The Last Watch: A Novel Of The Divide by J.S. Dewes

The Last Watch (The Divide Series Book 1) by [J. S. Dewes]

This book first came to my attention thanks to a “Big Idea” post on John Scalzi’s blog Whatever. In that post, Dewes explained that the original inspiration for the book came from a single line sung by Johnny Cash in the song “Highwayman.”

“I’ll fly a starship across the universe divide.”

That instantly hooked me because like Dewes I’ve listened to that song many times and thought that there must be a story somewhere in that line. Turns out Dewes found it.

The Last Watch follows a group of Sentinels, soldiers sent to stand guard at the edge of the universe as a punishment. That’s how Adequin got there at least. The other POV character, Cavalon, was once the heir-apparent to one of humanity’s royal houses, THE royal house in fact, or as close to this universe has to one. Forcing him to enlist in the Sentinels was a convenient way to get rid of him.

In a way, both Cavalon and Adequin are out of place in their current posting and are in conflict with each other. At the start, Adequin is trying to beat Cavalon into an acceptable soldier and Cavalon is just trying to be…Cavalon? He really wants to be better he just can’t seem to keep his mouth shut.

Both of them will learn a lot by the end of the book. They accomplish a lot too. In this book, Dewes manages to tell a small story with large implications. I think that’s a skill. We are so used to protagonists with outsized importance. The characters that Dewes created do have a great deal of importance, but they have also been completely relegated to the edges of society. And I mean it when I say edges.

The book’s back cover promised an existential threat that only the Sentinels could avert. It didn’t disappoint. There are a lot of ideas in this book coupled to a lot of fun. The dialogue is great, the ideas are better, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the second book. You should go read it. Right now.

Dan Simmons’ Mystery Box

Mystery can be a great driver of plot and a trap at the same time. J.J Abrams is notorious for using this strategy in Lost and blowing it at the end. The problem is if you set up some huge mystery at the beginning of a narrative you better have a satisfying answer to the mystery by the end. Or do you?

I would argue that you don’t. If you do it right.

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, Book 1) by [Dan Simmons]

If you have a great answer to the mystery you present to your audience at the beginning then by all means share it, but if you do you better make sure you are very confident in the answer. Your audience will not thank you if your answer fails to live up to their expectations. Remember how disappointed Spongebob was to find out Patrick has just spent the entire episode hiding the string in his secret box?

I am here to argue that sometimes it’s best to leave mysteries unsolved. There is both terror and wonder in the unknown, that’s part of being human, there’s no reason the stories we tell shouldn’t reflect that.

I am using Dan Simmons as an example here because his 1989 science fiction novel “Hyperion” is fantastic. It’s the kind of “genre fiction” that gets literature snobs to lower their barriers. But I think it would have been better if Simmons had never written a sequel. Let me explain.

Hyperion, unsurprisingly, centers around the planet Hyperion. A planet at the edge of known space, one that is not incorporated into the network of gates that allow instantaneous travel between worlds.

Traveling to Hyperion means sacrificing a great deal of time and accepting a certain amount of risk. Many accept this because Hyperion is a planet of mysteries. It is one of the labyrinthine worlds, worlds with great labyrinths constructed by unknown aliens. It is also home to the Shrike and the Time Tombs. Both have been sent back in time for an unknown purpose.

shallow focus photography of gray concrete building
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One group of humans, the Shrike Church, believe that the Shrike is a punishment for humanity’s sins and traveling willingly on pilgrimages to Hyperion where most of them will be killed in various horrible ways by the Shrike. It’s strange how the bishops never go themselves, isn’t it?

The protagonists of Hyperion have all been selected for what will probably be the last Shrike pilgrimage. At the start of the book, it is stated that the Time Tombs are opening and that a group of transhumans called Ousters are about to attack the planet. There’s not much hope that the planet will hold out either. None of them are members of the Shrike Church, none of them know exactly why they were selected, all of them have their own reasons for accepting the missions.

The book is a futuristic retelling of the Canterbury Tales. In between chapters that narrate their journey to the planet and their attempts to determine who among them might be a spy, they each share their stories about what led them to accept their place on the pilgrimage.

Through their stories and their motivations, Simmons explores imperialism, artistic integrity, betrayal, love, artificial intelligence, technological reincarnation, fatherhood, and many more themes. In some ways, the book is also a love letter to John Keats.

