Archive for August, 2009

Differences and Comparisons in an Alternate World.

August 29, 2009

The main reason for using an earlier alternate Earth as scenario for a novel or a series is the freedom to explore events that did not happen in our world. I’ve already covered the absence of a Roman Empire. A bigger distortion, following critical suggestions from early readers, was the introduction of the prior arrival of another group of off-worlders – the crew of a lost star-cruiser from yet another alternate Earth. Yeah, I felt it stretched credibility too far as well.

This criticism of my original scenario took place near the summit of the hubris under which the Bush administration took on two wars that they thought would be walk-overs. My critiquers didn’t accept that any society without advanced technology could pose a threat to a modern intrusion. Hello, Iraq and Afghanistan. We now know better – in fact I knew better then – but I felt I should cater to the beliefs of my potential readers.

So I added the Trigons to the series, conquering the indigenous Greco-Carthaginian Empire about two hundred years earlier. I had felt the indigenous empire was all too capable of getting the better of my hi-tech arrivals, and so I postulated only a couple of hundred Trigons who had intermarried to the point that they had become a foreign aristocracy who devoted most of their energy to protecting their privileges from the locals – much like the Normans in 11th/12th century England. I did keep my intention of showing that a lack of technological expertise doesn’t mean the local antagonists are incompetent, and also that in any conflict situation it is morale, belief system, and courage that wins every time. Unless you happen to be sitting in Langley, Virginia, and bombing some helpless individuals in Pakistan, but then the degree of arrogance displayed is counter-productive to any future settlement.

The Trigons were from a society technologically more advanced than my Iskander Earthlings, but they were a military crew, capable of operating their star-cruiser efficiently, but no more capable of maintaining or replacing it than would the modern crew of an atomic submarine be of doing the same to theirs. When refueling or major maintenance is needed on any of these modern ‘wonders’ they have to be taken to the specialist installations to have the work carried out by a whole new team. No wonder then that the Trigon conquerors lost not only the use of their star-cruiser in the intervening 200 years, but also the ability to maintain a technologically advanced society. They are right back to the same 17th century infrastructure that the locals had created.

Which brings me to the reasons for picking the late 17th century for my Gaian society. Firstly it has to be the romance of the period. In Earth history this is squarely located in the middle of  “Three Musketeers” territory with all the excitement of swordfighting and sailing ships. The early financial empires, the Fuggers and the Medici, had begun to give way to national banks in Venice, Holland, and England. The primitive broadside warships of the Armada period had given way to the standardized ‘rates’ and fleet tactics of the Anglo-Dutch wars. Ships and mariners could undertake routine ocean voyages – not without periodic disasters, but more certainly than could the sailors of Philip and Elizabeth’s time. The pike was being superseded by the musket and bayonet, and field artillery had become more of a battlefield weapon than the old cannon hauled by teams of oxen. The early glimmers of science were beginning to make way against the dead weight of revealed knowledge and superstition.

The next reason has to be the availability of good historical records of the period. I have to admit that my depth of research would be considered scanty in a history department, but with two good  works to bookend the period available, I can easily find extra publications to expand on particulars. For my window into the thoughts, society, and actions of my 17th century Gaians, I found Samuel Pepy’s Diary to be a valuable source. For my guide to the politics and campaigns of the period I find Sir Winston Churchill’s biography of his ancestor John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, to be more than adequate. I have a collection of history books that I have accumulated over the years – almost too many to detail, but I’ll mention some – “European Economic History”; “25 Centuries of Sea Warfare” and N.A.M. Rodger’s “Naval Histories of Britain”; “Western Civilization”; “By the Sword”; “A Brief History of Science”; “The Lore of Ships”; “Anne of England”; “The Old European Order”; as well as all the instant sources to hand on the Internet.

I particularly like the date, 1670, the year in which a young woman called Julie d’Aubigny was born. For readers who find my heroine Gisel Matah to be a bit too hard to believe, I’ll mention something of what is known about “La Maupin”. Julie was born to the wife of a minor nobleman, Gaston d’Aubigny, a secretary to the Compte d’Armagnac. Gaston had two passions in life – womanizing and sword fencing – and having no sons to train devoted his attention to his daughter. Perhaps he also thought he should give her some advantage in life to protect her from men like himself. Anyway, by the time Julie was sixteen she could better most of the men who came to her father’s Salle – his swordfighting gymnasium at the Count’s chateau.

