Saturday, June 25, 2016

A look at Science Fiction webcomics: Part 3

What makes a science fictional webcomic? Many offer insights into science or space, artificial intelligence or how technology impacts our lives. Some have speculative fiction plotlines and are set in the distant future… but not all. A  good number depict spaceships, colony planets, faster than light travel, time travel, or alternate universes… but not all. Many portray alien species or talking anthropomorphic animals -- and reflect on the nature of humanity. 

More than a few explore post-apocalyptic scenarios after a fall from plague or widespread war; others have more mundane modern day settings, but deal with technological quandaries. Some offer drama or adventure; others are humorous or wry... and a few are rather dark. They tend to avoid tales of wizards and superheroes… or excess magic or mysticism. 

TV Tropes offers an extensive source of information about the common concepts of sci fi webcomics. 

This is a follow-up to my earlier postings on science and Science Fiction related comics: Part 1 looked at many excellent works such as Dresdan Codak, Schlock Mercenary, Girl Genius, SMBC, and xkcd; Part 2 moved on to Brewster Rockit, Outsider, Freefall, Drive, Quantum Vibe, and many others.  Here in Part 3 we'll do cleanup, covering some neglected treasures and others that you readers suggested, down in comments. (And yes, the Contrary Brin comments community is one of the oldest and most articulate/interesting blogmunities on the web, consisting mostly of erudite folks who care about ideas... and almost troll free!)

== Continuing our Web Comic Roundup ==

First a suggestion. Support these talented webartists -- and those listed in Parts 1 & 2 -- on the crowd-funding site Patreon – for they consistently post their work online for free.

Questionable Content, by Jeff Jacques, has been running since 2003, with well over 3000 episodes. A “slice of life” comic, the light-hearted, humorous series is set in Massachusetts in the near future. It follows the ever-evolving relationship dramas between Marten Reed, an indie-rock fan, his friends Faye and Hannelore (who grew up on a space station), his mischievous and often sociopathic robot Pintsize, and a cast that expands as the series progresses. Most tech is present day, other than the anthropomorphic sentient robots -- called AnthroPCs. 

The storyline takes many twists and turns over the years, at times developing the more futuristic and science fictional aspects of the plot, such as androids and artificial intelligence. See Issue 2017 for the start of their trip to the space station.   

Trying Human, by Emy Bitner follows Rose Marie Williams, a secretary for the New York City police, who wakes each morning suffering form insomnia and nosebleeds. Under hypnosis she discovers she is being abducted by aliens, the telepathic Greys; one male, Hue, has become fixated on her. Unknown to Rose, her boyfriend has become an agent of the secretive “Majestic 12” – a "Men in Black" - like unit which monitors alien activity on Earth. 

On a parallel plot line, flashbacks from the 1940s follow Phillis, a translator for the Air Force, who develops a special connection to an alien, EBE1, who has been recovered from a crashed ship. The title comes from a “trying human circuit” – which aliens use to appear human during their time on Earth. Start from the beginning here.

Trekker, by Ron Randall: This retrofuturistic adventure story begins in the gritty city of New Gelaph in the 23rd century, but later expands to encompass an interstellar society. It centers around the no-nonsense, kick-ass Mercy St. Clair, a bounty hunter or “Trekker,” tracking down criminals, gang members, underworld bosses, “…alive or dead, the pay’s the same.” In more recent issues, she takes on political intrigue and war as she ventures out to other planets and colonies. Wherever she goes, trouble always finds her. 

Released in print by Dark Horse in the late 1980’s, the series has been revived online. Nice artwork, vivid story with lots of action and fight scenes. Start from the beginning here, or indulge in the collected Trekker Omnibus

Inhuman, by Icarus, is set 1000 years in the future, after aliens have contacted earth. Near light speed travel has been achieved and Jump Gates enable rapid interstellar travel. A militaristic religious group, Rulerism, has spread across the galaxy; violence and massacres have followed as they forcibly seek converts with the mantra, “Save everyone’s soul. Save them from themselves.” Many of the (animalistic) aliens are prejudiced against humans for their role in the Ruleristic cult. Grey, a blind, mute, schizophrenic human, covered in scars, has escaped from an alien psych ward… and the Rulerists are desperate to find him. Flashbacks and hallucinations begin to fill in the often dark backstory. Hand drawn in ink and watercolors … a reflection on what it means to be human. Start at the beginning here.

Crowded Void, by Mike West offers one of the more unusual concepts. Finding Earth too crowded and people rather distasteful, Vincent Foxwell thought he could find peace when he took a job on a cargo vessel, hauling junk in space, with only an AI for company. Space turns out to be more crowded than he imagined…. when his spacecraft is swallowed by a massive space worm, where there is already an intestinal civilization of over a million humans and aliens, jockeying for position in the worm's digestive cycle. He must find a way to escape… before digestion is complete. But first he must deal with the The Joint Intestinal Monarchy, which controls the worm, harvesting parts from spaceships. No end of good material for humor… a new theory of wormholes? Start at the beginning here.

