First Ever Organism with “Alien” DNA

alien-dna-640x353Normal DNA, which is characterized by the double helix and its the four bases that bond it together – known as T, G, A, and C – is at the heart of all living organisms. While permutations and differences exist between species, this basic structure has existed unchanged for billions of years. That is, until now. This past May, researchers announced that they had created the first ever organism with synthetic DNA that has two new bases – X and Y. Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells must be turning over in their graves, as scientists are officially playing God now!

This landmark study, 15 years in the making, was carried out by scientists at the Scripps Research Institute and published in Nature today under the title “A semi-synthetic organism with an expanded genetic alphabet”. In normal DNA, the four bases combine in predictable ways. A always bonds with T, and C always bonds with G, creating a fairly simple “language” of base pairs — ATCGAAATGCC, etc. Combine a few dozen base pairs together in a long strand of DNA and you then have a gene, which tells the organism how to produce a certain protein.

DNA-MicroarrayIf you know the sequence of letters down one strand of the helix, you always know what other letter is. This “complementarity” is the fundamental reason why a DNA helix can be split down the middle, and then have the other half perfectly recreated. In this new study, the Scripps scientists found a method of inserting a new base pair into the DNA of an e. coli bacterium. These two new bases are represented by the letters X and Y, but the actual chemicals are described as “d5SICS” and “dNaM.”

A previous in vitro (test tube) study had shown that these two chemicals were compatible with the enzymes that split and copy DNA. For the purposes of this study, the scientists began by genetically engineering an e. coli bacterium to allow the new chemicals (d5SICS and dNaM) through the cell membrane. Then they inserted a DNA plasmid (a small loop of DNA) that contained a single XY base pair into the bacterium.

dnaheadAs long as the new chemicals were available, the bacterium continued to reproduce normally, copying and passing on the new DNA, alien plasmid and all, and continued to carry on flawlessly for almost a week. For now, the XY base pair does nothing; it just sits there in the DNA, waiting to be copied. In this form, it could be used as biological data storage which, as a new form of biocomputing, could result in hundreds of terabytes of data being stored in a single gram of synthetic, alien DNA. 

Floyd Romesberg, who led the research, has much grander plans:

If you read a book that was written with four letters, you’re not going to be able to tell many interesting stories. If you’re given more letters, you can invent new words, you can find new ways to use those words and you can probably tell more interesting stories.

Now his target is to find a way of getting the alien DNA to actually do something, such as producing amino acids (and thus proteins) that aren’t found in nature. If Romesberg and his colleagues can crack that nut, then it will suddenly become possible to engineer cells that produce proteins that target cancer cells, or special amino acids that help with fluorescent microscopy, or new drugs/gene therapies that do weird and wonderful things.

dna_cancerUltimately it may even be possible to create a wholly synthetic organism with DNA that contains dozens (or hundreds) of different base pairs that can produce an almost infinitely complex library of amino acids and proteins. At that point, we’d basically be rewriting some four billion years of evolution. The organisms and creatures that would arise would be unrecognizable, and be capable of just about anything that a researcher (or mad scientist) could dream up.

In the future, this breakthrough should allow for the creation of highly customized organisms – bacteria, animals, humans – that behave in weird and wonderful ways that mundane four-base DNA would never allow. At the same time, it raises ethical dilemmas and fears that may be well founded. But such is the nature of breakthroughs. The potential for harm and good are always presumably equal when they are firts conceived.

Source: extremetech.com

Building Future Worlds…

inspirationIn the course of becoming an indie writer, there is one aspect of the creative process which keeps coming back to me. To put it simply, it is the challenges and delights of world building – i.e. creating the background, context, and location in which a story takes place. For years, I have been reading other people’s thoughts on the subject, be they authors themselves or just big fans of literary fiction.

But my own experience with the process has taught me much that I simply couldn’t appreciate before I picked up my pen and pad (or in this case, opened a word doc and began typing). Ad lately, the thoughts have been percolating in my mind and I felt the need to write them out. Having done that, I thought I might share them in full.

alien-worldFor starters, being a science fiction writer presents a person with particular opportunities for creative expression. But at the same time, it presents its share of particular challenges. While one is certainly freer to play around with space, place, and invent more freely than with most other genres, they are still required to take into account realism, consistency and continuity in all that they do.

Sooner or later, the world a writer builds will be explored, mapped, and assessed, and any and all inconsistencies are sure to stick out like a sore thumb! So in addition to making sure back-stories, timelines and other details accord with the main plot, authors also need to be mindful of things like technology, physical laws, and the nature of space and time.

self-aware-colonyBut above all, the author in question has to ask themselves what kind of universe they want to build. If it is set in the future, they need to ask themselves certain fundamental questions about where human beings will be down the road. Not only that, they also need to decide what parallels (and they always come up!) they want to draw with the world of today.

Through all of this, they will be basically deciding what kind of message they want to be sending with their book. Because of course, anything they manage to dream up about the future will tell their readers lots about the world the author inhabits, both in the real sense and within their own head. And from what I have seen, it all comes down to five basic questions they must ask themselves…

1. Near-Future/Far Future:
future-city3When it comes to science-fiction stories, the setting is almost always the future. At times, it will be set in an alternate universe, or an alternate timeline; but more often than not, the story takes place down the road. The only question is, how far down the road? Some authors prefer to go with the world of tomorrow, setting their stories a few decades or somewhere in the vicinity of next century.

By doing this, the author in question is generally trying to show how the world of today will determine the world of tomorrow, commenting on current trends and how they are helping/hurting us. During the latter half of the 20th century, this was a very popular option for writers, as the consensus seemed to be that the 21st century would be a time when some truly amazing things would be possible; be it in terms of science, technology, or space travel.

1984_John_HurtOther, less technologically-inclined authors, liked to use the not-so-distant future as a setting for dystopian, post-apocalytpic scenarios, showing how current trends (atomic diplomacy, arms races, high tech, environmental destruction) would have disastrous consequences for humanity in the near-future. Examples of this include Brave New World, 1984, The Iron Heel, The Chrysalids, and a slew of others.

In all cases, the totalitarian regimes or severe technological and social regression that characterized their worlds were the result of something happening in the very near-future, be it nuclear or biological war, a catastrophic accident, or environmental collapse. Basically, humanity’s current behavior was the basis for a cautionary tale, where an exaggerated example is used to illustrate the logical outcome of all this behavior.

arrakis-duneAt the other end of the spectrum, many authors have taken the long view with their sci-fi world building. Basically, they set their stories several centuries or even millennia from now. In so doing, they are able to break with linear timelines and the duty of having to explain how humanity got from here to there, and instead could focus on more abstract questions of existence and broader allegories.

Examples of this include Frank Herbert’s Dune and Asimov’s Foundation series, both of which were set tens of thousands of years in the future. In both of these universes, humanity’s origins and how they got to where they were took a backseat to the historical allegories that were being played upon. While some mention is given to the origins of humanity and where they came from, little attempt is made to draw a line from the present into the future.

foundation_coversInstead, the focus is overwhelmingly on the wider nature of human beings and what drives us to do the things we do. Asimov drew from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to make a point about the timeless nature of history, while Herbert drew on the modern age, medieval and ancient history, religion, philosophy, and evolutionary biology and ecology to investigate the timeless nature of humanity and what factors shape it.

For non-purists, Star Wars and Star Trek can also serve as examples of both tendencies in action. For decades, Star Trek used a not-too-distant future setting to endlessly expound on the human race and the issues it faces today. And always, this examination was done in the form of interstellar travel, the crew of the Enterprise going form world to world and seeing themselves in the problems, norms and social structure of other races.

coruscantStar Wars, on the other hand, was an entirely different animal. For the people living in this universe, no mention is ever made of Earth, and pre-Republic history is considered a distant and inaccessible thing. And while certain existential and social issues are explored (i.e. racism, freedom and oppression), the connections with Earth’s past are more subtle, relying on indirect clues rather than overt comparisons.

The Republic and the Empire, for example, is clearly inspired by Rome’s own example. The Jedi Code is very much the picture of the Bushido code, its practitioners a sort of futuristic samurai, and the smugglers of Tatooine are every bit the swashbuckling, gun toting pirates and cowboys of popular fiction. But always, the focus seemed to more on classically-inspired tales of destiny, and of epic battles of good versus evil.

And of course, whether we are talking near future or far future has a big influence on the physical setting of the story as well. Which brings me to item two…

2. Stellar or Interstellar:100,000starsHere is another important question that every science fiction author has faced, and one which seriously influences the nature  of the story. When it comes to the world of tomorrow, will it be within the confines of planet Earth, the Solar System, or on many different world throughout our galaxy? Or, to go really big, will it encompass the entire Milky Way, or maybe even beyond?

Important questions for a world-builder, and examples certainly abound. In the former case, you have your dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and near future seenarios, where humanity is stuck living on a hellish Earth that has seen better days. Given that humanity would not be significantly more adavanced than the time of writing, or may have even regressed due to the downfall of civilization, Earth would be the only place people can live.

Gaia_galaxyBut that need not always be the case. Consider Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. In his dystopian, post-apocalyptic tale, Earth was devestated by nuclear war, forcing the wealthiest and healthiest to live in the Offworld Colonies while everyone who was too poor or too ravaged by their exposure to radiation was confined to Earth. Clearly, dystopia does not rule out space travel, though it might limit it.

And in the latter case, where human beings have left the cradle and begun walking amongst our System’s other planets and even the stars, the nature of the story tends to be a bit more ambiguous. Those who choose such a setting tend to be of the opinion that mankind either needs to reach out in order to survive, or that doing so will allow us to shed some of our problems.

chasm_city_2Examples abound here again, but Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe seems like the ideal one here. In this series, humanity has access to near-light speed travel, nanotechnology, brain-computer interfacing, neural uploading, AI, smart materials, and has colonized dozens of new worlds. However, the state of humanity has not changed, and on many worlds, civil war and sectarian violence are common.

In either case, the setting also bears a direct relation to the state of technology in the story. For humans still living on Earth (and nowhere else) in the future, chances are, they are about as advanced or even behind the times in which the story was written. For those living amongst the stars, technology would have to advanced sufficiently to make it happen. Which brings me to the next point…

3. High-Tech or Low-Tech:
Star_Trek_SpacedockWhat would a work of science fiction be without plenty of room for gadgets, gizmos, and speculation about the future state of technology? And once more, I can discern of two broad categories that an author can choose from, both of which have their share of potential positives and negatives. And depending on what kind of story you want to write, the choice of what that state is often predetermined.

In the former case, there is the belief that technology will continue to advance in the future, leading to things like space travel, FTL, advanced cyborgs, clones, tricorders, replicators, artificial intelligence, laser guns, lightsabers, phasers, photon torpedoes, synthetic humans, and any number of other fun, interesting and potentially dangerous things.

BAMA_3With stories like these, the purpose of high-tech usually serves as a framing device, providing visual evidence that the story is indeed taking place in the future. In other words, it serves a creative and fun purpose, without much thought being given towards exploring the deeper issues of technological progress and determinism.  But this not be the case, and oftentimes with science fiction, high-tech serves a different purpose altogether.

In many other cases, the advance of technology is directly tied to the plot and the nature of the story. Consider cyberpunk novels like Neuromancer and the other novels of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. In these and other cyberpunk novels, the state of technology – i.e. cyberpsace decks, robotic prosthetics, biotech devices – served to illustrate the gap between rich and poor and highlighting the nature of light in a dark, gritty future.

65By contrast, such post-cyberpunk novels as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age took a different approach. While high-tech and its effects on society were explored in great detail, he and other authors of this sub genre chose to break with their predecessors on one key issue. Namely, they did not suppose that the emergence of high-tech would lead to dystopia, but rather an ambiguous future where both good and harm resulted.

And at the other end of the spectrum, where technology is in a low state, the purpose and intent of this is generally the same. On the one hand, it may serve as a plot framing device, illustrating how the world is in a primitive state due to the collapse of civilization as we know it, or because our unsustainable habits caught up with us and resulted in the world stepping backwards in time.

a_boy_and_his_dogAt the same time, the very fact that people live in a primitive state in any of these stories serves the purpose of  commentary. Simply by showing how our lives were unsustainable, or the actions of the story’s progenitor’s so foolish, the author is making a statement and asking the reader to acknowledge and ponder the deeper issue, whether they realize it or not.

At this end of things, A Boy and His Dog and Mad Max serve as good examples. In the former case, the story takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape where a lone boy and his genetically-engineered talking dog rove the landscape in search of food and (in the boy’s case) sexual gratification. Here, the state of technology helps to illustrate the timeless nature of the human condition, namely how we are essentially the products of our environment.

pursuit_specialIn Mad Max as well, the way roving gangs are constantly looking for gasoline, using improvised weapons, and riding around in vehicles cobbled together from various parts gives us a clear picture of what life is like in this post-collapse environment. In addition, the obvious desperation created by said collapse serves to characterize the cultural landscape, which is made up of gangs, tinpot despots, and quasi-cults seeking deliverance.

But on the other hand, the fact that the world exists in this state due to collapse after the planet’s supply of oil ran dry also provides some social commentary. By saying that the world became a dangerous, anarchistic and brutal place simply because humanity was dependent on a resource that suddenly went dry, the creators of Mad Max’s world were clearly trying to tell us something. Namely, conserve!

4. Aliens or Only Humans:
warofworldsaliensAnother very important question for setting the scene in a science fiction story is whether or not extra-terrestrials are involved. Is humanity still alone in the universe, or have they broken that invisible barrier that lies between them and the discovery of other sentient life forms? Once again, the answer to this question has a profound effect on the nature of the story, and it can take many forms.

For starters, if the picture is devoid of aliens, then the focus of the story will certainly be inward, looking at human nature, issues of identity, and how our environment serves to shape us. But if there are aliens, either a single species or several dozen, then the chances are, humanity is a united species and the aliens serve as the “others”, either as a window into our own nature, or as an exploration into the awe and wonder of First Contact.

Alien OrganismsAs case studies for the former category, let us consider the Dune, Foundation, and Firefly universes. In each of these, humanity has become an interstellar species, but has yet to find other sentiences like itself. And in each of these, human nature and weaknesses appear to be very much a constant, with war, petty rivalries and division a costant. Basically, in the absence of an “other”, humanity is focused on itself and the things that divide it.

In Dune, for example, a galaxy-spanning human race has settled millions of worlds, and each world has given rise to its own identity – with some appearing very much alien to another. Their are the “navigators”, beings that have mutated their minds and bodies through constant exposure to spice. Then there are the Tleilaxu, a race of genetic manipulators  who breed humans from dead tissue and produce eunuch “Face Dancers” that can assume any identity.