Julie was also somewhat precocious, becoming the mistress of the Count at the age of 16, and going on to a collection of lovers – male and female – over the following 20 years. She also had a husband who she lived with once, a fellow called Maupin who the Compte d’Armagnac had selected to prevent scandals should she become pregnant. Julie sometimes fought as a man and sometimes as a woman, and had at least one lover with whom she operated a fencing school. She also had a fine, if untrained, contralto voice and sang in opera in Marseilles and Paris.

Her most notorious exploit was the time she attended a ball given by the King’s brother, the Duc d’Orleans, dressed as a man. She attempted to seduce three young noblewomen at the ball, leading to challenges from three courtiers who were their escorts. Julie readily accepted the challenges, dismissed their complaints that the streetlights were out with the observation that the moonlight was sufficient, and defeated all three of them. King Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, was furious at her wounding three of his courtiers and wanted her thrown into the Bastille. One account says that Monsieur, the King’s brother, interceded on her behalf, but the version I like says she had an interview with the king herself and charmed him into forgiving her.

Julie died young, giving up her wild life and the Paris Opera in 1705 to enter a convent, where she died a couple of years later. She deserves a new novel to be written about her – to complement the one written in 1835 – but I’m not sure whether to attempt it. As my historian friend at the University of Calgary says, my French isn’t up to original research. She did suggest a couple of English language sources I might try, but … we shall see


Some Cosmology and Gaian History.

August 21, 2009

Maybe time to take a break from Earth 2309. How did the current cultures of Gaia evolve?

I will start with the underpinnings. First I suppose I should mention the underlying mechanisms of an Alternate Earth that guided my conception. The Many Worlds theory is a part of Quantum Mechanics that attempts to account for the randomness of quantum events.

Erwin Schrodinger was a physicist who contributed one of the most important bricks in the edifice of the developing quantum theories in the early 1930s – his … “derivation” of the wave equation for time independent systems, and showed that it gave the correct energy eigenvalues for the hydrogen-like atom. This paper has been universally celebrated as one of the most important achievements of the twentieth century, and created a revolution in quantum mechanics, and indeed of all physics and chemistry. (Wikipedia)

He was a friend of Albert Einstein and entered into personal correspondence over Einstein’s reluctance to accept quantum theory as ‘complete’. The issue of the actuality of the collapse of the wave function in quantum theory creating paradoxical events in the macroscopic world was their source of dissension. The Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment was one of the outcomes of the correspondence.

Consider a closed box, containing a cat, a vial of poison gas, and a radiation counter. The radiation counter is set to capture a quantum event – the random event of the decay of a radioactive atom – which will either release the poison or not. Quantum mechanics says that until the outcome of the experiment is observed and the wave function collapses, both events take place – inside the closed box the cat is both poisoned and not poisoned. It was difficult to accept the idea of the cat being both alive and dead simultaneously.

One of the concepts devised to account for this was the Many Worlds Theory. Whenever an event such as this occurs in the universe a bifurcation occurs – the path of reality splits into two so that one of the events satisfies logic in each of the resulting alternative worlds. Each event that could have more than one outcome upon the collapse of a wave function results in more separate and non-communicating worlds being split off.

As a novelist, I followed the popular version of this. I presented the cause of the existence of an alternate Earth to a different outcome to the Punic Wars – Carthage was not destroyed by the Romans under Scipio, because the Carthaginians under Hannibal had defeated Rome’s armies and sacked the city some 40 years before. On Gaia, the ancient Greek name for Earth, there had never been a powerful Roman Empire. In fact all trace of Rome’s history was lost, and Greek and Carthaginian accounts and civilization prevailed. From approximately 200 BCE, the history of Gaia diverged from ours.

