We knew about the planet called Earth

This showed up on my Facebook feed this morning, and then I tracked it down to a Tumblr post by dalekteaservice. When I read it and got to the end, I was deeply moved. It is a beautiful piece of writing.


We knew about the planet called Earth for centuries before we made contact with its indigenous species, of course. We spent decades studying them from afar.

The first researchers had to fight for years to even get a grant, of course. They kept getting laughed out of the halls. A T-Class Death World that had not only produced sapient lifebut a Stage Two civilization? It was a joke, obviously. It had to be a joke.

And then it wasn’t. And we all stopped laughing.Instead, we got very, very nervous. 

We watched as the human civilizations not only survived, but grew, and thrived, and invented things that we had never even conceived of. Terrible things, weapons of war, implements of destruction as brutal and powerful as one would imagine a death world’s children to be. In the space of less than two thousand years, they had already produced implements of mass death that would have horrified the most callous dictators in the long, dark history of the galaxy. 

Already, the children of Earth were the most terrifying creatures in the galaxy. They became the stuff of horror stories, nightly warnings told to children; huge, hulking, brutish things, that hacked and slashed and stabbed and shot and burned and survived, that built monstrous metal things that rumbled across the landscape and blasted buildings to ruin.

All that preserved us was their lack of space flight. In their obsession with murdering one another, the humans had locked themselves into a rigid framework of physics that thankfully omitted the equations necessary to achieve interstellar travel. 

They became our bogeymen. Locked away in their prison planet, surrounded by a cordon of non-interference, prevented from ravaging the galaxy only by their own insatiable need to kill one another. Gruesome and terrible, yes – but at least we were safe.

Or so we thought.

The cities were called Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the moment of their destruction, the humans unlocked a destructive force greater than any of us could ever have believed possible. It was at that moment that those of us who studied their technology knew their escape to be inevitable, and that no force in the universe could have hoped to stand against them.

The first human spacecraft were… exactly what we should have expected them to be. There were no elegant solar wings, no sleek, silvered hulls plying the ocean of stars. They did not soar on the stellar currents. They did not even register their existence. Humanity flew in the only way it could: on all-consuming pillars of fire, pounding space itself into submission with explosion after explosion. Their ships were crude, ugly, bulky things, huge slabs of metal welded together, built to withstand the inconceivable forces necessary to propel themselves into space through violence alone.

It was almost comical. The huge, dumb brutes simply strapped an explosive to their backs and let it throw them off of the planet. 

We would have laughed, if it hadn’t terrified us.

Humanity, at long last, was awake.

It was a slow process. It took them nearly a hundred years to reach their nearest planetary neighbor; a hundred more to conquer the rest of their solar system. The process of refining their explosive propulsion systems – now powered by the same force that had melted their cities into glass less than a thousand years before – was slow and haphazard. But it worked. Year by year, they inched outward, conquering and subduing world after world that we had deemed unfit for habitation. They burrowed into moons, built orbital colonies around gas giants, even crafted habitats that drifted in the hearts of blazing nebulas. They never stopped. Never slowed.

The no-contact cordon was generous, and was extended by the day. As human colonies pushed farther and farther outward, we retreated, gave them the space that they wanted in a desperate attempt at… stalling for time, perhaps. Or some sort of appeasement. Or sheer, abject terror. Debates were held daily, arguing about whether or not first contact should be initiated, and how, and by whom, and with what failsafes. No agreement was ever reached.

We were comically unprepared for the humans to initiate contact themselves.

It was almost an accident. The humans had achieved another breakthrough in propulsion physics, and took an unexpected leap of several hundred light years, coming into orbit around an inhabited world.

What ensued was the diplomatic equivalent of everyone staring awkwardly at one another for a few moments, and then turning around and walking slowly out of the room.

The human ship leapt away after some thirty minutes without initiating any sort of formal communications, but we knew that we had been discovered, and the message of our existence was being carried back to Terra. 

The situation in the senate could only be described as “absolute, incoherent panic”. They had discovered us before our preparations were complete. What would they want? What demands would they make? What hope did we have against them if they chose to wage war against us and claim the galaxy for themselves? The most meager of human ships was beyond our capacity to engage militarily; even unarmed transport vessels were so thickly armored as to be functionally indestructible to our weapons.

We waited, every day, certain that we were on the brink of war. We hunkered in our homes, and stared.

Across the darkness of space, humanity stared back.

There were other instances of contact. Human ships – armed, now – entering colonized space for a few scant moments, and then leaving upon finding our meager defensive batteries pointed in their direction. They never initiated communications. We were too frightened to.

A few weeks later, the humans discovered Alphari-296.

It was a border world. A new colony, on an ocean planet that was proving to be less hospitable than initially thought. Its military garrison was pitifully small to begin with. We had been trying desperately to shore it up, afraid that the humans might sense weakness and attack, but things were made complicated by the disease – the medical staff of the colonies were unable to devise a cure, or even a treatment, and what pitifully small population remained on the planet were slowly vomiting themselves to death.

When the human fleet arrived in orbit, the rest of the galaxy wrote Alphari-296 off as lost.

I was there, on the surface, when the great gray ships came screaming down from the sky. Crude, inelegant things, all jagged metal and sharp edges, barely holding together. I sat there, on the balcony of the clinic full of patients that I did not have the resources or the expertise to help, and looked up with the blank, empty, numb stare of one who is certain that they are about to die.

I remember the symbols emblazoned on the sides of each ship, glaring in the sun as the ships landed inelegantly on the spaceport landing pads that had never been designed for anything so large. It was the same symbol that was painted on the helmets of every human that strode out of the ships, carrying huge black cases, their faces obscured by dark visors. It was the first flag that humans ever carried into our worlds.

It was a crude image of a human figure, rendered in simple, straight lines, with a dot for the head. It was painted in white, over a red cross.

The first human to approach me was a female, though I did not learn this until much later – it was impossible to ascertain gender through the bulky suit and the mask. But she strode up the stairs onto the balcony, carrying that black case that was nearly the size of my entire body, and paused as I stared blankly up at her. I was vaguely aware that I was witnessing history, and quite certain that I would not live to tell of it.

Then, to my amazement, she said, in halting, uncertain words, “You are the head doctor?”

I nodded.

The visor cleared. The human bared its teeth at me. I learned later that this was a “grin”, an expression of friendship and happiness among their species. 

“We are The Doctors Without Borders,” she said, speaking slowly and carefully. “We are here to help.”


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.

—————————–

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.

schlockkathryn_3590

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.