100 sf

Friday, August 31, 2007

A Far-Away Legacy

I have mixed feelings about Star Wars. On the one hand, one of my earliest memories was standing outside of a movie theater in Michigan City with my dad, mom, and two brothers, waiting to get in to see the original film. I’ve been a space geek ever since that day, so much so that my parents had to coax me into seeing the first Indiana Jones film by telling me that Han Solo was the star. Lucky for me they did, because I loved that film too. However, Star Wars ruined sf filmmaking. Small, thoughtful sf films like The Man Who Fell to Earth were the hallmark of 70s cinema until SW came along. Now genre films tend to be large, lights-and-explosions affairs with little content or thoughtfulness, even when their source material is a metaphor-laced story by Philip K. Dick or Brian Aldiss. But I also must admit that SW’s place in pop culture is one of the few things that tugs at my thin feelings of nostalgia, and I still get chills from the opening sequence from the series. What a sucker, eh?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Simple Plan

I know I don’t live in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or one of the other top cycling communities in the United States, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have certain expectations for St. Louis...like good bike parking. St. Louis' bike parking situation sucks! A rack in back by the dumpster at a box store or a dish drainer outside a shopping strip or a nice rack along a busy multi-lane road with no shoulder that few bicyclists would be caught dead (literally) riding along ain’t doing it for me or the community. So if I’m going to dream, I might as well dream big.

Suggestion 1: Secure parking

In California and Oregon they have these handy, secure metal boxes that store your bike for a small fee. Mostly they're located near public transportation stops. I could see them working in downtown St. Louis near Washington, at the Clayton Metro Center, and where the crappy, abandoned auto shop now stands on Delmar. The following video illustrates. Please ignore the early focus on New York.

Suggestion 2: Take away car parking

Bicycles take up a lot less room than cars. One and a half car spaces, according to a plan Portland now uses, equal enough room for thirteen bike racks. So take a couple of car spaces out and put in some darn bike racks! Something this *radical* would surely work on Delmar. There are too many cars on the street as it is. Delmar needs to be more pedestrian and bicycle friendly, and it needs to become less conducive to auto traffic. A perfect spot for the type of design in the following video would be where the curb juts in/out near Meshuggah. Taking one or two spots away from cars there would hardly affect traffic flow (unfortunately), and it would create a place to park all those bikes that currently litter the parking meters and trees along the street without affecting pedestrian life. It would also get Mr. Patterson to write a nice blog post about how St. Louis did something right for once.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

#23: The Door Into Summer (1957) by Robert A. Heinlein

“I wish that those precious esthetes who sneer at progress and prattle about the superior beauties of the past could have been with me--dishes that let food get chilled, shirts that had to be laundered, bathroom mirrors that steamed up when you needed them, runny noses, dirt underfoot and dirt in your lungs--I had become used to a better way of living and 1970 was a series of petty frustrations until I got the hang of it again.”

“You can’t do much if you do time travel. As Fort said, you railroad only when it comes time to railroad.”

Robert Heinlein begins The Door Into Summer with a noir setup. Daniel Boone Davis is on a drinking binge, and his only friend is the surprisingly loquacious Petronius the Arbiter, or “Pete,” his pet cat and moral consciousness. Davis has just been swindled out the company he founded, Hired Girl, Inc., by his war buddy and business partner Miles Gentry and Davis’ fiancée, a noir vixen named Belle Darkin. Hired Girl makes robots that do house chores, and Davis was too deep into developing the greatest robotic service device ever, Flexible Frank, to notice that Belle was cozying up to Miles and plotting against Davis with the aid of her “prenuptial gift”--enough shares in Hired Girl to vote with Miles against Davis’ wishes. Next thing you know, Davis is thrown out of the company with nothing more than a few shares. He was too naïve to even patent Flexible Frank, which is the now the property of the company. Davis decides to turn to a get-rich-quick scheme called “Cold Sleep.”

“Cold Sleep” is a commercially available suspended animation procedure. It was first developed in the 60s (the current year is 1970) for mass troop mobilization during America’s successful “Six-Week War” with the Communists. Now folks use it as an investment accelerator. Buy some stocks at age 30, go to sleep for 30 years, wake up at age 30 with an overnight 30-year return on your investment.

