Sunday, 26 August 2012

Final step for a reluctant American hero

Neil Armstrong has passed away at the age of 82 yesterday. He'll never be forgotten as the first man to step on the moon during the American-Russian space race back in July 20, 1969, nor will his famous words "A small step for (a) man, a giant leap for mankind."

I remember watching this entire Apollo 11 mission whenever I could as a kid, watching the final landing and moonwalk at my friend Timmy's house because his parents had a colour television, me and the other kids completely enthralled - there was no other news, nothing else to talk about. To say it inspired me is an understatement.

To me all three of them are and always will be heroes - Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, and Michael Collins who never made it to the moon, remaining in orbit in the command module awaiting their return.

I can still visualize the lunar module heading down towards the moon's surface, very fast - for us it looked dangerous. Once they had landed, it was a long time before the walk occurred but we all waited patiently. Seeing that step - more of a jump, really, made us all whoop with joy. Difficult probably to explain how this moment captured the world's attention and imagination, raising everyone's spirits.

I wonder if he had thought we would have gone further by now, as I did. It is well over forty years since that mission, and back then I thought by now we'd have stepped on Mars, too. I know we're all mired in an economic mess, and there are many nasty conflicts around the world, but a manned mission to Mars, especially an international one, would lift our collective spirits. I hope to see it in my day.

In the meantime, whenever I get stuck with my science fiction writing, I have only to stare at the moon, as I did back in 1969, in pure wonder that we have been there. Makes me proud of humanity.

The last words in this blog go to his family, who issued the following statement:

"For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink."

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Grid News #1

Once a week I read The Economist, which keeps me up to date on world affairs and politics. I wondered what The Economist might look like in the future... So, for a while now I have been playing with  the idea of writing a newsletter of my own, but not a normal one... The Grid News below is from the future, and is set in the galactic society that is the background to my Eden Paradox series. So, if you've read The Eden Paradox and Eden's Trial, you might find it interesting, as it hints at things going on in Book 3 (due Xmas 2012), and gives more background to the different alien species and their politics. Anyway, the plan is to do a newsletter once per month... Feedback welcome, I'm happy to add a 'letters to the editor' column!

Spindate 1056709.3

Gridbuzz on Kalaheii Return…
Every few decades it seems collective paranoia kicks in around the Grid, about the potential return of the mythically destructive Kalaheii race who purged their own Jannahi galaxy two billion angts ago. This time the gossip trigger is a massive military exercise in the Syntaran sector just inside the Galactic barrier. A Tla Beth spokesbeing confirmed this is purely an exercise, albeit with full weaponry and MedEvac support. “Nothing to be alarmed about.” As we at Grid News often  say, ‘watch this space…’

Hohash Sighting? Are they back?
Almost equally legendary, the omnipathic artefacts known collectively as Hohash have been missing for half an aeon. A standard recon mission to a terraformed planet known as Eden (GalRef 52341ax6732) found fragments of Octinium, the incredibly expensive-to-manufacture glass used to construct a Hohash mirror device. To be expected, the material was quickly seized by the Rangers for further study. A Finchikta spokesfem, in a rare expression of outrage, demanded that the fragments be made available for study (aka worship) by the Finchikta, who revere these artefacts, believed to be the tools of the Kalarash.

Q’Roth Soldiers Crush Mannekhi Uprising
Three entire sectors of Mannekhi space remain off limits following an uprising in the so-called ‘Jewel Space’ area. This is the fourth insurgency in the past two decades, and follows failure of their petition to ascend to Level Six status under the patronage of the Scintarelli, famed starship makers. The Q’Roth, as usual, were accused of being heavy-handed, with the final death toll unknown but likely to be in five digits. A Mannekhi transit mine destroyed a Q’Roth Hunter Class vessel and sixteen of their warrior caste. The ruling Tla Beth Regional Commissioner warned the Mannekhi leaders that if this is repeated, Shrell will be called in to poison space around those planets found responsible, which will be disastrous for their trade.

Mannekhi Surprise Lead in Games
Still on the subject of Mannekhi and Q’Roth, the six thousandth Games, still in progress, now has only five contestant teams remaining of the original one hundred and forty, one of whom is Mannekhi. The Q’Roth team is also still in the running. If it comes down to these two gene-enemy teams for the final to-the-death match, Games sponsors will be happy indeed, as advertising revenues are likely to soar.