In the end, despite their differences, they joined hands and walked to their fate. Then the book ends. The series should have ended there too.

photo of people near wooden table
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Instead, Simmons continued to write in this universe, which eventually became the Hyperion Cantos. The second book, The Fall of Hyperion, wasn’t that bad. It largely follows an artificial reincarnation of John Keats and much of the book’s events are told through his experiences. But we also see the POVs of the characters from the first novel. This is where the problem arises.

In writing the second novel Simmons had to explain all of the questions that arose in the first. In doing so he brings up a lot of interesting ideas that were totally unprecedented in the first novel. So instead of leaving the mysteries of the first book as mysteries, he chose to answer them with time-traveling agents from the future and messianic powers that came out of nowhere.

The first book was an amazing opportunity to explore multiple stories at once, to get close to deeply flawed characters with mixed motivations for being where they are, and to see them accept the uncertain future in front of them. I think the series would have ended beautifully with just one book. Instead, Simmons decided to keep writing.

That’s not to say that I hated the second book. I enjoyed most of it. Just not as much. I think I would have enjoyed it more if some of the concepts introduced in the first actually mattered in the second. Powers that destroy the Shrike don’t bother me as long as we the readers were given reason to think they might be possible beforehand.

But we weren’t.

I keep looking at the third book on my shelf and I don’t know if I can convince myself to read it. Hyperion is a great book and if it was the only book of the Hyperion Cantos that you read it will likely remain a great book in your eyes. Because the answers provided in the later books simply don’t hold up to the questions posed by the first. If you haven’t read Hyperion yet then you definitely should, but consider skipping the books that follow.

Page Break with Brian McClellan: The Perfect Podcast for Creatives?

In short. Yes.

Brian McClellan is the author of The Powder Mage Trilogy and Uncanny Collateral. Now he’s a podcaster as well.

Page Break is an interview-style podcast where Brian sits down with other creatives and talks to them about their work. But don’t worry, you won’t need to be familiar with the person’s work to understand the conversation. Instead of focusing on any specific work by that episode’s guest, Brian talks to them about their career path, their creative styles, what their segment of the industry is like, and their recent meals.

The best part of all this is how relatable it all is, and affirming too.

It’s easy to see a name on a book cover or in end credits and forget that there is a real person behind the name. It’s also hard to convince yourself that you might be able to be the person behind the name one day. Page Break brings the people behind the names into the light in an incredibly relatable way. A way that makes you think that you could do it too.

Each of them has a different path that brought them to where they are. A great reminder that there is no one right way to create, you just have to keep working at it.

Science for Scifi: Breaking Into Orbit

Rockets are expensive. Not only are they limited by the weight of their fuel, but also by their cargo capacity and reusability. While commercial entities like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have been unveiling new systems that promise alternative ways of reaching low orbit or reusing rockets, there are still a lot of limitations that prevent space travel from becoming ubiquitous in the short term.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Space flight does not have to be easier for good scifi, in fact, I would argue that it should be hard. It helps to impose limits on the characters and promote conflict. A thriving space industry could still be expensive and thus impose limits on who goes to space and why.

That said, once your setting is to the point where colonies throughout the solar system are becoming viable I think that it’s time to start exploring other ways of getting to orbit. I think rockets will always have a place, but forms of mass transit will make the entire endeavor a lot easier.

Space Elevators

Orbital elevators are a staple of science fiction. How it works is that a giant tether is built connecting the surface of a planet to a station in orbit. The tether is then held taught, allowing elevators to move up and down its length.

One of the primary challenges with an elevator is making a material strong enough to build the tether in enough quantities to make it work. A lot of authors choose to use some kind of carbon allotrope and this part might require you to invent your own very special flavor of carbon fiber or synthetic diamond. Remember that the tether will need to be much, much thicker than you think it will need to be.

My favorite part about this concept is that it allows a world to have regular trips to orbit and back in an environment that might resemble a modern airport or train station. Elevator pods could have large cargo areas and multiple passenger areas divided into economy, business, and first-class. You could have observation windows and restaurants. All the trappings of comfort or the lack thereof.

An elevator is probably best in a setting where space travel has become common enough for such a project to be profitable. A single planet will likely only have one or two placed in neutral or autonomous regions or controlled by a specific faction. Of course, the resources needed to build one might limit which worlds have a space elevator and which do not. If your setting involves multiple star systems it is likely that only the most developed of them will have one.

