Category Archives: Science Fiction

Eclipse Musings

The Great American Eclipse of 2017 has come and gone.

A year ago, I would have said that I expected to spend today in the path of totality, thanks to the fact that my father-in-law happens to own some suitably-located property in SE Nebraska.  Alas, for a variety of reasons my wife and I concluded several months back that it wasn’t going to be practical for our family to journey to Nebraska for today.  I was pleased, for my kids’ sake, that my ex-wife picked up the slack and decided to take the kids to the path of totality near St. Louis; sounds like they had excellent weather and a great eclipse-viewing experience.

My youngest kids are only slightly older than I was during the last total solar eclipse visible in the continental US, the eclipse of 1979.  I was an elementary school student in London, Ontario, where the maximum coverage was roughly 80%.  I vividly remember our class being shuttled to the school gymnasium so that we could all watch the live CBC feed from Winnipeg, which was in the path of totality.

As for me today, I was in Minneapolis, where sunny weather in the early morning was replaced by cloud cover at midday.  I wandered outside at what ought to have been the maximum eclipse period, which for Minneapolis was only 83% coverage.  Unfortunately it didn’t feel much different than a cloudy day, the sun being largely obscured by clouds.  Ah well.

For me it’s hard to think about eclipses without thinking of two pop culture touchstones.

One is Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” – or, as I refer to it, “The Nova Scotia Song”:

Then you flew your Learjet up to Nova Scotia
To see the total eclipse of the sun
Well, you're where you should be all the time...

An interesting piece of trivia I recently learned from Wikipedia is that there is apparently some ambiguity regarding which eclipse Carly Simon is to referring here!  Both the eclipse of 1970 and the eclipse of 1972 were visible from Nova Scotia, and the song was released about four months after the latter but purportedly had been written in 1971.  Personally I think that the song most likely refers to the 1972 eclipse, since one would have had to fly to Nova Scotia (or parts further north) in order to be in its path of totality, whereas the 1970 eclipse was visible throughout the US Eastern seaboard.  (And this lyric is in the final verse, which one could imagine to have been added to the song after the rest had been written.)

The other is Isaac Asimov’s classic short story “Nightfall”.     It was once named the very best sci-fi short story written prior to the introduction of the annual Nebula awards in 1965; and I for one would not quibble with that choice, although I recognize that there are some who consider it overrated.  It certainly captured my imagination when I first read it as a teenager, and remains vivid in my mind these many years later.

For the benefit of those who’ve not read it – “Nightfall” is set in a planetary system that involves one planet and six suns, and where darkness is unknown because at least one of the six suns is always in the sky.  The planet has a human-like intelligent race, whose scientists have recently made two interesting observations.  The first, from archaeologists, is that ruins suggest a significant cyclical pattern, with civilization being destroyed by fire approximately every 2000 years.  The second, from physicists who only recently have developed a theory of gravity, is that in order to completely explain orbital movements one would need to hypothesize the existence of a previously undetected planetoid – and furthermore, once every 2000 years, there would be an extended period of time where none of the six suns were visible, with 5 having set and the 6th being eclipsed by the planetoid…

Although I’ve never seen anything to suggest this is actually true, I have a pet theory that the final verse of the Billy Joel song “Two Thousand Years” was inspired by “Nightfall”:

And in the evening
After the fire and the light
One thing is certain: Nothing can hold back the night
Time is relentless
And as the past disappears
We're on the verge of all things new
We are two thousand years

Ah well.  Enough eclipse musings for today.  Time to start the countdown for the eclipse of 2024, whose path of totality includes where my parents live in Eastern Ontario!

Bug Jack Barron and “Poli-Sci-Fi”

Like many children of the 1980s, I grew up reading heavy doses of science fiction; although I was perhaps a bit unusual in that my tastes ran more to short stories than to novels, and more to the Golden Age than to the New Wave or cyberpunk.   Clarke and Asimov were my lodestones at first, and while my tastes later expanded to the likes of Sturgeon and Heinlein, I never quite made the leap to appreciate Ellison and his contemporaries, or their progeny.

Every rule has its exception, of course.  And in my case, one piece of New Wave science fiction to which I was exposed and immediately loved was Norman Spinrad’s Nebula-nominated 1969 short story, “The Big Flash.”   The story’s writing style captured my attention, to be sure:  It is written from a first-person perspective, except that every few pages the narrative shifts to a different person’s perspective (without repetition).  But it was really the subject matter of the story and, more generally, the subgenre of the story that captured my interest:  “The Big Flash” is a stellar example of what one might call political science fiction, which for short I’ll call poli-sci-fi.

