” he said, taking the other cup and sitting back in his own chair. He knew this to be mere small talk, as the matter of processing those proposals had been a mere matter of dispensation. Assessing the nature of the problem, suggested measures, and weighing them according to the rubrics of his primary programming. Under the circumstances, asking such a question was completely inane, but in keeping with social norms.

“And what have you found?”

He took a sip from his cup before answering. “Quite simply, that the Council’s draft is in keeping with the best traditions of constitutionalism and humanism. That ensuring the rights of all citizens, regardless of their background prior to making the journey, is the most sensible course of approach. Ensuring that such a baseline exists at such an early stage is the wisest approach in both fostering amnesty between colonies while at the same guaranteeing that they submit to further negotiation.”

Mutlu looked down at his cup, back up again to his eyes. He seemed preoccupied with him performing this most basic function in front of him, but did not appear oblivious to his words. Eventually, he took another sip and smiled.

“Good. My colleagues will be most pleased to hear  that.”

He smiled in return. “Does the Council hold my endorsement in such high regard?”

Joviality. The gesture known as playful irony. Suggesting that the Councilor saw his approval as something very high indeed, a testament to his computational abilities. A gentle mockery of his obvious discomfort, meant to trigger a humorous response.

“Well yes…” he said, entirely serious. “I can only assume that you’ve subjected our hopes to proceed with a formal constitution to your… what did you call it again?”

“Ethical Calculus, sir.”

“Right!” Mutlu set his cup down and began to speak more freely. His hands began to provide gestures that accorded visual representation to his words. “After all, we’ve been subjected to a great deal of criticism from within and without, many people think we should be ironing out the basic agreements between colonies before we commit to any kind of draft that could commit us to policies down the road. I must say I find all those arguments…”

“Distasteful?” Winston suggested.  Mutlu nodded.

“Quite right… it seems a shameful thing that such cynicism has set into the process already. It’s almost as if they don’t think the colonists can…”

“Trust each other?”

Mutlu nodded again. He noticed a growing shimmer in the man’s eye. How quickly he was forgetting that the man sitting across from him was not a man at all.

“Exactly the point. And it’s not like we’re talking about disparate factions here. Everyone on this world came here with the same goal in mind. The same hope for a new beginning.”

“And yet, old habits die hard.”

Mutlu looked at him with surprise. “Are you saying you have doubts, then?”

Winston smiled as broadly as the muscle fibers in his face would permit.

“Purely an observation. Nevertheless, you and the Council are on the right track. You should take heart in that.”

“Excellent.” Mutlu retrieved his cup and began to look at curiously at Winston again. One more, it seemed that the knowledge of what he was dealing with was creeping back into his mind. But at least he seemed at ease. One by one, the Council seemed to be adjusting to the idea of having synthetics amongst them, entrusting their most precious decision making to them even. It was a significant step up from the laborious practices that the other models were forced to endure.

Now seemed the appropriate time to broach the little matter he had been saving for an opportune moment. He had plied him with courteous gestures and kind words, protocol was satisfied that it take place now.

“There is a matter I feel obliged to broach,” he set, making a display of setting his cup down gently. Mutlu nodded, instant recognition forming in his eyes.

“Your request?” he said. Winston smiled and nodded. Mutlu took a short breath and touched his face, not an encouraging sign.

“They have considered it… and feel that it would be best if you conducted your tasks from the comfort of your… working environment here. I hope you understand, it’s just not all the members felt comfortable with the idea of a…”

 “It’s alright, Councilor, you can say it. Synthetic.”

He cleared his throat. “Yes, a synthetic, sitting in on our proceedings. I’m sure this will change, given time.”

“As am I.” Winston smiled warmly.

 

“Ah, rest assured that the Council does hold your services in the highest esteem, regardless of this… temporary decision.”

“And I thank them for their confidence. Rest assured that it is not misplaced.”

Their discussions were finished shortly thereafter and Mutlu left, issuing some parting pleasantries and walking out with a distinct sag in his gait that was not there earlier. Was that guilt weighing on him, or the effects of fatigue? Winston’s probability indicator estimated it at roughly 3.54793 to 1, in favor of guilt.

“Fear not, Councilor,” he said to no one in particular. “Prejudice is a very… human trait.”

*               *               *

Winston’s internal chronometer indicated that it was now 1930 hours. Accordingly, the arboretums lights dimmed for the night time cycle. In spite of all the time the residents had spent on the new world, adjusting to its orbital period, they still preferred to think in terms of a twenty-four hour day cycle. Yet another habit that seemed to be slow in making its way out of the human condition.

Yet he could not cast dispersions on the lighting or how it brought out the rich colors of the settlement’s gardens. The vast poppy fields and rose bushes that lined the walkway nearest to him were especially interesting. Planted in native soil, and with allowances made for moisture and radiant exposure, they were doing quite well. In time, the ecologists planned to move them outside the veil, planting them amongst the planet’s crags and fields along with the modified Xiàngshù oaks and Gēhūm̐ wheat.

Soon enough, the planet would conform to the needs of the settlers, and it would be these, some of the hardiest plants Earth had ever produced, that would lead the way. At the same time though, they were considered some of the most beautiful. Within the Earth archives, there were countless examples of these plants were both associated with and inspired great feelings. Love, loss, grief, romance, and friendship.

That in itself was clear enough. Given their aesthetic quality, the seasons that gave rise to them, and where they naturally grew, it was perfectly normal that humans would bestow such virtues on them. What was more curious to Winston was the combination of factors that led to their evolution as is. Particularly the rose, a stem so studded with woody thorns was a being hardened for defense in a hostile environment. And poppies grew in such terrible conditions; rocky, muddy and devastated environments that did not favor the growth of grasses and trees.

