Thursday, May 30, 2013

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Part 1: An Unknown Species of Whale

Jules Verne has been called "The Father of Science Fiction." That may be an exaggeration, but he certainly is the Patron Saint of Steampunk. Perhaps his best known, arguably his greatest, and certainly one of his most popular novels is Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. It was one of the first "grown-up" books I ever read and remains a favorite of mine.

It is the year 1866, and the world has been startled by reports of a strange object or phenomenon in the oceans. An "enormous thing" has been sighted in various locations on the high seas; a long, spindle-shaped object, sometimes phosphorescent, and capable of traveling at extraordinary speeds. Initial speculations about some kind of sea monster are of course ridiculed in the popular press. This is, after all, the Nineteenth Century, not the superstitious Middle Ages. But when the Scotia, a steamship of the Cunard line, is struck by the mysterious object resulting in a large hole in its steel hull, the mystery shifts from the subject of scientific theory and becomes a matter of financial concern.

Monsieur Pierre Arronax, our narrator, is an assistant professor at the Paris Museum of Natural History and author of a book entitled Mysteries of the Great Ocean Depths. He usually gets shoved to the side in most adaptations of the book, being overshadowed by Captain Nemo; (and sometimes by Ned Land as well; or at least, in the Disney movie, by Ned Land's chin); but he is an interesting character in his own right. I've always thought of him as being a lot like Verne himself: passionately fascinated by science, but also possessing a poetical streak and a vivid imagination. He frequently refers to himself with a self-deprecating humor. I also get the idea he is a somewhat lonely man. Although his profession often buries him in solitary study, he craves companionship, and this tension is a small but important theme running through the novel.

He has naturally taken a great interest in the mysterious object. Because of it's great speed, it cannot be a piece of floating wreckage or some kind of reef. He rejects the idea that it is an artificial submarine vessel, because only a government would have the resources to build such a thing and no nation would be able to keep such a project a secret. The only possible answer is that the object is a hitherto unknown sea creature. Arronax is inclined to think it is a huge species of narwhal, a type of whale which sometimes grows a large horn-like tusk.

Professor Arronax happens to be in New York City, on his way back home after a fossil hunting expedition to the Nebraska badlands, (or "the disagreeable territories of Nebraska", as the clueless original English translator put it). Because of his scientific reputation, he is invited to accompany a new expedition being launched by the United States Navy to hunt down and kill the sea monster which has proved to be a menace to international travel and commerce.

He brings along his servant Conseil, an agreeable, easy-going young man who is completely devoted to his master. Verne tends to use national stereotypes with a lot of his characters: Americans are brash and reckless, Englishmen are eccentric, etc. Conseil is Flemish, and following the stereotype, he is phlegmatic; calm, even-tempered and agreeable. He is not a scientist himself, but has picked up a lot of knowledge about biological classification from assisting the Professor. An excellent servant, Arronax's only complaint about Conseil is that he insists on a formality in his conversation that the Professor sometimes finds vexing; he always refers to Arronax in the third person, as "Monsieur", never as "you." Arronax likes Conseil and wishes they were friends, but Conseil keeps the lines between their class differences strictly drawn.

On board the Abraham Lincoln, the warship which has been dispatched to hunt the sea monster, Arronax meets a Canadian harpooner named Ned Land, who becomes the third member of Arronax's troupe. Ned is tall, strong and brave. He has a short temper, but when it comes to his occupation he is a skilled professional. Arronax describes him as like "a powerful telescope that could double as a cannon and was always ready for action". In the original English translation, and in some adaptations, Ned comes off as an anti-intellectual blockhead, but this really does a disservice to the character. He is shrewd, and knowledgeable enough about his own trade; he has a certain skepticism about ivory-tower intellectuals like the Professor, but he's good-natured about it. And as an American, (North American to be technical, but in Verne's view they all share this trait), he has a passionate love of Liberty and a sense of Human Rights which become important later on.

Arronax is drawn to Ned because the harpooner is from Quebec and can speak fluent French. "It was a chance for him to talk, and for me to hear the ancient tongue of Rabelais, which is still spoken in some of the Canadian provinces." During the voyage they become good friends.

Early on in the voyage, Professor Aronnax is surprised to learn that Ned does not believe in the sea monster. "But Ned, you are a whaler by profession; you know all the great marine mammals; so you ought to find it easy to accept the idea of an enormous cetacean."

"That's exactly what misleads you," Ned replies. "Let ordinary people believe in extraordinary comets that travel through space, or in the existence of antediluvian monsters that populate the bowels of the earth, if they want to;" (here Verne is poking fun of his own previous novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth) "but astronomers and geologists don't believe in such fantasies..." He may be less educated than "Monseiur le Naturaliste" as he likes to tease the Professor, but he has a pragmatic skepticism based on his own personal experience. He is by no means stupid, and when the Professor lectures him on scientific principles, he can generally follow him and even provide counter-arguments which help clarify the science involved for the reader.

For several weeks the Abraham Lincoln sails, first doubling Cape Horn, and then cruising the Pacific looking for the mysterious sea monster. "There would have been a hundred good reasons for calling the ship the Argus," Aronnax observes, alluding to the giant of Greek mythology with a hundred eyes. Every man on board the ship spends every possible moment scanning the waves for sight of the creature, with the exception of Ned, who watches when it's his shift but doesn't believe there's anything to find, and Conseil, who doesn't care one way or the other. After three months at sea, however, the crew begins to turn rebellious. The captain asks them to give him three more days, as Columbus was supposed to have done, and if the monster has not turned up by then, he will take the ship back to port.

Naturally, it is on the third day that the creature shows up.
Two cables' lengths away from the Abraham Lincoln, on her starboard quarter, the sea seemed to be illuminated from below. It was no mere phenomenon of phosphorescence, and there was no mistaking it. The monster was submerged a few fathoms beneath the surface and was radiating that intense but inexplicable light that had been mentioned in the reports of several captains.
Now by this point one might think that the true nature of the "sea monster" would be obvious; but as Aronnax points out several times through the course of the novel, there are instances of natural phosphorescence in the ocean; and Aronnax, the naturalist, is focused on a natural explanation for what's going on.

The creature and the Abraham Lincoln play a game of cat-and-mouse for the next twenty-four hours. No matter how much steam the captain of the warship puts on, their quarry remains just out of reach. The ship's gunner fires a nine-pound shell at the creature which glances off it's back. Ned Land, hanging on to the superstructure under the ship's bow hurls his harpoon at it, which bounces off with a "deep ringing tone."

Then the creature shoots out two jets of water into the air, which wash over the deck of the ship and knock Professor Aronnax into the sea. He is soon joined by Conseil, who like the good servant he is, jumped overboard after him. The Abraham Lincoln, however, was damaged by the creature and is unable to rescue the two, even if the crew was aware they went overboard.

Aronnax and Conseil spend several hours treading water clinging desperately to a hope of rescue, when that hope is answered by a call from an unexpected source.

Ned Land was also thrown into the sea when the creature collided with the Abraham Lincoln, but he was luckier than the Professor. "...almost immediately I found a floating island... Or, should I say, your gigantic narwhal." He was able to scramble upon the creature's back, and it proved to be no leviathan of flesh and blood, but a submersible vessel constructed of thick steel plates.
As Ned tells his story, the vessel begins to move and they realize that it is about to submerse, drowning them. They bang on the metal hull to get the attention of the vessel's crew. It works, and the crew come out and swiftly drag the three men into the submarine and lock them in a cell. Ned is not pleased.
"A thousand devils!" he said. "These people must be descendants of the Scots for all the hospitality they offer you! I wouldn't be surprised if they were cannibals; but I can assure you they won't eat me without my having something to say about it!"
Soon, two men arrive in the cell, one of whom appears to be the commander. The men speak to each other in a language Aronnax does not recognize. The Professor tells the mysterious commander who they are and how they came to be there, but their host shows no sign of understanding him. Guessing that the commander does not speak French, Aronnax suggests that Ned try telling their story in English; and so he does, (along with many complaints about human rights violations, illegal detentions, and the fact that they are starving). Since their captors do not seem to understand the language of either Arago nor that of Faraday (prominent scientists of France and England, respectively, with whom the inventor of such a submarine would presumably be familiar), Conseil offers to try speaking in German. Aronnax never realized Conseil knew that language, but since he came from Flanders, which lies between France and Germany, it makes sense he would speak both) Finally, Aronnax drags out his rusty schoolboy Latin, but with no apparent success.

The strangers leave the three alone in the cell; but shortly afterwards a steward brings food for them. Ned's complaints and miming of hunger had at least that result. Aronnax notes that the cutlery they are given to eat with each bears the initial "N" and the motto: "MOBILIS IN MOBILI", or "Mobile within a mobile element", an appropriate motto for a submarine. Aronnax guesses that the letter "N" stands for the master of the craft. Although Verne does not explicitly make the connection, his readers would undoubtedly thought of another famous "N", Napoleon Bonaparte.

