The War for Evermore

A Starter Library of the Fantastic

This is one of those lists where you can be author specific, or title specific. We’ll have a little of both, I think. We’ll be adding to it from time to time. Also, this is just me. These aren’t reviews, aren’t even recommendations. They’re just the books that come to mind when I think of this.

These are big sci-fi/fantasy movers and shakers in terms of my life … no particular order.

We’ll start with the kid:

Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth.
Milo, Tock, the Humbug, Rhyme & Reason, the Awful DYNNE, the orchestra that plays all the world’s colors, the Soundkeeper, the Senses Taker … It really wasn’t sic-fi, or fantasy, but – for me – an allegory for realizing the wonder of imagination. Feiffer’s illustrations are beautiful, magic. From Wikipedia: In episode 13 of New Girl, Schmidt states that The Phantom Tollbooth is one of his desert-island books. Cece says that she also loves the book, to which Schmidt replies, “Of course you do. You’re a human being.” Captured my heart the first time I read it and remains the most remembered – and cherished – book of my childhood.

Dandelion Wine– My grandfather. This book makes me think of my grandfather. Of his world, a world I know of only in history and story, but which he knew with the immediacy of being there, watching it unfold. This books conjures that world for me, and a sense of a time lost to us in a way that seems, corny as it might sound, American in the way it speaks to us.Dandelion Wine is a story of imagination, giving substance to the waking dreams of childhood, the perspective of wonder and amazement that color a child’s view of his or her world.

Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers – Total military, reeking of testosterone … yeah, maybe not so politically correct to some ears, but a story well told, creating its world and staying true to it. A story of honor, duty, obligation. And Bugs. Lots of Bugs. Big, smart ones.

The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings… all of a piece: the Hobbit, different in style and substance, is the child’s prelude to the War of the Rings. The former makes possible the latter … and the latter ruined fantasy forever for me, as nothing touches it. Nothing.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress– more Heinlein … A world more special than most I’ve read, immediate, dry, wry, and laced with practical, in-the-moment views of the human animal.

The Illiad and the Odyssey* – What can I say? These books are the core of the soul of Western Civilization. No other characterization is possible. Here, at the end of the day, is the home to which we return, the lost dreams of myth that still stir us, 2700 years later … Preferred translation: Robert Fagles.  “… in the end, the rage of Achilles is stilled only in the bed of Penelope.” – Thomas Cahill

The Hyperion Cantos.Dan Simmons is known to many for his deft touch with terror. And this series … and to a degree its sequel duology … channels a good deal of it. But these two books are more than that, perhaps one of the best SciFi stories ever told… Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion – if you love SciFi, it’s hard to believe you’d be disappointed.

The Mote in God’s Eye is hard sci-fi at its absolute hardest. Larry Niven and David Pournelle created what might be the most perfect First Contact story imagined. Interesting anecdote: edited by Robert A. Heinlein…

Men, Martians and Machines … more than any SciFi I have read, the four novellas collected in MM&M communicated the pure fun possible in the genre, In the years since, I’ve always looked for the fun in the narrative, that the writer is having a party in the middle of their creation. Eric Frank Russell had a gift for dry, self-effacing machismo unparalleled in SciFi story-telling. (Heinlein does pull it off in Glory Road.)

The Last Planet – Andre Norton. In a sense, you could point to any of the stories this prolific sci-fi writer wrote over the years. Her books always delivered, providing incredible adventures for stimulating young imaginations. But this story was special, almost heartbreaking, in an odd way bringing home the concept of loss in a way I could never of imagined….

Cosmos – This is the non-fiction piece. Carl Sagan at his most brilliant and poignant. This book (and companion PBS series) remain current, immediate, making difficult science concepts accessible. An examination of the history of human discovery, this is one of the most optimistic discussions of science – and the human animal – you will ever read.



Heinlein. Yeah, he’s got two up there, and I could throw in more without having to think about it. Seriously, almost 50% of his library of writings qualifies, even works as late as Friday and Job. He simply understood. No other way to put it.