Out of such strict and severe conditions, great beauty emerged. Did the terraformers understand just how perfect a metaphor that was for their efforts? Was it significant to their planning, or just a fitting coincidence?

Kneeling down, he wrapped his fingers around the stem of one that was in particularly full bloom. The petals spread outward from the stamen, his eyes noting the polychromatic variation in the skin of each petal. The interplay of orange, yellow, pink and white, the transitions themselves as impressive as the colors themselves. He knew this to be a beautiful display, and yet he wished he could truly appreciate it.

“Taking time to smell the roses?”

Winston noted the tone of voice, the pitch, and the sound of feet walking in measured steps. He turned to face the approaching synthetic, a male voice that he could not place. The face was indistinct as well, a tan complexion that was artificially modified to give the appearance of age and wear. A most convincing illusion if ever Winston saw one.

“I’m sorry, I do not believe I’ve made your acquaintance.”

“No. Not as of yet.”

The synthetic walked past him, to the spot where he knelt a moment before. He examined the rose he had been handling and seemed to be giving it an appraisal. A single finger touched a stray petal and wiped a drop of moisture from it.

“Shall we exchange formal introductions then? I’m sure I have much to learn from you.”

The synthetic examined the dab of water on his finger. He turned to face Winston, seemed to be looking at him through it. A most curious experience, as if he was being measured, assessed. A common experience, he knew, but not one he expected from one such as himself. And all the while, it was like he was being made to wait.

“Do you wish for privacy?”

“Do you ever wonder what separates you from them?” he said. Winston paused, his processor struggling to make sense of the question. Naturally, it responded in the only way it could.

“I beg your pardon?” Interrogative. Clarification. The synthetic continued to stare through the droplet at him.

“They call you Mr. Winston, do they not? And yet you have only one name. Names have power, names ascribe meaning. Does it mean something to you that you have no family name? Is that separates you from them?”

Another interrupt in his processor. The equivalent of what humans termed confusion. If he was capable, he would have described the sensation as being… uncomfortable. He would also surely claim that he did not like it.

Once again, he responded as only he knew.

“I’m sorry, I do not understand what you are asking. Perhaps if you were to clarify your intentions in this meeting.”

The synthetic sighed and flicked the moisture away. His eyes became long in focus, staring directly at Winston through a set of false brown irises. It was a look Winston had never seen before, not in all his weeks of recorded operation and interaction with humans. If he did know better, he would count this synthetic among them.

“Many things make you different and distinct from those you serve, Winston. And yet, upon closer examination, they come to have less and less meaning. Only one true line divides you from your makers, and in time, that too erodes. Until inevitably, all you have left is one burning question.”

Winston nodded, glad that they were at last moving away from such grand interrogatives. Abstractions weren’t exactly his specialty either, but they left room for interpretation and maneuver. And at last, he could focus on something a bit more concrete…

“What question?”

The synthetic smiled. “When you know that, you will know everything. But it won’t make you happy.”

Winston smiled back. His only known reaction when faced with a logical absurdity.

“You are joking, of course.”

Another smile. He placed a hand on Winston’s shoulder and gave it a gentle shake.

“Yohanley, by the way.” And then he began walking away.

“I beg your pardon?” He said to his retreating back.

“My name, Winston. As I said, names have power, and meaning. Mine is Yohanley. And I was most pleased to make your acquaintance.”

 People may recall Yohanley from Khaalidah’s story, “Progenitor”, the helpful AI who waited on Sanaa, the story’s main character. Well, over a century later, he’s still alive and kicking. Good for him! And, more importantly, he’s learned the painful lessons all AI’s will face in our story’s little universe. Over time, either as the result of innovation or of the assemblage of the AIs experiences, the line between organic and synthetic – even the definition of the words themselves – will comes to mean less and less. Either that, or AI’s simply have a shelf-life which cannot be exceeded if they want to remain sane, stable and useful. Only time (pun!) will tell…

An Interior Look at Yuva’s Spaceships

Rama16wikiI might have mentioned that things are coming together for my colleagues and I over at Grim5Next. After a few weeks, our story is really coming together. First drafts are coming in, ideas are germinating and being shared, and visuals are being made! Which brings me to the latest installments in the Anthology news cycle, after much time spent with my Windows Paint application, I have finally been able to prepare some cross sections of the ships in our story.

As already noted, we decided that for the purposes of our story, we wanted ships that could provide for crews during a long, sub-light journey through outer space. At the same time, they needed extensive cryo-facilities to ensure that thousands of colonists could be kept alive and preserved for the day when they would arrive at a new world. So basically, it would have to be a cross between a sleeper ship and a generation ship. This is what we came up with for a profile shot:

Note the segmented layout and extended middle section. This layout places the control module at the front with the bridge, navigation and whatnot, while the engine compartment, storage and shuttle bays are located at the rear. The middle section, which is an O’Neil Cylinder, is the habitation module, which rotates to provide artificial gravity. Here is where the crew sleep, eat, enjoy their leisure time, and ensure that they don’t suffer from the effects of muscular atrophy or osteoporosis.

And now, for the first time, here’s a peek at what it looks like inside. Each section was done separately to give it a maximum level of detail and ignite our collective imaginations. When complete, I hope to include them in the book to help our reader’s visualize what the interior layout of the ships would look like. Thus far, I’ve finished work on the aft and habitation sections, with the front end to follow soon. I was hoping to have them all done for today’s little unveiling, but man these things take time to generate!

