Category Archives: science fiction

Spinneret, by Timothy Zahn

A while back I mentioned I was reading some vintage science fiction published in 1985, and that book was SPINNERET, by Timothy Zahn.

In SPINNERET, some Canadian scientists invented hyperdrive around 2012, and so humanity has sent its first hyperspace-capable ships to explore the nearby star systems in hopes of finding planets to colonize. However, the explorers quickly discover that all the nearby habitable planets are already colonized by space-faring races. After some negotiation, the United Nations is offered the lease to a habitable planet called Astra, a planet all the other space-faring races rejected because of the utter lack of metals in the planet’s crust – even crops will not grow there without massive piles of fertilizer. But with no other choice, an American military colony under the command of one Colonel Meredith is established on Astra.

However, the colonists soon accidentally discover why there is no metal on Astra – there’s an alien machine buried beneath one of the mountains, a machine that absorbs any available metal on the planet’s surface and converts it to a strange metal that is superconducting, incredibly strong, very flexible, and practically impervious to all forms of physical and radiation damage. The colonists nickname the device the Spinneret, and quickly realize that a lot of people, both back on Earth and among alien races, want to get their hands on the machine.

Mayhem ensues.

It was a fascinating book for two reasons. First, I enjoyed the exploration of human colonization on another planet – complete with labor unrest, since it turns out many of the Hispanic agricultural workers brought to Astra were deceived into coming to the planet. (History, repeat, again.) Additionally, the tension of finding a powerful alien device energized the novel. It was like throwing a pizza into a room full of hungry college students, and watching them eye each other and wonder who was going to take a grab at the pizza first.

Second, this book is what I call “vintage” SF, by which I mean SF written long enough ago that we are now living in the time period the book portrayed. So it’s interesting to see what a writer in 1985 thought the future around 2013 would look like. In SPINNERET, the Soviet Union is still around and kicking, which makes since, since no one thought the Soviet Union was going to collapse right up until Boris Yeltsin got up on that tank. There are a large number of illegal Hispanic immigrants in the US, not because of decades of steady migration, but because in 2011 the Mexican government collapsed in civil war and created a refugee crisis in the US. In 2013, humanity has figured out interstellar flight…but not, apparently, the Internet or email, and a major subplot involves someone smuggling paper letters (actual, physical letters, written on paper) back to Earth. People have cell phones, but they’re strapped to the wrists like watches. (Maybe this anticipated the smartwatch.) No one has tablet computers or laptop computers, and the only computers are apparently big mainframes.

I like vintage SF, since it’s a bit like reading a parallel universe. But it’s more authentic than reading a book where someone explicitly tried to create an alternate history to our own, since this is what a writer suspected the future would actually be like.

Anyway, SPINNERET was an enjoyable book, both in its own right and as a parallel-universe look at what 2013 might have been like.

-JM

vintage science fiction

It’s fun to read older science fiction and see its take on what the future would be like.

The novel I’m reading now, for instance, was published in 1985. In the book, humanity developed faster-than-light travel in 2013, and the characters are wondering what impact this will have on the 2016 presidential elections and are concerned about the reaction from the Soviet Union.

Heh. 2013 turned out a bit different than that.

Older science fiction seems to think the 21st century would be essentially the United Nations in space. In practice, the future is actually the Internet, really cool cell phones, and governmental dysfunction. No shiny space colonies for us, alas. Humanity is the same as it always has been, though now we have web pages.

On the plus side, my cell phone really is seriously cool.

-JM

further proof that “Star Trek” is actually a Communist Space Tyranny – the dictatorship of Kathryn Janeway

A while back, I wrote a post that postulated that the Federation in “Star Trek” is actually a brutal interstellar Communist dictatorship, and that the “Star Trek” show is in fact a propaganda broadcast put out by the Federation to glorify itself. Like, you know how the old Soviet Union used to crank out terrible movies and novels where the clean-cut Communist hero would outwit and defeat the terrible capitalists and reactionaries, and everyone would live happily ever after? Those films and novels in no way, shape, or form reflected life in the real Soviet Union – the brutal secret police, the constant material shortages, the pervasive censorship, the economic stagnation, and the constant repetition of lies that buttressed the entire structure. I wonder if, on a meta level, that’s what STAR TREK really is – propaganda films put out by a tyrannical Federation and a brutal Starfleet to promote themselves.

