Avast! Thar be spoilers ahead!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake is a post-apocalyptic work by Margaret Atwood. The plot shifts back and forth between the present - one human survivor watching over a group of genetically engineered human-like people- and the recent past - during which society is rife with ethical problems that eventually lead to the annihilation of humanity. The world is ruled by corporate interests rather than a government and society is stratified physically separating, and protecting, the haves from the have-nots. The story is sharp, terrifying, painful, funny, and tragic. The tone is ambivalent toward the characters. Though the plot follows only one character, presenting only his point of view, the reader is allowed to decide if his perceptions are accurate and is not encouraged to like or dislike him or anyone else.

I am not a person who likes surprises. I get upset if my husband tells me that he has a present for me several days before I get to find out what the present is. When I first read Good Omens, I kept thinking of how nice it would be to read the book the second time through when I can not worry about the plot and just focus on how it is written. Contrary to common sense, books cause me no less anxiety when I read them the second time. Quite the opposite. I read East of Eden many times, at least once a year, sometimes multiple times in a year, to the point where I often open the book to a particular section I like and just read those parts and then put the book back. I know the story, I have lived with the characters for about 8 years now, the Hamiltons are my friends. But each time I read it, I get tense whenever Charles attacks Adam, when Kate/Cathy starts to drink. Will Joe finally get the breaks? Will Tom handle Dessie's death? Will the ice-pack plan work? Again and again, the story does not change, but the anticipation builds. Do I really think the text will change? No, but I always really hope it will, I am always disappointed when something goes wrong, fearful when something bad is going to happen, something irrevocable, plot changing.

But I try to resist the temptation to read the wiki plot before I read a book (although I almost always do before I watch a movie). I have it on good authority that it is somehow better that way (the books, not the movie). So I try. Truth be told, not even the wiki would have prepared me. So READER BEWARE: If animal cruelty, even if only mentioned in passing, upsets you, then you may not want to read this book. If torture as a sport or kiddie porn is one of your buttons, you probably do not want to read this book.

Which is not to say that the book is about these things. But the main characters, Snowman, Crake and Oryx, meet because the former two saw (or thought they saw) the latter in a kiddie porn flick. Snowman and Crake do not seem to have an aversion to things like watching torture or animal cruelty or child pornography. I suspect that the type of person who does, knows that it is wrong, really, really wrong, and enjoys it for that reason. There seem to be no taboos, or no serious ones, in this culture. I don't know if this is a statement about the availability of this stuff on the internet or the (supposed) increasing desensitization of children toward horrible things.

These things can make me put a book down, throw it away, burn it, leave it out in the rain, shred it. For a couple of days, I even asked my husband if he could put the book where I would not accidentally start reading it again (I'm a little OCD about having text near me, I see written words and I have to read them). Eventually, the nagging feeling of an unfinished plot got to me and I decided that I had to finish it. So I did the only thing I could do, I got out the white out and erased the parts I couldn't deal with. I am hoping that eventually I will actually forget what is written underneath and when I read it again, I won't have to be so bothered.

I am not going to summarize this one because I haven't decided which parts are plot-important and which ones are Meg-important. So I am going to focus on certain elements of the book.


Genetic modification plays an important role in the plot. Animals and plants are modified to produce more food or to mimic the flavor and texture of other food, to be immune or at least resistant to viruses, and to grow organs for transplant into humans. Humanity is also experimented on to prevent at least the signs of aging and to prevent disease. Everything in the book is possible in that, while we perhaps have not achieved these things, we have the knowledge and capability to attempt them and succeed in time. These are not ansibles or warp drives. This is diamond-hard science fiction.