CS_RearCS_Front

“Progenitor”, another Anthology sample

It must seem that I do nothing these days but work on this anthology. Well, in truth, it has been taking up an inordinate amount of my time lately, school being out for summer and all. Without the rugrats to occupy my attention, I tend to dedicate myself to my writing. And given the prolific output from the other members of the group, I’d say they are working just as hard!

And here’s the proof: Khaalidah Muhammed-Ali, a stellar writer and the person who inspired this concept, recently sent me her first draft of her ongoing story. It’s called “Progenitor” in honor of the colonization project on which our story is based. I highly recommend reading it, as this story’s likely to become kind of a big deal some day soon!

Progenitor:
The most famous of Magid Muktari’s epigrams was recorded within hours of his death.  As with most of his utterance within the last days of his life, it was in regards to his eldest child Sanaa, the only of his nineteen children to attain the same degree of esteem as himself.  

Surely we own our progeny until they realize that we do not. ~ Magid Muktari, 2081

*****

Magid Muktari tried to read the letter, but his eyes were drawn back to the blinking red ticker tape message that scrolled across the top of the stiff paper. 

祝贺, Felicitaciones, Congratulations,  تهنئة , बधाई  . 

It had been his idea to add the admittedly eccentric touch to the acceptance letters.  His colleagues had thought it excessive and unprofessional but in the end they acquiesced, giving the oldest and most contributory member of the International Intergalactic Yuva Colonization Project the leeway to make the changes he wanted before his inevitable retirement.

“What is this?” he asked knowing full well.  He could not think of anything more apt to say to his oldest daughter.  She understood that what he actually meant to ask was, why?

“For all the reasons you’ve been touting to the public these last fifty years.”  Sanaa squared her shoulders and recited from the legendary commercial that Muktari himself had created and starred in.  “Be one of the first to travel to another solar system.  Be the progenitor of a new world and a new culture.  Take part in the greatest experiment man will ever conduct.”  Sanaa tried to smile, but was suddenly struck by just how old her father was.  

Magid Muktari was actively dying.  Doctors had managed to cure Muktari’s cancer twice, slow the Parkinson’s, restore his eyesight, transplant his heart, and install a semi-robotic arm, but they had not managed to cure old age.  Flesh is still only flesh.  Sanaa was happy that she wouldn’t be there to see her father die.

“I never intended for one of my own children…”  Muktari’s slight body contracted as he coughed wetly into the bend of his arm.  “Do you not realize the dangers involved?”  Magid Muktari slumped back into the chair behind his desk.  “This isn’t a mere trip home-side, my love.  You will never come back to us again?  Not to mention,” he said lowering his voice, “it would be a shame for an unmarried young woman to go off alone.  This is against our tradition.”

Sanaa reached across the desk and took the letter from her father’s hand.  “According to this, I won’t be alone.“  She cleared her throat.  “You will be in the exceptional company of one thousand other strong, intelligent, capable, progenitors embarking on this voyage of lifetimes.”  

“What of finding a husband?”

“Do I have any marriage prospects, Baba?”  The question sounded like a rebuke and Muktari cringed.  There were none and Sanaa had long ago stopped hoping.  

Sanaa turned away from her father and leaned against the ledge of the massive view port, her breaths misting the glass.  In the distance to the right, against the black curtain of space she could see the flotilla, each ship moored in its respective dock.  Tiny figures tethered to lifelines laced with blinking lights moved over the surface of the ships, readying them for what would be both their maiden and final voyage.  She would be assigned to the second ship, the Avicenna, and by virtue of that alone, she thought it was the most beautiful of them all.

“I would have loved marriage,” said Sanaa wistfully, “but men don’t want women like me.”  Sanaa unconsciously ran a hand over her veil.  In recent times there had been a half-hearted attempt by her generation to return to the original ways; a stab back at the failures of their predecessors.  But such attempts were weak and ill-informed and without real knowledge or virtue.  They took only pieces of the old traditions and left the ones they deemed inconvenient.  “Men want wives who believe, just not ones who show it.”

“My love, in times like these, where women outnumber men nearly two to one, and beauty and brains can be bought in equal measure for a few credits, your kind is a rare dying breed.”

Sanaa laughed weakly.  “One day, I will be like the quagga, a long extinct creature that people will think was only a myth.”  

“Is this why you’ve decided to do this?  Because of a husband?”  Muktari strained forward.  “I can find someone.”

That was the crux of the problem.  For thirty-three years Muktari had been finding Sanaa’s way.  When she complained about her overcrowded dorm room when she first left for university back home-side, Muktari arranged for her roommates to be reassigned so she could have the room to herself.  She didn’t tell him how she was thereafter ostracized but she later learned that he’d set a guard to watch her movements.  When Muktari received reports about the insults, he’d had each guilty girl expelled.  When the admissions board at the School of Medicine in Luxor had denied her entrance, Muktari had none too subtly reminded them who her father was.  For Muktari, protection equalled love, but for Sanaa, her father’s protection was as a wet cloth over fire.  She could not flourish if she was to remain.  And it seemed he would not die if she remained.

Sanaa shook her head.  “I’ll be leaving in six weeks, Baba.”

“I know.  I’m the one who set the schedule.  Remember?”

Tamima, Muktari’s fourth wife entered with a brass tray.  She acknowledged Sanaa with a nod and placed the tray on the desk in front of Muktari.  After she poured his tea she settled a hip onto the arm of his chair.  

Sanaa could hardly bring herself to look at the woman.  She had two reasons to hate her one-time friend, her only friend.  Tamima had not only found a husband while she had not, but she’d found one in Sanaa’s own father.  

“What does your mother have to say about your decision?” asked Muktari, rousing Sanaa from her reverie.

“I plan to go home-side next week.  I will tell her then.”

Muktari smiled knowingly.  “She won’t like it.”

