Friday, May 29, 2009

(Hopefully not the) Last Remake of Beau Geste

At least I find this time-travel story to be très drôle.

I posted in April that one of my favorite short stories, "Grandpa?" -- already a short film and having just come out as a podcast -- had achieved a multimedia trifecta (that post here).

That recent podcast led directly to a new first for me: my first movie remake. After hearing the podcast, Three Letter Agency (aka, visual effects artist Matthew Lane-Smith) contacted me. TLA has now optioned "Grandpa?" for a new short film.

(If you ended up here because you're a fan of the 1977 feature film, The Last Remake of Beau Geste, it amuses me to think of Marty Feldman [RIP] playing the professor in my story.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Alien aliens (macguffins)

This post started out with another subtitle: unknowable. Then -- a dangerous habit, to be sure -- I started to think.

This series of posts began in advocacy for *alien* aliens, as opposed to the human-in-rubber-suit aliens too common in (especially) TV SF. Certainly, you're thinking, aliens so different as to defy human understanding qualify.

Examples first:

The Eschaton series by Charlie Stross (disclosure: I've read only the first book, Singularity Sky). "Eschaton" is the end of everything, the ultimate destiny of the universe. The fictional Eschaton is an AI so advanced no one can comprehend its thinking.

The Buggers/Formics of Ender's Game. Humanity and this insectoid/hive species fight a battle of extinction because humans and aliens cannot communicate. Humans cannot even convince the aliens we are capable of communication.

The creatures of the Beyond, in Vernor Vinge's Zones of Thought novels, most notably A Fire Upon the Deep. The farther one travels from the galactic core, the deeper mentality becomes. Beings of the Beyond may strike us as good or evil, but their capabilities and motivations are unknowable.

On due reflection, I decided unknowable aliens in fiction are nothing new. They're devices to move forward a plot involving beings we can understand: humans. Lots of fiction uses such devices -- items we don't understand but to which the characters must react. The Maltese falcon is one in the movie of the same name. Ditto the metal briefcase in the movie Ronin. Alfred Hitchcock called the device a Macguffin. Once the story gets underway, you forget to wonder what the MacGuffin really is.

So: in Singularity Sky, we deal with the Eschaton's human agents -- them, we understand. In A Fire Upon the Deep, a Beyond being chases some characters into slow-witted parts of the galaxy, where readers encounter (wonderful) aliens we can understand.

Buggers are a more complicated case. Throughout Ender's Game (the first book of a series, in fact two interlocking series) the Buggers are unknowable. In later books the hive queens suddenly have telepathic linkages with selected humans. The *human* story has progressed, and now the storyteller needs to establish a connection with the aliens -- and that required destrangifying (like that word?) the alien.

Might the universe have aliens so different from humans we'll never understand them? I don't see why not. But unknowable aliens in fiction generally aren't really unknowable, they're props. Tools of the authorial trade. MacGuffins.


Friday, May 22, 2009

Hip, hip, hubble!

NASA leadership may have agreed to the latest Hubble repair mission only under popular pressure, but now that the repair has happened -- well, wow! Kudos to all involved.

The HST, a great national treasure, has had its life extended and its value enhanced yet again. And doing so required -- people in space. No robot yet devised has the strength, dexterity, improvisational skills, and mobility to match what the latest repairmen brought to the orbiting observatory.

Now what does ESA plan to do when either Planck or Hershel, both on their way to separate halo orbits around the Earth/moon L2 point, develops a glitch? Oh, to be able to travel farther than we could in 1968.

(And an aside to the talented crew: enjoy your day off while the weather in Florida clears up.)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Trope-ing the light fantastic (alien abductions)

When The X Files first aired (September 1993), I was a few months into the start-up of a major development program for NASA. (A part of the Earth Observing System, if anyone wonders. EOS was the third largest program at NASA, after the ISS and the shuttle.) The X Files, among other things, went by the wayside.

Recently, having finished my trip down Star Trek / memory lane -- Netflix being a wonderful institution -- I began watching The X Files. It can be entertaining, no doubt, but alien abduction? I just don't get it.

If aliens traveled the vast distances from ... wherever to Earth, it's conceivable they would abduct a few people to -- figuratively -- pick their brains. Having said that:

1. If ET understands humans well enough to selectively recover data from and/or edit our brains (alien abductions in fiction and tabloids tend to involve repressed memories), why can't they -- much more simply -- find out what they want to know by watching our TV, listening to our radio, and tapping our Internet? If ET abducted Nobel Prize winners and high-ranking officials, they might learn something they couldn't just pick out of the ethers. That's not who we hear is being abducted. What that's unique would ET learn kidnapping random folks on lonely country roads?