O Human Star, by Blue Delliquanti, tells the tale of Alastair (Al) Sterling, an inventor whose work sparked the robot revolution, but didn’t live to see it. Sixteen years after his sudden death, Al wakes up in a synthetic replica of his original body, with his memories intact. His technical designs have become reality; advanced robots coexist with humans. Meanwhile Brendan, his former business partner and best friend, had tried but failed to resurrect Al. However, Brendan did succeed in generating a synthetic being, Sulla, that looks like Al -- but decided to become female. She’s like him in every other way, except that she doesn’t have all his memories. Flashbacks illuminate Al’s formerly intimate relationship with Brendan (some sex scenes). And now Al must struggle to figure out who had him resurrected -- and discover his role in this new world of ever present artificial intelligence. Start at the beginning here.

Sunset Grill, by Kat Feete, is set in in a bar in the year 2426, in the gritty streets of Kieselburg, somewhere in the Midwest. “Earth is a patchwork quilt of restive, squabbling Domains, loosely joined under the mantle of the Empire, whose primary goal is to present a united front to the dozens of technologically advanced, land-hungry, and not particularly moral alien races.” The serial comic centers around the bar’s owners, workers and patrons, as well as the street kids, criminals, gangsters, corrupt cops, prostitutes, drug dealers… the low-life of the city’s slums, as well as glimpses of the justice system and Imperial officers. Science fictional elements are rare (genetically-engineered greenies) and some advanced technology. 3D computer graphics, with lots of backstory on the website. Start at the beginning here... and see it reviewed more extensively on Tangents Review. 

The Wandering Ones by Clint Hollingsworth An action comic set in the post-apocalyptic world of the mid 21st century, after a man-made viral weapon, a plague bomb released from orbit by religious zealots (as they were leaving earth) - has killed off most humans. But not all. The comic follows the stealthy scouts of the Clan of the Hawk, in the Columbia River area of the Pacific Northwest. These rebels, led by the tough female Ravenwing, use their survival and tracking skills (as well as some modern technology and a fair amount of mysticism) to live off the land as they struggle against the encroaching fascist Farnham’s Empire, aka The Reich. Start at the beginning here.

A Miracle of Science, written by Jon Kilgannon, drawn by Mark Sachs. This light-hearted webcomic ran from 2002 to 2007. Set in the year 2148 in an interplanetary civilization that extends out to the Jovian moons. This romantic comedy follows two members of the Vorstellen Police, whose job it is to track down and stop a virulent plague of… mad scientists. Bwa ha ha ha! The onset of Science Related Memetic Disorder (S.R.M.D.) has led to rogue scientists conducting dangerous research (to make robot armies) to achieve world domination. Lots of chase scenes and explosions, plus advanced tech like AI, androids, big attack robots, orbital cannons and terraforming. Fun. Start from the beginning.

Thunderpaw: In the Ashes of Fire Mountain, an animated comic by Jen Lee. This is a buddy roadtrip tale with anthropomorphic talking dogs. It was the brightest night… when humanity suddenly disappeared. “They’re not coming back are they?” Doggy pals Bruno and Ollie are trapped inside a car when fire rains from the sky and breaks open the vehicle. They can’t help but wonder…If only they hadn’t chewed up the garden, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. Bruno and Ollie wander across a post-apocalyptic fiery wasteland, with danger everywhere… and they just want to return home to their doggy bed and backyard where treasures are buried. Lee’s gray and orange panels jitter and flash to create a sense of immediacy. Start at the beginning here.

Sluggy Freelance, by Pete Abrams. This humorous strip has been running since 1997; longer story lines developed over time. The main characters a Torg, his inventor friend Riff, Zoë, Gwynn and a psychopathic switchblade-wielding, talking mini-lop rabbit, Bun-Bun. They encounter aliens, monsters, ghosts, demons, vampires, mad scientists, and alternate universes.. with large doses of pop culture references, puns, parodies and gag lines.  Read the New Viewer’s Guide  or sample the Sci-Fi Adventure, where Riff invents a “dimensional flux agitator which opens rifts in random reality paths,” intending to blast Bun-Bun into another dimension – but of course things go wrong…. 

Anna Galactic, by Christopher Baldwin (creator of Space Trawler), is a sci fi web comedy. The spaceship Mary Celeste has landed on a carbon-based world when their lauridium power cube nearly died. But why were no SOS signals sent? And why hasn’t the captain gone in search of lauridium on the planet? 

Passengers Foxglove and Anna, with crewmember Dilvan -- and a nannybot Pewter -- suspect something’s amiss… and head off to the planet surface seeking answers. They encounter bizarre and hostile alien lifeforms and landforms and a mysterious colony settlement. Start at the beginning here.

Stand Still. Stay Silent, by Minna Sundburg is a post-apocalyptic adventure webcomic set in Iceland, which sealed its borders after a virulent pathogen wiped out most of the “Old World.” Ninety years later, a poorly funded research crew has set off to explore the outside territories of the Silent World – and gather info about those dark lands outside the known world, which consists Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. Their journeys bring them in contact with a multitude of dangers -- beasts, giants, trolls and monsters – many the result of mutation from the plague. Elements of Nordic mythology arise, as much of the population has reverted to worshiping the ancient Norse or Finnish gods. Start at the beginning here.