In fact there was nothing labeled a BCE – before Christian era – on Gaia. The events in the Holy Land of the Roman Empire that gave rise to the creation of the Christian religion never took place. The most powerful religion in the West of Gaia is that of the Holy Flame – a syncretism between the Zoroastrian and Greek philosophies. The Gaian dates are counted from the birth of Zoroastrianism. In the Far East, these Mediterranean events had no effect upon the local religions, except for the contacts carried by pilgrims and travelling scholars, and Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism and others are substantially the same as in our world. I have to qualify this in one significant way – with no Christian religion to act as a stimulus, the philosophy of Medina – Islam – never became a powerful force and thus the Buddhist culture of India was never put to the fire and the sword.

A small side track is needed to cover Judaism. With the prevailing empire around the Mediterranean being Semitic instead of Caucasian, the Jews never suffered the same persecutions, conquest, and diaspora. They and their religion never disappeared, but became a philosophical thread within the paganism of Carthage – in much the same way as surviving fragments of Buddhism merged into some of the lines of thought in Hinduism. The other philosophical threads of the Holy Flame religion were pagan Greek, which had the same enormous influence on the resulting theology as they did on early Christianity.

But back to the physics – how did the Iskander drift from one unconnected alternate world to another? Doesn’t that imply connection? I am a skeptic of the current mathematical fantasies that produce String Theory and its related cosmology. Karl Popper pointed out that to be truly science a theory had to be able to be disproveable – it had to state the outcome of an experiment that could be tested. Since String Theory is still looking for the required indisputable experiment that fails to find fault with it, it exists as much as fantasy as science. While some of the younger physicists imagine all kinds of connections between their mathematical games and science fiction none of their musings have more credibility than the stories of fantasy. They suggest that some feature within the equations they call worm-holes could be mechanically manipulated to act as the hyperspace jumps of their boyhood readings.

With their strict anthropocentric viewpoints they suggest that only the first four of the dimensions within the 11 (or 12 in some versions) dimension mathematics of String Theory are developed into reality to form our four-dimensional environment, while the other dimensions are curled upon themselves and thus have no real substance. This is not verifiable. Taking the proposals of physicist David Bohm about the implicate and explicate order of the universe as a guide – there is just as much logic in accepting all the dimensions as real, if not normally accessible. The seven ‘unextended’ dimensions could even be the real framework of the universe while our four are merely a ‘special case’ – drifting like a scrap of paper on a cosmic wind.

The Iskander could have diverged into one of these superluminal dimensions and emerged into the Gaia universe just as readily as accomplishing its intention to bypass a thousand or so light-years of ours and arrive at N-3. More about Gaia next time.

The world scene in Iskander’s 2309.

August 14, 2009

I mentioned in the post before last that I envisaged the intended Iskander mission, developing the infrastructure on the colony world N-3, would be a corporate one. This wasn’t because I particularly admire corporate projects, although I have been employed in a few good ones, but because it reflects the social and economic changes necessary before the crises threatening the world can be dealt with. I guess my postulating a technologically active world in 2309 is itself a vote of confidence that this will happen.

Before disasters such as runaway climate change and nuclear warfare through proliferation can be controlled it is essential that both corporate and public enterprises cooperate instead of preying on one another, and that the operating charters of each hold up the furtherance of the public good as their primary responsibility. This would bring an end to such crimes as the huge resources deployed by the oil and coal lobby to prevent any meaningful legislation to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The course of public policy once established should be an inviolable principle and any action to hinder it would become a criminal offence.

Similarly the military-industrial complexes worldwide and their huge misuse of public resources, not only in the USA, must be reined in and the cultivating of trained xenophobes in military circles ended. Many years ago I proposed in the disarmament newsletter I edited that the only military force allowed in the world should be operated as a single international force under a world body. I hesitate to say this should be the United Nations because of the inherent limitations of the present world body caused by the power plays of the nations that set it up.

In my 2309 Earth, the General Assembly of the UN would be replaced by an elected body, requiring universal suffrage, and the present Security Council would be the executive arm of that elected body. This is impossible to create within the charter of the UN and so a new international body must replace it.

How does climate change develop in my projected Iskander Earth of 2309? Firstly, I see no meaningful action to control greenhouse emissions until the last quarter of the 21st century – perhaps even later. Nothing meaningful will be done until the Netherlands and Manhattan are under water. The costs of containing or even mitigating the disaster will be, as promised, far in excess of the cost we would incur in curbing it today (or yesterday, when the need was first pointed out.) My biggest regret is that those who have blocked action for their own personal gain will be dead and buried when the full extent of the crime cripples civilization, and they cannot serve the life sentences of hard labour they deserve.

