Tag Archives: science fiction

A review, and a challenge, by a master

This post is shown in its entirely as published by David Gerrold on Facebook along with my comments. If you are not familiar with the name, perhaps you will recall the Trouble with Tribbles, a Star Trek episode. Or, The Martian Child. David knows how to spin a tale and has made a career of building worlds, and dissecting this one. First, my comments.

“Absolutely and unequivocally on point. While in college I talked a professor into letting me write a term paper on science fiction. Not literature in her opinion – but I wrote well enough to make my point and she conceded. In fiction, sometimes most effectively in science fiction or fantasy, we have the freedom to take a social or civil issue and put it far enough away from the reader we can challenge the person without being confrontational. It is a way to engender thought by leading. David Gerrold points this out beautifully below. Hopefully he won’t mind if I publish this, with credit, on my blog.”

I think Sarah Pinsker is a marvelous writer. I admire her ability to paint a picture in words. Most of all, I admire her ambition.

In the current issue of Asimov’s, she has a story called, “The Ones Who Know Where They Are Going.” It’s a beautiful piece of work and I would not be surprised to see it ending up on various award ballots.

It’s intended to be read as a sequel to Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

If you have not read the LeGuin story, go do that now. I’ll wait.

If I had to pick one story to represent the entire SF genre, possibly the most memorable of all tales anyone has ever written, it would be “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

Omelas is a beautiful city, filled with joyous people living joyous lives. But … its serenity and splendor depend on the eternal misery of an unfortunate chld, kept in perpetual filth, darkness, and misery.

When citizens are old enough to know the truth of Omelas’ success, they are shown the true price of the city’s glory — that this single child must be locked away in a cruel dungeon. Most of the city’s citizens accept this as necessary to the continuing elegance of Omelas. But every so often, a few citizens cannot. They walk quietly away from the city. The last line of the story: “The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

What occurred to me immediately, the first time I read this story was that the wealth and success of the United States depends on foreign labor — child labor, peasant labor, and in some places even slave labor. The braceros who pick our vegetables, the Chinese factory workers who assemble our iPhones, the children in Bangladesh who sew our clothes. We don’t think about them. We simply accept that the low prices of goods at Walmart are a sign of our national success, our splendor, our wealth — but in truth, our denial of the facts about the world we live in is a sign of our cultural sickness.

The trap — the real trap — is that we cannot walk away from our own Omelas. We don’t know how. We can’t survive without the technology we’ve constructed and all the hard work it takes from so many people to keep that technology functioning and to keep us fed and clothed and amused with electronic toys.

Never mind that for the moment — the point of the story, as I see it, is that we as humans always have a choice: whether to accept injustice and live with it or reject it and refuse to participate in it further. And this is why I think it is one of the greatest stories ever written — because it isn’t about Omelas, it’s about the reader.

And that brings me to Sarah Pinsker’s marvelous tale.

I hated it.

Not because it’s a bad story, not because it’s badly written, not because it’s wrong — but because it is a philosophical and emotional reversal of LeGuin’s story. Where LeGuin leaves us troubled, Pinsker wants to let us be okay.

SPOILER ALERT.

If you haven’t read Pinsker’s story, go do so now.

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In Pinsker’s story, someone has left the door to the dungeon ajar. The child, bruised and hurting, laboriously climbs the steps toward the dazzling daylight, wondering about the beauty that lies above, and speculating on how long it will take the city to collapse after the escape.

But by the time the child reaches the tenth stair, he or she (never specified) stops and turns around and heads back down to the dungeon. And we are told that this is not the first time that the child has made this journey toward dazzling freedom and then returned to the sanctity of the darkness.

Now, if the point to be made here is that the child cannot deal with freedom, is afraid of freedom, that’s horrifying enough — but that’s not Pinsker’s point. No.

Instead, this child is acting out of altruism, nobility — returning to the dungeon so that no other child will have to suffer the same fate. And again, this is not the first time this child has made this great moral choice.

And as a reader, I can feel good, I can feel proud of this child for willingly martyring herself/himself for the good of —

No. I can’t.

