Freezing Planets Distant From Stars

Freezing planets distant from stars
hide ocean worlds agitating phase
transitions between rock warm interiors
and outer icy shells; Dante’s fog.
With liquid introspection, lifeforms
must emerge to lead layered lives.
Pulled from warm pipes of mineral-rich
vents they reach up and scratch at heaven.
Celestial spheres cold and bright
sound suddenly of insides waiting to gut out,
to glimpse the afterlife: vacuum angels,
later and far fewer, understanding ice
to mean death, watching icy worlds
erupt with gelatinous demonic greeting.

#NaPoWriMo 2017 Day 7

Discussion:

It continues to astonish me that our solar system is full of (probable) oceans of liquid water and not just our one globe-spanning surface deluge. This was simply not a possibility when I was growing up and learning about the planets and their moons. The outer planets were cold, dead, their moons frozen and not active. Active surfaces required the heat of being close to the Sun and rock liquified by radiation and extreme compression. Io, the volcanic moon of Jupiter, was an outlier. Okay, maybe something interesting was happening at Europa, too, but that was it.

Galileo, Cassini-Hugyens, and New Horizons radically changed our understanding about just how active cold can be. We find our outer solar system and its icy bodies to be an exciting realm of surface activity driven by active subsurface mechanisms, leading to evidence for liquid water oceans underneath. Ceres in the Asteroid Belt, the four largest moons of Jupiter, Enceladus and Titan at Saturn, Triton at Neptune, Pluto itself and perhaps even icy bodies beyond are all tantalizing reservoirs, and where there is liquid and the agitating forces that make oceans despite frigid distances from the sun and ice crust surfaces, there is the very real possibility of life, a phenomenon that thrives, as far as we know, at such energetic boundaries here on Earth.

Add to the list similar icy bodies that must abound around other stars and I begin to imagine an extensive shadow universe almost Lovecraftian in how well it has been hidden from our limited perspective. There may be other habitable Earth-like planets in the Goldilocks zone around their stars, but these surface water worlds will always be vastly outnumbered by the hidden ocean worlds. Billions of years of history in agitated soup inside icy bodies far more numerous than what may be rare Earths? Imagine the histories of life that have been locked away under ice in oceans we’re only just beginning to acknowledge exist! I imagine evolution at speed but constrained by almost impenetrable layers of rock below and ice above. How many civilizations on how many icy worlds rose and fell trapped between solid layers without realizing where they were in the scheme of things? How advanced must they become to realize that there is vastness beyond their solid ice heavens? Cities and vehicles, mining and economy, liquid resources, and still in the dark about how thin their realm really is. And give them a crack to the surface, how would it not be an almost insurmountable obstacle, to live under such pressure, with all that thick water pressed between thick rock and thick ice, and then to be introduced to vacuum?

It is much, much more difficult, I think, to start from below. How easy it is for us surface dwellers under domes of open air and thin skies to peer out at the universe. Our advantage is our cosmic view and living adjacent to vacuum, under low enough pressure already that we can relatively easily fashion vessels and suits as life-affirming bubbles of the living conditions we need to survive while we explore. It takes some doing, but our progress seems so much easier compared to what hidden ocean people under great depths between solid barriers must face to even find out they have somewhere to go to poke their limbs and head out, if they can even swim up from depth without their delicate bodies exploding, if they can fashion, under water, vehicles that can swim and vehicles that can drill and then vehicles that can keep them under pressure when they break through the ice to sudden vacuum, lack of pressure, and radiation. I don’t think swimming and drilling and venturing out for such aliens will turn out to be the exact opposite to our diving deep and drilling down and flying up.

But if they overcome such incredible obstacles? Can you imagine our reaction to witnessing such creatures in their advanced suits and vehicles rising up through the thick icy crusts of Europa or Enceladus or Pluto?

Lovecraftian indeed.