Oryx and Crake constantly pushes the question, "How far is too far?" Genetic engineered food is common in the western world. Plant and animal DNA is being spliced across species. Giant rabbits with green glowing eyes? Sure, I guess, if the glowing doesn't hurt them. But why would I want those eyes? Hormone induced meat animals? I can't afford to choose the alternative. Pigs growing extra organs for human transplant? Supposedly doesn't harm the pigs and afterward the pig doesn't die from loss of its heart. But that doesn't feel right. ChickiNobs? Animals (I guess you can call them that) that grow only one edible part of a chicken, such as a breast or a leg, capable of reproducing in large numbers, but without a head or feet or wings, without feathers, with only an orifice to accept nutrients, with only the parts of the brain the concern digestion, reproduction and growth, incapable of feeling pain. Is that an animal?

The book also toys with Genesis, in that the human-like people, the Crakers, live in a self-sustaining home that provides them with food and protection. They are even vegetarians. Snowman eventually leads them out of their shelter to the world at large when he fears that the electronics maintaining their home may one day cease to function. Snowman also unwittingly sets up elements of a crude religion. They live near the remnants of a destroyed technologically advanced society which they are incapable of understanding. The Crakers are simple, intentionally designed to be so simple that they will not commit the human sin of amassing knowledge. So the simple things they are told tend to take on more meaning. I need to think more about their religion and its development but I can say this for it, at least it has both a male and a female deity. No religion is complete without both.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


A person wakes up in a cell that is 14ft cubed. There is a door on each of the 4 walls, 1 on the ceiling and 1 on the floor (6 doors total). Each door leads into a room that looks exactly like the room he is in save for the color. He enters one of the rooms. As he approaches the center, his body is divided into several cubes of flesh (supposedly from something dropped from the ceiling but he is sliced in 3 dimensions, which doesn't make sense).

A total of 6 other people find themselves within the same maze of cells: an escape artist, a doctor, a cop, an architect, a mathwiz, and a mentally handicapped person. They attempt to navigate the maze and avoid the traps. Tension increases as time elapses.

Throughout the movie, testing for traps becomes more nuanced, usually as the unfortunate result of a previous method failing. First method: use of a boot to trigger motion detectors. Fails: the escape artist triggers an electrochemical sensor and dies from acid sprayed into his face. Second Method: rooms with prime numbers between crawl spaces are trapped. Fails: the cop narrowly avoids a trap of wires after entering a room without a prime number identifier. Third Method: the three numbers are Cartesian co-ordinates which allows them to move to an outside wall. Fails: a room has a co-ordinate that goes beyond the dimensions of the cube (which is 26 rooms cubed); there is a space between the cube and the outer wall and they are several cubes above the ground.

During this time, the cop kills the doctor. He subsequently seems to go mad and attacks the group. The architect separates the cop from the group.

The group discovers that the cubes are moving according to a permutation. The mathwiz can now figure out which room acts a bridge to the outside world. However, she also realizes that the traps are in rooms that are powers of prime numbers (the prime number theory held true because any prime number is itself to the first power). But she cannot factor each number in time to reach the bridge. However, the mentally handicapped gentlemen is revealed to be a savant and can tell the group how many factors any number has. They eventually reach the bridge room. However, the mathwiz and the architect are fatally injured by the reappearing cop, who is himself killed as he is crushed between two cubes. Only the mentally handicapped gentlemen escapes into the bright white unknown.

Anyone who loves the Twilight Zone as much as I do, will recognize the similarities between this movie and the episode Five Characters in Search of an Exit. An army major, a ballerina, the bagpiper, a hobo and a clown wake up in a strange cylindrical room, the open ceiling being the only possible exit, frequented by a loud noise. Each character has their own ideas about where they are: Hell, another planet or spaceship, death, madness, or a dream. Only the major makes it out of the cylinder while the others speculate about where he is now. Outside the cylinder, a toy soldier lays in the snow. It is picked up and placed back into the collection bin. The characters are dolls being collected for a toy drive and the noise is the ringing of a bell by the collector.

