Friday, February 26, 2021

A walk through the world of Brandon Sanderson


This quote, from Brandon Sanderson's epic fantasy "The Way of Kings" nearly perfectly connects my real world situation, as a solitary pilgrim on foot, with Sanderson's imagined epic Fantasy universe.

King Nohadon records that he walked more than a thousand miles from his presumed capital of Abamabar to the sacred city of Urithiru without companions and not revealing his identity.  He could have made the trip in an hour by 'Oathgate,' but his quest was about the journey, about getting to know the nature of his world, its people, and the land—to experience the grit and suffering of ordinary lives so that he could more wisely rule.

Nohadon was not just a great monarch; he was a sage and a pathfinder.  His published collection of forty parables, bearing the title that Sanderson chose for his novel, had survived 4,500 years through a period of recovery and reconstruction following an Armageddon-like war on the planet Roshar.  Most knowledge from the time before that apocalypse had been lost.  So Nohandon's book contained much of the surviving wisdom.

Nohadon ruled during the Age of Heralds, when Ishar, greatest among them, a human made immortal by the 'Almighty', organized the Knights Radiant to face the enemy species called Voidbringers, who call themselves the Singers.

Thing is ... the Singers are Roshar's native species.  Humans invaded here after destroying their home planet of Ashyn several thousand years before the time of Nohadon.  And of course, they then set about conquering the planet and enslaving the native population.

In the present day setting for the novel, all Singers had become subservient and nearly mute.  All except for a small band of free peoples called the Listeners, who live deep in a bleak region called the Shattered Plains.

The Listeners did not remember that humans existed.  The humans thought that all Singers had been fully subdued.  But now, after 4500 years of 'silence', the evil power of the god 'Odium' stirs again.  The Listeners are taking 'warform' and discussing re-conquering their world; and among humans, rumors are being whispered that the Knights Radiant may be returning ...

On the Shattered Plains, with a 'Highstorm' approaching, the human aristocrat warrior Dalinar Kholin faces off against Eshonai, leader of the tribe of Listeners. Work copyright by and Michael Whalen.

"Way of Kings," published in 2010, is Brandon Sanderson's signature work, and the one for which he should be remembered.  The key to Sanderson's writing style is character point-of-view.  There is no absolute good or evil, and each character sees the world differently.  The reader is not made privy to the big picture, only what the characters know; and nobody seems to remember much or care much about the underlying mythopoeia, its magic powers, its gods, its hidden realms.  This is, for me, both a blessing and a curse.  But more about that later.

The cover art for the United States release, shown above, is a master-work in itself, from the artist Michael Whelan.  It features the geography of the Shattered Plains, and the epic meteorology—a phenomenon called the 'Highstorm' that is far beyond a simple thunderstorm.  It contains a spirit, called the Stormfather.  It both ravages the planet as it rakes across the land every few days, and restores the planet's pseudo-physical energy source, called Stormlight. 

"Way of Kings" was Sanderson's first novel in the Stormlight Archive series.  His plan is for ten books in this series and as many as 35 (possibly revised to 31 recently) set in his mythical universe called the Cosmere.  So far, he's written four Stormlight Archive books, the latest of which was just released in November 2020.

The books were recommended to me by my daughter and future son-in-law.  I just spent the last couple months reading all four.

So here's the thing.  These books average 400,000+ words apiece (close to 1300 pages).  No author can give 30+ books of that size the craftsmanship that they need.  I strongly recommend "Way of Kings" because it is Sanderson's Magnum Opus—the book he always wanted to write and the one that he spent more than a decade perfecting.  He originally finished it in 2002 before he had any books published. In that original version, his hero, Katahdin [who he misspells as 'Kaladin'], was an aspiring knight.  After he finished writing the first of Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" books, twelfth in the overall series, which he was asked to complete posthumously, he then returned to "Way of Kings" with a new understanding of Jordan's strength in presenting a world from various character points of view, and rewrote it from scratch, giving Katahdin a far more interesting character arc [though he continues to misspell the name].

Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series is the epitome of an author filling pages to sell books.  Read his first couple of books in that series, and maybe Sanderson's last three, but run, don't walk, away from the ones in the middle.

But I digress.  Sanderson's second book in the Stormlight Archive series, "Words of Radiance," came out in 2014.  I found it also to be great fun.  It was the one that sold best, vaulting to a NYT bestseller almost immediately based on the reception of "Way of Kings".  But "Words of Radiance" begins to show signs of hasty writing and worse, of writing character studies using what I call 'Board Meeting' scenes to fill pages rather than advance the plot.  In the third novel, "Oathbringer" the stuff I consider filler and fluff overwhelmed the story, seriously bogging it down, and I would not recommend it.  "Rhythm of War", the fourth book, is a little better, with some action and interesting plot twists mixed in with the board meetings, and it has a decent climax; but it suffers most from the curse of 'hasty' plotting and writing.  (In the interest of keeping this post reasonably tidy, I'm not offering any supporting detail here.)  Sanderson is no longer just an author sitting at a keyboard.  He has become a novel manufacturing industry.