Their mysterious captor does not return for a good long time. Another day goes by, with no sign of either the submarine's commander or crew. Or dinner either, to Ned's growing annoyance. Conseil takes it all philosophically, which only provokes Ned the more.
"That is just like you, Conseil," retorted the impatient Canadian. "You never show your temper, do you? Always calm! You are fully capable of saying grace before receiving your blessings and you would rather starve than complain!" 
"What's the use of complaining?" asked Conseil. 
"Well, at least you'd be complaining, and that's something! And if these pirates -- and I say 'pirates' out of respect for the Professor, who forbids me to call them cannibals -- if these pirates think they're going to keep me suffocating in this cage without listening to the curses I use to spice my temper, they're very much mistaken!"
Ned wants to plan an escape, or barring that, to find some way to seize control of the vessel. Aronnax does not see how they can do this and counsel's patience. Ned does not do patience, at least not unless he's in a longboat with a harpoon in his hand. He grows more and more frustrated, and when the steward finally does open the door to their cell, Ned jumps the guy and puts him in a choke hold. But he is interrupted by a forceful command in French:

"Stop, Master Land! And you, Monsieur le Professeur, be good enough to listen to me."

NEXT:  We meet Captain Nemo and get a tour of his submarine, The Nautilus.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Another So Called Bigot

CLICK THIS LINK Jerry Lewis

Comedian Jerry Lewis doesn't enjoy women comedians.    It is true that he is old, and his humor has been dated for a long time.  He has made numerous faux pas in public, both regarding other people, and other ways of doing things.   His longstanding support of the MDA charity doesn't forgive those things, nor give him a blank check to be an asshole.

But if you read the enclosed link you'll find that the writer of the article suggests that we cannot accept such misogyny nor tolerate it.   Most of the comments are in line that he was never funny, he is an asshole, he is a racist or hates women, he hates gay people...

I don't believe that having free speech as an American means that I should say whatever I feel, or think, that I should be immune from response to words I say that do not accept others or condemn in fact others.   But that isn't what is going on.

Jerry Lewis was asked his opinion.
He gave his opinion.

The writer of the article and many people similar to her shriek the shrill cry of bigot thereafter.

How about this... instead of calling him a name and calling for people to not tolerate his views, how about allow people to think for themselves and disagree with his views but not destroy a person's moral or human character for being different than we are?

The problem in America is not the use of free speech.  It is the desire by some to limit anyone else's use of it, if it does not agree with their worldview.

Orson Scott Card was stained with the term bigot for not being aboard the gay rights and gay marriage train.   Protests surrounded his work and some sellers refused to sell his work, to "support" gay marriage and gay rights. 

To me if you buy his work you are buying a creative endeavor, and one that is unlikely to have a single thing to do with gay marriage.   I did not nor would I buy it.   It has nothing, whatsoever to do with the argument that he is called a bigot.   It is because he is not a writer who has work that I enjoy.

You might see me as Libertarian, but you should understand that my views come from the simple understanding that the moment you sling mud, the moment you shout bigot, when another person possesses a different view, you have lost all the moral ground.   So, for me it is a matter of honor to tolerate other views, accept other people as humans, who, like me, make a butt load of mistakes.

I like women, women comedians, and think gay people should be allowed to marry.   I don't think that is the issue.   I think throwing shit at someone you disagree with is worse, by far, than the views that the person has, that you disagree with.     That is, short of abject racism, which I think we can agree on, is evil.   And even there, I don't think we should kill or silence racists.  I think we should teach them the truth.

So in other words, Hitler Bad, Jerry Lewis old fashioned, Orson Scott Card a stinky writer.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Voyage of the Space Beagle, part 4: M33 in Andromeda

The nearest galaxy to our own can be observed in the constellation of Andromeda. For that reason, it is often called the Andromeda Galaxy, although it's astronomical designation is M33. For months now, the Space Beagle has been traveling through the intergalactic void towards this galaxy, and now it has almost reached its destination.


It begins with a whisper.

In his lab, Elliot Grosvenor hears a noise like an indistinct whisper in his ear. But no one is around. It's almost as if an aural illusion was being projected into his mind by one of his encephalo-adjusters, but he knows his lab is too well-shielded for that. When he leaves the lab, however, he finds that the entire crew is experiencing psychic bombardment from an outside force. It's not as incapacitating as the contact they had with the Riim, but it's damned unnerving.

Acting Director Kent calls a meeting of the department heads. Since Morton's incapacitation during the Ixtl affair, Kent has been in charge of the expedition. The chemist's leadership style is decidedly different from Morton's and Kent's dislike of Grosvenor has not moderated in the least.
Undeniably, the men no longer felt so free to speak up as they had under the leadership of Morton. One way or another, Kent had made it rather plain that he deemed the opinions of those other than department heads impertinent. It was also evident that he personally declined to regard nexialism as a legitimate department. For several months, he and Grosvenor had been polite to each other on a basis of minimum contact. During that time, the Acting Director had, by way of consolidating his position, intoduced several motions in the council giving his office more authority in certain activities, the ostensible reasons being to avoid duplication of effort. 
The importance to this ship's morale of encouraging individual initiative, even at the cost of some efficiency, was a point that could have been demonstrated only to another Nexialist, Gorsvenor felt sure. He had not bothered to protest. And so a few more slight restrictions had been imposed on the already dangerously regimented and confined shipload of human beings.
At the meeting, Grosvenor distinctly hears someone say: "This is an opinion... the ship ought to go home." No one else hears the comment. Grosvenor surmises that it is another psychic message, one which he can pick up because his encounter with the Riim has made him more sensitive to these things. Kent is skeptical., but McCann the geologist observes "I think, gentlemen, we had better face the fact that we have entered somebody else's stamping ground. And it's some somebody!"

They continue to discuss what kind of "somebody" they may be facing, when suddenly the 800 words are up. As mentioned earlier, van Vogt liked to throw in "something new" every 800 words or so. Sort of like Raymond Chandler's man coming through the door with a gun in his hand. Except in this case, it's a bunch of thirty-foot long prehistoric monsters which just materialize in the middle of the conference room.

While everyone else is shooting their ray-guns and the beasts keep appearing, Grosvenor has the presence of mind to activate the ship's defensive force fields. This stops the arrival of reinforcements. But he realizes that they are currently still about a thousand light-years from the nearest star. What kind of entity can teleport creatures alive across that kind of distance?

Once again, they turn to Korita, whose cyclical theory of history has been useful in discerning the psychology of alien beings in the past. The archaeologist shrugs helplessly.
"I can't even offer a guess. We shall have to learn somewhat more about the motivation behind the attack before we can make comparisons on the basis of cyclic history. For example, if the purpose was to seize the ship, then to assail us as they did was a mistake. If the intent was merely to scare us, the attack was a howling success."
Captain Leeth offers another possible motive. The entities responsible for the psychic contact and the dinosaur invasion might want to know where the Beagle came from. Grosvenor suggests that they destroy their star maps, and to rig up some large-scale encephelo-adjusters to create the psychic equivalent of radio jamming if they land on any planets. Kent seems annoyed that Grosvenor is once again dominating the meeting but lets him continue. Grosvenor has one more comment: "The department heads might make a survey of any material they control with a view to destroying any that might endanger our race if the Beagle were captured."

The ship enters the galaxy with no further incident and begins surveying the planets they encounter. The first few habitable planets they find are quite similar: each "a world of mists and jungles and giant beasts" with no signs of civilization. Then they come across a system with three habitable planets bunched closely together, each with the same antediluvian climate. Gunlie, the ship's chief astronomer is certain that two of the three were moved to their present orbit from someplace else. He wants to land and examine one of these jungle worlds. Grosvenor objects, but manages to do so in such a way that he convinces Gunlie and avoids directly challenging Kent's authority. He's getting better at politics.

