Tuesday, March 31, 2009

No One Expects ...

I've just been thinking lately about the subterranean depths of irony that Spain, who gave us Torquemada, the auto-de-fe and Cardinal Fang, should be the first nation to take action against us over the issue of torture. I mean, maybe I missed something during intermission, but didn't we used to be the good guys? Aren't we supposed to be, still?

Talk about feeling that you've woken up in a parallel universe -- I keep looking up to see if the sky is purple or something. How did we come to be given lessons in international law by a nation that, just a few hundred years ago, was burning more people at the stake than Cecile B. DeMille burned crosses?

I'm not saying they're that way now. In fact, I salute them for getting the ball rolling on the indictments. But the fact remains: Nobody expected this particular Spanish Inquisition.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Darth Maul: Money Hunter

Just got a note from my publisher that Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter has gone back to print.

If this keeps up I might actually make some money in the next 30 years or so ...

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Vampire Meets the Werewolf

All right, I admit it’s not the most exciting or original title the world of horror cinema has ever seen, but it has a certain purity of purpose. This picture is a still from an eight minute 8mm “Mirrion Dorror Monster Crassic,” as the Firesign Theater would term it, created by me and my good friend back in high school and college, Jim Bertges. (Jim was behind the camera, and I forget entirely who played the vampire. But the werewolf was yours truly.) We filmed mostly at the Mission Inn in Riverside; I think it was 1969 or ’70.

I may be the only werewolf in the history of lycanthropy to be a poster boy for fluoride. Just look at those pearlies!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Life In The Now

Those who know me reasonably well know that for the past ten months or so, I’ve been pretty much incapable of coherent speech. (Those who know me even better are saying, “Only ten months? Nyuk nyuk nyuk!” Well, not really. I added the Stooge sounds.) Due to the Parkinson’s, which pretty much destroyed my speech center, I can barely make sounds above a whisper, and on those rare occasions when I can whip up enough breath support to make a noise louder than a mouse fart in a hurricane, I sound like a Neanderthal on ‘ludes. (As if that weren’t bad enough, the real twist of the knife comes when I have a cold. Because then, instead of sounding even worse, I sound terrific. Due to laryngeal edema, I get to talk better than ever -- as long as my sinuses are stuffed like a turducken in a tutu and I feel like hammered crap. Ah, the irony ...)

There really isn’t a whole lot of positive spin can be put on having this disease. (Technically it isn’t really a disease, if we’re using the term to mean some sort of clinically-evident pathogenic process. It’s more of a syndrome.) But if one has to say something positive about it (and I’m not saying for a nanosecond that one does), I suppose it would be this:

It forces you to live in the moment.

When your brain barricades itself in the control room and starts smashing the VU meters, throwing knife switches and levers at random and in general carrying on real cranky -- well, then things tend to get real clear and immediate, and when decisions have to be made, they generally have to be made quickly -- such as picking which way to fall so as to do yourself the least damage in the split-second between the time your muscles freeze and you start to topple.

Or take chewing. A fairly mindless exercise -- how many of you are really aware of how your tongue moves your food around as your jaws masticate? Try biting said tongue nine or ten times during the course of a meal. You’ll get real aware of it real fast.

‘When you mention Parkinson’s, everyone immediately thinks of the shakes. Believe me, tremoring is the least of it, in many cases. Far worse is the freezing, the loss of balance, the ss-lll-oo-www-ing down of everything. And far worse than any physical problem is the uncomfortable looks people give you before quickly glancing away.

It doesn’t make the moment a very pleasant place to be, most of the time. Not that I have a lot of choice in the matter.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Oops ...

Well, my face is a light but noticeable shade of vermilion.

Yesterday, I gave Neil Gaiman a little joshing about appearing on Stephen Colbert's show wearing a suit instead of his de rigueur all black ensemble. Got a note back from him explaining the circumstances, and -- let's just say he had a good reason.

