Escape Velocity Girl

“If you want to make a lot of money, start a religion.”
March 6, 2011, 6:42 pm
Filed under: Real Worlds, Uncategorized

Scientology seems tailor-made for mockery, with its low-rent psychotherapy couched in Dilbertian bureaucratese, sinister attack-Pomeranian of a celebrity figurehead (Cruise, konechno) and neon-lit temples. And, then, of course, there’s the little matter of Xenu: galactic despot and amateur vulcanologist, mistakenly conflated in the public imagination with Travolta’s dreadlocked villain in the almost transcendentally terrible Battlefield Earth. With the recent publication of the New Yorker‘s blockbuster article on Paul Haggis’s apostasy, Scientology has come in for another round of “Shoot the Freak,” one of the Internet’s favorite games. While there are indubitably reprehensible (and potentially legally actionable) aspects of the religion – the pseudo-slavery of Sea Org, the exploitative formula of redemption through financial contribution – I am not sure that its mythology, when considered in isolation, justifies such mass snarkasm.

Major world religions are rife with myths that must appear outlandish (the story of the loaves and fishes as a more benign – but less groovy – Trouble with Tribbles) when objectively judged by those of use not indoctrinated in their particular brands of faith/crazytime – yet we abstain from making light of such stories out of respect for “tradition,” a quality so nebulous as to mean nothing more than “extended existence through time.” Scientology, however, is comparatively new and has accordingly not yet acquired a respectable patina of age; the scaffolding of cynicism and hucksterism, upon which it was built, is yet exposed. Put another (editorially superfluous) way, if Xenu is a La Belle Époque charmeuse, then we’ve stumbled into his boudoir before Chronos has cinched his corset.

Or perhaps the scorn that Scientology’s mythology triggers is related to its space-operatic substance. While sf writers like China Miéville and Iain Banks weave far more whacked out narratives than those in Cruise’s catechism (which are almost quaintly Golden Age, LRH having cut his teeth in the pulps), and proper Ph.Ds debate how to communicate with as yet undiscovered extraterrestrials, the use of science fiction tropes in religion is automatically considered curdled-lactose-product-y. And this despite the fact that, among certain elements in the s/sf community, the boundaries between faith, science and literature seem somewhat blurred – take, for example, Carl Sagan’s  prophesied “glorious dawn” (though perhaps my conflation of optimism and certainty with faith lacks nuance…). Auto-tune masterpieces aside, however, I wonder if Scientology (and its somewhat more benign cousins: Raëlism, Unarianism, and the various other UFO cults) is simply the vanguard of the next wave of religious development, drawing as it does upon our new understanding – or fictional representation – of the heavens in its own conception of heaven. I am no theologian (calling upon our lord Cheebus only in times of throbbing toes and unexpected turbulence), but there seems to be little latitude for traditional, terrestrial mythology in a world of precise cartographies; satellites have found no pearly gates floating cloud-high, and if Scylla and Charybdis are but rock shoal and whirlpool, then Odysseus is no epic hero. Unless a wannabe prophet is willing to eschew concrete, embodied deities and miracles, and base her belief system instead on a spiritualism amorphous enough to coexist with science, space would seem to be the only option: it will be, ahem, some time before we are able to declare the unlikely impossible in all corners of the universe.  If Brian Greene is right, there may just be a thetan or thousand hiding in those extra seven dimensions.  While Google Earth may strip away what modesty and mysteries our planet has left, next-gen Hubbards can still write  “here be dragons” on maps of the sky.

photo: Stray Cat Theatre’s “Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant”; taken by John Groseclose.

“A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet…”
November 7, 2010, 7:47 pm
Filed under: Real Worlds, Uncategorized

The ghostly, ghastly pickled putti in Lena Herzog’s Lost Souls, never having been alive, cannot be said to be dead – but rather exist pre-life in perpetuum, pallid as Riftia pachyptila and destined to swim (literally) in the same (figurative) darkness. Herzog traces the practice of preserving such “anomalous” fetuses to the Wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosities, of the 16th-18th centuries; these proto-museums combined objets d’art and objets d’science in an undifferentiated continuum of wonders, intellectual Edens uncorrupted by categorization, in which a real-“life” baby in a bottle might share a shelf with a rosy-cheeked painted representation thereof.

“Wonder” is the key concept: just as such cabinets were meant to collect objects of and inspire feelings of, so too is a sense of wonder a hallmark of science fiction, expressed as “an appreciation of the sublime, whether natural, such as the rings of Saturn, or technological: a space station or rocket ship.” And indeed sf as a genre breaks down, vaults over, or renegotiates the modern atomization of science and art; astrophysics dressed in literary drag or vice versa (just as Leiden University’s “Mouse Orchestra, or The Rhapsody of Death” twists itsy-bitsy rodent osteo-anatomy into a fictional tableau).