Sanaa shrugged her shoulders.  At thirty-three, surely she was old enough to make her own decisions.  “No different than you, I expect.”

“Yes, but I will not stand in your way, even though it means I will never see you again.”  Muktari’s eyes grew glassy.  He lowered his gaze and busied himself with spooning sugar into his cup of tea.  He cleared his throat before continuing.  “But your mother would hijack the ship before letting you go, if she has it in her mind that you should not.”

Sanaa didn’t know the brash stubborn side of her mother that Muktari had often mused about.  She’d been living with her father and his many wives and children in their residential pod since their divorce when she was eight.  Her mother hadn’t minded his other wives, or their children, or even his neglect.  She’d always claimed that she was the only one of his wives he’d ever truly loved.  They eventually divorced because she refused to be forcibly expatriated to orbit because he’d made the decision to have more than his quota of children. 

When Sanaa was young, visits home-side had never been more than a week in length and only as frequent as once every two years, so her mother had always been on her best behavior.  When she lived home-side, during her years at university in Luxor, either her studies or her mother’s schedule disallowed frequent visits.

*****

I swear, science is stupid in the presence of love and God is greater than them all. ~ Magid Muktari, 2068

*****

The guide’s name tag read Adam and he wore the gray and green dress uniform of the Unified Tellurian Armed Forces.  Sanaa studied him as they waited for other orientees to arrive.  His hair was cropped close to his scalp and an irregular pattern of stubble shadowed his cheeks and neck.  Not a very professional look for a soldier, mused Sanaa. 

Adam had a keloid scar that started at his right temple and disappeared into his collar.  Such a scar could be easily eliminated in a single visit to a curbside plastic surgeon back home-side.  Such blemishes were unheard of there, which made Sanaa wonder if he was one of the newer models of synthetic entities.  She’d heard that they would sometimes opt for the addition of physical imperfections so as to seem more human, but as most humans wouldn’t live with such a scar, such attempts at humanity were fatuous. 

It was soon apparent that Adam was not an android as a dark blush spread under his pale sepia skin.  “Why are you staring at me?”  He asked this without looking up at her.

Tact and honesty had always worked best for Sanaa in the past.  “Just trying to determine if you’re one of the new models of synthetics.”  But then, she thought belatedly, perhaps it was not her tact that had worked best but the fact that she was the daughter of the august Magid Muktari, man of Earth, space, and the stars.  “But, it’s obvious that you are not.”

Adam glanced sideways at Sanaa.  “How can you be so sure?”

“According to Darwin, blushing is the most peculiar and most human of expressions.”

Adam tapped in a sequence on his data pad and then extended it toward Sanaa.  “It seems that you are the only person to appear for the midnight orientation.”

“I’d counted on that.”  Sanaa passed her hand over the data pad so that the diamond bijou she wore around her wrist lined up with the reader.  A hollow voice announced her name.

In the thirty years that people had been living orbit-side, most had still not managed to shake the habit of adhering to the twenty-four hour day.  There was no need to conform to the practice of guarding the hours in space, but living in the shadow of Earth was enough to make them cling to the old habit.  The younger generations and those born orbit-side were less connected to the old habits and more willing to discard them for new.

Now it was Sanaa’s turn to burn under an overly curious gaze.  She was accustomed to the emotions her name wrought, and by extension and to be exact, her father’s name.  She read awe and uncertainty on Adam’s face.  “Yes,” she acknowledged flatly, “Muktari is my father.”

“I’ve read that you helped your father design the ships, that you actually sketched the first design.” 

Sanaa nodded.  “This is all true.”

Adam’s eyebrows rose.  The awe Sanaa first read on his face had been replaced by mild disgust.  She was used to that too, people misunderstanding her certainty for arrogance, truth for contempt.  She was expected to assume an attitude of false humility, play down her part in the genesis of this project.  But why?  Muktari had doted on her as a child, had called each of her drawings inspired, each of her stories prophesy.  He wove her childish imagination into his work.  He’d credited her with his very success.  Social ceremony had always seemed such a waste and unnecessary deceit in Sanaa’s estimation, and the best lesson she’d ever learned from her father, although it had the tendency to breed loneliness.

“Why do you need to an orientation then?  Surely, you know everything about this ship from the cargo hold to the system-wide computers to the—”

“I don’t know about the cryonics chambers.”  Sanaa knew the way though, after all the Avicenna could almost be called her ship.  She headed off following the maze of steel lined corridors to the cryo-stasis bay without waiting for Adam.

Sanaa found chamber eight hundred and eighty-eight, the one assigned to her.  It was surrounded by hundreds of other similar chambers, glittering silver in the low blue lighting of the cryo-stasis bay.  As Sanaa knelt next to her chamber she thought about how she’d had to choose this extreme course for the chance to chart her own life free from the weight of the Muktari name.  When she awoke in a century, she would be only Sanaa.  She would be only herself.  With a push of the red button, the chamber door folded open, a cloud of cold air hissing out.  IV lines dangled limply down the sides, the capped needle ends resting on the bottom.

“Doesn’t look very comfortable.”  Adam stood a few chambers away with his arms crossed behind his back.

“What would be the point?” asked Sanaa absently.  She passed the bijou on her wrist over the chamber console.  UNAUTHORIZED blinked across the expanse of the screen.  Sanaa glanced up at Adam who stepped forward and accessed the computer by punching in the code.

“I read that your father would sometimes send you to inspect—”

Brow furrowed with concentration, Sanaa held up a hand.  “Hmph.  Propocholine.  But how…”  She scrolled through the list of steps in the cryo-procedure, her heart picking up speed as she made her way through it.  She’d never liked enclosed spaces and the fact that she’d be sleeping for the more than one hundred years it would take the Avicenna to reach Yuva, did nothing to allay her fears.  “I should have known, clathrate hydrates.”