2007-8-18_DuneAxlotlTank

Basically, in the absence of aliens, human beings have become amorphous in terms of their sense of self, with some altering themselves to the point that they are no longer even considered human to their bretherin. And all the while, humanity’s biggest fight is with itself, with rival houses vying for power, the Emperor gaurding his dominance, and the Guild and various orders looking to ensure that the resource upon which all civilization depends continues to flow.

In the Foundation universe, things are slightly less complicated; but again, the focus is entirely inward. Faced with the imminent decline and collapse of this civilization, Hari Seldon invents the tool known as “Psychohistory”. This science is dedicated to anticipating the behavior of large groups of people, and becomes a roadmap to recovery for a small group of Foundationists who seek to preserve the light of civilization once the empire is gone.

foundation

The series then chronicles their adventures, first in establishing their world and becoming a major power in the periphery – where Imperial power declines first – and then rebuilding the Empire once it finally and fully collapses. Along the way, some unforeseen challenges arise, but Seldon’s Plan prevails and the Empire is restored. In short, it’s all about humans trying to understand the nature of human civilization, so they can control it a little better.

Last, but not least, their is the Firefly universe which – despite the show’s short run – showed itself to be in-depth and interestingly detailed. Basically, the many worlds that make up “The Verse” are divided along quasi-national lines. The core worlds constitute the Alliance, the most advanced and well-off worlds in the system that are constantly trying to expand to bring the entire system under its rule.

verse_whitesunThe Independents, we learn early in the story, were a coalition of worlds immediately outside the core worlds that fought these attempts, and lost. The Border Worlds, meanwhile, are those planets farthest from the core where life is backwards and “uncivilized” by comparison. All of this serves to illustrate the power space and place have over human identity, and how hierarchy, power struggles and  divisiveness are still very much a part of us.

But in universes where aliens are common, then things are a little bit different. In these science fiction universes, where human beings are merely one of many intelligent species finding their way in the cosmos, extra-terrestrials serve to make us look outward and inward at the same time. In this vein, the cases of Babylon 5, and 2001: A Space Odyssey provide the perfect range of examples.

B5_season2In  B5 – much as with Stark Trek, Star Gate, or a slew of other franchises – aliens serve as a mirror for the human condition. By presenting humanity with alien cultures, all of whom have their own particular quarks and flaws, we are given a meter stick with which to measure ourselves. And in B5‘s case, this was done rather brilliantly – with younger races learning from older ones, seeking wisdom from species so evolved that often they are not even physical entities.

However, in time the younger race discover that the oldest (i.e. the Shadows, Vorlons, and First Ones) are not above being flawed themselves. They too are subject to fear, arrogance, and going to war over ideology. The only difference is, when they do it the consequences are far graver! In addition, these races themselves come to see that the ongoing war between them and their proxies has become a senseless, self-perpetuating mistake. Echoes of human frailty there!

2001spaceodyssey128.jpgIn 2001: A Space Odyssey, much the same is true of the Firstborn, a race of aliens so ancient that they too are no longer physical beings, but uploaded intelligences that travel through the cosmos using sleek, seamless, impenetrable slabs (the monoliths). As we learn in the course of the story, this race has existed for eons, and has been seeking out life with the intention of helping it to achieve sentience.

This mission brought them to Earth when humanity was still in its primordial, high-order primate phase. After tinkering with our evolution, these aliens stood back and watched us evolve, until the day that we began to reach out into the cosmos ourselves and began to discover some of the tools they left behind. These include the Tycho Monolith Anomaly-1 (TMA-1) on the Moon, and the even larger one in orbit around Jupiter’s moon of Europa.

2001-monolith-alignmentAfter making contact with this monolith twice, first with the American vessel Discovery and then the joint Russian-American Alexei Leonov, the people of Earth realize that the Firstborn are still at work, looking to turn Jupiter into a sun so that life on Europa (confined to the warm oceans beneath its icy shell) will finally be able to flourish. Humanity is both astounded and humbled to learn that it is not alone in the universe, and wary of its new neighbors.

This story, rather than using aliens as a mirror for humanity’s own nature, uses a far more evolved species to provide a contrast to our own. This has the same effect, in that it forces us to take a look at ourselves and assess our flaws. But instead of showing those flaws in another, it showcases the kind of potential we have. Surely, if the Firstborn could achieve such lengths of evolutionary and technological development, surely we can too!

5. Utopian/Dystopian/Ambiguous:
Inner_city_by_aksuFinally, there is the big question of the qualitative state of humanity and life in this future universe. Will life be good, bad, ugly, or somewhere in between? And will humanity in this narrative be better, worse, or the same as it now? It is the questions of outlook, whether it is pessimistic, optimistic, realistic, or something else entirely which must concern a science fiction writer sooner or later.

Given that the genre evolved as a way of commenting on contemporary trends and offering insight into their effect on us, this should come as no surprise. When looking at where we are going and how things are going to change, one cannot help but delve into what it is that defines this thing we know as “humanity”. And when it comes right down to it, there are a few schools of thought that thousands of years of scholarship and philosophy have provided us with.

transhuman3Consider the dystopian school, which essentially posits that mankind is a selfish, brutish, and essentially evil creature that only ever seeks to do right by himself, rather than other creatures. Out of this school of thought has come many masterful works of science fiction, which show humanity to be oppressive to its own, anthropocentric to aliens and other life forms, and indifferent to the destruction and waste it leaves in its wake.

And of course, there’s the even older Utopia school, which presents us with a future where mankind’s inherent flaws and bad behavior have been overcome through a combination of technological progress, political reform, social evolution, and good old fashioned reason. In these worlds, the angels of humanity’s nature have won the day, having proven superior to humanity’s devils.

IngsocIn the literally realm, 1984 is again a perfect example of dytopian sci=fi, where the totalitarian rule of the few is based entirely on selfishness and the desire for dominance over others. According to O’Brien, the Party’s mouthpiece in the story, their philosophy in quite simple:

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.  If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

Hard to argue with something so brutal and unapologetic, isn’t it? In Orwell’s case, the future would be shaped by ongoing war, deprivation, propaganda, fear, torture, humiliation, and brutality. In short, man’s endless capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others.

invitro2Aldous Huxley took a different approach in his seminal dystopian work, Brave New World, in which he posited that civilization would come to be ruled based on man’s endless appetite for pleasure, indifference and distraction. Personal freedom and individuality would be eliminated, yes, but apparently for man’s own good rather than the twisted designs of a few true-believers:

Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t. And, of course, whenever the masses seized political power, then it was happiness rather than truth and beauty that mattered… People were ready to have even their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life. We’ve gone on controlling ever since. It hasn’t been very good for truth, of course. But it’s been very good for happiness. One can’t have something for nothing. Happiness has got to be paid for.

But even though the means are entirely different, the basic aim is the same. Deprive humanity of his basic freedom and the potential to do wrong in order to ensure stability and long-term rule. In the end, a darker, more cynical view of humanity and the path that we are on characterized these classic examples of dystopia and all those that would come to be inspired them.

Imminent Utopia by Kuksi
Imminent Utopia by Kuksi

As for Utopian fiction, H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods is a very appropriate example. In this novel, a contemporary journalist finds himself hurled through time into 3000 years into the future where humanity lives in a global state named Utopia, and where the “Five Principles of Liberty” – privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion and criticism – are the only law.

After staying with them for a month, the protogonist returns home with renewed vigor and is now committed to the “Great Revolution that is afoot on Earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein.” In short, like most Positivists of his day, Wells believed that the march of progress would lead to a future golden age where humanity would shed it’s primitive habits and finally live up to its full potential.

Larry Niven_2004_Ringworld's Children_0This view would prove to have a profound influence on futurist writers like Asimov and Clarke. In the latter case, he would come to express similar sentiments in both the Space Odyssey series and his novel Childhood’s End. In both cases, humanity found itself confronted with alien beings of superior technology and sophistication, and eventually was able to better itself by opening itself up to their influence.

In both series, humanity is shown the way to betterment (often against their will) by cosmic intelligences far more advanced than their own. But despite the obvious questions about conquest, loss of freedom, individuality, and identity, Clarke presents this as a good thing. Humanity, he believed, had great potential, and would embrace it, even if it had to be carried kicking and screaming.

And just like H.G Wells, Clarke, Asimov, and a great many of his futurist contemporaries believes that the ongoing and expanding applications of science and technology would be what led to humanity’s betterment. A commitment to this, they believed, would eschew humanity’s dependence on religion, superstition, passion and petty emotion; basically, all the things that made us go to war and behave badly in the first place.

Summary:
These are by no means the only considerations one must make before penning a science fiction story, but I think they provide a pretty good picture of the big-ticket items. At least the ones that keep me preoccupied when I’m writing! In the end, knowing where you stand on the questions of location, content, tone and feel, and what your basic conception of the future, is all part of the creation process.

In other words, you need to figure out what you’re trying to say and how you want to say it before you can go to town. In the meantime, I say to all aspiring and established science fiction writers alike: keep pondering, keep dreaming, and keep reaching for them stars!

Of Invincible Aliens that were Easily Vanquished

warofworldsaliensIf there’s one thing that’s become an annoying cliche in commercial science fiction movies, and even some novels, it’s the idea of a super-advanced alien race that come to Earth, proceeds to kick ass, but then gets beaten by a ragtag bunch of superheroes by the most implausible means. You know what I’m talking about, the big evil monsters from another planet who seem to have armies, navies and nuclear arsenals beat, but then succumb to germs, basic hacking, and inferior weaponry.

Having grown up with a lot of bad science fiction, I could name a few titles from my childhood which, looking back, kind of insulted my intelligence. But as I’ve gotten older, the list has grown and expanded. And I really thought it was time I did a list that presents all of the bad stories, movies and television arcs that I’ve witnessed over the years, the ones that extra-terrestrial would definitely get a kick out of if ever they saw them. Hopefully, they wouldn’t conclude we humans actually think like this, and hence would be that much easier to conquer!

And here they are, in order of awfulness. The list of incompetent alien invaders!

1. Battlefield Earth:
battlefieldearthI start with this movie for obvious reasons. As far as logic and plot development were concerned, this movie could not have been more insulting to aliens! Not only was their own ineptitude galactic in proportions, but it flew in the face of everything we were told during the first half of the movie (or quarter of the book). Yes, L. Ron Hubbard (the inventor of Scientology) isn’t exactly known for being the most rational of human beings, but even he was out to lunch on this one!

For starters, it is established early on that the Psychlos – an alien civilization of clawed Rastafarians – have conquered Earth by the year 3000. But in the course of the story, we learn through the main character that it was extremely easy for them to do it. Using their superior technology, Earth’s armies, navies and air forces fell to the invasion after a mere 9 minutes! That’s quite the ass-whooping!

And yet, a group of tribal kinsmen are able to not only defeat the occupying Psychlos, but destroy their entire homeworld in the course of an uprising. How, you might ask? Well, as it turns out, Terl, the governor of Earth – played by director and Hubbard acolyte John Travolta – facilitated it all by giving Johnny Goodboy Tyler (the protagonist of the story) all the lucrative info on their race so he could become a foreman for a private gold mining operation, but in turn used it to train a resistance.

In the course of so doing, Tyler was able to trick Terl into accepting gold from Fort Knox, where he used 1000-year old simulators to train his ragtag misfits in how to use equally old Harriers, missiles, and even a nuke, which they then teleportedto the Psychlo home planet in the midst of their rebellion. Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that the Psychlos atmosphere ignites when it comes into contact with radiation? Yeah, that’s kind of important, because it resulted in the full-scale destruction of their home world!

Ignoring for a fact that the physics of this makes absolutely no sense, Hubbard’s tale basically asserts that by relying on the same technology that couldn’t last ten minutes against a bunch of alien invaders in the first place, a bunch of hill people did what ever army on Earth could not and killed off a far more advanced species. How did these Psychlos conquer Earth in the first place? They are not only breathe air that’s the equivalent of dry tinder of gasoline, they’re dumber than dirt!

2. Independence Day:
independence_day-207756Here we have another instance where audiences were presented with an alien menace that appeared unassailable in the first act of the movie, but then proved to be total pushovers. As the first Roland Emmerich disaster flick to grace the silver screen in America, this movie made a ton of money and set the arc for Emmerich’s career. Fun and silly, it sucked as far as realism and suspension of disbelief were concerned. For me, what endures about this movie is how fun it is to make fun of!

Basically, the aliens come to Earth in a massive mothership that begins deploying smaller motherships across the globe. Using our own satellites to sync up, they begin a countdown to Armageddon and start blowing up every major city on the planet. The only person who seems to notice the countdown ahead if time is a lone cable repair man, and not the NSA, CIA, MI6 or any other covert spy agency on the planet!

All counter-attacks fail, as it seems the alien ships have shields – these big green walls that protect them from our missiles. Nukes are even useless against them. All hope seems lost until, contained within Area 51, this same cable man comes up with an idea… He’s going to download a virus to the alien mothership using his Macbook and set off a nuke inside it. With the help of a fighter pilot who seems oddly and suddenly qualified to fly a captured alien ship, they fly into space, make it aboard the mothership, and begin their hack job.

And while the alien’s shields are down, what remains of Earth’s air forces mount a counter-attack that goes off quite well. It seems that without their shields, the alien fighters are a bunch of total wimps! And the smaller motherships, all you got to do is find a alcoholic, traumatized crop duster to fly a plane up their main gun shaft and the whole thing will blow up! Oh, and the hacker team, they make it out before the nuke goes off and somehow crashland without dying. Hurray for xenocide!

So basically, our species was on the verge of being exterminated, only to be saved by a cable man, a NASA reject, and a drunken crop duster with PTSD. Brent Spiner was right, it WAS just a matter of getting around their technology! And how easy was that? Yeah, they got interstellar spaceships, laser beams and shields, but the bastards can’t even erect a firewall to stop a single hacker? And speaking of those laser beams, turns out all you got to do is stick your finger in the barrel and the whole ship will blow up!

3. Battle: Los Angeles
Battle_Los_Angeles_Poster
Here we have another instance where aliens attack, manage to do untold amounts of damage, but then seem to succumb when a small band of heroes come together and put their minds to the task of beating them. And in this case, the aliens didn’t even really have an Achilles heel. They just seemed to become beatable once the Marines figured out their physiology, technology and basic tactics, which was surprisingly easy…

It’s almost summer in LA, and a grizzled veteran who’s traumatized over the recent loss of his platoon is about to quit the service. But of course, hostile aliens land off the coast and throw a wrench in his retirement plans! And instead, he is deployed to the city to defend against the first wave of the assault, and is quickly trapped with what remains of his platoon behind the enemy’s lines.