Wunderkammern became particularly popular with the discovery of the New World, which, in its very improbability destigmatized credulity; if a land beyond the sea exists, why not a fountain of youth? Or, for that matter, an interstellar Japanoiserie amniotic bubble, à la Aronofsky’s The Fountain? If narwhales, why not unicorns? Which (at least in this post’s artificial formulation) begs the question: what is that discovery that will re-enable or re-allow wonder when it comes to the possibilities of space travel (as reflected in science fiction), that will reignite the collective excitement that accompanied such early space age events as the lunar landing? The discovery of Gliese 581g, a purportedly habitable planet a mere hop, skip and 200 trillion kilometers away, is apparently not sufficient, having registered as little more than a blip in our ouroborotic news cycle. Or, somewhat depressingly, is “wonder” an incarnation not of intellectual excitement, but rather of avarice at the prospect of material enrichment? Perhaps those bewigged, be-bloomered blue bloods carefully curated their cabinets not to reflect their encyclopedic curiosity, but because all those yellow nuggets, Quetzalcoatl feathers and savage specimens represented serious “bank.”

Economics is the driving factor behind exploration, which means that, until we can quantify space travel in terms of dollars, cents, flatscreens bought and unobtainium obtained, it will continue to trigger little more than a collective “meh.”


Sci-fi Naked Eye
August 22, 2010, 8:53 pm
Filed under: Fictional Worlds, Real Worlds, Uncategorized

Beyond: Visions of Our Solar System, which is currently on display at the National Air and Space Museum, purports to show the planets as they appear “in reality,” the photos reverse-engineered from the black-and-white or partial images beamed back from our kino-eye mechanical surrogates: Galileo, Pathfinder, Viking, et. al. The exhibit is an implicit rejection of the Technicolor trickery of Hubble images, in which the universe appears a pirate’s chest overflowing with gas-giant gems, Impressionistic swirls of color ready-made for the dorm room walls of an undergrad punning on the de rigueur decorative “Starry Night.” In a counter-intuitive way, the toned-down colors and simplicity of composition of the photos makes the “beyond” seem even more alien; while I would bet the Horsehead Nebula holds pride of place on countless desktops, Benson’s minimalist Uranus, a powder blue circle in a square of black, represents an existentially threatening, visually minimalistic view of the universe, which is, after all, approximately 96% empty to the naked eye.

The photos at the exhibit that generate the most awe or attention, however, seem to be those of Earth; during my visit, a mid-western mother enthused to her red-headed brood over images of the Great Lakes, while Japanese tourists sat apathetic and unseeing in front of a photo of golden Io’s four hundred flaws – mosquito stings in the myth, volcanic eruptions in reality. Their reactions seemed a confirmation of the provincial cast of the human brain; though we’re told as children that our imaginations have “wings,” Icarus-like we can only fly so high. The familiar-made-strange is more wondrous to most than the merely strange.

Viktor Shklovsky coined the term остранение (defamiliarization) to describe this artistic effect, writing,

The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception, because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.

Michael Benson’s photos zoom out kilometers from the quotidian waves and motorboats, discarded beer cans and tadpole hatcheries, turning the Great Lakes into a cluster of  terrestrial tears; the alien-view makes viewers see anew. This, of course, has implications for science fiction, begging the question: are all the wormholes, crinkly-forehead-ed humanoids and handwavium tech really just window-dressing meant to “defamiliarize” or de-cliche love, hate and threadbare narrative scaffolding? Does setting our human dramas against against inhuman backdrops lend them a sheen of grandeur? Or, perhaps, through a reverse-остранение,  does Google-mapping  an imaginary universe with plot points make the empty expanses of the real deal somehow more pedestrian or comprehensible? The stars are no longer ginormous super-really-hot spheres of gas billions of years old scattered across a three-four-twelve dimensional stretch of infinity, but depots of futuristic truck fuel, garbage dumps for Cylon fleets, oversized lightbulbs to be switched on or off with nuclear circuitry, way-stations during the TV hero’s journey of whats-his-name, who, after all, isn’t all that different from you or me.