My recommendation, and this is advice I am now going to begin taking myself, is to seek out the one or two books that made an author famous and read only those.  They are the best because they are the stories that the author really slaved over, agonized over, took pains to perfect.  It is writing that managed to overcome the overwhelming odds against an unknown author getting published, and then to break out of the crowd even among those titles that publishers took a chance on.

Sanderson has accumulated a huge fan base who will now consume everything he writes; and to his credit, he is producing good stories with interesting characters.  And he is keeping publisher deadlines.  He's a hard worker and has that grand vision to produce perhaps the largest unified collection of works ever set in a single imagined universe.

Good on him.  But for me, as a choosy consumer, there are other brilliant talents whose stories and writing style are just as worthy if not more so; and my reading time is limited.  I've chosen not to read any more of Sanderson's works, and I've now moved on to Patrick Rothfuss's "The Name of the Wind" also on the recommendation of my daughter and her fiancée.  From there, I'll move on to seek out breakthrough Sci-Fi and Fantasy works from other new shining stars.

Rothfuss, by the way, is apparently the polar opposite of Sanderson in terms of productivity.  Published in 2007, "Name of the Wind" was envisioned as a trilogy, and the second installment was released in 2011; but his editor/publisher Betsy Wolheim is pissed.  She doesn't think he's written anything since 2014, and has not seen a word of the third book ten years on.  It seems to me that Rothfuss has been distracted by his fame, much as, I believe, George R.R. Martin is.

Okay, so now, lastly, I want to spend a little time examining the value of Sanderson's writing technique, using limited character points of view (POV), which, crucially, he uses to justify withholding big picture information that other characters (non-POV characters) know.  Even when he writes from the POV of his most knowledgeable characters (notably the 'worldhopper' Hoid, known as Wit on Roshar), he conveniently makes them 'insane' or deliberately enigmatic.  The reader gets manipulated like a puppet on a string.  And I deeply dislike being manipulated.  It's a control thing.  The reader discovers the world only as the author chooses to reveal it.  That's a 'DUH' kind of statement, but when I, as reader, keep getting bludgeoned by the author's obvious evasiveness, rather than feeling like the plot is flowing naturally, then I rebel.  At its best, this writing strategy as applied in the first book, "Way of Kings", feels fresh, like we are discovering the ways of the world as the characters discover them.  At its worst, in the many manifestations of politics-oriented and/or power-juggling board meetings, I feel disrespected as a reader.  I'm left hanging, with unspoken and unfathomable character relationships and motivations.  I'm confused and bewildered by an endless parade of new powers, new rules of magic, and newly revealed beings/spirits, all of which seem ad hoc, only partially explained, deliberately obfuscated, or just hinted at, until I'm left wondering whether it's worth muddling on.

I'll give one basic example - the origin story.  Sanderson's world-building is meticulous, unrivaled in its variety and detail; but the depth of his universe is far weaker than its breadth.  The underlying creation story is vague and vaguer.  The world supposedly began with a thing called Adonalsium, which could be a person, a force, or something else.  Nobody knows.  Strangely, none of the religious thinkers and scholars that Sanderson depicts have anything useful to say about it ( ... really?).  Adonalsium apparently interacts with the universe through a set of four primal commands, called Dawnshards, which must be invoked by a command ('abra-cadabra') and with intent - i.e. to accomplish a task ... like, say, the Creation.  What are these four commands?  Well, only one has even been identified.  The one called 'Change'.  There is no information in the Sanderson officially maintained encyclopedia, regarding the other three ... or rather, the information declares that they are unknown.

That world, as its inhabitants experience it, was the result of Adonalsium being attacked by a mob of mortals and shattered, using those Dawnshards, into sixteen 'Shards,' each with a portion of the original power.  Sixteen people from the mob adopted/absorbed those powers and became the first immortal 'Vessels' of the powers; and all the conflict and intrigue that Sanderson writes about can be traced back to the various plots and schemes of these Vessels and their inherent Shard powers, each of which is different.  Four of the original sixteen Shards have been killed (splintered), two have combined into a hybrid within one person, and only three (including one of the dead ones) have any relevance at all (so far) in the realm of the Stormlight Archive series.  Two others have some sway on other worlds, four others are named but without supplying anything other than the name, and two have not even been named, only hinted at in vague terms such as 'one that is hiding and just wants to survive' or one that may be related to Wisdom or Prudence.

Sanderson's stories are all about the power mongering and politics of interaction between the Shards, and the complex set of rules governing what powers their Vessels give to lesser creatures that the Shards create and manipulate, almost always for their own benefit.  The complexity is bewildering, to say the least.  It's great for the Sanderson devotee, not so much fun for a more casual reader.