2. Suppose ET did abduct people. Why bother to suppress their memories and put them back? Not morality: ET has (in this supposition) kidnapped and altered the memories of people. That doesn't sound like ET has much respect for humans. Not to keep his presence secret: ET must by now know (in this supposition) that lots of abductees recover their memories. Whereas lots of people disappear without a trace all the time ... look at these FBI missing person statistics.

In short, I don't see the logic in ET abducting random humans. If ET did, I don't believe he'd keep putting them back where he found them despite, apparently, decades of failures in memory erasure.

So for SFnal purposes, I'll conclude alien abduction is a trope.

(As we are approaching tabloid territory, a true confession: I once tiptoed around the edges of committing the alien-abduction trope. In Moonstruck, my first-contact novel, aliens do abduct people -- but the aliens do not put anyone back. And there's a good reason why abducting regular Joe types makes sense. I won't be any more specific lest I ruin the book for anyone.)

All that said ... many people BELIEVE in alien abduction. There are plenty of books and articles that take the subject seriously -- without much in the way of evidence. Recovered memories? Not evidence, because recovery of repressed memories is a rather suspect mechanism. As the American Psychiatric Association says (here), "At this point it is impossible, without corroborative evidence, to tell a true memory from a false one."

Phew! That was a lot of words ... I think I'll go unwind in front of another episode of The X Files.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Is that all there is?

May's theme for the Year of Science is "Celebrate sustainability and the environment." To which, for the first time in the YoS program, I say: Bah. And: Faugh. And: How disappointing.

Wait a bit on the torches and pitchforks.

By all means, let's study how the environment works. Heck, we live in it. And wouldn't it be great if we came to understand how to build a stable biosphere. It'd be handy for, say, long-term spaceflight or establishing off-world colonies. And certainly I have no quarrel with efficiency.

That's no reason to make a goal of "sustainability."

I find sustainability fatalistic and inward looking, lacking in ambition. Whether I put on my technologist hat or my SFnal specs, I have to ask: why should our aims -- and our imagination -- be so limited?

There's an entire UNIVERSE out there. Why isn't our ambition to tap a few off-Earth resources? Why don't we consider moving the dirtiest industries someplace -- in orbit a thousand miles up, say, or on the moon -- where sunlight is unfiltered by atmosphere and unaffected by weather? Someplace where pollution won't matter? Why don't we think about moving out to the moon, and Mars, and the Belt?

The universe, presumably, is a zero-sum game. But one tiny planet? We're nearing the level of technology at which Earth limits us only if we let it.

To me, sustainability is less about science than it is a mass movement. And the sad thing about sustainability as a goal, and about those situations where environmentalism becomes religion or politics, is that once we lower our sights it becomes all to easy to forget how to raise them.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

It's an honor just to be nominated

I've read Analog since roughly forever. My first published fiction (a short story called "What a Piece of Work Is Man") appeared in Analog. While my short fiction appears in many markets, more has appeared in Analog than in any other venue.

So I was delighted to get my July/August issue (yes, I know it's early May -- but who better than an SF mag to use a time machine?) and find myself named in the Analytical Laboratory. (For you non-Analogians, that's the annual readers' poll).

More specifically, my novelette "The Night of the RFIDs" was the reader-ranked second-best novelette of 2008. Not coincidentally, I suspect, my Analog science article, "Beyond This Point Be RFIDs," was a finalist in 2007. Having concluded that article with a few paragraphs about the SFnal implications of RFID technology, I took one of them for myself.

(If anyone is keeping count of my RFID efforts, there is also "The Day of the RFIDs," which first appeared in the anthology Future Washington and leads off my collection Creative Destruction. Night and Day are related but independent stories.)

(Cue Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra ... hey, with the sun and moon references, it's gotta be the most SFnal work by lyricist or artist.)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Death by the numbers

Swine flu (or whatever is the preferred name for the disease today) is a serious matter. Some have died; more have been sickened. For them and their family statistics hardly matter.

Then there's the rest of us ...

The death toll in the US from the recent, endlessly ballyhooed disease is -- one. To put that in perspective, check out leading causes of death in 2005 in the US (latest available complete data, from Centers for Disease Control):
  • Heart disease: 652,091
  • Cancer: 559,312
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 143,579
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 130,933
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 117,809
  • Diabetes: 75,119
  • Alzheimer's disease: 71,599
  • Influenza/Pneumonia: 63,001
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 43,901
  • Septicemia: 34,136
Again according to the CDC, about 80 people in the US die annually from lightning.

I don't know about you, but to me the swine-flu coverage (and concern) seems more than a little disproportionate.

Meanwhile, our vice president has responded to this situation by announcing he's advised his family to avoid air travel and mass transit. That doesn't exactly give me a warm-and-fuzzy about how clearheaded would be his response to other issues that may come his way. (My guess: If Bush 43 had been the one to make that statement, the press would be pillorying him.)

As an exercise in sociology, press and government reaction to the outbreak is fascinating. As public policy ... ugh.