John Varley’s complete works. Probably the most important sci-fi writer the mainstream has never heard of (or, at least, seems to have forgotten). His Eight Planets short stories are simply outstanding fun, and the Cirrocco Jones trilogy – Titan, Wizard & Demon – was one of the strongest stories written in the era of its publication, featuring probably one of the greatest, if not THE greatest female heroine in SciFi.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman 75-issue series of comic books – graphic art and storytelling unparalleled. Brilliant writing, a gallery of different artists of varying style and substance, all made perfect by the story being told …


Phillip Jose Farmer’s “Riverworld” series, absolutely mind-bending: everyone who ever lived is reborn on the banks of a river that literally covers a planet. Adventure with Sir Richard Francis Burton, Alive Hargreaves, Samuel Clemens, Herrman Goering, Cyrano de Bergerac, King John and a cast of billions…

Ditto Anne McCafferey and her Dragonriders of Pern stories. The first decade was amazing, and the second was not bad, but after it seemed someone went to the same well too often …

Yes, I know I left out Assimov and Clarke and Silverberg … sorry … More to come…

September 12, 2012 Posted by | Hodgepodge, Tastes, Telling Stories | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Sasquatch Deconstructions: Heinlein’s Women

“All you fuckers are going to die anyway, so you might as well write the truth.” *


So Sasquatch Bob and I were returning from an early morning constitutional in the Sierra foothills. We were discussing our favorite subject: Women …

“Heinlein’s fault, of course, exposing us to all those incredibly smart and self-sufficient women who were more intelligent and talented than the males they chose to attach themselves to. He ruined us.” His expression became thoughtful.

“In Stranger in a Strange Land, the section of the book after Gillian kidnaps Mike and takes him to Jubal Harshaw is probably the best part of the book for me, and perhaps his best sequence of writing in any of his books. This is where we get the real sense of Mike’s alien-ness, and where it lives in him, and how that alien perspective reacts to the new reality of his existence … and to the women who inhabit that reality, four incredible females of varying talent and abilities, smart, competent and opinionated.”

(And, yes, before we go any further, we are discussing characters using their first names, as one would speak of old friends, because in many ways, that’s just what they are: old friends.)

Russian edition of “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”

“Look at the juveniles,” Sasquatch continues. Heinlein wrote a number of what were termed ‘juvenile’ sci-fi novels in the 50s. “All were populated with strong females. There are three that particularly stand out: Tunnel in the Sky, Starman Jones, and Time for the Stars. Tunnel in the Sky featured memorable female characters. Two in particular, Caroline and Jacqueline, are as competent – often moreso – than their male counterparts.” He looks at me. “Caroline is definitely cut from the same cloth as a couple of your girls.” Sasquatch has read my drafts. “A real warrior, fierce and loyal. And Jacqueline has her own brand of kick-ass, just softer, a little more of a … thoughtful … brawler.”

I nod. This is not a point of contention, but a statement of fact: Heinlein permanently marked both of us in the sense he nurtured the perception that females are the stronger, dominant gender. Kidding aside, (if you actually think I’m kidding) there was this subversive and pervasive view of gender roles woven into the stories he told, one where women are rendered as equals, capable of rising to the occasion with a competence and ferocity that rivaled and surpassed their male peers.

No one individual was necessarily dominant amongst his characters. All had strengths and flaws. When he wrote in the first person, as in the case of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the narrator, technically the ‘hero’, reluctantly so, operates more as a participating witness to events than as an initiator of action. Everyone could – and would – be wrong, mistaken, surprised. Everyone contributed; male, female, young, old, everyone acted as part of a team.

Seriously, this was a powerful message, with the added benefit of being threaded into a well-told adventure. Powerful Juju for a young adolescent male.

Slight aside: The hero’s reluctance was another element that peppered Heinlein’s plotting, the desire of the protagonist(s) to stay out of trouble and mind one’s own business, guided by a general philosophy that often the worst outcomes result from the best of intentions – and have a way of getting your ass shot off in the process. Put another way, he understood the principle that ‘Good deeds do not go unpunished’.

“Greatest female characters?” I ask.

He looks at me, then swerves to avoid slower moving traffic. Bigfeet (Bigfoots?) have depth perception issues. At least, that’s what Stu says. No profit in arguing with one imaginary critter about another.

“Wyoming Knott at the top.”

“Yeah, no question.” Lots of strong fems in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, like Hazel Meade, the girl-child who would grow to be the matriarch of the Stone Clan. (See The Rolling Stones)(Not the group; the book.)

But Wyoming is head and shoulders above the rest, probably top three all-time, if not number one. Smart, driven, a valiant woman of honor.

“Also the quartet from Stranger.”

