Spawn of Mars
Don't worry. If you like your religion, you can keep your religion.
In Which I Criticize the Great Stanislaw Lem
Just to Set the Internet Straight
Thursday, August 8, 2019 11:03 am
At least two people on the internet — let's call them Bob and Ted — have been dissuaded from reading Stanislaw Lem. That is a shame; not least because, as usually happens on the internet, they are reacting to something that isn't true. 

It began with a list of the best literary SF books. Lem's Solaris is on that list, and the listmaker — let's call him Harry — said this:
Lem's humans are some of the best in science fiction as well: they screw up, are late, fail to see the whole picture, act irrationally, and even the brightest of them can be swayed by vanity and pride.
To Bob, this quote is asserting that the best-written character is one who fails — indeed, that humanity itself equals failure; and who wants to read such misanthropy? To Ted, this quote is praising the irrational screw-up rather than the flawed yet ultimately competent character; and who wants to read about incompetent characters?

I'm not about to tell Bob and Ted that Lem is actually imbued with a cheerful vision or that his characters are badass heroes; because he isn't and they aren't. I suspect that Bob and Ted might dislike Lem even if they judged him by actually reading him. But it is unjust that Bob and Ted now have a distaste for Lem because of what Harry said.

You see, Harry is wrong. To say that Lem has the best humans in science fiction is to say that Frosted Flakes have the best jalapeƱos in breakfast cereals. There are no humans in Lem's books. There are barely any characters.

I've been reading Lem for over thirty years. I have read Solaris four or five times. I love Stanislaw Lem. But honestly, there is no denying the lack of characters in his work.

While it is true that one can point to Ijon Tichy, Pirx the Pilot, or the robots Trurl and Klapauscius, and one could say that each is distinctive, ultimately each is just a character type meant to sustain the type of story he appears in: SF comedy, SF adventure, or robot fable. Indeed, when someone like Tichy ends up in a non-comic tale, it becomes even clearer how merely flexible each character is: an appropriate Protagonist with, at most, a pinch of flavor.

This is especially true in Lem's serious novels. Not one of his characters is memorable as a person. I admit this has always disappointed me. Notably I consider Solaris so good because, rarely among his works, it utilizes actual human emotions. Another of his very best stories — The Mask, about a robot assassin who falls in love with her target — is best precisely because it engages one's sympathy (and has one of the best final sentences ever). But most of the time Lem doesn't care about people, nor emotions qua emotions. His concerns are philosophical; cosmic. His interest is in the man as an atom of mankind, not in the man as a fellow soul.

So does that make his work deficient? Dry? Dull? Not often. He writes wonderfully and sets your mind a-thinking. His robot fables are damn delightful. But, contra Harry, you will never find irrational screw-ups nor the proud and the vain in Lem's dramatis personae. Harry's statement implies too much. What you will find in Lem is irrationality, screwing-up, pride, and vanity: that is, human weaknesses all but disembodied. A character in Lem is playing a fairy-tale role, at best demonstrating an aspect of human behavior, contributing to Lem's exposition of the cruel mysteries of the universe. Lem's characters are vessels with nametags.

You will find a Snow White in Lem, but never a Falstaff.

In the end I agree with Bob and Ted that Harry is wrong about the "best" humans. It is a pernicious lie that humans are most human when they fail. That is the self-serving excuse for sin, after all. But as I have tried to point out, Harry is wrong about Lem as well. In no sense does Lem contain the best "humans" in science fiction. So ignore Harry.

But read Lem. Yes, you may have to be selective, since at times he can get so philosophical the fiction disappears. Seek anything with Tichy, Pirx, or robots; read the novels Solaris, Eden, Fiasco, Peace on Earth, and above all His Master's Voice; and just be ready to focus on those nametags, because the characters won't really stand out otherwise.

P.S. Lem also wrote excellent reviews of, and introductions to, non-existent books and treatises; but of course these are even more removed from character-rich fiction.

Self-Publishing Is Euthanasia for Stories
Think Twice Before Consigning Your Art
Wednesday, June 19, 2019 2:59 pm
I am a caveman. I started writing in the typewriter era. Eventually PCs and word processing arose. The gatekeepers remained, however. You were published only if an editor took a fancy to you.

Vanity publishing? That was just tawdry. There was something genuinely vain about it. It was, as well, far too much a capital venture. You were essentially starting your own business. 

Come the internet and self-publishing, though, and all those tales that had been typewritten — and turned back at every gate — could now be easily brought to the masses. Process your words, JPEG some cover, PDF the lot, and upload to some platform like Lulu or Smashwords or Amazon. Easy peasy — and barely a cent invested.

