I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Why the moon won't be the 51st state, and why the stars aren't our destination

Newt Gingrich was the subject of much mockery this week when he proposed a permanent lunar colony by the end of his second term. Perhaps he was joking when he said one day it could be the 51st state. But, there are plenty of people who, while they may be dubious of Newt Gingrich's ability to lead us into space, take it as an article of faith that mankind will some day leave the Earth and colonize the moon, then other planets, then move on beyond our solar system to explore and exploit other solar systems.

I, alas, am dubious, though with caveats. First, "some day" is a vague time frame. I'm ill prepared to speculate what mankind might accomplish in, say, 5000 years, let alone 50,000 years, or 5 million years. But, a lot of science fiction envisions our civilization spreading off the earth in this century. Indeed, a lot of science fiction imagined it taking place in the LAST century. Plenty of science fiction imagined us having moon bases and Mars colonies by 1999. By 2012, we were going to be shuttling back and forth to Saturn. I talk to a lot of people at science fiction conventions who feel like, if only politicians would get their priorities straight, we could be setting up shop on Mars by the end of the decade. For now, I'll just say that it's difficult for me to imagine any permanent base of any significance by the end of this century.

Caveat two: "Of any significance." Obviously, we HAVE a space station. We had a space shuttle. We made it to the moon. I don't doubt that China or India or even the US might go back to the moon for a visit as a matter of national pride. Maybe we'll get our act together enough to pay a visit to a nearby asteroid. But the kind of "city of wonders in the sky" space station of science fiction is difficult to foresee within the next 100 years. "Cramped RVs parked somewhere between here and the moon," maybe.

Caveat three: I'm only talking about human space flight. Obviously, we've done amazing stuff with rovers, probes, and telescopes. I anticipate the trend will continue. We might be stuck on the planet, but our tools can really travel.

That third caveat, by the way, is the real reason I don't think humans will be heading for another planet anytime in the coming century. The weak point in "manned space flight" is the "manned" part. We simply aren't engineered well for traveling to another planet. Humans have absolutely horrific fuel consumption, we generate a tremendous amount of waste, we are overly complicated and prone to breakdowns. Our sensory arrays are a mess. Our one tiny advantage over machinery is our ability to behave erratically. Mars rovers aren't likely to head for a funny-looking rock on a whim, kick it over, and by chance find some kind of martian worm. But, while our ability to behave randomly and benefit from lucky outcomes may have a huge evolutionary advantage here on earth, outside the bubble of our own biosphere, it's more likely to get us killed.

Consider interstellar travel. When science fiction authors contemplate it, they have to resort to magic to move humans through the void at speeds not just faster than light, but faster than boredom. If it takes the Enterprise five years to get from star to star, Kirk doesn't get to sleep with too many alien babes before he becomes to fat and bald to be a player. Some science fiction writers do tackle this issue by introducing generations ships which are basically self contained worlds. But, trying to move a human biosphere across the void requires a stunning amount of resources compared to moving a robot the size of my cell phone from here to another planet.

Any argument I've ever heard for us leaving the earth seems either self-negating or better tackled by leaving humans out of the equation.

Popular arguments are:

1. We have to leave because a collision is inevitable. We need only look at our moon to see that massive collisions do occur in our neck of the woods. But, unless the object is truly massive, I don't see how evacuating the planet is a superior approach to using robots to intercept the threatening object and steer it away.

2. We will find some resource out there that not here.
Suppose the thing we desire is information. Machines can go wherever we need them to and gather the data we need. If a machine can't go there, we can't go there. Suppose the thing we need is some exotic mineral. The main problem here is that we understand the periodic table pretty well, and any exotic mineral we need is either here already, or else so unstable that it's going to vanish from wherever else it might be found. If we understand chemistry at all, then the same building blocks of nature are going to be found all over the universe. They don't have anything in the Andromeda galaxy we can't put our hands on here. Of course, some matter is more interesting than other. Suppose we get lucky enough to discover life on another world, either Mars or Europa. Yay! The impulse to go and study would be strong.

And that impulse would absolutely have to be resisted. Because if we do find another ecosystem, I can think of nothing more irresponsible than to place a human in the middle of it. Suppose we flew a spaceship filled with humans to Europa. It's a well built machine, with an artificial ecosystem capable of supporting us. Since we can't pack enough food for the journey, we probably have some sort of algae and brine shrimp farming going on, possibly in combination in recycling our waste. Now imagine this ship gets whacked by a rock the size of softball a mile above the surface, and we suddenly spray brine shrimp and algae and human excrement over a hundred mile swath of ice. Then the ship smashes into the surface, and the liquefied remains of the crew seep into the cracks we've opened in the ice. We would have forever contaminated the very thing we went there to examine, an ecosystem untouched by man.

