Friday, February 15, 2019

REQUIEM FOR THE MONARCH

It may be difficult as you struggle with the daily onslaught of personal challenges and the very real threats to the survival and well-being of the human race, but today I ask you to spare a thought for the delicate and beautiful monarch butterfly, a creature it seems that may be not long for our world.

We have known since as early as 2014 that the Eastern monarch population was in serious decline. Even at that time, scientific and citizen counts of the insects as they plied their annual migrations through the eastern U.S. to Mexico told us their numbers had declined by 90 percent, largely due to the lack of availability of their major food source, milkweed. It still remains to be seen whether last-ditch efforts by conservation groups and backyard gardeners to plant milkweed and protect remaining habitat can rescue a viable population to ward off extinction of this branch of the monarch family.

The situation on the West Coast of the U.S. is now just as dire for the western monarch, according to new reports from the Xerces Society, a citizens' conservation group quoted January 7 on CNN.com. Their latest migration counts show a dramatic drop in monarch populations in 2018 (20k), as opposed to 148k in 2018. Compare those numbers to the far healthier one million in 1997 and 4.5 million in the 1980s. The western monarchs are on the verge of extinction, largely due to drought, loss of milkweed habitat and pesticides, according to a collaborating study by the journal Biological Conservation.

We are seeing a lot of things disappear these days--beaches, birds, icebergs. But butterflies seem the hardest to flutter from sight.

Cheers, Donna

Thursday, February 14, 2019

The legend of the love lilies

It's Valentine's Day today, the day of love and flowers. Gifts to women a man admires have been around for - oh, ever, really. And I expect it'll keep happening in our science fiction worlds, too.

They don't exactly do Valentine's Day in space - but the Fleet has a lovely tradition. Let me tell you about it with a couple of excerpts from The Iron Admiral: Deception.

Allysha's secret admirer (she knows who he is, but nobody else does) sends her love lilies.

*****


The team had just started on their first exercise when the IS spoke. "Allysha, you have a delivery."
Allysha straightened up beside Sirikit’s workstation. "Delivery?"
"Yes. Flowers."
Leonov’s clerk brought them in and left. Allysha flushed. Flowers again. They were beautiful, ten tall stems with blossoms like wine flutes arranged to display their deep red throats. Their fragrance was unmistakable, delicate and delicious.
"Are they from Brad?" Anna asked, her eyes dancing.
All of the others stared at Allysha, equally curious. She felt like a fugitive under a spotlight as she read the note. ‘I hope your week went well. Brad.’
"Well? From Brad?" Anna repeated.
Please, leave it alone. But they wouldn’t. "Yes."
"Was he there? At that course?" Anna asked.
She had to think for a moment. Oh, yes. She was supposed to have been instructing at a senior officer’s course. "No, he wasn’t."
"Ah hah. So he is a senior officer."
"Where did you get that from?" They were guessing; they had to be.
"The way you said it. As though no, he wasn’t there but he could have been." Anna's eyes sparkled with gleeful delight. "Besides, these are love lilies."
"What?" Allysha collapsed into her chair. She didn’t need this. But she was intrigued. "Love lilies?"
"Yep. It’s a Fleet thing. If a man gives you just one of those," Anna jerked her head at the flowers, "it’s understood to mean he’s serious."
Sirikit nodded, her liquid eyes sparkling.
"They’re hideously expensive," Todd chimed in. Allysha thought he looked rather somber. They might be hideously expensive to a lieutenant, but not to the man who sent these.
"Have you given one of these to anybody, Hassan?" Allysha asked.
"Me? Not a chance. Like Anna said, those lilies make a statement. I’m not ready for that, yet." He scratched at his cheek. "Besides, I wouldn’t want to disappoint anybody."
Todd rolled his eyes at Hassan. "Yes, of course, you’d have to consider your harem, wouldn’t you?" In a different tone he continued, "I gave one to Cornelia and I’ll bet Tensan gave one to Jinsu." He cocked his head at Tensan, who nodded.
"And Brad hasn’t sent one, he’s sent ten." Anna tilted her head and stared at Allysha. "So, you might not think it’s serious, but Brad sure as shootin’ does."
If she told them who Brad was, she was certain they wouldn’t believe her anyway. She took the flowers into her office. Maybe she could pretend they gave her hay fever and throw them away? She shook her head. That would just excite even more speculation. Best to carry on as if nothing had happened.

*****

When she returns home, Allysha asks her Information System to tell her about the Fleet legend.

