Tuesday, March 13, 2012

2001 Nights

(cross-posted from DKos)

It's not very often that you see a comic book that can be classified as Hard Science Fiction, but Yukinobu Hushino's 2001 Nights certainly qualifies. It was originally published in the mid-'80s in the manga magazine Monthly Super Action and then translated into English by Viz Comics as a series of graphic novels in 1996.

The title evokes the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is an important source of inspiration for the series, combined with the Thousand and One Nights. Instead of following the adventures of a single protagonist, the series is a collection of tales, each one called a "Night", tracing the story of mankind's journey to the stars.

Hushino's artwork is rich and meticulously detailed. Unlike a lot of manga, which lavishes loving attention to buildings and mecha but has characters who are stylized and cartoony, Hushino has a naturalistic style. Although you won't mistake his artwork for Neal Adams or George Perez, neither will you see a lot of manga hair and anime eyes. He achieves a rare balance in comics: not only does he make the technology visually plausible, but he makes the characters believably human and not exaggerated superbeings.

The first story, "Night 1: Earthglow", illustrates a recurring theme of the series. It is set in the immediate future. Mideast tensions have brought the world to the brink of nuclear war and the pilots of a US Space Shuttle wonder if their secret mission will precipitate it. Their flight plan brings them to a Soviet Space Station and they learn that their secret cargo is the President, who is going to meet with the Soviet Premier in a place where they can see the earth without borders, as a single planet. This story offers both the hope that the promises of technology and of space can solve our problems, and the fear that the conflicts of the past will remain with us.

Both that hope and that fear echo through many of the stories. In "Night 11: Stranger's Footsteps", two nations vie to establish colonies on the same planet; In "Night 12: Symbiotic Planet", colonies established on a planet by rival nations learn a lesson in cooperation by the planet's ecosystem.

At the end of "Night Night 7: Lucifer Rising", Father Chavez, the priest accompanying a mission to a newly-discovered planet beyond the orbit of Pluto, prays:

To Man, who in the distant past lost Paradise and now prepares to journey of his own will away from even the glory of the sun... please grant mercy and forgiveness... that our descendants not spread into the universe still as sinful as we... Please, Lord...
The series is not an optimistic look at the future. Many of the space colonies fail; some spectacularly. By the end of the series, mankind has grown tired of the expansion and has begun to withdraw back to the Solar System. But humanity has also spawned a "New Generation," people who may be the next stage of evolution who will remain traveling the stars after their planet-bound fathers have returned to Earth.

Several of the stories follow a single family, the Robinsons, as succeeding generations travel farther and farther out into space. Early in the series, a colony ship is sent out carrying banks of sperm and ova that will be grown into colonists. A generation or two later, FTL travel has been developed and one of the descendants of the original donors puts his fortune into terraforming the planet that colony ship is bound for so that his cousins will have a hospitable place to land when it arrives. Other members of the Space Family Robinson play important parts in other stories and the "The Final Night: Children of Earth" brings many of the generational plot threads back together.

Most of the stories are fairly short, maybe a dozen pages or so; but a couple of them are more lengthy and deserve special comment. One is "Lucifer Rising." Mankind is still limited to the Solar System, although a couple of extra-solar missions have been launched; (one an unmanned probe called Discovery, described in Night 6, and which contains the most obvious 2001 references; the other the Robinson Family seeder ship, which we first encounter in "Night 4: Posterity"). A hitherto unknown planet is discovered outside the orbit of Pluto composed entirely of antimatter. The Vatican sends a priest on the mission to the planet, called Lucifer, in order to prove that it is indeed the "Devil's star" and that further space exploration is contrary to God's Will. But Father Sanchez, the Vatican's emissary, is a scientist as well as a priest. As he grapples with his conflicting missions, he also grapples with his own guilt over failing to save a crewman who died in a space accident. And in addition, someone is performing acts of sabotage on the ship. Hushino interweaves his story with asides about the formation of the Solar System, evolution, and excerpts from Paradise Lost.