After the meeting, Grosvenor has a brief conversation with McCann, whom you might recall had attended the lecture Grosvenor gave on Nexialism shortly before the Riim incident. They talk about Kent and his leadership qualities.
He was turning away when Grosvenor stopped him. Grosvenor said, "What, in your opinion, is the basis for Kent's popularity as a leader?" 
McCann hesitated, and seemed to be deliberating. Finally he said, "He's human. He has likes and dislikes. He gets excited about things. He has a bad temper. He makes mistakes, and tries to pretend that he didn't. ... It's hard to put Kent's appeal into words, but I think that scientists are constantly on the defensive about their alleged unfeeling intellectualism. So they like to have someone fronting for them who is emotional but whose scientific qualifications cannot be questioned."
... 
"Strictly logical men like you have always had a hard time understanding the mass appeal of the Kents. They haven't much chance against his type, politically." 
Grosvenor smiled grimly. "It's not their devotion to the scientific method that defeats the technologists. It's their integrity. The average trained man often understands the tactics that are used against him better than the person who uses them, but he cannot bring himself to retaliate in kind without feeling tarnished."
This remark bothers McCann. He asks what Grosvenor would do if he thought Kent needed to be ousted. "At the moment my thoughts are quite constitutional," Grosvenor assures him, but McCann is not satisfied.
"Ever since that lecture you gave, I've realized what hasn't yet dawned on anyone else -- that you are potentially the most dangerous man on this ship. The integrated knowledge you have in your mind, applied with determination and purpose, could be more disastrous than any outside attack."
The Beagle investigates some more planets. Each one which is remotely habitable follows the same pattern: a jungle worlds, covered with swamps and populated with megafauna. The thirty-first system they visit, however shows something different: in the geological layers of mud, sandstone, clay and granite, their scans show traces of steel. Excavation using remote-controlled equipment, (they are still leery about leaving the protection of the Beagle's shields), reveals a city which has been buried under two hundred and fifty feet of earth. And this is not the gradual accumulation of sediment over eons of time; analysis of one of the crushed skeletons they find in the city suggests that two hundred and fifty feet of rock and soil was dumped, plop! on the city no more than a century ago.

Grosvenor has been putting the pieces together. He knows now what they're up against and how to fight it. But experience has taught him that it's not enough to be right; he has to convince others as well. And if he's right, they won't have the time.

He sends a memo to Kent, stating that he has "accumulated evidence supporting action on the largest scale" and requesting a meeting to present his solution to all the department heads. Predictably, Kent has an underling reply telling him to fill out "enclosed form A-16-4". Grosvenor does do, meticulously detailing the evidence he's complied, but not stating his conclusions. Under the space marked "Recommendations" he merely writes: "The conclusion will be instantly obvious to any qualified person."

Yes, this is a dig at Kent. If Kent can't figure it out himself, that implies that he's not qualified. But it's also part of Grosvenor's technique throughout the book. His goal as a Nexialist is to teach people how to think better; and frequently he states the facts he used to draw his conclusions so that others may follow his reasoning and draw the same conclusions themselves. But in this case, goading Kent is a part of his strategy. He does not foresee his plan being immediately accepted and is taking steps of his own to prepare for battle.

One of these steps is to dose himself with a cocktail of drugs to give himself symptoms of influenza. The doctor does not think it odd that he should catch the flu on a spaceship. "It's amazing. No matter how much protection we give on these landings, some virus or bacteria break through occasionally." The doctor wants to put Grosvenor in isolation, but agrees to let him stay in his department, since he has no one else working there anyway. Now, when Kent does call Grosvenor to a meeting to spell out his ideas, Grosvenor can ask to give his presentation by video conferencing rather than in person.

Grosvenor has determined that the intelligence they face is a diffuse, gaseous life-form spread out through the entire galaxy. It has the ability to teleport huge amounts of matter across vast distances, and to "terraform" planets to suit it's needs. Having filled it's own galaxy, it's getting hungry and looking for another; which is why it wants to scare the Beagle into going home, so it can follow them. Grosvenor's plan is to begin building an arsenal of atomically unstable missiles and seed this galaxy with them, making it inhospitable for the entity. Then to set a course for the farthest galaxy they can find, luring the entity out into the most remote reaches of space until it starves to death. Only then will it be safe to go home.

This will add at least five years to their mission. "Earth years," Grosvenor reminds them, since the on-ship calender is longer than the terrestrial one. Still, it's way longer than the crew expected. What Grosvenor has presented sounds largely like speculation, and the department heads are dubious. Grosvenor baldly states that the others don't have the training and background to fully comprehend the situation, which does not exactly win him any friends.

This too is deliberate. He's pushing things to a crisis, because he fears he doesn't have time to convince people slowly through persuasion and reason. He also wants to keep Kent off-balance. And now he delivers an ultimatum:
"If by 1000 hours tomorrow my plan has not been accepted, I take over the ship. Everybody aboard will find himself doing what I order whether he likes it or not. Naturally, I expect that the scientists aboard will pool their knowledge in an attempt to prevent my carrying out such a stated purpose. Resistance, however, will be useless."
When McCann had called him "dangerous," Grosvenor had joked that "One man is too easy to kill." Except that he wasn't really joking. Kent has already tried to have a couple goons rough him up. Forcing the issue the way he has is Grosvenor's way of assuring that this next battle takes place on his terms. He has already spent the past few days preparing for a siege. Now comes the deluge.McCann comes to talk with him. The geologist is sympathetic towards Grosvenor, but frankly conflicted about his methods. He finds himself at a ringside seat as Kent's forces try unsuccessfully to break through Grosvenor's defenses.

"I wanted you to know you were not completely alone. Several executives asked me to tell you they were with you." McCann says. "I feel sure you're right. But your tactics are too unethical for me."
"There's only one other possible tactic and that is to run for election against Kent. Since he's only Acting Director, and was not himself elected, I could probably force an election within about a month," Grosvenor says. But a month may be too long. He's afraid the entity might make a try for another galaxy before then. He is not afraid of losing such an election, though.
"You may not believe that on my say-so. But the fact is that people who are wrapped up in pleasure, excitement or ambition are easily controlled. I didn't devise the tactics I'd use. They've been around for centuries. But historical attempts to analyze them just didn't get at the roots of the process."
McCann finds this even more disturbing. "What kind of future do you envision for man? Do you expect us all to become Nexialists?"

"On board this ship it's a necessity. For the race as a whole, it's still impractical. In the long run, however, there can be no excuse for any individual not knowing what it is possible for him to know." The kind of societal change he's talking about would break the pattern of cyclical history that Korita has espoused. That is why Nexialism is so important.

The attackers withdraw to regroup, and Grosvenor fires up an organ-like instrument. Instead of playing music, this device directly stimulates the brain, producing an emotional reaction. "So this is how you can win an election," McCann says. "One of the methods," Grosvenor replies. "You frighten me. I regard that as unethical. I can't help it," McCann says. Grosvenor disagrees:
"Please note that I have never used this device before. I have never used hypnosis except when Kent invaded my department -- though of course I intend to do so now. From the moment the trip began, I could have lured people up here by stimulating them in a dozen unexpected ways. Why didn't I? Because the Nexial Foundation laid down a code of ethics for itself and its graduates, which is conditioned right into my system. I can break through that conditioning, but only with great difficulty....
"I think you've got a picture in your mind of a dictator -- myself -- taking over a democracy by force. That picture is false, because a ship on a cruise can be run only by quasi-democratic methods. And the greatest difference of all is that at the end of the voyage I can be brought to account."
McCann reluctantly agrees to help him. Using his Mighty Wurlitzser, Grosvenor puts the entire crew of the Beagle to sleep and gives them all post-hypnotic suggestions using patterns of color and mental images similar to those used by the Riim. Having done this, he shuts everything down and surrenders to Kent.

This time, when he asks the department heads to vote on his plan, they unanimously decide that they've changed their mind. They agree the the danger from the galactic entity of M33 warrants his five-year plan. Even Kent agrees.

The plan goes into effect. The gaseous entity which had spread all over the Andromeda Galaxy, which lived off the death of other creatures and which could re-make other planets in the image of its homeworld, so as to provide an ideal breeding grounds for conflict and death, follows theBeeagle as it heads out, away from M33 towards a nebula so distant that it will eventually die. When the crew stop hearing it's psychic whispers, they will know it is safe to turn around and head home.

In the meantime, however, Grosvenor has classes to teach. He finally has students interested in learning more about the science of Nexialism.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Second Round: Second Annual Clallam Bay Comicon scheduled

Second Annual Clallam Bay Comicon scheduled.
"We don't need no stinking badges."

The 2013 Clallam Bay Comicon will be held during Clallam Bay/Sekiu Fun Days, July 13-14, in Clallam Bay, on the upper northwest corner of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula.

Comics author and show coordinator and chief peon Donna Barr says: "No badges, no awards, no gimme bags - just panels and gaming and bagpipes and more comics and goodies vendors all the time."

All creative people - authors of comics and prose books (of any genre) and poetry, magic, animation, gamers, jewelry, gallery artists, steampunk. cosplay, carving, quilts and fabric arts, musicians, basket-weaving, twig furniture, fancy fishing poles -- are welcome to show and sell in the large vendor space. Admission is free to the public.

All details available on links posted at www.donnabarr.com ; contact donnabarr01@gmail.com

Attendees are encouraged to find rooms quickly for the busy summer season at http://www.sekiu.com

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Voyage of the Space Beagle, Part 3: Discord in Scarlet


On its intergalactic voyage of discovery, the Space Beagle has already encountered strange and dangerous life-forms. On a remote world on the fringes of our galaxy, it met the Coeurl, a highly-intelligent cat-like beast capable of manipulating electromagnetic energy and extremely hungry. Passing through a smaller star cluster, it made contact with the Riim, whose telepathic messages of friendship drove the crew mad.

Now the Beagle is crossing the deep void of intergalactic space.