Sanderson apparently does 'know' a lot more than he's revealing.  Okay, fine.  He's trying to sell books.  A three- (formerly seven-) book series called Dragonsteel, planned for far in the future, will be about the Shattering of Adonalsium, but that is not going to be released until he is finished with all ten of the Stormlight Archive books.  The next one, the fifth, is planned for a 2023 release.  By the time he gets around to writing Dragonsteel I'll be long dead.  What are the chances that he'll actually ever accomplish such a grand plan?  Honestly, I think it's a long shot.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Living Wild


This is my valley.  Nobody else lives there.  I've got more than ten acres with three creeks.  I call it the Cloister.

The three creeks leap down the valley among the rocks.  This video is shot on the property.

It's by far my favorite spot.  The noise drowns out all extraneous thoughts.  The pure wildness is majestic.  The streams never get muddy, not in the heaviest rain, because all the land upstream, all the way to the Appalachian Trail, is protected.

And along the main stream, three-quarter mile from home, is this waterfall

It's not on a trail, it's half a mile from the nearest road.  Same for the viewpoint shown as the opening photo.  No road or trail within half a mile.  You have to bushwhack to get there, and few people know about either.  Here's the view of the valley from near the cascade.

It's not exactly the Lauterbrunnen Valley of the Swiss Alps, which is said to be Tolkien's inspiration for Rivendell.

But it's far more peaceful.  Sitting in the woods away from the streams, I do not hear a single sound associated with humanity except the distant drone of the jet planes high above.

I'm not exactly camping.  And at my age (72) that's a good thing.  I have a very comfortable off-grid cabin.  Note particularly the gun rack, and how it has been repurposed.

It doesn't have a wood stove.  The fireplace is wonderful, but horribly inefficient for heat, and I quickly found that I am not willing to spend my retirement days cutting firewood.  I'm hoping to install a top-of-the-line solar system, but that's going to have to wait until COVID is under control.  Right now I'm fully immersed in my isolation and spending time writing and thinking about really big picture issues, such as where mankind is headed.  

And I'm hiking.  As touched on earlier, I'm just 2 1/2 miles from the Appalachian Trail.

Fall color is arriving fast.  The hickory trees at 3000 feet elevation are turning their resplendent yellow, turning a bright sunny fall day into a walk through heaven.

The wood asters are in peak bloom, delicate lavender purple profusion of blooms and the more subtle white.  Sassafras are sharing their oranges, reds, and yellows.  Maples and black gums are contributing their brilliant reds.  I found a stick with a stunning cobalt blue fungus on it.  Never seen anything like this bright color in a fungus.

And here's a moth, equally striking, and also new to me.

Those eye spots are fake.  Be sure to notice the long feathery gray antennae.

I'm loving the fall color change and the crisp bright days.  It's probably my favorite season for being outdoors.  But I'm finding that my body wears out after climbing and descending 2000 vertical feet each day, and then there's not a lot of energy left to fiddle around at the cabin.  Yes, it's becoming clear that I'm too old to fully embrace the dream I had.  With winter coming, and its incessant cold weather and long dark nights, I'm likely to retreat from the wild and back to some on-grid amenities like heat and light, at least from time to time.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Colonizing Space: Utopia or bust

“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”       --J.R.R. Tolkien

One of about two trillion galaxies in our observable universe. Estimates are that within any such galaxy, there should be roughly 10 to 40 billion Earth-like rocky planets in the 'Goldilocks zone' of their parent star.  In the tradition of Western Civilization's 'Doctrine of Discovery,' all of these planets are fair game for Human colonization. All photos courtesy of NASA.

In my last post I applied some ruthless, dispassionate reasoning to the question of whether man's quick-thinking mental skills deserve a permanent place among the community of Earth's living things, or whether we are simply bullies.  Our bad citizenship could signify that we are an evolutionary dead-end, doomed to quick extinction, or it could, as optimists like to argue, mark a revolutionary change in the way nature operates.  That is the subject of this post.

The problem with humankind's quick-witted choice-making is that it is largely unrestrained by nature's slow, deliberate checks and balances--the evolutionary scale 'intelligence' that DNA has accumulated over four billion years.  We do things because we can, and because they benefit us in the immediate term, even though in the longer-term we are destabilizing the living community out of which we emerged, and we could be stressing the planet toward one or more dangerous 'tipping points'.

So, maybe we're going to need an escape, a safe refuge--a clean break of the kind a colony on another world could provide.  Maybe sooner than we think.

The discussion seems timely, in light of this year's 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower, and marking the 528th anniversary of 'Columbus Day', both of which are milestones in the wave of European 'settlement' that led to so many abominations carried out in the name of 'conversion of the savages' under the nefarious 'Doctrine of Discovery.'

Those of us of 'White Privilege' still largely preserve that mindset, even if we outwardly deny it. The urge to colonize space feels like a safe outlet for our sense of 'Manifest Destiny.'  But is it?