“Uh-huh. Podkayne?”


“Yeah. Eunice?”

“Now you’re talking his ‘crazy period’.”

I drop back a book. “Maureen Smith?” He nods, but doesn’t say anything. Maureen is difficult, as is Time Enough For Love, the book where she appears. While there are varying arguments about when Heinlein decided to make his females as sexually self-assured as his earlier fems were in all other aspects of competency, it is fairly obvious Time Enough For Love takes this self-assuredness to a new level in a variety of characters and situations. It doesn’t help that Maureen ends up opting for a roll in the hay with an immortal time-traveler from 2000 years in the future who also happens to be her son. And that is not the only neo-incestual relationship in the book

We pull up to the house. The conversation ends and we go inside to prepare for the day.

An hour later I send a message to Sasquatch at his Real Estate office.

“We forgot about Star.”

At the end of the day, we’re barreling down the road again, this time to Auburn and dinner. CJ, (Mrs. Sasquatch), sits in the back, eyes closed, relaxing. He picks up the thread of conversation.

“You’re right about Star.” Sasquatch goes silent. “I think she’s closest to the archetype your girls represent.”

“Some of them.”

He nods.

Glory Road is a light-hearted, sexy swashbuckler of a Sci-Fi Fantasy if ever there was one. A satire laced with irony. As a character, Star is tough, weak, beautiful, sensual, sophisticated, a genius, a clotheshorse, sexpot and spoiled brat who could – and would – brawl alongside the boys … and who also happened to be the Empress of Twenty Universes. HELL of a character and, like all Heinlein women, in control even when she didn’t appear to be, always one step ahead of her leading man.

There is one particular irony that really stands out at the end of Glory Road – the Hero gets the girl and discovers … she has a career! And while she loves him and cares deeply for him, two things are very clear: career comes first, and he isn’t necessary to her success … at least, not any more – his job was completed once he insured Star could retain her title. As written, she’s not being a bitch, and she’s not ‘miming’ male behavior. She’s a creature of choice and duty, not a stereotype informed by some myth of hormones and traditional gender roles acting against her best interests (riding off into the sunset with the Hero), but instead someone – someone female – acting as an individual with priorities that don’t necessarily include the Love Of Her Life.

Eventually the Hero gets a clue, accepts what can’t be changed, lets go and gets on with his life.

Neat role reversal.

As I said: powerful juju … heap big medicine. Maybe not from the perspective of 2011, but in a 1963 world, this was a pretty out there concept, even for science fiction that wasn’t trying to be heavy or epic, but fun.

* = Overheard at a writers’ conference.

Next: Urgent Supers.

July 10, 2011 Posted by | Hodgepodge, Sasquatch Deconstructions | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Goodbye To All That …

The Shuttle Atlantis launched yesterday, that last such launch that will ever occur. For the first time in 50 years, the United States has no real manned launch vehicle or a serious plan to utilize one. More important, for all intents and purposes, it seems increasingly apparent the United States is putting a lower and lower emphasis on science funding, research and exploration, in particular manned exploration of space. The following is a post from our sister blog, Dark Puppy, touching on misconceptions regarding the cost of space exploration, and what the loss of the Orbiter fleet may be saying about a country and its people who once valued probing the limits of the unknown …


Goodbye To All That …

“Honorable Chairman, ladies, and gentlemen:

“Happy New Year!

“Indeed a happy New Year beginning the 11th year in the Age of Space, greatest era of our race – ”the greatest!” – despite gasoline shortages, pollution, overpopulation, inflation, wars and threats of war. ‘These too shall pass’, but the stars abide.

Robert A. Heinlein

“Our race will spread out through space – unlimited room, unlimited energy, unlimited wealth. This is certain.

“But I am not certain that the working language will be English…”

– Robert A. Heinlein, speaking before the Congress of the United States on the subject of NASA Spinoffs, August 19, 1979, later published in Omni magazine and  Expanded Universe (1980) as Spinoff.


I recently lost a Facebook friend.

Everyone has hot-button issues. Two of the three that tend to get me going are

1) Creationists insisting religious writings equate with science and;

2) people claiming there are compelling arguments to dismiss Global Climate Change (Global Warming) when, in fact, there aren’t any that haven’t been thoroughly examined in the scientific court of peer review and shown to fail.

The third hot button, the one that is pertinent re the FB friend-loss, is the claim that NASA is a waste of money.