Lately, I’ve been watching episodes of STAR TREK VOYAGER, and it occurs to me that certain internal inconsistencies of the show further support my theory that the Federation is actually a brutal Communist dictatorship. Additionally, I strongly suspect that by the end of VOYAGER, Captain Kathryn Janeway actually returned in wrath and took over the Federation and installed herself as dictator. VOYAGER, therefore, is a propaganda effort by the Federation to disguise what really happened.

I offer four points in support of this hypothesis.

First, there is the fact that slavish devotion to Federation principles stranded Voyager in the Delta Quadrant. In the first episode, Voyager has a clear way back home to the Alpha Quadrant, but Janeway orders it destroyed, rather than risking it falling into the hands of the Kazon. At this point, it appears Janeway was a true believer in the Federation government, to the point where she was willing to strand herself and her crew 70,000 light years from home.

Subsequent events, I suspect, would change her mind. More on that below.

Second, Voyager was curiously resilient. Fans nicknamed the ship “the HMS Reset Button”, due to the show’s knack of returning to the status quo at the end of every episode.  And Voyager did not have an easy trip. The ship was almost under constant attack, got shot up on numerous occasions, was stolen and boarded on multiple occasions, and underwent years of constant stress and damage without proper maintenance. And yet, at the start of every episode, Voyager was new and pristine once more. Where did the new parts come from? They were 70,000 light years from the nearest point of resupply, after all. Shouldn’t the ship start to look a bit…well, dilapidated  rather than a clean, shiny Starfleet vessel? Yet at the beginning of every episode, Voyager looked as new and as fresh as the day it left the Starfleet shipyards.

Third, at the end of season three, Janeway went nuts.

You can see the exact moment it happens, too. In the finale of Season 3, Janeway contemplates the fact that her ship will have to cross Borg space to get back home. As she sits in the holodeck, contemplating what to do, she gazes at the shadows upon the wall…and a strange expression comes over her face. In that moment, she decides to try and make a deal with the Borg. Which is remarkable, because a.) the Borg are the most powerful enemies of the Federation, and b.) in the previous two seasons, Janeway remained devoted to the Prime Directive, often at great inconvenience and cost. I suspect that Janeway finally realized that her devotion to the Prime Directive would sooner or later lead to the destruction of the ship and the crew. After the encounter with the Borg, Janeway became much more willing to engage with alien species and use alien technology – and she also became substantially more reckless and ruthless. This explains why Voyager was able to repair and sustain itself. In violation of the Federation’s communistic ethos, Janeway had become willing to bargain, barter, and trade to keep her ship running and her crew alive.

It’s not hard to see why she became a harder captain – her crew and ship were under constant attack, and the nearest help was 70,000 light years away. And Janeway died a lot. Between parallel universes, time travel, clones, and other negative space wedgies, Janeway dies something like 17 times over the course of the series. That much broken temporal causality cannot be good for one’s mental health or overall risk-aversion.

Because of Janeway’s changes in attitude, Voyager acquired a lot of new technology during its adventures. The slipstream drive, the transwarp drive, the transphasic torpedoes, ablative armor, the gravitic catapult, enhanced communications technology, a whole bunch of Borg toys, and a bunch of other stuff. And this is only the stuff that made it into the official show – one can imagine what other technologies and weapons Voyager found that the Federation’s Ministry of Information edited out of the propaganda broadcasts. By the end of the show, Voyager had the sort of weaponry that let the ship fight its way through a Borg fleet and blow up a Borg transwarp hub.

