NASA’s 3D Printed Moon Base

ESA_moonbaseSounds like the title of a funky children’s story, doesn’t it? But in fact, it’s actually part of NASA’s plan for building a Lunar base that could one day support inhabitants and make humanity a truly interplanetary species. My thanks to Raven Lunatick for once again beating me to the punch! While I don’t consider myself the jealous type, knowing that my friends and colleagues are in the know before I am on stuff like this always gets me!

In any case, people may recall that back in January of 2013, the European Space Agency announced that it could be possible to build a Lunar Base using 3D printing technology and moon dust. Teaming up with the architecture firm Foster + Partners, they were able to demonstrate that one could fashion entire structures cheaply and quite easily using only regolith, inflatable frames, and 3D printing technology.

sinterhab2_1And now, it seems that NASA is on board with the idea and is coming up with its own plans for a Lunar base. Much like the ESA’s planned habitat, NASA’s would be located in the Shackleton Crater near the Moon’s south pole, where sunlight (and thus solar energy) is nearly constant due to the Moon’s inclination on the crater’s rim. What’s more, NASA”s plan would also rely on the combination of lunar dust and 3D printing for the sake of construction.

However, the two plans differ in some key respects. For one, NASA’s plan – which goes by the name of SisterHab – is far more ambitious. As a joint research project between space architects Tomas Rousek, Katarina Eriksson and Ondrej Doule and scientists from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), SinterHab is so-named because it involves sintering lunar dust: heating it up with microwaves to the point where the dust fuses to become a solid, ceramic-like block.

This would mean that bonding agents would not have to be flown to the Moon, which is called for in the ESA’s plan. What’s more, the NASA base would be constructed by a series of giant spider robots designed by JPL Robotics. The prototype version of this mechanical spider is known as the Athlete rover, which despite being a half-size variant of the real thing has already been successfully tested on Earth.

athlete_robotEach one of these robots is human-controlled, has six 8.2m legs with wheels at the end, and comes with a detachable habitable capsule mounted at the top. Each limb has a different function, depending on what the controller is looking to do. For example, it has tools for digging and scooping up soil samples, manipulators for poking around in the soil, and will have a microwave 3D printer mounted on one of the legs for the sake of building the base. It also has 48 3D cameras that stream video to its operator or a remote controlling station.

The immediate advantages to NASA’s plan are pretty clear. Sintering is quite cheap, in terms of power as well as materials, and current estimates claim that an Athlete rover should be able to construct a habitation “bubble” in only two weeks. Another benefit of the process is that astronauts could use it on the surface of the Moon surrounding their base, binding dust and stopping it from clogging their equipment. Moon dust is extremely abrasive, made up of tiny, jagged morcels rather than finely eroded spheres.

sinterhab3Since it was first proposed in 2010 at the International Aeronautical Congress, the concept of SinterHab has been continually refined and updated. In the end, a base built on its specifications will look like a rocky mass of bubbles connected together, with cladding added later. The equilibrium and symmetry afforded in this design not only ensures that grouping will be easy, but will also guarantee the structural integrity and longevity of the structures.

As engineers have known for quite some time, there’s just something about domes and bubble-like structures that were made to last. Ever been to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, or the Blue Mosque in Istanbul? Ever looked at a centuries old building with Onion Dome and felt awed by their natural beauty? Well, there’s a  reason they’re still standing! Knowing that we can expect similar beauty and engineering brilliance down the road gives me comfort.

In the meantime, have a gander at the gallery for the proposed SinterHab base, and be sure to check out this video of the Athlete rover in action:

Source: Wired.co.uk, robotics.jpl.nasa.gov

The Apocalyptic Papal Prophecy!

apocalypse-04Does the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI mean the world is coming to an end? Apparently yes, assuming you believe a 12th century prophecy attributed to the Irish Archbishop St. Malachy. In the latest in a very long series of apocalyptic predictions, it is now believed that Benedict’s successor will be the last pope, and that after him, the Day of Judgement will come. You know, I was wondering what the next one would be now that the Mayan Prophecy has passed us by.