Cities Through Telescopes

Cities! It was a discovery to shift worldview
and bring hope to a lonely species. The farseeing
Cycloptic Telescopic Array spanning the Earth and moon
provided blurry images of what appeared to be
globe-spanning cities located on the surface of an exoplanet
light years away. The case for cities was carefully
built from context to compelling evidence. Earth-like
size and mass. Nitrogen and oxygen-rich atmosphere.
Possible methane. Several large bodies of liquid water
on the surface. Images and spectra of probably
purple-green vegetation that smothered the surface.
Researchers discounted vertical columnar jointing
on a massive scale in basalt or granite uplifts,
or carving of rectangular shapes by natural processes
that might be mistaken for design. Possible metal and glass
signatures teased out of spectra and a method to the building
recognized by machine image-recognition algorithms parsing such
wide pixels for regularity. It made us want to believe.

My father peered out the window of his own skyscraper
in New York City at places that were not really out there,
I could not visit, and he could not explain. For humans,
there were no means by which to travel to the stars
and there was no escaping time or dementia, either. He aged
until he no longer spoke. He had had a long, active life,
an enviable healthspan within a lifespan that could not
be extended past the point of no return, which for all humans
despite our technological prowess was no later than
one hundred twenty years old. It was a hard
limit that loomed godlike and brazen, impossible to breach,
not unlike the magnitude of the alien buildings in the images.

See this star? I projected it into his room.
The one that’s a little green, a little more than ours.
There’s a planet there and on the planet life, like life
we now see teeming all around us on other worlds around
other stars. This one is special. This one has cities.
Intelligent life, dad. Alien civilization. Just like you hoped.

From our vantage point hundreds of light years away,
with even a single light year too far for us to travel,
all we could do was look, and every few years with better eyes,
at this alien civilization. Their thriving metropolis
hung like a jewel dangling in seaweed. I saw my dad in the same
way, through a telescope of age that resolved him
into wrinkles and age spots like byways and dirty city
centers. His sagging skin and the animation lost
as age cut his puppet strings one at a time resolved
into my own future. He died. My future a clear image.

The array of technologies and spacecraft the astronomers finally built
when I was as old as my father got to be but with more sense
to appreciate the effort and results was one that spanned our solar system.
What was blurry would come into sharp focus. It would detect more signs
of activity there, the alien quotidian itself, and glimpse
details that would suggest what they looked like, what the aliens
were like as individuals who together had built sky hugging building
so much like our own skyscrapers but so beyond our own in extent
and number that they could be seen from so far away. We would peer
into the past, hundreds of years ago, at aliens who would never
hear our hastily sent radio greeting. Generations
of their children’s children might look our way, too,
with telescopes and technology better equipped to spot
our tinier architecture, if the scale of their cities was any indication
of their advancement over us. When our signal arrived they might
see alive the long dead earthlings who had sent it.

Calibrated and checks checked, the new array began to take
new images. What it recorded was their cities in detail,
cities of cities, mountains of cities, artificial
but with orographic intent, not just along the edges
of their natural mountains but honeycombed throughout the rock.
Cities of metal and glass, as expected, and standing taller
than we would ever need our own dwellings to stand. Cities
of obvious capability and appreciation for form and beauty.
Cities under clouds of satellites that resolved like rings
in orbit of the planet. Cities so advanced that commentators
immediately wondered why they had not visiting us already,
or had already tried to call us. Were we ants to them, bacteria
unworthy of their attention? Were they shouting in a way
we couldn’t hear yet? Were they already on their way?
Might they arrive soon, an arrival planned for soon
after we spotted them? The images kept coming. The story resolved.

Cities, but cities long devastated and emptied. Ruins.

I stare out my window a kilometer above my surroundings
in my apartment where my century is almost over. I have
at most fifteen years left to live. I have no children,
no one to tell me about distant cities under alien starlight
and why I should hold on a little longer, because in cities
so alien and grand there must be answers to a great many things.

#NaPoWriMo 2017 Day 4

Discussion:

This was a rough night of writing. I thought I had a good idea for a poem this morning, when I should have written it, but I waited until after work and wrote it in growing frustration and dislike. Whatever I was trying to capture, that feeling that sparked my interest this morning, was unrecoverable this evening. The second poem I wrote was silly and the third poem worse.