One novel that deftly sidesteps Shklovsky’s theory is Consider Phlebas by Iain Banks, which is often labeled “space opera,” a genre admirably honest about its use of ray guns to tart up Australopithecine-ancient themes of lust and revenge. During the first 95% of the book, Bora Horza Gobuchul, the shape-shifting protagonist, is set up as proof positive of the Great Man theory of history – the one person in the galaxy with the skills and background to infiltrate a Planet of the Dead, retrieve a brilliant, dimension-hopping Mind, bring an end to a conflict so mind-bogglingly bloody it must be surely be the War to End All Wars, and grant the Idirans victory over the machine-led Culture, which doubtless is mere years away from eliminating all biological life. Except…Horza fails and dies, it turns out the Mind was relatively inconsequential, the Culture not only wins but fails to perpetrate indiscriminate genocide, and the war itself turns out to have been no more than a minor blip in galactic history. Despite Consider Phlebas‘s post-Singularity, interstellar setting, Banks is relentlessly realistic, undermining any attempts to correlate the vastness of the novel’s geography, the sophistication of the characters’ ray guns, with any significance of plot: a man tries to do something, fails or succeeds, and dies, none of which ultimately matters – science fiction as backdrop for the most quotidian story possible, belonging, as it does, to all of us.

photo credit: NASA

“Though I’m past 100,000 miles, I’m feeling very still”
April 7, 2010, 6:17 pm
Filed under: Real Worlds, Uncategorized

I’ve always believed in two basic human subspecies: Homo sapiens peregrinae and Homo sapiens homebodiensis. But the more interesting taxonomic differentiation is not the rather cloying one between those with wings and those with roots, but rather is a further bisection of the former category based upon where exactly its members lust to wander.

There are those who are drawn to the jungle, proverbial geographical cups spilling over with vegetable fecundity, humanity’s perpetual motion machine in all its different ethnic and cultural permutations. Silks, spices, endangered species! In a phrase: saturation of experience. I would venture that most wanderers can be classified thus. But then there is that rarer breed of traveler who spends his accrued .833 days/month in search of desolation, who would choose the Gobi dunes over Goa, Antarctica’s wastelands over the Amazon’s chlorophyllic chaos, the silence of the inorganic over the caw of the macaw or rickshaw rumble. These people recharge their so-called batteries not in scenes of riot and color, but rather in the contemplation of barren landscapes that seem to belong more to geologic time than the blink of the biologic.

The word that best describes this predilection is, perhaps, fernweh, a German word meaning “farsickness” or the “ache for the distance” (whereas wanderlust, despite its usage in English, translates literally as the more quotidian “to enjoy hiking”). But in this case the distance desired can not be measured on a GPS, but rather in terms of the scale of spacetime; our allotment of years in the mere dozens and miles in the thousands seems puny. Deserts and frozen wastes, lands seemingly outside the feverishly ouroborotic world of man, offer the illusion of the eternal and the endlessly vast. (Through a Freudian lense one could characterize this contrast as a case of Eros vs. Thanatos: extreme fernweh as representing a kind of death instinct or desire to return to a pre-biologic, inanimate state of being, the obliteration of the ego in the face of inorganic immortality…but this line of reasoning leads to Oedipus and oral fixation and sundries indecent and unscientific…)

How does this relate to the (admittedly loosely-defined) purview of this web log? The above photo was taken in 1984 and shows astronaut Bruce McCandless II free-flying a full 320 feet away from the Challenger, farther from the safety of steel and plastic and man-made home than any man in space had been before. Now there are manifold reasons to explore beyond the Karman Line, from the fol-de-rol of flag-planting to the speculative economics of interstellar resource exploitation, but it seems to me that those who willingly venture into the (almost) vacuum of space must share something in common with those earthbound desert-lovers described in the above paragraphs. Reactions to this photo (at least among those of my acquaintance) fall into two distinct camps: “terror! vertigo! embrace me Mother Gaia!” and “if only I had a Manned Maneuvering Unit of my own I’d gun for the next galaxy over.” Whether or not this split is related to extroversion vs. introversion, misanthropy vs sociability, adventurousness vs. conservatism, or one of countless other psychoanalytical spectra, I suspect it has to do with something innate. Question: are spacemen born?

photo credit: NASA

“Star Trek fans, prepare to be disappointed”
March 1, 2010, 9:29 pm
Filed under: Fictional Worlds, Real Worlds

Having served time at a glossy publication, in which it was de rigeur for all blurbs, articles and blarticles to open with the journalistic equivalent of a come-on, I am sympathetic to writers who magpie together copy (it’s far easier to hook a reader with a collage of cultural references and in-jokes than simple, declarative sentences). However, the following equation should always be kept in mind:

(linguistic cuteness)-(in-depth fact-checking)=(an incoherent and potentially audience-alienating article)

i.e. make sure your brilliant references makes sense in the context of the text, i.e. avoid pretending to a Mariana Trench depth of knowledge if you’re really more comfortable in the proverbial kiddie pool (as everyone generally is when it comes to almost everything). I write in reference to a recent article in New Scientist that purports to prove the impossibility of human near-light-speed travel–and, by extension, claims to dash the warp drive wet-dreams of every be-unibrow-ed Trekkie/er the world over.