Space Junk Arlia, by Alex Miller and Orange This relatively recent space opera follows a gang of pirates aboard the frigate Dela-Ru, their tough captain, Rana Borlei (known as Lady Luck) and their partly alien crew. Anyone going up against her “is gonna need all the luck they can get.” Even so, these pirates barely eke a living, smuggling goods, avoiding the law when possible. When they agree to secretly escort a member of royalty, they find themselves under attack, enmeshed in webs of conspiracy… even as Rana’s past comes back to haunt her. Vivid space battles and starships. Start at the beginning here.

Erin Dies Alone, written by Cory Rydell and drawn by Grey Carter. A darker offering, this comic is about “isolation, mental illness and videogames.” It centers around a writer named Erin, a lonely young woman who has not left her condo in two years, her meds delivered through a slot in the door. Erin spends her days immersed in video games, hallucinating and talking with imaginary video game characters, particularly Red Panda, “the one who will save us all.” Is it all in her head… and can she step back into the real world? The strip satirizes classic video games from Sonic the Hedgehog to Halo and Final Fantasy, video violence, and leveling up. Start at the beginning here.

Brief Looks:

Space Mullet, by Daniel Warren Johnson, is “an episodic style comic about a washed up, Ex-Space Marine trucker named Jonah, and his alien co-pilot, Alphius. Together they do their best (and usually fail) to do good throughout the galaxy.”

Relativity, by Beck Kramer: “When Irina Novak set off on NASA’s first light speed travel mission, she knew the flight would change her life. She just had no idea how much.”

Greasy Space Monkeys, by Reine Brand and Mark Kestler, tells “the adventure of two idiots in a dead end job on a run-down space station.” 

Bicycle Boy, by Jackarais, is a post-apocalyptic story: “Our protagonist – a cyborg who calls himself “Poet” – can not recall anything before they day he woke up in the middle of the desert, surrounded by corpses. 

Space Corps, by Bryan Richmond and Gannon Beck: this series follows “a platoon of Space Marines fighting in a planet-hopping campaign in an intergalactic war.”

Velocidad  Bikers in Space, by Kasey Quevedo is “a sci fi genre wdbcomic about fast ships, space-heists, and even faster space bikes.”

Supermassive Black Hole A!, A hard sci fi webcomic, the story follows “human civilization at the center of the Milky Way galaxy,  an area of space dominated by a gigantic black hole, where energy is abundant and life is cheap.” 

Am I recommending all of these? Well some are better than others, but I leave that to you.  Also, many of the very best were listed already, in Parts 1 & 2.  But the number one consideration is this...

...enjoy!  But also protect your lifespan and productivity! Our wondrous civilization is filled with distrations. Have fun. But ration yourself and get done what needs doing! Then... rewards await...

              and Part 2: Science-fiction webcomics

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Even Modernists Can Get Stuck: Why we must keep revising even good ideas. (Plus some other cool stuff.)

Might things get better? Can you be an agent of that transformation? 

Peter Diamandis is the founder of XPRIZE, Singularity University, and many other fascinating initiatives. He formulated his provocative 'laws,' about how to be vigorous, pro-active and make the world around you change. They are now available as a handy poster.

Looking to the future.... on Quora I was asked whether the next century will be as transforming as the last one was.

Of course there is a strong possibility of a “singularity” — a tech driven leap that either replaces humankind or exalts us to a profoundly different level. In fact, I would give that 50% odds of happening … along with another 25% chance that we’ll blow it, bigtime, and either destroy ourselves or topple back into ultra-conservative feudalism - the normal condition of our ancestors, going back at least 6000 years. 

Which leaves 25% in which we move ahead - maybe a lot - but remain the kind of future folk seen in most sci fi. Still lovin’ and fightin’ and being dumb and having great escapades in space and battling dystopic villains and so on. The grist of almost all our sci fi flicks n' novels.

Looking back, it is tempting to suppose the last 100 years - while hugely transforming compared to what came before - was only prelude to more of the same -- flashier and with techie toys, but propelled by identical moral flaws. 

And yet it is in the moral realm that I see the most progress! As I pointed out back in 2000, discussing the Clarke-Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, we are ethically so, so different  from even the 1960s that it's almost like a different species. 

Consider. Exactly a century ago Woodrow Wilson was seen as the moral guiding light of the planet, speaking up for international order, for a breakup of colonial-imperial oppression and self-determination for all peoples. 

Now? From our later perspective, Wilson comes across as a racist-segregationist pig, because “all-peoples” in his mind meant all white folks… and Japanese. Oh, and he said European powers should surrender their "concessions" and leave China alone. But Africa? India? The segregated U.S. South? He shared many of the prejudices of his upbringing. So, are Princeton University students right to demand his name be taken off buildings and institutes, because he was only a whole lot better than his time? 

Are slave-owners Jefferson and Washington to be spurned, because the half-hypocritical and half-wondrous advances that they led reveal them lacking by our modern standards? Just remember that their (to our eyes) hyprocrisy only became revealed as we pushed those new standards to yet-higher levels, by standing on their shoulders. It calls to mind a line by François de La Rochefoucauld:  

          Hypocrisy is the homage which vice pays to virtue.