These words were enough to clean out the cobwebs, though, and poem number four arrived longer in word count and much greater in scope, and it kept me at the keyboard for over two hours.

As poetry, though, I’m not sure this poem works very well. I use a little lyricism, but I lose lyricism, too, to world-building and exposition. The ragged right form bugs me. Attention to enjambment is cursory; I can do a lot better. This is very much a rough draft. I would like to find the poetic heart of it.

As science fiction, I like this poem a lot more. I like the contrast between the personal and the cosmic. I’m really interested in life extension research and I frequently imagine the interplay between such breakthroughs and specific characters, especially those who might be underrepresented in such science fiction stories. Not to say that I have crafted specific and engaging characters yet here in this poem. In rewrites, I would focus more on who these specific people are and why they are the lens through which I want to see this discovery of distant alien cities and how that is relates to the reality of human aging.

Someday. I guess I’ll have to move on to poem number five of NaPoWriMo 2017 tomorrow…

Book and Movie Reviews: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Invasion of the Body SnatchersInvasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s this moment after watching one of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies (there are four and I’ll have more to say about them later on in this review) when I think to myself “I really should read the original novel by Jack Finney.” Well, after watching all four adaptations again recently, I finally read the book, and what a surprise it turned out to be.

You know the story: seed pods from space arrive in a small town on Earth and begin replacing people while they sleep. What surprised me about the 1955 novel was how faithfully it was followed by the 1956 film adaptation starring Kevin McCarthy as Dr. Miles Bennell and Dana Wynter as Becky Driscoll. The first half is essentially the same between novel and film. About halfway through, details and plot points begin to diverge slightly, leading to a different ending. To be honest, the book’s climax seems a little silly, and it’s much less horrifying than the fate of the main characters by the end of the film. The film has its only silliness, in the shape of a framing device tacked on when the studio decided the ending was too dark, but what I view as the film’s real ending is absolutely bone-chilling.

The novel has more room for exposition than the film, and in general this additional information is really interesting. The novel is told in first person by Dr. Miles Bennell, who is even more cheeky and self-centered in the novel than he is in the film. He’s also much more progressive in the novel, which I didn’t expect from a male character created in the 1950s. Dr. Bennell makes particularly incisive observations related to race and gender. The novel cannot avoid all stereotypes, though. Becky Driscoll is primarily a passive and emotional damsel in distress, but there are several great moments in the novel when she becomes much more active and heroic, including coming up with a particularly great escape plan from a seemingly impossible situation.

The pod people plot from the movies is one of my favorite delicious terrors from horror and that creepiness and consistently frightening progression is definitely there in the original novel. The only thing that really disappointed me about the novel was the ending. The film adaptions tend to lean toward darker endings and more ambiguity. They make me feel like the horror has only just begun. The book’s ending instead is lighter and conclusive. It just doesn’t pack the same punch. Until then, though, the book is genuinely creepy and frightening.

The first three of the four movies based on the novel are some of my favorite movies of all time. They work because they capture the fears of their time. The 1956 film directed by Don Siegel is perhaps the best, and the fear it evokes with its seed pods and pod people is the fear of communism, in which your neighbor might turn out to be a communist plotting against America. As I mentioned, the ending gets really dark, though the framing device undercuts this. All of the actors are fantastic, and there is a scene with McCarthy and Wynter near the end of the movie that is one of the great chillers of all time.  The film is a masterpiece of paranoia, the practical effects are still amazing, and the chase scenes are much more frightening on the screen than they are in the book.

The second adaption arrived in 1978, directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Brooke Adams and Donald Sutherland as the leads. They are joined by a great cast, including Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, and Jeff Goldblum, as well as a fun cameo by Kevin McCarthy from the original movie. The fear of the 1970s seems to be of pop psychology and the effects drugs like Xanax prescribed for anxiety and depression have on emotions. The 1978 film doubles down on the special effects and paranoia, and the scream-screech of the aliens when they spot humans will always be frightening to me. The film departs from the novel in many ways and changes the characters quite radically, but it retains the paranoia and creepiness.