There, they begin to figure out the enemy. This consists of first performing a recreational autopsy on one to find out how to kill it. Turns out all you have to do is shoot them “to the right of the heart”. So, in the chest then? No wonder all the other soldiers couldn’t kill them! They were aiming for the groin! Fleeing with some civilians in tow, they also systematically discover all their other weaknesses…

This includes the fact that the alien airdrones are drawn to their radio transmissions and that all their drones are controlled by some central command module. After realizing they are on their own because the Air Force aint coming, they divert to find the module and then destroy it. All the alien drones are deactivated, the Marines are rescued, and a counter-attack is now underway to clear the last of them. But of course, the Marines refuse to sit this one out and selflessly volunteer to go back in…

So the lesson here is, when entire armies fail and fall back, its a small group of heroes that will save the day. Not bad, but how is it a bunch of grunts in the field are able to figure out how an enemy arsenal works while the higher ups basically have their thumbs up their asses the whole time? Funny how that always seems to be the case!

And sure, I get that the leader of these heroes would be a scarred man seeking redemption, but are we to believe that a man who lost his entire platoon to insurgents would have no trouble leading a handful of people to victory over a far more advanced alien species? Something just doesn’t add up here…

4. Signs:
Signs_movieposterI remember the days when M. Night Shyamalan was considered a big deal, and not some dude past his prime who made a string of critically-panned movies. Yes, in addition to being hellbent on starring in his own films and using material that seemed marginal (comic book heroes, monsters, aliens and ghosts), he also seemed to have a real hard on for stories that were full of holes!

And this movie was no exception, adding to an already rich tradition of scary aliens who don’t seem to have a clue when it comes to conquering planet Earth. The story starts out clear enough, with “signs” of an impending invasion by alien beings. And of course, the heroes here are a single family made up of people strangely qualified to defeat them – a priest who’s lost his faith after losing his wife, a psychic daughter, an asthmatic son, and former baseball player who swings at everything.

When the aliens show up, it turns out his dying wife’s words were a prophecy on how to beat back in the invasion. First, hit them in the head with a bat, they hate that! Then, rely on your sons asthma to prevent him from inhaling their toxic vapors. And finally, realize your daughter’s desire to keep glasses of water around the house are a defensive mechanism, since water is toxic to them.

Really? So these things can travel light years to our planet for the sake of terrorizing and killing us, but are vulnerable to a blows in the head from a blunt object and a liquid that covers 70% of our planet and permeates the air. What kind of invaders are these? Are these the same ones who were defeated in the Simpsons by a “board with a nail?”

Also, did they not notice ahead of time that the most basic element, next to the air itself, was fatal to them? What is it with alien invaders not doing their due diligence? How is it that we here on Earth are able to notice lakes of sulfuric acid on Venus, despite having never landed there, but aliens can’t notice the equivalent on a planet they are actively invading? Kang, Kodos… get off our planet!

5. Battleship:
Battleship_PosterNext up, we have the movie that dared to ask the age old question: “what do you get if you cross Transformers with Independence Day?” The answer being, the same old story of unlikely heroes beating an alien menace, but with a twist! This one is set at sea. And if that wasn’t enough, it also stars Rihanna, who proved once again that there are some singers who should stick to what they’re good at and avoid crossing over!

And much like in Battle: LA, we once again have aliens landing in the sea and wreaking havoc on nearby city – this time in Honolulu. After trapping and destroying the US and Japanese naval ships in the vicinity, the alien ships take control of the communications array on the nearby island of Oahu. A single vessel, captained by a LT after his brother (the Captain) is killed, manages to survive and continues the fight…

This includes the US naval ship taking out two of the alien ships and capturing an alien to learn that they are vulnerable to sunlight. On land, a veteran and quadruple amputee in recovery also figures out what the aliens are doing with the array. Apparently, they are using it to summon more of their ships to Earth. So on land and at sea, we have unlikely heroes who begin unraveling the aliens’ plans.

Using the aliens rather pedestrian weakness to their advantage, the US naval ships manage to blind the last of the smaller alien ships with sunlight and destroy it. However, it too is sunk, but they manages to survive and gets back to base to commandeer the USS Missouri, the last remaining US Battleship in existence. Bringing her out of retirement, they use her big guns to take out the alien ships shields, allowing the Air Force to finish her off.

Following this, the Lieutenant is promoted and given a ship of his own to command. Him and Rihanna also arrange to get married. Hurray! Planet Earth is saved and everybody’s getting laid! And once again, it seems that if you’re a reluctant hero, or you’ve got vengeance on your mind, you can beat the odds and overcome a vastly superior alien foe. Never mind that a small fleet was useless against this enemy, or that your vessel is dangerously out of date even by Earth standards!

6. The Borg (Star Trek: TNG):
borgsHere we have a truly chilling and frightening alien menace that started out as a credible threat, but quickly degenerated into a nuisance that was eventually beaten through some unlikely twists! I can still remember when the Borg were first presented in the second and third season of TNG, just how tough and scary they seemed! How they went from this from the clumsy, easily-fooled menace led by a “Queen” towards the end is a mystery…

As Guinan said during their introductory episode, the Borg are a collective “made up of organic and artificial life which has been developing for thousands of centuries.” In addition to being virtually indestructible and entirely collectivized, they are hellbent on assimilating all known lifeforms and technology they come across. This makes them an inevitable threat, one which Q believes they are unprepared to face.

Borg_qwhoHence, he arranges for a little face-to-face between them and the Enterprise, and it doesn’t go too well. In addition to finding that their weapons are virtually ineffective against a Borg ship, they also learn that these ships are capable of healing from battle damage, are faster and far more coordinated than their own; and most importantly, that they are crewed by a relentless enemy. They narrowly survive, and only because of Q’s intervention.

Their second confrontation happens shortly thereafter, when a Borg Cube is dispatched to Federation space to begin assimilating them. After an initial encounter with the vessel, Picard is captured and assimilated. The crew learns that he is now part of the Borg and that his knowledge has been absorbed. As the Borg vessel begins advancing on Earth, the Federation loses 39 ships in an attempt to stop it.

lucutusIn the end, they manage to stop it by recapturing the Captain, tapping into the Borg neural net, and commanding them to go to sleep. The Borg ship self-destructs, realizing their collective has been intruded and they are vulnerable. It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that humanity survives its first engagement with the Borg and lives to fight another day. Scary stuff, and doesn’t bode too well for the future!

Immediately thereafter, the Borg ceases to become a serious threat. Not appearing again until the end of Season 5, at which point Roddenberry had died, the Enterprise discovers a single stranded Borg and rescue him, plotting to return him to the collective carrying a virus. However, they soon realize the lone Borg, who’ve they’ve humanized by naming him “Hugh”, is no longer a Borg per se, and cannot commit to the plan. Instead, they learn that Hugh’s individuality have spread throughout the collective, causing chaos.

borg_queenThereafter, the Borg made no real appearance in the series until the spinoff series Voyager, where they make numerous appearances before being vanquished. First, they are shown to be fighting a losing war against beings from a parallel dimension where space is fluid and technology is organic in nature. The Voyager crew assists the collective against this common threat, and gains 7 of 9 as a crewmember.

In subsequent episodes and seasons, Voyager wages a one-ship war with the collective as they flee back to Federation space. They manage to outwit the Borg Queen (weren’t they supposed to be a collective?) time after time, stealing a trans warp coil from her, saving a group of resistance fighters from the collective’s grasp, and coordinating their efforts with a future Janeway to not only make it home, but crash the entire collective with a virus.

From invincible enemy that spoke with one voice, to a bunch of dumb drones led by a megalomaniacal queen that made deals and was easily tricked, the Borg was a truly awesome concept that degenerated into a sort “Evil the Cat” that became all-too-human. Ironic, and quite disappointing really. Much like many elements of the show, this was one of Roddenberry’s babies that seemed to suffer in his successor’s hands.

7. The Day of the Triffids:
DayofthetriffidsAlthough based on a novel that ended quite differently, the film adaptation of this novel has gone down in history as a case of aliens that seemed so menacing, but proved to be very dumb. Written by John Wyndham, the author that brought us The Chrysalids, the story considers the possibility of an alien invasion that doesn’t involve tripods, motherships or little green men armed with ray guns.

No, in the end, Windham’s invasion was much more subtle, patient, and far more effective. It begins when the triffids, a race of seemingly intelligent, aggressive plants that begin popping up all over the world. Initially thought to be the result of bioengineering within the USSR (a possible commentary on Lysenkoism), the venomous plants are soon revealed to be the first wave in an alien invasion.

After being blinded by contact with one of the plants, the main character awakens in the hospital to find it deserted. He begins to walk through the streets of London, apparently surrounded by other blind people. He soon comes upon a group of people who still have their sight and are planning on establishing a colony to repopulate the human race.

In time, it is made clear that the triffids are causing the environment to change, effectively terraforming Earth to become more like the alien environment they are used to. They continue to advance and eventually surround the small home the main characters make for themselves. But at the same time, the main characters learns that a colony has been formed on the Isle of Wight, which is removed from the infestation, where people are attempting to continue the fight.

In creating this story, Wydnham acknowledged a great debt to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds; though in this novel, the aliens are not foiled. However, in the film adaptation of the novel, the triffids are eventually foiled by a very likely source: salt water! Yes, it seems that an invasive species chose to attack a planet where the majority of the surface is covered by something entirely poisonous to them.

Little wonder then why Shyamalan chose water as his aliens’ weakness. He was ripping off a classic movie! Too bad it was an unfaithful adaptation of the original novel. He could have avoided making one of several bad movies!

8. The War of the Worlds:
waroftheworldsWe come to it at last, the original story that inspired an entire slew of classic alien invasion tales. Written in 1895-97, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds not only introduced the world to the concept of a “Martian invasion”, it set the tone for all subsequent generations of paranoia and fear regarding extra-terrestrial life. This was not an intended consequences of his work, mind you, just a side-effect of what was arguably a brilliant novel.

Told from a first-person point of view, the story follows a philosophically-inclined author who witnesses the invasion firsthand. It all begins shortly after an observatory notes the appearance of several “explosions’ on the surface of Mars. Shortly thereafter, the narrator is one of many people to notice the arrival of a meteor which turns out to be a large cylinder. When the cylinder opens, disgorging tripods that begin incinerating everything with heat rays.

War-of-the-worlds-tripodMore cylinders begin falling all over Southern England, laying waste to military units and communities. After meeting up with an artilleryman, the narrator finds out that he has become cut off from his wife, and reroutes to try and find her. People begin to evacuate London, and British forces are able to bring down some of the tripods, but eventually, all organized resistance ceases.

In their wake, the Martian begin to unleash a species known as Red Weed, a native martian plant that begins altering the Earth’s ecology. Of the narrator’s companions, a curate and the artilleryman, the former comes to see the invasion as a herald of the Apocalypse, while the latter begins to advocate that humanity rebuild civilization underground. He eventually leaves both behind and returns to London, where he finds the aliens dead due to infectious disease.

At once brilliant and original, Wells story has undergone extensive scrutiny over the years. It’s plot and thematic makeup have led many critics to wonder what its central message was, whether it was meant as a sort of cautionary tale, an historical allusion, or an indictment on British colonial policy. As part of the larger trend of invasion literature, there were also many who thought that the aliens represented an actual enemy (i.e. Germany), and the point was merely to stoke fears about the possibility of an actual world war.

Summary:
In the end, it seems pretty obvious that when it comes to alien invasion stories and movies, everyone is picking at the crumbs from Wells’ table. As one of the first stories involving war between humanity and extra-terrestrials, it was also the first to introduce the world to the concept of a seemingly unassailable alien menace that was brought down because of an Achilles heel.

And without fail, it now seems like just about every purveyor of science fiction has followed in his footsteps. Whether it’s Verhoeven’s disaster porn, classic B-movie adaptations, new generations of speculative sci-fi novels, or mainstream TV shows, the concept of a fearsome, super-advanced species that initially has the edge on humanity, only to be foiled by superior… whatever, is destined to be all the rage!

And much like Wells War, one can’t help but wonder about the psychology and deeper sociological implications of that. Do such ideas remain popular with us as part an enduring xenophobic tendency, or are they part of some deeper destructive impulse, where we just love to see civilization as we know reduced to ashes? In some respects, you might say this a healthy sublimation of that desire, where we allow others to do what we secretly desire, right before we pay them back in full!

I’m thinking this is getting a little too intellectual given the subject matter I started with. This was supposed to about clueless aliens and how these stories and film parody them. Once again, I sincerely hope that if there are aliens out there who are able to listen in on our radio, television and movie transmissions, that they take all of this entertainment with a massive grain of salt.

I think I speak for all of humanity when I say we don’t need no invasions anytime soon! Come back after we’ve developed our own death rays!

Now here's an alien that doesn't go die so easily!
Now here’s an alien that isn’t defeated so easily!

Religion in Sci-Fi

Since its inception as a literary genre, religion has played an important role in science fiction. Whether it took the form of informing the author’s own beliefs, or was delivered as part of their particular brand of social commentary, no work of sci-fi has ever been bereft of spirituality.Even self-professed atheists and materialists had something to say about religion, the soul and the concept of the divine, even if it was merely to deny its existence.

And so, I thought it might make for an interesting conceptual post to see exactly what some of history’s greats believed and how they worked it into their body of literature. As always, I can’t include everybody, but I sure as hell can include anyone who’s books I’ve read and beliefs I’ve come to know. And where ignorance presides, I shall attempt to illuminate myself on the subject. Okay, here goes!

Alastair Reynolds:
Despite being a relative newby to the field of sci-fi authors, Reynolds has established a reputation for hard science and grand ideas with his novels. And while not much information exists on his overall beliefs, be they religious or secular, many indications found their way into his books that would suggest he carries a rather ambiguous view of spirituality.

Within the Revelation Space universe, where most of his writing takes place, there are many mentions of a biotechnological weapon known as the “Indoctrination Virus”. This is an invasive program which essentially converts an individual to any number of sectarian ideologies by permeating their consciousness with visions of God, the Cross, or other religious iconography.

In Chasm City, these viruses are shown to be quite common on the world of Sky’s Edge, where religious sects use them to convert people to the official faith of the planet that claims Sky Haussmann was a prophet who was unfairly crucified for his actions. In Absolution Gap, they also form the basis of a society that populates an alien world known as Hela. Here, a theocratic state was built around a man named Quaiche, who while near death watched the moon’s gas giant disappear for a fraction of a second.

Unsure if this was the result of a strain he carries, he created a mobile community that travels the surface of the planet and watches the gas giant at all times using mirrors and reclining beds, so that they are looking heavenward at all times. Over the years, this community grew and expanded and became a mobile city, with each “believer” taking on transfusions of his blood so they could contract the the strain that converted him and allowed him to witness all that he did.

While this would indicate that Reynolds holds a somewhat dim view of religion, he leaves plenty of room for the opposite take. All throughout his works, the idea of preserving one’s humanity in a universe permeated by post-mortal, post-human, cybernetic beings remains a constant. In addition, as things get increasingly dark and the destruction of our race seems imminent, individual gestures of humanity are seem as capable of redeeming and even saving humanity as a species.