3. We have to leave our planet because we'll outgrow it. You don't have to be blind to see that we are placing severe ecological stress on our planet. We are altering the atmosphere, acidifying the oceans, and creating entire islands of waste plastic. We suck nutrients from the soil by growing crops in places they were never designed to grow. And, we're starting to get really packed in. It's tempting to look at Mars, and dream of a little elbow room. But, honestly, is the fact that we've screwed up our current ecosystem a good argument for leaving it behind, the way Newt Gingrich might abandon a sick wife? Or, couldn't the money and energy spent on a hypothetical mission to Mars be used instead to clean up some of the crap we've dumped in our seas?

The fact is, our current technology is capable of building a space probe and sending it to another solar system. Perhaps the journey would take fifty thousand years. Obviously, we aren't going to spend money on a project that requires so long for a payoff. But, the weak link here is the human need to see results of a project in our own lifetime. On the scale of the universe, fifty thousand years is just a blip.

Perhaps one day we'll beat death, and a race of immortal humans will be able to plan projects that span thousands of years. If not us, then the better designed beings that follow us.

For now, we're stuck with this world, and we're stuck with our fellow men. I advise we take care of both.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Answering the Polygamy Equivalency

Yesterday in New Hampshire, Santorum explained his opposition to same-sex marriage by equating it to polygamy:

Santorum retorted, “Are we saying that everyone should have the right to marry?”
When the audience member told him yes, he shot back, “So anyone can marry can marry anybody else, so, if that’s the case, then everyone can marry several people.”

I hear this a lot, and I always find it a bit perplexing. It seems to be arguing that, if we allow monogomous gay marriage (which is growing in societal acceptance), it opens the door to polygamy (which is opposed by a much wider margin).

But, it doesn't seem to me that gay marriage is the real slippery slope to polygamy. Instead, the slippery slope would be "everyone can marry several people," which is certainly legal and widely practiced by some heterosexuals. Newt Gingrich has married three women, John McCain, two, and Rush Limbaugh, the paragon of all values conservative, is on wife #4. Admittedly, they obey the legal nicety of abandoning their old wives before remarrying, but still, if a heterosexual person wants two, four, or ten spouses, our laws allow it, as long as it's sequential. Isn't the social acceptance of multiple sequential spouses far more likely to lead to polygamy than monogamous homosexual marriage?

Again, I think that people who worry that homosexuals might destroy the meaning of marriage are ignoring the reality that heterosexuals have already devalued it substantially on their own. Homosexual enthusiasm for the institution might be society's best hope of making it mean something again. I suspect that the first generation of legally wed gays will fight extra hard to make their marriages work, since they won't want to give gay marriage opponents the satisfaction of saying, "See, I told you this wouldn't work."

Monday, January 02, 2012

The Hazards of Love, Explained

I've been obsessing over the Decemberist's album the Hazard's of Love. It's a fantastic fairy tale love story told as a rock opera. Most of the story is relatively easy to follow, but there are some gaps that are left open to interpretation. I thought I'd take my stab at interpretting things. If you haven't heard the album, you can probably stop reading right here. I'm addressing this post to people familiar with the work who may be puzzled by certain plot points.

The grand arc of the story is easy. A maiden named Margaret rides into the forest and finds a wounded fawn. She attempts to help the fawn and before her eyes it changes shape into a man, William. Margaret and William share a night of passion. When she returns home, she longs for him, and soon discovers she's pregnant. She returns to the forest and reunites with William, who is deeply in love with her. But, William is the adopted son of the Queen of the Forest, and the Queen is jealous that her child's heart now belongs to someone else. A villianous rake who has murdered his own children passes through the woods, discovers Margaret, and kidnaps her. The Queen is eager to remove Margaret from the forest, so she helps the Rake escape by crossing a raging river. William chases after them, but his horse is afraid to enter the river. Having no time to build a boat, and with the waters too wild to swim, William begs the river to calm down and not drown him, and, in exchange, when he returns, the river can have his life then. The river accepts the bargain; William kills the Rake and when the villain enters hell he's greeted by the ghosts of his dead children who will torment him for all eternity. Alas, all does not end happily ever after, for William still has his bargain with the river, which floods the fortress where he and Margaret have reuinited. As the waters rise, William and Margaret accept thier fate and exchange wedding vows, so they will be united in marriage even in death.