The third adaptation from 1993, Body Snatchers, was directed by Abel Ferrara and stars Gabrielle Anwar, Meg Tilly, Terry Kinney, Billy Wirth and Forest Whitaker. The movie departs from the novel in many ways. The protagonist here is a teenage girl dragged to a military base by her father, an Environmental Protection Agency agent investigating the impact of the base on the local environment. The fears of the early 1990s seem to be of the military, stepparents, and the environment impact of humans. While the plot is simplified quite a bit compared to the earlier movies and the novel, what elevates the movie in my opinion is just how frightening it becomes. Making the protagonist a young woman and part of a family with a stepmother and half-brother leads to truly horrific moments that make me jump in my seat every time I see them. Meg Tilly is frightening as hell, especially during a monologue in which she asks “Where are you going to go?”

One great novel, three great movies. And then there’s 2007’s The Invasion, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig as gender-reversed versions of the novel’s protagonists. This movie is terrible! The fear of the Aughts seems to be of pandemics and bodily fluids. The invasion spreads by vomiting on other people; it’s even grosser on screen than it sounds. There are no pods, just gross skin effects. No other fears are that well developed. Veronica Cartwright is always great, but her cameo here is wasted. The movie isn’t all that frightening, there aren’t any particularly captivating or scary scenes, and the talents of all of the actors are completely wasted. Unlike the earlier movies, The Invasion doesn’t really seem to have much to say. It doesn’t offer any compelling parallels to the contemporary world. It just seems to exist as an exercise to distill the novel to the very basics; it fails miserably.

But three great movies out of four is an incredible track record for any franchise. I think this rate of success is the result of Jack Finney coming up with a timeless and frightening plot particularly worthy of film adaptation. It’s one novel I think should be adapted about once every decade, because pod people are a great device for reflecting on our changing times and fears. What would an Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie look like today, in 2017?

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Magazine Review: Asimov’s Science Fiction August 2016

Asimov's Science Fiction, August 2016,Asimov’s Science Fiction, August 2016, by Sheila Williams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The August 2016 (I’m a little behind) issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction is a really good collection of stories, poems, and essays.

The essays include “Discovering Women of Wonder” by editor Sheila Williams, “The Software of Magic” by Robert Silverberg, “Thinking About Dinosaurs” by James Patrick Kelly, and “On Books” by Paul Di Filippo. All of them are fascinating and I’ve now got a huge list of new books I want to read.

The poetry was a little less interesting to me, a little too cute and a little too focused on science in poetic form rather than being poetry of the science fiction genre. “On the Death of Classical Physics” by Michael Meyerhofer nicely jumps scale from trees to the quantum world before being domesticated, in my opinion, by nevertheless interesting observations about the rigors and stress of daily life. “Your Clone Excels at You” by Robert Frazier has an imaginative form that leads to a too-clever, in my opinion, final line that I’m not sure achieves the poem’s aims. “SETI” by Andrew Paul Wood is nicely yearning but the poetry of it didn’t really, in my opinion, add anything to the questions asked. “The Martian Air Merchants” by Ken Poyner also makes me wonder what is gained by positioning these facts and questions in poetic form. But perhaps I’m being too harsh; I’ve been spoiled by my recent exposure to some of the poetry I’ve read in association with the Science Fiction Poetry Association, where the craft of poetry is always top-notch and science fiction and fantasy are just different genres poetry can explore. That is, I seem to prefer what’s important to poets writing the poetry collected by SFPA to what the poets emphasize in this issue of Asimov’s. Feel free to ignore my ramblings.

I’m much more comfortable in recommending the many great short stories and novelettes in this issue. “Wakers” by Sean Monaghan is about unlucky colonists awakened from hibernation on board a starship after an accident makes it impossible to reach their destination exoplanet. The latest person helping the ship’s damaged A.I. has gotten old and he needs to awaken someone else to replace him. That’s a tough choice to make for someone. The relationship between him and the A.I. and the expectations he has about who he wakes up next are really fascinating. The story takes a turn that was unexpected and a little opaque to me but it explores ethical dilemmas that I hadn’t realized I held positions on until the final choices of the story are made.

