Klaatu Barada Nikto

When I purchased the relatively recent remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, it included a nice remastered copy of the 1950 original so my money wasn’t a total waste.

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If you’ve never seen it (Ai! What rock have you been living under?) it is based on the timeless story by Harry Bates, “Farewell to the Master,” which is worth a read all by itself.

Long seared having been seared into my mind since the first time I saw it as a child, I’m gratified that this film ranks 7th on Arthur C. Clarke’s top-10 science fiction film list, because even 65 years later – coincidentally my age – it’s just as relevant now as it was then. It’s a tight film, without a second wasted, and made with the intention that it would:

a) be as realistic as the technology allowed, and
b) transmit the message that mankind needs to get rid of its violent nature if it cares to survive.

Having spent a career as a linguist, I some time ago watched the film again with the intent of listening to Klaatu’s language, and transcribing what he said as accurately as possible. There is so little dialog that it can’t really be considered a conlang, but it was interesting to me nonetheless.

Klaatu barada nikto!” is one of the most famous lines ever uttered in a science-fiction film, but was not the only thing that Klaatu said. The remainder of the dialog is:

Gort! Deglet ovrosco! (Said after Klaatu is shot the first time)

Imray Klaatu naruwak.
Makro [pluvau|pluval], baratu lokdeniso impeklis.
Yavo tari [axo|axel] bugletio barengi degas.
(Klaatu’s instructions – ostensibly to his Federation – for his “demonstration of power”; this linguist’s best transcription. Two words are nearly impossible to pinpoint without a script or screenplay. You can listen to the dialog here.)

Klaatu barada nikto! (Probably something like “Klaatu needs help!”)

Gort, berengo. Probably much like “Mirab, his sails unfurled,” i.e. Gort, let’s blow this bait shack.

I never tire of watching this film – its value to the human condition, and as an early example of outstanding science fiction cinematography, will never diminish.

Here is the text of Klaatu’s speech, for your consideration:

“I am leaving soon, and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure. Now, this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves and hired policemen to enforce them. We, of the other planets, have long accepted this principle. We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression. The test of any such higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots. Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk. The result is, we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war. Free to pursue more… profitable enterprises. Now, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works. I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Lost and Found

I love old science fiction. I recall stories that I’ve read and loved, and enjoy going back to them again on occasion to refresh my memory. Now and then, however, one of them gets lost.

A recent example was “The Coppersmith,” by Lester Del Rey, published in “Unknown” in 1939. I first read it in 1968, if I’m not mistaken, in the collection of a housemaster during my senior year in prep school. Then I moved on and time moved on; until the advent of the Internet, I had no way of tracking this lovely story down again, but a few years ago I was able to find it in a collection of Del Rey stories and rejoiced to renew my acquaintance with an old friend.

Another story was more elusive. I have no idea when I first read it, but all I remembered was that it was about aliens who came to earth looking for refuge, and they needed salt to reproduce. The word for salt was “shreeprill,” and the ones who broke the communication barriers down were the wives (and children) of the negotiators. I hunted high and low, wide and deep, without result – for decades, until yesterday.

Finally a hit. The story was called “Subcommittee” by Zenna Henderson, and was collected in an anthology called “The Everything Box.” I looked online, and found a number of copies, but they are fairly rare: most of them are selling for around $25.00.

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Zenna Henderson in 1953

I had told my wife about my hunt for this story, and she also remembered having read it. When I reported to her the results of my successful find, she replied, “Oh, Zenna! I love her writing.” She asked me what book it was in. I told her. She dug into her collection and in 10 seconds pulled out the very edition that I was looking for. And I sat down astonied… for years, the story was sitting on our bookshelves, right under my nose.

How pleasant it was to re-read this delightful tale, along with the other ones in the collection. I must have had it at one point in my life, because all of them seemed mightiliy familiar.

Only one or two left that I can think of which I still need to locate. I’m not sure if I ever will, because I think they were in French, in a collection I found at a flea market in Austria in 1975¹. But even if I can never find those, I’m well content. The Internet has triumphed again.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

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¹ One of the stories I’m still hunting for is similar to “The Conqueror” by Mark Clifton. It deals with a peculiar strain of coffee which had the odd result of making people think rationally. When some of it gets introduced into congress or parliament or somewhere, the first “victim” stands up and shouts “It’s all balls!”, whereupon in short order the entire body proceeds to stop bickering and pass a raft of laws designed to raise the living conditions of everyone. Wish I could find that one again.

Freefall: Jerry Pournelle’s Review.

Flo Galaxy

Art: Mark Stanley. Background and color: The Old Wolf

I’ve mentioned Mark Stanley’s Freefall webcomic several times in this blog (just do a search, you’ll find the articles, but here’s one of my favorites).

I found a link to this article by Jerry Pournelle at the Freefall discussion forum, and was so impressed I felt I needed to share it. WARNING: If you decide to check out the strip before reading Pournelle’s review, start here. There is great value in working up to the current storyline climax, and not spoiling it. Unless, of course, you’re the kind who reads the last chapter of a mystery first, which is fine as well. Just saying.

I wrote this for another conference, but it occurs to me that while I have mentioned Freefall here before, it has been a while:

If you are not a fan of Freefall http://freefall.purr…100/fv00001.htm you ought to be.  Alas, it really will involve some time because it is a serial story, and the current panels are shocking — that is, they have a total surprise that I do not think many readers saw coming. I did not. And you should not see them before reading the rest of the story leading up to now.