Thought momentarily of just taking the post down and metaphorically just strolling away, hands in pockets, whistling insousiantly. But I decided to leave it up, to remind me not to go for the laugh until I've checked the facts.

Sorry about that, Neil.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Gaiman Repor ...

I feel betrayed. Worse than betrayed -- my whole reality structure is shattered like a glass goblin. (Sorry -- wrong pretentious author reference.) I was stunned to see Neil on Stephen Colbert's show wearing -- a suit.

A suit?! What happened to the leather? The unrelieved darkness? The subtly-understated machismo? There can be only one answer: he's sold out. Neil Gaiman, one of the last bastions of the counter-culture, has gone corporate. That I should have lived to see this day.

Johnny Cash must be spinning like a lathe.

I’ll be okay. Just give me a moment to deal with the implications ...

Seriously: A very good interview. He held his own quite well, and it was obvious that Colbert enjoyed having someone with whom he could spar. (Extra props for being the first guest, I believe, to say “fuck”.)

Funny stuff. If you missed the broadcast, check it out on Colbert's webpage.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Surviving The Future, Part III

So, as discussed, we’ve got roughly the same chance of getting to Mars in halfway decent (read: alive) shape as a one-winged fruit fly has of making it from here to Calcutta. (In fact, my money’s on the fruit fly.) And once we’re there, our problems are just beginning. The moon is closer, but an even worse place as far as livability is concerned. And those are the only two worlds we can even think about reaching. As far as extra-solar Earths are concerned (if there even are any), unless some geek with coke-bottle glasses comes up with warp drive in his parents’ basement real soon, we’re stuck trying to cross the cosmos in first gear.

So, it appears that there’s no other world in practical reach -- certainly nothing in the next century or so, which everybody with a PhD is telling us is longer than we’ve got left here.

So what can we do?

We can make a world.

We can, in theory, make at least two, and possibly more.

Everyone (well, everyone who’s reading this, all three of you) knows the “rubber-sheet” model of gravity -- the four-dimensional equivalent of a rubber sheet stretched taut. Drop a bowling ball in the center and call it the sun, then send a BB rolling around it and call it Earth, and you got yourself a model of how gravity works.

Sort of. As with just about everything else we’ve been discussing, it’s a bit on the simplistic side. Gravity systems are a lot more fluid, and though the influence of mass decreases with distance, it never really fades completely. The upshot being that, like the currents and ripples of a river, gravitational forces from the sun, the moon, and the Earth create eddies and stable points at certain locations. They’re called LaGrange Points. There are five of them in the Earth-Moon system, and of them, L-4 and L-5 are so stable that large objects plunked down in the middle of them tend to stay there, to all extents and purposes, forever.

Gerard O’Neill, in his book The High Frontier, proposed building space habitats -- huge, orbital colonies -- within the stable loci of L-4 and L-5. We are talking big, here -- these things are to the International Space Station or Skylab what a luxury high-rise is to a refrigerator box under the bridge. We’re talking cylinders five miles by twenty miles; big enough to comfortably house anywhere from a thousand to five thousand or more people. With materials mined from the moon or from NEOs (Near-Earth Objects such as asteroids and meteoroids) and aggressive recycling and population control, the colonies could be self-sufficient, or very nearly so. Populations of 5,000 or more in orbital colonies at both L-4 and L-5 would provide a more than sufficient gene pool for the human race’s survival. It’s even conceivable to build “Ark Habitats” that would be dedicated botanical and zoological gardens. Sufficient shielding to guard against cosmic storms wouldn’t be a problem, since it doesn’t matter how massive the habitat would be; the only place it’s going is around and around its own little orbit.

Gravity’s not a problem either. If you’re living on the inside of a cylinder instead of the surface of a planet, it’s easy (well, easier) to create artificial gravity by simply spinning the cylinder. Centrifugal force pushes everything on the inside against the inner aspect of the torus, just like in those old Tilt-A-Whirl rides at the carnival. (And if the cylinder’s big enough, the inner-ear effect will be diluted, so you won’t constantly feel like throwing up everything you’ve eaten since you were five.)