The album contains these major mysteries:

1. At the end of the second track, "The Hazards of Love Part One," a woman can be heard shouting. What she shouts is tough to say, but I believe it is the Queen shouting "You'll feel my wrath, yes!" It's definitely a pissed off shout, and it's deep female voice, which matches that of the Queen. Musically, I think it's a tip of the hat to Pink Floyd's The Wall, where a shout leads into "Another Brick in the Wall"

2. Based on lyrics in the same track, there's some debate as to whether Margaret is a prostitute. I think, given the setting of a "bower," that she is instead a Lady in Waiting, who does entertain men, but chastely. I also think that the "sister" who comes to visit her in the next track is actually the Queen of the forest in disguise. The evidence is that when the "sister" speaks, the Queen's musical theme is playing. When she asks Margaret who the father of her unborn child is, she's searching for confirmation that William has betrayed her trust by falling in love with a human woman. My biggest argument that Margaret isn't a prostitute is that her pregnancy is a scandal to forces her to flee the bower. If the bower is a brothel, as some people argue, then an unwanted pregnancy was probably a pretty run of the mill work hazard, hardly worthy of fleeing into the wilderness to hide.

3. The most controversial claim I'll make is that one of the tracks on the album is out of sequence. Track 8 is The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid. In it, William asks for the freedom to enjoy the night as a man. The Queen agrees, but tells him she'll take his life come morning. However, William certainly seems alive on the rest of the album, so did she not keep her word? Also, William's pleas that he wants to enjoy the night come after he's knocked up Margaret, so he's already been having plenty of fun with his evenings, unless this scene is treated as a flashback or a memory. (In the song immediately before, William and Margaret sleep together beneath a sky full of stars, so perhaps William is dreaming.) In this light, his curse makes sense. The Queen has granted him the freedom to be a man during the night, but during daylight he changes into a white fawn. The Queen did this to ruin his chances of ever finding permanent love with a human woman, but didn't count on Margaret being kinky enough to be turned on by the whole half man/half fawn thing.

4. Another mystery is whether William is the Rake's son. The Rake boasts of murdering his son, burning the body, and burying the ashes in an urn. The Queen tells William that she rescued him from a "cradle of clay." The Queen tells William:

"How I made you
I wrought you
I pulled you
From ore I labored you
From cancer I cradled you
And now: this is how I am repaid?"

"From ore I labored you" could certainly be interpretted that he was nothing but minerals when she found him, which would certainly be the case if he was ash. The beauty of this interpretation is that it makes revenge against the Rake a double revenge. But, despite the poetic justice if it were true, I don't think this interpretation is correct. My main argument would be that the dead boy is singing right along side his sisters during the revenge song. William is one of the distinctive voices on the album, and this boy ain't him. Unless Colin Maloy, the songwriter, says otherwise, I think that William and the burnt son are different people.

5: In the last song, a lot of people seem to feel that William and Margaret are taking a boat back across the river and their ship is sinking, probably because the word "sinking" is actually used.

"Margaret, array the rocks around the hole before we’re sinking
A million stones, a million bones, a million holes within the chinking"

My objection to the boat theory is that William would have to be an idiot to go back to the river, and even more of an idiot to try to take Margeret back to his mother's kingdom. Also, what kind of boat is carrying a million stones? Instead, William has probably been clever enough to think he's not going to go back to the river. But, alas, the river comes to him, flooding the castle where he's rescued Margaret. He has no time to get her to safety. They've retreated to a chamber where they are trying to plug up all the holes so the rising water can't reach them, but the water is gushing through more tiny holes than they can fill. He knows he's brought this fate on her, but tells her that, if they must die, they will die as man and wife.

"But with this long, last rush of air let’s speak our vows in starry whisper
And when the waves came crashing down, he closed his eyes
and softly kissed her."

Thus, death may bring an end to life, but not to love.

Obviously, there's no definitive way of knowing if these interpretations are correct, but I think it's a pretty good mesh with the lyrics. The only remaining point I'm undecided on is whether Margaret is still pregnant when she dies, or if she had the child earlier. In the seventh track, she sings:

"And isn’t it a lovely way
We got in from our play
Isn’t it babe? A sweet little baby"

Is she still pregnant as she's singing this? "A lovely way we got in" could mean that she's pregnant. But, the way she coos "sweet littly baby" makes it easy to imagine she's cradling the child as she sings. If so, what is the fate of the child? It seems odd that it would just vanish from the lyrics. But, I can't see anything that makes a case either way. It's probably the most unsatisfying mystery of the album, since there are no real clues to work with.