If we could plant a permanent, truly independent settlement on Mars, it could be our second chance--the 'Earth 2.0' that saves us from extinction.  Then, if we could continue to advance technologically, such that some form of interstellar human colonization becomes possible, then we truly begin to open up the realms first imagined when Olaf Stapledon wrote his seminal future histories of mankind, Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937).  Stapledon's visionary ideas influenced most of the great thinkers and early Science fiction writers of the last century including Isaac Asimov, C.S. Lewis, Arthur C. Clark, Bertrand Russell, and Brian Aldiss.

As I indicated in the caption of the photo at the beginning of the post, our own Milky Way is likely to contain somewhere around ten habitable Earth-like planets for every human couple of child-rearing age alive today.  Ten planets for each of you to be your own true Adam and Eve.  Surely at least one of them will be a Utopia--a Garden of Eden.

If only we could reach them.

And if only there wasn't some sort of indigenous life already there, laying claim to the territory.

One of the great discoveries that awaits us, which I hope will be achieved before I die, is the discovery of life on one of the other worlds in our solar system.  Perhaps deep down in the oceans of Europa, life thrives around geothermal vents.  Perhaps some life lingers on Mars.  Or Venus.  Of course we might find that there is no such life.  But if it does exist, will there be enough similarity in its chemistry to establish a relationship with life on Earth?

Maybe, just maybe, the life we know exists deep in the rocks of Earth, could have been spread across the cosmos by massive meteor impacts such as the one that killed off the dinosaurs.  Maybe, just maybe, life did not originate on Earth, but in the stars.  If so, then we will have found the Alien we've been so avidly seeking all these years, and it is us.

Mars is a few light-minutes away.  The next-nearest star is four light-years away.  Access to all the stars in our galaxy seems such a daunting task, yet there are plenty of ideas regarding future technology that propose to get us there.  One I like, and suggest in my 'Eden's Womb' novel series is a sort of light-speed 'beaming' using quantum entanglement and 1-watt radio beacons linking a network of automated space stations that would be patiently established at key locations across the galaxy by conventional slower-than-light-speed travel.  I call them 'Entanglement Tensor Nodes'.  Once in place, they simply maintain position in space and relay the signals.  Here and there are larger, more elaborate 'stations' either in space or on habitable planets, which are human outposts with the machinery needed to convert signal to material being after the manner of laser printing technology. 

In order for mankind to establish such an intergalactic network using physically realistic technology (no 'warp speed' travel or worm-holes with all their inherent paradoxes), our species would need to be stable and self-sufficient for millions of years.  This was no problem for the dinosaurs.  But then came the Chicxulub Bolide.  Yet many species survived that impact.  Multi-million-year survival has been no problem for the likes of sharks and alligators, cockroaches, birds, termites.  But for humans?  Our species is less than one million years old.  And I don't think there would be many among us who would argue that our 'civilization' has the long-term stability and sustainability that shark civilization or termite civilization has demonstrated.

So we make it to the stars in our neighborhood.  Maybe after millions of years, we establish an Asimov-style galactic empire.  What next?  What about colonizing other galaxies?  Far fetched?  Well, if we're really going to survive long-term, it might be important.  Our nearest galactic neighbor, Andromeda is two and a half million light years away and she's going to collide with the Milky Way around the time our own sun runs out of hydrogen and becomes a red giant.  That's four and a half billion years away, but it's not too soon to start planning and sending out our robotic ships.  If we have our house in order--really have our act together--we will be up for the task.

Our Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977, has already traveled 14 billion miles.  It will pass the one light year milestone in 17,720 years.  It would reach Andromeda in maybe 35 billion years, though maybe the galaxy's gravitation will speed it up.  It doesn't stretch the imagination to think we could get robotic probes to Andromeda before she gets to us, collides with our Milky Way, and starts agitating the clouds of star-making material, as has happened with the galaxy shown here:

So maybe we can colonize other galaxies.  In 'Eden's Womb' a civilization of humans that had survived trillions of years had colonized every corner of its universe.  And yet that universe was dying, as inevitably everything must.  Perhaps the mysterious Dark Energy is going to rip our universe apart, such that galaxies that are currently visible will start disappearing, accelerating away from us faster than even light can get there.  Whether or not that happens, the simple problem of a finite supply of hydrogen fuel for making new stars will ultimately bring life as we now understand it to a slow, cold end.  

There are ways that thinkers have imagined for modified beings to continue to survive after all the stars have burned out and only slowly evaporating black holes remain, but I'll limit the discussion to our human species or its direct successors, and I'll assume we continue to want nice warm stars to live around.  

Well, again, my novel 'Eden's Womb' suggests a way.  We will need to employ the process of creating child universes--universes in a test tube, for example.  This is not science fiction.  It is a process that is recognized as possible under our known laws of physics.

But it's not enough to simply create new universes, or to know where nature creates them (such as in the vicinity of black holes).  We need a way to escape our dying universe and move into a new baby one.  