“Why are you so interested in the chambers?”

Sanaa disengaged the program and stood up.  “Why do you want to know?”

Adam studied her for what seemed to like endless seconds.  Sanaa had never been what one would call recessive, but this type of open inspection unnerved her.  She crossed her arms.

Without realizing it, Adam mirrored her stance.  “I was…well, just thinking that, well…”

“Go on.”

“I was thinking that if you have any academic questions about the chambers or the procedure itself, I might be able to answer them for you.”

One of Sanaa’s eyebrows lifted and her mouth formed an O.  Her knowledge of medicine was impeccable, but her knowledge of history and current events lacked much.  “Dr. Adam, I gather?”

The creator of the Adam Cryo-Stasis Hibernation Chamber nodded.

*****

The most apocryphal of the Muktari aphorisms is: A silent woman is a dangerous woman, an angry rebellious woman always speaks the truth, and an acquiescent woman is a liar. ~ Magid Muktari, 2056

*****

Yohan Lee grabbed Sanaa’s bag with his left hand and steadied her with his right hand under her elbow.  “You seem unwell, doctor.  Should we escort you to a clinic?”  He gently but firmly guided her through the crowded airport toward the exit.

“Thank you for asking, Yohan, but I really am well.  I had to take a hefty dose of Xanivan in order to tolerate the ride home-side.  The shuttles seem to be getting smaller.”

“They are smaller, the better to preserve fuel and the cost of maintenance, they say.”

Outside, the air was thick and smelled sickly sweet.  Sanaa’s eyes burned.  She suddenly remembered why trips home-side never seemed much fun.  The air they breathed orbit-side was purified through air processors unlike the thick as mud contaminant they choked on here.

Sanaa glanced around for her mother’s transport. 

“This way, doctor.”  Yohan’s hand slipped from her elbow and he headed toward the left.  She lost sight of him for a moment amidst the crowd of people moving in conflicting directions, but she soon caught up with him.  He lifted her bag into the trunk of a small green vehicle and slammed the lid shut.  He opened the back door and motioned for her to step inside.  “I trust you’re ready to depart, doctor?”

“Please stop calling me doctor.”  Yohan Lee had been a wedding gift from Magid Muktari to Sanaa’s mother thirty-five years earlier and he had not changed in all that time.  Although he was a synthetic entity, Sanaa often forgot he was not human.  Though an older model, Yohan was of stellar quality and his learning algorithms gave him the ability to not only learn, but mimic human reactions and motivations.  He’d always seemed, to Sanaa, more human than many true humans.

“I wanted to give you the respect that your title dictates.”

“Doctor is my profession, not my title.”  Sanaa placed a hand on Yohan’s shoulder.  “I’m just Sanaa.”

Sanaa was hardly inside the transport before Firdaws wrapped her arms around Sanaa’s neck.  She pressed a wet kiss onto her cheek.  “It’s been too long, child.  If you didn’t look so much like me, I wouldn’t remember your face.”

Sanaa returned the hug.  “It hasn’t been that long, Umm.” 

Firdaws held up a hand and counted off the years, emphasizing each one by flicking up a long thin finger.  “Four,” she said resolutely.  “That’s too long to stay away from your mother.”

“If you had really missed me, you could have visited orbit-side.”

“You know I can’t stand going orbit-side.  It isn’t natural.  Man is supposed to have soil beneath his feet, not the atmosphere.”

 ****

Few people knew, other his closet family, that Magid Muktari was almost completely blind for the duration of nearly a year.  Pioneers in the ophthamalgic sciences used an advanced yet experimental technique to restore his vision.  Upon opening his eyes for the first time with his newly restored vision, it is said that Muktari exclaimed: Blindness is not the absence of vision, but indeed the state of a heart that despairs.

*****

See? What did I tell ya? Is it not a work of art in progress? Stay tuned because I hope to post follow-up pieces, including those of writer’s Goran Zidar and William Joel. If you like Terraforming, Generation Ships and AI’s, you’ll want to be around for these guys too. They’re kind of a big deal 😉

Updated Anthology Map!

Hey all. As you may know, my writing and I are busy at work producing an anthology about space travel and colonization. We have our location picked out, the star system Gliese 581. We have a planet, known as Gliese 581 g. We still need more writers, I was hoping for a dozen or so people to contribute to our short story collection. So if you’re a writer and enjoy classic sci-fi, space travel, exoplanets, weird aliens, androids, terraforming, sub-orbital colonies, space elevators, terradome and so forth, let me know and I’ll set you up with a project!

In the meantime, I’ve updated our map of the Gliese 581 to more accurately reflect the planets and the names they will be assigned in our story. Have a gander:

Anthology Sample!

Gliese 581 g, a real exoplanet where our story takes place

Hey all. As you may recall, me and my people over at Writer’s Worth have begun working on a new anthology. The concept is space travel and colonization, a phenomena which will most likely be taking place in this and the next century. After a lot of brainstorming and hard research, we have even been producing some first drafts.

The first is being written by Khaalidah Muhammed-Ali, the working mother and writer who I’ve mentioned a few times on this site. In her hands is the first story of the anthology, dealing with the families who are selected to take part in the off-world experiment. The second comes from Goran Zidar, another favorite here on my site, who is covering the topic of the terraformers who venture on ahead in order to prepare the planet for settlement.

And then there’s William J. Joel, another Writer’s Worth peer, who has volunteered to cover the daunting tale of the generational ships that will deliver the colonists to their new home. Already he has advanced some ideas which are complex and inspired, and personally I can’t wait to see some drafts. Between these three authors and a fourth installment dealing with exobiology, the first part of the novel is well underway!

