Shakespeare’s plays Henry IV Parts 1 (my review) and 2 (review) and King Henry V (review) have given me a hopeless sense of a fallen world in which there is little or no good and only evils of various magnitudes. All people in every walk of life are criminals and hypocrites and all paths lead to Hell.
Meanwhile, in the technical writing class I’m taking this summer we read a monstrous example of the Nazi’s use of technical writing and how an ethic of expediency suggests the Holocaust is not just an “aberration in Western civilization” but instead an underlying ethic in Western culture, as well as science, technology, and capitalism, that can often lead to negative consequences. [Katz, Steven B. “The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust.” College English 54.3 (1992): 255-75. PDF.]
But neither are why I am truly depressed this evening. I wrote a short response to the paper pointing out the Dark Enlightenment as a worrying contemporary example of where an ethic of expediency can lead. One of the other students in the class who read my response now thinks segregation (whether by race, intelligence, posthuman aspirations, etc., an idea promulgated by some neoreactionaries) is a great idea.
[Post edited on Monday, June 22, 2015 to correct my misunderstanding about the provenance of the remarkable color image below.]
Tonight I was browsing the latest raw images of Pluto and Charon taken by New Horizons today from only 27.7 million kilometers away and I realized that when you zoom in, Charon is just beginning to get big enough to hint at brighter and darker areas on the surface. The raw images, however, are in JPEG format, compressed and lower resolution than the processed data the team is reviewing (I learned this recently from the super knowledgeable Emily Lakdawalla; you must follow her on Twitter.) This gives the science team time to be the first to make major discoveries while still satisfying the public’s interest in seeing the latest images as quickly as possible.
That doesn’t mean the team isn’t periodically releasing higher resolution images for all the world to see. The image below is one example of that, apparently shared today on an online forum by Alan Stern, the Principal Investigator of the New Horizons mission. Enthusiasts are working with these raw images to try to pull out additional detail. This is the point in the mission where the geologists and other experts and amateurs alike can really start getting excited. The surface features are beginning to pop out in this processed color image, the result of combining several black and white images with an older color image. Sure, it’s not clear exactly what we are looking at, but that is all part of the fun. As New Horizons speeds toward its close flyby of Pluto on July 14, every day should now start revealing something new and unexpected.
And we can all get lost in these images, speculating, imagining, wishing…
So what are we seeing? Off the top of my uninformed head, on Pluto it looks like a pink surface, possibly rich in methane ices, with dark circles that might be craters (but maybe they are too big to be craters, or maybe they are image artifacts and not real, or maybe they are shadows from clouds, or maybe it is the Woman in Pluto, staring back at us.)
Charon is darker and more red in color, with what looks like an obvious dark patch. At this scale, though, a single pixel is, what, tens or hundreds of kilometers across? All that area of terrain collapses into a single pixel, resulting in an average that at this point in time can only be a hint about what is actually there.
Anyway, Pluto and Charon are, in fact, no longer just bright (but faint) dots in the sky, but actual worlds with surfaces. Dynamic, colorful, variable surfaces.
The coming days are going to be extraordinary. Welcome to Pluto and its moons!
Pluto is the last of the classical nine planets to be visited by a spacecraft from Earth. The New Horizons spacecraft will take close-up images and capture other useful data as it speeds by Pluto and its moons on July 14, 2015. This will complete the imaging grand tour of our solar system that began on July 14, 1965 when Mariner 4 took the first close-up image of another planet, Mars. In the past fifty years Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn have all had dedicated orbital missions, and Uranus and Neptune have had flyby missions.
Now it is Pluto’s turn.
New Horizons is traveling over a million kilometers closer to the system every day. There are just 36 million kilometers and 30 days left until closest approach. The mission is releasing raw images daily. New Horizons’s LORRI camera took the image above on June 13, 2015. When comparing this image to previous images, you can already see how Pluto and Charon are getting slightly bigger each day. Charon is on the verge of being wide enough to see surface “features,” or at least tantalizing light and dark patches. Around July 10th, according to the simulation of the image data set put together by Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society, two more moons of Pluto—Hydra and Nix—should start showing up in the images, and Styx and Kerberos, as well as any moons not yet discovered, should show up during closest approach. Before then, I look forward to seeing results from amateurs and professionals already pulling out even more details from the current images through various image processing techniques.