What are the odds they meet something dangerous out here?


In the beginning was Ixtl.

All right. This is something of an exaggeration. But for all practical purposes, Ixtl has been out here, drifting through intergalactic space since forever, or at least since the cosmic cataclysm which destroyed his world. Practically immortal, nearly indestructible, he gets meager sustenance from the starlight of the distant galaxies and dreams of someday reaching one of them. But the chances of that are infintessimal. Almost as small as the odds of encountering a spaceship in the intergalactic void.

What are the odds?

The Space Beagle has stopped for repairs. In the middle of intergalactic space, their main drivers blew out for no apparent reason rupturing a large hole in their hull. It is as they are completing the repairs that one of the crewmen spots a creature, floating in space, just beyond the barrier of their ship's defensive force field.

"How in the name of all the hells can anything live in intergalactic space?" someone asks. Director Morton has another question:  "...Will you please give us the ratio of chance that blew out the drivers of the Beagle at the exact point in space where that thing was floating? Take a few hours to work it out."

"I don't have to do any figuring," their chief astronomer replies. "One would need a new system of notation to express the chance arithmetically. What you've got out there can't happen, mathematically speaking. ... It's impossible, unless space is saturated with such creatures."

It's a hideous thing, with bright red skin, four arms and four legs. "A regular blood-red devil spewed out of a nightmare, ugly as sin..." Morton comments. He asks Korita to speculate on what the creature's psychology might be, based on the cyclical theory of history, but the archaeologist has no data on which to build a guess. The best he can do is suggest caution.

Morton decides to cage the creature for study, but not to bring him into the ship just yet.

Elliot Grosvenor has been observing all this. He suspects that the creature was somehow responsible for their engines cutting out the way they did, but can't guess how. He also suspects that the creature is more dangerous than they know, but off-hand he cannot think of any precautions other than the ones they are already taking, so he keeps his counsel.

Von Grossen, a physicist, recommends keeping the creature out of the ship until it has been thoroughly studied; at least a week, in his opinion, maybe a month. Morton doesn't like the idea of stopping for that long, but says he will consider the recommendation.

Ixtl allows himself to be caged and brought to the ship. In doing so, the men of the ship are bringing him within the ship's force field. But when Ixtl sees them setting up cameras and scanning equipment, he realizes that this might give the humans too much information about himself, and most importantly about the precious items concealed in his body.

Ixtl alters the atomic structure of his body so that his hand can pass through the bars of the cage. At a point where the men were distracted, he reaches through the cage, snags a vibrator pistol from someone's holster, fires it at the lab equipment, and then drops it, all in a movement so swift that no one realizes he's done it.

At first the men are willing to blame the discharge of the vibrator as an unlucky accident. "The vibrator must have fallen out of my belt," the gun's owner apologizes. Grosvenor points out how unlikely this is in zero-G.

Smith, the biologist, happened to be caught in the vibrator's ray, and saw something of what happened. "I can't swear to this, but just before that vibrator shocked me, the creature moved. I have an idea he jumped to the ceiling. I admit it was too black to see more than a blur but..."

Whatever the cause, the lab equipment has been fried, and Morton is starting to grow impatient. Von Grossen suggests covering the outside of the cage with metal that can be energized, effectively surrounding the cage with a force field. But as they discuss this possibility, they notice something peculiar.

Ixtl has forgotten to shift his atomic structure back to normal. Without realizing it, he has passed through the bottom of his cage and come to rest against the denser metal of the spaceship hull.
As soon as he realizes his mistake -- and that the humans have spotted it -- Ixtl bolts for the ship's airlock and phasing through the inner doors, enters the ship. Once again, an unknown creature is at large aboard the Beagle.

Director Morton and Captain Leeth assemble the crew on the bridge. The ship's bridge is a multi-level affair with an auditorium on the lowest level; still, cramming nearly a thousand men in it is a tight squeeze.

"Gentlemen," Captain Leeth says, "these problems keep arising, do they not? I am beginning to feel that we military men have not properly appreciated scientists in the past. I thought they lived out their lives in laboratories, far from danger. But it's beginning to dawn on me that scientists can find trouble where it never existed before."

He turns the floor over to Director Morton, who starts off by emphasizing that no one could have anticipated what had happened and that all reasonable precautions had been taken. Grosvenor realizes that that Morton is trying to deflect any possible blame from himself; "a sad commentary on the ship's politics that he should have felt it necessary."

Various department heads give their analyses of what happened. Siedel, the psychologist, emphasizes the mistake the creature made in letting them know it could dematerialize through its cage. Smith, the biologist, observes that its legs and arms prove that it evolved on a planet; but that it's ability to survive in deep space suggest that its race has "solved the final secrets of biology." Kellie, the sociologist, takes that thought a bit further.
"Ah -- any being who could fit himself to live in a vacuum would be lord of the universe. His kind would dwell on every planet, clutter up every galaxy. Swarms of him would be floating in space. Yet we know for a fact that his race does not infest our galactic area. A paradox that is worthy of investigation."
Korita, the archaeologist, is once again called upon to speculate on what insight the cyclical theory of history might give into the creature's mindset. He apologetically admits that he can add little to the discussion at the moment, but does give us a general outline of the cyclical theory, the only description of the complete cycle the book gives us.
"You know the prevailing theory: that life proceeds upward -- whatever we mean by upward -- by a series of cycles. Each cycle begins with the peasant, who is rooted to his bit of soil. The peasant comes to market; and slowly the market place transforms into a town, with ever less 'inward' connection to the earth. Then we have cities and nations, finally the soulless world cities and a devastating struggle for power, a series of frightful wars which sweep men to fellahdom, and so to primitiveness, and on to a new peasanthood."
The theory seems a bit simplistic to me, and previously Grosvenor has expressed his own doubts about it; on the other hand, Korita is giving only a simplified overview of it to the others. But where in the cycle of history does this deep-space nightmare come from? Korita guesses either the late megalopolitan stage or the early peasant stage, leaning towards the latter because of the creature's apparent carelessness. If the creature is a "peasant", then, "his basic impulses would be much simpler. There would fist of all be the desire to reproduce, to have a son, to know that his blood was being carried on. Assuming great fundamental intelligence, this impulse might, in a superior being, take the form of a fanatic drive toward race survival."

Grosvenor is also called upon to offer his opinion, but before he has a chance to outline a plan to kill the beast, a report comes to the bridge. The Captain has ordered the walls around the ship's sleeping quarters be "energized", that is, they've had force fields run through the walls. The chief engineer, Pennons, announces that something has been caught in the walls of force.

It's true; Ixtl has blundered into one of the energized walls. He is able to escape from it and quickly realizes that the crew will be coming to investigate. This is good. He wanted to capture one anyway to see if these men were suitable as guuls. Ixtl has need of guuls.

Hiding in one of the unenergized walls he waits for a group of crewmen to run past and grabs the last one. He dematerializes his hand to probe the man's torso. In his haste, he partially materializes and inadvertently damages the man's heart, killing him; but before the man's companions come back, Ixtl finds some nice open areas in the man's stomach and lower digestive tract. Yes, these men will make fine guuls. As the men open fire on him, Ixtl again retreats into the walls.

Morton and several other scientists go to examine the dead crewman. "We're wasting time," says van Grossen, the physicist. "We can beat this fellow, but not by talking about him and feeling sick every time he makes a move."

Morton asks the chief engineer if it would be possible to energize the entire ship. Uncontrolled energization would kill every living thing on the ship, Pennon tells him, and melt the walls besides. And laying down the metal sheathing required for controlled energization would take time. As they discuss things, Ixtl appears again, right in the middle of the group.

Ixtl wants to seize a live crewman for his own purposes; but this attack is also a psychological one, to demoralize his adversaries. A tense moment follows as both sides wait for the other to make a move.
Then von Grossen does something unexpected. He has drawn something on a sheet of paper and hands it to the Ixtl. The creature snarls as it recognizes what von Grossen has drawn. "I've just shown him how we can defeat him," van Gossen says; but before he can explain further, Ixtl grabs him and phases through the wall.

Arriving late on the scene, Grosvenor has an idea what von Grossen might have drawn. "The only way one could gain the attention of an alien would be to show him a universally recognized symbol. Since von Grossen is a physicist, the symbol he would have used suggests itself.... I'll wager von Grossen drew for the creature a structural representation of the eccentric atom of the metal that makes up the outer shell of the Beagle." The creature was unable to pass through the outer hull, and that gives the men an advantage.