“Toppers” by Jason Sanford has secondary world fantasy tendencies despite it’s hard science fiction premise, and I really enjoyed it. Time and journeys are involved and they nicely loop in satisfying ways throughout the story.

“The Mutants Men Don’t See” by James Alan Gardner is one of my favorites in this issue. It has superheroes, the inception of superheroes (one of my favorite things about the genre), danger, angst, and surprise, with a wonderfully satisfying turn I didn’t see coming.

“Kit: Some Assembly Required” by Kathe Koja & Carter Scholz is another favorite. I did not expect one of my favorite playwrights, Christopher Marlowe, to show up in a story about an emergent A.I. That history, Doctor Faustus, and A.I. should combine in such wondrous fashion seems like a miracle, but really demonstrates the creativity and talent of the authors. The final line gives me chills. If you are a fan of Doctor Faustus and the subversive way Marlowe crafts his anti-hero, then you are in for a treat.

“Patience Lake” by Matthew Claxton is straight-up bad-ass science fiction western and it might remind you of Cormac McCarthy’s work and noir fiction. In a dystopian future of bionic people struggling to survive, Casey Kim, former military, badly mutilated in a chemical attack and now outwardly more machine than man, just wants to make it to a town where there might be work for him. A request for water leads to friendship and then much worse. The story is bleak, the characters are sharply drawn, the world is vivid, and oh my goodness that ending.

“Kairos” by Sieren Damsgaard Ernst challenged me in ways I didn’t expect. I happen to be hopeful for radical life extension someday, but Ernst’s protagonist takes a decidedly dim view of the prospect soon after her second husband tells her that he and his research company have developed the technology and he wants her to join him as one of the first immortals. What follows is her grappling with the prospect while visiting Aachen, Germany and remembering her first husband. I was absolutely fascinated by the character’s process of thinking through her issues with life extension and her husband’s request. At the end she approaches the issue in her own unique way and it leads to some really fascinating and unexpected if open-ended final thoughts. I’m really happy I stayed with the story and it gave me a lot to think about concerning my own rationale for immortality.

“President John F. Kennedy, Astronaut” by Sandra McDonald was both what I expected and not what I expected. He is indeed an astronaut in this story, there is some alternative history at play, but the main protagonists are other characters on their own unique journey. The story is a little silly, funny, a lot of fun, and leads to a satisfying and hopeful ending.

All in all, the August 2016 issue of Asimov’s is very enjoyable with some particularly well-done stories.

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Short Story Review: The Price of Oranges by Nancy Kress

The Price Of Oranges [Short Story Hardback #33]The Price Of Oranges [Short Story Hardback #33] by Nancy Kress
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my absolute favorite short stories. I’ve read “The Price of Oranges” many times, but I always seem to forget how it ends, making each new read a magical, emotional experience all over again. Nancy Kress always creates characters that jump off the page, and Harry and Manny, and Jackie and Robert and Ann, are some of my favorites.

Harry’s worried that his granddaughter Jackie is miserable, so he seeks out a young man that might show her that things are not all gloom and despair. He’s not going to look for this dream guy in the present, though. And if you think maybe Harry is overstepping and being a little patriarchal, you’d be right. Things don’t turn out like he expects at all.

Funny, magical, heartbreaking, and full of great food purchased surprisingly cheaply, “The Price of Oranges” is classic Nancy Kress.

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Short Story Review: Dancing on Air by Nancy Kress

Dancing On Air Book cover
“Dancing On Air” book cover

Dancing on Air by Nancy Kress

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bio-enhanced ballerinas and dogs. Mothers and daughters. The price of passion. This powerful short story is a must-read.