It goes without saying that such a large piece of infrastructure will make a very tempting target. If destroyed an elevator could cause immense damage to any settlements built around its base and cripple and the economies of multiple factions in a given system.

Skyhooks

For worlds that are not yet capable of a project as massive as a space elevator but still need regular surface-to-orbit transit, skyhooks may be the perfect solution.

You can think of a skyhook like a satellite that spins as they travel along the edge of the atmosphere. Its hook can latch onto craft flying in the upper atmosphere and accelerate them into orbit, and can also grab craft in orbit and bring them down into the atmosphere.

These are a good in-between stage between rockets and elevators for travel and could probably be set up a lot faster than a full-sized space elevator could. Which would make them perfect for worlds with some orbital traffic but not enough for a full elevator. Or they could be an option for planetary factions that do not want to rely on a space elevator that someone else owns. Or in instances where orbital infrastructure needs to be set up quickly. I’ll talk about a possible scenario for that in the next section.

An Invasion Scenario

Surface combat in the far future is likely to be small-scale and asymmetric. There isn’t much use in landing millions of ground troops when ships in orbit can turn a continent into radioactive glass. But we seem to crave depictions of ground-based combat anyway.

Let’s say a planet is host to an environment that is hospitable to humans or contains some vital piece of infrastructure that would be destroyed in a bombardment and that this necessitates the use of ground forces on a large scale. The first wave of troops could be brought to the surface with a combination of capsules and landers that glide down through the atmosphere much as the space shuttle did. Some of these crafts might be designed to return to orbit with a variety of energy-intensive designs. Since we all know that military objectives beat concerns like cost and efficiency any day.

If the planet already has extensive orbital infrastructure, which it probably does if its world attacking, these initial forces would work to establish beachheads and try to capture any space elevators that might be present. The attack on a space elevator could very well commence on both ends since it would be hard to use if the people at the other end of the tether were waiting to shoot you as soon as the door opens.

But perhaps the space elevator was destroyed or the planet really doesn’t have the infrastructure. Once landing sites are secured, ships in orbit could deploy prefabbed skyhooks to provide the infrastructure of occupation. From that point on if the locals continued to resist the war would probably resemble something like the conflicts in Vietnam or Afghanistan. Massed tanks and infantry make for awesome illustrations but are nothing a few “rods from God” couldn’t fix. In the long term, the construction of a new space elevator could be seen as the ultimate mark of ownership of the planet. A massive, sprawling symbol that the invaders are there to stay.

Further Reading (And Watching)

I realize that this post is less technical than previous Science for SciFi entries. I chose to do this because I am not a physicist nor am I an aerospace engineer. Instead, I wanted to highlight a few interesting concepts in science fiction and point you all towards some resources that can be an inspiration for your next story of a planetary invasion. If you liked this content consider supporting it by signing up for my newsletter or exploring my page of recommended products on Amazon.

For a start, Atomic Rockets is a great site for anyone who wants to dig into the physics of science fiction and learn how science has been incorporated into many great science fiction classics. For a fun and straightforward explanation of skyhooks, you can look to Kurtzgesagt on Youtube. The same channel also has a great explanation of space elevators.

Science for SciFi: Astrobiology

Rubber-forehead aliens are basically a meme at this point. They make perfect sense in terms of production costs and limitations imposed by special effects technology at the time. The good news is that writing for print gives us far more options than would be possible otherwise. I think that they make it easier to relate to characters on screen but making all of your aliens look like humans with a few extra bits glued on requires a lot of worldbuilding to explain away. If you try to explain it that is.

The point of this post is not so much to provide an explanation of how life on other worlds could work but rather why it’s so hard to envision what life on other worlds could be like. This is because a) I am not a biochemist and b) it’s somewhat difficult to pin down just what “life” is. Once you’ve wrapped your head around this second idea and thought about some of the strange chemistries that are possible on alien worlds you will feel much freer to imagine strange new forms of life.

