Monday, March 30, 2020

Living the Reality of my Heroine's (Once) Fictional Time

The past week has been downright unsettling. Not just because of social distancing, virtual lockdown, and an economy teetering on meltdown, but because I suddenly realized I'd experienced this scenario before.

But it was all in my head.

I'm now living in my heroine's time--in Lissa Bruce's era--and it's a bit freaky how her fictional world is becoming our reality. Life imitating art? Considering this book isn't published yet....nope. Just one writer's eerie projection of a future that is looking much too possible.

I say "the future" because at the time I wrote the original drafts, it truly was.

I'm really not supposed to admit this, but The Outer Planets has been in the hopper for over 30 years. When the story originally began to take shape in my mind, the 2040s seemed like a very long way off. Not so anymore.

The novel is currently in edits, but now, with everything going on around us, I'm not sure just when I may be ready--or willing--to release it.

Here's the lowdown.

When I started writing this novel, my heroine's totally sci-fi sounding birth date was the far distant year of 2012. A future that is in our past! So yeah, this year she'd be turning eight years old on 9/9/2020. Her parents are wealthy. In fact, her father is a politician. She still carries deep guilt about all the things she had as a child while her friends and their families were starving.

The story opens when Lissa Bruce is 27 years old. In the year 2039, the next couple of decades in our future are her past tense. The world is experiencing a new dawn, emerging from borderline dystopia, where a global economic collapse and continuing climate change resulted in a scramble to survive.

When did it happen? In the 2020's! That's looking a little less Fi and a lot more Sci at the moment.

[Honestly, I'm not making this stuff up! Do a search for "Outer Planets" on this site and you'll see my blogs about it that date back many years.]

In this fictional future, the melting ice sheets decreased the salt content of the oceans and partially altered the currents of the Atlantic Conveyor, throwing weather patterns into chaos. While the oceans rose, drowning coastline cities worldwide, drought turned former breadbasket regions into dust bowls. The effects on Lissa's society are dire.

Water riots became commonplace. Mobs formed to loot stores—not to steal goods and electronics to resell on the street--but to take the food they need for themselves and their families to survive.

In rural areas, communities formed raid gangs that stripped crops clean and butchered livestock on neighboring farms. [Particularly unnerving, since this is happening right now in other parts of the world--with gruesome recent news reports coming out of South America and Libya.]

Moral principles took a back seat to survival. Outbreaks of disease and anarchy prevailed. The United Nations disbanded as ineffective and costly, and governments refocused these resources on maintaining order inside their own borders and protecting their citizens. Police states and martial law became commonplace.

It's a frightening scenario considering where we are at this moment in time, but even this grim fictional setting is not a future without hope.

By 2030, the climate begins to stabilize, thanks to an enforced planet-wide scale back in greenhouse gas emissions, and the world returns to more normal conditions, socially and economically, leaving mankind still shaking in its boots at what could have been.

And what might be again in their not too distant future.

It's painfully clear to them that the human population has far exceeded the resources of their home planet...and after a worldwide population reduction during the cataclysms, is again growing exponentially.

The Nations is formed, a multi-national entity with a focus on expanding and diversifying our species' interests beyond the “all the eggs in one basket” scenario of having the fate of the humankind tied to one planet.

International resources are pooled to re-ignite a global space exploration program. As part of that plan, ASP—Armstrong Space Port—with its orbiting shipyards, begins construction in orbit in 2030 and is completed by the close of 2035. A year later it houses a population of over 15,500 international military, corporate and support personnel, and the ability to build large ships that are no longer limited by the problem presented by gravity and massive fuel tanks required to overcome it.

With regular shuttle flights from ASP, temporary bases are constructed on the Moon and Mars as the first step in establishing permanent mining operations. It doesn't happen without tragedy. The characters refer to one such catastrophe on Mars Station One more than once in the story.

Once ASP is online, Project Destination follows. Spearheaded by The Nations, it’s an ambitious multi-national exploratory mission to the Outer Planets—Jupiter and Saturn, and more specifically the 100+ moons they share between them—to identify resources, future colony sites, and launching points for interstellar missions to other solar systems.