In “Dancing on Air”, Nancy Kress explores the consequences of bio-enhancement but does not provide easy answers as the reader is drawn into the tumultuous lives of several characters within and orbiting the New York City Ballet. The story reminds me a little of the movie Black Swan and the lengths people will go for their art. This story, though, takes place slightly in the future, in a world of rapid, unfettered progress in genetics and biotech reshaping the very notions of what it means to be human, and to follow art. It also frequently provides the point of view of the bio-enhanced talking Doberman named Angel, commissioned to protect the company’s top star after the murder of ballerinas. A reporter whose teenage daughter is obsessed with being asked to join the Company begins to uncover and untangle the various motivations and machinations of the ballerinas, their mothers, the Artistic Director, and the bio-enhancement industry itself.

Kress’s prose is sharp, concise, and devastating. Obviously I’m a huge fan of her work; Kress’s stories never fail to blow my mind.

Highly recommended.

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Review: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and OthersStories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ted Chiang’s collection of his stories published between 1990 and 2002 is now one of my favorite books ever, full of some of my favorite stories ever. There is not one story in this collection I did not enjoy, and all of them left me in awe. Yes, I’m going to be a little breathless with this review, but it’s how I’ve been feeling for days now ever since I started reading Stories of Your Life and Others.

These stories are about people who find themselves on sudden exponential journeys into the future. They soon discover that such journeys are both isolating and actualizing. Sometimes these are physical journeys, like Hillalum climbing the “Tower of Babylon” but more frequently these are mental or spiritual journeys, including Leon’s intelligence enhancement in “Understand” and Neil Fisk’s love of God in “Hell Is the Absence of God.” Always these are stories about the pursuit of knowledge, no matter where that knowledge leads. Each story moves forward with increasing momentum and speed, resulting in my heart racing, my eyes widening, and my jaw dropping (I told you this would be a breathless review.)

I purchased this collection for “Story of Your Life”, soon to be a major motion picture. That story alone is worth the price of the book. It brings together the very personal with the sudden arrival to Earth of aliens, and its journey is through both linguistics and physics, leading to a tremendous and unexpected ending. I have no idea how the sheer brilliance of this complex literary masterpiece can be dramatized on the big screen, but with early reviews suggesting a cinematic masterpiece, perhaps the filmmakers have succeeded.

While reading “Tower of Babylon”, I realized I had read it before in a recent magazine issue. It is even better the second time around. Every step of the journey is invigorating. “Understand” explores topics and themes I’m particularly excited about and I sped through the pages at what felt like supercomputer speed. “Seventy-Two Letters” is so well-researched and expertly crafted that I wanted to cry with joy and appreciation, long before the genius, inevitable, but still unexpected ending left my jaw on the floor. “Liking What You See: A Documentary” is an oral history about a specific future technology; there are many perspectives about that technology collected in the story but there is also a through-story that focuses on one woman and her own insights about the technology. It’s incredible.

Chiang’s gift is that he seems to select a single compelling idea and then pursues that idea wherever it leads him, in a completely rational and logical manner that still leads to very surprising and shocking revelations. He grasps an idea in his hand and rotates it to find, I think, every possible beautiful and horrifying facet. He also selects the perfect characters to tell personal stories related to the idea, and he’s not afraid to suddenly expand into social, cultural, even cosmic dimensions, before returning to the personal.

Here’s where I get even more breathless: he includes “Story Notes” with a brief summary for what inspired him to write each story! After reading all the great stories, those notes were like an extra special bonus, just a little more information about their genesis to make me even more appreciative. For example, “Division by Zero” is another great story in the collection and he explains how he was amazed by a particular famous mathematics equation and began to wonder what it would be like if someone discovered that the “wondrous beauty” of mathematics “was just an illusion.” From such a story spark to a heartbreaking exploration of a relationship.

I cannot recommend this collection of stories enough. I’m still reeling. This is what I want from science fiction: stories that captivate me from the opening words, surprise and delight me along the way, that stay with me after the end, and that feel like they are actively changing me. I feel changed as a reader, a writer, and, well, a person! I feel like I might be on my own sudden exponential journey into the future and it is exhilarating and horrifying. I cannot wait to read more of Chiang’s exceptional work. Yes, I’m out of breath. Ted Chiang is now one of my absolute favorite authors, right up there with Ursula K. Le Guin, Nancy Kress, and Vernor Vinge.

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