There’s an old joke. “How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb.” “None. Don’t worry about me. I can sit here alone in the dark.” That’s also the short version of this story.

And this is why I take issue with this story. Both philosophically and emotionally.

Philosophically: Where LeGuin was saying underneath the glory of this civilization, its foundation rests on a crime, an act of profound cruelty and injustice to another human being — where LeGuin was making a profound plea, Pinsker is now excusing the cruelty and injustice. It’s all right, because the child is there willingly, the child is making a noble sacrifice.

And emotionally — it’s all right, you don’t have to feel bad. The child is doing a good thing. He/she wants to be there.

Um, no.

There’s this thing called “the victim racket.” It’s where you give away your power to others so you can feel good about never getting what you want. It’s about being right about being miserable. It plays out a lot of different ways, “I have to sacrifice for my children,” or “I’m not good enough,” or “It’s okay, I didn’t want dessert anyway.” (Or even, “I deserved the award, but the vote was rigged.”) The victim racket is about excusing injustice.

Now that might not be what Sarah Pinsker intended. Unfortunately, that’s how I read it. And as much as I try to find another interpretation, I’m stumped.

I’m not against sacrifice — every good parent makes sacrifices so his/her children can grow up to have a life they love living. But that’s an informed consent. The child of Omelas isn’t there because he or she has consented, isn’t there because of a higher purpose, isn’t enduring a noble imprisonment — the child of Omelas is there because the people of Omelas prize their splendor too much to give up the injustice.

Still with me?

Do I think Pinsker was wrong for writing this story? Hell, no. I’m glad she wrote it — because it will start the kind of discussion that all good stories must start. It invites the readers to argue about the nature of Omelas as well as the plight of the child. It invites us to consider the very real implications for our own society.

I’ll add this — the LeGuin story is necessarily incomplete. It invites the reader to decide for himself/herself about the morality of this situation.

In the hands of another writer — not me, not today — a sequel to “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” would be about those who walk away.

Those who stay are accepting responsibility for the injustice, they’re owning it the same way the Germans who profited in the days of the Third Reich owned their atrocities. They decided not to care.

But those who are walking away, they’re rejecting responsibility. They’re leaving without trying to change anything. They’re fleeing the responsibility of rescuing the child. They’re unwilling to trigger the revolution that would surely occur if the city’s success were threatened. They’re unwilling to take a stand, unwilling to say, “I cannot be a part of a civilization founded on injustice. We must find another way. We must bring that child up into the light.” By walking away, they are running away.

And to my mind, the ones who walk away are just as detestable, maybe even more so than the ones who stay.

Whatever the case, I believe it is wrong to ascribe nobility to the child. It’s wrong to assume nobility among the oppressed. That’s a convenient fiction — that torture and oppression, discrimination and victimization somehow confer wisdom on the sufferers. Hell no. Torture and oppression mostly inspire outrage and hatred and counter-violence. Gandhi and Mandela and King and Frankel and Weisel are exceptions. Everybody else likely has a lifetime battle with PTSD.

That assumption of nobility through oppression — that’s why we have “the magic Negro” and the wise old native American and the sassy black lady and the insightful old Jew and the noble Asian and the spontaneously clever drag queen in American movies — because we’re afraid to acknowledge the real hurt and bitterness that our own Omelas has created, not in a single child, but in whole populations.

Perhaps there is a worthwhile sequel to be written to “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” I applaud Sarah Pinsker’s ambition in this effort. And I wish I could celebrate this story as a worthwhile sequel. Any writer this ambitious deserves applause.

But … I wonder if LeGuin’s original tale has left us with an unsolvable challenge. We are damned if we stay, we are damned if we leave. I can’t walk away — but I have no idea how to get that child out of that dungeon either.

That’s the story I want to see someone tackle.

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Guest Post ~ Faith in Fiction

I’ve been really, really busy trying to push through a major portion of my manuscript on Job. It is going quite well. That means, of course, less time to spend here. But I have a plan! This week I have a guest blogger, Cindy Keopp. She is an author of science fiction/fantasy. As it happens, I am one of her beta readers. Recently, one of her novels has become available for preorder, Like Herding the Wind, Urushalon I. It is a lovely tale and I highly recommend it.