Yes, you still had to market your work. So what? That's fine. The internet lets everyone market himself. It is the era of the self! The lowliest soul can have a global presence.

In other words: You are no longer assaulting a few well-defined gates. You are instead trying to shout the loudest in the loudest cacophony ever.

Boy, you had better be able to sell yourself, and hard. Unfortunately I am a caveman. I really don't like leaving my cave. My self-published works remain unread, stored in some drawer in the cloud.

I'm not complaining about the need to self-market. Self-publishing rather reasonably entails self-marketing. My point is that, having failed to self-market (because frankly I am far too self-conscious to promote myself aggressively), my works have been published in vain — and they can never be published by anyone else.

They are dead. I have euthanized them.

No magazine takes reprints of stories — and self-publishing, it turns out, counts as printing. Hell, I've come across magazines that won't take a story you posted on your blog. Magazines are jealous beasts. The gatekeepers persist.

I naively thought that self-publishing was not final. "Hey, if this doesn't work out, I'll slink back to the slushpiles." Right? Well, maybe I can slink back, but my self-published stories are now mired in Amazon. They're done for.

Take heed, young writer. Until you have demonstrated that you can truly market a work, keep every other story in that desk of yours. Your art must be untainted by publication if you want it taken up by others.

I will never self-publish again.

"Planet" Is What You Say It Is
Simply Use Pluto as a Minimum
Wednesday, June 12, 2019 12:07 pm
Regarding the demotion of Pluto as a planet, an astronomer once tweeted:
So, hey, Pluto is still not a planet. Actually, never was. We just misunderstood it for 50 years. Now, we know better. Nostalgia for Pluto is not a very good planet argument, but that's basically all there is. Now, let's get on with reality.
I'm sure this guy thought he pwned the folks defying Pluto's demotion. There's a nastiness in his tweet, isn't there? Not surprising, considering his handle is @plutokiller.

He's wrong, in any event.

"Planet" is not a designation like "baryon" or "lepton." There is nothing in the design of the universe that relies on some profound distinction between, say, a "planet" and a "dwarf planet." Sorry, but Pluto was a planet for 50 years. We said it was. We did not learn anything new about Pluto that would make it not a planet. 

What we did learn is that there's a lot of Pluto-like things out there, such as Eris and Sedna. So is Eris a planet? Is Sedna? If they are, we might end up with hundreds of "planets." Where would it end? Heck, would Ceres get promoted? How about Vesta?

"Planet" would become a useless designation.

So step back for a moment. What has been the historical definition of a planet? "Planet" initially encompassed the objects known as Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This, then, is our foundation. What is common about these objects? Think a while and the definition arises:

A planet is not the Sun nor a star. That is, it does not engage in the fusion of elements, nor does it constitute the late-stage remnants of a fusing body.

A planet orbits a star. More precisely, its primary orbit has a star as a focus. Even more precisely: Once one has identified a solar system — a collection of objects gravitationally bound, as a unit, to one or more stars — a planet is an object that orbits not a fellow object but one of the stars.

A planet has sufficient gravity to maintain itself as a sphere. Its mass is essentially in a spherical equilibrium, if you will.

And finally, to keep our definition from including every beachball in a system: A planet is no smaller than Pluto.

Ta da.

You don't have to bother with any nonsense about an object clearing debris from its orbit. You don't have to worry about an absurd proliferation of "planets." This definition satisfies that sense we all have of "I know a planet when I see one."

Yes, Pluto is an edge case. Yes, it seems like it's just an upstart Kuiper-Belt object. But come on — Pluto has a substantial moon, its orbit periodically brings it closer to the Sun than Neptune, and it stood out enough among the objects of our system to be noticed without fancy space-borne telescopes.

Besides, there is a lot to be said for nostalgia. Nostalgia is also respect for continuity. Science doesn't have to be constant — and snarky — upheaval.

P.S. "Dwarf planet" is a stupid term. So is it a planet or not? Is a "giant planet" not a planet? For planet-like objects smaller than Pluto, there should be a distinctive noun, akin to "planetoid."

Desperately Seeking E.T.
A Peculiar Sort of Hype
Wednesday, May 29, 2019 11:44 am
In a lecture in October of 2015, Dr. Carolyn Porco, Imaging Team Leader for the Cassini Mission to Saturn, said, regarding the chance of life on Enceladus:
Should we ever make such a discovery, if we ever, anywhere, find that there has been a second, independent genesis in our Solar System, then I think that at that point the spell is broken. The existence theorem has been proven. And we could safely infer from that, that life is commonplace; that it is not a bug but a feature of the universe in which we live and that it has occurred a staggering number of times throughout the 13.7 billion years of the history of the cosmos. And I think that that might be the kind of discovery that could change a great many things.
Maybe I'm just curmudgeonly contrarian, but the discovery of extraterrestrial life would not impress me. 