It is rank speculation, of course, but 'Eden's Womb' explores this thought-space.  The novel is all about how a human man and woman might 'transcend' into a new universe, becoming the true Adam and Eve of a brave new cosmos.  In the novel, it happens almost accidentally, or so it seems.  But it is theoretically possible for information and physical material to be conveyed to a child universe; and if something is possible, it can be made to happen, and the process can be refined and controlled until it becomes routine.  

So, with our quick-witted brains, and given enough time and creativity, we humans could find ourselves hopping from Earth to Mars, then from Mars to other stars, possibly to other galaxies, and finally to entirely new universes.

Maybe it has already been done.  Not by humans, but by a much more patient, long enduring species.

Remember when I mentioned that deep impact meteors are likely to be able to send rocks containing living microbes out into space to potentially seed other worlds?  Well, one of those rocks could get sent into the quantum tunnel that creates a baby universe.

I argue that it's much more likely that single celled microbes, carrying complex DNA messages, perhaps even containing the DNA of human beings, could be transported into new universes.  Transferring a living Adam and Eve is a much taller order.  If panspermia is indeed possible (that's the word for seeding life across the cosmos), why not take the seeds of life not just to other stars and other galaxies, but to new universes?

'Eden's Womb' explores this possibility too.  Before our Adam and Eve get accidentally sent into a new universe, the little intelligent microbes I call 'Twees' had perfected the process for themselves, and were routinely hopping from one universe to the next, down a chain of inheritance (including mutations caused by quantum fluctuations) that 'fine tuned' the present universe that we find ourselves in to make it wonderfully well-suited for the little Twees to live (and for their clumsy blundering offspring, the human beings, to dodder around too.)

Okay, so back down to Earth for a reality check.

The Milky Way as seen from right here on good old Earth

What do we need to do to successfully get ourselves off this planet, to affirm the value of this experiment we call 'intelligence', and to begin to assure our long-term survival?

Well, first of all, it would help if we worked to keep our own planet as healthy as possible.  That doesn't necessarily mean that nature's 4.1 billion years of DNA 'knowledge' has to be our 'canon'; but that 'book' is by far the oldest and most comprehensive 'bible' in existence, and to ignore it certainly doesn't seem very wise.

Human's have notoriously ignored Mother Nature, tried to override her with genetic engineering, antibiotics, selective breeding, monoculture factory farming and livestock operations, letting species go extinct, and just plain ripping up the landscape, depleting resources, and spewing pollution.  Hasty, quick-witted ideas that have not stood the test of time, many of which have clearly and obviously failed all tests of sustainability.

Establishing a colony on Mars is a sexy idea, but most of the experiments we need to do in order to learn how to establish truly sustainable, self-sufficient 'colonies' or enclaves can be done right here on Earth.  One of the problems we humans have suddenly faced squarely with COVID-19 is that we are a global mono-culture.  Few humans on this planet live naturally in a way that keeps them safe from this virus.  We're just too inter-connected.  That wasn't the case 528 years ago when Christopher Columbus introduced small pox, measles, the flu, etc. to the First Peoples of the Americas.

Diversity is something that Nature values.  The more independent viable options for future offspring that there are, the greater the likelihood that the best of them will survive.  That is exactly why we're trying to colonize space.  Why not start right here at home by establishing real volunteer colonies, centered in scrupulously protected, truly isolated preserves, dedicated to solving the long-term problems of colonization in as many different ways as possible?

What else can we do right here on Earth?  Well, if we're going to achieve successful colonization, we need to respect the value of science, support research, and encourage our children to get involved.

There are lots of potential discoveries that can make our lives right here on Earth more rewarding for future generations, and many more advances that we will be able to use to more effectively reach out to the cosmos.

Isaac Asimov, writing in his visionary novel 'Foundation,' described the planet Trantor as a planet-wide city, capitol of the intergalactic empire.  It was a vision where man completely dominates a planet and all its living things.

Writing in the mid-20th century, Asimov's ideas and those that spawned the other great sci-fi universes such as Dune, Star Trek, and Star Wars, were rooted in a social order where the future seemed full of unlimited possibility.  Evil of many kinds had been soundly defeated through dedication and hard work.  The big war had just ended.  The Great Depression had been overcome by FDR's 'New Deal' and by the war effort itself.  It was a world where pollution seemed a tolerable annoyance.  Everybody smoked because nobody yet knew about the link between smoking and cancer.  Antibiotic-resistant bacteria hadn't appeared yet.  Half of those alive had grown up without electricity.  Airline travel was just transitioning to the jet age.  Television was still in its infancy.  Few cars had automatic transmissions.  Technology was making life easier and better at an astonishing pace.

Within twenty years of Asimov's publishing 'Foundation', men were walking on the moon.  Yet it has now been nearly fifty years since any human last set foot on another world.  What happened?