Faith is something that winds its way throughout Cindy’s tales. It is a part of her and her journey, and so it finds its way into her novels. I asked her to tell us about that.

Like Herding

Cindy Koepp:

I was tempted to write an analysis of all the reasons why writers are told to avoid explicit mentions of Christianity in their writing followed by an explanation of why I ignore those suggestions. The prohibition of faith in writing would have made an interesting addition to my blog series on the Hugo and Nebula winners, but I’ll keep that topic for another time.

Instead, I’d rather have a look at the reasons why faith features so prominently in so many of my stories. The most overtly Christian of my books, Remnant in the Stars, even has a character convert to Christianity partway through the tale.

Leaving out the matters of faith would have made some things much easier. I’ve gotten into intense “discussions” with a publishing expert on the issue, been accused of trying to shove my religion up everyone’s nose, and had folks who offered to review the book later refuse because of the religion issue. Had I kept religion out of it, I would have avoided that mess altogether, but I can’t do that.

Some writers eschew the anti-religion advice because they “write for the audience of One.” In other words, they say that they don’t care what other people think because they’re writing only to please God. That’s not me. I’m not half arrogant enough to think a perfect God is interested in what I wrote. The best I can do is hope He’s not majorly offended.

Likewise, I don’t believe my writing is inspired by God. I’m not simply His scribe, and this isn’t a new Gospel I’m working on. If God were writing these tales, they’d be much more perfect than anything I come up with on my own. I wouldn’t need an editor because God doesn’t make mistakes. Trust me. I need an editor.

I write to communicate what I think and feel. Often these stories help me work through difficult things I’ve had to face. Sometimes the stories help me relate funny things that have happened. My tales contain goofy jokes and a weird sense of humor because I have a weird sense of humor and tell goofy jokes. The stories deal with complex characters and situations because life is rarely simple. All the characters are dealing with their own problems and their own joys. They have their own goals, so most of the characters in my stories have their own character arcs.

Most importantly, they have their own beliefs. People are predisposed to believe in something. In my own personal adventures, I’ve found that people put their faith and confidence in something or someone, even if that someone is found in the mirror every morning. To leave faith out of the story is to create a character that is woefully lacking in a critical element.

That’s not to say that all my stories have strong religious tendencies. One, Mindstorm: Parley at Ologo, has only one reference to God in passing toward the end. Are those characters missing something critical? No, but the details about their personal beliefs were not necessary, so rather than clutter up the work with unneeded detail, I kept the info about the characters’ religions in my notes along with other factoids. At critical points in the story, though, the religious background of the character influenced the choices the character made even if the reader never got to know the motivation for the choice.

More frequently, though, the characters’ religion plays a more active role in the story. For some characters, their faith becomes a source of strength for them in adversity, a cause for hope when practical answers are elusive, a solace in the maelstrom of family and international politics, and a comfort in times of grief.

In my personal life, faith is all these things, and I’ve only just begun to explore what faith in God can bring.

Like Herding the Wind — A Mystery. A wounded path. An alien society with centuries of work to coexistent with humans, but someone isn’t happy with the progress made. Will the human-alien team find those responsible before another human dies? In the 1600s, an Eshuvani generation ship crash-landed in a farmer’s field in Germany. Unable to find the resources on Earth to fix their ship, the Eshuvani built enclaves and tried to let the humans develop without interference. Three hundred fifty years later, Eshuvani criminals start a crime wave in the Texas coastal town of Las Palomas. With police officers being injured and killed in the efforts to stop them, Sergeant Ed Osborn attempts to use his ties to the Eshuvani community to get help for his men, but the local leadership wants nothing to do with humans. Ed contacts his urushalon, Amaya Ulonya, the Eshuvani mother he adopted when he was a boy, and seeks her help. After the death of her partner, Amaya, the captain of a police and rescue team, finds more grief than joy in her current assignment. Amidst controversy, she arranges to spearhead the new Buffer Zone station between Las Palomas and the nearby Eshuvani enclave of Woran Oldue. She hopes the opportunity to help Ed train his people will help her bury the past. The indifference of the local administration leaves her with Ill-functioning equipment and inexperienced staff. It only gets worse when the attacks of an Eshuvani criminal grow personal. Amaya must get control of her grief to help Las Palomas or risk losing someone even more dear to her than her last partner.