A summary of the science: According to Einstein’s special theory of relativity travelers interact with space and time differently depending on their respective speeds. Meaning that the crew of any superfast fictional ship flying through syndicated television would experience space as highly compressed. Although interstellar space is only sparsely seeded with hydrogen atoms (two per cubic centimeter), the aforementioned crew with its pug-nosed perception of space (i.e. smooshed) would experience this wisp of matter as a veritable hailstorm when traveling at near-light speeds. The kinetic energy of the atoms would increase accordingly, creating a wave of radiation sure to kill said crew dead. Tres tragique.

From this the author of the article implies that Roddenberryian warp speed travel is an impossibility. There are, ahem, a few things wrong with this conclusion:

1. The author has got the mechanism of warp speed plain wrong. The USS Enterprise doesn’t rev up like a race car from 0 to 60–it jumps off the scale, creating a “warp bubble” with its “warp drive” that “warps” the time-space continuum, pulling its destination closer while maintaining a relatively low velocity. Sort of like how a hypothetical person in the midst of a hypothetical Next Generation marathon could hypothetically have two larges with extra cheese delivered without ever leaving the also-hypothetical couch. No cell-destroying radiation wave, no perilous midnight quest to Dominos, no problem. (for a more, uh, technical explanation, see here)

2. There is something logically unsound about using the rules and research of one system (our current reality) to critique cherry-picked premises of another system (any alternative or fictional reality). For example, Federation ships come with these nifty things called “deflector shields” that are specially designed to bounce away interstellar debris, pesky hydrogen atoms, etc. Hence the fact that Star Trek is not an incredibly boring show about watching irradiated corpses decompose in fast-moving ships. The problems the article claims to expose have been anticipated and nullified in the Star Trek universe by yet other technologies; ergo, what the author is really saying is just that warp speed (or, rather, her inaccurate conception of the technology) would not work with the level of technology we have now in this, our current universe. Um…duh? Had they operated according to the same logic, early aeronautics engineers would have scoffed at the possibility of jet propulsion, arguing that the heat and speed of such engines would necessarily create crispy-fied, wind-flayed toothpicks out of any hypothetical biplane aviators foolish enough to test them.

Now, I am certainly not one of those head-in-the-nebula-cloud enthusiasts who bristles at any intrusion of actual science into my perfect, pretty scifi terraria. But at the same time I would hope that articles applying current scientific research to fictional or speculative worlds would take the latter as seriously as the former. After all, we’re all just augurs poking through entrails, trying to divine a future none of us will ever see. For some, those entrails are lab results and statistical models. For others, words and flights of fancy.

photo credit: NASA CD-98-76634 by Les Bossinas

Space Travel + 2011 Budget
February 4, 2010, 8:58 pm
Filed under: Real Worlds

My initial reaction to the POTUS’s proposed 2011 budget was comprised mainly of fig-leaf pound signs, asterisks and sad-face emoticons.  Spockian in his pragmatism and logic (but not in the more-fun intergalactic space traveler sense), Obama had obviously let his concern with piddling trifles like “jobs” and “the economy” blind him to the sheer awesomeness of sending man back to the moon, of hop-skipping to Mars and into the capital “F” future. However, after reading the analyses of folks far better informed than me, I realized I was, uh, totally wrong. Herewith, three conclusions gleaned from my reading:

1. Though the Bush-era Constellation program promised to send man back to the moon, it contained little in the way of actual innovation. An Apollo rerun half a century later, though thrilling for those of us young enough to have missed it the first time around, is like playing a broken record during the age of mp3s (‘cept without the kind of hip retro connotations).

2. The Obamanian budget allocation for NASA amply funds (to the tune of 7.8 billion) the development of technology like docking mech and orbital fuel depots. Again, while such technologies will hardly whiz-bang-wow-the-couch-potato-crowd, they’re the nuts and bots of a Red Mars future. (ie you can’t blast to infinity and beyond without putting in infinite hours to make your blaster actually work)

3. Commercialization of travel to and from the ISS will hopefully mean greater investment in commercial space travel, in companies that exist not only to advance the noble cause of humanity blah-blah, but also to turn a profit. Which means that such companies will have the moolah to develop a two-buck chuck version of space travel. Which means that a schlub like me will someday be able to buy my way past the Karman Line instead of having to bother with getting an advanced degree in astrophysics, falsifying my medical records and becoming the sort of person a government agency would actually trust in the vacuum of space.