My reply when Seamus (not his real name) said this on FB was:

“Seamus, you don’t know what you are talking about.”


Okay, so I could be called for being mean and rude. It was a thoughtlessly flip comment responding to another flip and very, very tired cliché that people use when they want to say they don’t like NASA or space exploration in general but really don’t know the first thing about why they don’t like it beyond the unqualified assertion it is a money waste. In a series of polite emails following-up my extraction from Seamus’ personal universe of social media connections I pointed out that if he felt I was being rude, he should call me on it, and I would apologize immediately … and then gone on to point out why he didn’t know what he was talking about. (Tact was never my strong suite, in case you hadn’t noticed.) Anyway, he’s not talking to me, which is too bad: Seamus is generally a good guy and I do kinda miss him. But things be what they be and we carry on.

Ironically, at least in the spirit of making the best of an otherwise bad outcome, the incident provided me with a nice little lead-in to something I did want to talk about, to wit:

President Obama is canceling the Constellation Program, his predecessor’s initiative to get the U.S. back to the Moon and to Mars while providing a replacement to the Shuttle Program, which will be retired after this year.

To start, I really want to concentrate on how the “too expensive” tag underscores a fateful problem we seem to have as a species … we don’t look too far down the road. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not being a Pollyanna about things; I fully understand space exploration is a huge, frightfully perilous undertaking, demanding a commitment of resources, fiscal and material, which even in the best of times can be unsettling and during a deep recession that may be permanent for many, downright insulting – at least in terms of apparent short-term outcomes. These are certainly not like the good old days when a Queen Isabella could pawn a necklace and start the greatest adventure of the Western World to that time, the Age of Discovery, a development that in many ways spurred the Age of Enlightenment. The Queen’s was an investment that resulted in untold wealth that to this day continues to be realized.

And, yes, I know it’s a shitty comparison. The exploration of the Americas also coincided with one of the nastiest long-term genocides in recorded history, as well as the virtual rape of the American wilderness – the former born out of an innate xenophobia that seems to reside in us as a species, and the latter from a general ignorance of how the biosphere sustains us and a misplaced belief that we “own” things. (We don’t, of course. Ownership of nature is a non-sequitur; if anything, nature owns us. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself a simple set of questions. Could nature survive without us? Could we survive without nature? Unless you are an idiot or willfully ignorant, you get it.) These are ugly aspects of human history, and of our evolutionary behavior as a species … and certainly not unique to this one example. But this is who we are. It’s up to us if we want to be better.

The Constellation Project

There’s another, more positive commonality about exploration that seems significant … it tends to coincide with the growth and vitality of a population … a nation. It is, in part, a reflection of the inspired genius of a people, perhaps even their spirit.

The previous administration’s proposal for going back to the Moon – the Constellation Program offering the vague promise of using our satellite as a jumping-off station for Mars – wasn’t necessarily an idea I was a huge fan of, given as the project was underfunded from the start and, likely, more an invention of cynical election year politics than any desire to open up the final frontier. Besides, I’d seen the mess the president made of his two invasions and the New Orleans disaster, so I wasn’t too encouraged …

Then again, the Shuttle Orbiter program was not funded as well as it could have been. That inconvenience led to delays, increased expenses, and cutting of funding to other space science. NASA, for example, has miles of tape from space missions that have never been analyzed because the money isn’t there, and those tapes are deteriorating – data we paid for lost because of underfunding. It’s all rather unfortunate.

Yet despite being underfunded, the Shuttle built the International Space Station. Not just that: the Orbiter put satellites in orbit; countless scientific experiments were conducted that benefited scientific and medical research; methods of working in zero-gravity, often involving complex tasks, were developed. Invaluable experience was gained for the future.

Perhaps most pleasing and important of all, the Shuttle put up and maintained the most wonderful invention in the history of man: the Hubble Telescope. Nothing … and I mean NOTHING … has brought us closer to seeing the immense, intense beauty of the reality we inhabit as we ride this infinitesimally small piece of flotsam adrift in the celestial ocean. That perspective alone is almost worth every penny spent on space from the very beginning of space exploration.

In spite of obstacles, the Shuttle was a success. It was what it was supposed to be, a workhorse that delivered and assembled payloads in orbit, conducted repair and resupply missions, and generally did more to maintain mankind’s regular presence in orbit than any other launch vehicle in the short history of space flight. Maybe the question that should be asked is if could it have been a greater success had it been funded like the moon project?