Cindy Koepp is originally from Michigan. She moved to Texas as a child and later received a degree in Wildlife Sciences and teaching certification in Elementary Education from rival universities. Her recently concluded adventures in education involved pursuing a master’s degree in Adult Learning with a specialization in Training and Performance Improvement. Cindy has three published science fiction and fantasy novels, a serial published online, short stories in five anthologies, and a few self-published teacher resource books. When she isn’t reading or writing, Cindy spends time whistling with a crazy African Grey. Cindy is currently an editor with PDMI Publishing and Barking Rain Press as well as an optician at monster-sized retail store.

Cindy can be found — and further enjoyed at:

http://ckoepp.com
http://cindykoepp.wordpress.com
http://www.amazon.com/Cindy-Koepp/e/B008QXR2QI

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30 Cubed – The Climatologist

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Earth’s first star ship had left the planet in the early 2030s. At that point in time the ship was structured to last a hundred years. The engineers knew that the target system would not be reached until the third generation reach maturity. The ship’s libraries were loaded with every digital record available. The planners also knew that they could only structure strong suggestions on shipboard culture and governance and schooling. Once contact with earth was lost, the tiny, inconsequential seed pod of humanity would be on its own traversing some small piece of a vast universe.

That of course, was then. Barely two decades later the unrelenting commercial and social pressures had driven the physicists and engineers to create the dreamed of warp drive. The keys to the universe finally dropped into humanity’s lap. And there were those ready to go. If the Centennial Ship had stayed on course and reached its destination, the new fleet would find them in a mere 5 years. We knew we could go faster, but this was the maiden voyage. After much haggling this time period was considered a sedate route and one that would permit a substantial amount of science on the way. The day arrived when the new ships were ready to launch from near earth orbit. I had dreamed of this moment for 20 years. My name is Andrew. I am a climatologist with a second degree in planetary sciences and I have a berth on Argosy; one of three ships in the fleet.

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In many ways it doesn’t seem possible that we have been in space for five years. I have to admit there are days when it seems forever. We have spent the last six months adding scans and surveys to our working load to see if we can pick up any sign of carbon based, oxygen breathing life in the system before us. This is where we had sent of Century Ship; it was time to see if the pioneers had made it.

Braking into the system we scanned the local moons to find likely candidates. The gas giants were useless, except for mining, and the rocky worlds were too big. The change in our mass would have made it difficult if not impossible to move around the planet. Especially after five years of reduced gravity. Moons is where we had sent them, moons is where we would look. There were 11 good possibilities. The landing crew was already discussing possible first attempts when my systems told me exactly where to look.

Settled in an orbit around one of the gas giants was a rocky moon with a great deal of water. It seemed strange that they would pick something this far from the host star, but there seemed to be enough free oxygen in the air that the high probability of terraforming was evident. There also seemed to be quite a bit of debris in the planet’s near orbit. I will grant you it was a beautiful planet. Seeming to glow with a fire all its own, it was an easy rival to our own Jupiter. No other body in the system seemed to have the requisite chemical composition. Then I found the ship. No detail this far out, but the mass seemed off. Well, we’d be there in a week and see what was happening. I wonder if they’ve seen us.

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We’re here. Though I’m not sure yet how welcome we are. Replies to our calls have been short and non-committal. Evidently, at least that’s what they are saying, there are some transitional things we must go through before we can actually land. I wish they would hurry. It’s spooky out here watching the huge Century Ship orbit the moon. It’s a hulk now. The colonists had gutted it for anything of use on the surface and appeared to be reclaiming the metals at this point. They say they have changed in some ways and need to know if we will do well in their environment. Possibly. But why do I feel like salvage?

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30 Cubed – The Anthropologist

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There was a time, back in the early 21st century, when the debate surrounding interstellar travel settled into roughly three camps. These were the “go now with what we have,” the “wait a few decades and the physics/technology will grow so quickly we would out run the first mission” and, well, the “do we really care?” crowd.