Incursion of ‘Earth’ Successful
The Q’Roth incursion of a remote Level Three planet on exa-spiral 4A proceeded as planned, a Q’Roth source said. Some Level Four life was found, and the Q’Roth agreed to be their patron as per Gridlore.
Shrell Bid to Limit Transits Fails
The Shrell Ambassador left the Tla Beth hearing without comment after the Shrell bill to slow down traffic in certain ‘space-worn’ sectors was dismissed by the Tla Beth Council on the grounds of insufficient evidence. The Shrell are concerned that subspace rifts may form, as happened in the Tarxalon region seven hundred angts ago, creating local pockets of ‘quickspace’, lethal to any transiting traffic. An unofficial Shrell source said that the evidence was plain to see by “anyone willing to open their gills.”  

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Why Batman (the Dark Knight Rises) works...

I recently saw the latest Batman offering and it was the first time I clapped at the end of a film since I saw Inception. That got me wondering why, since I watch pretty much every SF or Fantasy film going on the big screen, and while they often amuse me (e.g. the Avengers) or end up half-exciting me with special effects and half-disappointing me by being too predictable (Prometheus), it is rare to find a film of this genre that seems to hit the right note. I came up with seven reasons.

1. It is dark...
This is not a comedy: people are killed, there is a lot of pain, and there is no naivety. For me it suits our world today, a modern 'film noir', where the goodies (particularly Batman) are almost as twisted as the baddies. Moreover there are echoes of 'Sodom and Gomorrah' in that Gotham City is a pretty corrupt and 'lost' city, and the baddies are in a perverse way trying to sanitize it, rather than being hell-bent on vague world domination or some such ambition. This makes it more credible to me. This was one aspect of Prometheus I did like, in that the aliens have their own agenda, never fully explained, but very dark and unsympathetic to ours (they are aliens, so why on Earth [LOL] should they care).

2. Emotions are reined in
Bruce Wayne is clearly broken on the inside by the loss of his lover n the previous 'episode', but he hardly ever voices it. His grief simmers, so much a part of him that he doesn't even realize how much it has affected him - the bad guys are the ones he finally listens to on this subject. The net effect of this inner emotional tension gives the viewer the real impression that Batman could actually fail this time (of course we know he won't, but this is as close as it gets), so the redemption at the end is more palpable. As with books, the same with films (and unlike Scifi TV series like Stargate Universe and Caprica where there was too much on-screen crying) - the less outward emotion on the screen, the more the viewer experiences it. This was something I also liked about the film Inception.

3. One seriously 'bloody good' class actor
While I like watching Christian Bale in Batman, or for example Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man, it was terrific to see Michael Caine get a chance to show how well he can act. In his case the emotions are definitely not reined in, but few actors could have carried it off the way he did, and his performance perfectly counterpoints Bale's locked down emotional catatonia.

4. Resisting the urge to explain, minimizing flashbacks...
I'm sure some other directors and/or screenwriters would have put in more flashbacks to explain what happened before. But they would have detracted from the action, taken the viewer out of the moment, and been seen as a cheap way to pad out the movie (though it was long enough already). And if you'd not seen the previous films, you'd still get it anyway (because viewers are more intelligent that often given credit for). It did make me wonder whether it was planned that way, or else the flashbacks ended up on the cutting room floor as the film was already 2hrs20 long, but whatever the reason, it worked.

5. A smart, bad kick-ass female
The character played by Anne Hathaway is also a good example of resisting the urge to explain, since what she did to get where she is, is never explained. She also tends to get the better of Batman throughout the film which is good for her and also made Bruce Wayne more sympathetic as a character.

6. This isn't Scifi, it isn't Fantasy ... it's Technothriller...
Hang on, I hear you say, surely Batman is fantasy? And what about all those futuristic gadgets? Doesn't that make it Scifi? Well, I put it to you that there's not much in the film that won't be within our grasp in the next decade or sooner (consider for example the Skycrane that just deposited the Rover on the surface of Mars). There are no magical powers or mystical aspects, and people bleed and get prolapsed discs and have to heal for a long time (this latter affliction incidentally is unfortunately close to my heart, or rather my spine, right now). This means that unlike watching the Avengers or Green Lantern or Captain America (all good fun in their own way), you can still be thinking about the film ten minutes after you've left the cinema. The 'suspension of disbelief' doesn't evaporate as soon as the closing credits appear.

7. It has a satisfying ending, and a hook to the next film...
I did see the final two end scenes coming - but it didn't matter, because they were right for the story. No spoilers here, but it was at that point that I wanted to clap and check to see that the next film was in progress. Bravo!