What’s more, the LaGrange Points aren’t just confined to the Earth-Moon system -- there are points of stability everywhere planets and moons do their complex dances. Colonies built at these points are, it seems to me, the only viable way of leaving Earth behind. Controlled environments, with regulated day and night cycles and normal “gravity,” free from natural disasters and presenting a much smaller target for bolide impactors, make a helluva lot more sense to me than trying to hardscrabble a living on the moon or Mars.

For most of recorded history we’ve been searching for a way to get to Heaven. Now, finally, we have the tools; if we’ve got the will and the fortitude as well, we can build Heaven.

It’s that, or take our chances on a world that’s all too rapidly going to hell.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Surviving The Future, Part II

The answer is, of course, gravity. That’s the one thing we can’t increase or decrease without we do some serious messing about with planetary mass. Of the two worlds that offer even the slightest hospitality, the moon is one-sixth gee and Mars is one-third. And we won’t be changing either one anytime in the near future.

(A pause to savor the irony for a moment: of all the worlds in the solar system, the one with a mass, and therefore gravity, closest to Earth’s is Venus, which combines the worst features of just about every other planet. Man, the future really ain’t what it used to be ...)

The problem is that, no matter how much technological advances we make, genetically we’re still just a bunch of naked apes jabbing each other with pointed sticks back on the veldt. We evolved in a one gravity field, and when we spend prolonged periods out of it (such as a few months up in the space station), bad things happen.

How bad?

Real bad. Prolonged weightlessness will cause, among other things, dehydration, musculoskeletal atrophy, “space anemia,” mineral depletion, vertigo, and a whole host of other problems ranging from unpleasant to downright life-threatening. In the “Pulp Era” of science fiction, back when men wore hats and baggy pants and space flight was still just a dream, one of the common beliefs was that considerable time spent in zero-gee (or microgravity, to placate my astronomer friends), might actually be good for the body. No stress on the joints or the heart would logically mean no wear and tear on our moving parts. Hey, you could maybe outlive Methuselah, just by floating around the asteroid belt.

Unfortunately, like so many rose-colored visions of the future everyone had back then, it wasn’t that easy. In fact, pretty much the opposite holds true; long-term weightlessness resembles, in syndrome, nothing so much as accelerated aging. Spend a couple of years in space (the average time of a trip to Mars), and you wind up looking -- and feeling -- like your grandfather. Oh, sure, the process can be slowed somewhat -- by near-constant exercise. I don’t know about you, but riding an Exercycle all the way to Mars isn’t the future I was promised. Even with flying cars thrown in, the idea pretty much sucks the ol’ Saturn V.

And we haven’t even discussed the physical and psychological effects (which admittedly we don’t know yet, but the probabilities aren’t looking good) of carrying a child to term and raising him or her in a lighter gravity field.

Doesn’t look good, does it? The Earth’s on a fast track to disaster, the only other places we have even a faint chance of reaching aren’t even remotely pleasant, and just getting there can kill you. And even if the Keplerscope finds more New Earths out there, we’re not going to be reaching them anytime soon. A trip even no further than the Centauri System would take centuries. (Norman Spinrad described it best, as far as I’m concerned: Imagine a WorldCon on a submarine -- forever.)

It do make the blood run cold, don’t it?

Next: Spam in a can -- industrial-sized.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Die, Rebel Scum!

Well, not to be outdone by my collaborator, apparently I too have been inducted into the hallowed ranks of the 501st Stormtrooper Legion, AKA Vader’s Fist. My marksmanship has never been all that great to begin with, but already I can feel it falling faster than a killer asteroid.

Don’t know what my rank is yet. Just hope I get one of those spiffy trophies that go with it, ‘cause it’ll be swell fun trying to clear a place on the bookshelf for it.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

First We Take Manhattan ...