Once again, a meeting is convened to decide upon a course of action; and if I'm dwelling a bit much on these endless wranglings, it's because the core of the novel really isn't the Scary Space Monsters; it's the shipboard politics. A passage later on puts it this way:
It seemed to Grosvenor that he was learning slowly but surely how to influence men. It was not enough to have information and knowledge, not enough to be right. Men had to be persuaded and convince Sometimes that might take more time than could safely be spared. Sometimes it couldn't be done at all. And so civilizations crumbled, battles were lost, and ships destroyed because the man or group with the saving ideas would not go through the long-drawn-out ritual of convincing others. 
If he could help it, that was not going to happen here.
Grosvenor has earned Morton's respect in the previous alien encounters, and the Director is willing to listen to him. But this time, Grosvenor's plan is radical and shocking. He proposes that they use atomic projectors, devices capable of generating tremendous beams of energy, capable of disintegrating the walls and not intended for use inside the ship. What's more he recommends that the entire crew be divided up so that each projector has a team of military men to operate it and an accompanying group of scientist... as bait. Morton is not happy with this plan, nor with Captain Leeth's recommendation that the scientists be unarmed. He leans more towards an alternate plan of trying to trap the creature between energized floors; but Grosvenor points out that they have no real evidence that this will form an insurmountable barrier for the creature.

After some discussion, the Captain reluctantly withdraws his suggestion. It's too much to ask men to risk their lives without some chance of defending themselves. The entire crew votes, and a plurality votes for Grosvenor's plan; but the vast majority of the crew members abstain from the voting. "I don't know whether I'm for it or against it," one says; "I don't know enough."

Although van Vogt does not spell it out, this is another criticism of Democracy. "It is expected that grown men know their own minds. The whole idea of democracy is based on that supposition," Captain Leeth says. But there are situations where individuals cannot vote for their best interests because they don't have enough information to make an informed decision. Could Nexialism be a solution to this problem? Perhaps, but van Vogt does not get into that here; the crew has a monster to kill.

Ixtl observes the activities with the men with interest. He soon learns that the atomic projectors are much more dangerous to him than the hand-held vibrators he encountered before. But that just means he needs to be more cautious as he selects victims to grab for use a guuls. He tries to choose the ones with the largest stomachs, because he needs them to incubate his eggs.

A scary monster running around in a spaceship, capturing the crew and planting eggs in them. Does that sound familiar? Van Vogt thought so when the movie Alien came out, and he sued 20th Century Fox over it. Did the studio really plagiarize him, or were the similarities between the Xenomorph and Ixtl merely coincidental? Fox settled out of court, so we'll probably never know for sure.

Ixtl appears in the midst of one of the projector crews. One of the scientists accompanying the crew panics and fires his weapon -- precisely the worst-case scenario Captain Leeth feared. The projector crew hold their fire, because the technician hasn't taken cover the way he was supposed to; they get hit by the beam of the guy's weapon and collapse, knocking over the atomic projector in the process. The projector accidentally discharges, killing three men and exposing the rest to severe and possibly fatal doses of radiation, among them, Director Morton.

Without the amendments and compromises Morton added to Grosvenor's plan, it might have worked. Then again, without them, it would never have been accepted in the first place. Was Morton's skill at administration and compromise a strength or a weakness? Either way, Morton is now out of the picture, and Captain Leeth orders the withdrawal of the atomic projectors so that the crew can prepare to energize the deck levels as per the other plan.

Kellie, the ship's chief sociologist, has come up with an answer to the question he posed before. How is it that a creature capable of surviving in deep space hasn't spread out over the entire universe? The answer is, it did. Civilizations aren't the only things that go through cycles; the universe does too. Ixtl's race did at one time populate the entire cosmos; but then the universe collapsed, died, and was reborn. The creature the Beagle is now fighting is one that has survived the Big Bang. How do you fight something like that?

What's more, they discover that the creature can pass through the energized partitions after all. Their chief defense is useless. They can try making more of the resistance metal which the hull is made out of, but that is a long and time-consuming process.

Grosvenor has another idea. Korita has speculated that the creature is in the peasant stage of his civilization. That means he will be concerned with two things: ensuring he has decendants, and holding onto property.
"You mentioned that the peasant clings with an almost senseless tenacity to his plot of land. If this creature is in the peasant stage of one of his civilization, could he imagine our feeling differently about our property?" 
"I'm sure he could not." 
"He would make his plans in the full conviction that we cannot escape him, since we are cornered aboard this ship?"
Leeth sees the conclusion Grosvenor is working towards. It's an extreme action; it will mean sacrificing a lot, but it's their only chance. Especially as a search crew reports finding the men Ixtl has captured and the condition they are in.

Ixtl is annoyed that the men have located and taken away his guuls, but that just increases his determination. He realizes now that he'll have to kill them all and that he should have started doing that right away. He goes to the nearest laboratory an begins working on a weapon to do this. So intent is he on his work, that he doesn't notice right away how quiet the ship has gotten. Suddenly, he realizes that he's all alone; the men have abandoned the ship!

He bolts for the nearest airlock and hurls himself out into space just as the men remotely activate the uncontrolled energization of the ship that was too dangerous to attempt while they were still on board. Then Ixtl sees the lifeboats containing the crew return to the ship. The force fields go up again. It's too late. Ixtl is now trapped outside, and the Space Beagle activates its space drive and flys away.
The ship's doctor removes Ixtl's eggs from the captured crewmen and destroys them. Pennons and his engineers will have their hands full repairing the damage done to the ship from those few seconds of uncontrolled energization. And with Morton incapacitated, perhaps fatally, Kent will take over as Director of the mission. But the crisis has passed.
"By heaven!" said a man, "No dangerous-looking creature should ever be allowed aboard this ship again. My nerves are all shot; and I'm not so good a man as I was when I first came aboard the Beagle." 
"You speak for us all" came the voice of Acting Director Kent over the communicator.
No one discusses the possibility that since one such creature survived the Big Bang, there may be others in the voids of intergalactic space too.

What are the odds?

NEXT:  The Nexial Department under siege! The Space Beagle has several deadly menaces already, and that was just in intergalactic space. What will they encounter now that they have reached "M33 In Andromeda"!!!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Voyage of the Space Beagle, Part 2: War of Nerves


These are the voyages of the Starship Space Beagle. It's mission: to seek out life beyond our galaxy; to boldly go where no man has gone before.

In our previous reading we encountered the Coeurl, a cat-like alien with the ability to manipulate energy fields around him, and an obsessive and insatiable hunger. The crew were able to defeat the Coeurl, in part due to the analysis of Elliot Grosvenor, the ship's chief (and only) Nexialist. Now they are about to meet a race which can't be destroyed with a blaster, and which will attack their very minds.


Nexialism is a new science; so new that the addition of a Nexialist Department to the Space Beagle was a last-minute decision, which explains why the entire department consists of only one person, Elliot Grosvenor. Most of the other scientists on board the Beagle don't understand what Nexialism is, and regard Grosvenor as irrelevant to their own areas of expertise. Grosvenor finds this annoying, because Nexialism is a cross-disciplinary science -- in an earlier chapter he calls it "applied whole-ism" -- that tries to make connections between the compartmentalized structure of the sciences. He tries not to let it bug him, but it isn't easy.

Grosvenor has put up a notice on the ship's bulletin boards announcing a public lecture on the science of Nexialism which he hopes will help educate some of his fellow scientists. The notice is a device rather like an LED flatscreen television, and is easily the most attention-grabbing note on the board. He sees, however, that there is a political rally scheduled for the exact time of his lecture, and glumly notes that the rally will probably draw away much of his potential audience.

In the previous two hundred years of space travel, about half the interstellar expeditions never returned, due to conflicts within the crew that grew worse the longer the missions went on. For the Space Beagle's expedition, which is to actually travel beyond the galaxy, it was decided to allow the scientists on board to elect their own leaders, rather than rely on the one appointed at the beginning of the mission, with the hopes that this would help defuse tensions. Gregory Kent, the head of the Chemistry Department, is challenging Hal Morton, the current Director, for the position of Directorship.

Grosvenor does not think the election is a good idea, and suspects that it will only intensify divisions within the crew. Personally, he has no problem with Morton; he regards the director as "a shrewd, reasonably honest, and very intelligent man, who handled most situations with automatic skill." Kent, on the other hand, is an aggressive bantam of a man with a quick temper and a habit of holding grudges. He is charismatic enough, and has many partisan supporters, (especially in his own department), but Grosvenor has already gotten on his bad side during the Coeurl incident.

Grosvenor takes lunch in the ships cafeteria and here we have another interesting side note. We've noted that the crew of the Beagle is exclusively male. Here the text observes:
Conversation among the younger men tended toward a certain sameness. Talk leaned heavily on women and sex. In this all-masculine expedition, the problem of sex had been chemically solved by the inclusion of specific drugs in the general diet. That took away the physical need, but it was emotionally unsatisfying.
It makes me wonder if the use of these "specific drugs" was another experiment to try to reduce conflicts among the crew, or if the elimination of the fairer sex from the crew was.