So, let's have a few more films like this one please, or else at least take Prometheus to the aliens' home planet and have less rampant killing and more inner conflict.

In the meantime, if you want a bit of tech/fantasy film noir (lots of killing in this one though) with Christian Bale and you've never seen Equilibrium, which got unjustifiably over-shadowed by Matrix, check it out.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Today Mars, tomorrow...

As I'm sure you've all heard and seen, a new Mars Rover landed the other day. It's not the first, but this one is special, and not just because we are exploring another planet. A few years ago I had the privelige of visiting NASA's Future Flight Central, a 360 degree flight simulator, and the guys there said, "Wanna see Mars?" So the rest of the group and I said "Sure," and they projected the Martian landscape all around us. It was vast, an endless plain, but also bland. This time will be different though, having landed inside a more interesting crater, with the vehicle capable of digging into the soil and doing analyses on the spot.

What makes me interested though is the way we have done it this time. Hitting the atmosphere at 6km per second, deploying parachutes, then the ingenious 'Skycrane' lowers the 900kg rover/mobile lab 'Curiosity' safely to the floor. At one stage 70 thrusters had to fire synchronously to land it safely. I'm impressed. If we can do this (my day job concerns human error in aviation, so I know how often we get things wrong!) then we can do a lot more. Already people start to ask about manned missions to Mars. But then what about a remote mission to one of Jupiter's moons, or to explore the asteroid belt?

It's easy to write about science fiction and gloss over the details thatt make it come true in reality. We still have an awful long way to go, but turning SF into reality will never be simply a matter of technology -- it will always be human inspiration and perspiration mixed in there, too.

To me this is one of the most exciting developments since the Apollo missions, because it shows our capability. We're on our way...

Thursday, 2 August 2012

If we could genetically enhance our children's mental abilities, would we? Should we?

We'd all like to be smarter, right? And we'd like to see our kids excel. And we're getting closer to the day when such scientific manipulation will be possible. So why is it that science fiction always paints such a bleak picture of genetic enhancement? Is it because it makes better fiction, or are the authors right? Does smarter mean happier, both for those who are enhanced, and those who are left behind?

This question has been around for some time in Science Fiction, most easily seen in TV series such as Star Trek which refers habitually to the "Eurgenics Wars" wherein "advanced " humans who were genetically tampered with ended up in a war with their forebears (e.g. the Star Trek film 'The Wrath of Khan' and later episodes in the 'Enterprise' series on human 'augments').

Most Scifi from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World onwards seems to assume that any genetic advances will arrive with a heavy social price tag attached, ending in strife or even wars. But does it always have to end badly? Couldn't we switch off nasty genes? This was dealt with in the film Gattaca, but still there is the assumption that such 'playing with nature' will reap downsides as well as advantages which will create social problems.

As a scientific psychologist by training, this is an area that fascinates me, and a theme running through all four of my Eden Paradox Scifi books. Here's an excerpt from Eden's Trial, where one of the characters  (MIcah Sanderson) is trying to make the case for such genetic advancement of human children, as a way to preserve humanity from culling by other alien species, but he is facing stiff opposition...

The Councilwoman remained calm and collected, adopting a haughty air. “We’re altering humanity. There will be no way back, will there, Mr. Sanderson? May I ask you to remind us of the likely changes that will take place in our offspring?”

He frowned. They’d been over this before. Each time he went through it he felt victory – sustainable survival prospects for humanity – slipping from his grasp. He held up a closed fist, and then peeled open his little finger, beginning his cataloguing of the five main differences predicted.

“One – they will be physically superior – a little taller, a lot stronger, with faster reflexes, better hearing and sharper eyesight.” He noted Kat staring at him intently, Sandy too – Kat’s child and Sandy’s embryo were already undergoing the process, the ‘upgrade’ as someone in the Council had labelled it. “Two – they’ll be more intelligent. They will mature a lot faster, able to speak fluently after a year, and they’ll be able to grasp mathematical concepts by the age of two.”

The woman interrupted. “At what age will they surpass us intellectually?”

