Monday, January 01, 2007

Science Fiction - Where's the Science?

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Space Cowboys and Viking Harem Girls!

New Years Day and it dawned clear and sunny on the Northern California coast. Alice immediately got into the holiday spirit, and mentioned it would be perfect for burning the piles of branches created by all the clearing and landscaping we’ve done in the past year. I of course realized I would need a good excuse for not putting in an intensive day of work to start the New Year. I countered by reminding her we hadn’t had any rain for over a week, and that I didn’t want to start the New Year by burning down Gualala and Anchor Bay. Personally, I don’t think you could set the woods ablaze with a flame thrower, but I couldn’t burn brush and watch the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl at the same time, and I’m too cautious to have unattended fires, even if I’m sure nothing could possible go wrong.

I do admit that any chance I have to add some good old organic carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is hard to pass up. My theory is that naturally created carbon dioxide is much more effective at creating Global Warming than carbon dioxide from oil products. As proof I note that global temperatures have been much higher in years past. Forinstance, during the Medieval Warm Period, long before the Industrial Revolution, the Vikings had large, successful farms on Iceland and the English had extensive vineyards.

Why do I want Global Warming? I believed all the scientists thirty years ago (and many still today) who predict we are on the verge of Global Cooling. If you compare Global Warming and Global Cooling, only idiots and snow boarders would vote for Global Cooling.

I compromised. Since some of the brush and branches were piled against a magnificent white fir that Alice wants removed, and I want to save, I went out and moved the pile away from the white fir. I worked fast, built up quite a sweat, and then rushed back in to watch the Rose Parade.

I not only love the floats, but the marching bands playing spirited and unabashedly patriotic songs make my heart swell with pride. Right now the Punahou Academy marching band is playing Aloha `Oe, which brings back warm memories of the four years the Air Force assigned me to Hickam AFB (1978-1982).

In 1982 my oldest son Bruce was a track star for Radford High School, and in the Hawaii State High School track and field championship, Radford trailed Punahou by two points before the last event, the four-by-400 meters relay. Bruce, whose best events were the hurdles and high jump, ran the second 400-meter leg and added to the lead built by the first Radford runner. The third Radford runner held his own, then the last Radford runner set the track ablaze. Radford finished in first by a wide margin, and Punahou was edged out for second for a third place finish. The first place finish by Radford, and the third place for Punahou, gave Radford the points to win the Hawaii State Championship.

Now the Australian Star are marching past, playing Waltzing Mathilda. I can’t describe how much I enjoy watching and hearing them. Australia and Australians are special. They’re like Americans, but with more of our good parts (rugged individualism), and less of our bad (political correctness).

The thing that first caught my attention when I sat down to watch the Rose Parade was the “Oklahoma Rising” float, and the stunt man with rocket pack who flew for thirty seconds. It reminded me of personal rocket packs the military was testing fifty years ago, and of the predictions then of the science fiction types of military hardware we would be seeing in the future.

Well, the future discussed then is the present we are living now, and not much has changed. By far the biggest improvements have been in electronics, in the computerized systems, miniaturized components, remote sensors, and guidance systems. Each and all of the basics of these systems were known and under development then, so what we are seeing now are the evolutionary improvements of capabilities we have known about and used for many years.

Science fiction seems all about fiction, very little about science. The popular forms of science fiction – Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Gallactica, and all the later iterations of Star Trek – are all fiction, with no science at all. We used to have Good vs. Evil, Allies against Axis, Civilized vs. Savage, Cowboys and Indians, now we have the same stories with Spacemen and Aliens. Hans Solo and the Millennium Falcon from the first Star Wars was nothing more than Sink the Bismarck, with a little Battle of Britain thrown in, set in Outer Space. The only scientific progress in the Star Wars movies was in movie special effects. “We have seen the future, and it is digitally enhanced.”

I have heard that there is “serious” science fiction somewhere out there, so I went “Googling” in search of it. What I found was pseudo science and utopian socialism. The pseudo science is most clearly illustrated by the various treatments of space travel. In the early years of science fiction, the great limiting factor of traveling enormous distances in short periods was easily solved – the Enterprise and other space craft traveled at several times the speed of light.

“Scottie, give me Warp Factor 3.”

“Aye, Captain, but I won’t promise the engines can take it.”

When the sci fi writers finally bit the bullet and agreed to travel below the speed of light, they also faced other limitations on speed. One is the G-forces an accelerating body can withstand. If you accelerate at a constant one gravity (maintaining the force you feel on Earth for comfort), it takes six months to reach half the speed of light, and you’ve only traveled 0.1 of a light year. Another six months and you’ve only gone 0.6 of a light year, you still have a long way to go, and your fuel tanks read “E.”

You have to have fuel of some sort. Take it with you, at least when you start, then find more on the way. Of course you have to know what it is and where it is, even though it’s someplace you’ve never been. Of one thing you can be sure; there won’t be any filling stations.

Of course, all this can be easily simplified by finding a door to another dimension, or be visited by advanced beings, or find something they left behind. Then you don’t have to figure out how to overcome physical limitations with our primitive knowledge and science. Someone else has done it for you, and you don’t even have to ask how.

Science fiction isn’t just about space travel, although a lot of the action takes place in a “galaxy far, far away.” It’s also about people, and there is an assumption that people are still evolving, unlike realistic or romantic novelists who focus on people as they are. A science fiction writer can have future human beings evolve to be totally dependent on their machines, or totally subservient to dominant leaders or philosophies.

In other words, science fiction treats people the same as under communist or socialist philosophies. Both of these philosophies in their purest form assume that basic human nature can evolve. In fact, it is absolutely essential it evolve. Pure socialism or communism require evolution of a new human nature, that of the socialist man or woman. Human nature that includes competitiveness and desires to accumulate possessions and wealth has doomed communism, and socialism is on life support as populations age and require more income and health support services.

Science fiction writers see the current state of technology, and apply imagination to create a future where mankind becomes a victim of its own devices. All that it requires is an embrace of the possibilities and a lively imagination.

However, just as space travel is limited by physics, not imagination, so to the future of mankind is limited by human nature rather than imagination. Science fiction writers can be entertaining as they let their imaginations take wing, but their work is of no interest in predicting the future, because it can’t cope with the limitations of physics and human nature.

There may be fantastic creatures out there with intelligence and abilities far in excess of our own, who could enslave and dominate us totally, but guess what? They will never come here because they are stuck with the same physics we are, and if they are so fantastically advanced, why would they? What could they get from us they don’t already have?

All I can think of is laughs, like we get from playing with our pets. But even that could get old fast.

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