Now, there are different things one could mean by poli-sci-fi.  It could mean speculative fiction involving political science themes, but without an evident “science fiction” element as that term is generally understood.  A good example (in my opinion) of this type of poli-sci-fi would be Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels viewed as a whole, up through 2000’s The Bear and The Dragon, by which point Clancy had constructed an alternate present that was clearly distinguishable from our present due to different geopolitical choices made during the period 1985-2000.  (And then he went and ruined his own universe, by implausibly assuming in 2003’s The Teeth of the Tiger that 9/11 would have happened anyways in the Ryanverse, at which point I stopped paying any attention to Clancy.)  Of course one doesn’t typically recognize the Ryan novels as being “science fiction” and instead views them through alternate genre lenses – such as “spy fiction”, or “military fiction”.  But to me the poli-sci-fi frame is compelling, particularly after considering the events taking place after the deus ex machina conclusion to Debt of Honor thrusting massive political change upon the USA.  Another well-known example of this type of poli-sci-fi would be Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

An alternate definition of poli-sci-fi that might be more widely accepted would be speculative fiction that explores technological change primarily from the perspective of its political implications.  In other words, fiction that everyone would recognize as “science fiction” but where political ideas are paramount.   Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984 would clearly fit here.  As does “The Big Flash,” which was set in the then-present (i.e., the USA of the late 1960s) and explored the following question:  Given that tactical nuclear weapons had recently become technologically feasible, how could one create conditions under which their use in the Vietnam War would be embraced by the American people?  I wouldn’t want to deprive the reader of the experience of finding out how Spinrad answered that question, but I will mention that the first time I heard Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper” after having read “The Big Flash” was a very odd experience…

“The Big Flash” was not the high point of Spinrad’s 1969 literary output, however.  That honor technically goes to Bug Jack Barron, his best-known novel and one that fits very snugly into the second definition of poli-sci-fi above.  I say “technically” because Bug Jack Barron had actually been completed in 1967, but was serialized in New Worlds magazine in 1967-68 due it having been rejected by Spinrad’s publisher, before finally seeing print as a novel in 1969.

I read Bug Jack Barron for the first time this month, having stumbled across it on sale at my local independent bookstore.   And like “The Big Flash”, its plot centers around a question involving the intersection of scientific progress with contemporary American politics:  Should Congress pass a bill granting a monopoly on human cryogenics to a nominally not-for-profit Foundation for Human Immortality, which charges $500,000 to freeze one’s body upon death (with the deceased hoping that future life-extension research would eventually enable resurrection)?

It was, without doubt, a highly controversial book when it was first published, and understandably so – copious amounts of explicit sexual content and drug references, very liberal use of the c-word and the n-word, experimental sentence structure, et cetera.  It’s hard for me to completely appreciate how shocking it would have been to read in 1967; it would still offend a lot of sensibilities in 2015.   And while it was acclaimed at the time (garnering a Hugo nomination but losing to LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness), there’s plenty about the novel that one could criticize, even leaving aside the more controversial elements.

But even so, there are a number of interesting political musings in the novel.  At the time the novel was written Spinrad was speculating about the future, but from our perspective the world of Bug Jack Barron represents an alternate past; and it’s intriguing to step back and evaluate what Spinrad got “wrong” and what he got “right” in extrapolating forward from his 1967.

The timeframe of the novel is never explicitly stated, but there a number of clues.  We’re told that the next US Presidential nominating conventions are a little over a year away as the novel opens; that our protagonist, Jack Barron, is 38 and first came to prominence as a “Berkeley rabble-rouser”; and that a 1981-model car is considered old.   Putting those pieces together, it appears to me that the novel very likely takes place in the spring of 1987.

But this 1987 is one in which the USA has been in a prolonged state of single-party rule – a premise that was already obsolete by the time the novel was published.  In Spinrad’s 1987, the Republicans have not managed to elect a President since Eisenhower.  (Reagan is mentioned in the novel, in passing, as an example of a media figure who successfully turned to politics.)  The current Democratic president is unnamed but apparently isn’t standing for re-election; one of the leading Democratic candidates for President is referred to throughout the novel as “Teddy the Pretender”, which could very well be a veiled reference to Teddy Kennedy.  Moreover, Spinrad’s 1987 is one in which the USA is no longer a two-party state.  Spinrad posits that a new party, the Social Justice Coalition (SJC), has emerged to the left of the Democrats, as an outgrowth of the protest movements of 1960s; our protagonist Barron was one of the founders of the SJC.

