"No less a critic than C. S. Lewis has described the ravenous addiction that these magazines inspired; the same phenomenon has led me to call science fiction the only genuine consciousness-expanding drug." Arthur C. Clarke


Commercial Space Redux: Asteroid Mining

We have seen in the last couple years the expansion of space exploration outside the realm of state projects, beginning with the space tourism business which has been (or will be) taking off at some point.

Now, led by two Google execs, a group of billionaires have formed Planetary Resources, a company that will send ships into space to mine asteroids, bringing precious resources back to Earth. However, the question arises: Whose property is the asteroid and everything in it?

View from one end of Eros across the gouge on ...

View from one end of Eros across the gouge on its side towards the opposite end.(greyscale) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The most relevant law is the Outer Space Treaty (1967), which established that no nation could claim sovereignty over any part of space, or essentially anything off Earth. However, this Cold-War era agreement is not relevant today; it is clear that the it’s purpose was to not allow the United States or Soviet Union full hegemony over the realm of space while the rest of the world just watched.  It is meant to pertain to states themselves, not corporations. The treaty permits commercial or business use.

However, the other end of the spectrum involves a 2001 court case. The year before, an American man named Gergory Nemitz had registered a claim to the asteroid Eros, despite never having been there himself to see it.  When NASA sent a satellite, he wrote a letter demanding “parking fees,” but was declined.  It wasn’t without a laugh, though, I’m sure.

According to NASA, the Outer Space Treaty includes states and all their nationals, meaning that Nemitz fell under the terms of the treaty his country signed, and thus could not claim the asteroid.  By this token, anything that Planetary Resources could bring back would be the property of humankind, not the company.

The difference being, of course, that Nemitz had not actually been to Eros, and thus had no claim to it.  Human history is full of examples of individuals or corporations claiming lands or resources, but at each time they went and found them themselves.  Columbus claimed Hispaniola for Spain when he got there, and not before.  Just because we know something exists doesn’t mean that anyone can claim it as their property.  If this corporation spends the money to build a spacecraft and gets to Eros, they should be able to claim it, and try to make whatever money they can from it.  Probably not much in the way of resources, but in publicity, they will make a killing.

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JOHN CARTER and Edgar Rice Burroughs

Walt Disney Pictures‘ film John Carter, due out March 9, marks the 100th anniversary of the first appearance of the character in a story by famed author Edgar Rice Burroughs.

The film is based on Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1917) and stars Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church, and directed by Andrew Stanton.

Burroughs, especially known for his character Tarzan, wrote 11 novels of the Barsoom series, the name for Mars in the novels.  His vision of Mars was based on incorrect scientific notions of the time, mostly that of Percival Lowell.  Lowell and Rice’s Mars is a dying planet, formerly like Earth but in a rapid state of decline.  The scarce water is distributed by canals, the existence of which is based on astronomical visions of canals running across the red planet’s surface.

Burroughs’ technology, especially for a traditionally non-science fiction writer, is fairly extraordinary.  He described technology similar to televisions, radios, fax machines, radiation-based weapons, genetic manipulation, and terraforming.  He also described aerial battles between fleets of aircraft not 30 years after the Wright brothers‘ famous flight, as well as a plant which manufactures new atmosphere to replace that which is being lost on the planet.

It is only the best science fiction which can be read throughout time and even when many of it’s ideas are outdated.  It takes even better science fiction to make movies out of, even one hundred years later.  I’ll be looking forward to seeing the new film of one of the classics of science fiction.

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Finished Time Enough For Love (1973) a while ago, so I’ve owed you my review.  Warning: I have not held back much as far as spoilers go, so if you haven’t read the book and don’t want to hear the ending, don’t read past the marked point.

Time Enough For Love is Heinlein‘s longest work, and probably his most epic.  It is essentially written as part of the biography of Lazarus Long, a recurring character throughout Heinlein’s Future History novels (Methuselah’s Children and To Sail Beyond the Sunset, as well as a series of short stories).  Long is the oldest living human being at over two thousand years old, the product of both genetic engineering in the 20th century and rejuvenation technology thereafter.  The story is based around Long’s lying on his deathbed and one of his important descendants wishes that his entire life story be recorded (or at least the important parts).  They wish to record it because he is “the Senior” and as the oldest living human being is considered the wisest.  So Long begins, telling of his life, in no particular chronological order.


Cover art of Time Enough for Love by Robert A....