However, when Davis awakens in the year 2000, he finds himself penniless instead. But no worries. Davis is a Heinleinian hero after all. Step one, grab boot strings with both hands. Step two, pull. With Miles and Belle long gone from the company, Davis gets hired back on with Hired Girl as a promotional figure--company-father-returns-to-see-the-fruits-of-his-labor type-of-thing. Between photo shoots, he spends his free time catching up on the latest engineering, plotting revenge, and looking for…now did I say that Pete was the only friend Davis had. That isn’t entirely true. See, Davis also had a very close relationship with Miles’ 11-year-old stepdaughter Ricky “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” Heinicke. But Davis has had trouble over this girl for a long time. She was much like an adult at 11, but of course she was way too young for him. Which is why he allowed himself to fall for Belle in the first place. In 2000, she’d be 41 and perhaps too old for him. But he looks for her anyway. However, it turns out she took the sleep too. My, oh, my, what is a man to do? You’ll just have to find out for yourself.

But that’s only the first half of the story. Things really get cooking when Davis finds out about the very real possibilities of time travel. And before you know it, he’s hooking up with nudist lawyers, smuggling gold, and returning to the scene of a crime he’s already been at. Many people would call that last one a time paradox, but it’s not a problem for Heinlein. He didn’t believe in them. If God created a physical universe that allows for two of the same person to be in the same place at the same time, it’s just nature.

Like most of Heinlein's best known work, The Door Into Summer is widely available new, used, and at libraries.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Sex, Violence, and Politics: A Sketchy Profile of Robert Anson Heinlein

A more thorough investigation of Robert A. Heinlein than what follows can be found elsewhere, even Wikipedia. I’d suggest, for instance, the chapter “How SF Defused the Bomb” in The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of by Thomas Disch (available for purchase at my place of work, Subterranean Books), the entry on Heinlein in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (ridiculously out of print), and Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction by Marxist critic H. Bruce Franklin (unnecessarily out of print, but a limited number of copies are available from Franklin direct). Nonetheless, I’d like to say a couple of things about the old boy. First, he was born and raised in Missouri, and that should be a source of pride for us Missourians. Heinlein defined American science fiction in the 50s and 60s. Say what you want about Asimov, but there was not a more influential sf writer in America during that period. Partly that had to do with Heinlein’s unique ability to square pulpy, fast-paced dialogue and narration with hard science. The sensitive man with a slide ruler who can kick some butt while dressed in patriotism is a character no one but Heinlein would have thought to write. And his characters are a reflection of his seemingly contradictory political views. On the one hand, Heinlein was a strong supporter of the military. He himself spent time in the navy before being discharged due to pulmonary tuberculosis. On the other hand, a novel like Stranger in a Strange Land (also available at Subby) was a literary gateway to the counterculture of the late 60s--a rather anti-military movement. (Though he claimed otherwise later in life, Heinlein was also, for a time, a member of Upton Sinclair's Socialist EPIC movement.) Mostly this was because of the recurring theme of sexual liberation in Heinlein’s work: nudism, sex changes, and cross-generational dating. Rarely does a character make it through to the end of one of his novels without taking his or her clothes off and bedding a fellow Heinleinian construct. Heinlein himself was married three times, though he remained with his third wife, Virginia, until his death forty years after they first married. He’s often lauded as a Libertarian hero, but perhaps he’d be better described as a right-wing anarchist. He certainly wouldn’t have been mates with the Neo-Cons of today’s politics. I find his writing damned infuriating and outrageous, but way too entertaining to put down. What can I say? He's a Grand Master.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