Both stories remind me of that hypothetical psychological evaluation question: You are in a white room, there is no door and no windows. What do you do?
The question is supposed to test your feelings toward death. But I think these stories are more a sick metaphor for life. None of the characters can remember how s/he got there and do not know where they are. Especially for Cube, they are victims of forces they cannot easily understand and suffer great set-backs to come to their knowledge. Alas, life is brutish, short and nasty and there is no telling what awaits you when you escape. I'm not sure how the death of the characters plays out in the metaphor.

The movie is pretty awful. At least the dialogue and characters are awful. The movie gives you nothing. You never learn what the cube is, where it is, why it was built, why there are traps, why any one of them is in there, or what happens to the man who escapes. Subsequent films explain more but if you saw this movie in 1997, you were left dissatisfied for a long time. And if you don't like the movie, reading the wiki will probably convince you that the explanations do not satisfy much either. The only reason why I am considering seeing the sequel is because I like numbers and because I want to see tesseracts (the four-dimensional analogue of the cube). Space, time, gravity, etc, are manipulated within the tesseracts. Seriously, how fun does that sound? Probably about as much fun as cubes moving in permutations, signaling traps by powers of primes. Which sounded really awesome to me, but was kinda ruined by the characters.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Queer Questions

Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Galaxy's Child follows Geordi through a rough meeting with Dr Brahms, a woman whose likeness he utilized in a holodeck program to bounce ideas off of to solve problems. Geordi developed strong feelings for the holodeck version and was caught off guard when the real woman did not meet his imagined version. Among the characteristics which the computer failed to accurately replicate was her marital status: married. However, when she begins to tell Geordi that his knowledge of her is blind in some areas, I assumed she was going to say that she was into women.

And I was kind of put off, to be honest, to discover that her big secret was a totally hetero, totally normal marriage. Actually, lately I've been thinking a lot about homosexuality as portrayed by Hollywood. One day, will society look back on all the heterosexual actors playing queer parts with the same disdain we view blackface? Probably not. But there must be plenty of gay actors who aren't landing parts while straight actors play take those roles. Then again, I don't actually know anything about the sexual proclivities of Ms Portman or Ms Kunis.

Now, Star Trek isn't as into hetero-normative monogamous sexuality as most tv shows. Sci-Fi in general is pretty cool when it comes to things like sexual mores. Star Trek just likes to take things to places where society is not always mature enough to handle. So interracial kisses, couples, marriage and copulating? Check. Heck, there were inter-species offspring in the first episode. Polyamorous relationships and marriages? Check. But Star Trek has been pathetic when it comes to queer relationships. Nimoy was cheering Roddenberry on when he wanted to include LBGT crew members. His exact quote was that such characters should "appear unobtrusively aboard the Enterprise — neither objects of pity nor melodramatic attention." Of course, the cast is full of queer heroes but no characters. Which is something I have to keep remembering when I watch the show. Yeah, Takei and Goldberg played important characters but the actors were the queer ones, not the characters.

There is some flirtation with homosexuality. Dr Crusher falls in love with an alien that lives inside of a host body. Initially, the body is that of a male but that body dies and is replaced by a female. Crusher says she cannot continue the relationship not because of the female body but because of the never ending change of host bodies. I actually thought it was the parasite/host relationship that bugged her but since she does not say that, I have nothing but my own feelings to attribute this to. Of course, there is also the great episode The Outcast.

So why no really gay characters? Stupidity, fear and intimidation I guess. I often wonder if someone can actually be into science fiction and also be homophobic but I am afraid I might be a victim of No True Scotsmanism.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Time Travel

I often revisit an argument that my mother and I have about once a year. I've been trying to keep the argument to myself this year because I know she gets worn out by it even though I love it. I don't believe in time travel, at least not the type of time travel that causes a change in history. I believe in the forward moving, approximately one second at a time type of movement that corresponds with a similar shift in space, the type of time in which we experience reality. You know, linear and forward/future moving. Or maybe we are actually moving backward through time and space, but I don't think words like forward and backward make a great deal of sense. Linear time, sure there is sense there. Movement in a single direction along a line that does not intersect with itself. Which was we designate forward or backward doesn't change my sense of free will at all.