Oh, sure, it's not an easy maxim to understand, at first. But well-worth the effort when you finally go "aha, I get it," because the aphorism helps to explain why it's all right for us move ahead, as a society and as a species, in incremental steps. Indeed, incrementalism may be frustrating -- and an easy target for sanctimonious purists -- and yet it is how standards themselves keep rising as we keep ratcheting outward our horizons of tolerance and inclusion. So long as it remains incessant and propelled by men and women of conscience, incrementalism is not to be despised.

In that 2001 essay, I show how we have come at least as far, ethically, as technologically, with the Star Trek Prime Directive and Gandhi and King pointing us in the direction of ever-greater responsibility. Even when we flagellate ourselves for our moral faults…and we still have many(!) … that reflex of self-criticism is itself huge progress. And those who completely lack that reflex (we see some in politics today) should never be trusted with power.

Just as we should forgive Wilson, since he tried to be better than his times, we should also be willing to notice how far we have come. And how much closer we are - despite a myriad remaining faults - to being worthy of the stars.

== How a dumb theory can make us brittle ==

After suffering too many such disasters in recent years, the people of Japan and Ecuador are digging out from yet another pair of devastating earthquakes.  I’ll be donating blood soon. 

Nevertheless, it seems apropos to mention that recent disasters have caused Japanese thinkers to re-examine their 40 year love affair with a management theory that originated with American quality guru W. Edwards Deming. His teachings about perfecting product quality were vital and American manufacturers only embraced the lessons after getting the snot kicked out of them by superior Japanese products in the 1980s. 
Still, a Deming doctrine called the “just-in-time” supply chain has proved to have… faults.  In wake of each of the recent Japan quakes, Just-in-time collapsed! On this occasion — “Toyota Motor Corp said it would suspend production at plants across Japan after the quakes disrupted its supply chain.”

As it happens, running a manufacturing company based on just-in-time delivery of parts and components and resources is a lot like being a swimsuit model. Eating just enough to stay healthy and absolutely nothing more, a swimsuit model will probably not do well if stuck on a life raft or stranded in the desert, or simply on the street with morals but no cash. And certainly not in a post-quake-apocalypse. 

In fact, I've added just-in-time efficiency to my list of dire brittleness perils that I tell to members of the governmental protector caste, whenever I travel east to offer sf'nal finger-wags and warnings. At minimum we should not, by policy, reward such anti-resilience practices. Simple tweaks in tax-law  could instead incentivize parts stockpiling, rather than punish it, adding to our society's ability to stay robust in coming (and they will come) emergencies.

== Where liberalism and libertarianism overlap ==

It has been long assumed that you best help the world’s poor with closely supervised and targeted programs that – for example – teach skills or build infrastructure.  And indeed, nothing would help the US economy more right now than the high-velocity  stimulation of passing the much needed Infrastructure Bill, so long delayed by the Republican Congress.

Still, we should be trying a range of approaches. For example, recent experiments have – to great surprise – suggested that poor families and villages do best when simply given a reliable stream of raw cash, to spend as they wish. 

“Experimental tests show that the poor don’t stop trying when they are given money, and they don’t get drunk. Instead, they make productive use of the funds, feeding their families, sending their children to school, and investing in businesses and their own futures. Even a short-term infusion of capital has been shown to significantly improve long-term living standards, improve psychological well-being, and even add one year of life," writes Michael Faye in Slate. 

This is somewhat consistent with the Peruvian experiments of Hernando de Soto Polar, which were loved by both leftists and libertarians, strenuously working to vest poor farmers with the paperwork documenting their ownership of land that was already theirs.  Only with papers, they could then borrow and improve and become more productive.

The followup experiment by GiveDirectly aims to provide at least 6,000 of the poorest Kenyans with a basic income for 10 to 15 years, and rigorously analyze the impact. You can donate directly to provide a basic income on the GiveDirectly site.

== Miscellaneous Interesting things ==
What are the chances? A fascinating fact of life that gives us all chills is the amazing moments when coincidences beggar our sense of likelihood and make us imagine hidden causality, even conspiracy.  A look by mathematician Joseph Mazur the author of Fluke: The Math and Myth of Coincidence.

An inspiring story about one school district that changed from chronic absenteeism to vigorous parent involvement and almost perfect attendance.

And so it begins… Resettling the first American‘Climate Refugees.’ The first allocation of federal tax dollars to relocate an entire community – the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana.

The opposite of uplift?  This man “downlifts” himself to move like and mingle with goats. Thomas Thwaites (of The Toaster Project: a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Appliance from Scratch) developed a goat prosthesis that allowed him to walk and graze on four legs, an adventure he summarizes in GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human.  Really? While I approve of a vivid society that lets people strive for some eccentric accomplishment, I am somewhat more impressed with the blacksmiths and potters and swordmakers and rodeo cow-sorting champs (there’s one named “David Brin”- see below) and amateur scientists and school volunteers and Habitat for Humanity workers… But okay, this guy has his niche. He’s doing a thing.