Once the novelty of mankind walking on the moon wore off, there was just no real motivation to stay there.  An International Space Station in close-Earth orbit was a much more affordable 'space base'.  The moon offered no real economic incentive.  Perhaps Mars suffers from the same problem.  Why spend all the money to send men there?

Human civilizations have declined before.  Look at the Ancestral Puebloans of the American southwest.  Look at the Mayan culture.  Look at the Roman Empire.  Is it possible that our culture is already on the decline?  That even if we send somebody to Mars, the novelty will wear off and eventually nobody will go back?

Then there's the question posed as 'Fermi's Paradox'.  If colonizing space is such a good idea, if quick-witted intelligence or any other form of recognizable 'advanced' civilization naturally finds a way to spread to the stars, then why haven't we already run into them, or at least found evidence of them?

There are as many answers to that conundrum as there are people thinking about it.  Maybe we're actually the first advanced civilization to think about reaching to the stars.  That would seem a pretty steep statistical oddity, given the 10 to 40 billion other habitable planets in our galaxy.

But wait.  We have only been sending out radio waves, demonstrating some level of intelligence, for less than a century.  Statistically that's a drop in the bucket compared to the 13.8-billion-year life of the universe.  And what other evidence do we have to offer to some intelligent race searching space for us?  With the exception of tiny probes like Voyager, we haven't actually gone anywhere but our own moon.  We have no burgeoning galactic empire in the making.  No.  Statistically, both in time and space, we are truly a needle in a haystack.  Using our own example as the only data point, what reason do we have to believe anybody else has done more, or even could do more than we have actually accomplished ourselves?

Is colonizing space merely a dreamy-eyed fictional fantasy?  Will it ever amount to anything more?  Aren't we spending a whole lot more money creating fictional experiences like video games and movie worlds like the Marvel and DC comics worlds and the Avatar universe?  Elon Musk seems to have an economic plan for SpaceX that relies on space tourism, rather than on actually extracting any profit from permanently living on Mars.

Certainly bringing stuff back from Mars to sell would be prohibitively expensive.  Even Antarctica doesn't sustain any real economic activity.  The only reason for a Mars or lunar colony to exist permanently is as an attractive place to live, with its own independent, sustainable, viable economy.  

It surely is 'early days' in the human quest to colonize space.  It goes well beyond saying that "the jury is out" as to whether man will succeed in reaching the stars.  The greatest part of the trial has not even begun.


Friday, August 28, 2020

Is Planet Earth better off with or without human beings?

My contemplation site. This is my personal beyul (Tibetan: སྦས་ཡུལ), meaning a sacred valley, a place of refuge.  This 80-foot cascade is seldom visited.  There is no trail to it.  It is a mile from my home base and a difficult bushwhack.  Deep thought flourishes here.  I try to focus on big picture issues—things that folk may overlook as they navigate their busy daily lives.

Few people would disagree with the proposition that mankind has had a large and growing impact on Planet Earth. View Earth from space and it’s easy to see. The patchwork of agricultural fields, the green circles of center-pivot irrigation in the deserts, the ribbons of high-speed highways, dammed up rivers, and of course the concentrated blotches of night-time light with its concrete, asphalt, and shingle-covered surfaces that make up our cities.

But what to make of it all?  Is this impact the sign of the success of our species or of its wanton destruction? From the broad perspective of the few thousand years it has taken us to do this to the planet, has it been a good thing or bad?

Consider this a thought experiment. An exercise in the philosophy of ethics and empathy. A test of the bounds of compassion, or of the limits of our moral responsibility to treat others justly. Or simply an exercise in objective reasoning.

Objective reasoning takes the individual and his/her feelings out of the picture.  This is a very tough question to consider objectively.  It's like asking you to consider the possibility that your family or your community would be better off if you did not exist, only taken to a planet-wide scale.

I’ll ask a series of questions and try not to impose answers because I’m interested in a broad range of responses. Send your ideas to and I’ll post some of the thought-provoking ones here. Or you can leave a comment below.

So here goes:

The first line of questioning explores how we set boundaries and limits to our compassion.

Is family and community important to you? Sacred, even? To be protected and preserved at all cost?

Do you treat those within your family or community circle differently than those outside of it?  If so, can you specify the difference—the way your designated ‘insiders’ are treated differently from the rest of humanity?  Do you believe that the world would be a better place without a particular human being or a community of people?  Would you declare so publicly?  Would you act on such ideas?

Is there an objective definition of justice or fairness that applies to all humans? To all living things? Perhaps even extending to the land?

How do you define your inner circle? Who or what is excluded, and why? Are those in your household inside that circle and those who live next-door out? Are Republicans in and Democrats out? Are Americans in and foreigners out? Are human beings in and all other living things out? Do you have a pet? Are they in? What about other non-human species?

Is there a sense in which all of us—the entire planet—are in this together, striving against the forces of Chaos and destruction?

When someone is hurting, do you feel their pain? Do you want to help? Do you try to make their lives better?