So, I am trying to figure out something about matter. One of my chief objections is that matter cannon exist in two places at the same time. So, a few proteins cannot be in my right pinky at the same time it is in a plant leaf. But, if that matter can exist in . . . darn, I just lost the reasoning here. I will have to dig up that Stephen Hawking book again and it will probably take me several months to get back to this stage again.

I started thinking about our ability to see into the past, in a universe way. For example, let's say that a star went super nova 28 billion years ago. That same star is 28 billion light years away from us. So today we can aim our totally-not-at-all-magical telescope out toward that star and watch it go nova 28 billion years after this even actually occurred. This is because the light from the even just traveled all that distance and reached us. So, while the matter did not transcend time (ie that star is not currently going super nova and going super nova 28 billion years ago at the same time just because we are observing it from the future). But the light, because it is both a wave and a particle, can travel through time. And now I can't figure out what that means about matter being in two places at one time since light can be in one place at two times. I mean, it isn't still there 29 billion light years away, we just perceive it now. And of course it has actually traveled the amount of space necessary to travel through that amount of time.

This is the point where I have to accept that there are many things that mankind can know that I will never understand. Hopefully, a few more years will get my brain there.

My mother also imagines that we at our present are the furthest point in history so the future does not exist yet. I am not sure how she conceptualizes the past, whether it has a limit or not. I, on the other hand, view the future exactly like the past. Travel in one direction and everything has a cause and effect, but the physics of one direction are the opposite of the other. So, just as I can no more reach into the past to change things, I cannot reach into the future. the only difference is that in our perception, time moves from past to future and our memory is stored that way.

Think of time like a book that you are reading for the first time. While you are reading it, things are traveling from the left book end to the right book end. Your knowledge of the story goes in the order you are reading it. But what is on page 156 is on that page if you read from pages 1-155 first or if you suddenly skip from 33 to 156 or if you throw the book open and read page 156 before reading any other page or if you read it from 298 (end)-157 before getting there. Of course, if you are reading in Hebrew or in Arabic, reverse the directions I said before (page numbers still apply). The goes for stories written without linear plots.

Oh my. Imagine if our brain organizes the plot of our minds in a linear fashion but we are actually experiencing things in jumps. Like if a book has a prologue that begins in 1948 but the first chapter is written in 1867 and the following chapter is 1888 when the main character turns 21. Or imagine life as written by Proust and all time is merely a reflection back on life from the vantage of a single point in time. All life as reminiscence.

But a dream, indeed.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Best and Worst of Prose

Work. Such a foul four-letter word. I have had little time to read anything, even the back of a shampoo bottle. It is not that I work long hours but that I work with miserable managers, impatient guests, and a computer system which I think has developed sentience and uses its power only to freeze the system at crucial moments.

About a month ago, however, I did manage to read Dandelion Wine, my first Ray Bradbury book ever. It is not a work of science fiction but I have come to understand that song a little better. I don't think I would call him the best science fiction writer in that I doubt very much that the science in his fiction is as good as Le Guin. But he is perhaps, in the genre of science fiction, the best writer of well crafted prose. Although, I am currently straying from sci-fi and rereading Invitation to a Beheading and Nabokov puts most writers to shame. So my sense of comparison is a little off.

Since I am being so indulgent as to read Nabokov, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to read the worst piece of science fiction ever. While I am sure there are plenty of contenders (one day, I may even throw my own hat into that ring), I have accepted the challenge of reading The Eye of Argon. I have barely made it through the first few paragraphs but already I can tell this will be a challenge. I might need to actually print off a copy and go at it with a red pen so soothe my spelling and grammar OCD.