Micah restrained a sigh. “Around twelve.” He raised his voice to quell the murmurs simmering around the Council. “Three – they’ll be able to parallel process, meaning they can do two things at once, for example, having a conversation and working on a computer at the same time, without making any mistakes or missing anything.” He tried to press the advantage. “Don’t you see? That alone is worth its weight in gold. Flying a space-craft is very tricky; we have to rely on advanced computers all the time because they can process information in parallel, whereas we can’t. Most other races can. Without this upgrade, because it is an upgrade, we’d be the dullards of the galaxy! If we’re lucky they might let us farm land and plant crops. That’s all we’ll be good for.” He caught sight of Sandy’s slight shake of her head – of course, what was he thinking, there were farmers here in the Council. Several members folded their arms, their body language as clear as raising a drawbridge. This time he let the sigh come out. “Sorry, that was … that wasn’t meant the way it sounded.” He realised he was screwing this up. He unfurled his index finger. “Four – they’ll be more creative. Music, art, they’ll create wonders we’ve never imagined.”

The woman raised her nose. “Will we lower-grade humans – dullards and farmers that we are apparently – be able to appreciate such art, Mr. Sanderson?”

Sandy tapped her enlarged belly. “I’ll appreciate whatever my son does.”

Micah wanted to get through this part. His thumb joined his fingers, out in the open air. “Five.” He paused. This was the one people feared most. “They will be less emotionally labile.”

The woman snorted. “Cold fish, that’s what you mean, isn’t it, Micah? Cold and uncaring? Like your friend Pierre?”

Kat interjected, urgency in her voice. “Pierre’s already Level Ten. There’s no comparison!”

“As I understand it, my dear, he is prepared to leave you and your child – his child – behind him, in the pursuit of greater things.”

Micah cut in – he had to get off this track somehow. “That’s not how it’s going to be. Less labile means less erratic: people will be able to control their emotions, they won’t fly off the handle so readily. There’ll also be much less mental illness, if any at all. Isn’t that worth something?” He stared at the faces around the room.

Blake joined in. “People will be more dispassionate, is that what you’re saying, Micah?”

Micah wasn’t sure if Blake was supporting or preparing for an attack. “Yes,” he said cautiously.

Blake rose from his chair. “But it seems to me, that passion is what makes us human. Isn’t that so, Micah?”

It was rhetorical. Micah didn’t get a chance to reply.

In my third book, Eden's Revenge, the results of genetic enhancement are explored at both societal and individual levels. Society on Esperia, a new planet inhabited by humanity, splits between 'Steaders', the parents, and 'Genners', their advanced offspring, and the sharp tensions in-between. Towards the end of the book, thanks to an alien threat, there is some degree of reconciliation between the two groups, and also at the individual level certain characters ((both normal and genned) begin to reflect on the advantages and disadvantages, and the personal cost of what they have done. This argument and 'scifi experiment' will be brought to its conclusion in the final book in the series, Return to Eden.

So, as a psychologist who tries to predict the future via science fiction, I find myself in the camp where genetic advancement will cause problems, but it depends how fast we move, and what exactly will change. The idea of getting rid of disease and mental problems is very enticing, but we have to consider the side-effects for the individual and society as a whole. If we start messing with the blueprint of the human mind, it is far too easy to focus on the logical aspects only (mental capacities), and forget about the emotional side which is an essentiial part of our personality and our collective character as a race. Being clever doesn't mean being happy.

The more germane question in all of this, given the rate of medical progress, is how long have we got before we have to make up our minds on genetic enhancement? Science often moves ahead subtly, and before you know it, a new 'breakthrough' has already crossed a line, and society is left to adapt quickly. Imagine a company suddenly offering memory enhancement gene therapy, or saying that with a small operation your kid could get a degree in advanced mathematics. A lot of people would jump in, and stump up the cash. This could be big business, and as we know, regulation is slow to tackle and moderate such commercial enterprise.

There is also the military angle, with a lot of science fiction focusing on 'super-soldiers' with heightened strength and reflexes. For sure, somewhere research is going on in this area.

In my books all this doesn't happen until 2065, but actually I think it will arise a lot sooner. Will we be ready when it arrives? Probably not. We'll just have to hope that emotional intelligence remains on the scientfic agenda, and that the 'next generation' will still have compassion and empathy.

On a more personal note, while I'd like to see certain medical advancements and eradication of genetic defects that lead to disease, I like my daughter just the way she is.
So, think about it, because for sure, sometime this century, and maybe a lot sooner, this question is going to become a real one, if not for you, then for your kids.
The Eden Paradox series is a set of four science fiction thrillers, charting humanity's encounter with 'superior' alien intelligences, and how we adapt to survive.
The Eden Paradox is available in paperback and ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Ampichelis and Waterstones.
Eden's Trial is available on ebook from Amazon, and in paperback from September 2012.
Eden's Revenge is coming out Xmas 2012.
Return to Eden, the finale of the series, will be available summer 2013.
© Barry Kirwan |
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