What if that someone is a fan of the University of Alabama gridiron football team, and you are a die-hard Auburn fan, and they’re hurting because your team just beat theirs?

What if that injured someone is a Hatfield and you’re a McCoy and your brother just shot a Hatfield dead?

What if that someone is Black and you’re White?

What if that someone is the Wooly Mammoth, or the Costa Rican Golden Toad, or the Passenger Pigeon? Do pigeon lives matter?

What if that someone is the cockroach spreading filth in your kitchen? … Except you’re the cockroach and Planet Earth is the kitchen.

Yep. A thought experiment.

* * *

So, now put yourself in this reality show: Survivor Earth. The TV Reality show version of Survivor is all about understanding the other players—being able to put yourself in their heads—and then nurturing a dynamic balance between being too aggressive and devious and being too wimpy and malleable. It also helps to be adaptable and vigilant—to be ready to jump on unexpected opportunities.

It’s not very different in the real world. In the real version of Survivor Earth, all living things are players. Instead of sitting in a tribal council and voting one species out at the end of an ‘episode,’ everybody is voting all the time, establishing and defending their niches in the community. The game is for blood. Losers do not walk away.  Ask the dodo bird.

But what if we did hold a tribal council today? What if we brought together the world’s leading experts on each individual species to speak for them? Each species gets one vote, and can vote any one other species off the Island. It amounts to asking the question posed in the title. Which species do you think would be most likely to get booted on the first vote?

Maybe your response is that it’s ridiculous to give other species the right to vote. They don’t even understand the concept. Maybe you believe that mankind’s superior mind gives us some special dispensation.

The Judeo-Christian Bible tells us that mankind is God’s chosen species, made in His image. It tells us to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the Earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the Earth.” (Genesis 1:28).

Do you think this verse grants humanity the license to destroy whole species that God created? Species that Noah diligently sought out and herded onto his ark at God’s command, but that have since been driven to extinction? If you do not, then do you believe that ecological destruction is the sinful behavior of somebody else, something that you have no responsibility to address? After all, the Rapture is soon to come; and as a believer, you’ll be swept up to Heaven, leaving only the unrepentant behind on Earth to face the Tribulation. If they don’t open their hearts to let Jesus in, if they won’t confess that He is their personal redeemer, then they deserve what they’ve done to this planet, right?

On the other hand, Hindus and Buddhists would say that the mosquito sucking blood out of your arm, which you’re about to smack, could be your grandmother. Maybe the mouse whose back you just snapped in that mousetrap is destined to be your great grandson. These faith traditions put a much more personal spin on the ethics of how we treat other living things.

Even in Islam, animals are given a divine regard that is on a par with humankind. Consider these scriptural quotes:

“And the Earth, He has assigned it to all living creatures.” (Quran 55:10).

“There is not an animal that lives on the Earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but they form communities like you. Nothing have we omitted from the Book, and they all shall be gathered to their Lord in the end.” (Quran 6:38).

“Seest thou not that it is Allah Whose praise all beings in the heavens and on earth do celebrate, and the birds with wings outspread? Each one knows its own prayer and praise, and Allah knows well all that they do.” (Quran 24:41)

Who’s right? Even dispassionate science talks about the interdependent web of life—the idea that there are connections, sometimes hidden, between our welfare and that of other species—animal, plant, microbe, and even the inanimate, such as the soil.

* * *

So, are we humans a rogue species? Are we being bad citizens, bullies in the community of life? Do we deserve to be voted off the Island?

Are we unwittingly voting ourselves off? Are we dooming the lives of our great grandchildren by stripping resources and soiling our own nest faster than the planet can recover? In the name of progress? On the wings of selfish greed?

How long can we sustain the current trends of deforestation, soil erosion, ground water depletion, consumption of non-renewable resources, population growth? How much longer can advances in industry and technology sustain the economic growth that we depend on?

Optimists will tell us we have always met the challenges we face as our population rushes toward the ten billion mark, and we will continue to do so. We will find a way. Perhaps we will reach to the stars and colonize other worlds. Perhaps we will manage to keep ahead of the curve right here on Earth, with improving technology and advanced efficiency, as the population grows.

Optimists have long believed that someday Earth could be an ‘Ecumenopolis’—a continuous planet-wide city such as Isaac Asimov’s Trantor from his ‘Foundation’ sci-fi novel series. I can envision a planet covered entirely in layers of urban development eight miles deep/high that intensively use and recycle every cubic foot of air and every gallon of water. In my novel series ‘Eden’s Womb’ there is an ancient universe, trillions of trillions of years old, called Kilkinney, where some Earth-sized planets support a quadrillion people (a million billion, or a hundred thousand people for every one that we have on Earth today). That is probably about the practical limit, but who knows?  The people of Ecumenopolis robotically mine their solar system’s asteroids for water and minerals, draw energy straight from the sun via vast arrays of space-borne collectors.  They eject their non-recyclable wastes into deep interstellar space.