The prophecy is dated to 1139 CE, at which point Archbishop Malachy predicted that their would be 112 popes before the world officially ended. Since Benedict XVI was number 111, that leaves only one before everything hits the fan. According to the legend, the list of popes originated from a vision Malachy said he received from God when he was in Rome while reporting on his diocese to Pope Innocent II.

malachy_prophAfter giving the list to Pope Innocent II, the document remained unknown in the Vatican Archives for some 440 years after until it was rediscovered and published by Benedictine Arnold de Wyon in 1590. The prophecy consisted of a series of brief, cryptic descriptions in Latin of each pope, culminating with the 112th, known as Petrus Romanus, or “Peter the Roman”.

According to the prophecy, Peter the Roman would “feed his flock amid many tribulations, after which the City of the Seven Hills shall be utterly destroyed, and the awful Judge will judge the people.” In short, the last pope will see his people through hard times, Rome will fall, and the apocalypse will soon follow. Talk about doom and gloom, and more than its fair share of apocalyptic cliches!

End_of_Days_by_taenaronNevertheless, this historic document has some people worried because some of its predictions have come true. For example, Malachy prophesied the first pope on his list would be “from a castle on the Tiber”, and Celestine II, elected in 1143, was born in Toscany on the shores of the Tiber River. Malachy further predicted that another pope would be “elevated from a hermit”, which Nicholas IV, pope from 1288 to 1292, had been at the monastery of Pouilles. The 45th pope in the prophecy was described as coming “from the hell of Pregnani”, whereas  Pope Urban VI (1378-1389) came from a village near Naples called Inferno (hell).

But as my grandpa used to say, “even a blind squirrel finds the odd nut”. What’s more, most scholars believe that the document is a fake, that it was written in 1590 and all its predictions and claims were made retroactively. A convincing point here is the fact that after 1590, the predictions and epithets become much more vague.

But of course, we can expect some, Catholics for the most part, to take this seriously. Lord knows (no pun!) people love a good doomsday prophecy, and some people need really do love the idea of the world ending within their lifetime. So if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like getting egg on their face or caught with their pants down, start saying your prayers and repenting your sins. And keep on eye on Rome and any other city built on “seven hills” just in case it really does get leveled. You never know…

Source: news.discovery.com

New Anthology Sample: The Torch (Redux)!

Morning all! Welcome back for another Anthology sample, this time, a revised second installment from the short story “The Torch”. Last time, the story involved a tired and forelorn main character – Magid Muktari, environmental engineer and exoplanet enthusiast – coming home and meeting with his wife. My group seemed to agree that it was well written and faithful to Khaalidah’s original characters, unfortunately it contained details which did not fit with the story’s timeline. In essence, Muktari was not supposed to be married at this point in time.

After gritting my teeth and cursing my jumping of the gun, I erased the whole section and began writing it anew. The resulting section is the result, a homestead in which an overworked, forlorn visionary comes home to a slew of bad news and burdensome responsibilities. In the midst of it all, he contemplates his future and the future of his word. Take a look and let me know what you think:

The lights were already on when he came home. The nighttime creatures were about, singing their evening songs and tending to their nocturnal rituals. He felt the reassuring calm spread over him as soon as the wheels stopped in his driveway, the engine quieting down from its long run. The door raised itself for him and he put his tired feet to the ground, letting out a deep sigh.

“Home again, home again…” It took some effort to get him the rest of the way out. The steps were even harder to manage. It confounded him, how travelling could still be such a draining experience when machines generated all the motion. Perhaps their minds had not kept pace, still interpreting distance in terms of physical expenditure.

He paused on the front stoop and waited for Empathy to scan him. A quick flash hit his eye, discerning his retinal pattern, then projecting a kind greeting in his visual field.

Iyi geceler, Magid! it said. He waved at the sensor, and the door opened.

He made his way to the living room and tossed his jacket and satchel on the couch. His rear end met the cushions a moment later, and he felt himself begin to melt. He was halfway into a blissful fugue state when Empathy activated her living room interface and woke him up.

“Good evening, Magid. I have a number of messages for you.”

Muktari groaned and leaned up. He brushed the fatigue from his eyes and looked at the holographics that were forming in the center of his room. Green, blue and yellow, small dancing alpha-numerics. The words 13 Messages (2 Urgent) hanging in the middle.

“Give me the urgent ones,” he ordered. Empathy blinked and the display changed. He rubbed his head to dispel the headache and missed the appearance of his friends face in the center. It didn’t matter though, since the voice was one he would recognize anywhere.