In fact, the names of the original trilogy allude to this: Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap. Like with everything else in his books, Reynold’s seems to prefer to take a sort of middling approach, showing humanity as an ambiguous species rather than an inherently noble one or foul one. Religion, since it is a decidedly human practice, can only be seen as ambiguous as well.

Arthur C. Clarke:
At once a great futurist and technologist, Clarke was nevertheless a man who claimed to be endlessly fascinated with the concept of God and transcendence. When interviews on the subjects of his beliefs, he claimed that he was “fascinated by the concept of God.” During another interview, he claimed that he believed that “Any path to knowledge is a path to God—or Reality, whichever word one prefers to use.”

However, these views came to change over time, leading many to wonder what the beliefs of this famed author really were. At once disenchanted with organized religion, he often found himself subscribing to various alternative beliefs systems. At other times, he insisting he was an atheist, and nearing the end of his life, even went so far as to say that he did not want religious ceremonies of any kind at his funeral.

Nowhere were these paradoxical views made more clear than in his work. For example, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the theme of transcendence, of growing to the point of becoming god-like, is central. Early hominid’s evolution into humanity is seen as the direct result of tampering by higher forces, aliens which are so ancient and evolved that they are virtually indistinguishable from gods. Throughout the series, human beings get a taste of this as they merge with the alien intelligence, becoming masters of their own universe and godlike themselves.

In the last book of the series – 3001: Final Odyssey, which Clarke wrote shortly before his death – Clarke describes a future where the Church goes the way of Soviet Communism. Theorizing that in the 21st century a reformist Pope would emerge who would choose to follow a similar policy as Gorbachev (“Glasnost”) and open the Vatican archives, Clarke felt that Christianity would die a natural death and have to be replaced by something else altogether. Thereafter, a sort of universal faith built around an open concept of God (called Deus) was created. By 3001, when the story is taking place, people look back at Christianity as a primitive necessity, but one which became useless by the modern age.

So, in a way, Clarke was like many Futurists and thoroughgoing empiricists, in that he deplored religion for its excesses and abuses, but seemed open to the idea of a cosmic creator at times in his life. And, when pressed, he would say that his personal pursuit for truth and ultimate reality was identical to the search for a search God, even if it went by a different name.

Frank Herbert:
Frank Herbert is known for being the man who taught people how to take science fiction seriously all over again. One of the reasons he was so successful in this regard was because of the way he worked the central role played by religion on human culture and consciousness into every book he ever wrote. Whether it was the Lazarus Effect, the Jesus Incident, or the seminal Dune, which addresses the danger of prophecies and messiahs, Frank clearly believed that the divine was something humanity was not destined to outgrow.

And nowhere was this made more clear than in the Dune saga. In the very first novel, it is established that humanity lives in a galaxy-spanning empire, and that the codes governing technological progress are the result of a “jihad” which took place thousands of years ago. This war was waged against thinking machines and all other forms of machinery that threatened to usurp humanity’s sense of identity and creativity, resulting in the religious proscription “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”

Several millennium later, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, a quasi-religious matriarchal society, are conspiring to create a messianic figure in the form of the Kwisatz Haderach. The name itself derives from the Hebrew term “Kefitzat Haderech” (literally: “The Way’s Jump”), a Kabbalic term related to teleportation. However, in this case, the name refers to the individual’s absolute prescience, the ability to jump through time in their mind’s eye. In preparation for the arrival of this being, they have been using their missionaries to spread messiah legends all over the known universe, hoping that people will respond to the arrival of their superbeing as if he were a messianic figure.

When the main character, Paul Atreides – the product of Bene Gesserit’s breeding program – arrives on the planet Arrakis, where his family is betrayed and killed, he and his mother become refugees amongst the native Fremen. They are one such people who have been prepped for his arrival, and wonder if he is in fact the one who will set them free. In order to survive, Paul takes on this role and begins to lead the Fremen as a religious leader. All along, he contends with the fear that in so doing, he will be unleashing forces he cannot control, a price which seems too high just to ensure that he and his mother survive and avenge themselves on their betrayers.

However, in the end, he comes to see that this is necessary. His prescience and inner awareness reveal to him that his concepts of morality are short-sighted, failing to take into account the need for renewal through conflict and war. And in the end, this is exactly what happens.By assuming the role of the Kwisatz Haderach, and the Fremen’s Mahdi, he defeats the Emperor and the Harkonnens and becomes the Emperor of the known universe. A series of crusades followers as his followers go out into the universe to subdue all rebellion to his rule and spread their new faith. Arrakis not only becomes the seat of power, but the spiritual capital of the universe, with people coming far and wide to see their new ruler and prophet.

As the series continues, Paul chooses to sacrifice himself in order to put an end to the cult of worship that has come of his actions. He wanders off into the desert, leaving his sister Alia to rule as Regent. As his children come of age, his son, Leto II, realizes the follies of his father and must make a similar choice as he did. Granted, assuming the role of a God is fraught with peril, but in order to truly awaken humanity from its sleep and prepare it for the future, he must go all the way and become a living God. Thus, he merges with the Sandworm, achieving a sort of quasi-immortality and invincibility.

After 3500 of absolute rule, he conspires in a plot to destroy himself and dies, leaving a huge, terrible, but ultimately noble legacy that people spend the next 1500 years combing through. When they come to the point of realizing what Leto II was preparing them for, they come to see the wisdom in his three and half millennia of tyranny. By becoming a living God, by manipulating the universe through his absolute prescience, he was preparing humanity for the day when they would be able to live without Gods. Like the Bene Gesserit, who became his chosen after the fact, he was conspiring to create “mature humanity”, a race of people who could work out their fates moment by moment and not be slaved to prophecies or messiahs.

As you can see, the commentary ran very deep. At once, Herbert seemed to be saying that humanity would never outlive the need for religion, but at the same time, that our survival might someday require us to break our dependency on it. Much like his critique on rational thought, democracy and all other forms of ideology, he seemed to be suggesting that the path to true wisdom and independence lay in cultivating a holistic awareness, one which viewed the universe not through a single lens, but as a multifaceted whole, and which was really nothing more than a projection of ourselves.

For those seeking clarity, that’s about as clear as it gets. As Herbert made very clear through the collection of his works, religion was something that he was very fascinated with, especially the more esoteric and mystical sects – such as Kaballah, Sufism, Zen Buddhism and the like. This was appropriate since he was never a man who gave answers easily, preferring to reflect on the mystery rather than trying to contain it with imperfect thoughts. Leto II said something very similar to this towards the end of God Emperor of Dune; as he lay dying he cautions Duncan and Siona against attempts to dispel the mystery, since all he ever tried to do was increase it. I interpreted this to be a testament of Frank’s own beliefs, which still inspire me to this day!

Gene Roddenberry:
For years, I often found myself wondering what Roddenberry’s take on organized religion, spirituality, and the divine were. Like most things pertaining to Star Trek, he seemed to prefer taking the open and inclusive approach, ruling nothing out, but not endorsing anything too strongly either. Whenever religion entered into the storyline, it seemed to take the form of an alien race who’s social structure was meant to resemble something out of Earth’s past. As always, their was a point to be made, namely how bad things used to be!

Behind the scenes, however, Roddenberry was a little more open about his stance. According to various pieces of biographical info, he considered himself a humanist and agnostic, and wanted to create a show where none of his characters had any religious beliefs. If anything, the people of the future were pure rationalists who viewed religion as something more primitive, even if they didn’t openly say so.

However, this did not prevent the subject of religion from coming up throughout the series. In the original, the crew discovers planets where religious practices are done that resemble something out of Earth’s past. In the episode “Bread and Circuses”, they arrive on a planet that resembles ancient Rome, complete with gladiatorial fights, Pro-Consuls, and a growing religion which worships the “Son”, aka. a Jesus-like figure. This last element is apparently on the rise, and is advocating peace and an end to the cultures violent ways. In “Who Mourns Adonais”, the crew are taken captive by a powerful alien that claims to be Apollo, and who was in fact the true inspiration for the Greek god. After neutralizing him and escaping from the planet, Apollo laments that the universe has outgrown the need for gods.

In the newer series, several similar stories are told. In the season one episode entitled “Justice”, they come Edenic world where the people live a seemingly free and happy existence. However, it is soon revealed that their penal code involves death for the most minor of infractions, one which was handed down by “God”. This being is essentially an alien presence that lives in orbit and watches over the people. When the Enterprise tries to rescue Wesley, who is condemned to die, the being interferes. Picard gains its acquiescence by stating “there can be no justice in absolutes”, and they leave. In a third season episode entitled “Who Watches the Watchers”, Picard becomes a deity to the people of a primitive world when the crew saves one of their inhabitants from death. In an effort to avoid tampering with their culture, he lands and convinces him of his mortality, and explains that progress, not divine power, is the basis of their advanced nature.

These are but a few examples, but they do indicate a general trend. Whereas Roddenberry assiduously avoided proselytizing his own beliefs in the series, he was sure to indicate the ill effects religion can have on culture. In just about every instance, it is seen as the source of intolerance, injustice, irrationality, and crimes against humanity and nature. But of course, the various crews of the Enterprise and Starfleet do not interfere where they can help it, for this is seen as something that all species must pass through on the road to realizing their true potential.

George Lucas:
Whereas many singers of space opera and science fiction provided various commentaries on religion in their works, Lucas was somewhat unique in that he worked his directly into the plot. Much like everything else in his stories, no direct lines are established with the world of today, or its institutions. Instead, he chose to create a universe that was entirely fictional and fantastic, with its own beliefs, conflicts, institutions and political entities. But of course, the commentary on today was still evident, after a fashion.

In the Star Wars universe,religion (if it could be called that) revolves around “The Force”. As Obi-Wan described it in the original movie “It is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” In Empire, Yoda goes a step farther when he says “Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”Sounds rather pantheistic, doesn’t it? The idea that all life emits an essence, and that the fate of all living things is bound together in a sort of interdependency.

What’s more, the way the Force was governed by a Light Side and a Dark Side; here Lucas appeared to be relying on some decidely Judea-Christian elements. Luke’s father, for example, is a picture perfect representation of The Fall, a Faustian man who sold his soul for power and avarice. The way he and the Emperor continually try to turn Luke by dangling its benefits under his nose is further evidence of this. And in the end, the way Darth Vader is redeemed, and how he is willing to sacrifice himself to save his son, calls to mind the crucifixion.

In the prequels, things got even more blatant. Whereas Anakin was seen as a sort of Lucifer in the originals, here he became the prodigal son. Conceived by the “Will of the Force”, i.e. an immaculate conception, he was seen by Qui Gonn as “The Chosen One” who’s arrival was foretold in prophecy. The Jedi Council feared him, which is not dissimilar to how the Pharisees and Sanhedrin reacted to the presence of Jesus (according to Scripture). And of course, the way Anakin’s potential and powers became a source of temptation for him, this too was a call-back to the Lucifer angle from the first films.

All of this was in keeping with Lucas’ fascination with cultural mythos and legends. Many times over, Lucas was rather deliberate in the way he worked cultural references – either visually or allegorically – into his stories. The lightsaber fights and Jedi ethos were derived from medieval Europe and Japan, the architecture and many of the costumes called to mind ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium, the setting and gun fights were regularly taken from Old Westerns, and the Imperial getup and rise to power of the Emperor were made to resemble Nazi Germany.

However, Lucas also dispelled much of the mystery and pseudo-religious and spiritual quality of his work by introducing the concept of the “midi-chlorians”. This is something I cannot skip, since it produced a hell of a lot of angst from the fan community and confounded much of what he said in the original films. Whereas the Force was seen as a mystic and ethereal thing in the originals, in the prequels, Lucas sought to explain the nature of it by ascribing it to microscopic bacteria which are present in all living things.

Perhaps he thought it would be cool to explain just how this semi-spiritual power worked, in empirical terms. In that, he failed miserably! Not only did this deprive his franchise of something truly mysterious and mystical, it also did not advance the “science” of the Force one inch. Within this explanation, the Force is still a power which resides in all living things, its just these microscopic bacteria which seem to allow people to interact with it. Like most fans, I see this as something superfluous which we were all better off without!

H.G. Wells:
Prior to men like Herbert and the “Big Three” (Asimov, Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein), Wells was the master of science fiction. Since his time, during which he published a staggering amount of novels, short-stories and essays, his influence and commentaries have had immense influence. And when it came to matters of faith and the divine, Well’s was similarly influential, being one of the first sci-fi writers to espouse a sort of “elemental Christian” belief, or a sort of non-denominational acceptance for religion.

These beliefs he outlined in his non-fiction work entitled God the Invisible King, where he professed a belief in a personal and intimate God that did not draw on any particular belief system. He defined this in more specific terms later in the work,  aligning himself with a “renascent or modern religion … neither atheist nor Buddhist nor Mohammedan nor Christian … [that] he has found growing up in himself”.

When it came to traditional religions, however, Wells was clearly of the belief that they had served their purpose, but were not meant to endure. In The Shape of Things to Come, he envisioned the creation of a global state (similar to Zamyatin’s “One State” and Huxley’s “World State”), where scientific progress was emphasized and all religions suppressed. This he saw as intrinsic to mankind’s progress towards a modern utopia, based on reason and enlightenment and the end of war.

In War of the Worlds, a similar interpretation is made. In this apocalyptic novel, one of the main characters is a clergyman who interprets the invasion of the Martians as divine retribution. However, this only seems to illustrate his mentally instability, and his rantings about “the end of the world” are ultimately what lead to his death at the hands of the aliens. Seen in this light, the clergyman could be interpreted as a symbol of mankind’s primitive past, something which is necessarily culled in the wake of the invasion my a far more advanced force. And, as some are quick to point out, the Martians are ultimately defeated by biology (i.e. microscopic germs) rather than any form of intervention from on high.

Isaac Asimov:
Much like his “Big Three” colleague Clarke, Asimov was a committed rationalist, atheist and humanist. Though he was born to Jewish parents who observed the faith, he did not practice Judaism and did not espouse a particular belief in God. Nevertheless, he continued to identify himself as a Jew throughout his life. In addition, as he would demonstrate throughout his writings, he was not averse to religious convictions in others, and was even willing to write on the subject of religion for the sake of philosophical and historical education.

His writings were indicative of this, particularly in the Foundation and I, Robot series. In the former, Asimov shows how the Foundation scientists use religion in order to achieve a degree of influential amongst the less-advanced kingdoms that border their world, in effect becoming a sort of technological priesthood. This works to their advantage when the regent of Anacreon attempts to invade Terminus and ends up with a full-scale coup on his hands.

In the Robot series, Asimov includes a very interesting chapter entitled “Reason”, in which a robot comes to invent its own religion. Named QT1 (aka. “Cutie”) this robot possesses high-reasoning capabilities and runs a space station that provides power to Earth. It concludes that the stars, space, and the planets don’t really exist, and that the power source of the ship is in fact God and the source of its creation.