Sudden oak death: This fungal pathogen has killed a million trees in California, leaving a fire hazard for the dry season to come. And that's nothing next to THIRTY million California pines killed by invasive bark beetles after being weakened by climate change. The fires will be huge. And some of you are complicit.

When inequality is visible... Flights with a first class section were nearly four times more likely to suffer incidents of 'air rage.' Is it because those in coach are unconsciously pissed off to see people get legroom and human treatment?  Folks, the thing to be angry about is the rise of private and corporate and charter jets for the rich, subsidized by taxpayers!  We should mob those terminals (where they board without TSA agony) and drive our lords bac into First Class, where they belong!  Once they share our airport experience, that expience will change.

Who's looking to the future? A list of sixty futurists on Twitter -- from Kevin Kelly to Jamais Cascio, Elon Musk, and more. 

Cynical-funny snarkers rejoice! Wow, the guys who resurrected CRACKED magazine and turned it into a kinda-cool satire site just got $39 million for it. Scripps Media’s buy-in follows the purchase of a 40% stake in satire company The Onion Inc. by Spanish-language media owner Univision Communications. 

Okay, back to that other, studlier side of "David Brin." Betcha didn’t know I was this talented, or had this much fun in my side-hobby! “Wayne Frederickson & David Brin Sorting 6 Cows Time 59.88 sec Arena Wittmann Az.”

Monday, June 20, 2016

Avoiding “impeachment bait” - Why Donald Trump’s VP choice is more complicated than you think

Truly, I wish this U.S. election year were less… interesting. But like a mouse watching a snake, or Spock with a raised eyebrow, we cannot look away. "Fascinating" does not begin to describe it.  One is tempted to demand: "who is writing this simulation, and how much longer before we all realize that it's a farce?"

Mind you, I have started to veer again toward offering long-odds wagers. Such as whether Donald Trump will actually walk away from the Cleveland Convention with the nomination that now seems so throughly sewn up, and carry it all the way to the election. I got a creepy feeling....

But in today's missive, let's talk about something else. Appraising the highly unusual set of factors that Donald J. Trump must consider in naming the person he wants the GOP convention to put forward as Vice Presidential nominee. 

Of course that is the talk of the town. Salon has bruited Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions. Others speak Condoleeza Rice or Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, for reasons I'll get to, below. And were this a normal situation, my money would be on Rice.

But no. In order to show you just how much must be on Trump's mind, I'll choose one fellow as an example, letting him serve are a mirror to the pros and cons.

Reasons why Donald Trump might choose Newt Gingrich.

1) Personal loyalty can be a strong factor. Gingrich endorsed DT fairly early.  

Sure, this also applies to Sessions and to NJ Governor Chris Christie. But Sessions would crystallize so clearly that this is Civil War Part VIII that even Indiana might remember what side it had been on. And why. As for Christie? Please.

2) Insider connections. Gingrich knows everybody, including major donors like Sheldon Adelson. And the cryptic powers who may stand behind Adelson.

3) Ticket balancing: All right. Newt provides none of this.  He can't even help in his home state of Georgia. 

It's in this area that folks wax effusive about Rice and Fallin. Both of them could (at least in Donald's mind) help him with women. Rice is a two-fer, allowing his most xenophopic supporters to shout the modern rallying cry of American bigots: "See? I like that'un! That means I'm no racist at all!"

Two problems here, though. Fallin seems interested, but Rice not so much.  Also, other factors will loom much stronger in DT's mind than obsolete ticket balancing (see below.) 

4) "I want to have somebody who can deal with Congress, who gets along with Congress, who is a Washington person," Trump said at a town hall in April. While Newt - former Speaker of the House - would seem to fully satisfy this aim…

5) …Gingrich is also enough of a rebel firebrand that he might (perhaps) be able to serve the other function of a veep nominee ministering to the base of radical-populist-confederates who gave DT the nomination, keeping them calm while Trump tries to veer toward the middle, after Cleveland. Sessions could do this. So could Cruz or Palin. Not Fallin or Rice.

(That is… if DT runs for the center! I used to deem that likely. I even fantacized that Trump might, in the debates, drop some hoary and insane, dinosaur-obsolete standard GOP incantations like Supply Side voodoo and climate denialism. Now? That seems less likely, alas. But if he did try a middle-ward veer, he'd need to send a firebrand into Tea Party territory to calm them.)

Sure, some in the base will remember that Newt betrayed the Dennis Hastert Rule - “Never ever negotiate with democrats, even for the good of the nation.” Gingrich paused several times in the 1990s - amid general nastiness and craziness — to negotiate important measures with President Bill Clinton. You and I would deem that a good thing! But it enraged Hastert*, Tom DeLay**, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, leading them to oust Gingrich and send him into exile. That is still cause for resentment among the harshest culture warriors…

6) …Which could make Newt ideal, from Trump’s perspective!  It means that Gingrich is not a reliably obedient servant of Rupert Murdoch and the other GOP lords. Not totally. He’s always been a bit of a wild card, like Trump, mixing bilious insanity with moments of lucidity and independent thinking. This means that Newt may not be ‘impeachment bait.’