“Magid, we got a problem over here,” said the face of Serge. “Word is the Memphis City Council is thinking of pulling the plug on the whole MFC concept. They’re claiming budgets, but the higher ups got it in their heads that this is a negotiation tactic. Me? I’m thinking the negotiation team tried to fleece them on land usage rights or something. In any case, someone needs to go out there and allay their concerns. They figure a senior engineer and manager ought to be just the person to do this.”

Muktari groaned again. He had just exhausted himself, skipping over time zones, heading from west to east. Going back west was the last thing he wanted right now. But at least Serge hadn’t given a date on when this was to expected. And he could certainly get away with not calling until the morning. Perhaps this would be the perfect opportunity to send someone else in his stead, or maybe Serge himself could be trusted with the task. No one knew the Memphis Floating Concept better than he, and he was sure to be able to put a positive spin on anything the negotiation team was asking for. At worst, he could tell them they were full of shit and to drop the demands, otherwise they would lose the contract.

The second message came up. This one he was ready and watching when the bronzed complexion of Aurelia came on. The summer sun was agreeing with her apparently, though the desert wind must have been a bother.

“Magid,” she said pleasantly. “Sorry to disturb you, but I thought you might like to know. A special presentation is being held in St. Petersburg this Tuesday, hosted by the Arctic Recovery foundation. The board has asked that we send a senior representative to present on behalf of the company and specifically asked for you. It’s not until Tuesday, so you’d have time to prepare.” She rolled her eyes and sighed. “I know, last minute, but I just heard myself. I hope this doesn’t interfere with your plans. I know you must be exhausted.”

“You don’t know the half,” he said to the image.

“Anyway, please contact me at your earliest convenience. We’re making progress on the Kebili array. Would love your input. Bye!”

The image disappeared. Empathy’s voice returned. “Shall I show the other messages?”

“Summarize,” he said curtly. A short list appeared in the display reticule. There were several messages regarding his choice of homeowner insurance, sat coverage, and offers for cheap aerofare to Mumbai, Atlantic City, Cancun and Topside. Only two were from names he recognized, and only one of immediate interest. Bill, to tell him when he’d be in town next and when they could meet up. And Myrana, no doubt to let him know what she had in mind for their next soiree together.

“Select Myrana, please” he said with some enthusiasm. The message moved to the center of the screen and enlarged. “Play.”

The image of Myrana’s face resolved in front of him, and his heart immediately sank. He knew that look, the look of disquiet, guilt and the burden of coming clean. He leaned back in his seat and waited for it.

“Magid, I’m sorry to do this over the link, but you’re a hard man to get to. I thought it better that I do it here than bother you on your mobile too. Basically…” she took a deep breath, “I think we need a break. I know we both said we were looking for different things when we started this… whatever this is, but I’m at the point where I think I need someone who can make themselves available. I’m sorry, but I can’t be waiting around for someone to decide they’re finally ready for a relationship, not at my age. Feel free to call me when you get this, but if you don’t, I understand. It was lovely, Magid, it really was but… these things can’t last. Bye.”

She kissed her fingers and put them to the monitor. The image disappeared a second later. Empathy’s cluelessly cheery voice came on a second later. “Would you like to review any of the other messages?”

“No.” he said flatly. “Delete all.”

He didn’t need to hear Bill’s message. He was sure his impending trip to St. Petersburg would conflict with it anyway. And in any case, they weren’t that close. Alone, he let out a particularly long sigh and reflected on the timeless truth of the matter. There was situation so bad that you couldn’t make it worse with a dose of personal disappointment. He was learning that for the umpteenth time now.

But at least he had a good’s night sleep to look forward to. He knew Serge and the others wouldn’t fault him for arriving late tomorrow morning. Perhaps some food and a nip of whiskey while he was at it. Pushing himself to his feet, he made his way to the kitchen and began producing the particulars for his impromptu meal.

Rome is burning, he thought as he fetched small tubs of chicken, Cacik sauce and greens from the cooler. Yes, that seemed to be the shape of things. The world was spinning, faster and faster, and no one seemed to be too worried about it. It was like riding a wild beast that just kept getting angrier the longer the rider held on. On the one hand, they were afraid to let go; on the other, they knew they had to at some point.