Naturally, the humans who arrive on the station attempt to reason with Cutie, but to no avail. It has managed to convert the other robots, and maintains the place in good order as a sort of temple. However, the human engineers conclude that since its beliefs do not conflict with the smooth running of the facility, that they should not attempt to counterman it’s belief system.

What’s more, in a later story entitled “Escape!” Asimov presents readers with a view of the afterlife. After developing a spaceship that incorporates an FTL engine (known as the hyperspatial drive), a crew of humans take it into space and perform a successful jump. For a few seconds, they experience odd and disturbing visions before returning safely home. They realize that the jump causes people to cease exist, effectively dying, which is a violation of the Three Laws, hence why previous AI’s were incapable of completing the drive.

Taken together, these sources would seem to illustrate that Asimov was a man who saw the uses of religion, and was even fascinated by it at times, but did not have much of a use for it. But as long as it was not abused or impinged upon the rights or beliefs of others, he was willing to let sleeping dogs lie.

Philip K. Dick:
Naturally, every crowd of great artists has its oddball, and that’s where PKD comes in! In addition to being a heavy user of drugs and a fan of altered mental states, he also had some rather weird ideas when it came to religion. These were in part the result of a series of religious experiences he underwent which began for him in 1974 while recovering from dental surgery. They were also an expresion of his gnostic beliefs, which held that God is a higher intelligence which the human mind can make contact with, given the right circumstances.

Of Dick’s hallucinations, the first incident apparently occurred when a beautiful Christian woman made a delivery to his door and he was mesmerized by the light reflecting off of her fish pendant, which he claimed imparted wisdom and clairvoyance. Thereafter, Dick began to experience numerous hallucinations, and began to rule out medication as a cause. Initially, they took the form of geometric patterns, but began to include visions of Jesus and ancient Rome as well. Dick documented and discussed these experiences and how they shaped his views on faith in a private journal, which was later published as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.

As he stated in his journal, he began to feel that his hallucinations were the result of a greater mind making contact with his own, which he referred to as the “transcendentally rational mind”, “Zebra”, “God” and “VALIS” (vast active living intelligence system). Much of these experiences would provide the inspiration for his VALIS Trilogy, a series that deals with the concept of visions, our notions of God and transcendent beings.

In addition, many of Dick’s hallucinations took on a decidedly Judea-Christian character. For instance, at one point he became convinced that he was living two parallel lives; one as himself, and another as “Thomas” – a Christian persecuted by Romans in the 1st century AD. At another point, Dick felt that he had been taken over by the spirit of the prophet Elijah. These experiences would lead him to adapt certain Biblical elements into his work, a prime example being a chapter in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which bore a striking resemblance to the a story from the Biblical Book of Acts, which Dick claimed to never have read.

All of this is a testament to the rather profound (and possibly nuts!) mind of PKD and his fascination with all things divine and spiritual. Though not a man of faith in the traditional sense, he was very much a part of the counter-culture in his day and experimented with drugs and alternative religious beliefs quite freely. And while most of his ideas were dismissed as outlandish and the result of drug abuse, there were many (Robert A Heinlein included) who saw past that to the creative and rather gifted artistic soul within. It is therefore considered a tragedy that PKD died in relative obscurity, having never witnessed how much of an impact and influence he would have on science fiction and modern literature.

Ray Bradbury:
Next up, we have the late great Ray Bradbury, a science fiction writer for whom all literature was of immense import. This included the Bible, the Tanakh, the Koran, and just about any other religious text ever written by man. What’s more, many of his works contain passages which would seem to indicate that Bradbury held religion in high esteem, and even believed it to be compatible (or at least not mutually exclusive) with science.

For example, in his seminal novel Fahrenheit 451, one of the most precious volumes being protected by the character of Faber, a former English professor, is the Bible itself. When Montag confronts him and begins ripping the pages out of it, Faber tells him that it is one of the last remaining copies in the world that actually contains God’s words, instead of the newer versions which contain product placements.

As the story progresses and World War III finally comes, Montag joins Faber and a community of exiles, all of whom are responsible for “becoming a book” by memorizing it. In this way, they hope to preserve whatever literature they can until such a time as civilization and the art of writing re-emerges. Montag is charged with memorizing the Book of Ecclesiastes, and joins the exiles on their journey.

In the Martian Chronicles, Bradbury is even more clear on his stance vis a vis religion. In the short story “-And the Moon Be Still as Bright”, the Fourth Expedition arrives on Mars to find that the majority of the Martians have died from chickenpox. A disillusioned character named Jeff Spender then spends much time in the alien ruins and comes to praise the Martians for how their culture combined religion and science.

Humanity’s big mistake, according to Spender, was in praising science at the expense of religion, which he seemed to suggest was responsible for modern man’s sense of displacement. Or has Spender put it: “That’s the mistake we made when Darwin showed up. We embraced him and Huxley and Freud, all smiles. And then we discovered that Darwin and our religions didn’t mix. Or at least we didn’t think they did. We were fools. We tried to budge Darwin and Huxley and Freud. They wouldn’t move very well. So, like idiots, we tried knocking down religion.”

In short, Bradbury saw humanity as lost, largely because of it deification of reason at the expense of faith. However, he did not appear to be advocating any particular religion, or even religion over science. When it came right down to it, he seemed to be of the opinion that faith was important to life, an outlet for creativity and inspiration, and needed to be preserved, along with everything else.

Robert A. Heinlein:
As yet another member of the “Big Three”, Heinlein’s own religious view bear a striking resemblance to those of his contemporaries. Much like Clarke and Asimov, he was a committed rationalist and humanist, and varied from outright atheism to merely rejecting the current state of human religion. According to various sources, this began when he first encountered Darwin’s Origin of the Species at the age of 13, which convinced him to eschew his Baptist roots.

These can be summed up in a statement made by Maureen, one of his characters in To Sail Beyond the Sunset, when she said that the purpose of metaphysics was to ask the question why, but not to answer. When one passed beyond the realm of questions and got into answer, they were firmly in religious territory. Naturally, the character of Maureen preferred the former, as the latter led to intolerance, chauvinism, and persecution.

In Stranger In A Strange Land, one of the most famous science fiction novels of all time, plenty of time is dedicated to the main character’s (the Martian Smith) experiences with religion. After becoming disillusioned with humanity’s existing institutions, he decides to create a new faith known as the “Church of All Worlds”. This new faith was based on universal acceptance and blended elements of paganism, revivalism, and psychic training. In short, it was an attempt to predate major religions by reintroducing ancient rites, nature worship, and the recognition of the divine in all things.

What’s more, Stranger’s challenge to just about every contemporary more, which included monogamy, fear of death, money, and conventional morality could only be seen by religious authorities as an indictment of traditional values. In that respect, they were right. Heinlein plotted out the entire novel in the early fifties, but did begin writing it for a full decade. He would later of say of this, “I had been in no hurry to finish it, as that story could not be published commercially until the public mores changed. I could see them changing and it turned out that I had timed it right.”

But just in case his work did not suffice, Heinlein expressed his opinions quite clearly in the book entitled Notebooks of Lazarus Long (named after one of his recurring characters): “History does not record anywhere at any time a religion that has any rational basis. Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help. But, like dandruff, most people do have a religion and spend time and money on it and seem to derive considerable pleasure from fiddling with it.” These and other quotes illustrated his issues with religion, which included their irreconcilable nature with reason, their inherent contradictions, and the ludicrous things done in their names.

Summary:
And that’s what the masters had to say on the subject, at least those that I chose to include. As you can plainly see, their opinions ran the gambit from outright condemnation of religion (but not necessarily of faith) to believing that religion had it’s place alongside science as an equally worthy form of expression. And of course, there were those who fell somewhere in the middle, either seeing religion as an ambiguous thing or something that humanity would not outgrow – at least not for the foreseeable future. Strangely, none of them seemed to think that religion trumped science… I wonder why 😉

The First Science Fiction Novel Ever?

What do you think of when you hear the words Sci-Fi? Chances are, the words inspire images such as the one above, of nightmarish landscapes featuring clogged streets, flying cars, neon lights and massive skyscrapers. Or possibly you’re partial to the more utopian visions, with space travel, beautiful arcologies and happy shiny people who want for nothing and treat each other with peace and civility.

All good, but chances are, no one thinks of medieval literature from the Islamic world when they hear that term. Chances are no one thinks of anything other than the industrial age, of men like H.G Wells and Jules Verne. For most of us, these are the people who pioneered the field of science fiction, no doubt about it. But amongst scholarswho specialize in tracing literary genres to their roots, one book stands out as the possible progenitor of them all; a little known novel by the name of Theologus Autodidactus.

Outside of antiquarians and theologists, not many people have heard of this story, and up until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t either. So you can imagine my surprise when I learned about it. To me, science fiction was not something that could have predated the scientific revolution, or the age of industry when steam locomotives, steam ships, and a revolutionary understanding of the world and man’s place in it inspired flights of fancy which went well beyond our world. And yet, as it turns out, a manuscript which was written sometime in the 13th century by an Islamic scholar living in Egypt.

His pen name was Ibn al-Nafis (nee Ala-al-din abu Al-Hassan Ali ibn Abi-Hazm al-Qarshi al-Dimashqi), and he was what westerners would later refer to as a “Renaissance Man”. Not only was he an expert physician he also studied jurisprudence, literature and theology and became an expert on the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence before he died. In addition to writing many treatises on medicine, one of which was made famous for being the first in which pulmonary circulation of the blood was mentioned, he also wrote extensively on law and the world’s first coming of age tale/science fiction novel Al-Risalah al-Kamiliyyah fil Siera al-Nabawiyyah, which translated into Latin is known as Theologus Autodidactus.

Plot Summary:
Broken down succinctly, the story revolves around a protagonist named Kamil, an adolescent feral child who at the beginning of the story finds himself spontaneously transported to a cave on a deserted island. Almost immediately, it is clear that the boy is an autodidactic, a self-directed learner who has mastered several fields through independent learning.

Over time, he is met by several castaway who get shipwrecked on the island, learning and sharing from them. In time, the castaways band together to make a ship and agree to take Kamil with them back to civilization. As they return to the world of man, Kamil begins to see all the works of man, learns of philosophy, law and medicine remaining a self-directed learner all the while) and comes to several conclusions.

As he grows, he is taught the value of jurisprudence, religion, the necessity of the existence of God, and the value of the sciences, arts, and all other things that make man civilized. His own coming of age is reflected in explorations of the origin of man, the current state of the world, and predictions of the future. Towards the end, the plot develops from this coming-of-age scenario and begins to incorporate several new elements, such as the the end of the world, doomsday, resurrection and afterlife are predicted and scientifically explained using his own empirical knowledge of biology, astronomy, cosmology and geology.

Summary:
Ultimately, Ibn al-Nafis described his own work as a defense of “the system of Islam and the Muslims’ doctrines on the missions of Prophets, the religious laws, the resurrection of the body, and the transitoriness of the world”. Essentially, this meant presenting rational arguments for religious ideas, such as bodily resurrection and the immortality of the human soul, using both demonstrative reasoning and literary examples to prove his case. In this respect, he was not unlike Thomas Aquinas and a host of other western scholars from the High Middle Ages, men who would similarly try to defend reason based on faith and use empirical knowledge to defend the existence of a spiritual, universal order.

However, what set Ibn al-Nafis’ work apart was the way in which he expressed his religious, scientific and philosophical views through a fictitious narrator who went on to experience what the world had to offer. Rather than writing things in treatise form, which was the style for most philosophers of the day, he chose to do what only a select few of his contemporaries did and tell the story through a narrator who’s own journey illustrated one’s own journey of discovery. In that respect, he was like Voltaire, who’s fictional Candide had to venture out into the world in order to realize the truth about life and the order of things, though their conclusions were vastly different.

And finally, fact that he chose to speculate about what the future held, up to and including the apocalypse itself, is what makes this work classifiable as science fiction. Here, he was most comparable to men like H.G. Wells and Verne, men who looked to the future in the hopes of illustrating the current state of humanity and where it was likely to take them. And though these, and later generations of individuals, often had a negative appraisal of such things, Iban al-Nafis’ was arguably positive. His exploration was designed to affirm belief in the existence of something greater than material nature, but provable using the same basic laws.

I can’t imagine being able to find a copy of this book any time soon. It’s not like Amazon has copies on hold for anyone looking to a little cross-cultural antiquities reading. I checked, they really don’t! Still, I’d consider it a boon to find a translation and read the whole story for myself. What I little I learned can’t possibly capture the historic and cultural importance of the novel. Something to add to the reading list, right next to The Peach Blossom Spring and Beowulf!

Time Travel In Sci-Fi

Hey all. Have I said yet that it’s good to be back? Well, truth be told, it feels like I’ve only really got back into the swing of things in the past few days, and after a two week hiatus to boot. I also noticed that it’s been awhile since I’ve done a conceptual post, something dedicated to classic sci-fi and the concepts that make it so freakishly and enduringly cool!

And so I thought I’d tackle a very time (pun!) honored concept in science fiction today, that being the concept of time travel. Despite what many may think, the idea of going forwards or backwards in time is not a recent idea. It did not begin only after scientists theorized that time and space were expressions of the same phenomena – aka. relativity – nor with the development of quantum theory. However, these scientific discoveries did spur the concept on by introducing the idea of temporal paradoxesand the notion that there was such a thing as a space-time continuum resulting in multiple universes.

But I’m getting sidetracked here; and frankly, all this paradox and timelines stuff has been known to give me a headache! Instead, I’d rather look at some of the most renowned and celebrated instances of time travel in science fiction. Sidenote: As usual, I’ll be starting with literature and saving pop culture for another day. And of course, I won’t be covering everything, just the few examples that I think are the best.

Earliest Examples:
As already noted, the concept of being able to see into the past and future, with the purpose of changing the course of it, predates the idea of time travel as a scientific phenomena. In truth, it was often used in novels as a device to advance plot, character development, and offer moral instruction on the importance of choices and making the right ones.

A Christmas Carol:
This was certainly the case in Charles Dickens’ classic tale of selfishness and redemption, where a miserly capitalist is shown both his past and future in order to help him mend his ways. Published in 1843, A Christmas Carol has gone through countless renditions and adaptations over the years, with names like Ebeneezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim becoming household names that are synonymous with greed, pathos, and generosity of spirit.

Taking place on Christmas Eve, 1843, the story opens with a general description of Scrooge’s own life and success in the accounting trade, followed by an assessment of his character. Miserly, stingy, unsympathetic to the plight of the poor, his success is due in part to the fact that his business partner, a man much like him, has been dead for seven years, leaving everything to him.