At this point, you are probably getting ready to type an angry comment or tweet along the lines of “WHAT DOES HE MEAN? OF COURSE WE KNOW WHAT LIFE IS. I’M ALIVE AREN’T I?” It’s actually a lot more complicated than that. Here on Earth we still have trouble deciding whether viruses are alive. Sure they can infect hosts and they use the same DNA/RNA coding that we and the rest of life here on Earth do, but they lack the machinery needed to make copies of themselves so they have to hijack ours. NASA has a definition of life that they use in the search for extraterrestrials and it’s probably the best one available to us, but there are still likely to be some who disagree with the definition.

“Life is a self-sustaining chemical system capable of darwinian evolution” – NASA

I’d be interested to hear whether readers think that viruses are included in this definition or not.

The reason that the definition of life is so hard to pin down is that we only have our own world to serve as a reference. In our solar system of eight planets and who knows how many planetoids and moons only one body, Earth, is known to support life. Yet there are two other planets, Mars and Venus, that might have once supported life and several moons that could even harbor life this very moment (I’m looking at you Europa).

We can look around at our own planet and describe how life works here. We can explain how DNA works, how organisms obtain energy, and how one organism gradually evolves into another over time. We know all that but we still do not know how life began on this planet. Without knowing how life began it is hard to definitely say whether a planet could support life or not. We tend to get excited when we find planets around other stars that could support conditions similar to those here on Earth, but when we talk about whether a planet is in a star’s “Goldilocks Zone” what we are really saying is that the planet could support life that is like us, and that’s a little arrogant I think.

Fortunately, our knowledge of chemistry and physics allows us to envision other ways in which life might arise. We are, after all, just bags of chemical reactions that happened to develop egos.

Excuse Me, Is This Life Organic?

These days a lot of people think that if something is organic it was produced from “natural” materials or grown without the use of certain fertilizers or pesticides. What they don’t realize is that oil is both organic and naturally occurring, but you wouldn’t want to eat it. When scientists say something is organic all that means is that it is composed of primarily carbon and hydrogen along with a smaller proportion of other elements.1

We and all the living organisms that we know of here on Earth are built out of carbon. Our DNA, our proteins, our hormones, our cell walls. Every bit of biochemical machinery that makes us is built on a scaffolding of carbon. Organic compounds are so prevalent in living things that the distinction between organic vs inorganic chemicals was originally based on whether they had come from a living thing or not.

Carbon is useful in all these ways because each carbon atom can form up to four bonds with other atoms. Carbon can form long chains with other carbon atoms and can also form double and triple bonds not only with itself but with other elements important to Earth life including both oxygen and nitrogen. Silicon is often suggested as a possible substitute for carbon on alien worlds, but silicon is less versatile than carbon and many of its compounds are unstable. This combined with the prevalence of carbon among molecules found in space does not bode well for silicon’s chances. There is however the clay hypothesis that has to do with the beginning of life on Earth.

Another point in carbon’s favor is that by now many complex organic molecules have been detected in space in molecular clouds around stars and on the surfaces of comets. Many of them being the same molecules used by living things here on Earth. With ready-made materials out there in the cosmos, why not take advantage of them?2

Water? I Hardly Know Her

Water is a really great solvent for life on our planet. Besides being everywhere and thus the most logical choice for life solvents, its properties allow both acid and base chemistry to take place. When we begin to consider different temperatures, pressures, and chemical makeup, a number of other solvent options become clear.

All it takes is a solvent that allowed for acid-base chemistry to take place. Water allows this, but there are other solvents that could, under different conditions, or with different commonalities. Waters is ubiquitous on Earth, but it doesn’t have to be on other planets.

Take a look at different solvents. Or familiar gases that would be liquid at other temperatures. The possibilities might surprise you.

Eating Sunshine (And Other Things)

Here on Earth, most ecosystems arise from the energy provided by the Sun. Just about everything either harvests light through photosynthesis or eats something that does. But even on Earth, we know that this is not the only option. In the deepest parts of our oceans, we have found extremophiles that feed off the heat and chemicals released by volcanic vents.

That is just on Earth. There are many sources of energy in the universe including gravity and magnetic fields. Alien life forms could catalyze the synthesis of vital metabolites using alpha and beta particles released by radioactive minerals to catalyze reactions or construct molecular machines on their cell membranes that harvest hydroelectric power.

The Galactic Habitable Zone

It’s weird to think that there might possibly be a shortage of resources on a galactic scale but once you get an idea of how elements are made it begins to make sense.