An Anniversary of Sorts

I like numbers that are divisible by five for some reason. I spent five years in undergraduate, my wife and I married five years from our first date, and five years ago this month I sold my car for good to my friend Kristopher. My wife and I have been a car-lite family, and I’ve been a dedicated public transportation rider, ever since. For the bulk of those five years, I occasionally took a spin on my decades-old, left-over-from-my-high-school-days 10-speed bike. But all that changed back in the spring when I upgraded to a hybrid and started adding bike commutes, quick runs to the grocery store and library by bike, and so on. I’ve lost 15 lbs in that time (also divisible by five) and have started a deep love affair with my Giant bicycle. This is all just to say that if a once car-loving, fast-food-eating, devout sf geek can cut down the use of a car to just a couple of times a month, anyone can. Don’t get me wrong, I love technology. But technology is an instrument that can be used for good or bad, and we’ve made four-wheel, high-powered transportation into an insane energy whore. A bicycle is still the most efficient form of transportation, and I love efficiency.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Star Wars: Making You Dumber Than You Need to Be

FYI: Gene Siskel saw Jedi at the same Michigan City movie theater I saw all three films at when I was a kid.

Monday, August 06, 2007

#22: The City and the Stars (1956) by Arthur C. Clarke

“Like a glowing jewel, the city lay upon the breast of the desert. Once it had known change and alteration, but now Time passed it by. Night and day fled across the desert’s face, but in the streets of Diaspar it was always afternoon, and darkness never came. The long winter nights might dust the desert with frost, as the last moisture left in the thin air of Earth congealed--but the city knew neither heat nor cold. It had no contact with the outer world; it was a universe itself.”

“He was always wanting to go outside, both in reality and in dream. Yet to everyone in Diaspar, ‘outside’ was a nightmare that they could not face. They would never talk about it if it could be avoided; it was something unclean and evil.”

Alvin is a boy who wants more than life currently has to offer him. He lives on Earth a billion years from now, and everything around him is desert. He lives in Diaspar, a walled-in city that's the last on the planet, and the people of Diaspar are agoraphobic to the point of not even being able to look over the city walls at what lies beyond. A long time in the past, humans traveled the galaxy, but then they ran foul of an aggressively expanding civilization called “the Invaders.” Violence ensued; many human lives were lost. Humans and Invaders eventually made a pact. If humans stay on Earth and never travel the stars again, the Invaders won’t wipe them out. Or at least, this is the story the people of Diaspar have been told for millions of years…

Diaspar is kind of like a sophisticated Second Life. A central computer maintains everything in and about the city. The computer controls the rise and fall of the urban landscape, as well as the memories and essences of people. Folks aren’t born, they’re created…over and over. When reborn, the new you comes out bellybuttonless and fully formed, and after about twenty years, your old memories return too--with a little editing. Objects can be gained through thought alone. I want a beer…(poof)…there it is. People go around through a kind of Second-Life avatar. Large gatherings, for instance, usually include no physical beings; Alvin has rarely been in the physical company of his “parents,” who are more like assigned guardians. And kids play virtual reality games that are fantasy quests that reinforce the status quo (“don’t leave the city”).

Alvin has had enough; he wants to know what’s outside Diaspar. In particular, he wants to see the stars. And an odd fellow named Khedron the Jester befriends him in this quest. Khedron is an element of chaos planted in society by the central computer (or rather the designers/programmers of the central computer). The thought is that utopia without crime is too much of a bore; a little chaos does a society good. Khedron helps Alvin find a way out of the city because it will shake things up. Lucky for Alvin and unknown by any other Diaspar resident, an ancient tram system exists underground. It's in bad shape, but it can still make it to one destination…a place called Lys. Alvin takes a free ride.

Lys turns out to be another human settlement, but one quite different from Diaspar: rural and resistant to the technologies of Diaspar. People in Lys are born and die naturally, and they want nothing to do with Diaspar and its unnatural ways. Lys residents have their own irrational fears, thank you. Once Alvin finds Lys, his journey truly begins.

Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars has a fantasy element--the hero’s quest--that separates it from the rest of his (hard-science) work. But the investigation of the unknown and the Clarke paradox (a belief in the power of science to make human life better while simultaneously looking to a higher intelligence--but not a god--to help usher human progress along) are as present here as in his other writing. And fantasy notwithstanding, Clarke’s intention in the novel is clear. Humans are bettered through science and questioning. In this way, Alvin is as Clarkean as one can get, and the novel is in good science-fiction company.

Like many good sf novels, The City and the Stars is not widely available in an in-print edition. However, the St. Louis City and County libraries both have a copy.