After reluctantly letting his employee, Bob Cratchit, a poor but happy family man go home for the night, he is visited by the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley. Marley warns him that for his life of greed, he is suffering eternal punishment, and tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts who will show him the error of his ways and teach him the true meaning of Christmas. These ghosts, which are named the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, all show Scrooge how his decisions to forsake love, family, and kinship for the sake of his money have left him lonely and heartbroken, which is the source of his cruelty. When he sees his future, which is a cold grave with no one to mourn or miss him, he realizes there is still time and vows to change his ways.

Encapsulating Dickens’ view of industrialization, class distinction, poverty and the exploitation of the English working class, Carol remains one of the best known examples of social commentary in English literature. It is also the first widely-known example where time travel was used as a plot device.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:
Published in 1889 and written by the venerable humorist Mark Twain, Yankee employs a great deal of Twain’s characteristic wit in order to dispel the 19th century notion that the Middle Ages were a time of romance and chivalry, instead showing them to be a time by ignorance, superstition and brutality.

The story begins when an engineer named Hank Morgen from Hartford, Connecticut suffers a head wound and finds himself inexplicably transported back in time to the court of Camelot. After realizing that he is living in the 6th century and, for all intents and purposes, the most technically proficient man on Earth, he begins using his skills and knowledge of the future to convince the people that he is a powerful magician.

As a result, he replaces Merlin as the chief sorcerer of the court and begins growing in fame and power. He then embarks on an industrialization program for England, establishing trade schools to teach modern concepts and English, thus elevating them from the Dark Ages. At his prompting, Arthur begins to travel the land and is convinced to make several enlightened reforms, including abolishing slavery and improving the lot of the peasants.

In the end, Hank is lured to the continent by the Papal authorities who naturally fear him. While he is gone, the Church issues an Interdict on his followers and activities, and Arthur and Lancelot go to war over Guinevere. As foretold by legend, Arthur dies at the hands of Sir Mordred before Hank can save him. Upon his return to England, a Papal Army comes for Hank and his followers, who end up fortifying themselves in Merlin’s Cave behind an electric fence and minefield while employing Gatling guns.

However, disease begins to set in and Hank himself is wounded and falls prey to illness. While lying in bed, his assistant sees Merlin casting a spell over him, one which he claims will make him sleep for 1300 years (putting him back in his own time). The story ends with the narrator, a man who is writing the tale down in the present, saying that Hank is lying unconscious on the floor of his factory, leading the reader to question whether or not it was all a dream.

An endorsement of rationalization, industrialization and Americanization, Twain’s tail not only challenges the notion that the Middle Ages were a time of ignorance, brutality and persecution, but shows how attempts to remedy the past, however well-intentioned, were doomed to fail. In a way, this proved to an ironic commentary on those who were reinterpreting the Middle Ages to suit their current woes about industrial civilization. To them, Twain would insist that it’s easy to glory a past you don’t have to live in!

The Time Machine:
As already mentioned, the concept of time travel was not new by the time that H.G. Wells wrote the book on the same subject. However, Wells was the first to approach it as a scientific phenomena and inspired just about all subsequent interpretations. Written in 1895, The Time Machine was one of several stories written by Wells that involved time travel. Much like his earlier story, The Chronic Argonauts, the story revolves around an inventor who builds a time machine for his own personal use.

Told from the point of the view of a man known only as “The Time Traveller”, the story consists of his account of his journeys into the distant future and what he encounters there. In his first journey, he travels to the year 802, 701 AD, where he discovers a world divided between two races of people – the Eloi and the Morlocks.

The former are a beautiful, elegant people, though they appear to have no real drive or curiosity, who live in Edenic communities. The latter are a race of brutish troglodytes who live underground and work the machinery that makes the Edenic world above possible. Every now and then, these people emerge to the surface at night to capture and eat one of the Eloi, an act of revenge against their oppressors.

After escaping from a near-death encounter with the Morlocks and retrieving his time machine, he travels ahead to roughly 30 million years from his own time. There he sees some of the last living things on a dying Earth, which appears to be covered by red lichens and populated only by crab-like creatures and butterflies. He jumps forward further by small increments and sees the Earth’s rotation gradually cease and the sun die, leaving the Earth a frozen heap where no life can live.

Clearly meant as a social commentary on class distinction in Britain of his day, The Time Machine was also a potential warning about the state of man. Taken to its extreme, the concept of industrialization and rationalization would lead to the production of two races of people – a leisure class with no discipline or survival skills and a class of brutalized, downtrodden workers who had gone backwards in terms of evolution. A fitting commentary on an age when the gap between the rich and poor was enormous, the former becoming rich of the work of the workers while they in turn lived in horrendous conditions.

The Modern Classics:
By the onset of the 20th century, time travel was becoming an increasingly popular concept for science fiction writers. Thanks to writer’s of the previous century, the purpose of using it for the sake of social commentary, allegory, or as a literary device for the sake of character development had become well established. Many of these were used effectively by authors to warn contemporary readers about the path human civilization was on. Another major development was the publication of Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity” in 1905 and the proposal of multiple universes (as an interpretation of Quantum Theory). These added a certain degree of scientific merit to the idea. As a result, books involving time travel also began to be used to describe such phenomena as temporal paradoxes and circular time.

By His Bootstraps:
Written in 1941 by Robert A. Heinlein, this short story was amongst the first to introduce the concept of a time circular paradox, where the past and future becoming intertwined. This idea is something which Heinlein would return to several times over the years, where time travel creates a self-fulfilling scenario that the character must repeat, either in the past or in the future.

The story begins when a man (Bob) who is working on his doctoral thesis on time-travel is met by a time-traveling interloper named “Joe”. Joe looks familiar and shows him the small gateway that he used to travel back, and invites Bob to come with him 1000 years into the future. Suddenly, a man who looks just like Joe shows up and begins fighting with him, during which Bob is knocked through the gate.

He awakens in the future, and learns from an old man named Diktor that aliens were the one who built the time machine so they could fashion humanity into slaves. Joe realizes a 20th century man could become king in this world and that the man who invited him was his future self. As such, he travels back through the gate to meet himself in his apartment, this time using his own name to convince his past self to time travel. As before, another version of himself which shows up to fight him and his past self is knocked through.

This time around, his past self meets with Diktor, but this time goes  back into the past to procure all the items a 20th century man will need to be a ruler. He procures these, then goes back for the third time, but sooner so he can arrive at a time before Diktor is around. When he gets there, he sets himself up as chief and begins tampering with the time travel device so he can see its makers. Once he does, he’s shocked by their appearance and his hair turns white. After years of waiting, he meets his past self which comes through the gate to meet him. The circular paradox is now complete, with Bob realizing that he IS Diktor (the future word for “chief”) at that he must send himself back to ensure his own future.

At once complicated and containing several overlapping elements, the story introduced audiences to the very cool and timeless concepts of time loops and paradoxes. On the one hand, we see a future which seems fated to come true, but could not possibly exist without the intervention of the main character. Hence the concept of the circular time paradox. After learning the truth, the main character must conspire to ensure that everything that has happened happens again… otherwise the future which he inhabits will no longer exist.

A Sound of Thunder:
A short story which was first published by Ray Bradbury in 1952, A Sound of Thunder introduced readers to the concept of the “Butterfly Effect”. Beginning in 2055, the story opens on an era when time travel has been invented and is used for hunting safaris. The main characters are talking politics, remarking about how a fascist presidential candidate was defeated by a moderate.

The party then gets into their time machine and travels back in time several million years to hunt a Tyrannosaurus rex. Once they arrive, the travel guide (Travis) warns the hunters about the necessity of minimizing their effect on events, since any alterations to the distant past could snowball into catastrophic changes in the future. The hunters must also stay on a levitating path to avoid disrupting the environment and only kill animals which were going to die anyway.

When they find the T rex, one of the hunters (Eckels) loses his nerve and runs away. The two guides then kill the dinosaur seconds before a falling tree was meant to kill it, and go off in search for Eckels. After finding him and realizing that he ventured from the path, Travis orders him to remove the bullets from the T rex’s body (a necessary precaution) as penance. When they return to the present, they immediately notice subtle changes.

Words are spelt differently, people act differently, and the fascist candidate who had lost the election in their own time has been announced as the winner. Eckels removes his boot and discovers the culprit, a crushed butterfly that he stepped on while straying from the path. He begs the others to let him go back and make things right, but all that is heard in reply is the “sound of thunder” alluding to the fact the Travis shot Eckels.

In addition to being one of the most republished science fiction stories in history, this short story also introduced the concept of what would later be known as the Butterfly Effect, so named because of the butterfly featured in the story. As such, the story would go on to inspire countless similar science fiction tales over the course of the ensuing decades, serving as a cautionary tale about tampering with the laws of nature.

The End of Eternity:
Written by Isaac Asimov and released in 1955, Eternity is considered one of his best works, due to the way it dealt with the subject of time paradoxes. Striking a starkly different tone from his Robot and Foundation novels, the story is a mystery/thriller that deals with the subjects of time travel and social engineering.

It begins with the introduction of an organization known as Eternity that exists outside of time. Staffed by people from various time periods (known as Eternals), this group enters the temporal world at different points in time to make small alterations (called Reality Changes) that are designed to minimize human suffering over the course of history. They are also made up of “Technicians”, the people who execute those changes.

As the story opens, the main character, a Technician named Andrew Harlan, is tasked with going back and ensuring Eternity’s creation. His mission involves taking a young Eternal (Cooper) back in time with the “kettle”, i.e. the time machine, where he is to meet the historic inventor of Eternity (Vikkor Mallansohn) and teach him the principles of time travel so he can make it happen.

However, Harlan, embittered by Eternity politics and the fact that he is being denied contact with his lover (a non-Eternal named Noÿs), scrambles the time settings and sends Cooper to the wrong time. After his superior reasons with him and tells him of his own love affair with a non-Eternal, Harlan realizes he’s made a mistake and begins trying to find Cooper, whom he thinks he sent to the 20th century. Working on the theory that Cooper would have left an SOS behind in the past, he begins going through old artifacts. He discovers a message in a magazine from 1932 showing a Mushroom Cloud with the acrostic A-T-O-M. Since this predates the development of nuclear weapons, he determines that it must be a message.

Harlan then agrees to travel back in time to find Cooper, provided he can take his lover Noÿs with him. When they get there though, she reveals that she herself is an agent of Reality Change, from the centuries where Eternals cannot enter. She reveals that her own people prefer to watch time and not get involved, and that Eternity is denying human creativity and the development of space travel through their tampering. As such, they want to deny the creation of Eternity.

She tells him that all he need do is give up on finding Cooper and let her perform her mission, which is to help stimulate the development of nuclear science. Due to his own experiences with the Eternals, Harlan agrees that his organization may not be the best thing for humanity. He agrees to help her and the kettle disappears, indicating that Eternity no longer exists.

Slaughterhouse Five:
Written in 1969, Slaughterhouse Five is considered Kurt Vonnegut’s most influential work. Taking place during World War II, the story incorporates aspects of time travel and the larger questions of free will versus determinism. In addition, the themes of war and senseless slaughter run through the whole thing like a vein, with the setting, tone, and events aligning perfectly to convey a noire message to the reader.

The story opens with a disillusioned man named Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier who is taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge. He and other POW’s are taken to a slaughterhouse in Dresden which has fallen into disuse since the war began. During the subsequent fire-bombing of the city, in which the entire town is destroyed, both the POW’s and German soldiers take cover in the basement.

While in the basement, Billy becomes “unstuck in time”, moving forward and backward and experiencing events out of sequences. In one time jump, he is kidnapped by aliens and placed in a zoo with a B-movie actress who is meant to be his mate. He learns from the aliens, known as the Tralfamadorians, that they can see in four dimensions and see the full progress of their lives. As such, they cannot change the course of them, but can focus on individual moments.

As he continues to travel, he witnesses different moments from his own life and relives various fantasies. He sees himself in the snow before his capture, experiences moments from his post-war life in the US as a mundane family man during the 50s and 60s, and even witnesses his own death at the hands of a petty thief named Paul Lazzaro in the late 70’s.

He learns that his death is the result of a string of events which have already begun. The man who kills him turns out to be the friend of another POW named Weary, who died of gangrene as a result of his capture. This, he blamed on Pilgrim, who he hates for his anti-war attitudes and thinks was responsible for their capture. By the 70’s, when the US has become Balkanized and Billy joins a movement dedicated to warning people about the alien threat, Lazzaro shoots him in front of an audience. In this way, Billy realizes he has become just like the Tralfamadorians, in that he too can see his fate and now must decide how to go about changing it.

In many ways, Vonnegut was on the ground floor of the post-modern trend, thanks to his use of a non-liner narrative where things happen out of sequence and time seems jumbled and confused. The book was also hailed for its multi-layered nature, combining the ideas of fate, free will, cause and effect, with a fatalistic sense of human nature and war in the same narrative. The fact that it takes place inside a slaughterhouse when outside, fire bombs are consuming a city, also demonstrated a thematic consistency that did not go unnoticed.

Recent Examples:
With time and our evolving understanding of history has come many new and exciting examples of time-travel in sci-fi. For one, writers began to incorporate ideas from the growing field of alternate history, as well as refining their ideas of what time travel would involve from a scientific standpoint. From this point onwards, time-travel novelist would either maintain a sense of paradox with their writing, showing how tampering in the past led to the future, or would use the idea of altering the past to show just how easily can diverge from what we know today.

A Rebel in Time:
Written in 1983 by Harry Harrison, the author of Make Room! Make Room! (which became the basis of the movie Soylent Green), Rebel is one of several science fiction novels that presents an alternate history of the American Civil War in which the Confederacy won. However,this novel was the first to combine this idea with the concept of time travel, where it was intervention from the future that led to the divergence.

The story opens with a racist Colonel named Wesley McCulloch who is being investigated by a special military committee for buying up large quantities of gold. Troy Hamon, the black soldier charged with looking into his activities, determines that McCulloch also murdered three people to cover his plans, which includes the theft of an antique Sten gun.

In time, he realizes that McCulloch’s plans involve the use of an experimental time machine, and that he hopes to deliver the Sten gun and the gold to Confederate forces in the past. With this easily-producible automatic weapon and plenty of gold to fund the war, the Confederacy will win. Hamon pursues McCulloch into the past and must fight his way through Civil War America, braving prejudice and the war in order to stop the plot from achieving fruition.

Because of the way it combined time travel and attempts to alter the past with alternate history, Rebel went on to inspire such renowned stories as The Guns as the South by Harry Turtledove, as well as the entire Southern Victory Series. Though not as popular as straightforward alternate histories, it was demonstrative of how easily some of history’s most pivotal events could have played out very differently.

Outlander:
Written by Diana Gabaldon and Published in 1991, this novel is the first is a series of seven that are known as the Outlander Series. In addition to winning the RITA Award for “Best romance novel” of 1992, the series is renowned for merging historical fiction and romance with the concept of time travel, though in a way that is arguably more fantasy than sci-fi.