Basically, there is a band with indeterminate boundaries somewhere between the center of the galaxy and the edge that makes up the galactic habitable zone, a region that is determined by metallicity, the age of the stars, and how often stars in the area go supernova.

The center of the galaxy with its high concentration of stars is considered unsuitable for life, as the frequent supernovae release bursts of radiation that would sterilize nearby worlds and make the development of life difficult, if not impossible. Meanwhile, the edge of the galaxy is full of younger stars that have not had time to transmute the heavier elements that life needs.

All this results in an uncertain band looping around the galaxy where planets are more likely to be habitable. The boundaries of this band are uncertain, but

Turning The Weirdness Dial Up to Eleven

A lot of us tend to base alien species on the species we are familiar with here on Earth. A quick look at some extinct species will show that there are many, many variations on how weird life can get just on a single planet. Just because it didn’t happen HERE doesn’t mean it can’t happen SOMEWHERE.

In all honesty, it just depends on how strictly you want to adhere to known science. You could have aliens with bones like ours with gelatinous flesh or stationary mollusks that spend their days exploring complex algorithms in their minds.

Hard science fiction is all about finding plausible explanations based on what we know now. That doesn’t mean it can’t be weird.

Conclusion

If anything should be clear by now it’s that nothing is. The Milky Way is a big place and we can envision so many possibilities that it is just about impossible to anticipate all the possible variations of life. In fact, I came across so much information while reading this post that I wasn’t able to include it all in this one post. So stay tuned for future posts on the origins of life, panspermia, and whatever else catches my eye in the process.

Notes

  1. Unfortunately for myself and other inorganic chemists. Our field is literally defined as “not organic” which makes it more than a little hard for someone to guess what we do.
  2. I’ve come across a wealth of information on this topic and it’s all incredibly facinating. Enough so that I’ll probably have future posts on both on possible origins of life and on the wonderful hydrocarbons that have been found out there in the universe.

Sources

Some of these resources may be behind a paywall. Consult your friendly neighborhood librarian for help. Or in the case of research papers, it never hurts to email the author, they may just send you a copy!

Astrobiology: The Study Of The Living Universe by Christopher F. Chyba and Kevin P. Hand. Annu. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 2005

Astrochemistry: From Astronomy to Astrobiology by Andrew M. Shaw

Beloved Wikipedia.

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Netflix Movie Review: Gunpowder Milkshake

Imagine that John Wick and a stick of bubblegum had a baby, and then paid one of the designers from Fallout to design the nursery. That’s the feeling I got watching Gunpowder Milkshake.

Right from the beginning, the movie has a few things going for it. It’s got Karen Gillan playing the lead, a lead who is a very competent assassin, a nefarious underworld with its own rules and an impressive amount of infrastructure, and a delightfully nostalgic pastel aesthetic.

Did I love this movie? I don’t think so. But I did like it.

Unlike John Wick, Karen Gillan’s character isn’t a retired killer, she is very much still active in the industry as she follows in the footsteps of her estranged mother, who disappeared from her life some fifteen years before. Her life as an emotionally distant killer comes to an end when her employer, The Firm, sends her to recover a horde of stolen money and discovered that the accountant that stole the money did so to pay the ransom for his kidnapped daughter.

This revelation immediately brings her back to a childhood of feeling alone and abandoned. Her decision to save the girls brings down the wrath of her former employees and sets her on a path to reconnect with the people who influenced her childhood, and reconnect with her mother.

Overall I found it to be an entertaining movie. Sometimes it’s nice to watch a protagonist carve a bloody path through a crowd of faceless thugs. I really liked the set designs and color choices but I do wish that the world felt a little bigger. Most of the sets, while visually appealing, show us few hints of the city around them. I also wish that we had gotten to learn a bit more about the Library, where weapons can be found hidden inside thematically linked books on the library shelves. With how important the librarians were to the movie and to the protagonist’s backstory I wish we had gotten just a few minutes more exposition.

Overall I would give it a 3/5 or maybe a 2.5/5. I’m not sure. It’s an entertaining movie that doesn’t demand a lot of thought from the audience, but I can’t help but feel like it could have been more. If you watched the movie drop a comment and let me know what you think.

My Favorite Pens: 2021 Edition

It’s been a while since I’ve done something like this. So here is a shortlist of my current favorite pens.