Nuts & Bolts

First the earth was flat
But it fattened up when we didn’t fall off
Now we spin laps round the sun …

2-1, Imogen Heap

There are very basic things our forays into space have brought us, weather satellites being amongst the most obvious in terms of what they provide us regarding preparedness and protection for populations. As bad as New Orleans was when Katrina hit, imagine how much worse it would have been without the solid data provided by the orbiting observation posts. That’s just a small portion of the payoff. These orbiting instrument platforms – and their cousins, the scientific research satellites – provide us with a copious amount of data regarding the state of our planet, data that invariably profits us.

I mention elsewhere E.O. Wilson’s comment that to sustain the planet at a level the U.S. consumes goods would require 3.5 to 4.5 planets. Here’s an irony to chew on – a committed effort to expanding out into the solar system would likely provide us with a significant source of raw materials we’re going to need if we are going to survive long into the future … and maybe even a place to escape to.

Hurricane Katrina

“In all scientific research, the researcher may or may not find what he is looking for – indeed, his hypothesis may be demolished – but he is certain to learn something new . . . which may be and often is more important than what he had hoped to learn.

“This is the Principle of Serendipity. It is so invariant that it can be considered an empirically established natural law.”

Spinoff, Robert A Heinlein

When compared to government funding in general, the amount of money spent on space exploration and research is insignificant. Most government cash goes to social programs, infrastructure, corporate welfare, entitlements, endless domestic and international programs … and defense budgets that burn up NASA’s miniscule funding by the end of the first day of the fiscal year … or thereabouts. In truth, if you took your time to really figure out where your tax money went, you’d be both stunned, and likely forced to reevaluate the myths of how government spending is allotted that most people accept as gospel truth.

More important: money directed at space actually offers a return on the investment. Science. Science provides potential for real return … and has delivered on that promise at every opportunity. Just look at your electric light and think about it. Every electronic device you own, much of modern diagnostic medicine, agriculture, you name it … Space Program spinoffs exist somewhere in the lineage of all of it. The work done to get to the moon altered industry and medicine as research results generated technological innovation across the board.

Consider this, as well: People who touch our lives in so many meaningful ways – friends, lovers, siblings, parents, children – might not have been alive to do so without the spinoffs of medical research developed in the effort to get humans off planet. Medical spinoffs contribute to the early detection of disease, treatment, and general improvements in quality of life for sufferers of chronic illness

Bluntly, the cost argument is bogus. NASA – and by extension all government-funded science and scientific research – at least produces results that show a potential for return on investment. It’s hard to come up with another agency that can make that claim.  And if the U.S. government doesn’t then take proper advantage of these research results is not the fault of NASA; what we’re really discussing is a failure of imagination on the part of bureaucrats, not the science. The results produced are real. Our technology, the growth of our knowledge of the Cosmos, the countless experiments performed over the years, the experience we gained in engineering and working in space … the fact thousands of people are alive because of techniques and equipment borne out of the Space Program research – these things all point to a program that gives something back.

Lost Space

Here’s the thing I guess I have the most difficulty with: trying to get people to see long-term perspective. My friend Mikey and I often puzzle at the shift when we talk of  the oddness of living in a time where people are not excited by the prospect of a growing population of humans in space and all the potential such a reality could offer. By contrast, he and I grew up in an era charged by a sense of amazement and wonder, carried by a dream that lived in mankind since we first looked to the sky and saw the moon. It was fueled in part by the real-life-fact of it, and the imagined possibilities, going back to Cyrano de Bergeracand long before.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars – Frank Frazetta

When I was a child, Mars was still an amazing and mysterious dream of fantasy. And this was well before exposure to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels (Bradbury got me first – what an wonderful collection of stories, imaginative, whimsical, breathed upon with deep dreams touched by both the otherworldly – and the familiar.)

Growing up, Martian canals were still big in the public imagination; heck, 20 years earlier Orson Welles got the East Coast to shit a collective cow over his reenactment of H.G.’s masterpiece. And as I grew older, I watched as the space program started undressing the Red Planet’s secrets … hers and the rest of the solar system. We peaked within Venus shroud to see the incredible geography while learning her atmosphere would eat us alive. We sent Mariner 10 to fly through the frightful solar radiance that washed over Mercury. We sent probes crashing into the moon, then landing, finally putting men on the moon.