The last was understandable as it became increasingly clear that space was not a friendly place. The problems that would be faced by the human mind, body, and spirit were daunting. More and more people began to realize that leaving our cozy home was not going to be all that easy. Perhaps, we should take better care of that home. After decades of abuse, restoring portions of the earth to health would demand a multinational commitment of funds and energy. How could there be anything left for space travel?

There was, as there always had been, a portion of humanity that could not resist the call of the stars. Unwilling to wait on the political will, private companies began to spring up and look seriously at the requirements for getting members of this delicate race on to the surface of another galactic body; and hopefully avoid such things as stars and black holes. Some companies formed coalitions to share costs, some specialized and provided needed technology and research to those who would dare to try. Eventually, the “go now” crowd won out and a star ship took shape.

I’ve studied the history of how my ship was built. The strange political maneuverings and financial schemes intrigue and confuse me. It is a culture as foreign to me as native cultures must have been to exploders in our race’s far distant past. I have spent many hours in our ship’s library, learning about human history and the failures and successes of the meetings between cultures and species. You see, I am the ship’s anthropologist and it is my job to help maintain a healthy onboard culture and to help make the smoothest contact possible when we arrive at our destination.

I am the second generation born in transit. This is, of course, a very good sign that we have overcome most of the unknown hazards during the birthing and rearing of the first in-transit generation. We started with all that earth could offer, including our own magnetic field. But space is unforgiving. Even with artificial gravity, it is not a full “G,” whatever that should mean to us on board now. Consequently, our bodies changed. Many of the regimens demanded of our grandparents were abandoned by our parents. We know we must prepare for some change in mass, but we have yet to discover what that change will be. So I spend hours at a time searching for clues of how we might react and what systems I can put in place to make that transition easier. After all this time we really can’t opt for staying on board. The ship will not last forever and some of the systems are beginning to show their age. Including the nuclear plant that brought us here. When we arrive at our destination we will have to find a place to call home.

Home. How do we define a home we have never seen and that we are just now learning about? We are approaching the system that has been our goal for three generations. Our libraries tell us that there are some very large gas giants, a few rocky worlds that appear to be much larger than earth, and moons. The moons are our target. It amazes me that our ancestors could bet so much on the hope that a ship filled with yet-to-be-born children could find a home around a far distant star by settling on a moon that may or may not be there. Yet, here we are. As of 24:00 ship’s time we began the breaking procedure to enter the system through its Oort cloud and to begin our search.

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We have experienced a large dose of astronomical luck, or maybe solar systems really aren’t all that unusual or unique. In any case we have located at least a dozen moons that represent good candidates. Chemical scans indicate that the required elements are there. The question remains whether or not something or someone is already availing themselves of these candidates. Tomorrow I go with the landing crew to check out our first option. I’m not entirely sure what I can do should we find something. I do know that the thought of being “outside” is somehow terrifying. I really must get a grip on myself.

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30 Cubed – The Dispatcher

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Here we go – number 9 weighing in at 684 words

Bryan sat as his console and thought about his next break. What a wonderful way to spend a Saturday night. Sitting in a chair in an environmentally controlled room staring at blinking lights and a large screen monitor. He still could not believe he had let his “friend” talk him into the extra shift. Yes, the money would be nice, but no, he couldn’t think of a more boring way to make it.

Lunar City itself wasn’t that bad these days. After years of intense construction converting lunar soil into and underground human “hive,” many of the things available on Earth itself could be had at base. Luxury items were a bit pricey, but anything that had a composition compatible with the Earth-Orbit waste or lunar soil was really pretty reasonable.

Bryan spent a lot of his time directing the traffic that moved salvage from the debris field orbiting the earth to the sorting platforms orbiting the moon and on to the 3-D manufacturing bots near the Mars Mission construction site. He had been a stellar math student but in today’s job market “stellar” wasn’t always good enough. To get traction in that market he needed to beef up his resume. Thus, one trip to the moon to be a traffic cop running numbers to verify orbits and keep the traffic from bumping into one another or floating off course. For Bryan it was mind-numbing.

