30 September 2016

Survival (Had Robert Sheckley, rather than Tom Godwin, written “The Cold Equations”)

elvin Blaire paused in the act of placing a red queen on a black king. Angry buzzers were sounding throughout his small spacecraft, and half a dozen lights on his control panel were blinking alarmingly. He fumbled for the Emergency Spacecraft Instructions disk, knocking the cards onto the floor, found it, and dropped it into a slot in his Information Decoder.
This was the first emergency he had ever faced in his eight years on the necessary but undemanding job as pilot of an emergency spacecraft for Interspace Transport. He had had the usual run of accidents, of course—planetary collisions, novas, spacewarp entanglements—but real emergencies had hitherto passed him by.
Actually, Melvin thought, survival had become largely a pushbutton affair in the twenty-second century. In case of trouble all he had to do was to follow the instructions on the disk and it would be taken care of automatically by a host of busy, efficient mechanisms. The old days, when survival depended on individual initiative and luck, were gone. Now survival depended only on luck.
“What do you want?” demanded the decoder.
“I have an emergency,” Melvin explained diffidently.
“So you have,” agreed the decoder. “Your ship’s weight does not match the specifications, there is insufficient fuel to land, an unauthorized person is aboard—”
“Unauthorized person?” exclaimed Melvin. “Who? Where?” He wondered briefly if the decoder had blown a fuse. It was an Acme, and guaranteed for the lifetime of the user, plus or minus seven years, but still—
“You have a stowaway,” elucidated the decoder. “Human or humanoid, blond, blue-eyed, female, standing about two yards behind you—”
Melvin spun around. The decoder was right. He had a stowaway, a remarkably pretty light-haired girl. “What are you doing here?” he said weakly. “This is an emergency vessel, not a passenger liner. I’m carrying vitally needed serum to some god-forsaken outpost—”
“Omega 6,” the girl said. “That’s why I came aboard. My brother’s stationed there.”
“But it’s against the rules,” protested Melvin.
“Rules,” she shrugged, “What are rules anyway, but man’s futile attempt to impose order on the indeterminate universe?”
Melvin recognized this as a creedal statement from this year’s best-selling cult, the Heisenbergian Rites, but he was not to be put off. “Interspace won’t see it that way,” he said.
“So okay,” she said, “I broke a rule. So what?”
“Procedure for dealing with unauthorized lifeform or lifeforms in flight,” spoke the decoder, “first, ascertain that there is in fact an unauthorized lifeform or lifeforms aboard.”
“Check,” said Melvin instantly.
“Determine the lifeform’s identity or identities.”
“Check,” said Melvin. He turned to the girl. “Who are you?”
“Janet Morgan,” she said. “I’m an industrial saboteur on Mebla 3.” She offered Melvin her identity tape.
Melvin ran the tape through the data accumulator. “What next?” he asked.
“Within a period of fifteen minutes following the discovery,” said the decoder, “eject the unauthorized lifeform from the craft.”
“Eject!” exclaimed Janet. “Why?”
“To conserve fuel,” replied the decoder, “The presence of sufficient fuel is necessary to land successfully and to maintain the morale of the crew at the optimum level required by law.”
“You mean they give spacecraft controllers the right to kill people?” she said incredulously. “That doesn’t make sense.”
Melvin smiled apologetically.
“It may not make sense,” said the decoder, “but it’s efficient, which is more important.”
“But this is an ES Class IV,” she said. “It could hold more fuel. Why don’t they put enough in?”
“This way,” intoned the machine, “we sharpen the pilot’s reflexes, discourage ineptitude, and promote the virtues of conservation and thrift. Allowing the pilot to remove unauthorized lifeforms himself gives him confidence and an opportunity to discharge his aggressions.”
“I have no choice,” said Melvin. “You see how it is.”
“I see how it is,” said Janet. “Look, why don’t you forget your peculiar friends at Interspace? We have enough fuel to reach Epsilon 4. We could go there, sell the ship, and have a good time? Why not?”
Melvin stared at her, wondering how such a pretty girl could propose so antisocial an act. Disconcertingly he became aware of the scent of her perfume. He shook his head to clear it. “I couldn’t rob my employers,” he said.
“But you could push me out the airlock,” said Janet.
“That’s different,” he said. He was finding it difficult to think. Something about her presence was disturbing him, clouding his mind and numbing his senses. “It’s not against the rules,” he mumbled.
Why couldn’t he think? There was something in the atmosphere—the perfume. Perfume? Perfume hell—it was Lethalex-27, one of the many products designed for saboteurs and spies, guaranteed to knock out any humanoid within twenty feet of the user. The room spun as he slipped to the floor.
“Is that a standard airlock?” he heard her ask the decoder. Why hadn’t he seen it? Survival is a full-time occupation, not something to be delegated to machines. One moment of inattention, one mistake, and out the airlock you go, into the vast reaches of space.
At least, he thought, they could have let him finish his game.