Fourth, when Voyager returns to Earth at the end of the series, it has weapons and technology unlike anything in the Federation. It’s also commanded by a woman who has become much harder and ruthless, and manned by a crew that has literally been to hell and back. Additionally, the Federation is something of a wreck at the time – the Dominion War had just finished, much of Starfleet has been destroyed, and a lot of the Federation’s core worlds had been devastated in the fighting. And Janeway had her own grudges to settle, as her orders had put her and her crew through seven years of hell (in once case, a literal Year of Hell).*

Which means when Voyager rode the collapsing Borg transwarp conduit back to Earth, the Federation fleet at earth wasn’t there to stop the Borg – it was there to stop Janeway from taking over the tottering Federation.

But I suspect the fleet, rather than stopping Voyager, took stock of the situation and decided to throw their lot in with Janeway. The Jem’Hadar had almost destroyed the Federation during the Dominion War, and Starfleet had been contemptuous of the civilian government for some time, given how an admiral almost overthrew the government and installed a military dictatorship during DEEP SPACE NINE. So when Voyager arrived back in the Alpha Quadrant, the commanders of the fleet took stock of the situation – and decided to throw their lot in with Janeway and her new weapons.

The final shot of the series, Starfleet escorting Voyager back to Earth, is in fact the beginning of Janeway’s coup.

The success of Janeway’s coup is seen in STAR TREK: NEMESIS, when Captain Picard receives orders from “Vice Admiral” Janeway. Of course, if Janeway was the dictator of the Federation, she could have taken any title she wanted, but its common for dictators to assume less grandiose titles than their actual power. Many Communist dictators have only been the “Secretary” or whatever.

All this is supposition, of course. I don’t think STAR TREK is actually a secret Communist plot, and I doubt it adheres to any ideological viewpoint other than generic mid-20th century American liberalism. That said, if the Federation really is a Communist space tyranny, it is interesting to speculate what Janeway’s dictatorship might do to it. I suspect she would transition the Federation from a Communist state to something like 21st century China – a country that says it is Communist, but in reality has become this weird fusion of a free market and a heavy-handed authoritarian state.

-JM

*In my opinion, one of the best episodes of VOYAGER.

James Bond is actually a Time Lord of Gallifrey

I saw SKYFALL recently, and it was excellent.

However, it occurred to me that James Bond has been on the air for fifty years (much like DOCTOR WHO) and he has taken an incredible amount of physical abuse in that time. I began to suspect that he was in fact a Time Lord who regenerates between movies, which, of course, is the only logical explanation.

And then I found this article that proves it.

It’s nice to be right.

-JM

I hate printers, but…

…you know, come to think of it, there is no caveat here. I simply do not like printers.

The reason for this is that I have spent twelve years working in various forms of IT, and therefore have seen every sort of printer malfunction the human mind can conceive. The rollers wear out. The firmware melts down. The Ethernet connection burns out. Sometimes a little bit of the fuser roller melts, so every page comes out with a black stripe. Paper jams beyond numbering. Or someone prints out a website and it comes out as 600 pages of gibberish. The vast, bloated software packages HP installs just so you can print. Related to that, an endless, endless vista of driver problems and incompatibilities. Someone prints a malformed print job, and so kills the spooler on the print server and nobody can print (admittedly, this does save on toner costs). The motor dies in an inkjet printer, so the print head can’t move. Or someone neglects to use their inkjet printer for a few months and the ink congeals into a substance harder than diamond.

Color printers. Oh, I hate color printers. Listen to me, people: you don’t need to print in color. No one is going to read your handout, brochure, slide notes, thesis, or political manifesto. Don’t bother with color. And when color printers break, they break hard.

Multi-function printers (MFPs) are really bad. These are the units that combine a printer, a scanner, and a copier all in one. Invariably they come with enormous bloated software packages that inevitably configure themselves to start automatically, so you can had 45 seconds to your computer’s boot time as ScanThingy or InkThingamabob or whatever starts up.