  1. If love was a pen it would be the Jotter. I love the jotter, there is so much history and so many imperfections contained within each pen. After more than fifty years Parker has come upon the closest thing to perfect that is possible in this plane of existence: the Parker Jotter XL. The original jotter has everything I love in a pen without the size. I have big hands. The Jotter XL takes everything I love about these pens and makes them all fit my big meaty claws.

2. Even before I came to know Parker I knew Rotring. This German brand does not have as large a catalog as its competitors but it beats their quantity with quality. Rotring was one of my first loves, and I have never left it. They have so many good pencils and pens. Nearly all of them are built on the same design and each one of them is great for its own reasons. Rotring is one of the few brands that can make both a good pen and a good pencil.

3. Michael’s Fatboy was a pen I didn’t know I needed. When I first got into this hobby I was buying pens left and right. Now I have a solid core collection of pens that I use on a regular basis and another group of pens that I just like to have. Michael’s Fatboys were an outlier. I never knew I needed one until I signed a receipt with one at Bittner Pens. The experience was brief but it stuck with me. The Fatboys have a distinctive appearance and a pleasurable writing experience. Other pens might be better for long writing sessions, but nothing can beat the look of a Fatboy on your desk.

4. Kaweco is a brand that I have ignored for too long. From what I have seen they have an extensive collection of fountain pens. I only know them from their mechanical pencil; the kaweco special mechanical pencil. It has everything you would want in a pencil; ease of use and a comfortable feel.

5. I just can’t get away from LAMY. Especially the LAMY 2000. I only have the ballpoint. I have nothing bad to say about this pen, except that they use a proprietary ink cartridge. But the feel of using this pen…it’s an instant classic. If LAMY didn’t insist on a proprietary ink I might have made this pen number one. It got just the right amount of girth and the ink flows smoothly.

So that’s my top five pens of this year so far. What have you been writing with?

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

I admit I have never read a book by Naomi Novik until about a week ago. I didn’t even realize that she was the author of Temeraire, a series that has been on my radar for a while, but I just hadn’t gotten around to picking up yet. That will be changing shortly because I was blown away by how well done A Deadly Education is. Stop reading this review now and come back after you’ve bought a copy.

Done? Good. On with the review.

Like I said, I have never read a book by Naomi Novik until a week ago. I had seen A Deadly Education in bookstores several times and read reviews about it, but the tipping point for me was when I saw a Twitter mutual (Bryanna Gary go follow her) post about how great the book is. So I bought it during one of my monthly therapy shopping sessions at the local book store.

The premise of the book is that it takes place in a somewhat evil magical school. A place with no teachers where students are left on their own for four years, forced to fend for themselves and survive near-constant attacks from monsters intent on devouring them in a myriad of horrific ways. The moment that everyone dreads is graduation when the senior class will be forced to fight their way through the worst of the monsters that couldn’t squeeze their way into the cracks in the school’s wards.

And all that is the best solution the magical community could come up with to protect their children from being preyed upon by the monsters in their closest.

At first glance, the book seems to promise a grimdark setting with a protagonist who is something of an antihero. Don’t get me wrong; this school seems to be a terrible place to live. But the protagonist Galadriel, rather than being an antihero, is someone who has been given every reason to believe that she will become one. Everyone around her seems to dislike her instantly, and she has an unwanted gift for casting spells of mass destruction.

All this has made her bitter and angry, and she tends to lash out at those around her, even on the rare occasions that they do try to be friends. The book is also written in first person, so we get to see that she is fully aware that she is making these mistakes as she makes them. By the end of the book, she finally begins to make friends and even seems to force some of her classmates to become better people in the process or at least try. We also get a look into a deeply fascinating new fantasy setting that includes a school that seems determined to torture its students in an almost loving way.

It’s a good book. Go buy it.

NYRA Gave My Dad A Race

Readers will probably know that my father passed away from COVID back in January. We knew he was sick, but he seemed to be getting better, until he wasn’t.

Tributes included this very touching musical tribute at Cafe Lena

In the months since, I have been busy managing his estate, and many in town have come forward to offer their condolences and to ask permission to do various tribute concerts and such. Even the New York Racing Association wanted to do a tribute at the Saratoga Race Track. They gave us a race on July 23rd and let us name it, and I got to hand the trophy off to the jockey. At least that was the plan, in reality there was a mix-up and the jockey was not brought over. But it was still a fun day and a really touching tribute.