And yet, here he was, enjoying a meal and a drink and trying to forget about all that. Was that the natural order of things? Was it the case that the Senators of old, he wondered. After looking out upon the decadence that had befallen their once great city, and espying the barbarians who weren’t far from their gates, did they all simply go home, break their bread and drink their wine, and tell themselves that they had done all they could? He had to imagine they did, because when it came right down to it, there wasn’t much else to do. The fight could only happen during business hours, the rest of the time was earmarked for rest and creature comforts.

Yes, the doors must have been crashing down before they realized they were doomed. He was sure it was the same way with the people of Uxmal and Chichen Itza. It wasn’t until all the heads had stopped rolling and the crops had failed that they knew it was time to flee for the wilderness and hope for the best.

He looked down into the tub of Cacik he held and spooned some into his mouth. He had been gone for days and he couldn’t even remember when he had bought this latest bin of sauce. And yet, it still tasted fresh and clean. He checked the chicken and noted the same.

Yes, the gates are coming down and the city is ablaze, he thought. But at least the food is still good. One had to be thankful for small mercies.

The Foundation Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conan, Then and Now

Conan, Then and Now

When I first started doing sci-fi movie reviews, I knew I wanted to tackle Conan sooner or later. It was one of the Fantasy entries I was making room for, and I thought a comparative analysis, old versus new, would be a cool idea. Well, I finally got around to seeing the new one recently, and am all set to pit the original against the remake. I’m not sure if there’s a word for fans of an original beating a remake, but I think the word Fanbashing (which I might have just made up) will suffice! And by that I mean the beating of something BY fans, not the beating OF fans.

Okay, first up, the original version!

Conan The Barbarian(1982):
This movie is a cult favorite for many reasons. On the one hand, it was a pretty good fantasy epic that adapted the long-running comic book series by Robert E. Howard to the big screen. On the other, it was one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s breakout role. Prior to this, he had spots in B-movies, tv shows, and the cult hit Pumping Iron. After this movie, he would go on to do The Terminator, Predator, Commando, Raw Deal, The Running Man, Twins… in short, every A-movie that he’s known for. But to me, the strength of this movie lies in its direction and storytelling. I tell ya, there are traces of quality and genius that are not commonly acknowledged.

For starters, the casting was superb. Arnie excelled as the brooding, badass known as Conan, James Earl Jones as the hypnotic, charismatic villain Thulsa Doom, Max Von Sydow as the Northman King Osric, and Mako as the narrator/wizard. Hell, even Sandahl Bergman and Gerry Lopez were good as Conan’s love interest and sidekick, Valerie and Subotai. In addition, the story itself was quite creative, weaving epic fantasy and adventure in with real-world history and Nietzschean philosophy.

Despite its small budget and less than pristine production values, you got a real sense that there was a lot of talent and attention to detail went into making this movie. For one, it was directed by John Milius, who’s credits include being the co-writer or director of such movies as Apocalypse Now, Dirty Harry, Red Dawn, Flight of the Intruder, and the HBO series Rome. Oliver Stone (Born of the 4th of July, JFK, Natural Born Killers, Alexander) was also attached as co-writer next to Milnius, and famed producer Raffaella De Laurentiis (DuneDragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Dragonheart, and The Forbidden Kingdom) helped produce it. In short, a lot of talent went into the creation of this film, and I personally felt it showed!

For many, this movie is a guilty pleasure, being one of those B-movies that’s fun in spite of being cheesy. But for me, this movie is also a sleeper hit and a true cult classic, being smart in a way that few people recognize.

Plot Synopsis:
The movie opens with the famous quote by Friedrich Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Mako, the famous Japanese-American actor, begins narrating and identifies himself as Conan’s chronicler. He sets the scene by telling us that its the “Hyborian Age”, which takes place “Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryus…”, meaning somewhere between the mythical pre-historic age and the invasion of the Aryan conquerors into the Mediterranean (ca. 40,000-10,000 BCE).

We are then shown an extended scene where a sword is being forged (an apt metaphor) and Conan’s father explaining to him the Riddle of Steel. This “riddle”, which we are never told, runs like a vein through the movie, something which the viewer is no doubt meant to figure out for themselves. After being told of this riddle and of the war-god Crom, both of which are very important to the Cimmerian people (of which Conan is part) we then see his village being set upon by marauders. After killing everyone in the camp, Conan’s mother attempts to shield him when the leader of these attackers shows himself.