What are some of the features of Iskander 2309 that shape their world? The US will be hit particularly hard by climate change and social pressures. Not only will the southern states become full deserts rather than semi-deserts, but the coastal regions that account for a significant portion of the national wealth will be swamped and uninhabitable. The mid-west corn belt will be completely unproductive, even with the water diversion from Canada that a future quisling government in Ottawa will cave in to. The unbalanced social structure where the top 0.01% make 6% of the income (and the top 10% make 50%) particularly mitigates against developing a sound social system where everyone works together to solve problems. Today’s news reflects that. All the sun-belt developments will become ghost towns as the people board up the windows and return north where the last of the water resources can be eked out. The remains of the Great Lakes will be the last existing National Parks, but they will no longer be deep enough to float an ocean going freighter.

What will happen to nuclear non-proliferation, currently a project on the Obama to-do list? I predict that the Obama administration initiative will die an ignominious death because nothing can be done without bargaining between the Israeli nuclear arsenal and the Islamic ones – the existing Pakistani and the possible Iranian ones. The Jewish lobby in the US will man the barricades on this one, because even admitting the existence of Israel’s nuclear weapons will be a huge setback to their preponderance of power, and I predict Obama will blink.

I hate to suggest the awful outcome of the standoff in the region, but all indicators point to the impossibility of settling the Palestinian/Israeli issue as a two state solution. It will never happen. Not two real states, each with full national powers, living peacefully side by side. That leaves only a single state, with either one side or the other in the driving seat, and at best, continual political strife in the single legislative assembly representing everyone. At worst, it will lead to continued civil strife and bloodshed until one side has taken more hits than they can sustain.

If the fratricidal conflict in the Middle East (they are both Semitic peoples) escalates it seems inevitable that nuclear weapons will be used. Perhaps the ultimate sacrifice of so many innocents will provide the driving force for the rest of the world to firmly say. “Never again” and actually work toward nuclear disarmament.

I think that’s enough prediction for today. It leaves untouched the size of the world population in 2309, which will determine the amount of resources the world will have to launch ambitious programs like the N-3 colony. It also leaves my estimation whether such an off-world endeavor would ever be possible – a given in the series scenario but still a big doubt in my own mind. I have not suggested any name for the top dog among the world’s nations, or even presented a case for believing that national administrations will whither away as people become more used to a  multicultural world and more mature institutions. Perhaps the readers already have their own ideas on these matters.

Real or Artifice?

August 8, 2009

What are the features we would find most remarkable in my 2309 Iskander Earth? I would suggest that the present unstable economic foundation will only get worse – at least for a century. I have no expectation that the present lip-service paid to the idea of reining in the catastrophic derivatives markets will take place during the current depression, but perhaps it will happen after the one after the next. The Iskanders’ expedition does not take place for two hundred years – perhaps enough time for the economists of the last 50 years to be forgotten.

The present beggar thy neighbour form of international interactions may be moderated by a more representative and influential United Nations. If we are supposed to be paragons of democracy why do all citizens not get to vote for the people who represent us there? The present European Parliament could become the model on which the UN’s development is based. I believe that institution has proved itself and outpaced the same kinds of sniping that the aristocrats of England aimed at the first universal parliaments. Let the backward dictatorships and royal rulers scream and drag their feet but they can eventually succumb to the power of the people.

I’m not a particular fan of science fiction that paints the future as a technological utopia. Perhaps I see the present technological free-for-all as too trivial and ephemeral. Something like 90% of the technological toys on offer at any one time are not only destined for an early visit to the landfill but are less than essential to a socially adjusted human society. We need to learn to value the good and laugh as those which turn out to be mistakes, like the airship, while they tumble into their graves.

Aviation offers a good analogy. When I was young and stupid I worshiped speed and jet fighters. The romance of the creation of safe and stable supersonic aircraft filled my earlier years. To me then, helicopters were nothing but dull and boring ‘egg-beaters’.