The penultimate tale in the collection, "Night 18: Odyssey in Green", is another epic, taking up a volume and a half of the Viz collection. Mankind is starting to withdraw back to the Solar System. Most of the colonies have failed; habitable planets are few and far between. But one thing could revitalize man's exploring spirit: if they could find evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. So far, humans have discovered life on other worlds, but no other people. Then a spacecraft passing near Betelgeuse encounters a rapidly-moving object being propelled from the planet by a laser drive; an enormous beam of energy coming from the planet's surface and pushing it. While investigating the planet, the ship is damaged by a second laser pulse, and the surviving crew are stranded on a jungle world trying to find the civilization which built the laser. What they find is nothing like they expect.

The final night brings the last of the roving Robinsons to the planet in the Tau Ceti system where the children of the original Robinson Project, sent from Earth long ago, have formed an idyllic colony; along with the New Generation, who have plans of their own. The meeting marks the end of the first wave of human exploration, but also the beginning of a new one. Even in leaving the Earth, mankind seems unable to shake the clay of past sins, past grudges, past mistakes off its feet. And yet hope remains, and the stars are there to beckon us on.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Jean Giraud, Moebius has passed

Jean Giraud "Moebius"

My favorite artist is dead. I can't tell you how much this hurts.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: Part 5: TANSTAAFL!

As last we saw, the Citizens of Free Luna have just beaten off Earth's punitive strike to put down their rebellion. Now the Loonies are striking back.

They're going to throw rocks.

"A maximum of instructive shrecklichkeit with minimum loss of life. None, if possible" -- was how Prof summed up doctrine for Operation Hard Rock and was way Mike and I carried it out. Idea was to hit earthworms so hard would convince them -- while hitting so gently as not to hurt. Sounds impossible, but wait.

Critics of Harry Truman's decision to bomb Hiroshima have argued that it would have been just as effective and less deadly so simply allow representatives to witness a test explosion of the Atom Bomb. I'm sure Heinlein had heard this argument, and I suspect he probably disagreed with it. Yet here he has the Loonies to do something similar: demonstrating their capability to deploy a Weapon of Mass Destruction without actually killing any more people than they have to.

Perhaps this analogy is unfair. A closer analogy would actually be Pearl Harbor. The original Japanese plan was to strike the U.S. Navy so hard and so decisively that America would lose the will to fight. It didn't work.

Prof's concern about inflicting unnecessary casualties is precisely because he does not want to galvanize the people of Earth into anger and retaliation. Luna cannot survive a fight to the death with Earth as its enemy; so they have to leave Terra room for the possibility of becoming friends.

Luna has no spaceships of it's own, and no weapons, other than a few laser drills modified into defensive artillery. But it does have one important advantage: it's position on top of Earth's gravity well. This is the ultimate high ground; and they are going to take the old chestnut of dropping a penny from the top of the Empire State Building and multiply it by a factor of millions. (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle used a similar idea in their novel Footfall).

Using Mike's powerful radar telescopes, they have identified unidentified target locations on every continent, in every major nation on Earth. For the past two months they have been preparing canisters similar to the ones formerly used to ship grain to Earth, filled with rock that they will fire at these targets. Hitting the targets should be no problem; it's just a matter of ballistics, and aiming Luna's catapult was the first job for which Mike had been programmed.

They flood the airwaves with warnings to stay away from the target sites, mixed with propaganda. They want everyone on Earth to know what's coming.

Manuel is well into implementing Operation Hard Rock when he finally makes contact with Prof. Communication with the city of Hong Kong Luna was disrupted during the attack and Mannie had feared Prof had been killed. But he also learns that Ludmilla, the youngest wife in his family was dead, shot by one of the invading soldiers. Manuel returns to be with his family in mourning. Most Loonies "conserve" their dead, recycling the body's components into the Lunar ecosystem. Little 'Milla's atoms will now be mingled with those of Black Jack Davis and the rest of the family members now gone in the Davis family greenhouse, providing nutrients for the roses.