Image via Wikipedia

Now when we get into the themes and details is where it gets interesting.  Free love, nudism, etc, are common themes for Heinlein, but in Time Enough For Love he takes it to another level, making today’s nudists look like Republicans and Oedipus Rex look like the average suburban husband.  The summary on the back of my copy states that “it is the story of a man so in love with Life that he refused to stop living it; and so in love with Time that he became his own ancestor.”  However, this statement is not backed up by anything in the book, sadly.  The final part of the novel involves his going back in time to his childhood to meet his family, and in the process falls in love with his mother, but at this period he is already a child and meets himself, making it impossible that he should have become his own ancestor as the summary says.

Not that Heinlein should have needed to make the book more strange and slightly awkward by today’s moral standards.  At one point he explains scientifically how twin brother and sister born of the same father and mother could be genetically unrelated, and then proceeds to have them marry, have children, and live long happy lives as if nothing were the matter with that.  To Heinlein, of course, there isn’t.  As well, the last section of the book, which is set around the time-travel sequence, features Lazarus helping to start a colony and joining a family of all the primary characters, three each of men and women and an unknown number of children, practicing free love.  Also included in this family are a pair of female twins who just happen to be female clones of Lazarus himself, who eventually he makes love to as well, writing it off as a form of masturbation.

This may have come off much harsher than it is meant to be.  Heinlein is one of the best, and most of his ideas are awesome.  But this, even to a much larger extent than The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or Stranger in a Strange Land, some of his social themes are strange and not particularly acceptable even by today’s loose standards, much less that of the Seventies.

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Watching the Big Bang

A story published a couple days ago made me think about how we view time and space.  The story was about a new galaxy that had been discovered which had a mass equal to two quadrillion suns.  For context, that is:

2,000,000,000,000,000 suns.

COBE's View of the Milky Way - GPN-2002-000111

Image via Wikipedia

What it made me think about is that the story pointed out that what we see of this galaxy is only about half of the current age of the universe.   This is, of course, because the galaxy, nicknamed “El Gordo,” is nearly 7-billion light-years from Earth. The universe is about 13.7 billion years old, and the light from this galaxy has taken 7 billion years to get here, so what we are seeing is from when the universe was about half the age it is now.

So, given that the farther away from the Earth we look we are also looking farther back into the past, what happens when we see a galaxy that is 13.7 billion light-years away? Will we see the birth of the Universe?

This probably proves Einstein’s theory that time is a function of light, as well as proving the Big Bang Theory when we finally see something 14 billion light-years away.  It would also give us a good mark on how old the Universe is, as well.

This also could prove the existence of Douglas Adams Restaurant at the End of the Universe.  The restaurant, of course, is not at the physical end but the life-end of the Universe.  The after-dinner entertainment at the restaurant features the final explosion and destruction of the Universe, viewed by an audience from throughout time, since, of course, everyone has to travel through time to get to the restaurant.

The logic applies, that if we can see into the past by looking at the stars, we could also see as far back as the birth of the Universe and possibly into the future.

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DNA Decoding

Life Technologies Corp. of Carlsbad, Calif. announced yesterday that it had developed a machine that can decode the DNA of an individual in under 24 hours for the very affordable price of $1000.  DNA sequencers have been around for a few years, but the costs and time involved to decode and analyze the data in one person’s DNA have kept the technology from widespread use.  However, with these new machines, the ability to check a patient’s DNA for susceptibility to disease and to mold treatment has become much easier for every doctor.

Animation of the structure of a section of DNA...

Image via Wikipedia

What this means is that the medical revolution we have seen in science fiction such as Robert Heinlein‘s Future History is becoming closer and much more possible.  It will allow us to increase our lifespans, treat disease and sickness better, and eliminate deficiencies in DNA before our children are born.

However, this also could bring up some interesting other things.  What happens when all the bad parts of some people’s DNA are eliminated and the diversity of the human race is cut down?  And by the same token, what happens when future parents are given their unborn child’s DNA and find out that it has Down syndrome?  What do you think some people would do about that?

This, like every other major scientific advancement, can make things better but also cause more problems and give people more choices to make bad decisions.  It is only if we can control this and use it for the good will it benefit us in the long run.

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WOLVERINE and the Dissolution of Physics

I watched most of X-Men Origins: Wolverine last night and noticed something extremely discouraging about the way the special effects were handled: it seemed as if the entire film was taking place on some other planet, because the laws of physics were being thrown out the window.