I actually worked and studied at Farnborough – Britain’s NASA – and saw as well as worked on wind tunnel models and full scale experimental aircraft that were a part of the project that led to the Concorde. I crawled under the FD-2 to watch a problematic fuel pump removed by the test pilot, Peter Twiss, who held the world speed record in that aircraft at the time – 1132 mph. Beside it was parked the first prototype of the aircraft that became the Lightning, a Mach 2 interceptor. Heady stuff for 19 year-old aeroplane enthusiast.

In my later years as a contract surveyor and advance man in oil exploration I spent many more hours in helicopters than fixed wing – and now they clearly have my preference. An example – I had to pick out a route up and over a spur of Thunder Mountain, one of the peaks in the Livingstone Range near to my home. I went up with the pilot of the Gazelle we were using at the time to take a look. I soon needed to get onto the ground to inspect more closely and mark my intended route but the pilot decided there was no ground flat enough up there to land.

“I tell you what I’ll do,” he said. “I’ll hover with one skid on that big rock while you climb out.” That big rock was poised on the brink of a 1000 foot precipice. So we did just that, he hovered with one skid on the top of the rock while I gingerly climbed out onto the skid and then made a quick transition to the top of the rock. I ducked down and waved the pilot away, but he of course already felt my weight leaving the aircraft. I did my work up there and when finished he came back and hovered over the same rock for me to get back in.

Now to the point I was going to make with the example. The supersonic jet exemplifies our forever accelerating technological innovation and the social changes it plunges us into – one after the other before we have had time to adjust to the first. The fixed wing aircraft is always in a race against an inevitable crash that will happen when and if the fuel runs out. The helicopter is that sane and stable carrier of humanity that allows us to put a foot on the ground and reconnect with the real world when necessary. When is this crazy contest to turn the largest possible volume of resources into landfill garbage going to end? When the ‘fuel’ runs out and we crash – as inevitable as the succession of Bull and Bear in the stock markets.

By ‘fuel’ I do not necessarily mean an actual fuel, although all are finite, but could be economic, political or social. I have my own take on that in the next novel in the Iskander series, “The Wildcat’s Burden”. Our Gisel makes a very human journey in that novel and sees that the meaning she looks for is within her.

It has taken a lifetime but I finally accept that all our mastery of the endless succession of technological developments merely carries us farther and farther from our real nature. If you master the most arcane of physics theories or mathematical procedures you are still no more than a mere mortal doomed to a mysterious existence without solid reason or destination. Extending our present trajectory, we could eventually become nothing but wide-eyed passengers in a runaway vehicle we no longer understand and no longer control. Perhaps we already are. Certainly the so-called economists who pretended to understand the mechanisms and innovations of the financial world but who almost all failed to see the coming crash are our most recent examples of egotists who substitute loud voices and arm-waving for solid understanding.

My 2309 Earth the Iskanders left must surely be founded upon sound social principles rather than the overheated experiments we are the white rats for today.

The engineering I learned was founded upon a solid understanding of first principles, but today the young are introduced to devices and procedures they have no understanding of and could not work around them if they failed. Just the other day I saw the question asked, “If every installation in the world is controlled my Microsoft software, what happens to society when a brand new, fatal glitch manifests itself?” We are led by people who are fixated upon the artificial and the complex, when once we were served by trained people who understood the wisdom of KISS. Keep it simple, stupid.

The medieval churchmen had an image that fits our world – we are surely a ship of fools.

A Voyage of Prediction.

August 1, 2009

Last time, I mentioned articles from the International edition of Der Spiegel as the prompt for me to set out a description of the Earth of 2309 that my Iskanders left to take up their development contracts on N-3. That flight went astray – stranding them on the alternate earth called Gaia. The articles  were by Wolfram Eilenburger and by Parag Khanna, both academics with positions in US universities – you can probably find the articles by searching their names.

I had previously avoided describing the Iskanders’ Earth because I never fancied myself as a futurist and the great majority of SF authors who do picture a future Earth clearly have more imagination than understanding. But I have been reading quite a lot of predictions lately – mostly about America’s status at the end of the present Depression as well as a great deal of speculation about the form of the future multilateral world order. So I felt I might take a stab at picturing the future.