The story takes place shortly after WWII and centers on a British Army nurse named Claire Randall and her husband Frank, an Oxford history professor who briefly worked for MI6. Reuniting after the war, they decide to take a second honeymoon in Scotland, during which time they plan to research Frank’s family tree. While there, they hear of the local standing stones of Craigh na Dun and decide to attend an evening with some of the locals.

The next day, she returns to the stones and experiences a strange sense of disorientation. Upon waking, she hears a battle nearby and goes to investigate. She sees an English army fighting with the Scots and comes across the very ancestor Frank has been researching, Captain Randall. Convinced that this is a reenactment, Claire plays along and pretends to be a robbed Englishwoman.

Before she can go with him, a Scotsman knocks out Randall and takes Claire prisoner. They claim to be fugitives from the Red-Coats and ask for her help in tending to their wounded, and her skills as a nurse earn her their trust. Afterward, they begin running again, and Claire comes to the realization that she must be in the past given the brutality of the situation and the fact that the lights of Inverness do not appear where they should. This causes her much grief, and the man she helped heal, Jamie, begins to comfort her.

Confused and disoriented, she is brought to the seat of power of the Clan McKenzie and questioned by the laird. She in unable to convince them of her story, but is allowed to stay with them on the condition that she not try to leave. Having come to terms with her situation, she tries to find a way to return to Craigh na Dun where she hopes to be able to return to the present. Around the county, Claire comes to be known as an “Sassenach”, an “Outlander”, but earns some trust through her knowledge of medicine. In addition, it is becoming clear that she and Jamie are beginning to take a shine to each other.

She learns that the McKenzie’s are Jacobites who are resisting English rule, that Captain Randall is the one oppressing them, and that he is still looking for her. The laird’s brother, Dougal, proposes that Claire marry Jamie, as a means of making her a Scotswoman and ensuring her protection. She agrees, thinking this is the only way to ensure her safety for the time being, and also because she thinks Jaime is the most suitable man there. As a gesture of trust, he reveals to her that he has been using an alias since he’s a wanted man. Not a McKenzie by birth, his real name is James Fraser.

They marry and have sex for the first time, but Claire finds herself tormented by thoughts of Frank, who she knows must be worried sick over her. After a near-disastrous escape attempt in which Captain Randall nearly rapes her, she returns to life in Castle Leoch and grows closer to Jamie. However, due to local superstitions and the jealousy of others, she and a fellow healer named Geilis Duncan are accused of witchcraft and sentenced to public whipping. Naturally, Jamie comes to their rescue and they ride out into the wilderness. Claire realizes that Geilis is also from the future when she notices a vaccination scar.

Once safely away, Claire finally tells Jamie the truth and he decides to return her to Craigh na Dun. However, she cannot bring herself to leave and decides to stay with Jamie, realizing that her love of him is greater than her love of Frank. Jamie then returns with her to Lallybroch where he secretly reclaims his role as Laird. However, things turns bad when Jamie is betrayed by one of his own to Captain Randall who sentences him to hang for his Jacobite activities. Claire and her kinsmen organize a rescue, during which Captain Randall is killed. She and Jamie escape to a monastery in France to contemplate the future, and Claire learns that she is pregnant with their first child…

The novel remains a favorite amongst fantasy and historical fiction fans alike because of its interweaving of real history with fantasy and romance. As the series goes on, Gabaldon dabbled in further examples of crossing historical fiction with romance, with Claire going back and forth through time and completing the loop her travel has initiated. In this way, her travels are shown to be a paradoxical phenomena, creating the very future she comes from and necessitating that she go into the past again.

Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus:
Orson Scott Card, the same writer who created the Ender’s Game series, released this complicated tale of time travel and historical tampering in 1996. As the first in the Pastwatch Series, this installment deals with the most controversial historical figure and subject in history: Christopher Columbus and European contact with the Americas in the late 15th/early 16th century.

The book contains two interwoven narratives which converge towards the end of the book. The first opens in the late 15th century where Christopher Columbus is preparing for his long voyage across the ocean, while the second takes place in the future where the planet is doomed and civilization is on the verge of collapse. Entering into this is a group of researchers who haves developed a machine called the “TruSite II” which gives them the ability to view and record events in the past.

In time, their work leads to the development of time travel and the group decides to send back agents to alter the past. Focusing on Columbus, who’s actions led to centuries of genocide and exploitation, the group concludes that if he did not arrive in the New World, history and technological development would have proceeded more slowly and evenly, leading to a better future.

However, the team soon realizes that they are not the first to tamper with history. In an alternate timeline, Columbus was never obsessed with going westward and instead led a final crusade to Constantinople. Meanwhile, the Aztec Empire fell and was replaced by an iron-wielding Tlaxcalans, who went on to establish a more modern, centralized state in central Mexico and pushed their influence far beyond the old Aztec borders.

When Portuguese traders finally did make contact with the New World, the Tlaxcalans kidnapped them and acquired the knowledge of firearms. Though exposure to smallpox did have a dire effect, the sparse amount of contact did not lead to full-scale pandemics and the Tlaxcalans were able to develop a natural immunity. By the 16th century, the Tlaxcalans used their knowledge of improved ship technology to sail to Europe and conquer it at a time when it was politically fragmented.

This timeline led to the development of its own Pastwatch, to whom the conquest of Europe by the Tlaxcalans was seen as the most dire event in history. As such, they traveled back in time and fed the ambitions of Columbus in order to act as a buffer against this conquest. However, their own tampering produced an equally dire, but opposite outcome: the conquest of the New World by Europe. With this in mind, the main characters begin to strive for a balance, a timeline in which neither hemisphere was conquered and both Europeans and Native Americans could acheive contact peacefully.

Ultimately, they succeed and Columbus’ wife, one of the agents, reveals to him near the end of his days what would have happened had they not intervened. After learning of the terrible events he would have had a hand in, Columbus weeps for days. His name and his title have thus been “redeemed”. By the end, Card gives readers a glimpse of a 20th century that resulted from this balance, a harmonious world where East and West came together for trade and mutual benefit, leading to the creation of an advanced utopia. In this future, scientist unearth the skulls and the time capsule of the three agents and hear their warnings about possible futures.

As a historian, this book appealed to me on many levels. Not only did it address one of the most contentious and controversial issues in all of recorded history, it also dealt a reality that is rarely ever addressed. For centuries, historians and social scientists have been trying to decipher why modernity turned out the way it did, with certain civilizations superseding others and colonizing the known world. Many modern scholars remain trapped in the past on this subject, with several still subscribing to outdated and even racist theories of “culture” and ideology being the cause.

However, it should be plain to anyone who looks closely enough that one pivotal event, aside from various geographical and environmental factors, was the real cause of this disparity. This was none other than the discovery” of the New World in the late 15th century by the Spanish. Thanks mainly to smallpox, Europeans managed to embark on a  program of conquest, genocide and plunder and would meet minimal resistance in the process.

And thanks to the introduction of countless tons of gold, silver, pearls, cotton, coffee, tobacco, spices, tomatoes, potatoes, avocados, chocolate, vanilla, pumpkins, beans, rice, squash, and more to the European economy and diet, Europeans grew fat and rich and shot ahead of their previously more advanced neighbors (the Arabs, Indians and Chines). This fueled further expansion into Africa and Asia, and also led to the discovery of more resources that would fuel industrial growth – i.e. the Americas vast stores of coal, minerals, and oil.

By examining the what ifs of history, and positing that another outcome was possible and just as undesirable, Scott creates a narrative that is not only realistic and deals with extremely relevant subject matter, but also instructive in that it demonstrates the importance of cooperation over conquest, trade and understanding over genocide and assimilation. I often wonder what would have happened had Columbus died of a heart-attack before venturing, or his ships had been destroyed like Cortez’s. Better yet, if Cortez had been killed in battle and never made it back to Cuba. That man was a royal douche!

Timeline:
A tale of historians who travel back in time, Timeline, released in 1999, contains Michael Crichton’s usual combination of fact, action and adventure. In this case, he combines aspects of real history and questions about quantum and multiverse theory with scenes of medieval warfare, as told through the eyes of modern historians who travel back to the time which they are studying.

After a series of strange events in the Arizona desert and an archaeological site in France, the main characters –  a group of medieval historians – are summoned to the headquarters of ITC (the company that is funding their research) and learn of a startling fact. After building a quantum time machine, one of their professors used it to travel back to the 14th century. Apparently, he went to the very site they have had under excavation, but then failed to return.

The researchers  – Chris, Kate, and Marek – all agree to go back and search for him, dressing in period costume and taking a security detail with them. However, they are attacked as soon as they arrive in the past, which leads to an accident in which a grenade rolls through the space-time aperture and their time machine is destroyed on the other side. What’s more, the local lord takes Kate and Marek prisoner.

Alone and cut off from the future, Chris heads for Castelgard to confront the Lord Oliver and meets a boy along the way. Apparently, this “boy” is actually the Lady Claire in disguise, a woman who has escaped from  Lord Oliver’s custody. Once they reach the castle, Chris is taken and he and Marek are challenged to a joust, which they prove victorious in. However, this leads Lord Oliver to order their deaths, and they are forced to plan their escape.

It is also revealed that Lord Oliver is holding Johnston in his fortress at La Roque, mainly because he believes Johnston knows of a secret passage that is its only weakness. With an army led by the infamous French mercenary Arnaut de Cervole approaching, he is desperately preparing for the siege. Johnston helps Oliver develops Greek Fire, even though he knows Oliver is meant to lose the siege, while Chris, Marek, Kate and Claire use clues from the future to search for the secret passage themselves.

Chris also realizes that someone else from the future is tracking them, a knight named Robert de Ker. Eventually he is revealed to be Rob Deckard, an ITC employee and former marine driven insane from too many time trips. This is apparently a consequence of traveling to different possible universes, which can result in the displacement and mismatching of different cells in the body. In Rob’s case, it is his neurons which have become mismatched, causing him to have psychotic episodes.

In the end, they all break into La Roque and do battle with hum and Deckard, killing them both. Back home, the ITC manage to finally repair the device and try to bring the team home. However, Marek chooses to stay behind with Claire, having realized that he always wanted to live in the past. When the others return and realize that the company head, Mr. Doniger, has no regard for human life and plans to use the time travel device commercially, they send him to 1348, the year of the first Black Death outbreak. In the end, Chris and Kate get married and find the graves of Marek and Claire in France marked with a familiar epitaph.

The Time Travellers Wife:
A slight twist on the classic story of time travel, this 2003 novel by Audrey Niffenegger explores the idea of time-travel as a genetic disorder. Inspired by Niffenegger’s own frustration with relationships, this novel is essentially a metaphor for the trials of true love. Classified as both science fiction and romance, the story is based on the themes of love, loss, free will, and communication, it also contains some rather interesting commentaries on existence and the nature of memory and experience.

As the title suggests, the story focuses on the life a man who suffers from Chrono-Displacement, a condition which causes him to involuntarily travel through time, and his wife, who is forced to endure stretches of time without him. The man, Henry, has been time-traveling for most of his life and apparently has no control over the process, though his destinations are largely places and times related to his own history. The trips are apparently tied to stress and other stimuli, making them unpredictable and undesirable.

His own timeline naturally converges with that of his wife, Clare, but at seemingly random points in her life. In each visit, their ages are mismatched, as are their memories of the other. Whereas Clare meets him in a natural chronological order, the visits are mismatched from Henry’s perspective. On one of his early visits (from her perspective), Henry gives her a list of the dates he will appear and she writes them in a diary. During another visit, he inadvertently reveals that they will be married in the future.

Once married, Clare has trouble bringing a pregnancy to term because of the genetic anomaly Henry may presumably be passing on to the fetus. After six miscarriages, Henry wishes to save Clare further pain and has a vasectomy. However a version of Henry from the past visits Clare one night and they make love, causing her to become pregnant with their daughter Alba. She too is diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement, but appears to have some control over it. Before she is born, Henry travels to the future and meets her when she is ten years old and learns that he died when she was five.

When he is 43, during what is to be his last year of life, Henry experiences a time slip which deposits him in a Chicago parking garage on a frigid winter night. Unable to find shelter and clothes (he always appears naked during a time slip) he suffers hypothermia and frostbite and has to have his feet amputated when he returns to the present. Henry and Clare both know that he will not survive many more time jumps. Then, on New Year’s Eve, 2006, Henry time travels into the middle of the Michigan woods in 1984 and is accidentally shot by Clare’s brother, a scene which was foreshadowed earlier in the novel. Henry returns to the present and dies in Clare’s arms.

Clare is devastated by Henry’s death and later finds a letter from Henry asking her to “stop waiting” for him, but which describes a moment in her future when she will see him again. The last scene in the book takes place when Clare is 82 years old and Henry is 43. She has been waiting for Henry, as she has done most of her life, and when he arrives they clasp each other for what may or may not be the last time. The story ends with it being implied that Clare dies in Henry’s arms, as he did in hers before.

Through the use of a non-linear narrative, Neffinenegger was able to effectively demonstrate the sense of yearning and loss that so often accompanies true love. In addition, her use as separate narratives was also an effective tool in that it demonstrated how different people can be in different places in a relationship at different times. Ultimately, every instance that Clare and Henry spend together is made sacred by the fact that neither of them knows how long they will have together, which illustrates beautifully the temporal nature of love itself. Or to put it another way, that story’s a sad, sad tale! Go hug the one you love right now! I’ll wait…

Summary:
And that’s all I got for now and my brain is fried from all this writing. Hence, I think I will leave the summaries and commentaries for another time (was that a pun? That sounded like a pun!) Besides, with this many examples, does anything really need to be said in the way of conclusions? Of course it does! The more examples you have, the more complex the patterns become. So expect some more on my time-travel series, coming real soon!

The Post-Apocalypse in Sci-Fi (Part III)

The Book of Eli:
This 2010 movie – starring Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman and directed by the Hughes Brothers – takes place in a post-apocalyptic United States thirty years after nuclear war has left it a scarred and desolate place. Enter into this a wandering nomad named Eli (Washington), a man who is wandering to the West Coast with a mysterious book that “a voice” commanded him to take there. As he travels, the importance of his task is made clear, as the history of the post-war world he is making his way through.

Along the way, he encounters a town run by Carnegie (Oldman), a  man who dreams of building more towns and controlling their residents through the power of a (again) a mysterious book he has heard about. His men are busy at work, searching the surrounding countryside for this book, but so far to no avail. When Eli arrived in town, Carnegie forces him to stay, as he is the only other literate person he has ever encountered.

Ultimately, it is learned that Eli has the book Carnegie is seeking, and that this book is none other than the Bible. He escapes from town and is pursued by Carnegie’s daughter, Solara (Mila Kunis). He explains to her that the Bible he carries is the last remaining copy since all others were destroyed after the nuclear holocaust. He was guided to it by a voice, he says, and has since been making his way across the country, guided by his newfound faith.