Much as Grosvenor would like to stay uncommitted in this election, one of Kent's partisans is at his table and draws him into a political argument.
Dennison's face was flushed, his voice harsh. "Look, Grove, you can't possibly have anything against a man you don't even know very well. Kent is the kind of person who won't forget his friends." 
"I'll wager he also has special treatment for those he dislikes," said Grosvenor. He shrugged impatiently. "Carl, to me Kent represents all that is destructive in our present civilization."
Which brings up a question. How does van Vogt view democracy? Some of his other novels seem to suggest that he prefers an enlightened monarchy over a democratic government. I don't know how seriously I want to take that though. He seems to follow a long-running theme in science fiction that the best leader is the Superior Man, a meritocracy based on intelligence and science. We get this sometimes in Robert Heinlein and in some of the late works of H.G. Wells where he talks about a New Breed of Humanity with a higher degree of understanding which he hopes will solve the world's problems.

Van Vogt's version of the New Breed here is the Nexialist, whose understanding of a broad range of knowledge makes him superior to the specialist in a single field. But he is also something of a social outcast. Grosvenor's youth makes him out of place among the Department Heads, and his title and encyclopedic knowledge means he doesn't exactly relate to men his own age either. Like van Vogt's later hero, Johnny Cross, Grosvenor is a geek; a social misfit. But a super-geek.

That said, I'm not sure if van Vogt intends a critique of Democracy here. He does however, have an idea about Democracy's limits. A system of government appropriate for a nation, he suggests, may not work so well in the closed environment of a spaceship. What's more, he recognizes an important point: In order for democratic elections to succeed, the losers must be willing to accede to the results of the contest, and the winners to refrain from punitive reprisals against their opponents. Grosvenor worries about what Kent's supporters will do if Kent loses.

That evening, Grosvenor is disappointed when no one shows up for his lecture. He reschedules it an hour later, hoping to snag a few people after the rally; then an hour later still. Finally a handful of stragglers wander in, including a couple from the Chemistry Department, who say little but seem to regard Grosvenor's department with derision. However, the Head Geologist, McCann, also attends and seems impressed. Afterwards McCann and Grosvenor have a discussion about the subliminal sleep teaching techniques which Nexialists use as part of their training.

The next day, the war begins.

Grosvenor arrives at his Department to find that the rooms have been taken over by a team of technicians from the Chemistry Department who have moved out his equipment and are busy installing their own: food-making vats and equipment. In the previous day's dinnertime discussion, Grosvenor had made sarcastic comments about the re-constituted food the Chemistry Department was producing. This is Kent's payback. If Grosvenor complains about Kent moving in, Kent can always say he was taking over space that wasn't being used, (true) to do something beneficial to the ship, (also true).

So Grosvenor holds his temper and tells the men, "I welcome the opportunity to further the education of the staff of the chemistry department... I hope no one will object to learning while he works.
Through duplicitous and morally dubious means, he manages to implant each of the workers with an ear bud which transmits a subliminal teaching message into the worker's brain.

Once he has this set up, he goes to talk with Director Morton. "I hear you've been invaded," Morton says. Grosvenor tells what happened and requests that Morton orders Kent out.
"I have an idea you misunderstand my position aboard the Beagle. Before making a decision involving a department head, I must consult with other department heads... Let us suppose that I placed this matter on the agenda, and then it was decided that Kent could have that part of your department he has already taken over. The status, being affirmed, would thereafter be permanent."
Grosvenor was well aware of that likelihood  and wanted to see how well Morton himself understood the situation. He then turns around and asks Morton to keep the matter off the agenda for the time being so that he can deal with matters himself. Surprised, Morton agrees.

Returning to his department, he sees Siedel, the chief Psychologist there observing the work crew. "Young man, isn't this a little unethical?" Kent noticed that some of his men were acting strangely and asked the psychologist to investigate. Siedel has has discovered the subliminal conditioning devices.
Grosvenor defends himself:
"Mr. Siedel, my department has been invaded by a man who dislikes me because I have openly stated that I will not vote for him. Since he acted in defiance of the laws of this ship, I have every right to defend myself as best I can. I beg you, therefore, to remain neutral in this purely private quarrel."
He admits to having hypnotized the workmen and given them the subliminal instructions, but insists that he has not taken advantage of them or harmed them. The only thing the subliminals contain are information on chemistry.
"That's all I'm giving them," said Grosvenor. "That's all I intend to give them. I regard my department as an educational center. People who force themselves in here receive an education whether they like it or not."
Siedel admits that he can't see Kent objecting to his men learning about chemistry, although privately Grosvenor wonders how much Kent will like his subordinates knowing as much about his specialty as he does. Still, Grosvenor realizes that he will need to change tactics.

He goes to visit Korita, the archaeologist, to ask his advice. Korita, as we have seen, espouses a cyclical theory of history, that each civilization passes through various stages which inevitably repeat. Grosvenor is not sure he fully accepts this theory, but acknowledges that he does not fully understand it, and want's Korita's input as to how the theory applies to his current situation.
"...From what I've read on the subject, I gather we're in the late, or 'winter,' period of our own civilization. In other words, right now we are making the mistakes that lead to decay. I have a few ideas about that, but I'd like more." 
Korita shrugged. "I'll try to put it briefly." He was silent for a while, then he said, "The outstanding common denominator of the 'winter' periods of civilization is the growing comprehension on the part of millions of individuals of how things work. People become impatient with superstitious or supernatural explanations of what goes on in their minds and bodies, and in the world around them. With the gradual accumulation of knowledge, even the simplest minds for the first time 'see through' and consciously reject the claims of a minority to hereditary superiority. And the grim battle for equality is on." 
Korita paused for a moment, then continued. "It is this widespread struggle for personal aggrandizement that constiutues the most significant parallel between all the 'winter' periods in the civilizations of recorded history. For better or wors, the fight usually takes place within the framework of a legal system that tends to protect the entrenched minority. The late-comer to the field, not understanding his motivations, plunges blindly into the battle for power. The result is a veritable melee of undisciplined intelligence. In their resentment and lust, men follow leaders as confused as themselves. Repeatedly, the resulting disorder has led by well-defined steps into the fellahin state. 
"Sooner or later, one group gains the ascendancy. Once in office, the leaders restore 'order' in so savage a blood-letting that the millions are cowed. Swiftly, the power group begins to restrict activities.... It becomes difficult, then impossible, for the individual to engage in any enterprise. And so we progress by swift stages to the familiar caste system of ancient India, and to other, less well-known but equally inflexible societies  such as that of Rome after about A.D. 300. The individual is born into his station of life and cannot rise above it."
Korita paints a grim picture of the 'winter' stage of civilization and this is the stage their own civilization has reached. We can see parallels with our own society today, and the clear implication is that we ourselves are in a decadent culture destined for stagnation until the next turn of the wheel starts the cycle anew. No wonder Grosvenor expresses some misgivings about the cyclical theory.Perhaps Nexial science, properly developed, will allow mankind to understand the process of history and break out of the cyclical pattern of previous civilizations. Grosvenor certainly hopes so.
"As I've already said, I'm trying to solve the problem Mr. Kent has presented me without falling into the egotistical errors of late-civilization man you have described. I want to know if I can reasonably hope to defend myself against him without aggravating the hostilities that already exist aboard the Beagle."
Korita is sympathetic, but not very encouraging. "It will be a unique victory if you succeed. Historically, on a mass basis, the problem has never been solved."

Suddenly the ship comes under attack.

Grosvenor sees a strange image in one of the translucent wall panels in the ship's corridor. He only catches a glimpse -- he gets the impression of a woman with a feathered hat -- then flashes of light and a pain in his eyes.

His Nexial training tells him that he is receiving some kind of hypnotic hallucination. He is able to overcome the illusion, but Korita has already fallen into a trance and Grosvenor must use a hypnotic counter-suggestion to snap him out of it.

The illusions are everywhere. All over the ship, members of the crew have fallen unconscious. Clearly this is some sort of alien attack. Grosvenor tries helping another crewman the way he did Korita, but by now it's too late. "I got to you right away," Grosvenor later explains to Korita. "The human nervous system learns by repetition. For you the light pattern hadn't repeated as often as for the others."
Grosvenor tries to build an electro-mechanical device to counter the flashing lights, but by now the crew is waking up, and under the influence of the hypnosis, they are acting on deep-seated hostilities. And this crew has a lot of hostility. Before he knows it, Grosvenor finds himself in the middle of a three-way war for control of the ship between Kent's partisans, Morton, and the military contingent aboard the ship led by Captain Leeth.

Grosvenor goes to both Morton and Leeth, attempting to break through and convince them of the alien hypnosis threat, but both men are so entrenched in their preconceived hatreds and paranoia, that they barely seem to comprehend what he's saying.