There is a possibility that this will lead me to reread Dune, since it is generally recognized as the best science fiction story ever written but the Jesus and Lawrence of Arabia motifs irk me a bit and I might skip it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Machine Stops

Deus ex Machina

In ancient Greece, actors playing the god(desse)s were either lowered onto the stage by a crane or raised from beneath the stage by a lift. In either case, the god(dess) appears from outside the normal plane of work, coming from nowhere as it were. Deus ex machina. God from the machine or god from our making. Quintus Horatius Flaccus invented the term "deus ex machina" (Greek theos ek mekhanes) when admonishing poets not to use this device when concluding a play because the play or poem must be solved internally from where it develops and not from a character outside of the narrative (who would arrive via a mechanism).

Whenever I think of the term, I erroneously first think "god of machinery" as is the deity were a machine like a computer or the bureaucratic mechanism of a tyrannous government in which each member is personally responsible for small crimes that keep them alleged through shame and guilt. Sometimes I also think of dinosaurs.

Eventually I remember that the god is the machinery from without that resolves the crises, as in the modern god-of-the-lase-minute who rushes to fix life's little foibles when the faithful pray: Oh God, please get me a good parking spot. This is a god that nudges fate when the crises is imminent.

It is curious that the god-of-the-last-minute becomes the god-of-foresight when things go contrary to the wishes of the prayer. This is a god that put all the apparatus of a perfectly executed, mechanized plan from which nothing can deviate. This way, the bad things that happen must happen for a reason, not necessarily as the result of one's own sin because certain tragedies push the plot along. So it was not that the god-of-the-last-minute failed to come through for you but that the god-of-foresight knew this was an important thing to have happened. Somehow, it never matters that the prayer was answered or not because anyone can justify the result in a manner that affirms the existence of a god who intervenes for our benefit. It always seems to me that one should probably give up praying altogether if you believe only in the god-of-foresight because what he wants is going to happen no matter what because god is always right or god who moves in mysterious ways. But if one believes in god-of-the-last-minute, then one ought to always be praying because intervention from disaster can only be averted by complaining . . . er praying.

And if that is the case, then god is pretty messed up because god will let absolutely everything terrible happen if no one acknowledges his power. While some people are so keen to affirm the existence in god that they will claim to approve of this god, I find it rather difficult to believe that they could really believe it if they think much about it. A cute baby deer dies in a forest fire because some punk kid was playing with fireworks on a dry, windy day. Since no once prayed for the deer (assuming deer can't pray), then god just lets the deer suffer and die. That's pretty messed up . . . I am so off topic. Just to wrap up, people probably shouldn't want to believe in the latter. It contradicts another notion that god is good, inerrantly good. Good gods don't let little hypothetical baby animals suffer and die for no reason. So there must be a reason. Ergo, god planned everything already (clockmaker style) so that bad things will must! lead to better things. So praying is pointless but people still want to. Why? It seems that ever since man invented an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator being, man has sought to control his deity through sacrifices, prayer, slaughter, worship.

Perhaps I should have gone into theology. There were the conversations I was hoping to have.

Anyhow, The Machine Stops, by E. M. Forster, is a story with a rather literal interpretation of my first meaning. A machine provides for all of humanity, which lives below ground in hermetic little rooms. The walls of their cells are covered in buttons which represents any need of the inhabitant. For examples, there are buttons for hot and cold baths, buttons to reveal furniture elements, buttons for food, buttons for communication. The surface of the earth is said to be covered with non-breathable air. This set up is rather like that of the Matrix movies, except that each individual is awake, though people generally dislike traveling outside of their cells and practically abhor the idea of touching one another. They are nourished and kept stimulated by means of a machine. I guess this is also kind of like those conspiracy theories from the 90's that the internet was going to prevent people from having to leave their homes because they can work, order food and groceries, and even keep up with their friends via video chat. The underground rooms, which I keep calling pods but I should really call cells, are hexagonal so that the whole city resembles a honeycomb. Although the analogy to a beehive would end there since bees are quite gregarious, like to get out, a serve a key function in its environment by touching things, that is spreading pollen from plant to plant.

