Monday, January 14, 2019

Bran is coming

Two quick notes on the subject of death.

I've seen the new tease for Game of Thrones. Three Stark children go into the tombs together and confront their own mortality. But I seem to recall a fourth kid who is still alive. Bran. He's a Stark and he should be with him. And he is. That's Bran marching down the hallway behind them. As the Night King, judging by the telltale signs.

Also, I just republished one of my favorite stories. "Murder Born," on Kindle. The novella is about a near-future world where executing murderers brings their victims back to life. And the tragedies that come when you can't be certain who killed who, and why.

"The background is bright unfocused green. Sunshine pours from overhead, from God. The subject wears a nun’s habit, the white coif clean and bright against the pretty African face. Her sober, downcast expression conveys what might be deep spirituality, or it might be shyness brought on by the camera, but it could well be one of those innocent looks that mean nothing. Whatever the truth, the watchful eye is obliged to follow her gaze. The nun is shoeless. Bare black feet stand on red dirt. Several machetes and one stubby ax are scattered across the jungle floor -- tired old tools with nicked edges and rope-covered handles. But the blades have been cleaned until they glow, not a fleck of rust or dust or blood anywhere on their murderous bodies. And the left foot is up on its toes, trying not to be cut for what would be the first time."

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Abandoning the Doctor

For me, Doctor Who began as a chance occurrence. Working out on an elliptical machine, at the YMCA, I'd search the cable channels for something to watch. Since I normally avoided television in the day, this was a minor adventure, and luck had it that BBC America was available. The reboot of Doctor Who was showing, and this wasn't the guy with the scarf. No, I was watching David Tennant and Freema Agyeman, their odd adventures punctuated with moments of genuine SF wonder.

Jump forward a little bit in time. I found the show streaming on Netflix. At least I think it was Netflix. And I decided to show my favorite episode to my daughter, who was still a single-digit age. We streamed it on my computer, a gigantic Dell Inspiron with what might be the worst screen ever designed by human beings. We sat together on the sofa, the machine in my lap, and if both of us could make out the picture, then neither of us saw it clearly. But that's how we enjoyed "Blink" together, and for years after that, we were hooked.

My daughter lost the faith first. David Tennant and the early Matt Smith were fine, but she was becoming impatient. Parts of some episodes were enjoyable, but everything else was too silly, or dull. Or worst of all, predictable. I never got a clear explanation. But I kept investing in the new seasons, including Peter Capaldi. Including "Heaven Sent," which is one of my favorite SF film dramas. Ever. Just a wonder of a thought problem carried to its logical, massive end.

At this point, I want to say that I have zero troubles with Jody Whittaker. I loved her work in Broadchurch, particularly in the first season. And the actor more than meets my ideas of the Doctor when it comes to energy and inhabiting the center of the screen. But the storytelling has been a letdown. I've seen exactly four episodes, and they feel like promising second drafts produced by young writers. "Rosa" was fine. Was the best. But I would have felt like tweaking events or remaking the story ... I don't know, make it smaller maybe. For instance, a couple of the Companions could have been separated from the Doctor, and finding themselves lost in the Deep South, they would have witnessed and perhaps helped a woman essential to everything else that has happened and has not happened in these Disunited States.

One big problem with the new season: For me, the science isn't clumsy, clunky fun anymore. It's just lousy. The series requires millions of dollars, but nobody seems to be looking at the minimal standards of logic. For instance, in "The Ghost Machine," we have acetylene gas used as a gimmick. Lighter than air. That's what some writer must have learned from Wikipedia. And so it floats above our heroes, and they set it afire with a cigar that has been carried throughout the hour for no other purpose. Boom. Enemies dead. Though I suspect that anyone with experience in welding or explosives would find that scene ridiculous. Our cigar-wielding heroes should have been incinerated in the flash.

Speaking of convenient plot ploys: The New Year's story has an oven carried about in a clumsy cardboard box. Why? I convinced my daughter to watch the story with me, and turning to her, I predicted, "That oven is going to save the world." Sure enough, that's what the clumsy box did.

Certain people would say, "Oh, but it's just a story and you have to suspend your disbelief."

And I would scream at them, "That's why we have the president that we have today. Everybody from the top to the bottom keeps suspending their disbelief, ignoring the obvious, and if we survive this next week and the next two years ... "

Well, that's another bunch of posts.

My point is that I'm pretty much done buying Doctor Who. If the next season shows up free somewhere, I'll try it. Maybe. But if I want to ride the Tardis, I'll watch "Blink" again.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Oumuamua and "Decency"

Light sails.

My first Hugo nominated story was focused on light sails. (Pun halfway intended.)

And now, a quarter of a century later, genuine science has supplied a smaller scale, protagonist free, and far more believable scenario than the grand, world-shaking events that I dreamed up.

If I was setting the odds, I'd give Oumuamua a one-in-five chance of being artificial. But that number, clinical as it pretends to be, has been twisted by my own biases towards alien contact, as well as a fondness for one-in-five guesses. (A 20 percent chance? Well, you're not predicting that it can actually come true. And if it doesn't happen, nobody should chide you for being wrong either.)

But imagine that Oumuamua is alien.

A 60 meter light sail, disk shaped and tumbling, and ancient, and dead.

Its very presence is amazing. That's because we shouldn't be able to see it. Because space is huge. Hollywood and most everyone else envisions space as being a big, big ocean. That's why space battles in movies look like ships at sea, with fighters thrown in for speed. But the reality is that every distance is enormous, and light is stubbornly slow. Make estimates about life in the cosmos and the rise of alien intelligence, and you don't expect to look at the sky and see this kind of object so quickly. But that's what happened. A new telescope opened its eye and almost immediately spotted an object of these dimensions -- a question mark that passed within 15 million miles of the earth, that approached the sun closer than Mercury does. That implies that if we keep watching, bringing newer telescopes into play, we will soon be seeing a host of objects like Oumuamua.

So is that what will happen?

Ten years from now, will we have named dozens or hundreds of oddities, each of which is silently passing inside the orbit of Neptune?

That sort of alien detritus implies that many ancient objects will have hit the earth, and I would think that even at these fantastic velocities, there would be physical remnants of odd materials, high-technology fossils waiting in ocean sediments and in the limestone blocks inside your garden wall.

And of course if that's proven true, then the next great question is:

Where did all of these aliens go?

The central question for humanity. Now, and always.