He returns to his lab. His only chance now is to try making contact with the alien attackers. Since the aliens can use hypnosis over a distance, Grosvenor speculates that they may be telepathic. He sets up an encephalo-adjuster, a device capable of artificially transmitting impulses from one mind to another. Viewing the hypnotic images through the adjuster, he is able to safely get a clear view of his adversaries: bird-like creatures with slender bodies which he had initially identified as feminine. (van Vogt does not speculate on whether the lack of women on board might have contributed to that association). The creatures seem to reproduce by budding, which is why some of them seem to be "doubled"; a new being is growing out of the body of another one. The aliens show him images of their planet; a world with tall, slender buildings, but no industry and seemingly no machinery. But in exchange for the information they have given, the aliens demand closer contact. They insist that Grosvenor let himself be hypnotized so that he may join their collective mind.

Here things start to get strange. His mind does not fit well with that of the aliens, which he learns call themselves the Riim. His brain is trying to interpret alien sensations that have no connection with his own body, and it's interpreting them as pain. Then he feels the sensation of something soft against his lips and a voice saying "I am loved." The sensations become more pleasant, but he reminds himself that they are still illusions.

He is still not in full communication with the creatures, and so he attempts to use his connection to take control of one of their bodies. This is extremely difficult, but with some effort he manages to move the arms and head of one of the Riim.

The reaction of the Riim is completely unexpected.
"The cells are calling, calling. The cells are afraid. Oh, the cells know pain! There is darkness in the Riim world. Withdraw from the being -- far from Riim. . . Shadow, darkness, turmoil. . . . The cells must reject him. . . . But they cannot. They were right to try to be friendly to the being who came out of the great dark, since they did not know he was an enemy . . . . The night deepened. All cells withdraw. . . . But they cannot. . . ."
The attack on the Beagle had been intended as a message of friendship all along. But the differences between the two alien psychologies had made the contact disruptive. Grosvenor realizes that he could break contact with the Riim now, but if he does, they may try try to retaliate for what they perceive as his attack on them.

Using what he has learned from the Riim already, he attempts to project soothing thoughts and images to them. "I am loved... I am loved by my parent body, from which I am growing to wholeness. I share my parent's thoughts, but already I see with my own eyes, and know that I am one of the group--"
Korita has speculated that being a telepathic race, these beings might have progressed directily to the final stage in the cycle, a static, convention-bound society. Grosvenor needs to break their assumptions about the universe. And so he floods their group-consciousness with new ideas, about the nature of the universe and their role in it. He explains that their attempt at friendly communication was causing great harm to the people on his ship. And he convinces them. The Riim withdraw.

The crew of the Beagle comes out of their temporary madness. There have been some deaths from the fighting and many injuries, but for the most part the crew is once again whole. Morton and Leeth remember enough of what happened to believe and understand Grosvenor's explaination.
But what of Kent?

Kent, it seems, took a mouthful of poison gas during the battle between his department and the military. He's recuperating, but will be laid up for several weeks. Long past the date of the election, in fact. Kent's deputy in the Chemistry Department has quietly agreed to withdraw from the Nexial Department.

Since Morton will now effectively be running unopposed in the election, Grosvenor suggests that he name Kent his alternative.

"That's a suggestion I wouldn't have expected from you," Morton says. "I'm not, personally, very anxious to boost Kent's morale."

"Not Kent's," Grosvenor says. He's thinking of Kent's supporters, who will feel cheated and angry at their leader's loss. One of his chief objectives on board the Beagle is to try to neutralize tensions in the crew, and this is the best way he can think of. Morton reluctantly agrees.

NEXT: Okay, this is the one we've been waiting for; the one that van Vogt sued 20th Century Fox over; because in space, no one can hear the "Discord in Scarlet!"

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Farewell Ray Harryhausen

It is a sad task to let people know when great talent has left us.   In
the case of Ray Harryhausen, instead of being mournful I am going
to go watch his movies.  He left us with some very fun viewing material.

Farewell Ray, you were great!

The death notice in USA Today


(all photos copyright their respective owners, used for illustrative educational
purposes and no infringement implied).






Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Voyage of the Space Beagle Part 1: Black Destroyer

Last week we looked at a forgotten writer of Science Fiction's Golden Age, A.E. van Vogt. This week we begin reading one of my favorite of his novels, The Voyage of the Space Beagle. Like many of van Vogt's novels, this one originally appeared as short stories which he later stitched together into composites he called "fixups". The resulting novel is an episodic tale of a scientific expedition out to explore the far reaches of the galaxy and beyond. The Space Beagle isn't just one of the roots of Science Fiction, elements of the book are a part of it's DNA.

On and on Coeurl prowled.
The Coeurl, from the story "Black Destroyer" which became the first part of the novel, is one of the great aliens in science fiction, partially because of his striking appearance but also because much of the story is told from his point of view. I can think of no fewer than three iconic SF monsters directly or indirectly inspired by him.

He is large and cat-like, with dark fur, antennae-like tendrils at its ears and large tentacles coming out of his back. Old School gamers will recognize the description as a Displacer Beast, one of the classic Dungeons & Dragons monsters. Mughi, the alien pet in the anime series Dirty Pair was also based on the Coeurl. Although he is drawn to look like a giant bear in the animated version, in the novel upon which the anime was based Mughi is clearly a Coeurl.

The Coeurl is prowling because he is hungry. It has been tracking a group of id-creatures for several weeks but has now lost track of them. There is very little food on its planet and the id is hard to come by. Then he sees the spaceship land and senses that it carries creatures possessing plenty of id.

The ship is the Space Beagle, a scientific exploration vessel. Some of the scientists on board have already disembarked and are looking around. One of them is Elliot Grosvenor, head of the ship's Nexial department. Theoretically, this puts him equal to the heads of the other scientific departments on board the ship, but since Nexialism is a new science and he's the only Nexialist on board, the rest tend to ignore him. His space suit radio isn't even tuned to the official channel which would allow him to participate in the department heads' conversations about the strange cat-like creature who has come out of the ruined city to meet them.

The creature seems intelligent as it curiously approaches the ship, and one of the scientists notes that the tentacles on his back end in suction cup manupulators. "Provided the nervous system is complex enough, he could with training operate any machine." They speculate that "pussy" might be a descendant of the inhabitants of the ruined city the ship landed near.

Morton, the mission's Director wishes there was some way to take the critter aboard their ship for study, but Kent, the head of the Chemistry Department, thinks it's impossible. "This atmosphere has a higher chlorine than oxygen content, thought actually not much of either. Our oxygen would be dynamite to his lungs." But when they give the curious creature a whiff of oxygen from the ship's airlock, it doesn't seem to bother him. "Well I'll be damned! He doesn't notice the difference! That means he hasn't any lungs, or else the chlorine is not what his lungs use. You bet he can go in! Smith, here's a treasure house for a biologist -- harmless enough if we're careful. What a metabolism!"

The critter docilely follows the scientists on board the ship, but panics when he finds itself enclosed in an elevator. He freaks out, doing considerable damage to the elevator, as well as giving a good scare to the scientists riding the lift with him. Morton kicks himself for inadvertantly spooking the critter. Now they've lost it's trust.

The funny thing is, Coeurl is thinking the same thing. He wanted them to think he was mild and placid. Now that they've seen an example of his strength and ferocity, they'll be more cautious and it it will be more difficult for him to seize their ship.

The scientists let the creature have its way and allow it to come and go as it wills, hoping that they'll have a better opportunity to study him. Meanwhile, other teams go out into the city and elsewhere on the planet to collect data and try to determine what happened to the civilization which once dwelt there. Grosvenor, having nothing else to do, takes a small patrol ship and assigns himself the job of watching Coeurl. The critter is wandering around a lot among the various teams gathering samples and such, and while listening to some other men speculating on why the planet's culture died, he loses track of him.

Coeurl is going crazy. The strain of acting harmless while surrounded by all this id is becoming more than he can bear. But he noted one man going off by himself into the ruins. He chooses an opportune moment to slip away into the city, track the man down and kill him; ripping open the man's spacesuit and feeding himself on the man's id. Then he hurries back to the worksite, before the men there even know he was gone.

The body is discovered and pussy is quickly suspected; after all, they haven't discovered any other large predators on the planet capable of ripping open a man's spacesuit and reducing the body to jelly. The victim was a member of Kent's Chemistry Department, and a close friend of his.

Kent wants blood. "I say, take no chances. Kill the brute on suspicion before he does any more damage." Smith, the chief Biologist, wants the creature alive for study. Morton is reluctant to kill a creature who might be innocent. He asks the ship's chief historian, Korita, for his opinion.