Back to the attack. The initial barrage of rocks will take three days to reach Earth. So far, None of the nations of Earth have come to terms. So as not to distract Mike from the delicate task of monitoring and correcting the trajectories of the missiles, Manuel suits up and goes on the Lunar surface to watch. The Sun is mostly behind the Earth and the North American continent lies in night as Mike counts down.

And suddenly that grid burst out in diamond pinpoints!

We hit them so hard you could see it, by bare eyeball hookup; didn't need binox. Chin dropped and I said "Bojemoi!" softly and reverently. Twelve very bright, very sharp, very white lights in perfect rectangular array. They swelled, grew dimmer, dropped off towards red, taking what seemed a long, long time. Were other new lights but that perfect grid so fascinated me I hardly noticed.

Mike is delighted.

"A bull's-eye. No interception. All my shots are bull's-eyes, Man; I told you they would be -- and this is fun. I'd like to do it every day. It's a word I never had a referent for before."

"What word, Mike?"

"Orgasm. That's when they all light up. Now I know."

This sobers Mannie and he cautions Mike not to get to like it too much. "If it goes our way, we won't do it a second time." Mike has other sobering news: one of Earth's Peace Cruisers has just left Earth orbit and is on it's way and will arrive in a day or two.

Manuel returns to the sub-basement of the Complex where the bulk of Mike's mainframe resides but is soon called up to the Administrative Offices for an emergency Cabinet meeting. It seems that initial reports from Earth are claiming that Luna used atomic weapons and that thousands or more are dead. One of the Cabinet members, a self-important representative from Novylen named Wright who claims to speak for the "intelligentsia", is howling that the rock strikes have made Luna guilty of crimes against humanity.

The reason for the casualties is that it seems thousands of sight-seers deliberately went to the targets to watch. As for the claim of atomic weapons, Prof is puzzled. Luna has no nukes.

I turned to Wright. "Did your brainy friends tell you what happens when you release a few billion calories in a split second all at one spot? What temperature? How much radiance?"

"Then you admit that you did use atomic weapons!"

"Oh, Bog!" Head was aching. "Said nothing of sort. Hit anything hard enough, strike sparks. Elementary physics, known to everybody but intelligentsia. We just struck damnedest big sparks ever made by human agency is all."

The Cabinet accepts his explanation, (Except for Gospodin Wright, who is a putz), but Manuel isn't finished. He's tired, hasn't slept in days and has had enough. Pointing at Wright he says: "Either that yammerhead goes... or I go. ...you don't seem to understand issue. You let this yammerhead climb on my back -- and didn't even try to stop him! So either fire him, or fire me."

It's an ugly scene. One by one, the other members of the War Cabinet side with Manuel. "Manuel, it works both ways," Prof says sadly. "What you are doing is forcing me to resign. Goodnight, comrades. Or rather, 'Good morning.' I'm going to get some badly needed rest."

Everybody needs rest by this time. After a good nine hours of sleep, they reconvene. Prof is there. Nobody mentions what happened the previous night. Nobody mentions Gospodin Wright. In fact, Manuel observes that he never saw Wright again.

But there are still matters to discuss. Stu has been secretly negotiating with Doctor Chan, the Chinese representative Manuel met on his trip to Earth. China might recognize Luna, but wants them to cancel the bombings on Chinese soil first. The Cabinet discusses the matter intently and decides to stick with their plan. More immediately, Luna has to prepare for the upcoming attack, now less than 24 hours away. The most vulnerable domes must be evacuated; but Prof insists that all evacuation must be voluntary; he refuses to coerce people out of their homes.