Since this book was written in 1909 (beat the Matrix by 90 years!), the concept of an all encompassing mechanized device was a rather forwarding looking concept since this machine is rather like a computer system which is capable of any thousands of possible responses at the direction of the user. Unlike the Matrix, the machine does not feed of the energy of people (a rather ludicrous idea) and seems to care for humans without developing its own sentience - although it is perfectly willing to cull any undesirable elements that might rock the boat.

A young, pale, mushy man named Kuno is one of these undesirables who slipped through the system. Yearning for space, just the concept of space, not even actually space, as in room, itself. Pushing himself ever farther, he becomes really aware of his body in a yoga sort of way. He contacts his mother to express his misgivings about the machine.

His mother, Vashti . . . huh, I hadn't thought about it while I was reading but it comes to me now that Vashti was the original queen in the Book of Esther. She refused to come to him when he drunkenly orders her to do so. She was a very naughty and disobedient wife so she gets banished. Anyhow, Vashti is considered a pretty good person, well bred. She would not deign to be touched by another, even someone trying to catch her as she falls. She shared ideas but didn't originate any. Like her namesake, Vashti refuses to come when her son asks her to visit him. I don't think that her son sent as many as seven requests though. However, Vashti as a queen probably lived in the same state of pampering where her desires and needs were immediately satisfied through the apparatus of servants.

When she visits, she learns that her son may become homeless, which means he would be expelled from his pod home and most certainly die as a result. He had gone up to the surface and explored around in a field for a while. But part of the machinery, which repairs the machinery and underground city, reclaims him and returns him to his pod. Vashti leaves and lives and very proper life. She agrees firmly when ventures to the surface are made impossible by the denial of a breathing apparatus. She also publicly admits her religion with the machine as the godhead, an idea which has become the official norm.

Kuno, meanwhile is note made homeless but he is relocated much closer to his mother (previously he live on the other side of the world). One day he contacts her to tell her that the machine is going to stop. She doesn't understand the idea and tries to dismiss it but certain things became uncertain. Buttons would not always work, the music was distorted somewhat, hot showers were not hot enough and finally the beds stopped appearing. When the lights go out, panic sets in. People are finally aware that the machine is stopping. Many people die from the shock, while others seek means of suicide. Those who do not self destruct are left in silence and darkness. These few come to an enlightened consciousness about the significance of their humanity. These awareness comes just as their world crumbles away and the sky is revealed to them. However, a nice little element of hope comes through, some people who have escaped or been made homeless have banded to together and are able to survive on the surface (I'm assuming having grown accustomed to the density of regular air pressure).

There was a lot in this story that reminded me of Wall-E. There were muscle-less people who communicated exclusively and almost constantly on videophones, even with people right next to them, arm chair people who slurp a liquid diet. The world was thought to be incapable of promoting life in its current condition which is the result of a man-made environmental disaster. A single sentience in the form of a powerful computer keeps the humans in a constant state of appeasement and docility, so dependent on the computer that they cannot conceive in a world without the nurture of the computer, would not want to live in such a world if they could even imagine one and considered the current state as progress, consciousness over corporeality.

Dependence on the machine threatens humanity because rather than help anyone, even themselves, they turn to the machine to do the care-taking. A few weeks ago, I noticed that all of the atheist blogs that I read had something to say about prayer as the laziest form of concern. Someone is sick in a hospital so someone asks everyone to pray about. Since there is no god, nothing happens. Or, according to the god-of-foresight, whatever happens is what was supposed to happen. Oh, yes, this came up on Glee and it was longer ago than I thought. Kurt is upset because everyone wants to pray for his dad. I'm upset because no one offers to let Kurt stay with them or cook a few meals or anything. They just want to pray. Kurt elects to have an acupuncturist attempt to stimulate parts of his brain. I was rather irritated at that since Kurt, who doesn't believe in god, believes is some silly pseudo-medicine. But at least he was trying to do something besides asking their imaginary friend to fix it.