We interrupt this long-winded screed on how we’re all gonna die to bring you a review of Watchmen, seeing as how I caught a matinee of it on opening day.

I must check with my kids to see if I’m using the argot properly, but I believe the word is:


Two-and-a-half hours of sustained “life sucks”, followed by a cynical downbeat ending. There are them as say the graphic novel is inherently un-filmable. I’m not totally convinced of that, but I don’t think Zack Snyder was the one to do it justice.

Bluntly: There’s nothing in the movie that justifies its use of the graphic novel as a base. At its best, the film only marginally improves on the source material in fits and starts -- at its worst, its use of graphic cruelty and brutality goes considerably beyond the book’s setpieces, but not toward any further illumination of character -- rather, apparently, just to be nasty.

There are a few good things in the movie, most noticeably the performances. Jackie Earle Haley is outstanding as Rorschach. Dan Dreiberg is good as Nite Owl and, as Dr. Manhattan, Billy Crudup is kinda blue. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) The ending’s macguffin is something of an improvement on the book. The opening montage is well-done, too. It’s what’s between that’s tedious.

That’s really about it. Oh -- and I liked the way Rorschach kept losing his hat in fights. Sorta reminded me of the old Republic serials in which the good guy and the bad guy would whale the living tar out of one another in each installment, breaking furniture over each other, getting pitched through windows and off bridges -- and yet neither would ever lose his hat. There was, believe it or not, a production reason for that: since most of the fights were staged between stuntmen, keeping their hats on helped disguise their faces.

And that’s the problem with Watchmen, in a nutshell. When I’m watching a movie and I’m thinking about the reasons stuntmen kept their hats on in old cliffhangers, well ... you get the idea.

I’m afraid that the question “Who watches the Watchmen?” is not going to be answered very satisfactorily in the next few weeks.

And, speaking of “nutshells”, I can’t resist wondering -- although they didn’t have, as far as I could see in the credits, a listing for “Doctor Manhattan’s package wrangler”, you know there was at least one guy in charge of that bit of CGI. One has to wonder -- will he list it on his resume?

Everybody, now, all together: “What -- and leave show business?”

Friday, March 6, 2009

Surviving The Future, Part I

So I’ve been thinking a lot about the future. And there doesn’t seem to be much left.

From everything I’ve read (and I’ve read a fair amount), it seems that even if we stop all greenhouse emissions now, the complexity and sheer inertia of the planetary weather system will cause the average surface temperature of the planet to rise by 3-5 degrees C, according to the IPCC. Maybe that won’t be a tipping point, a watershed that’ll cause an irreversible runaway greenhouse effect capable of eventually turning Earth into a carbon (sorry) copy of Venus. Maybe not. But it’ll sure as hell cause rampant desertification, wholesale die-offs of sea life due to acidification, catastrophic rises in ocean levels -- and that’s not in some dim and murky distant future -- that’s in your lifetime, if you’re in your twenties. In other words, if you’re old enough to vote, you’re old enough to float.

That high-pitched whine you hear is Thomas Malthus spinning in his grave -- but not nearly fast enough, unfortunately, to provide the alternative energy we’ll need.

Accept for a few moments that global warming is a real, documented and imminent threat. That if we’re not past the point of no return already, we’re close enough to hear the death knells of most of the Third World. And that once the chaos begins, most of us will be too busy scavenging the ruins and fighting over canned goods bloated with botulism to give much thought to long term survival of the species.

And let’s say that some of us, at least, know when it’s time to scurry down the anchor chain and abandon a sinking ship.