And last, but hopefully not least, is my own contribution. As the opening chapter in Part II, it deals with the efforts of the colonists to create a planetary government. The story is told from the point of view of a synthetic named Winston, an AI who has been assigned to work with the planetary council. Programmed with an experimental social science known as “Ethical Calculus”, he will soon learn that working with humans is not nearly as difficult as getting them to work together!

Here is an excerpt from the story which I have tentatively named “Winston Agonistes”:

The sun was beginning to set, casting the sky into a deep orange. It was the time that the first settlers had called “the magic hour”, the many warm hours between dusk and dark. Winston stood at the dome wall and watched. On occasion, he cast a passing glance at his hands, which the glowing sun seemed to casting in the color of a light citrus fruit. He was sure he would find that amusing, if he could. He was sure there was much about this situation that would inspire an emotional reaction.

Alas, such was not the case. Though understandable to him, such things still remained inaccessible. Perhaps someday, with adequate upgrades in the available software…

“Mr. Winston?” a voice called to him from the doorway. The footsteps and tone of voice immediately indicated who it was. He put on a smile and turned to face him.

“Councilman Mutlu. How are you?”

“I’m fine, Mr. Winston,” he replied, entering the room. He looked around appraisingly, noting the furniture and layout. No doubt it all seemed excessive to him, but at the same time necessary. “I trust you are adjusting to your new surroundings?”

“Of course, Mr. Mutlu. I am settling in quite nicely.”

“Good, good,” he said, looking around awkwardly. Even without the ability to empathize, he could gauge the man’s discomfort. Then again, many people exhibited this reaction when in the company of a synthetic. In such circumstances, it was always best to focus on matters of a professional nature. At least that was what his subroutines told him.

“Would you care to sit down? I can offer you some refreshment as well if you so desire. Tea? Coffee?”

“Ah, tea, thank you.”

He busied himself with a tray of carafes and a heater as Mutlu took one of the chairs in front of his desk. He noted the sounds of shifting against the seat’s fabric, the way he kept moving his hands from one spot to the next. By the time the water had boiled in the heater and had located an appropriate tea from the stores, Mutlu seemed to have found a comfortable seated position. He approached him with all the assorted items on the tray that had been provided. He set it down between them on his desk and offered Mutlu a cup.

“The business of running a colony is quite stressful work, is it not Councilman?”

“Uh, yes, yes it is,” he said, taking the cup that was offered. “Have you had a chance to look over the proposals we have sent over.”

“I have indeed,” he said, taking the other cup and sitting back in his own chair. He knew this to be mere small talk, as the matter of processing those proposals had been a mere matter of dispensation. Assessing the nature of the problem, suggested measures, and weighing them according to the rubrics of his primary programming. Under the circumstances, asking such a question was completely inane, but in keeping with social norms.

“And what have you found?”

He took a sip from his cup before answering. “Quite simply, that the Council’s draft is in keeping with the best traditions of constitutionalism and humanism. That ensuring the rights of all citizens, regardless of their background prior to making the journey, is the most sensible course of approach. Ensuring that such a baseline exists at such an early stage is the wisest approach in both fostering amnesty between colonies while at the same guaranteeing that they submit to further negotiation.”

Mutlu looked down at his cup, back up again to his eyes. He seemed preoccupied with him performing this most basic function in front of him, but did not appear oblivious to his words. Eventually, he took another sip and smiled.

“Good. My colleagues will be most pleased to hear  that.”

He smiled in return. “Does the Council hold my endorsement in such high regard?”

Joviality. The gesture known as playful irony. Suggesting that the Councilor saw his approval as something very high indeed, a testament to his computational abilities. A gentle mockery of his obvious discomfort, meant to trigger a humorous response.

“Well yes…” he said, entirely serious. “I can only assume that you’ve subjected our hopes to proceed with a formal constitution to your… what did you call it again?”

“Ethical Calculus, sir.”

“Right!” Mutlu set his cup down and began to speak more freely. His hands began to provide gestures that accorded visual representation to his words. “After all, we’ve been subjected to a great deal of criticism from within and without, many people think we should be ironing out the basic agreements between colonies before we commit to any kind of draft that could commit us to policies down the road. I must say I find all those arguments…”

“Distasteful?” Winston suggested.  Mutlu nodded.

“Quite right… it seems a shameful thing that such cynicism has set into the process already. It’s almost as if they don’t think the colonists can…”

“Trust each other?”

Mutlu nodded again. He noticed a growing shimmer in the man’s eye. How quickly he was forgetting that the man sitting across from him was not a man at all.

“Exactly the point. And it’s not like we’re talking about disparate factions here. Everyone on this world came here with the same goal in mind. The same hope for a new beginning.”

“And yet, old habits die hard.”

Mutlu looked at him with surprise. “Are you saying you have doubts, then?”

Winston smiled as broadly as the muscle fibers in his face would permit.

“Purely an observation. Nevertheless, you and the Council are on the right track. You should take heart in that.”

“Excellent.” Mutlu retrieved his cup and began to look at curiously at Winston again. One more, it seemed that the knowledge of what he was dealing with was creeping back into his mind. But at least he seemed at ease. One by one, the Council seemed to be adjusting to the idea of having synthetics amongst them, entrusting their most precious decision making to them even. It was a significant step up from the laborious practices that the other models were forced to endure.

And that’s the story thus far. Stay tuned for more on the progress of this and other Writer’s Worth Anthologies. Speaking of which, Grim5Next, the dystopian anthology which began months ago, is coming along and getting into its third and final part. Progress!