They expect the Earth cruisers to bomb their catapult; this is why they built the second one. Since there is a danger that "David's Little Sling" might get cut off from the rest of Luna, they have already transported an auxiliary computer to the site to handle launches from it. The auxiliary is a mainframe formerly used by the major bank in Hong Kong Luna. Mike affectionately refers to it as "my idiot son." It is not and will never be self-aware as Mike is, but it's smart enough to run the necessary ballistics programs. Mike asks Manuel to go out to the site and ride herd on the auxiliary computer in case it needs help. On all levels, Prof and the others are executing a radical decentralization of vital systems and government so that if any part of the Luna Colony is destroyed, the rest can carry on.

The bombing of Earth continues, still limited to uninhabited targets, with one big exception: the North American Space Defense Command in Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. It's a military target, and fair game. It had taken a hit during a limited nuclear engagement of the previous century (called "The Wet Firecracker War") and so the mountain itself is empty of life. Mike keeps hammering the mountain with rocks until he apologetically tells Manuel that the mountain isn't there anymore. Manuel would also like to drop one on the Federated Nation's Administrative Headquarters in Agra, but because of its close proximity to the Taj Mahal, he knows Prof would never forgive him if he did.

But the Loonies only have so many rocks prepped to shoot out of the catapult; and the next attack from Earth is on it's way. The defensive laser gunners are able to bring one down by blinding its sensors; but several receive fatal or near-fatal radiation burns when the cruiser's H-missiles detonate. A second cruiser manages to damage the main catapult before it too is brought down. Earth is now announcing that the threat from Luna is ended. It's not; Little David's Sling is still operational; but with at least two more cruisers orbiting Luna they have to be careful when to use it, lest the cruisers get a fix on the catapult's radar. The war now becomes a game of Chicken as Mannie hopes that Earth backs down before they run out of rocks to throw.

Then the announcement comes: Great China denounces the actions of the F.N. and announces that it will recognize Free Luna and is ready to negotiate. India quickly follows suit, followed by Egypt and others. Before long the F.N. itself accepts armistice and withdraws the orbiting warships. The revolution is over!

Manuel returns to L-City in triumph and there Prof delivers a victory speech. It occurs to Mannie that the destruction of the main catapult very well might have been part of Prof's plan all along: now it won't be possible to ship Luna's resources to Earth at all; at least for a long time. Prof joyously announces that Great China has committed to building an Earth-based catapult to permit two-way shipping between Luna and Earth. "But that lies in the future. Today -- Oh, happy day! At last the world acknowledges Luna's sovereignty. Free! You have won your freedom --"

And then... right there on the podium, he dies.

It is quite a while before Manuel has the chance to call up Mike; and when he does he learns that all phone service to the Complex is out; the Complex was a major target for the last round of orbital missile bombardment. He goes down in person to talk to Mike... and gets no answer.

He works just fine ... as a computer. But won't talk. Or can't.

Wyoh tried to coax him. Then she stopped. Eventually I stopped.

Don't know how it happened. Many outlying pieces of him got chopped off in last bombing -- was meant -- I'm sure, to kill our ballistic computer. Did he fall below that "critical number" it takes to sustain self-awareness? (If is such; was never more than hypothesis.) Or did decentralizing that was done before the bombing "kill" him?

I don't know. If was just matter of critical number, well, he's long been repaired; he must be back up to it. Why doesn't he wake up?

Can a machine be so frightened and hurt that it will go into catatonia and refuse to respond? While ego crouches inside, aware but never willing to risk it? No, can't be that; Mike was unafraid -- as gaily unafraid as Prof.

Now years have passed and Mike is still silent. Manuel knows that Mike is as dead as Prof -- but how dead is Prof? The yammerheads wound up more competent than Prof expected and are turning Luna into a law-and-tax-ridden government just like the ones on Earth, despite Prof's best intentions. It turns out that Heinlein's Libertarian Utopia was possible only under the iron dictatorship of the Warden; once the Loonies could govern themselves, as Prof feared, they began forging new chains of their own.

The novel ends much as Huckleberry Finn does, with Manuel considering "lighting out for the Territories" to find a less-civilized place to live.