28 August 2016

They Are Coming to Take Me Away

hings are not going well here, and whatever I try to write about ends up as a desperate plea for money. Hope springs eternal and all that, but I can’t seem to get out of cliché country, no matter how much rope I give myself. The light at the end of the tunnel turns out to be some kind of flickering june bug spelling out arcane messages, and all my yesterdays are benighted fools. Life’s but a walking candle, as one of my nieces once observed, and the grave is but the goal.
I can see the long-gone goblins looming ahead—the ones that will get you if you don’t watch out, as little orphant Allie used to threaten the Riley kids, till they sent her to live somewhere else. What I wouldn’t give for a magic ring like the one Princess Irene got from her great-grandmother! Maybe home isn’t at the end of the thread, but it’s got to be somewhere. I can’t find my way, damn it. The words come, but they don’t mean a goddamn thing.

24 July 2016

Lights Out

ell, my connection has snapped; my laptop is out except for emergencies, and I’m writing this on a strange word processor on a borrowed machine, with no telling whether or if the thing will work or go up the chimney like sparklers on Halloween. Or whatever I actually meant to say.
I’m hoping that this makes sense, and that I can still contact the outside world. I am not happy with the situation, but it should be temporary, Allah willing.
We’ll see what happens, I guess, using dummy text for a dummy entry. If all works out, then it’s hip hip hooray for Mowgli and the Seven Dwarfs and all God’s chillen that live in a shoe. Otherwise, well, selah.

21 July 2016

Absurdist Political Theatre

capegoat Ted Cruz played his appointed role on the political stage by heaping the sins of the Republican party on his own head and ritually expelling himself into the desert. It was a remarkable performance, and the party appears all the stronger for it. Mind you, it has something of the “Songe d’Automne” or “Nearer, My God, to Thee” quality to it, given that the iceberg has been struck, the crew has abandoned the ship, and the oblivious captain is passing out toy boats and candy lifesavers on the sharply-tilted deck.
Somebody isn’t thinking straight here, and I’m pretty sure it’s not me.
Inviting the Corruptor himself to take the wheel seems like an odd way to protest corruption in government, but I suppose the body politic, like the hidden hand, knows what it’s doing. Who knows more about sin than El Diablo, after all? It’s like fighting fire with fire. There are those that think one of the other elemental forces might be more effective—earth, say, or water, maybe—but what worth are such notions when the will of the people has expressed itself?
So was Ted Cruz’s self-immolation entirely in vain? Or will he, like the phœnix, rise from the ashes of his humiliation? Will Trump soar like an eagle tonight? Or will he sputter like the Thunderbolt Grease-Slapper before conversion? These questions, and many others, will be answered in the next episodes of As the World Burns.

17 July 2016

Breitbarting the News, Conservative Treehouse Style

ell, I finally took a look at that idiotic Conservative tree house site that Snopes mentioned as the source of that inept hatchet-job on Philando Castile I commented on the other day. It was about as inane as I figured it would be. I mean, it’s always a good idea to take a look at things for yourself if possible, and every once in awhile it pays off, but this wasn’t one of those times.
No, the article there is every bit as idiotic as advertised. The site turns out to be devoted to breitbarting the news, meaning that anything there would have to be checked against authentic sources before being considered, and a lot of disinformation is being passed on. For example it is stated as a fact (now disproved by the family’s release of the document) that Castile had no permit for his gun, and that it is a fact (now disproved by the officer’s own lawyer’s statement) that the car was not stopped for a broken taillight. I didn't bother with going any further; when a source gets things this elementary wrong it’s not worth my time and attention. Or yours either, I imagine.