Korita is an interesting character. A tall, quiet Japanese man who is respected by the other scientist on the Space Beagle, which is remarkable when you consider that the original stories were written between 1939 and 1950. He is a historian with a theory, and as Karl Marx has taught us, there are few things more dangerous than a historian with a theory. Nevertheless, he's a sympathetic character, and his cyclical theory of history is used repeatedly in the novel as a key to understanding the beings the Beagle encounters.
"Director Morton, there is a mystery here. Take a look, all of you, at that majestic sky line. Notice the architectural outline. In spite of the megalopolis which they created, these people were close to the soil. The buildings are not merely ornamented. They are ornamental in themselves.... This is not a decadent hoary-with-age civilization but a young and vigorous culture, confident, strong with purpose. There it ended....
"I say that this culture culture ended suddenly in its most flourishing age. The sociological effects of such a catastrophe would be an end of morality, a reversion of bestial criminality unleavened by a sense of ideal. There would be a callous indifference to death. If this -- if pussy is a descendant of such a race, then he will be a cunning creature, a thief in the night, a cold-blooded murderer who would cut his own brother's throat for gain."
Despite Korita's warning, Morton decides to hold off for the time being and keep pussy under observation, while Kent performs an autopsy. Kent's analysis comes up with something interesting.
"I've identified the missing element," Kent said. "It's potassium. There was only about two-thirds or three-quarters of the normal amount of potassium left in Jarvey's body. You know how potassium is held by the body cell in connection with a large protein molecule, the combination providing the basis for the electrical charge of the cell. It's fundamental to life. Usually, after death the cells release their potassium into the blood stream, making it poisonous. I proved that some potassium is missing from Jarvey's cells but that it did not go into the blood."
Potassium??? Croeul's id is potassium? Yep. Van Vogt suckered us. By referring to the substance Croeul consumed as "id", he suckered us into thinking it was some sort of life-force or something. But then again, considering the role Kent says potassium plays in cells, perhaps you could call it something like that. And here we're reminded of another iconic SF monster, the "Salt Vampire" from the Star Trek episode "Man Trap", which also had suction cup-like apendeges which it used to remove the salt from its victims. I can't say there is a direct connection between the two, but the similarity is striking.

Kent sets up a test. Previously Coeurl had turned up his nose at food they had offered him. Now Kent prepares some food in which the potassium is artificially kept suspended in a similar manner to living cells and sets it before the critter. Coeurl realizes they are trying to trick him and angrily hurls the food in Kent's face. The chemist responds by drawing his own "vibrator", a low-level ray gun, and shooting Coeurl squarely in the face. This is another mistake on the Coeurl's part; he is forced to defend himself by neutralizing the gun's beam. He didn't want them to know he could do that.
The scientists decide they want Coeurl in a cage. Grosvenor suggests they just put the cat out for the night -- he doesn't think Coeurl will stray far -- but he is outvoted. Kent still wants the cat dead, but concedes, "If four inches of micro-steel can't hold him, we'd better give him the ship."

They lead Coeurl into a special room designed to hold specimins. The critter realizes it's a trap but permits himself to be detained. He can manipulate energy fields -- that was how he neutralized the beam from Kent's weapon -- and so it is an easy task for him to open the cell's electronic lock.
He listens for the movements of the guards outside the cell, and when they move away, he slips out and goes hunting. He breaks into a cabin and kills the occupant; then another, and another; timing his kills so that he can be back in his cell before the guards check up on him. He's starting to form long-range plans now. He doesn't just want to kill all the humans on board the ship; he wants to seize the ship, find a few more of his kind and travel to the humans's homeworld, where there will be an unlimited supply of id.

But on his second sortie, he returns a bit too late and is forced to kill the guards. His chance to wipe out the crew quickly before they realize what is happening is gone. He retreats to the cell.
Even now, Morton and the others aren't entirely sure that the Coeurl is the culprit. How could he have gotten out of the cell? As they argue about what to do, they hear a heavy crashing noise inside the cell. The ship's Captain, Leeth, shows up. He's a military man, and he's decided that it's time to take matters out of the hands of the scientists. Just then, as Morton finally agrees to kill the cat, they feel a tremendous lurch as the Space Beagle lifts off. The Coeurl has knocked a hole out of his cell by electromagnetically weakening the bonds of the micro-steel walls and is now barricaded in the engine room.

Morton calls a meeting of all the department heads as well as Leeth's senior officers to come up with a plan.
"I'm going to ask various experts to give their suggestions for fighting pussy. What we need here is a consultation between many different specialized fields and, however interesting theoretical possibilities might be, what we want is the practical approach."And that, Grosvenor decided ruefully, effectively disposed of Elliot Grosvenor, Nexialist. It shouldn't have. What Morton wanted was integration of many sciences, which was what Nexialism was for. He guessed, however, that he would not be one of the experts whose practical advice Mortons would be interested in. His guess was correct.
...
The trouble with what the scientists had agreed on was that it was not thorough enough. A number of specialists had pooled their knowledge on a fairily superficial level. Each had briefly outlined his ideas to people who were not trained to grasp the wealth of association behind each notion. And so the attack plan lacked unity.
Nevertheless, Grosvenor prepares his own report for the Director. He gathers as much information as he can from the other departments, some of which are more helpful than others. He has the misfortune of speaking directly with Kent and winds up antagonizing the chemist further. When his report is complete, he delivers one copy to Morton, (and is blocked by a obstructive assistant who tells him that "The Director is a very busy man," but who condescends to "bring it to his attention." He has slightly more success with Captain Leeth, who at least listens to Grosvenor's recommendations before rejecting them. "The military... has a slightly different approach to these matters."

Morton convenes another meeting for all the Department Heads to present their plans to pry the kitty out of the engine room. They mostly amount to simultaneous attacks to confuse and overwhelm him. Korita has little to add except some further analysis of the critter's culture. "As you can see, his record is one of the low cunning of the primitive, egotistical mind, which has little or no understanding of it's own body processes in the scientific sense, and scarcely any conception of the vast organization with which it is confronted."

Then, to Grosvenor's surprise, Morton asks him to speak. "...I have received a document from a young man who is aboard this ship representing a science about which I know very little. The fact that he is aboard at all requires that I give weight to his opinions."

Somewhat nervously, Grosvenor gives his own analysis of the kitty and the culture which produced him. From the information gathered from the other departments, he has reconstructed a picture of how and why the civilization of this world fell. Layers of ash found by the surveys suggest that at some point in the past a major event cast large amounts of dust in the atmosphere, wiping out much of the existing plant life. With the loss of plant life, the population of larger herbivores dropped as well, which were the only food source for the Coeurl. "It does not seem to have occurred to these creatures to farm their food and, of course, the food of their food. An incredible lack of foresight, you'll admit." From this point he deduces that the Coeurl are not the actual builders of the cities, nor even the descendants of the builders, but rather animals which the builders had experimented on. As for the builders themselves, Grosvenor speculates that they wiped themselves out in a nuclear war, which caused the atmospheric dust resulting in the catastrophic climatic change. Yep, he doesn't use the exact words, but Grosvenor is talking about Nuclear Winter.

As for his recommendation, Grosvenor says that since they are dealing with a beast -- an intelligent beast, but a beast nonetheless -- they should allow it to escape. "Once out of the ship, he will be at our mercy." There is currently a partially disassembled lifeboat in the machine shop adjacent to the engine room and an air lock at the end of the hallway nearby.

The experts are unconvinced. Captain Leech is unwilling to let the beast go, but concedes that if their plan for attack fails, he will consider other measures.

In the engine room, Coeurl is under siege. His control over the energy fields around him have protected him so far, but he's not sure how long he can hold out. But the attacks and the challenge of operating the equipment in the engine room have reawakened much that he had forgotten of the skills the builders had taught him. He has finished repairing the lifeboat in the maintenance bay and loaded it with equipment. He will return to his planet and teach his fellow Coeurl to build spaceships of their own.

He boards the lifeboat and breaks his way out of the ship. But as he turns his lifeboat around to head back for his planet, the Space Beagle disappears behind him. And the pinpoint of light he identified as his sun is growing smaller! He frantically searches for a landmark to aim for, and thinks he's found it; but as he approaches the growing point of light he guesses is his sun, he sees it is actually the ship he just left.
Something happened to Coeurl in that moment. His mind was spinning like a flywheel  faster and faster. It flew apart into a million aching fragments... His tentacles clutches at precious instruments and flung them against the walls of his ship. Finally, in a brief flash of sanity, he knew that he couldn't face the inevitable fire of disintegrators that would now be directed against him from a safe distance.
Coeurl was unfamiliar with the Beagle's anti-acceleration drive, the spacedrive it used to travel interstellar distances, which was how it managed to disappear and then reappear before him. Captain Leeth takes no chances and makes sure the Coeurl is good and dead before he'll let anybody touch the wreckage of the lifeboat.

Kent still wants vengeance. "We've got a job -- to kill every cat on the miserable world." Korita muses that it shouldn't be hard. "They are but primitives. We have merely to settle down, and they will com to us, cunningly expecting to delude us."

Grosvenor has a better suggestion. "Don't forget that pussy's attack on us was based on a despearte need for food; the resources of this planet apparently can't support this breed much longer. Pussy's brethren know nothing about us, and therefore are not a menace." He suggests they just leave, and let nature take its course.

NEXT: The Space Beagle comes under a psychic attack, and Grosvenor must defend his Nexial Department from the greatest danger of all --- Politics!!!