Keep in mind that I'm talking about bacteria in the seas of Enceladus; or even little fishes. Leave aside, for the moment, those greymen in their saucers.

It is wrong to say that life on Enceladus would necessarily be independent of life on Earth. Despite the self-assurance of our scientists, no one knows how life arose. Clearly this Solar System began with the ingredients for life. Earth and Enceladus, however they formed, formed from the same stuff. Strictly speaking, Enceladus is but a distant continent; and especially if its life uses familiar DNA, Occam's razor — that fave principle! — would suggest that life on both worlds had a single genesis.

If, on the other hand, Enceladan life uses an unfamiliar DNA, with unprecedented nucleobases or a triple helix or the like, then one could speak more soundly of an independent genesis. Still, it is a leap to say that one System disposed to life — even multiple threads of life — implies life has occurred a "staggering" number of times elsewhere.

To be sure, on what grounds do I set a special boundary on our System? If I am unwilling to grant a fundamental separation of Earth and Enceladus, what right have I to separate this System from the Milky Way? Clearly, by my standards, this Galaxy began with the ingredients for life. Yes? Indeed this Universe began with the ingredients for life!

Life here implies life everywhere.

But that conclusion doesn't sit right with anyone. Why do you suppose we keep looking for proof of life far from Earth?

Just as we know that the abundance of life on Earth does not imply an abundance in the Universe, another instance of life in our System would not imply another instance anywhere else in the Universe.

Life on Enceladus would, at most, make life not unique to Earth. But why does that matter? Why does that prospect excite Dr. Porco?

It excites her because she thinks we — not she; but you and I — are under a spell.

We think Earth is special. That we are special.

To Porco, this is a delusion. A spell that must be broken. To her, there is — or rather, must be — nothing special about our world. More to the point, nothing special about us. Thinking ourselves special smacks of... ugh... religion... and other icky, unscientific things. Porco is literally a disciple of none other than Carl Sagan; and if anything thrilled Carl Sagan, it was smothering the significance of mankind under billions and billions of stars.

Sagan's deepest hope was that the greymen are indeed out there. I suspect Porco's deepest hope is the same. I'm not saying she's a UFO enthusiast. I'm saying she's a Darwinian. To a Darwinian a man is just an especially complicated bacterium. If we find extraterrestrial bacteria, we will surely find extraterrestrial men; for between the two is a Darwinian straight line.

And that is the true goal. When E.T. is found, religion will be humiliated. Science will win, once and for all.

You may think I am (unfairly) imputing a lot to Dr. Porco. But she is a type. When I hear about spells being broken, I know the type is present. She has also said:
All the atoms of our bodies will be blown into space in the disintegration of the solar system, to live on forever as mass or energy. That's what we should be teaching our children, not fairy tales about angels and seeing Grandma in Heaven.
That's Dr. Porco for you: a conventional secular nihilist; and a woman you should never employ as a babysitter.

But I didn't come here to bury Dr. Porco. My point is only that the discovery of extraterrestrial life will break no spell. Life, in some ways, is trivial. Whether it exists under the ice of Enceladus or in the fumes of the Marianas Trench, it's just life. You can certainly marvel at its variety and dispersion. I'd never deny the wonder of it all. Indeed, be excited by the vitality of Creation! But whenever was it dogma that only Earth possessed any life? It has in fact been a naive presumption, among God-fearing and godless alike, that where there is ground to walk on, there will be creatures. And even if turns out that terrestrial life does not encompass all life, that would not mean mankind is not a special case. God would still favor us.

I am not under a spell. I am not misled. There is nothing in the Creed or the Magisterium that says, "There can be no life on Enceladus." Should fishes be revealed in the environs of Saturn, my worldview will not shift.

Ah. But what if the greymen were revealed? Well, that is a category difference. The discovery of greymen would impress me. The hype would be justified.

You see, I am not a Darwinian. I know it is not possible for rational minds to arise from material processes. I would surely be jarred by the existence of fully rational aliens.

Would Sagan and Porco therefore have their victory? Would my spell be broken? Hardly. The Faith does not preclude non-human rational beings — think of angels, after all. What would jar me, what would give me pause, would be the novel mystery:

Where do aliens fit in the economy of salvation?