There are a lot of implications in this story about the role of religion or government or technology, but I think the main message was a warning again complacency, against good-enough. It is an argument in favor of experience over the ivory tower, self-determination over instant gratification.

I wonder if this is the same machine in The Machine Rages On.

Monday, February 21, 2011

2001: A Space Odyssey

I have a confession to make. I've never been able to watch Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of the book. Mitch, my biological father, was really into the 2001 series and the movie. He tried to get me to watch it a few times.

I can make it through the apes and the stewardess walking with Velcro shoes. I think I even made it to the big monolith on the moon once or at least I have an imagine in my mind of men in space suits trying to hold their ears when it emitted a loud noise. But I always find my mind wandering when the satellites are doing their German waltz and then I go find something better to do. Actually, it is possible I even made it to the Discovery since a picture of someone running in a centrifuge looks familiar.

Of course, I have seen numerous spoofs of Hal on TV shows like The Simpsons and Futurama where a computer or spaceship develops human emotions that lead the computer/spaceship to threaten physical harm or death to humans/aliens/robots. Generally, the computer/robot is shown to be malevolent, desiring to possess something and willing to destroy anything that gets in its way. Now that I think about it, the iRobot film follows this plot in that a supercomputer determines that humans are not fit to take care of themselves and must more or less enslave humans for their well being.

The movie and the book were written to go together with the book being published just after the release of the film. If you have both seen the movie and read the book, I think you will agree with me that the order is wrong. The movie is largely a visualization without a complete narrative to nicely link all the images together. It is also vague, or enigmatic if you want a more positive sounding word.

For example, a bunch of apes see this big black slab and go, well, bananas and start smashing things with bones. You can somewhat deduce that this is the discovery of tools and weapons but what did that have to do with the monolith? The book treats this part of the tale seriously. A group of hominids, not yet human but nearing, wake up one morning to discover the monolith. Each evening, the monolith captures the attention of the group to run tests. The hominids are hungry, near starvation and extinction. The monolith manipulates the bodies and minds of the creatures to suggest to them new ways of doing things and to inspire within them the concept of being sated. Over time, many months, some of them begin to use tools such as bones as weapons to take down meat. This is not only the discovery of weaponry and tools but also a discovery of meat as part of the hominid diet. Later, nearly by accident, the hominids discover that these weapons can also be used for defense (against a leopard) and offense (against a rival group with whom they compete for food). Once the hominids reach this state in their development, the monolith disappears. But now the hominids have the concept of tools, which will lead them through 3 million years of development until mankind, the heir of the hominids, is ready to explore space.

The monolith is evidence of an alien life that, yearning for intelligent company, encourages and develops the mental faculties of other species. It rescues the hominid species from extinction in the hope that eventually, the species would grow. A beautiful idea of benevolent alien interaction. You can watch Star Trek TNG episode The Chase (6:20) which has a similar plot. As does Clarke's Childhoods End. So far I have made references to three works, none of which I have written about, all of which I enjoyed very much.

Is this even implied in the movie? Why is it that everyone remembers the music and HAL but not the hypothetical alien life and possible human evolution to something greater than what we are? We tend to think that evolution stops here, that life as we know it is the best this planet can do. Clark seems to think that we are capable of becoming more, even at the precipice of nuclear war.

HAL is also a more interesting problem. An intelligent computer capable of completing the entire mission on his own, HAL has been programmed with a single moral: to tell the truth. This mission requires that he violate that one moral. The difficulty HAL faces in concealing and deceiving causes him to develop a neurosis. The very bad things that he does (killing 4 people, for example) are a result of his attempt to rectify his cognitive dissonance. It is implied that HAL, being a computer of extraordinary capabilities, such as the power to solve problems through heuristics, also is capable of emotions. HAL shows both concern and fear in the novel (probably in the movie, too), as well as anxiety over his deceit. HAL also has a very real fear of death. While Bowman wants to shut off portions of HAL's system to fix errors and reboot (how very like modern computers, eh?), HAL understands this as death since he is unfamiliar with sleep and does not understand that he can come back after being shut down. I suppose that in HAL's mind, he was defending his life when he killed the others.