What’s that? Well, ponder this. Even if he wins the election and is inaugurated into the Oval Office, Trump would start his administration more hated by establishment pols than any president since maybe Lincoln. (And he is no Lincoln.) Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and Mitt Romney must have already worked out the following scenario — and it is a doozy.

== The GOP replacement gambit ==

All they have to do, after inauguration, is wait till President Trump (shudder) does or says something frightful.  Which should happen within a week, maybe a month, of entering office, as sure as sunrise. 

What then? 

Tell the democrats in Congress: “Go ahead and impeach him! We’ll provide just enough GOP votes to help you succeed!”  A perfect, pre-packaged coup that would install Donald’s “establishment” Vice President in the White House for an almost-full term, getting all those juicy Supreme Court appointments plus a solid chance of re-election. 

(Think this unlikely? Ryan has already threatened to sue a President Trump if he misbehaves. )

Voila. Rupert M is back in the driver’s seat - with the bonus that Fox News will rake in billions of extra eyeball revenue during the impeachment drama!

Better yet, the GOP moguls could thereupon nurse confederate resentment, blaming the Democrats for ousting the people’s choice - Trump! Call it pulling a “JFK” without all that risky conspiracy-murder stuff.

Note that this is where the establishment will move Heaven and Earth to get Condi Rice or Mary Fallin into the VP slot, or some other absolutely-owned Murdochian prince or princess. 

Hence my reason for asserting that The Donald has to factor in more than just the usual considerations, in choosing his VP. His ideal partner is not just someone “established” … who can also minister to the radical base… but in addition she or he must be crazy and un-controllable enough not to serve as impeachment bait!

Hence my focus (for the moment) on Gingrich.  Ryan and McConnell and Murdoch will look at Newt, pondering the option of using the impeachment gambit to make him president. They’ll recall what they did to him… …and Gingrich's tenacity at revenge… and shake their heads, saying “naaaaah!” 

 (That is, unless President DT truly does over the edge, even for him. In which case of course Newt would be preferable - in my mind - over any other republican politician.  If for no other reason because… well... he’s a sci fi author!)

7) Oh, one more thing. With six marriages between them and countless conquests — and with all that hair — these guys will surly win the woman vote.

LATE NEWS:  Yipe. Newt really is angling for Trump's VP spot, by proving how Trumplike he can be. "Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is calling for the creation of a new House Committee on Un-American Activities, invoking the infamous "Red Scare"-era congressional body as a blueprint for weeding out American ISIS adherents and sympathizers."

== But complications continue! ==

You think we're done here? Then think again. Consider why anyone would want to be Donald J Trump's Vice Presidential nominee. Traditionally, that role sets you up as the party's heir apparent. (And perhaps Paul Ryan is kicking himself, right now.) But again, this year is different.

Innumerable GOP stalwarts have removed themselves from consideration, under the widely held assumption that Trump will go down in flames, this November, taking his running mate's career with him. Not heir-apparent, but political dead meat.

Sure, that's likely. Some -- like tenured Stanford Professor Condoleeza Rice -- might shrug that off. Others, like Gingrich and Christie appear to have zero alternate hopes of mattering, ever again, and might as well toss dice. They are in a shrinking minority.

But consider a variant on the impeachment gambit.  Imagine it's October and Donald is being Donald on steroids. The party is fracturing and the election is way, way, way lost. As DT's VP nominee, you labored through August and September, visibly gritting your teeth and trying, knowing that you'll go down with this ship... that is, unless... you rebel! 

And in October, that's what you do. Visibly and publicly you separate yourself from Trump, declaring that you are running for the constitutional office of Vice President independent of him!

Can he fire you as his running mate?  I think not. That would take at-minimum a vote by the Republican Party Central Committee, if not a reconvened convention. 

What would this accomplish? 
(1) It would be memorable, and that's some consolation prize. 
(2) It would restore your status as a top figure in what's left of the Republican Party, drawing tons of press as you crisscross the country, disavowing DT and collecting political IOUs by helping down-ticket candidates***. 
(3)  Heck... there's even that weird possibility that the Electoral College... nah.

Sound implausible? Not so much actually, if Trump accepts a truly mainstream GOP figure as his running mate. If the election seems lost, she or he is likely to betray him, in October.  

And if by some chance they win? Then the Impeachment Gambit is exactly and precisely the reason the establishment is urging such a person upon you, Don. Ponder that, big fellah. Think about it really hard.

== Oh, what a mess. ==

In two weeks or so, we'll know, so why did I type all these words? Only to show you the mélange of factors that must be spinning right now, under Donald Trump's hair. 

Having put aside all the usual considerations like geographic balance or picking someone from a crucial state (Florida’s Rick Scott? Plausible, but eep!), is this my wager? Will he pick the Newt Gingrich?

Nope. All of the above depends on Trump being fiercely logical — which he claims to be, but of which we’ve seen little sign. 

No, in fact I think DT will choose a woman as his running mate. He has to, imagining that doing so will instantly patch things up with female voters.  Given the other factors I just described, Gov. Martinez would be a logical pick… but he insulted her. Maybe Gov. Fallin or Condi Rice... 