The graphic novel — it has become as long as one — has as its premise that mankind has settled planets other than earth, and on one of them there is a population of a small number of humans and tens of millions of robots, all pretty well subject to Asimov’s three laws, only a lot of that is in my judgment better thought out than Isaac did.  The robots are highly intelligent and competent, but they are programmed to obey most human direct orders, and are very protective of humans.  This situation can be exploited by certain unscrupulous bureaucrats.

And into this mix comes Florence,  a Bowman’s Wolf, an artificially intelligent product of genetic manipulation, a genetic mixture of red wolf, dog and human genes with programming for artificial intelligence, born of a dog (St. Bernard) who was not her biological mother, and developing opposable thumbs, human speech, and the ability to walk on her hind legs although she runs much faster on all four legs. She wears clothes and has normal human modesty, and grew up in a household of humans, first as a pet then as — well, as an intelligent dog, then as a sibling. In theory she is the property of the human family. She has most of the powers of a real wolf and an IQ I would estimate at 140 or so.  She is a graduate engineer.

Also living on this planet is a single member of an alien species brought there as a stowaway from another planet — he is not artificially intelligent, he is intelligent, but he has nothing of the ethics and mores of a human and no human companionship. He is of a race of scavengers, and had thousands of siblings but he is probably the only survivor, and that because he stowed away on the human ship. He owns two robots and as owner he can give them direct orders.  One is a general purpose robot who likes him, and the other is his space ship which he managed to acquire as scrap and sort of get it running — but the ship considers him a danger to humans and hates him and would like to kill him but has been forbidden to do that.  It belongs to Sam.  Sam wears an environment suit which makes him appear sort of humanoid, but under that suit he is not humanoid at all.

All this happens in the first couple of dozen panels.  Sam acquires the Bowman’s wolf as his ship’s engineer. He does so by devious means, but she considers herself bound as a crew officer to be respectful to and obey the captain.  Only sometimes that would be disastrous and she’s pretty clever about playing logic games.

There are now two thousand four-panel pages of story, all relevant to the story line although some are not obviously so.  We are now reaching a climax, I think, and certainly the story has taken a surprising turn.  Meanwhile we have met many fascinating characters, including robot police who have to deal with humans, a veterinarian who sort of falls in love with Florence the AI wolf, a child who wonders if Florence and the vet will marry prompting Florence to be amused that the kid thinks all mammals have the same number of chromosomes, scheming officials who try to prompt a robotic war so they can get rich on scrap, and a great number of antics in which Sam acts quite morally for him == he is a scavenger, after all == but which drive the human authorities nuts. Especially since Sam is a very skilled thief, pickpocket, and jail breaker.

If you never heard of this you should try it: it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s the best of this kind of thing I know of. It is a combination of comedy of manners and some broad farce, and it mixes those elements well. It starts black and white but acquires better art and color at a couple of hundred pages (again four panels to a page).  It is now up to a couple of thousand and it will take you a bit of time to get from the beginning to where we are now, but I liked every episode I read.  I urge you NOT to skip ahead, and particularly don’t look at the current pages at all; catch up to them from the beginning. It will be worth it in my judgment.  The story is well developed and very logically constructed.  I’d like to see it win a Hugo.  It’s really good.

Recommended.

Be aware that the Freefall time line is mind-shatteringly slow. Day One begins on March 30, 1998; as of today, Florence has spent approximately three weeks on the planet’s surface. And for those of us who want to find out how the story ends, the three updates per week can be painful… but I’ve been hooked for over 10 years, and by Mogg’s tufted tail I am not giving up.

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If you don’t take my recommendation, take Pournelle’s… and enjoy.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Space Opera, then and now

For my friends and readers who enjoy good SciFi

In a period of time eons ago, but after the coalescence of the Two Galaxies… was E.E. “Doc” Smith, the father of modern Space Opera. If you’ve ever read his Lensman series, or his *giggle* Skylark series, you’ll understand why he earned that title. Swashbuckling heroes with muscles that ripple in their gray leather suits, red-headed seven-sector callouts with tawny, gold-flecked eyes, strange looking aliens both good and bad, a deus ex machina good-guy gimmick, a drug that transcends any humanly possible high, intergalactic gangsters, ancient, wise and terrible guardians and blackguards, and weapons that become ever more powerful, biting, clawing, gouging, and coruscating through the spectrum into the black, beyond even the ability to describe their absolute, incomprehensible-cubed destructive ability… well, you get the drift. I happen to enjoy his fiction… it’s old, corny, hackneyed, totally disrespectful of all known laws of physics, and a great ride.

But today I’d like to introduce you to one of Smith’s heirs: Schlock Mercenary, a webcomic written and drawn by Howard Tyler.

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Sergeant Schlock, an amorph and eponymous hero of the strip.

“Schlock Mercenary” is space opera, just like its predecessor… but it’s space opera for the 21st century, with both heart and brains. Tayler, in addition to being a cartoonist, is a writer, in every sense of that word, and one who takes his craft as seriously as a heart attack.

The strip is complex and deep and tangled and convoluted, and not for those looking for “fluff” – Tayler has created a world every bit as intriguing as Niven’s “Known Space,” and I’m not going to even try to give you an overview. But I’ll suggest you get to know the strip through one character: Kathryn Flinders.

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Start at the beginning of Mallcop Command and watch this lady develop as a character (you first see her on 2/11/2010). In the process, you’ll be drawn in to an amazing world of military mercenary magic, and some intriguing character development along the way. If you like good science fiction and good writing, there’s a high probability that you’ll be hooked, and have to go back to the beginning of the strip.

You can thank me later.

The Old Wolf has spoken.