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy the X-Men franchise, and I really liked the story in Wolverine, but I believe the special effects people who worked on this film went entirely overboard.  It is understandable that some things that the mutants do are extraordinary, and the audience must suspend disbelief because of their supposed “mutations,” but many of the stunts in the film were completely ridiculous.

X-Men Origins - Wolverine

X-Men Origins - Wolverine (Image via RottenTomatoes.com)

For example, multiple times we see Wolverine cutting through objects seemingly effortlessly, and with very exaggerated results.  In his battle with Zero and the helicopter, this happens multiple times.  Wolverine is on his motorcycle (which he rode out of a building that was exploding) and rides right by a Hummer, reaching out and slicing it with his claws.  It’s not only that the claws slice right through the side of the vehicle, seemingly without any reaction from Wolverine (including any backward movement from his arm, per the Newtonian Laws of Physics), but also that this cut, which goes through the length of the Hummer, including the tires, causes the vehicle to fly up into the air and make the helicopter swerve out of the way.  Then, to top that, Wolverine climbs on top of another Hummer, which is shot at by the helicopter, and as the vehicle explodes he is able to propel himself up to the helicopter.  He not only slices the blades of the chopper but also lands on it.  Zero watches him in slow motion to the side of the helicopter, reaching up to cut the blades, and then somehow Logan is able to alter his trajectory in mid-air and land on the helicopter as it is crashing to the ground.  Then as he is walking away from the crash (he jumps off just in time) he slashes into some gasoline on the ground, causing a fire which burns its way to the helicopter and makes it explode.

Another example, possibly even more extraordinary: In his fight scene with Gambit on Bourbon Street, Logan is looking up at Gambit on a fire escape.  He decides to slice at the bottom of the fire escape support with his claws, making it begin to fall.  However, instead of just letting it fall off the side of the building, the stairway suddenly comes off of the building right next to Logan and stays straight up in the air as he quickly slashes over and over again, cutting off a few feet of the bottom of the stairwell each time.  Gambit stays on top of the fire escape as it hangs in midair, straight up, defying gravity, until he gets to the bottom with Logan.

One more example: In the final scene, when Logan cuts off Deadpool‘s head and both parts of him fall into the middle of the reactor, his head, still emitting lasers, supposedly spins around as it slowly falls, making a perfect helix of the circular reactor.  This seems like just lazy CGI; it would take nothing to put a simple perfect helix into a computer and tell it to animate that.  In reality, the laser would be spinning every which way, pointing up, down into the ground, and would fall at 9.8 meters/per second, not the 30 seconds it took to fall to the bottom of an 80-foot reactor.  Those are exaggerations, but the math was certainly not there.

You may be able to see some of these examples in this trailer.

It’s almost like the producers of this film forgot to hire a science adviser; I saw these inconsistencies the very first time I saw the movie in the theater.  This is certainly why I like my science fiction to be written by scientists, and the best have been: Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke were all scientists in one form or another first, and then used that knowledge to write science fiction.

One lesson to be learned from the ridiculousness of this film and the best science fiction writers of the present and the past: Even though it’s called science fiction, the very best is based in science fact.

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Chinese in Space

English: China Xichang Satellite Center; The l...

Image via Wikipedia

It has been announced recently that China, who traditionally has not been particularly active in the space race, will make a strong push in the next five years to become a power in space.  It seems, as did the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960’s and 70’s, that economic domination fuels space exploration, more than a bit obviously.  As both of the two Cold War powers scale back their space exploration due to budgeting, the Chinese are beginning to use their newfound worldwide wealth to build up their space industry.  By the end of 2016 it plans to launch space laboratories, manned spaceships, and be technologically prepared to build space stations.

Conventionally (and especially in my favorite era), science fiction writers have extrapolated one of three scenarios for the exploration/colonization of space: either a two-country, Cold-War era race between the successor states to the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. or a worldwide effort, by a cooperative effort by many states (as inspired by the International Space Station) or by a future one-state world.

Now, with the rise of this Chinese effort (along with the addition of space efforts by other countries such as Japan, the European Union, and India, as well as efforts by private companies) we must examine the possibility that space could be explored by many separate entities, with different technologies, goals, and ideals.  It could change much about the way diplomacy works: dealing with states occupying different planets, the distances between them, and the way war would work in space (which has certainly been thought about in many different ways).

This Chinese effort has certainly made me think about the changes to the way state-building and diplomacy in space would happen.  This, along with future development, should mark a shift in reaction for science-fiction as a whole.

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