We then get to see the villain make his first appearance. Clad all in black, his green eyes beaming, Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) manages to hypnotize Conan’s mother and take her sword from her. He then decapitates her in front of the young Conan and sells the poor into slavery. Conan is thus left with only the vague impression of who these men were, which is taken from their black standard of two snakes standing before a black sun. What is most effective about these scenes is how little dialogue takes place. Everything is conveyed through the visuals, the sense of horror and confusion coming through with glances and music instead of lines and declarations.

The next few scenes catalog Conan’s formative years as a slave: pushing a massive wheel in an open field until he is the only slave left (and six feet of pure muscle!), being thrown into the slave pits to fight for the entertainment of others, and then becoming a warrior schooled in the arts of swordplay, hand to hand combat and letters. In keeping with the movie’s Nietzschean theme, we see Conan growing stronger from all this, his hard labor, life of violence and education forging him like his father’s sword.

But the big inciting event happens when one of the slavers, someone he has known since he was a boy, sets him free. Not knowing where to go, Conan runs into the wilderness and chances upon a burial tomb belonging to an old Cimmerian King. In there, he retrieves a sword which he keeps for himself, and sums up the fortuitous experience with one word. “Crom!” That says it all! In this one encounter, Conan is reminded of his people, what his father taught him, and chooses to retrace his origins and find those people that killed his people.

This journey leads him to another chance encounter with an old witch who tells him of a prophecy. In short, the prophecy speaks of a man who would come, who would be king by his own hand, and who would drive the snakes from the land – you know, basic prophecy stuff. But its this last part that intrigues Conan. Remembering the enemy’s standard, he asks the woman what she knows of these snakes. But as always, there’s a price! In exchange for sleeping with her, she tells Conan that he must go to Shadizar in the land of Zamorra – crossroads of the world (a clear reference to Gomorrah and possibly Babylon) where he will find his answers. Having consumated, she then does the black widow thing, turns into a demon and tries to kill him. Conan narrowly manages to toss her into the fire, and which point she becomes a specter and retreats. “Crom…” he says. Yeah, that’s getting to be a real catch-all at this point.

Onto the next scene, where Conan wakes the next day to set out. But before taking to the wilderness again, he finds an archer named Subotai (modelled on Ghengis Khan general and clearly meant to look like a Mongol archer). He claims to be a thief and offers to help Conan, and the two become fast companions and travel buddies. Over a dinner of wild game, Conan tells Subotai of Crom and the Riddle of Steel. Like all Cimmerians, we learn that Conan must tell Crom what the riddle is when he travels to Valhalla, otherwise he will be tossed out. Again, we are given hints but never told of the significance of this. Much like Conan, it seems this riddle is something we are meant to determine for ourselves. This is definitely one of those points of unappreciated quality I mentioned earlier. The genius is there man, it’s there!

When they arrive, they find a city that lives up to its inspirations – big, walled, decadent, and smelly. Replete with whores, drugs, and tons and tons of vendors. And of course, the snakes, which come in the form of snake cult that worship Set – a snake demon-god that was inspired by actual mythology. They decide to break into the temple, and in the process meet Valeria, a beautiful thief who is also determined to steal from the cult’s richess. The scenes that follow are like something out of Caligula or the Old Testament, people in long robes sacrificing a virgin to a giant snake who lives at the heart of the temple. And of course, plenty of rubies, precious stones, and a giant gem (the Eye of the Serpent) that the snake itself protects.

In any case, Conan, Subotai and Valeria manage to kill the giant snake, thwart the sacrifice and steal the prized jewel, narrowly escaping by jumping off the temple’s high tower. Celebrating their new found riches, Conan and Valeria experience a budding romance, and Conan gives her the prized jewel in the form of a necklace. However, the good times are cut short as Shadizar’s ruler – King Osiric, a northman like Conan – has them arrested and brought before him. They suspect their heads are going to roll, until Osiric tells him their audicity in robbing the temple has earned them his respect. Seems the cult of Set had taken his daughter away from him, and he’s prepared to give them enough jewels to buy a small kingdom if they would kind enough to fetch her back.