As he activated a desk-side concession bot for one more cup of something called “coffee” a light began to blink on his panel. Opening a communication channel to the affected platform, he maneuvered his visual field to see if there were any apparent problems. What he saw did not immediately make sense.

He could see that that the lunar low-orbit was in trouble. The docking tether had snagged a collection net on the Sweep and was not deploying as it should. Not a common occurrence, but not that unusual, either. The collection nets could get a substantial magnetic charge up and some of the older tethers had not been replaced with zinc-coated arms. Still it should not have been a problem requiring his intervention. The platform had bots that could handle the situation within minutes. No, what bothered him was something that was not right with the platform station itself.

Technically the system was a monument to simplicity for such a complex task. Each LLO would snag a Sweeper, maneuver it to the station, dock and secure the vehicles. Then station bots would snag the collector nets, detach and push them through the station loading ramps. By the time the nets were run down conveyor belts to the sorting rooms the engineer from the shuttle would be seated to help sort through the collection. Using robotic arms, metals, cables and nuclear waste were sorted for separate processing. The nets were “vacuumed” and de-magnetized. Bots would take the empty nets back to the Sweep and the engineer would shuttle the Sweep to launch orbit.

The system had efficiently handled tens of thousands of metric tons of debris in the last several years. Using the recycled debris and resources mined from the moon, both the Lunar City and the interplanetary ship had been constructed on accelerated schedules. It had to work efficiently. Target launch date was 2032 and that was fast approaching.

Something, however, was wrong with the platform Bryan was looking at. The pilot of the shuttle was filing a mayday because he could not get a response. Suddenly, the image Bryon had not been able to process became crystal clear. He hit the communication button and ordered the engineer to disengage. “Abandon the Sweep! Get that ship clear!”

 

NOTE: Well, again this is not all fiction. There are indeed companies that are working on using lunar soil compositions in 3-D printers to build habitat parts. Recycling earth’s space debris is also within the reach of current technology. It seems that if we are to reach other parts of our solar system we really do need to think beyond our own atmosphere for resources and development.

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30 Cubed – The Child

header2Entry #5 – 650 words

The young girl sat among the flowers in the field. A wispy spring breeze was blowing the scent of wild flowers through the meadow. Her mother sat nearby under a tree, with a book, untouched, in her lap. Humming some unknown tune, the child concentrated on the milkweed flower before her. On one droopy leaf the caterpillar patiently wound itself up into a tight and comfortable cocoon. As the afternoon wore on, the child continued to concentrate on the now apparently still chrysalis. Eventually, the late afternoon sun warmed the small meadow and the chrysalis became transparent.  A butterfly began to emerge. Just as the shadows began to lengthen, one lone monarch fluttered its wings and tested the wind. The child extended her hand and waited.

“It is not yet the season for the butterfly, Alice. The butterfly may be lonely.”

“I don’t think so, Mummy, I’ve asked it to stay with me.”

The butterfly still rested on the leaf, the child’s hand a few inches from its perch.

“Did you ask the butterfly to hurry, Alice?”

“Yes, Mummy, it told me how long before it would be a butterfly. That was too long, so I helped it hurry.”

Fluttering its wings the few times required, the butterfly landed on the girl’s hand.

“I’d like to go home now, Mummy, it will be cold soon.”

The mother stood, brushed off her clothes and gathered her things. She reached for the unoccupied hand of her daughter and together they walked toward the small cabin near the trees.

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That evening, sitting near the fire Janis spoke in low tones with her husband. They both knew that if the sleeping child chose, their conversation would be anything but private. It still seemed necessary for themselves, if not for her, that they have this conversation in presumed privacy.

“Alex, her control is increasing. At least her control of her abilities, if not her desire to use them.” Janis stared into the cooling cup of tea. “She doesn’t ask me anymore before she tries things. She just decides and then works on how to make it happen.”

Alex sighed and got up to look at the moon washed meadow. “We were warned. We were told that as time passed she would be less ours and so much more… whatever it is they become.” He turned to his wife, took a deep breath and asked, “Are you sure you want to stick to this plan? We don’t know how quickly she is going to progress, but she is already ahead of many in her age group. They warned us. Our combined IQ has given her a head start. She may be unmanageable within a few short months.”