*****

"Brew me some kaff, Albert, then tell me what you know about love lilies."
Allysha took her cup over to a chair while Albert talked.
 "It’s something of a Fleet legend, Allysha. It harks to the times when space travel took months or years and even moving from a planet’s orbit to a point where a ship could transfer to shift space could take days. Captain Isaac Ishkar finally found the woman of his dreams. But he was called to war before they could marry. He knew months would pass before his return and, having very little time to do much else, he organized with a florist to send his lady one of these flowers every week to remind her of him until he could return."
"Hm. And did he?"
"Yes. He was captured and imprisoned so he wasn’t able to return for two years, but then, at last, they were married. And now it has become something of a tradition for male Fleet officers to declare their intent by giving their lady one of these flowers."
One. He’d sent her ten. "Are they expensive?"
"It depends on the time of the year. Perhaps I should say, they are always expensive. When supply is low, they are extremely expensive."
"Why is that? Surely they’re cultivated?"
"They are. But the cultivated blossoms are not of the same quality. They lack the fragrance and glowing color of the wild stock."
He’d sent her the wild ones, of course. Never mind. For now, Allysha had more important things to do.

***** 

So there you have it. Love and legend are alive and well in the Ptorix Empire. I hope you got the cards, flowers, and chocolates you deserve. Meanwhile, I've got a book to finish.


 


Monday, February 11, 2019

Implanted: Imagine a Future Where...

I just finished Implanted by Lauren C. Teffeau, which was recently awarded a 2018 SFR Galaxy Award, presented by judge Lee Koven.

Part of Lee's write up said this:
"If you have a smartphone, you probably unconsciously reach for it at times when you’re bored or need reassurance. It’s become a wonderful tether to loved ones that are far away."
Indeed. How many people today live the majority of their lives looking down into the view screen of their smart phones? They're in constant contact, even in situations where actual face-to-face socializing is expected. Family dinners, eating with friends at a restaurant, group outings, weddings and receptions--no matter the occasion some individuals have their attention firmly locked on the interface of their portable technology.

Often, they're even engaged with their phones when they shouldn't be for safety reasons, like driving or walking. I'm sure you've probably seen the videos where someone immersed in a text conversation falls head-first into a fountain or walks into a light post. Or on a more serious note, you've heard a news report about someone driving, operating a city bus or a commuter train having an accident that endangered lives, and it's later discovered they had been engaged in an interaction on their phone.

Our current connection via technology is considered by some to be absolutely essential. They can no longer carry on with their lives without being in constant contact with someone they know via their mobile devices.


Implanted takes our status quo a solid couple of leaps into the future, where cell phones are no longer something a person carries--the technology has been integrated into the brain. No more looking down at their cell phone screens to carry on a text exchange, now they can chat up a storm inside their heads as they go about their lives, and depending on the level of connection they allow the other party, they can also share their emotions and deepest thoughts.

It seems a natural transition from our current status quo. Cell phone technology is evolving, technology integration with the human brain is being researched, and it seems entirely plausible they'll merge at some point in the future. No need to unlock your phone and type out a quick note to a friend...just think it!

But the society in Implanted is no technological utopia.

Teffeau's novel explores a future where humankind has turned their environment into a toxic wasteland and they now must live inside domed cities to survive. This new facet of society has more than just infrastructure levels, but class levels according to where a person lives within the dome--whether it be the dark, dank and perilous streets of the Terrestrial District, or the brighter, airier, plusher, and more privileged environs like the Canopy or the Echelon.

And there is crime, intrigue, corruption, espionage, political manipulation and all the other facets of our current society happening within this contained ecosystem. But at least in this less-than-ideal future you always have your friends and family close by--as close as your next thought--24/7. Right?

Now imagine a person being completely cut-off from these connections to loved ones--whether by their own choosing, or someone else's. Imagine the emotional stress at being severed from those constant voices inside their heads, the separation anxiety, the feelings of aloneness. Imagine becoming a "disconnect," as these individuals are known in the domed city of New Worth.

That's the basic premise for Implanted, where a large cross-section of this culture-under-glass is revealed through the main character, Emery Driscoll. Also known as Liv. And also as M. Because individuals in this world tend to have technologically-necessary alter egos.


I found the various stages of connection to other individuals quite a fascinating spin on the idea. I also had to give a lot of thought to how I would react to the prospect of having real life technology expand into this area. Would I really want to have communication technology implanted inside my brain, knowing the capacity for some devious person to figure out how to hack it? With some of the rather frightening consequences of having smart technology in your home, imagine how the risk factor might be multiplied to the nth if that smart technology is someday a part of your mind?

Sobering.