"The earth is the cradle of humankind, but one cannot live in the cradle forever." -- Konstantin Tsiolkovsky
Heinlein said basically the same thing: “Earth is too small a basket for mankind to keep all its eggs in.” Even if we haven’t fouled our nest pretty much beyond saving, sooner or later we’re going to be pulverized by a killer asteroid, or fried up nice’n’crispy by the Yellowstone supervolcano, or ... well, pick any one of a hundred apocalypses, now or in the immediate future. And they don’t all have to be huge, epic, planetary scale disasters; lots of smaller ones will do just fine. Ever been in a major earthquake? I have. Ever been within spitting distance (not that it would have done much good) of a raging brushfire? I have. Ever been confronted by a roomful of brain-eating zombies? I have -- well, I’ve worked for network TV, which is pretty much the same thing. The point is, Tsiolkovsky's and Heinlein’s metaphors notwithstanding, the earth is a big, slow target. And one thing I learned in junior high school dodgeball is that it’s better to be small and light on your feet -- and, if you can manage it, in several places at once.

So let’s agree that the best way to survive is to diversify. To spread out. In short, to get some of us, at least, the hell out of Dodge.

The problem is, leaving the cradle is far easier said than done. We’ve got two obstacles that seem pretty much insurmountable.

The first is distance. The only world other than Earth that we’ve visited so far is the moon. And quite frankly, it’s the only one we’re likely to visit again in the near future. But, while it’s close enough to make round trips (semi) practical, it ain’t exactly a garden spot. Could we set up a permanent colony there? Frankly, I doubt it. We don’t even have people living full-time and raising families at the South Pole, which is Cancun compared to the moon. With temperature extremes that can go from -300 degrees F to 215 degrees F in a single step from sun to shade, an atmosphere less than one-trillionth that of Earth’s, and a comminuted layer of pulverized rock dust that, once through the airlock with you and inhaled, can give you a case of pneumoconiosis almost as fast as you can cough up blood ... the moon wouldn’t seem to be anybody’s first choice for extraterrestrial real estate.

Except that it is. Location, location, location, remember? The one thing we can count on is that the moon will always be about the same drive time. Which is a lot more than we can say about only other piece of prime location in the solar system -- Mars.

The problem is that, while the moon is tucked away, nice and snug, in orbit around the Earth, Mars and Earth both orbit the sun -- and Mars’ orbit is a lot more eccentric than ours. Bottom line is that Mars can be anywhere from 36 million miles to over 250 million miles from us. That’s a six-fold distance difference. In travel time it works out to anywhere from half a year to a year and a half, which makes booking rooms in advance a real bitch.

Trouble is, it’s the best alternative of all the planets. Mercury? Like the moon, only with a logarithmic sunblock scale. Venus? Like being at the bottom of a sea of molten lead; it makes Hell look hospitable. The outer worlds -- Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune? They’re not called “gas giants” out of misplaced sophomoric frat-house humor; there’s no “there” there, even if they were close enough to be practical, which they aren’t. Some of the moons -- Titan, Europa, Ganymede -- are interesting from a lab-rat POV, but I wouldn’t count on the Land Rush starting for them anytime soon, either. And let’s not even bother mentioning Pluto.

So it looks like, for all its considerable drawbacks -- a long and varied travel time, temperatures that only look good compared to the moon, the lack of a magnetosphere which makes a tan sudden death -- Mars is it, even though the trip itself is, at optimum, still about twice as long as sailing around Cape Horn, without nearly as much deck time.

Except ... remember I said two obstacles?

Space is big -- there’s no getting around that. But as staggering and as complex as merely getting to another world is, there’s a much greater problem to be overcome once we’re there. One that makes cosmic rays, temperature extremes and lack of atmosphere look easy, indeed almost pleasant, by comparison. We can, after all, overcome all those problems, at least in theory, with terraforming techniques. It would take centuries, and require engineering on a cosmic scale -- playing planetary billiards with comets to create oceans, for example, or putting vast orbital mirrors up to magnify sunlight -- but all that could, theoretically, be done. Given a few hundred years of global restructuring, Mars could be given a breathable atmosphere, a decent climate -- everything except one thing.

In my next post I’ll discuss what that thing is.