...ignoring that he'll thereby be walking into a trap laid by Ryan, Romney, Murdoch and McConnell. 

Whether he wins or loses the November vote, sooner or later, his assigned establishment partner will betray him. So he must pick someone outside the tent.

In fact, the person who actually fits all of the criteria listed above - even more than Newt does - is… gulp… Sarah Palin.

No. No. He’s not that crazy. Who would be?

Don't answer that. Just blame Arizona.



== Addendum #1: 

Over on the American NewsX site, where I co-published this piece, one LG Hartman pointed out that I had not thought through the twists, all the way, nor seen how trapped Donald J. Trump is.  Consider how we should take "it a step further in case DT doesn't pick a VP that the Establishment likes. If Trump picks another Loon for VP but still wins -- then the Establishment makes sure they BOTH go down in flames via Impeachment scandal leading to......drum roll please, President Paul Ryan." 

Of course this assumes the Republicans retain the House of Representatives... and the dems are stupid enough to do the dirty work... but oh wow.  Now my head hurts.

== Addendum #2: two more forecasts on the side ==

Okay, these two need to be in parentheses:

(1. Did I just mention the Electoral College? No, a rebelling republican VP nominee will not persuade electors to make him or her Vice President to a winning democratic president. On the other hand, all my adult life, I wondered if we'd see some kind of machinations in the EC. Like in the 1950s when an elector from the Deep South defected in favor of a dixiecrat instead of his party's nominee.  I've been amazed that 538 appointed electors, every quadrennial year since, have always followed their state's allocation rules, with nary a peep. But if ever there were a year for flamboyant "expressions of conscience..." 

(I assure you that Trump, having seen leakage among his pledged delegates at the Cleveland GOP convention, will have someone closely scrutinize the GOP electors, this time. 

(Still, you heard it here. You can count on the fact that Ryan and McConnell and Romney are pondering every scenario.)

(2. After Cleveland, DT needs to pay very close attention to advice from the Secret Service, especially if his running mate is an establishment Murdochian. 

(Seriously, dude. Almost the only way the GOP masters could win this thing is with you as a martyr. So curb the physical risk-taking. And duck.)

* Hastert, the head of the GOP for many years and Speaker of the House recently went to prison for child molestation and conspiracy. 

** DeLay is also now a convicted criminal... though released on a technicality... oh such role models!

*** You heard it here.  Mitt Romney will re-emerge bigtime in 2020.  He is copying all the methods used by Richard Nixon during his wilderness years, after 1960, collecting scads of political IOUs. Bet on it.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Science Fiction: Hope vs Despair

I've just returned from DC where I gave a talk at the White House (the EOB) and a panel at the AIAA and then performed my duties as a member of the advisory External Council of NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts Group.  Busy stuff!  But it left me hungry to get back to ... science fiction! And so, let's do a roundup!

Elon Musk avows we’re likely in a simulation, not the "base" reality - terminology much like my levels-of-reality story “Stones of Significance.” Elon writes, “I'm fine with being in a video game, but could I have cooler abilities next time?” Come, Elon. In this one you have world-changing superpowers. In a game, your player may be accused of cheating!

Consider... "How SF split off from 'competence porn'." The latter genre - like The Martian - thrills fans with a can-do spirit that used to be core to science fiction, both on-page and on-screen.  And yes, when sci fi was overly fizzy-optimistic, the New Wave and cyberpunk and dystopias were necessary corrections.  Now?  Guess which is the cliché? Can-do is now the rare rebel.

In io9, Charlie Jane Anders writes: "This shift coincides with the decline in space opera on television, and the rise of apocalypses and "disaster porn," which are at least partly a wish-fulfillment fantasy about life becoming simpler and less confusing again. We have "competence porn" in the present day, but when we imagine the near future, we reach for "disaster porn.""  I revere Charlie Jane for (among other things) clearly citing the current, largely dismal mood in SF as dull, unimaginative and unhelpful, contributing to decayed confidence in real life problem solving. 

Where I part company is over why. This is not a matter of near-future vs far.  Competence and hope - set amid thrilling danger and good writing - can be found in SF set amid all kinds of futures -- near, middle and far -- as evoked by rare works like Stargate and Firefly, by the works of Banks and Vinge. (And some of the rest of us try, as well.)  

No, the plague of zombies and apocalypses and illogically red-eyed dystopias has one central cause -- laziness. Plotting is vastly easier when there are no helpful institutions or professionals, when power is automatically and simplistically evil, when there's no citizenship and the hero's neighbors are all bleating sheep.  Relax any of those clichés? Then suddenly an author or director has to put down the joint (s)he's smoking and think.  That is why "competence porn" - about folks taking on tomorrow's problems with energy, focus and good will - is so rare.  It is also why a cliche-fatigued public is starting to turn eyes, raising them from fields of undead, looking not toward demigods, but toward engineers. See this explicated in my article, The Idiot Plot.  