14 July 2016

Half-Jelled Goods

y ability to communicate with the world at large seems to be getting thinner as my laptop flickers fitfully in the darkness. How long before the strained connection snaps is anybody’s guess. But, in the meantime, rather than go down without a fight, I’ll put up some half-jelled goods in the store window, in the hopes of getting back to them later on.
And speaking of half-jelled goods, it’s been quite interesting to watch the evolution (shall we say) of certain recent stories in the new from half-baked rumor to three-quarters baked narrative. We’ve seen a story about snipers coordinated in the fashion of certain terrorist groups morph into another lone-shooter item, for example. And that shooter’s death change from self-inflicted gunshot to the far less plausible-sounding blown up by a robot.
History starts off moist and fluid, and only gradually hardens to a definite form. Eventually that definitive form may be hacked at, refashioned, chipped and broken—and then, still later, mangled and lost in the remorseless stream of time—but in the early stages it is still plastic and formless, ready to assume any shape that the artist desires.
Once it has assumed a form—or often several forms, depending on the teller—it resists change. Not decisively, necessarily—the return of the Shah to Iran by popular acclamation held the stage for a decade or so, before being replaced by a narrative of his being forced on an unwilling people by a CIA plot, now apparently considered to be a solid Truth, unchangeable and unchallengeable. That the ancient Greeks were incapable of higher flights of mechanical fancy is challenged by the finding of a single device in a long-forgotten shipwreck, and history gets reshaped. Discoveries, revelations—and the changing requirements of political and social movements—cause the historical plates to shift, the chronological stars to realign, however you want to look at it.
Did the underlying stuff of history, the actual sequence of events change? Presumably not, though I’m not a philosopher and I don’t pretend to play one on the internet. What changes are the uses to which we put the past, its coherence and relevance to the present moment. The way we perceive its actors and participants. Accounts of the wars of extermination against the native American peoples changed in the mid-twentieth century at least in part because contemporary movements for social justice forced a reexamination of policies of the past and the histories that implicitly supported them. Historians now deliberately sought out previously-overlooked evidence of the motives and tactics of the target population, and the narrative changed in consequence.
Were the old accounts of the pioneer historians false, then, and the newer accounts true? Not necessarily. I mean, yes, there are things that made it into the history books that never happened, sure—but most of the time it’s more a matter of what got emphasized and what didn’t, what got included and what got left out. Whose accounts were considered reliable and whose were looked at with suspicion.
As a classic instance let me cite the question of whether pioneer Indian-fighter Ben Wright attempted to poison a Modoc peace delegation in 1852. The rumor surfaced in print some twenty years later—but all historians rejected it without even considering it, noting it only as an example of the sorts of defamatory statements made in the heat of a controversy. But as such things go it’s actually fairly well documented. We have the statement of one of Ben Wright’s men that he bought strychnine for that purpose. We have the statement of the druggist that he had sold strychnine to Ben Wright’s representative for use in poisoning the Modoc delegation. We have the admission of another of Ben Wright’s men that a member of their expedition warned the Modoc delegation not to eat the meat Wright sent them for a feast. Not surprisingly some more recent books have switched sides and now report the attempted poisoning as a fact. What changed? It wasn’t the available information; it was the willingness of the historian to consider the possibility that a pioneer hero might have acted in a frankly despicable fashion.
So, anyway, for the moment it seems that we have to accept that a lone gunman, babbling threats like a cartoon villain, killed and wounded a dozen officers before being taken out by a robot bearing a bomb. There’s nothing plausible about that scenario at any point—but that’s history for you. And plausibility be damned.

09 July 2016

A New Low in Victim Vilification

arious idiots writing about the police shooting of Philando Castile have made mistakes rising to the Peter Hasson level, though lapses of logic rather than misunderstandings of English. It’s all about wishful thinking—obviously if a police officer killed somebody, he must have had it coming. Troglodyte logic. So, it’s claimed, Philando Castile must have been up to no good. His gun, they say, was illegal. Where do they get this notion—I mean, besides pulling it out of thin air in a really unconvincing conjuring trick? Well, a local county sheriff noted that Castile had not applied to his office for a concealed carry permit—therefore, according to troglodyte logic Castile didn’t have one. Never mind that there are eighty-seven counties in Minnesota, and therefore eighty-six other counties that could have issued it. So far such evidence as we have is that he had such a permit; according to the Star Tribune “a source confirmed Castile was issued the permit when he lived in Robbinsdale” and as of this moment at least no official source has claimed otherwise. Time and new evidence (of course) could change this, but there is no reason to suppose that these idiots have anything of the sort.
These same idiots are claiming that Philando Castile was a suspect who was wanted for armed robbery—this on no basis whatsoever except pure speculation, as far as I can tell. It is possible—based on a recording of unknown origin that may document the rationale of the officer that pulled Castile over for a broken taillight—that Castile was targeted because an officer thought his nose resembled that of a man wanted for armed robbery—but even if we consider the information as valid, that’s a far cry from the claim that Castile was wanted for armed robbery. Apparently—and I haven’t seen this for myself in the wild so to speak—people are claiming that Castile’s girlfriend smoked Newport cigarettes—the very brand that was stolen during the armed robbery—and that this somehow constitutes evidence of malfeasance or whatever. This doesn’t even rise to the level of troglodyte logic. By that line of argument anybody who has a twenty-dollar-bill in his possession could be considered as a suspect for any bank or convenience-store robbery in which twenty-dollar-bills were among the loot.
According to Snopes this dumbassary goes back to an article in Conservative Treehouse, whatever that may be. It figures, I suppose. There are a lot of people out there with no brains and too much time on their hands. I’m not in the least surprised that people are trying to vilify the victim of a police shooting—that’s just par for the course these days. I am surprised, however, by the poor quality of this hatchet-job.
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