Such a planet would be completely subdued and sanitized, with few remaining natural spaces and no wild ones, except perhaps the most restless volcanic zones. The population would not be limited to our current land areas. Ocean water would all be hard at work cycling through the planet’s vast plumbing system, just as all air would be circulating via the ventilation system.

Life in Ecumenopolis could be Utopian, assuming you like big cities and don’t mind living in what is essentially a vast space-ship. But other species, right down to the microbes, would be fully regulated. Extinction would not be a concern. All the genomes would have been preserved. But no species other than man would know ‘freedom.’

Pessimists, on the other hand, point to the inevitability of the unforeseen—the Chaos that forever lurks just beyond the limits of our control. COVID-19 is a perfect example. Maybe there will be another meteor like the one that ended the reign of the dinosaurs, or a whole shower of them from interstellar space as the sun hurtles through a debris field from some ancient super-nova. How about a mega-volcano spewing lava and poison gasses from the restless and uncontrollable core of our planet? Maybe the run-away infestation of rogue self-replicating nano-robots that reprogrammed themselves or mutated due to cosmic radiation. What about nuclear terrorism, guerrilla war, riots and anarchy spawned by self-perceived marginalized communities?

The pessimist can perceive endless possibilities for our civilization’s demise. Any one of these mega-crises, or a combination of smaller ones—the ‘death by a thousand cuts’—could result in the collapse of our civilization and a return to the Stone Age, with Earth supporting no more than a few hundred thousand humans. This, too, is explored in ‘Eden’s Womb,’ where the main protagonist lives in an enlightened stone-age culture on a post-apocalyptic Earth.

If Earth’s non-human species could choose between man’s utopian dream where biology is completely regulated, or his apocalyptic nightmare, where nature restores its savage dominance, they would surely opt for the latter.

What would you opt for? Or is there middle ground? Could we establish significant preserves where humans are forbidden, limiting our mega-cities to a small fraction of the surface? Can our natural greed be so effectively corralled? European’s treatment of America’s first peoples suggests it cannot.  The criminal underground has been with us since civilization began.  What could lead us to change—to respect the role of wild places in our world?

Throughout this discussion I have not once mentioned climate change. I believe the most serious existential crises we will face do not come primarily from global warming. Though that is a symptom and a serious contributing factor, I believe there are many more fast-moving risks that are likely to undo us first. Look at how quickly COVID moved. War and civil unrest do not creep in on little cat feet like Carl Sandburg’s fog. Look at the swift reaction to George Floyd’s death. It is the nature of the human psyche that negative change does not come slowly. Rome was not built in a day, but on July 19, 64AD, while Nero fiddled (actually playing the lyre and singing the ‘Iliupersis’), it burned to the ground. The stock market goes down in sudden catastrophic crashes, then takes years to cautiously recover. Straw upon straw quietly piles onto the camel’s back, imperceptibly adding pressure and tension, until the bones suddenly snap.

Please share your thoughts at . What is mankind doing to his one and only planet? Is he being wise or foolish?

I expect I will hear many diverse voices who speak up for mankind. But will anyone speak for the wilderness?

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

I now walk into the wild ...

Today I head out into the unknown, intending to establish a new life in a place that has been called simply 'In Back of Beyond.'

It should be a challenging adventure.  Likely, it will impact my life as much as that notorious 1992 trek into the Alaskan bush undertaken by young Chris McCandless, whose words I quote in the title.  Yet I would hope for a much longer stay and a better outcome.  I'll be glad to avoid the sort of tragic finality that made Christopher McCandless a household name.

Yet any true adventure necessarily involves risk.  My footsteps will take me away from the safe shores of man's small 'Islet of the known', as T.H. Huxley put it, and into that fathomless, illimitable ocean of the inexplicable, there to learn from nature's raw forces and her shifting, beguiling, inexorable currents.

I will be exploring physical spaces ranging in scale from a single speck of dust, as Horton the Elephant did in Dr. Seuss's beloved children's story 'Horton Hears a Who', to speculative realms beyond the fringes of the known universe.

Why do I leave the known behind?  Because even the smallest thing matters.  Because even the greatest powers yearn to be understood.  And because somebody needs to be there.  Those who blithely sit in their lounge chairs on the shore, poking at their smart phones while the world passes them by, are in danger of being caught off guard when the tide rises.

Covid-19 is a reminder of the vulnerability of our global monoculture.  It is likely to be just the first wave of an out-of-control Tsunami.  Deep beneath the sea, unseen and unknown, mankind's greedy, self-serving behaviors have been destabilizing the underpinnings of our Isle of Comfort.  Great undersea landslides come without warning, striking when least expected.  And the greatest of these could see our precious island utterly swamped, inundated, and no longer able to support the lifestyle to which we've become addicted.

It might be good to have a few souls out there in the water, well away from the thrall, watching ...