Despite living in Saratoga my entire life, I’ve only been to the race track a handful of times, with the last time being about ten years ago. This was the first time I ever went as an adult who can both drink and gamble. I invited both my advisor and lab mates and we had a lot of fun.

Despite losing a whole $10 gambling, I still managed to smile at the end of the day

At the end, I was a little nervous. Thanks to COVID, I haven’t performed in front of a crowd in a long time so being on camera in the winner’s circle was a little nerve-wracking, but many people from the Downtown Business Association were there, and it was great to see them.

Me with the DBA. We were all looking at the tv camera in this picture

Finally, the announcer read off a short but touching tribute about my dad on the big screen. The whole thing was just a few minutes, but it was a really nice gesture and a nice break after all the time I’ve spent managing my dad’s estate this year.

A friend of ours got the event on camera. I’ll upload a video of it as soon as I can.

Edit: The video is up!

What Was The Point of Forever Peace?

If you like scifi you need to read Joe Haldeman’s Forever War. I loved Forever War. It was my first exposure to science fiction where travel between stars takes a very very long time. Seeing the characters leave Earth repeatedly and return many years late after subjective months and having to adjust to the changes they found was fascinating and induced just a little bit of existential dread.

I LOVED the first book, but I was confused when I read Forever Free. Now, years later, I think I might finally understand why Hademan wrote the two books the way that he did.

First, I will give a very truncated summary of both books.

Forever War: In the late twentieth-century humanity goes to war with a species of aliens called Taurans. Many centuries later it is discovered that the war began as the result of a misunderstanding. Because of relativistic effects veterans of the war return home centuries or millennia after they left.

Forever Peace: By the end of the forever war humanity transcended the normal bounds of evolution and is now a race of clones living in harmony with the Taurans who are also a clone race. Veterans of the war are discontent and decided to leave the galaxy and return in 2000 years. Their journey is impeded and they learn that the galaxy has all been an experiment controlled by a god-like entity who ensured that two species on the same technological level came into contact when they did. The being leaves, and the protagonist spends the rest of their life studying the changes the being made to universal constants before they left.

If you couldn’t tell already, the second needs a lot more explanation and also makes a lot less sense.

When I first read it my first guess was that the meaninglessness of it all that was revealed in the second book was a result of Haldeman’s effort to portray a feeling of pointlessness that he and many veterans of the Vietnam War experienced when they go back home.

In retrospect, I think that a slightly more nuanced view is more appropriate.

The war between humanity and the taurans was pointless. That much is clear by the end of the first book. It is made especially clear by the end of the second.

When I first read it I was extremely put off. I hated that I had watched the characters I loved struggle for nothing…and then I realized that was the point.

Did the Vietnam war have a point? Was anything made better by it happening?

That’s the point of the two books.

In the first book our MC is faced with plenty of standard scifi conflicts and returns home to find that all of them were pointless. Then he tries to live in the world he returned to. That doesn’t work either. Finally he and many other veterans tries to escape the world they came home to and they fail, all because some greater being wanted them to fight to begin with. In the end he finds joy in discovering the changes wrought by that great being. And by small I mean minor changes to cosmological constants.

When I first finished Forever Peace I was very confused and I felt a little cheated. There hadn’t been any hint before that in either of the books. What was the point of getting invested in the characters and their struggles? With time and some perspective, I think I know.

I think that Joe Haldeman was trying to come to terms with his experiences as a Vietnam Veteran. He and thousands of others were taken away from their families, forced to fight and die, and when they came home they returned to a society that had been changed by the war. A war that history would later find was largely pointless. After suffering through a pointless conflict Haldeman was left to find some kind of meaning in life. Which is exactly what our protagonist did.

I think that this is something that should feel especially relatable to those of us who have lived through the COVID pandemic. There is no reason for more than half a million people to have died except because Trump wanted them to. Vietnam can be thought of in the same way. People died for no real reason. None of the dead sacrificed their lives for a greater future, they died because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Haldeman’s work was all about understanding this pointlessness. It’s an amazing piece of science fiction and it has never been more relevant than now. At once it makes us question the society we find ourselves in and at the same time encourages us to find something to enjoy.

I think that’s both beautiful and tragic.