Subotai and Valeria would rather cash out now, the latter even telling Conan that she would like to settle down with him now. However, Conan still wants his revenge for what Doom did to his people, and sets off alone. In the course of journeying forth, he comes upon a strange hermit who lives next to an ancient burial ground where the bones of dead warrior have been arranged in battle formation next to standing stones. Seems the hermit is none other than Mako, the wizard who is Conan’s chronicler. After getting acquainted and  learning of the location of Set’s followers, Conan is off again, leaving the wizard with the distinct impression that they will meet again, and that he will play an important role in Conan’s sage.

What follows are some rather hilarious scenes as Conan finds his way to the cult and tries to infiltrate them. First, he finds them wandering in the wilderness like a bunch of revellers. One of the priests takes an obvious, and borderline homosexual, interest in him. After asking him to speak in private, Conan then beats the snot out of him and steals his robe. He then travels back to the Temple of Set, dressed in the ridiculous robe, and attempts to pass for a priest. “What do you see in there?” some woman asks as he stares into a pool of water. “Uh… Infinity?” says Conan, which the woman seems to approve of. Then, Doom reveals himself along with his chief followers. Conan recognizes them all from when they murdered his people, and slowly approaches them up the Temple steps. However, during a big speech in which Doom, like a true cult leader, predicts the End Of Days, Conan is attacked, beaten and brought before him. It seems they smelt the intruder…

After getting a lecture on how bad he was for ransacking Doom’s temple in Shadizar, Conan then tells Doom exactly who he is – the boy who survived the massacre of his people, and how has come for revenge. Doom’s response is nothing short of perfect. He admits that he does not remember, that he must have done it in his younger days when he too sought to understand the riddle of steel. However, he explains, he’s found a new power that puts steel to shame: the power of flesh! He demonstrated this by asking an accolade to come to him from the cliffs above, and the accolade jumps to their death! “That is strength, boy! That is power! What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength in your body, the desire in your heart, I gave you this! Such a waste…” He then orders Conan to be crucified, so he can contemplate Doom’s role in making him what he is, and how he squandered it for reasons of revenge.

Conan then dies pinned to a tree, but not before Subotai and Valeria find him and bring him back to the wizard – aka. Mako! He then performs some ritual whereby his spirit is pulled back from the netherworld, and Conan is resurrected. However, they are warned that their will be a price, life for life, etc. But Valeria says she’s willing to risk it because she loves him, which foreshadows what’s to come. The three then set off to invade Doom’s temple and save the princess, but Conan once again has his own plans. In the course of breaking in, they come upon Doom’s men and a big ol’ brawl ensues! Doom is absent from the fight since he morphed into a giant snake and slithered from the room (bit hokey, but okay!). The three then escape with the princess, but Doom makes an appearance on the cliffs above and fires a poisonous arrow/snake into Valeria’s back. She dies, and Conan and Subotai take her body back to the wizard to give it a warriors burial – a big pyre on top of a mound!

Conan, Subotai and the wizard then prepare for an assault, as it is clear that Doom’s men will track them back to the wizard’s home. Turning the standing stones, the warriors remains and every inch of the place into a fortified encampement, Conan then prays to Crom for the first time in years. He asks Crom to grant him revenge, to look upon their valor as they stand against many. He finishes with a line that is both badass and appropriately Conan: “And if you do not listen… then TO HELL WITH YOU!” It takes a special kind of person to tell a god to go to hell, doesn’t it? In any case, battle ensues and its the best part of the movie!

One by one, the bad guys fall as they are either unhorsed by Conan’s sword, shot by Subotai’s arrows, stabbed by the Wizard’s spear, or killed by the booby traps they’ve set up. It all comes down to Conan and Doom’s chief thug, who is wielding Conan’s own father’s sword! Conan is very nearly killed, but is saved at the last second by what appears to be Valeria’s spirit. In keeping with Norse mythology, she appears as a Valkyrie, a warrior spirit since she clearly made it to Valhalla after all! Conan then chops the thug up, breaking his father’s own sword in the process and taking what is left of it back. He then sees Doom ride back to his temple, and decides to use what’s left of his father’s sword for one last duty.

Confronting Doom on the steps of his own temple, Doom tries to pull his hypnotic routine on him. He tells Conan that he is essentially his son, that he made him what he is, and asks him what will he be when Doom is dead. Conan appears to be genuinely falling for it, but then swings his father’s sword around and cuts Doom at the neck! Doom then falls to his knees, where Conan proceeds to hack his head off and toss it down the steps to his followers. He then sets the temple ablaze and marches down the steps and off into the night, Doom’s followers looking on in awe. Conan and Subotai then rides off with the princess, returning to the west to bring her back to her father.