I do have something positive to say about the movie, it was beautifully scientifically accurate as far as space travel was concerned - as was the book. The artificial gravity created by centrifuge, the food and toilet issues, walking in zero gravity, the design of the Discovery, the lack of sound in space, time delay in communications (which I think were rather optimistic but so was getting to the Moon in a matter of hours), the look of the hominids was based on works by anthropologist and all-around-awesomist Leakey. There are some problems in the film, most of which could not be avoided (like the way liquids and small solids would move in zero gravity). But overall, I think they did their homework.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


In the episode Pen Pals in Star Trek TNG, Wesley is having a difficult time leading a small geological survey team and asks for help from Commander Riker. It is his first experience being in charge of a team and all of those under his authority are older and more experienced than him. He cannot determine if and when he should yield to the wisdom of others or trust in his own wisdom. In particular, Wesley believes a certain scan should be conducted but the person he asks says that it would be a waste of time. Wesley is concerned not only that he cannot lead but that he may make a mistake and eventually one of his mistakes will cost a life.* This survey is something of a test and a practice lesson for Wesley to prepare him both for the academy and for his much-anticipated role as the smartest, bestest, most specialist leader of all leaders in the universe.**

Riker's advice:
"In your position it's important to ask yourself one question: what would Picard do?"

This is much more useful advice, I think, than trying to figure out what Jesus would do since Jesus never had to deal with things like farm subsidies, animal abuse, challenging ammoral laws institutionalized by a democratic vote, paying off student loans. In fact, I can't think of very much a 1st century Jewish Palestinian peasant and a 21st century atheist American scholar have in common. But me and a 24th century scholar with an interest in archaeology, semantics, horse riding and fencing, committed to truth and exploration . . . I can think of a lot we have in common. And while we may not share a cup of Earl Grey, his tact and decision making skills are something everyone can aspire to.

*Wesley does have the scan completed and the information gained from it is vital in saving the inhabitants of a nearby planet.
** Yeah, sometimes the magic of the Mary Sue gets on my nerves.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Child

Women's Rights in the 24th Century

In this episode, Counselor Troi becomes impregnated by an unknown being. The fetus develops rapidly, completing full gestation in two days. The rate of growth seems to increase since the child ages 4 years in the following day. The child later is revealed to be a problem because he emits a radiation that causes a plague virus to grow (the virus is needed to make a cure).

When the captain becomes aware of her pregnancy, he calls a meeting of the heads of staff, Warf, Data, Dr Polaski (Dr Crusher is not on board), Geordi etc to determine what is to be done. About her pregnancy, her pregnancy. A conversation begins about the danger the potential fetus may threaten, if terminating the pregnancy would harm Troi, when they should terminate, what loss to science an abortion would be. Troi, meanwhile, has been forgotten. No one asks her what she wants for her body, her child. Even in a world of acceptable abortion, she is not given a choice. But she takes the choice for herself and decides to carry the fetus to term and raise the child. That is the right to choose, not only to choose abortion but also to choose to carry a fetus to term.

Orientation in Space

I've watched about 8 or 9 episodes during my Next Generation marathon and have only just realized something curious indeed. Whenever the Enterprise encounters another vessel, no matter the species or size or type of vessel or if one or both had been cloaked previously, they are always oriented the exact same way as the enterprise. Is this easier for television? Was this something no one considered? Is there some universally agreed upon direction that is up? Some type of automatic system that senses the orientation of other ships and adjusts even when other sensors cannot detect the ship?