I think I was on the right track when I made my Iskanders a multicultural mix – but perhaps it was also a tribute to Canada. I also believe having the Iskander voyage a civilian project in a chartered commercial transport based at Baikoneur instead of a government mission run from Houston is in line with the probabilities for 2309. I envisaged a corporate project that hired the best from all the world – somewhat more grand but otherwise similar to the oil exploration crew I joined in Libya 46 years ago. In fact I have no culturally recognizable Americans mentioned in the stories, although Dirk Scopes, Richard Norris, and Jon Mich’l could be Anglo-Saxons from any of the A-S homelands and diaspora. I do have others who could easily be from the States, that has always been home to the bright and ambitious from everywhere in the world.

In contrast I have several Germans, including Liz Gursche and Kurt Stockmuller; A few Arabs, Hannan Badry and Ahmed Villars (the latter likely French Tunisian); a number of Asians, Wang Ke xian, Dr Chan, and Huang; East Europeans, Yvan Korchik and M’Tov (never been fixed but perhaps Russian Jew?); and at least one named African, Helen Svambini. The Matahs are Anglo Indian/Greek of course ( I worked with a Pakistani in Libya whose daughter combined these heritages and I thought Gisel should share it ); and people like Professor James Hutton were historical figures I felt like including. (He’s the 18th century British Father of Geology – and I made him the head of the Iskander Geology department.)

This non-American milieu was established even before the huge political over-reach and fiascos of the Bush years, the paybacks for which are only now appearing in the mainstream consciousness. The American Century has clearly reached its ‘best by’ date and portraying any future SF  story in an Americo-centric way will clearly seem quaint in the mid-term. Of course the States will bounce back to become a leader among equals when it pays down its massive indebtedness, but as Eilenburger suggests – not until the people embrace the solid social fabric that a social-democratic capitalism will impart.

I don’t mention any off-world religion except the eastern Buddhist-Taoist meditation and philosophy Gisel embraces. It seems to me that in the future the concordance between modern scientific views and those two ancient religions should see them gain ground against the logically marginalized Abrahamic faiths, but I’m prepared to admit that the bias is mine. I do accept that a deep philosophical belief of some kind is an almost necessary grounding for most people – even if only during those periodic dark nights of the ‘soul’.

Women play an essential part in the Iskander expedition, but that doesn’t prevent latent paternalistic chauvinism from annoying our self-confident and capable Gisel. She is a natural free-thinker and rebel, who benefits from my own observation that the operator of a remote project has much more scope for doing things his or her own way than the poor saps in a cubicles just down the room from some pointy-haired manager. (I chose to be an exploration surveyor and foreman precisely because I could generally drive projects in my own fashion by judicial massaging of the developing body of information I sent back to the city.)

But to get back to the chauvinism, I felt I should have Gisel’s problems with her own male colleagues somewhat less infuriating than those she finds among the Gaians. The other female disadvantages are reflected in her relationships and affairs – how does a woman form a stable relationship with a man who may be her intellectual and cultural inferior? Not for nothing did women cultivate the “dumb blonde” image in the world I grew up in. One clever and beautiful young friend observes that it is hard for the male ego to accept the second spot for more than a year, and often much less.

Young Gisel is attracted to the more exotic Gaians; knights, spies, military heroes, and princes, but eventually she realizes she needs a stolid stable kind of fellow whose own personality is strong enough to recognize his present inferiority but with enough ego to believe he is capable of matching her successes in the future. The very unexciting Yohan Felger, of course. They are buddies and partners in enterprise as much as lovers. She has fewer romantic attachments with her Iskander colleagues, and it’s not only because of an intention to avoid workplace entanglements. She does become entangled with Marc Cronon (and I’m still working on a plausible start to that relationship), who is definitely an unexciting fellow. One reviewer pointed out that the passionate Gisel would surely opt for more exciting lovers (and I do have Lord Ricart in that role) but I guess I’m too male to understand women who fall for the most wildly unsuitable partners.

Does that exhaust my picture of Earth 2309? Not sure – I may have a stab at painting some broad strokes of the differences between our world and the future one, and of course, I should provide a capsule history of Gaia before I leave the futurist posts.