Men on the Moon.

What a fucking fantastical statement.






And we didn’t stop. For all of the significance, the Moon landing was an appetizer. We had bigger fish to fry. Viking 1 & 2 went to Mars. And then, in the most exquisite of cosmic ballets, first the Pioneers and then the Voyagers – two craft each – visited the Jovian planets. I remember the Voyager flybys of Jupiter and Saturn … there were parties … Bikers and bankers, dweebs and sharp-dressed men … people hung around TVs, at home, in clumps in bars, watching the photos as they processed in, listening to mission control as the scientists and engineers monitored the great adventure light-minutes behind the actual events …

Voyager 1

… listening as we waited for the signal that told us Voyager successfully passed through the recently-discovered rings of Jupiter … and then of Saturn …

… and it was us up there … represented, yes, but it was US … YOU and ME and EVERYONE ELSE sailing the cosmic ocean … and we were  navigating the gravity wells orbiting our home star.

As a species, we were being amazing!!!

I’ll repeat this, ’cause if you don’t get anything else I say here, you really need to understand this:


More fucking amazing than we ever had been in our long, amazing history.

Even with all the extra-planetary missions to the inner, rocky worlds of the solar system, after actually putting six pairs of human beings on the moon, nothing hit home like the Pioneer and – especially – the Voyager missions. We were seeing the Jovian worlds up close and personal, our miniscule craft of exploration sailing through the ring-systems, past small moons, through radiation storms, sending back images and data to the waiting humans on our distant planet.

The Voyager Missions

Jupiter and Saturn … and eventually Uranus and Neptune … were no longer points of light in the sky to be mistaken for faraway stars … these became real worlds that inhabited our local neighborhood in the Milky Way … and in the end changed how we looked at the cosmos.

We could see our future, could see where things were going to lead us.

But we never really got out of near-earth orbit.

And now, decades later, George Bush was gonna revive a listless space program and send us back to the moon.

Of course he was …

Cynicism aside, the Moon Project was the only game in town … we never developed a replacement for the Orbiter, and now we’re hitching rides with the Russians. We needed something, and this was all we had to pin our hopes to. And now that is gone, too …

Aside from a well-deserved “WTF?” owing its origins to a latent sense of pride given the United States’ participation in the history in space exploration, the news does nothing to inspire optimism regarding our – humanity’s – effort to get off-planet. And I know the whole “mankind must never flag in its commitment to explore space” thing has been done to death, and better writers than I have written enough on the subject to fill several large volumes of books. But I gotta say something.

Comet Shoemaker-Levy breaks up on its approach to Jupiter

A story … of sorts …

1981 until graduation from college in ’83, through the unintended consequences of procrastination and an odd series of synchronicities, my take-home essay tests and term papers for my ancient Greek and Roman courses were almost always due on the day of a shuttle launch. (God’s Truth, if you believe in that sort of thing.) I must have caught every early launch, and at least 80 percent of the time I was awake because I always waited until the last minute and finished those papers and tests by pulling all-nighters the day they were due. All in all, an interesting/ironic juxtaposition … regurgitate what you learned studying the cradle of Western Civilization while watching the result of the long road those ancient peoples set us on.

Atlas missile launch, Vandenberg AFB, 1962

My family had an active part in the space race. At least, my Dad did … he wired silos for missiles at Vandenberg AFB in the early sixties. We were a space town, Lompoc, California, a place at one time destined to become a Spaceport. Think about that a second. Cape Canaveral was always that – Cape Canaveral, the first U.S. Spaceport. The Russians had Baikonur. In terms of Space, they were it. Thing is, in the popular imagination, we never really considered Canaveral a spaceport. It was just a place we launched missiles from. And who thought about Baikonur outside of Russia, NASA and the CIA?

But Vandenberg AFB was something else – a declared spaceport. How audacious … a spaceport … we were on our way to the stars!

Sadly, funding was cut, the facilities at Vandenberg were mothballed … and that dream died. Being short-sighted appears to be a genetic trait in bureaucrats.