Construction of the Nations’ Star Ship—NSS Destination—starts. And the debate about crew selection begins...

Whew! Let's hope most of the fictional scenario of this "here, now and about to be" stays just that. Fictional.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay positive!


Friday, March 27, 2020

LATEST COSMOS PROVIDES ESCAPE, HEROES


In this grim time a little escape and new heroes to admire are certainly welcome, and this week’s recommendation for where to get them cites a familiar source. Neil deGrasse Tyson, everyone’s favorite astrophysicist, is back on the Fox Network with his second re-imagining of the popular Cosmos television show first created by Carl Sagan and wife Ann Druyan in 1980.

This time the show is titled Cosmos: Possible Worlds, and uses the fictional trick of the “ship of imagination” to take us both back in time to view our Earth’s creation and our human species’ rise, and out into space to explore other possible life-nurturing planets in the galaxy. The ever-optimistic Tyson is our host for these journeys, explaining everything in a way that’s scientifically based, graphically displayed and easy to understand. Ann Druyan serves as lead writer on the series. She’s also an executive producer, along with comic Seth McFarlane, well known as a space geek.

I hope you have a decent television set at home to watch this show, because the visuals are stunning. Whether you are in a location here on Earth, or looking at the stars, everything is awe-inspiring, which I imagine is the point.

I do have one criticism of this latest iteration of the Cosmos franchise. The various historical segments are done in a kind of weird stop-action-looking CGI animation rather than using real actors. This, combined with Tyson’s tendency to lecture in maddeningly simple terms, made me think I was watching a science special aimed at fourth-graders at times, rather than the Carl Sagan show of old, which always pitched the material way over my head. 

Unfortunately, I think there’s a reason for that. We no longer respect, value or bother to learn science (or history) in this country. A show like Cosmos: Possible Worlds has to dole out its information in small, easily digestible bits or risk losing the audience. That doesn’t exactly explain why real actors couldn’t have been used instead of CGI for the historical parts, but I can understand that the producers might have wanted to reserve a limited budget for more WOW-factor location shots and onscreen recreations of exploding stars.

Nikolai Vavilov
A recent episode provided an example of the show’s underlying philosophy, and its ultimately uplifting inspiration, even though the production aspects were frustrating. Episode Four, titled “Vavilov,” told the story of an unsung hero of science, Russian agronomist, botanist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov. In the years before World War II, Vavilov traveled the world collecting seeds and roots in a search for the earliest, purest genetic forms of common food crops. He believed knowledge of these base forms would provide a starting point for improving the seeds used for agriculture. 

Vavilov wanted to build on the theories of Gregor Mandel and Charles Darwin to solve the age-old problem of crop failure and famine in Russia. To that end he established the world’s first global seed bank in Leningrad and began work in genetics that became recognized throughout the world. But in the poisonous political atmosphere following the death of the revolutionary Lenin and the rise of the authoritarian Stalin in the USSR, a young man Vavilov had taken under his wing turned on him.

Trofim Lysenko began to denounce Vavilov’s theories and put forward his own, nonscientific ideas. The politically astute Lysenko found easy favor with Stalin, a man with no patience for learning or science. But Lysenko’s simplistic theories only encouraged Stalin’s foolish political ideas with regards to state agriculture. The result was mass famine on a scale seldom seen even in Russia. Millions died in 1932-33 in an event the Ukrainians named the Holodomor (death inflicted by starvation).
 
Vavilov, by contrast, lost favor with Stalin. By 1939, the famous scientist had lost the right to travel abroad, and in August of 1940 he was arrested. A year later he was condemned to death. The sentence was later commuted to life in prison, but in reality, Vavilov was forced to slowly starve to death. He died in prison in January, 1943 at the age of 56.

During the two-and-a-half year siege of Leningrad by Nazi forces, during which approximately 1.5 million citizens of the city starved to death, a handful of Vavilov’s colleagues lived in the basement at the Leningrad seed bank and guarded the a cross-section of the precious genetic material Vavilov had collected with their lives. Nine of the scientists themselves starved to death, but none of the staff touched the seed compilation, though it contained rice, wheat and other edible food grains. (Today’s Global Seed Vault, the modern embodiment of Vavilov’s idea, exists in Svalbard, Norway within the Arctic Circle.)