And PowerPoint! Invariably someone will print a 200 slide PowerPoint presentation, and they’ll do it in Slides mode, which prints one slide per page. Why!? The Handout mode, which prints 6 slides per page, is right there in the Print dialog box! Right there! And then, because it takes the printer a bit to render a 200 slide PowerPoint filled with graphics, they’ll wonder why it isn’t printing and then hit print five or six more times.

Sometimes you open up the printer and the toner gets everywhere (the Brother 350n series was really bad at this).

And sometimes the print driver is buggy, and random documents come out formatted correctly, but look as if they were typed in a random combination of Spanglish and Engrish (the HP 2015/2035 series was really bad at this).

So because printers are the devil and I hate them, I haven’t personally owned a printer since 2002. It is amusing that as a writer, 2011 and 2012 have been my most successful years, and I’ve only needed to print out two – exactly two – sheets of paper. (The contracts for SWORD & SORCERESS XXVI and SWORD & SORCERESS XXVII.)

But circumstances, at last, have forced me to get a printer. Some kindly and well-intentioned people, meaning nothing but the best, were planning on buying a new printer, and wanted to give me their old printer, since I was a poor benighted soul without a printer. It was an inkjet printer, which are even more evil than laser printers, because inkjet printers work on the same business model as crack dealers – the first hit’s free, but you gotta pay for the rest. Similarly, inkjet printers are cheap – but the cartridges are expensive and quickly emptied.

And if these kindly people gave me their old inkjet printer, I would be stuck with it forever.

I had no choice but to take action.

So I bought a laser printer, specifically an HP LaserJet P1102w printer (HP LaserJet Pro P1102w Printer (CE657A#BGJ)). It is a bare-bones printer that prints black and white, and does nothing else. Additionally, it also comes with built-in wireless networking, so there’s no need to have it connected permanently to a computer.

Actually, it’s rather clever – the printer has some built-in flash storage, so when you plug it in via USB, the flash storage mounts as a CD drive, and all the drivers are there. By HP standards, the driver isn’t too terribly bloated. It installs the driver, a monitoring utility, and nothing else. The installation utility also allows you to set up the printer as a network printer right away.

For an entry-level networked laser printer, the web interface is actually pretty good. (A web interface lets you control the printer via a web browser, which for the P1102W is a necessity, since the printer doesn’t have an LED display.) The web interface also lets you download the driver and install it from the web browser, which is really quite handy and a nice touch. Additionally, the install automatically sets up the printer as a network printer on your PC, which is a bit easier than manually adding the TCP/IP port.

Further, the imaging drum is built into the toner cartridges, so every time you change the cartridge, you get a new imaging drum. This adds to the expense of the cartridges, but since imaging drums commonly break down in laser printers, it’s a nice bit of preventative maintenance.

So, I do not like printers, and it is best to have no printer at all. But if you are absolutely forced to get a printer, you could do worse than the HP P1102W.

-JM

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four vs. DOCTOR WHO

Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of DOCTOR WHO via Netflix streaming. DOCTOR WHO, if you’re unfamiliar with the concept, is about the “Doctor”, a 900 year-old-alien who wanders all of space and time using his TARDIS, a combined time travel/spacecraft. Naturally, the Doctor gets into all kinds of adventures, and if there’s one thing he’s really good at, it’s blowing up dystopias. Like, the TARDIS lands in an alien dystopia or a parallel Earth ruled by the Daleks or something, and 60 to 120 minutes later, the Doctor has overthrown the dystopia.

So what would happen if the Doctor landed in the ultimate dystopia, the Oceania of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four?

Obviously, Oceania is in a parallel universe from our own, so the Doctor’s TARDIS would malfunction, and deposit him in London, in Airstrip One, in what used to be called the United Kingdom. Upon emerging from the TARDIS, the Doctor would quickly realize he is in a parallel universe, and that something is terribly wrong in this world – the telescreens, the drab clothes, the ruinous neglect of the city, and the posters of Big Brother everywhere.