Eventually, Carnegie catches up to them, mortally wounds Eli and takes the Bible for himself. However, Solara manages to escape from his custody and begins transporting Eli to San Francisco so he can complete his mission. They come at last to Alcatraz where a group of survivors has been holding up under the watch of the curator named Lombardi (Malcolm McDowell). When Solara reveals they have a copy of the King James Bible, they let them in. Eli, who for the first time is revealed to be blind, begins reciting the Bible from memory.

Back in Carnegie’s town, he manages to unlock the Bible and is horrified to see it is in braille and that his wounds will soon kill him. Meanwhile, Eli dies in Alacatraz just as the printing press there begins printing copies of the Bible and the curator puts the original on a shelf next to the Torah, Tanakh and the Qur’an. Solara decides to leave and head back home, taking with her Eli’s possessions in the hopes of making a difference. She, like him, has become a wanderer guided by faith.

Granted, the message of this movie might seem a little over the top. I, for one, can’t imagine why post-apocalyptic people would destroy Bibles. If anything, I would think they would take their frustrations out on science and turn to religion for solace. Still, the point is made very clear through several key acts of symbolism. Eli, though blind, is guided by faith and it keeps him alive. And though he is robbed of the Book, the true source of it’s power, which Carnegie wants to abuse for the sake of power, lies in Eli’s own self. Really, the message couldn’t be more clear, and yet it is demonstrated with a degree of subtly that one would not ordinarily expect from a movie with a religious message. But it’s not so much about the Bible itself, it’s about maintaining hope and faith in a world where these things have been abandoned.

A Canticle for Leibowitz:
Published in 1960 and written by Walter M. Miller Jr., this novel is a considered a classic of post-apocalyptic sci-fi by genre fans and literary critics alike. Renowned for its themes of religion, recurrence, and church versus state, this book has generated a significant body of scholarly research, yet it was strangely the only novel Miller wrote in his lifetime.

Inspired by Miller’s own participation in the bombing of the monastery  at Monte Cassino in WWII, the story takes place in a Catholic Monastery in the South-Western US after a nuclear war – known as the “Flame Deluge” – takes place. Known as the Albertian order, the monks who inhabit this monastery are dedicated to preserving humanity’s scientific knowledge and rebuilding civilization over the course of thousands years.

The story opens roughly 600 years after the war takes place, in a time when science and technology, even the idea of literacy itself, has been almost wiped out by a campaign known as “Simplification”. At around the same time, a Jewish electrical engineer named Isaac Edward Leibowitz, who worked for the military, converted to Christianity and founded the Albertan order.

After generations of hiding and smuggling books to safety within the orders walls, Leibowitz was betrayed and sacrificed by “Simpletons”, at which time the Catholic Church had him sainted and ordered the monastery beatified. Centuries after his death, the abbey is still preserving “Memorabilia”, the collected writings that have survived the Flame Deluge and the Simplification, in the hope that they will help future generations reclaim forgotten science. The story is structured in three parts titled: “Fiat Homo”, “Fiat Lux”, and “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (Let There Be Man, Let There Be Light, Thy Will Be Done), with each part comprising six centuries each.

In Fiat Homo, which takes place in the 26th century, events revolve around a young novice who while on a Vigil, finds his way to a bomb shelter with the help of a mysterious Wanderer. The discovery triggers an uproar at the Monastery, as it seems that the shelter contains relics belonging to Leibowitz himself. Some fear the sensationalism triggered by the discovery will hurt Leibowiz’s canonization, which is still being debated. After many years, the canonization is given the green light and Francis is sent to New Rome to represent the order at the Mass. Unfortunately, he is murdered in the wilderness and is buried, by none other than the Wanderer himself!

Fiat Lux opens up  in the 32nd century, 6 centuries later, when the New Dark Age is coming to an end and a New Renaissance beginning. At this point in time, the Abbey is coming into conflict with the city-state of Texarkana, a metropolis’ who’s growth was hinted at in the last pages of Fiat Homo. The mayor, Hannegan, is essentially an upstart dictator who intends to become ruler of the entire region my manipulating alliances and gaining access to the Abbey’s own stores of knowledge. In the end, Hannegan’s intentions to occupy the abbey and make war on his neighbours leads to a schism whereby Hannegan is excommunicated by the Pope and he declares loyalty to the Pope to be a crime in his domain.

In the last part, which takes place towards the end of the 38th century, humanity has once again returned to a state of advanced technology, complete with nuclear power, weapons, and even starships and extra-solar colonies. As a state of cold war sets in between the Atlantic Confederacy and the Asian Coalition, the Order begins to enact a contingency plan known as “Quo Peregrinatur Grex Pastor Secum” (“Whither Wanders the Flock, the Shepherd is with Them”). As the nuclear bombs begin to fall, members of the Order board a starship and launch for deep space. With Earth about to succumb to nuclear war yet again, the Order is heading out to ensure that both humanity and its knowledge survives.

The stories central themes, which include the rivalries between church and state and the cyclical nature of history, are what make it such a memorable and enduring classic. Even though it is set in a fictitious future, it is loaded with allegories that connect it to the past. Nuclear war in the near future is the fall of Rome, the ensuing New Dark Ages a reiteration of the last, and the final nuclear holocaust between the Coalition and Confederacy represented contemporary fears of nuclear Armageddon.

By the Waters of Babylon:
Also known as “The Place of the Gods”, this short story was originally published in 1937 by Stephen Vincent Benét. Taking place in a future where industrial civilization has been destroyed, the story is narrated by a young man named John, a son of a priest who’s people live in the hills. In his day and age, John’s people believe that past civilizations were in fact Gods. There homes are considered hallowed ground and only priests are permitted to handle metal artifacts taken from them.

Eventually, John decides that he will go to the Place of the Gods, an abandoned city that was once part of industrial civilization. In order to gain his father’s approval, he claims he is going on a spiritual quest, but keeps the intended location a secret. John then journeys through the forest for eight days and crosses the river Ou-dis-sun to make his way to the sacred place.

Once he gets to the Place of the Gods, he finds abandoned buildings, statues and countless indications that the “Gods” were in fact human. When he finally finds the remains of a dead person in an apartment, he comes to realize the truth. The Gods were in fact humans whose power overwhelmed their better judgement, hence they fell.

Upon returning to his tribe, John tells his father of the place called “New York”. It is at this point that it is made clear that the “hill people” live in the Appalachians, and the river he crossed was the Hudson. In the end, his father warns him that recounting the experience to the other tribe members will have destructive consequences. The truth, he claims, can be bad if not conveyed discretely and in small doses. The story ends with John promising that once he becomes the head priest, “We must build again.”

Farnham’s Freehold:
Based on his own experiences in building a fallout Shelter, this 1964 novel by Heinlein involves a family that is transported to the future after a nuclear explosion puts a dent in their reality. In addition to the thematic elements of nuclear war and time travel, the book also contains some rather interesting commentary on race relations and segregation in the United States at the time.

The story begins with the Farnham family holding a bridge game in their home, which is attended by Hugh, his alcoholic wife Grace, their son and daughter (Duke and Karen), her friend Barbara, and a black domestic servant named Joe. After they are alerted to the fact that nuclear war is commencing, the people rush to the bomb shelter and wait for it to pass. When it seems that the bombs have stopped falling and their oxygen is running low, they walk out and begin to investigate.

What they find is that they’ve been transported to Africa, where an advanced civilization now exists that uses white people as slaves. Initially, they suspected they had been sent into an alternate dimension, but quickly realize that they are in the future. They are spared because Joe, their black domestic servant, is able to communicate to their captors in French.

In time, Hugh and Barbara agree to take part in a time-travel experiment in exchange for their freedom. They are sent back to their own time, where they escape from the bomb shelter just as the bombs begin to fall. However, they soon realize that they are not in their own time, but an alternate dimension where things are just slightly different. They survive the war and agree to spend the rest of their lives trying to prevent the future they saw from coming to pass.

The Quiet Earth:
Originally a novel written by New Zealand author Craig Harrison in 1981, this story went on to inspire the loosely-adapted film of the same name which was released four years later. In both cases, the story revolves around a small group of survivors who awaken to find that the world is now devoid of humans and most other forms of life, and that time itself seems to have stopped.

The story begins with John Hobson, a geneticist who was experimenting with using radiation to activate dormant genes, which was meant to have an accelerating effect on human evolution. He wakes up in a hotel room from a nightmare where he was falling, only to find all clocks stopped at 6:12. Upon leaving the hotel, he finds that all clocks have stopped at 6:12 and that everyone appears to have simply vanished. He dubs this phenomena “The Effect” and begins looking for other survivors.

His journey takes him back to his research facility where he finds the corpse of his partner, Perrin, inside the radiation chamber. Retrieving Perrin’s locked box of papers and grabbing some weapons and supplies he sets out for Wellington. Eventually, he finds someone, a Māori lance-corporal named Apirana Maketuin, who agrees to accompany him. They eventually reach the capitol and settle in, hoping to find other survivors and run tests on “The Effect”.

Things deteriorate before long, as Hobson begins to worry that Api might be a psychopath due to his wartime experiences in Vietnam (he finds pictures of him posing with the mutilated corpses of Viet Cong). His plans to kill him with sleeping pills are interrupted when they accidentally run over a woman in the street while joyriding. They return to the hotel and make her comfortable but know she will inevitably die. This leads to a further breakdown between Hobson and Api and they fight. Api dies in the confrontation after apparently giving up.

Finally, Hobson breaks open Perrin’s box and realizes that his partner had him under surveillance because he considered him unstable. Hobson comes to the conclusion that the Effect was his doing since the the project cause the unraveling of animal DNA, and hence only those with the dormant gene pair would be spared. It is at this time that Hobson begins to have flashbacks from his last days at the facility, during which time he sabotaged the machine because of growing misgiving about the project and mistrust for his Perrin’s motivations. It was this sabotage that caused the Effect, and the reason Hobson slept through it was because he took what he thought was a fatal dose of sleeping pills.

Maddened with grief and guilt, Hobson jumps from the window and begins to fall to his death. But then, he wakes up in the same hotel room he found himself in at the beginning, recalling the same dream where he was falling. He checks his watch and it says it’s 6:12… Spooky! Though it bears a strong resemblance to such works as I Am Legend, The Quiet Earth went beyond in that it chose to focus on the themes of perception, culpability, and alternate states of consciousness. All throughout the book, it is not quite clear if Hobson is dreaming, in an alternate dimension, the last man on Earth who is responsible for the death of countless life forms, or just plain crazy.

Shadow on the Hearth:
This post-apocalyptic novel, which was the first novel to be released by Canadian sci-fi author Judith Merril (1950), takes place a week after nuclear bombs have devastated, but not destroyed, civilization as we know it. The plot revolves around a mother named Gladys Mitchell and her two daughters – Barbara and Ginny, who are fifteen and five years of age – as they struggle to deal with worsening conditions and a system that is quickly becoming an abusive dictatorship.

For starters, all civil authority has broken down in the wake of the war and been replaced by the Security Office, a form of emergency services that exercises all power. Gladys’ contact with the services is the local “emergency squadman”, Jim Turner, a neighbor who begins to display a rather creepy fascination with Gladys along with a desire to turn the emergency to his own advantage.

Similarly, the difficult situation breeds suspicion and intolerance on behalf of the authorities who begins see enemies everywhere. The Mitchell’s maid, a woman named Veda, comes under suspicion when it is learned that she was off sick during the time of the attack. Much the same is true of Gladys’ old science teacher, who predicted that nuclear war would be inevitable and now fears the paranoid Security Office might suspect him.

Meanwhile, Gladys tried to maintain a disposition of stoic calm, mainly because she believes its her role as a mother to act as though everything is fine. While her intentions are good, she’s slow to admit that Turner and the authorities are corrupt, that their situation is bleak, or that she might need to manipulate certain people to get her way. But in the end, she is willing to go to great lengths to protect her family, from both external threats and the threat of dissolution.

In several key aspects, this story demonstrates some of the overriding themes and feelings that were present during the early cold war. We have the specter of war and dictatorship, the focus on the single-parent family, the idea of domesticity and sexism, and the affirmation of the mother figure who will do whatever it takes, even if she seems naive and silly, to keep her family safe and secure. While it might seem dated by modern standards, it is nevertheless a fitting and accurate portrayal of life in the 1950’s and the likelihood of what would come of it if the bombs started to fall.

The Time Machine:
Last, but not least, we have the story that has made my lists in one form or another on numerous occasions. In addition to being an example of utopian and dystopian fiction, The Time Machine is also a fitting example of post-apocalyptic science fiction. This is part of what makes H.G. Wells novella a timeless classic, in that it transcends or jumps between genres and can therefore be read from a number of different perspectives.

In this respect, the Time Traveler’s trip to the distant future, where the world has degenerated into a two-tier structure between the monstrous Morlocks and the stagnant but beautiful Eloi, can be seen as an example of post-apocalyptic society. What’s more, their respective degeneration is seen as the result of humanity’s obsession with class distinction, the masters becoming lazy and ineffectual while the workers have become cannibalistic and brutish.

Another apocalyptic element in the story comes towards the end when the Time Travelers recovers his machine from the Morlocks and travels another 30 million years into the future. Once there, he sees some of the last living things on a dying Earth, a red landscape similar to that of Mars which is covered by lichenous vegetation and crab-like creatures wandering across blood-red beaches. As he jumps further, he sees the Earth’s rotation gradually cease and the sun die out, the world falling silent and freezing as the last organisms die off.

In a deleted section of text, which H.G. Wells apparently included in the original serial version at the behest of his editor, but cut from the novel once it was published. Here, Wells demonstrated “the ultimate degeneracy” of man by having the Time Traveler escape from the Morlocks and jump once more before traveling 300 millions years into the future. Here, he found an unrecognizable Earth populated by furry, hopping herbivores, which he interpreted to be the descendents of the Morlocks and Eloi. Thus, in addition to first losing the instincts that defined humanity at its greatest, the Morlocks and Eloi, themselves descended from humans, even reverted to an earlier state of evolution in the end.

Though not a post-apocalyptic tale in the strictest sense, this story does contain the necessary elements of such a story. You have humanity degenerating as a result of cataclysmic events or its own inherent weaknesses, civilization as we know it being destroyed or disappearing, and even the world itself coming to an end.

Final Word:
And that’s all I got for post-apocalyptic sci-if. Sure, there are countless more examples that could be included, but three lists is enough for me and I’m neck deep in other concepts that are vying for page time. In the coming weeks, expect more news on technology, space exploration, the upcoming anthology, Data Miners (set for release in August) and plenty of assorted tidbits on stuff that relates to the world of science and science fiction. Take care all and see you again soon!