The Global Seed Vault in Norway

I knew about the siege of Leningrad, Stalin’s famines and the Global Seed Vault, but I had never heard the name of Nikolai Vavilov before this episode of Cosmos: Possible Worlds. And I had certainly never known of the heroism of Vavilov’s fellow scientists in Leningrad. It was worth putting up with the irritating CGI production on the episode to gain this useful knowledge and a historical reminder that a refusal to accept the facts of science in the pursuit of a political agenda can lead to death and destruction.

  

There was another upside to this episode. Viggo Mortensen provided the voice acting for Vavilov’s character. If you’ve seen the excellent movie EASTERN PROMISES, you know he can do a terrific Russian accent. (The man speaks five languages, after all!) That makes it even more disappointing, though, that we didn’t get to see Viggo act the character. 

Cheers, Donna






Thursday, March 26, 2020

Social distancing – taken to the max!



Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels
As with so many other present-day scenarios, it's not hard to find parallels in science fiction of the world we live in now. Other people have mentioned Stephen King's The Stand, and the movie Outbreak as early rumblings of the damage caused by a pandemic. But 'social isolation' goes back a lot further.

Back to the 1950's and SF icon Isaac Asimov.

I wasn't introduced to Asimov's robot series until a while later (being a wee child in the 'fifties) but I remember the books well. Earth's surface is completely wrapped in a steel mantle. Everyone lives inside, in apartments with communal bathrooms. Only the most senior officials have the privilege of their own wash basin in their own apartment. Everyone eats reconstituted yeast grown in factories. The planet is crowded and privacy is a long-gone concept. 'Weather' is unknown.

However, some settlers from Earth had escaped to the stars many centuries before and created their own societies, assisted by robot servants. The Spacers, as they are called, live on spacious estates managed by their robots. Mindful of the overcrowded Earth, they strictly limit the population – especially because, in this environment, they are now able to live for three hundred years and more.

In the novel The Caves of Steel, detective Elijah Bailey must investigate the death of a Spacer who has come to Earth for official business. When they visit Earth, Spacers always live in a sanitised, cordoned-off area of the planet to prevent their contact with Earthlings, not because they feel themselves to be superior (although they probably do) but to prevent the danger of contracting diseases which their bodies could no longer fight. Maybe something like Covid-19.

So Asimov's Spacers practiced sensible social distancing.

Many times in history the mingling of humans from different environments has led to the inadvertent deaths of many. Europeans brought smallpox to Australia, a disease to which the aboriginal people had no resistance. There's a similar story attributing European syphilis to Columbus's crew returning from the New World.

But there's social distancing and social distancing. The second Elijah Bailey mystery, The Naked Sun, takes place on Solaris, one of several Spacer planets. Here, the concept of lots of space and privacy has been taken to extremes. This is an extract from the synopsis of The Naked Sun on Wikipedia.

"The book focuses on the unusual traditions, customs, and culture of Solarian society. The planet has a rigidly controlled population of 20,000, and robots outnumber humans ten thousand to one. People are taught from birth to avoid personal contact, and live on huge estates, either alone or with their spouse only. Face-to-face interaction (referred to in the book as "seeing"), and especially impregnating a woman, when replacement of a descendant is necessary, was seen as unavoidable but dirty. Communication is completed instead through holography (referred to in the book as "viewing") where in contrast to "seeing", they are free of modesty, and have no problem if an interlocutor sees the other's naked body. A two-way teleconference allows the participants to hear and see each other, but in 3D – an idea almost unheard-of at the time of publication, when color television was a novelty."

It's easy enough to see the present-day equivalents, where conversations take place via skype or some form of social media. Is this the direction we're headed? 

I have to say, I hope not. But social distancing is eminently sensible at this time. We don't know who is infected and who is not - and like the Spacers, we have not (as yet) developed any immunity to this disease.

So be like the Spacers and stay safe. 

(By the way, both books are great detective stories as well as great SF. If you haven't read them, give them a try)




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