What have we learned in these first 50 years of close-up exploration of our neighborhood? The solar system, including the outer, colder worlds, is a lot more active and dynamic than predicted. Earth is no longer alone when it comes to surface liquids (hydrocarbon seas on Titan and brief trickles of water on the surface of Mars) or oceans (under the shells of several moons around Jupiter and Saturn and perhaps even Pluto.) These other oceans increase the number of potentially habitable worlds in our solar system to several. In addition to the classical nine planets, other spacecraft missions have targeted asteroids, comets, and dwarf planets (of which Pluto is now considered the largest under the modern classification scheme.) Many of these worlds warrant even more detailed investigation, not just from orbit, but also by landers and rovers and other vehicles yet to be developed.
Over the next 50 years, robotic vehicles will dig, drill, climb, sail, and swim these other worlds, giving us our first glimpses of alien caves, oceans, and other underground features, even as the surfaces of these worlds are captured in higher and higher resolution. The robots will also look for signs of life, extinct or extant. Will we join our technology out there, on the first human missions to Mars and other worlds? Will we found our first extraterrestrial colonies?
Now that the initial survey of the solar system is nearly complete, anything seems possible!
My latest short essay for the Fairy Tale Review blog is “Fairy-Tale File: Once Upon a Microchip.” It’s based on a fairy tale I recently discovered and absolutely love titled “A Toy Princess” by the Victorian writer Mary de Morgan. I’m also working on a retelling of this fairy tale.
I fondly remember buying a few editions of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling in the 1990s. I was in my twenties and while many of the stories and their level of craft were opaque to me at the time, I felt I had stumbled onto a magical tradition. Even then my mind boggled at the idea of anyone reading and sampling so many short stories from so many publications in a single year, year after year. Each edition included an annual summation of fantasy by Windling and of horror by Datlow, as well as “Horror and Fantasy on the Screen/in Media” by Edward Bryant, obituaries, and honorable mentions. The anthology series was published every year from 1988 through 2008. What dedication to such a wonderful project!
I’m a different reader and a different writer than I was at the time. I recently purchased the first two editions in physical paperback form, to begin my own survey of fantasy and horror writing over the years. I hope this personal project will give me a sense of the breadth of these genres to inspire and inform my own writing. I am reading new short stories as well, in such publications as Uncanny, Fireside, Crossed Genres, and Lightspeed, but I think a tangential trip through time and across genres can only benefit me.
This effort was prompted by the recent death of Tanith Lee, a name that seemed familiar to me because I’m certain I read and loved one of her short stories in an edition of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. I don’t like having vague recollections of people and their works, especially after they die. Reading these anthologies will also introduce me to the works of many other writers I would like to get to know through their writing, by attaching their names to stories I love.
All good writers are readers, and all good genre writers also read the other authors in their genres. While I frequently write science fiction, and I’m reading a great deal of science fiction, especially short stories, these days, I also write fantasy and horror. Even if I didn’t, I would want the influence of fantasy and horror writing on my science fiction. I cannot explain why, exactly. Each genre has its particular approaches and elements, but perhaps we are in an age (or have always been in such an age?) were the boundaries between genres are porous, perhaps even illusionary. For example, Charlie Jane Anders wrote a novelet titled “Palm Strike’s Last Case” that appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The story combined elements from different genres and subgenres. I was so impressed and inspired by her story; it taught me that stories can indeed and with great success cross and merge genres.
I need the background in genre only reading can provide. I need to know what other writers are (and were) thinking and writing about. I need to know how their concerns have changed over time. I need to know how they are crossing and merging genres. Tonight I crack open the first annual collection of The Year’s Best Fantasy (as it was called in the first two editions before “and Horror” was added) to find out what short stories from 1987 grabbed the attention of Datlow and Windling, to uncover the tropes and trends of the time, to read stories I haven’t read yet from some of my favorite writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, to find out what George R. R. Martin and Harlan Ellison were writing at the time, and to discover new favorite writers. Through their work I hope they will guide my hand a little in my own writing.