“We’ve been over this, Alex. I’ll keep my child by my side as long as she will have me.” She put the now cold tea aside. “My observations may help us understand this transition more than all the laboratories on earth.” A butterfly flew into the room and landed on her hand, wings gently waving. Soon it took flight and winged its way through the open window. Janis watched it go and turned to see her daughter standing in her bedroom door.

“He wanted to be free, Mummy. And that is such an important thing.”

 

NOTE: I fell in love with Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End when I was really quite young. The story intrigued me and held me spellbound from beginning to end. I think I was still in grade school when I found it among my mother’s books. Perhaps that early influence is what gave me hope that one day our species would step beyond our childish ways and become something we seemed meant to be: contributing members of a vast and beautiful universe. Able to touch the stars and yet still understand the heart of our fellow beings – whatever shape they might take.

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30 Cubed – The Biologist

header2Adrianne’s eyes were burning. The light from the monitor illuminated her face, but not much else. Not many could tolerate long hours staring at the screen without light from somewhere else. This, however, is how she preferred it. Her focus was unbreakable; at least until the 9th or 10th hour. As it was, she was nearing the end of her shift.

Adrianne, Dr. Franklin, was part of the Biological SETI team. Sometimes barely recognized and sometimes the secret hope of many in the globe-spanning SETI research effort, Biological SETI was on a mission to find one thing and one thing only, evidence in the human genomic code that some “one” or some “thing” at some point tinkered with our DNA. A biological message in a bottle saying: ET was here.

Andrianne herself was not completely sold on the idea, however it was intriguing to think that buried somewhere in the DNA of life on earth, there is an identifiable code that could not have arisen naturally. At one point, ninety-eight percent of the DNA strand in humans was considered non-coding. Apparently not contributing to the function of the organism in any productive way. What she did know, and what scientists around the world should have learned by now, is that just about the time we are certain that something is not a contributing part of the system (biological or otherwise) we are studying, a reason pops up and raise its ugly head destroying many miles of carefully vetted, peer reviewed literature. That’s just the way it goes.

Evolutionary biologists had been using DNA strings as indicators of how long a certain sequence had been in place for some time. Searching for patterns in the 500,000 to 2.5 million pairs of nucleotides, they found the evidence of where our species, and which one of us, developed, say, the ability to handle lactose. It seemed, then, that by taking the molecules apart (23 of them, actually) bit by bit, we just might find something that was a clear calling card that, well, ET had a hand in the production line.

Andrianne was a serious researcher and really wanted to find sequences that would fit the bill; she just wasn’t sure how she felt about the who or what may have put them there. She had devoted a number of years to the effort and a find in the field would secure her future. Meanwhile the G-A and C-T pairs drifted across the screen in monotonous continuity.

In preparation of leaving for the evening, Dr. Franklin processed the last string of DNA sequences through an algorithm designed to detect patterns or pieces of patterns representing known mathematical expressions and functions. Many had gone over the same territory but, most likely, had taken a different slice of the code. She chose this slice because it appeared to be quite ancient with little change for what appeared to be a geological time period. Once the sequence came to an end, again coming up with no known patterns, Andrea did what she always did on a whim as much as anything else – she flipped the code sequence and ran it through the algorithm. Reaching for her mouse to start the shutdown sequence as soon as the program ran its course, she froze. Her screen had filled with the “pattern found” icon.

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Andrea held the moment to herself for nearly an hour before she alerted her supervisor. Her eyes never left the screen. In the hour she thought of how humanity had, since antiquity, refused to believe it occupied the universe alone. Out of loneliness of spirit, mind, reason, or some unexplained drawing to a superior being of some kind; mankind’s history was permeated with hunts for something else, someone else, somewhere “out there.” Now, as she prepared to have the program divulge just what it had found, that otherness was within our grasp. Would it be a pattern we could interpret? Would it tell us something new, or something that we had only dreamed was true? Where would it lead us and how soon would we get there?

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