Then the Doctor would see the parallel version of one of his companions – Rose Tyler, most likely. The Doctor, curious about his world (and missing his long-lost companion) would strike up a conversation with Rose, only to have her react in alarm, wonder if he is a thoughtcriminal, and quickly escape. Rose would retreat to her flat and try to purge her mind of thoughtcrime, but would find her thoughts moving more and more to the Doctor’s strange charisma.

Meanwhile, in the secret headquarters of the Inner Party, O’Brien (now the head of the Inner Party) receives a report of an anomaly – a strange blue box that appeared in downtown London. O’Brien quickly realizes that the box is of alien origin, and represents the Party’s potential destruction – or the key to its eternal triumph. He gives the order for the Thought Police to find the Doctor and bring him (and his box) to the Ministry of Love.

Meanwhile, the Doctor meets up with parallel-Rose again. She tells him about the omnipresent telescreens, and he realizes that the Party uses them to edit history. He tells her of some of his adventures, and Rose is intrigued, though she thinks he is a mad liar. Finally, the Doctor shows her the inside of the TARDIS, and Rose realizes he is telling the truth. Rose, now that she trusts him, shares a satirical cartoon making fun of Big Brother’s mustache. Rose offers to go with him, but after she makes sure her mom is okay.

But they emerge from the TARDIS to find the Thought Police surrounding them. The Doctor and Rose are taken into custody, and the TARDIS is taken to the Ministry of Love.

O’Brien himself meets with the Doctor. He explains that he knows perfectly well who the Doctor is, and what the TARDIS can do. Previously, the Party has relied on the telescreens and its control of the media to alter the past, to edit history to their liking. But now with the TARDIS, the Party can actually go back and erase people from history, perfecting the Party’s control over all of human history.

The Doctor responds that it’s a stupid plan, because he’s not going to tell them how to fly the TARDIS.

O’Brien, with a chilling smile, says that the Doctor will tell him everything, or else he’ll put Rose in Room 101 – where she will see her worst fears and go mad.

The Doctor, now growing angry, says that it’s still a stupid plan – even if the Party gets control of the TARDIS, they’ll use it to rip apart all of space and time, and they’ll wind up erasing themselves from existence all for the sake of their political program. O’Brien laughs, and says that the Party isn’t about a political program, it is about holding and maintaining perfect power, forever – and with the TARDIS, the Party can do that forever. And even if they cause paradoxes, the Inner Party’s skill with doublethink will allow them to thrive.

Rose, meanwhile, is led to Room 101, while O’Brien invites the Doctor to watch via telescreen.

The Doctor, now enraged, escapes from O’Brien and the Thought Police via cleverness. He races to Room 101, only to realize that he can’t get in once the program has started. But a burst of inspiration comes to him, and he instead makes for the nearest telescreen.

Rose, in Room 101, sees the day when he father dies (executed by the Thought Police, after being conditioned to love Big Brother) over and over again, and just as she is about to lose it, the image dissolves into static – and is replaced with the satirical cartoon mocking Big Brother’s mustache.

The same image appears on every single telescreen in Oceania. The Doctor, having realized that the Party in its arrogance never bothered to secure the telescreens with firewalls, uploaded the cartoon to the telescreens with his sonic screwdriver, and then encrypted the image so it can’t be taken off the telescreens.

Mass chaos erupts across Oceania as the population sees the cartoon and realizes that the telescreens and security cameras no longer function. O’Brien and the Inner Party watch with horror, and O’Brien announces that the solution is obvious – they take the TARDIS and use it to kill Rose Tyler as a child.

The Doctor busts Rose out of Room 101, and he races for the TARDIS with Rose in tow, fearful that if the Inner Party gets their hands on the TARDIS controls, they’ll do irreparable damage to space and time.