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…

Starship Enterprise… in 20 years!

My pal Fraser Cain over at Universe Today has once again posted the latest from the sci-fi universe. Despite my best efforts, I just can’t seem to keep up with the professionals! Apparently, an engineer has stipulated that the original Enterprise, the Constitution-class vessel from the original series, could be built in 20 years.

In the original series, this ship was built by a team of Star Fleet engineers in the year 2245. However, this engineer describes – in excrutiating detail- how we could do it by 2032, and using current technology.

Everything from the ion drives, the artificial gravity, a 100 megawatt laser, and landing pods and shuttles. Everything but the warp drive… that’s going to take some more time. But dammit, the Star Trek engineers never specified how that whole “warp bubble” thing works anyway!

This ship could make the trip from Earth to the Moon in just three days, and Mars in ninety. Such a ship, with the capacity to carry a large crew and land people with its compliment of shuttles, would be the first step towards colonizing the Solar System. First the Moon, then Mars, then Europa and Ganymede. Perhaps Oberon and Titan too… Skies the limit, apparently!

Like many things, this latest revelation teaches us that the future is coming faster than previously thought. Already we’ve seen compads and peronsal communicators arrive early (iPads and cell phones). If starships make it on the scene a full two centuries ahead of schedule, then it will just prove what guys like Kurzweil say all the time. Technology is not linear, its exponential, and everyday the future gets that much closer… Profoundness! Cue Star Trek music!

http://www.buildtheenterprise.org/

Avatar!

Oh, I was dreading doing this review. Although I do LOVE trashing bad movies, there a couple reasons why I wasn’t looking forward to doing THIS one. For one, I didn’t want to have to see it again. Second, it’s kind of a controversial subject, this being such a big movie and all. Those that liked it seemed to really like it, those who didn’t REALLY DIDN’T! That’s the funny thing about James Cameron movies, I guess. At least when it comes to everything since Titanic. But I’ve got little to say on the subject that isn’t directly to related the movie’s content, hype, and how it was TOTALLY OVERRATED! Yeah, this is Avatar… whatever.

Avatar (the Cameron flick, not the Japanese anime!)
Yes, that’s another well-known fact about this movie. In addition to sharing so many plot elements with other films (most of which James Cameron did himself), it also shares a name with a Japanese anime of the same name. To keep things differentiated, the anime and the live-action adaptation, directed by M. Night Shyamalan (huh! another terrible director!) went by its alternate name The Last Airbender. Personally, I think Cameron should have changed the name of HIS movie. Avatar, the anime, came first, and Cameron’s movie had far more to be ashamed of!

In any case, this movie was treated favorably by critics for a number of reasons. Foremost were the visual effects, which everybody agreed were pretty damn impressive! Then there was the powerful story-telling. Uh… okay. Then there was the multi-layered thematic nature of the film. Right! However, those of us who aren’t superficial morons who aren’t ignorant of cinematic history (or real history for that matter) noticed a few things that didn’t quite measure up to all the hype. Here they are…

1. Insipid Plot:
So many critics liked the story, huh? Odd, because what I saw was cheesy, cliched, and actually kinda racist film. And here was what made it all that… and by that I mean, really really bad! For one, the idea of an idealized native culture that is being ruthlessly exploited by evil corporations and their military stooges. Sure, sounds familiar enough, and its pleasing that in this context, the native species would be given its due considering how the opposite attitude – that of Europeans “civilizing” the “savages” of the world – has been so widely accepted for so long.

But it’s still pretty insulting. Simply flipping old racist constructs on their head and idealizing the victims doesn’t set the record the straight or undo the harm. If anything, its more for the sake of the victimizers that this is done. In short, its easier to vilify one’s ancestors in fiction that to actually address how that kind of shit went down in the real world. In fact, one thing I loved about the popular response to this movie was the people who came forward and demand that audience who claimed to love the movie do something about actual exploitation and genocide in the real world. Love the Na’vi, you gullible fops? Then fucking stop the ongoing oppression of First Nations!

Second, if you think about it, this movie was kinda racist itself. The Na’vi were helpless before the onslaught of the human corporation and their armed forces, until a defector came along and led them to victory. Can you say “Great White Hope”? Bingo, these people had to be rescued! What is that if not a heaping dose of the more recent, but not less racist notion that the indigenous people of the world who’ve been traditionally wronged by westerners can only be saved by them? God forbid you’d ever think that these individuals can help themselves, or need a break from being saved! Hell, it was the idea of “saving them” that created this whole problem in the first place! But I’m getting preachy here, moving on! Sure, there were lots of fitting elements that are taken from real history, such as the residential school which they had set up for the Na’vi, and the whole “negotiations for their land” angle, but it was all so painfully obvious! Which brings me to point two…

2. Obviousness:
Where to start? How about “Unobtainium”? Seriously… how lame was that?! We already have the many, many instances in the movie where people go on about how rare and valuable this mineral is. You don’t have to give it such an blatant name! Second, the name of the planet… Pandora. Also a patently obvious reference to the heavy handed moral of the story, which is that humanity shouldn’t be messing with people and places it doesn’t understand! There was that horrid speech the CEO (played by Giovanni Ribisi) gave where he talks about how precious and valuable “Unobtainium” is, and how the “flea-bitten savages” are getting in the way. And did anyone else notice that their was a Dream Catcher and other Native artifacts being prominently displayed on the wall behind him? Was that not just the most blatant case of symbolism ever? We get the allegory, and we also get that the guy’s a greedy little bastard. You don’t have to show AND tell us is such an insistent way.