The movie then ends with a picture of an older, bearded Conan sitting on a throne, the epilogue saying that he would go on to become a king himself, as was profesied. But of course, that is another tale 😉

Strengths/Weakness/Impressions:

As I said already, this movie is a personal favorite. One of the best selling points for me was the low-budget, high-quality nature of it. Yes, the production values weren’t the best, and some of the acting was a little B-grade too, but the writing, direction and plot contained unmistakable signs of quality and even touches of genius. Rather than going for a pulp fantasy movie, a la Xena and Hercules, John Milius, Oliver Stone, and Raffaella De Laurentiis seemed committed to creating a story that was grounded in history and realism as well as epic adventure. In this respect, the movie was keeping with Howard’s original vision of the franchise. Howard, like Milnius and Stone, had a passion for history and enjoyed working with settings that were real enough to be credible, but still vague enough to allow him to be inventive while at the same time unconstrained by the pressures of historical accuracy.

But of course, this critique would not be clear without some examples: One, Conan’s people are clearly inspired by Norsemen. They live in wintery forests, wield heavy iron swords and worship the “God in the Mountain” Crom, who is apparently warden of Valhalla and keeper of the Riddle of Steel. Doom’s men, the black riders, were clearly inspired by the Huns – dark riders and conquerors who inspired terror and rode over their enemies. James Earl Jones costumes and appearances were also designed to look as Asiatic as possible, his long hair, green eyes and robes adding to the sense of mystique that surrounded him. It was also a testament to his character that he didn’t speak until well into the movie when he is reintroduced.

Ah yes, and the men that Conan takes up with after becoming a warrior slave were also a clear reference to the Mongols. Their costumes, talk and values are all indicative. Consider the following scene where Conan is in the “Mongol” camp:

Mongol General: “What is best in life?”

Mongol: “The open Steppe, fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.”

General: “Wrong! Conan! What is best in life?”

Conan: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!”

Yep, Mongols clearly! The city of Shadizar in Zamorra was also a brilliant piece of set design, calling to mind all kinds of Orientalist, Arab world and Sodom and Gomorrah type motifs.

But perhaps the biggest strength of the film was the thematic consistency of it. The quote by Nietzsche at the beginning not only previewed the plot, it was present throughout the movie as a constant theme. When Conan confronts Doom near the end, he is confounded by the twist Doom puts on his terrible deeds. Would Conan have really grown up to be the warrior-badass he is were it not for the actions of Doom and his henchmen? Hell, Doom even sounds perfectly sincere when he claims that he MADE Conan what he was, and that Conan would be lost the moment Doom was no more. Rather than being some evil megalomaniac, he seemed to capture the essence of Nietzsche’s amoral philosophy quite perfectly.

And lets not forget the Riddle of Steel, which fits in with this philosophy like one of them round pegs! Though we never are told point blank what it is, enough hints are given as to what it might be all about. For one, steel is strong and formidable, unlike flesh which seems weak by comparison. However, steel is useless without flesh, a mere object that is dependent on the hand that wields it.  On the other hand, it could be said that steel is much like people in that it is forged. When it is first extracted from the Earth, raw ore is much like a raw person; but tempered and shaped through constant exposure to extremes and violence, it becomes a deadly instrument, capable of great and terrible things. I tell ya, the metaphor is thick here!

In the end, the worst that can be said about this movie was that it was a tad cheesy, a tad hokey, and that at times a little wooden in terms of its acting. That and the low budget nature of it all, which was quite apparent throughout. But for anyone who doesn’t mind looking a little deeper, this movie had plenty of respectable stuff just waiting to be noticed. And really, it made Arnie’s carreer and probably didn’t hurt Stone’s, Laurentiis’s or Milnius’ either. Granted, the studio then made the horrible mistake of producing Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja, two horribly dumbed down sequels that did very poorly, but time has been kind to the original. It has made many a list as one of the top sci-fi fantasy cult classics of all time, and even inspired a re-imagining this past year.

But that, as they say with this franchise, is another tale… 😉

Conan the Barbarian (1982):

Entertainment Value: 8/10

Plot: 8/10

Direction: 9/10

Total: 8.5/10