They arrive in the TARDIS control room to find the Thought Police and the Inner Party preparing to pry open the control panel and claim the TARDIS’s power source for their own. The Thought Police take the Doctor and Rose captive (again), and O’Brien demands the secret to operating the TARDIS.

The Doctor gives O’Brien one warning. O’Brien disregards it, and the Thought Police pry open the TARDIS’s control panel, and O’Brien and the Inner Party gaze into the Heart of the TARDIS – the power source that allows it to travel through space and time. As they look into the Heart of the TARDIS, O’Brien, the Inner Party, and the Thought Police see the totality of space and time and all its splendor and terror – a sight no human being was ever meant to see. Their doublethink-weakened minds utterly melt down beneath the strain, leaving them comatose vegetables.

With the telescreens defunct and the Inner Party brain dead, the government of Oceania collapses, and the resistance (led by the parallel-world versions of Mickey Smith and Amy Pond) takes over. The Doctor invites Rose to come with him, but she declines – she doesn’t want to leave her mom, and all his tales of wonderful places made her want to build something wonderful on Earth.

So the Doctor bids her adieu, and departs in the TARDIS – alone again, in the end, as always. And as the TARDIS dematerializes, we see a telescreen on the wall behind it – still displaying the cartoon mocking Big Brother’s mustache.

###

I suppose this would be unrealistic. After all, to paraphrase Neil Gaiman, DOCTOR WHO is about a space wizard with a magical box who solves problems. But Orwell’s tale of a perfect and eternal tyranny, while more frightening, is just as unrealistic. Every human system or institution, whether intended for good or evil, contains within itself the seeds of its own self-destruction. All it takes is a bit of water on the seeds – and one doesn’t even need to be a space wizard with a magic box to do that.

-JM

a reconsideration of DOCTOR WHO

Recently I got persuaded into getting Netflix streaming, and so I’ve been watching DOCTOR WHO. The show, if you’re not familiar with it, is about the eponymous Doctor, a 900 year old “Time Lord” alien who travels all of space and time in his TARDIS spaceship/time machine, looking for adventure, wonder, and evils to fight. (The reason the TARDIS looks like a blue police box is because the ship’s “chameleon circuit” has been on the fritz since the 1960s.)

The Doctor is a heroic character – it is said that for an effective story, the protagonist must “protagonize”, and the Doctor is really good at protagonizing. That said, his character definitely has a darker edge. Before the current show started, he completely destroyed his old enemies, the Daleks. The Daleks were ruthless, technologically advanced aliens who believed themselves the pinnacle of evolution, and therefore devoted themselves to annihilating all other forms of life in the universe. The Doctor did something (what, it’s never quite explained) that completely destroyed the Daleks, but in the process, also killed all the other Time Lords.

So I always thought the Doctor saved the universe from the Daleks, but in the process, was willing to sacrifice the entirety of his own race.

Except I watched the final episodes of Series 4 last night, and it turns out the Time Lords had gotten just as bad as the Daleks. Fearing defeat, they prepared a plan called the “Ultimate Sanction”, which would completely destroy the universe and all life in it, while the Time Lords ascended to become timeless gods.

So in the end, the Doctor’s people had become just as bad as the Daleks, and it was to stop both of them that the Doctor wiped them out. Which is completely different than sacrificing his own people to stop the Daleks. And that puts the Doctor’s character in a different light – rather than ruthlessly sacrificing them to stop the Daleks, he turned against them to stop them from destroying the universe.

It’s a very interesting show – you don’t get that kind of complexity on STAR TREK!

-JM

Choices of One, by Timothy Zahn

Some critics look down at shared-world fiction as excessively commercial, but I have nothing against it. It’s a very rare writer that doesn’t want to get paid. That said, I don’t read shared-world fiction based upon any affinity for the shared world, but for authors I happen to like. And Timothy Zahn is one of my favorite authors of space opera.

And Choices of One is excellent space opera, with political intrigue, gun battles, space battles, and a major twist that I admit I did not see coming at all. Recommended.

-JM