Aliens, being rational, would by definition be made in the image of God. They would presumably be free-willed. They would likely be sinners. So did our Christ die for them, too? Or are there two Christs in Heaven? The human Christ — fully divine; fully human — and the alien Christ — fully divine; fully alien?

Well, mysterious as that situation might be, it is perhaps no more mysterious than the Trinity or the one Incarnation we know about. And in any event, pace Dr. Porco, I would remain just as stupidly deluded about the existence of God and the significance of mankind.

We religious folk are obstinate, sometimes. Metaphysical truths can steel a person, that way.

P.S. At the risk of being one of those authors who tactlessly plugs his books at the end of every article, blog post, and tweet, I will mention that my excellent novel The Giant's Walk wonders about the salvation of rational non-humans...

Well-Ordered Star Trek
Revisiting an Old Friend
Wednesday, May 22, 2019 3:45 pm
Of course I like Star Trek. I was only three when it first aired, so I didn't see it until it was in syndication and I was nearly ten; but from early on I was a genuine fan. I knew all the episodes. I built models of the ships. I read (and still possess) the paperback adaptations by James Blish. I even bought fold-out technical plans of the Enterprise.

I was never a Trekkie, however; never deep in the lore. 

My first and truest passion was for Space: 1999. But even when I was twelve I recognized how dumb that show could be. Then I loved Star Wars. What nerd could do otherwise! But I was never drawn into its universe — and by the time of Empire I really didn't care.

Space: 1999 is that first crush you never disavow, much as it embarrasses you; Star Wars is that heady fling that quickly leaves you cold.

And Star Trek is that steady friend you eventually disregard. Back in the day I even looked forward to watching Voyager; only with Enterprise did my interest fade.

In recent years I have tried to re-watch the various Star Trek series. I am surprised by how much I don't care for TNG and DS9, even if I target the "best" episodes. I tried to finally finish that Xindi arc in Enterprise — and sputtered out again. I'm not even inclined to bother with Voyager.

The Original Series, on the other hand...

During an evisceration of the latest atrocity from Star Trek: Discovery, the eviscerating YouTuber made a passionate contrast to the TOS episode Journey to Babel. I hadn't seen that episode in eons, so I went to Netflix and watched it.

I enjoyed it.

And it's not one I've seen very often. I was reminded of my sporadic desire to binge TOS, to just start at the start and watch them all. Since TOS became streamable I've watched some of my favorites — like Errand of Mercy; Mirror, Mirror; and A Taste of Armageddon — but I guess I was put off by slogging through the likes of The Way to Eden. But seeing Journey to Babel suggested I might find more good than bad among the less-remembered episodes; and rather than bias my choices I might just go for the binge.

Immediately, however, on surveying the first episodes of season one, I was not enticed. The Cage, maybe, although I prefer that embedded in The Menagerie; and sure, Where No Man Has Gone Before; but The Man Trap, Charlie X, The Naked Time... I dunno. It already felt like a slog.

Then something occurred to me: Is this the proper order of the episodes? Something felt imbalanced, like the dregs were above the froth. I might not be a Trekkie but my gut was saying: This isn't right. So I went to the handy-dandy internet to investigate the proper ordering of TOS episodes.

I soon found a list that went not by original airdate but by stardate. And dang if that order isn't better. I suppose some deep part of me recognizes the correctness of this order; a sounder narrative flow, such as there was. Stardate, it seems, is a better indication of an episode's time of production. Or maybe this order just seems balanced better between the surely good and the surely bad. Anyhow, I like it.

I'll let you know how the bingeing goes.


STAR TREK TOS SEASON 1
× AIRDATE STARDATE
1the cage1the cage
2the man trap4where no man has gone before
3charlie x7mudd's women
4where no man has gone before11the corbomite maneuver
5the naked time2the man trap
6the enemy within3charlie x
7mudd's women6the enemy within
8what are little girls made of?5the naked time
9miri14balance of terror
10dagger of the mind17the squire of gothos
11the corbomite maneuver8what are little girls made of?
12the menagerie 1 & 29miri
13the conscience of the king10dagger of the mind
14balance of terror13the conscience of the king
15shore leave16the galileo seven
16the galileo seven20court martial
17the squire of gothos12the menagerie 1 & 2
18arena15shore leave
19tomorrow is yesterday18arena
20court martial27the alternative factor
21the return of the archons19tomorrow is yesterday
22space seed22space seed
23a taste of armageddon21the return of the archons
24this side of paradise23a taste of armageddon
25the devil in the dark25the devil in the dark
26errand of mercy26errand of mercy
27the alternative factor28the city on the edge of forever
28the city on the edge of forever29operation: annihilate!
29operation: annihilate!24this side of paradise

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