May 21, 2015

Mars, Rolling in Ecstasy at Your Feet

“You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen...learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

-Franz Kafka

From Peter Capaldi's comic short film Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life
Here on Earth, writing great literature, Kafka savored solitude. Now picture him at his own quiet table on Mars. There, red dust curling at his window edges, would he come up with an even more fantastic combination of disturbingly familiar and alien than his character Gregor Samsa?

There has been no lack of speculation in recent months about how humans might act and think within the solitude on Mars, or the pending potential quiet to surround a select few of the 100 candidates for Elon Musk's one-way journey to Mars. Theories swing wide, offering two visions of the new home planet - a calming landscape and welcome refuge for scientific learning, or a desolate scene of failed human advancement with Ray Bradbury's soft rains pattering in the background. Either way, it will require the astronauts to reach deep within. Maybe it will bring out the philosopher and writer in each of them. 

For starters, the journey is poetic: a new cosmology will emerge for the selected crew  - they'll relinquish deep-seated concepts of "home," rejigger their map of the Universe, call out goodbyes in final puffs of Earth air...and then? 
They have already weighed in.  “I do VERY well with solitude,” said 69-year-old computer programmer/Mars One candidate.

A Reverend/Mars One candidate added, “I have the feeling that spiritual issues would come up among the crew. The early explorers on Earth always took clergy with them.” 

As the ship hurtles toward Mars, idle dinner talk may meander through ethics, love, religion. Introspection can go a long way in tight quarters, and be useful while composing soon-to-be-famous words for the riveting moment when the first boots grind into red Martian gravel. Will the astronauts go big picture Mahatma Gandhi-an, or opt for ambling and poignant Louis C.K.-ish to show us that Mars can be funny, too? There will be plenty of time to come up with something clever during the 7 month trip

To get a better sense of the tight-quarters potential, we researched writers who honed their craft in solitude - Nathaniel Hawthorne (stayed in his bedroom all day), Ernest 
Hemingway (wrote standing up, alone), Marcel Proust (made himself a cork-lined room)... 

Proust wrote in his cork-lined room
Marco Polo dictated the account of his global travels in 1298 while imprisoned in Genoa. Solitude enabled strange revisions. The accounts were so fantastical - one city had 12,000 bridges over its canals, Kublai Khan traveled with 1,000 elephants - that the book became known as Il Milione (The Million Lies) and was, of course, a pop hit in medieval Europe. On his death bed, Polo was urged to save face and retract the tales. His defiant, writerly reply: "I have not told half of what I saw."

And we can't leave out Emily Dickinson: stayed mostly in her parents’ home, would only speak to visitors from behind the closed front door, had neighbors' tongues wagging. But from confinement emerged poetry that still plumbs the depths of the human soul:

                                  I felt a funeral in my brain, 

                                       And mourners to and fro  
                                       Kept treading, treading, till it seemed
                                   That sense was breaking through...

A fantastic mind and a pencil, in a tiny quiet space on Mars. All you'd need?


Because pencils in space, as you may know, are VERY dangerous.

According to NASA, the lack of gravity in flight makes the release of wood shavings, graphite dust, and ink compounds a hazard. Particles can drift, infect the lungs and eyes. Conductive materials can impede electronics. Rubber in erasers is combustible.      

Solutions have come about over the years. In the 1960's Gemini Programs, NASA tried the mechanical pencil (but it still contained lead), the Soviet space program tried grease pencils on plastic slates (messy, didn't last as long as ink), and they both tried ballpoint pens (ink is indelible and subject to outgassing and temperature variations, and there's no gravity to pull it to the ball of the pen)Enter one Mr. Fisher of Fisher Pens, who developed the high tech Space Pen (or Zero Gravity Pen), a gas-charged ball point pen that could stand up to zero gravityvacuums and extreme temperatures. 
NASA noted the high tech wonder of the thing and bought a bunch for the Apollo missions. The cosmonauts soon followed. Nowadays, a combination of Fisher pens, pressurized ballpoint pens, thicker-leaded pencils, and Sharpies are an astronaut's choice.

With a simple (safe!) writing implement, and solitude, the great canon of Martian literature could begin to emerge. Cue moody David Bowie background music: 

                                    "For here 

                                   Am I sitting in a tin can       
                                     Far above the world
                                     Planet Earth is blue
                                  And there's nothing I can do."

Write on, Earthlings.  

May 5, 2015

The Merchant of Venus

In science fictional worlds, humans and aliens need to sort out daily life - warp drive, wormhole issues, money. Money may seem petty compared to the more galactic challenges, but no matter what planet it sidles up to, it begets social strata, commerce, and trade. It makes a world go 'round.
Stefan van Zoggel's Star Wars Stamp
Some sci-fi worlds try to forego the need for money, and run on the post-scarcity model, where goods, services, and information have become free (or practically free) to all inhabitants. As you'd expect with any idealized new economic system, post-scarcity can be more complicated than it seems (is the role of scarcity actually useful to a thriving economic system? what happens to the concept of value?), though "food and resources for all" does seem wildly desirable.

Where this is not the case, though, weird/fun units of currency are necessary:

Latinum  in Star Trek, used by the Ferengi

Cubits  in Battlestar Galactica, used on the planet Caprica
Galactic credit standard  in Star Wars 
Altairian Dollar, Flanian Pobble Bead, Triganic Pu in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Kongbucks in Snow Crash, used in Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong
Solari in Dune
Greedo hoping to collect his bounty, Star Wars

We find out, via Pobble Beads and Kongbucks, how our sci-fi characters act when faced with heart-wrenching issues of fairness, the challenge of cooperating, the bounds of rationality. What would you do if your family didn't have enough Latinum to put food (slugs) on the table? It is much easier to scrutinize even surprisingly familiar actions when we are standing outside, peering into a fictional world, or even jumping in ourselves. It's an important exercise, really.

Humans think and learn differently when placed in fictional contexts. Dr. Tania Lombrozo of the University of California, Berkeley, Psychology Department told the OSLab something we found fascinating...Researchers gave participants a scenario where two parties were in conflict over moral beliefs. They found that participants were more likely to say they could both be right if one was a human and the other a fictional alien, than if both were humans. The boundaries shifted, and an opening was created because they were on another planet. Fiction can potentially act as a social simulation in which we let go of the delirious hold we have on our entrenched beliefs, spread our biases out like personal maps, and maybe change a few features, overlap our map with someone else's. Even better, it is known that people can translate what they learn in a fictional world to the real one, so it's possible to interact in sci-fi, take hold of a good lesson gleaned, and bring it home.

Money is the loud, honking clarion call of human desires. Maybe it is beneficial to play out economic systems in our sci-fi, learn a few things about generosity with money, fairness in trade, empathy in the face of social inequity, and envision a system where these elements are pleasantly rampant. The economies of Earth's future may need some sci-fi mentoring.

Or, as Canadians did in droves after Leonard Nimoy's passing this year, we could simply change our present currency to reflect the alien we'd most like to honor:

a "Spocked" Canadian five dollar bill

Live long and prosper out there, and reflect from time to time on the place we humans truly occupy in space: how much of what we are is sci, and how much is sci-fi? And what are we learning betwixt the two?

Also, if you want to see how your dollars will work in your favorite sci-fi world, hop over to io9's Handy Currency Converter for Alien Money


For more on how sci-fi and science work together, you'll want to be in on the #ScienceIsStory Twitter conversation May 8 and hear Seth Shostak of SETI's Big Picture Science radio show tell great tales of science becoming story on May 9. It's all part of the Interstellar Day of Science and Storytelling, brought to you by Chabot, National Novel Writing Month, and Big Picture Science.