Still, Lompoc at the beginning of the 1960s was the West Coast’s ‘Space City’. The people residing there lived and breathed the space race. When missiles went up at night everyone would rush outside to the thundering roar of an Atlas or Minuteman as it started on its test run down the Pacific Range. The rockets would burn brilliant against the indigo skies, sometimes exploding, pulsing a ring of energy as the rocket blew up … or was detonated because of a system failure. And when the early Saturn 1 launches were televised, we’d have sleepovers and gangs of kids would stay up late to watch Mission Control light the candle and send the massive missile up.

Virginia and Robert at the SpaceCon 3

Much later. 1977. Like a lot of people, the whole post-Moon landing space thing had faded in importance for me as I got on with my adult life. I was working at San Francisco General at the time. I’d gotten off my midnight shift at Mission Emergency Hospital and headed straight over to the Civic Center. I was going to attend a scifi convention, Space Con 3. My primary reason for being there: a talk to be held on the Shuttle Orbiter Program chaired by Nichele Nichols, James Doohan and…

… Robert A. Heinlein.

Bleary eyed as I was from sleep-deprivation, I was wide-awake throughout. The two Star Trek alums deferred to Heinlein, and the Master made an animated hour of it.  Holding up a large cutaway drawing of the Shuttle, he proudly pronounced it to be “the Model T” of spaceflight development. He talked as he always talked about his hopes for mankind realizing what he saw as its destiny.

That seems so long ago now. Heinlein passed a decade later, his oft-stated dream of dying on the moon unfulfilled.

The world, it seems, has changed. I grew up in a nation that dreamed of conquering space. We walked on the moon, saw our small ships of metal and electronics sail to nearly every corner of the solar system to send back news and knowledge of how things really were. And now we’re on the verge of retiring our only means of putting men in orbit.

We had dreams.

And then the dreams went away. With it, maybe our future … and our greatness …

We … have lost something …

“…Middle-class Americans really don’t want to hear about sacrifices or trade-offs—except as flattering descriptions about how ready we, as a people, are, or used to be, to accept them.”

There is a growing argument the United States is in a decline as a nation. There is a concurrent argument that humans as a species may possibly be on the way out. From a paleontological perspective, species disappearance is unsurprising – most species die off relatively quickly in terms of geologic time – but ending remains unsettling from the more immediate perspective. Ominously, we should know with relative certainty in the next 30 years if the climate and environment tanks as bad as they are projected to … and then it will be too late to do much about either interrelated problem. The conversation regarding human survival is in relation to our need – and inability – to curb our population growth while seriously working to keep our natural resources self-sustainable. Just to say that is incredible to me; the planet’s bounty seemed limitless as recently as fifty years ago. No more. As we trash the biosphere scientists who study such things are calling this the sixth great die-off – and the first perpetrated by a species.

In both cases – the decline of the U.S. and the decline of global human civilization – it seems the common symptom is an intense, overriding focus on the here and now; the future seems too far away to care about.

Aftermath of Comet Shoemaker-Levy striking Jupiter … the Earth could get lost in any one of those yellow strike areas in the southern hemisphere.

All the gods lost 2-1,
And holes to heaven pointed out to us from light years away;
We’re surrounded by a billion galaxies…

2-1, Imogen Heap

So here we are. On the precipice of the future, roaming the shores of Sagan’s cosmic ocean, and we appear to be allowing our true chance at greatness slip through our collective fingers. Oh, sure, we landed on the Moon. We did great things. And then we didn’t.

We live at – quite possibly – the tail end of what might end up being the most perfect time in human history, a true era of wonders. The ancients would have regarded ours as a world of miracles, but modern viewpoints are jaded by lack of perspective: it’s hard to understand our condition, particularly in the developed world, is the exception to human history. There is still a lot of potential locked up in our species … but it is unclear if we can take advantage of that untapped potential given our increasingly apparent inability to get past the smallness in us. Moving off planet would give us a chance … give our children and their children and succeeding generations a real chance to survive the future we might be bringing on ourselves.

But we don’t see. We can’t see.

And this is what I see:

We’re the builders of the Pyramids. We’re the people who raised up the Parthenon and invented Western Civilization. We conquered Egypt, Persia, India and everything between. We invented, built (and then burnt) the Great Libraries of antiquity. We constructed the Coliseum, Circus Maximus … and ruled the Western World for centuries. We’re the sons and daughters of Discovery, architects of the Enlightenment. We opened the New World to the Old. The sun never set on our Empire. We’re the people that put men on the Moon.

And then we stopped … and we went away …

July 9, 2011 Posted by | Hodgepodge | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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