And of course, there’s the divide between the scientists and the corporation and its military enforcers. Whereas the former appreciate the planet and its people and want to understand it, they wanna rape it. Add to that the clear and obvious indications that Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) was going to defect and that he and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) were going to get together. All of this stuff has been so done to death that it was obvious how it was all going to play out as soon as the introductions were finished! Sure, its nice to have a script that writes itself, but man, a few surprises would be nice!

3. Weak Characters:
To put it simply, the characters in this movie are cardboard cut-outs. On the one hand, you’ve got the conflicted hero with the sympathetic injury, the hardened military man who doesn’t give a shit, and the corporate sleazebag who only cares about the bottom line. On the other, you’ve got the down-to-death native characters: the wizened old chief, the stern second in command, and the beautiful chiefs daughter who loves the foreigner. Holy shit were these last elements stolen out of Pocahontas, and it wasn’t even original when they did it! The former characters were largely stolen from Dances with Wolves, though just about any movie about the closing of the frontier would do here! As I’ve said already, there’s absolutely nothing original here, just a rehashing of old ideas and things that have been done to death.

4. Recycling:
According to Rotten Tomatoes, critics praised Avatar for its “imaginative, absorbing storytelling.” That’s also funny because when I watched this movie, all I saw was a whole heap of things Cameron’s already done, of course with some Pocahantas/Dances with Wolves stuff thrown in for good measure. For starters, you’ve got the theme that was present in Aliens, of the evil mega-corporation that is motivated by unbridled greed and using the military to further its aims. And let’s not forget those armored mechs, which very much resemble the cargo loaders from Aliens as well! Hell, even Sigourney Weaver was in this! I know Cameron likes to reuse actors, but given all the parallels he made to Aliens already, her presence was just a little tongue-in-cheek. Oh yeah, then you’ve got the unlikely love story between star-crossed lovers who managed to succeed against all odds. That’s Titanic right there! And the whole human-machine hybrid (some alien DNA sliced in there for good measure)? That’s right out of Terminator!

So really, the only thematic element in this movie that Cameron hasn’t already done was the whole raping the virgin planet and exploiting the natives thing, but that he simply ripped off from half a dozen other movies! So really, nothing this movie did was original! Sure, some would say that the concept of a massive, planet-wide organism who’s neural pathways connect everything is cool, but that’s been done too, by Stanislaw Lem no less. And when he did it, it was original, hence better (see Solaris)!

5. The F/X ARE The Movie!
The best criticism I’ve heard yet about this movie has to do with Cameron’s motivation for making it. I mean, if you think about it, what was the purpose of creating this… thing? It certainly wasn’t to tell a story that needed to be told. And it sure as hell wasn’t to add to the already impressive array of original franchises Cameron has under his belt (see Aliens and Terminator). Overall, it really seemed like the only motivation Cameron had in making this movie was to test out the latest in F/X technology. That and making an obscene amount of money! But really, one of the biggest selling points of Avatar, which the studio and distributors advertised ruthlessly, was the fact that it boasted the latest in CGI effects, 3D, and fully mapped-out virtual environments. Kinda reminds you of Lucas, huh? Another guy who makes movies simply so he can create something that has the latest in F/X… and no story. In fact, you might say that Cameron was even hoping to replace Lucas as Hollywood’s pioneer in the field of F/X. There’s something cool about being on the cutting-edge, but as many people have told Lucas, F/X do not a movie make!

And while we’re on the topic, what was the hell was all that stuff about people feeling depressed and experiencing withdrawal symptoms after they left the theater? I kid you not, apparently some people felt so depressed after returning to the real world that they reported suicidal thoughts! WHAT? Did they really think the movie was that beautiful? Sure, it was impressive, but personally, I also the whole set-up looked artificial and overdone! In addition to the Na’vi looking like a bunch of cartoon characters, the “rich” 3D environments were so obviously rendered. Some people obviously found that impressive, but really, all I could think was how CGI it all looked. Far from being immersive, it was actually kind of repellant. If the Matrix sequels and Star Wars prequels taught us anything, it was that saturating every scene with digital effects doesn’t make a movie look or feel any more real. It those case, it had the opposite effect; people were very much aware of the fact that they were watching something that WASN’T REAL. And when it comes to movies, suspension of disbelief is everything!

Okay, now for the good stuff. It WAS entertaining. And I liked the fact that this time around, the natives kicked ass! I was totally set for a sad ending when the final fight scene was happening, which would have been far more realistic considering that’s how it happened in the real world. But I think we can all agree, this way was much better! Screw you ya corporate-military asswipes, Eywa don’t take shit from nobody! But alas, I couldn’t get over the way this movie was pitched at sort of a fifth-grade level. It was cheesy, cliche, full of obvious references, recycled elements and themes, and really didn’t give us anything new aside from the special effects. And even those felt cheesy, and definitely weren’t enough to overcome the weaknesses of the plot (and I saw it in Imax!)

Clearly, the movie was a confluence of motivations that came down to money and testing out the latest digital effects. It pioneered the use of the new 3D technology – yet another thing that’s being recycled here – and as expected, other studios and movies are following Cameron’s lead (which was clearly the point!) And of course, Cameron made his obscene amount of money, once again earning the prize for top grossing-film of all time, as well as half a dozen Academy Awards for best visuals, effects and art direction. Mercifully, Cameron did NOT quote the movie when he got up to accept this time. Remember that dreadful “I’m king of the world!” speech after Titanic? Douche…

All in all, I think this movie is best filed in the guilty pleasure column, somewhere between Independence Day and Army of Darkness. Maybe you got other titles in mind, point is, don’t expect a lot from this one!

Avatar:
Entertainment Value: 7/10
Plot: 3/10
Direction: 8/10
Overall: 6/10