Implanted also explores the dome-dwellers quest to return to the land, once the environment is deemed safe and suitable. The citizens of New Worth are almost on the verge of "emergence." Or are they?

There is a pretty major twist in the main character's arc which I won't disclose in order to keep this as spoiler-free as possible. Suffice it to say, technology in this strange domed biosphere has advanced in more areas than just personal communication technology.

There is a romance involved in this story and the consequences are explored of having a significant other share part of your mind. I did think the early romantic arc was a bit understated for my own personal taste, but it did become more satisfying as the story progressed. I would have liked to see the facets of the developing relationship delved into in a little more depth. There was so much to explore here, from an emotional standpoint.

Although the romance is happily resolved, it is a bit more of a Happy For Now than a Happily Ever After and I did get the distinct sense there was a "To Be Continued" in there, as well. All-in-all, it was a thought-provoking, well-written and highly imaginative debut novel that leaves plenty of room for pondering the what-ifs.

Have a great week.


Friday, February 8, 2019

SF MUSIC: FROM WOO-WOO TO JUST WRONG


When we think about the music for science fiction on the screen, big, sweeping scores usually come to mind. Thus Spake Zarathustra and Strauss waltzes behind spinning space stations in 2001: A Space Odyssey; bass drums and brass heralding the arrival of Darth Vader in Star Wars; a wordless soprano over a soaring orchestra in the early Star Trek.

But there are other, more subtle uses of music in SF films and television that are no less unforgettable. Take the 1951 classic alien invasion film The Day the Earth Stood Still, starring Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal (and the robot, Gort). The film was directed by the Hollywood heavyweight Robert Wise (The Sound of Music; Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and featured, for the first time, a weird instrument called the theremin as part of the soundtrack written by Bernard Hermann. The sound was so distinctive it has defined SF ever since, even entering the common vernacular as a descriptor for something far out, as in “Oh, yeah, UFOs and all that ‘woo-woo’ stuff.”



 
A similar shiver up the spine was achieved by playing two notes over and over again on the guitar with a little echo effect overdubbed on them to create theTwilight Zone television show theme. I was only six years old when Rod Serling’s brainchild first hit the airwaves—too young to be allowed to watch. But, believe me, I could hear the theme song from my bedroom, and it scared the bejeezus out of me! My youngest daughter tells me the music had the same effect on her when I watched the reruns with others in the family. 

The intro to The X-Files—starting with six high, electronic notes—had a similar evocative effect. Weirdness is coming, the truth is out there, and get ready to hide under the covers.

But sometimes the music chosen for an SF film has more to do with the everyday lives of its characters than the strange things they must encounter (or overcome) through the course of the story. One of my favorite scenes in a great little SF film called Super 8, written and directed by J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Star Wars, Lost, Fringe, etc., etc.) is one where the geeky young heroes gather on a hill overlooking town and sing along to the radio: “M-m-m-my Sharona!” I was way past my young teen years in 1979 when The Knack did that song, but I could still relate to those kids (whose cinematic adventure involves inadvertently filming an escaped alien while making a movie.)

Occasionally, though, the attempt to use cool music in the SF background goes wrong. This is the case with Project Blue Book, now showing on the History Channel. The show is a fairly decent fictionalization of the U.S. Air Force investigations of UFO sightings in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, most of which were conducted by a physicist named Dr. J. Allen Hynek and his Air Force “keeper” Captain Michael Quinn. Hynek, of course, has since earned a reputation as a true believer, having written several books on aliens and UFOs and the like, despite the government’s attempts to discredit him.

The show is a little slow, but interesting enough, given that episodes are based on the real incidents of Project Blue Book (pictures of which are shown at the end of each episode). The problem I’m having is that, to spice things up, the music director has old blues or rhythm and blues music playing on car radios or in bars. 

Not that anybody below a certain age would know this, but in the late Forties, you wouldn’t have heard that kind of music played on mainstream radio, or in white bars or restaurants. Blues or R&B was called “race music,” and you would only have heard it in rural juke joints, city establishments catering to African-Americans, or perhaps on urban, limited-range radio stations. Mainstream pop radio was still playing Big Band music, or maybe “hillbilly” or “Western swing” music in the South or West. By the mid-to-late 1950s, things had changed. Radio had come to be dominated by a new mash-up of R&B and hillbilly music, something that would later be known as "rock and roll."

Most people wouldn’t care, but this is my jam. I collect music from the early 50s to the 60s. So, the show getting it wrong bothers me and takes me out of the story. You all know how that is. Whether it’s the physics of your starship's propulsion or the music on the radio in the background, details are important. Best the author--and the show runners--get them right.

Cheers, Donna




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