Railing away at our modern obsession with feudalism stories, I’ve felt quite the lonely Jeremiah.  Take my appraisals of both Star Wars and JRR Tolkien’s Ring Cycle, both of them Wagnerian in their truly palpable loathing of modernity and such blatant mistakes as democracy and empowerment of common citizenship. But at least those two mega works have compensating qualities.  Most feudalism-loving fantasies are simply ingrate-trash, written by dreamy folks who would not last five minutes under the cruel way of life that oppressed 99% of our ancestors.

But folks are starting to wise up.  They are forced to, confronted by six seasons of George R.R. Martin’s GAME OF THRONES series, in which my dear friend and colleague George has pulled out the stops, asking again and again: “There. Are you disgusted with lords and magicians and other nasty, nasty-awful oppressors yet? 

At last, some folks like Si Sheppard, in Salon, are finally catching on. He remarks: “Amidst all the bloodshed, backstabbing, and bare breasts, what fans don’t expect, wouldn’t want, and won’t get is the winner to assume executive power through representing the will of the people by winning the majority of their votes in a free and fair election, and then determining policy through an ongoing process of negotiation with a separately elected legislative branch in a power-sharing arrangement demarcated by a constitution. You know, like they’re supposed to.”

Citing how some SF authors like China MiévilleDavid Brin and Michael Moorcock have spoken up against this reflex, Sheppard continues: “We cherish our democracy, but this fundamental right is defined by its almost total absence in literary high fantasy, which has achieved its apotheosis in “Game of Thrones.” The mercantile Free Cities of Essos each fall somewhere on the spectrum of oligarchy/plutocracy/timocracy/thalassocracy.”  And “In fantasy, the rule is always, “the [usurper] king is dead, long live the [legitimate] king,” never “the king is dead, long live the republic.”  

He goes on to appraise how we hearken back to fairy tales and legends that come down to us from the millennia of darkness, and how alluring it seems (to some) to envision simpler loyalties that could not be questioned, as to a sacred king. Though I believe it goes even deeper, to genetic reflex, since we are all descended from the harems of human males who seized reproductive advantage in the old, feudal way.

Sheppard concludes, “The innate human desire to surrender the burden of power to an anointed individual, a chosen one, has marked the downfall of democratic polities throughout history. Despite the powerful warning against surrendering sovereignty to a monarch in the earliest scripture, as Benjamin Franklin observed, “there is a natural inclination in mankind to kingly government.” From Octavian Caesar in Rome to Napoleon Bonaparte in France to Sheev Palpatine in the Galactic Republic, ambitious men were presented with supreme authority “to compensate for the fact that the elected representatives can’t agree on anything and are corrupt,” George Lucas explains.” 

== Sci Fi: predicting -- or anticipating the future? ==

Tomorrowland: Our Journey from Science Fiction to Science Fact, combines an extensive series of articles by journalist Steve Kotler about fantastic, Science Fictional visions that later became reality -- discussing how fiction imagined many of the technologies that are shaping our daily lives. On IEET, the author discusses how, in the future, we may upload our minds into silicon (as I portray in Existence!)

Thoth Technology Inc has been granted both US and UK patents for a space elevator designed to take astronauts up into the stratosphere, so they can then be propelled into space. The tower, will be an inflatable, freestanding structure complete with an electrical elevator and will reach from its ground ancho to 20km (12.5 miles) height.  In other words in all ways precisely the design that I described in my novel Sundiver. (Anyone remember the Vanilla Needle?)

70 years ago, Murray Leinster’s story “A Logic Named Joe” set the bar for predictive vision, forecasting a future when private citizens would have personal computers that speak to them and seek information via a world spanning network. No other author followed Leinster’s lead for decades. The OC Register celebrates this milestone:

It's important to note the state of science and technology at this point [1946]. The United States had only recently come out of World War II, having dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Soviet Union would not test its atomic bomb to kick off the Cold War for another three years, and computers only existed as massive projects like the Colossus, Harvard Mark I and ENIAC. The transistor computer would not be built until 1953, and ARPANET would not go online for another 23 years.

“Technology in the home, meanwhile, was only beginning to emerge with electric appliances and television was still in its infancy (the BBC had only begun broadcasting TV 10 years prior.) Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was lauded for seeing a market for home computers in the late 1970s. Murray Leinster predicted it nearly a decade before Jobs was even born.” The story itself is on Google Books or available on Amazon.

Another novel about the integration of technology into our daily lives: Speak, by Louisa Hall, is a multi-faceted reflection on Artificial Intelligence, exploring relationships between humans and machines, as well as the isolation and alienation of her human characters. The novel speaks through five different narrators across time, from a researcher imprisoned for making robots (babybots) deemed illegal because they were excessively lifelike -- to a troubled and lonely girl seeking consolation from a computer after her babybot was confiscated. Other voices include computer scientist Alan Turing, speaking through his letters, a 17th century Puritan young woman speculating about the soul of her dog while traveling to the New World, and a Holocaust survivor increasingly unable to communicate with her spouse - who creates AI that speaks but doesn't remember. Through these voices, Speak delves into the essence of identity, language and memory.


Here's a cool bit of Sci Fi prophecy, foreshadowing SpaceX’s recent impressive ocean landing. The 1959 Soviet film, The Sky Calls -- shows a rocket landing on a barge in the ocean.

Way to go Elon!