Living in the world we do, where the civil rights movement of 1960s led to the transformation of the Republican party’s base via the Southern strategy and to 20 years of Republican presidents over a 24-year period (1968-1992), it’s a little hard for Spinrad’s vision of the future political landscape to be resonant.  However, was it a crazy idea?  Not necessarily.  If you grant the conceit that the hippies and African-American civil rights activists could have transformed their activities into a new political party separate from the Democrats, then it becomes easier to imagine that working-class whites (particularly in the South) would have remained in the Democratic fold and that the Republicans would have remained primarily the party of moneyed interests.  (Another main character in the novel is the African-American SJC governor of Mississippi, which seems to imply that the SJC garners essentially all of the African-American vote.)  Indeed, Spinrad’s version of American politics as having a dominant centrist party flanked by smaller parties on each side of the spectrum is far from unfamiliar: We just have to look north of the border, to the Liberal Party (or, as they were often referred, the “natural governing party” of Canada), who were in power for all but one year over the period 1963-1984.

In imagining a USA in which there is a flourishing progressive party to the Democrats’ left and a struggling Republican party, Spinrad was anticipating that the country as a whole would settle further to the left on the political spectrum than it did in reality.  This viewpoint is reflected in two other aspects of Spinrad’s 1987 that seem strange today.

One involves marijuana legalization.  In the novel, not only had marijuana become legal in almost 40 states by 1987, but it had become big business: The major sponsor of the most popular TV program in the USA is a brand of marijuana cigarette called Acapulco Golds.  Moreover, regular marijuana usage by major political and public figures is presented as being normal.  While in our 2015 we can start to see that type of future as being plausible, it’s certainly a far cry from how marijuana was regarded in our 1987.

The other involves the role of regulation in overseeing the media and political debate.  The novel assumes, as a matter of course, that the Federal Communications Commission would continue to ensure that each media outlet remained comparatively free from political bias, via what was known as the fairness doctrine.  Barron, while formerly an SJC political figure, had abandoned politics prior to the start of the novel and instead is the host of a current affairs TV show, and he and his staff are constantly concerned about the need to present matters in a way that will keep the FCC off the network’s back.  Ironically, in reality the FCC abandoned the fairness doctrine in….1987, thereby paving the way for today’s partisan media climate.  Barron is also continuously worried about potential accusations of libel for statements made on his TV show, which is interesting from a contemporary perspective, inasmuch as that I can’t recall the last time I heard anybody in the USA (as opposed to the UK) express concerns about libel.

Along similar lines, the central political debate of the novel involves a tension between capitalist and socialist values – a tension that would have been far more one-sided in our 1987.  The fact that the Foundation for Human Immortality requires $500,000 of liquid assets in order to purchase a space in one of its “freezers” is quite controversial.  The principal alternative under discussion is not, as one might think from today’s perspective, to deny the Foundation its monopoly in order to encourage competition in the field of human cryogenics.  Rather, it is to nationalize the cryogenics facilities, so that wealth would not be a mechanism for triaging access.  (I don’t imagine that Spinrad would have foreseen either the high inflation of the late 1970s and early 1980s or the rise of Wall Street in the 1980s, so his $500,000 threshold probably seemed more insurmountable at the time then it does to those of us who lived through the 1980s.)  Unsurprisingly, Spinrad doesn’t really discuss what triage mechanisms the proponents of the alternative “public freezer bill” might suggest employing.

But not all of Spinrad’s extrapolations missed the mark.

One of the central themes of the novel is the potentially corruptive influence of money on politics.  The not-for-profit Foundation for Human Immortality is controlled by a billionaire who uses his purse-strings to control senators, governors, and FCC commissioners – with the ultimate objective (for reasons discussed below) being to control the next President.  As the jacket blurb to the 2004 paperback edition of the novel reads, in trying to summarize the novel’s appeal in a single sentence:  “[Bug Jack Barron‘s] exploration of how big business corrupts the democratic process is as relevant as ever to today’s television and media obsesses culture.”

Another recurring theme in the novel is race relations.  Spinrad’s 1987 is hardly a post-racial paradise.  Although Mississippi spent money to build “a new capital for a new Mississippi” and named it Evers, the new city contained “some of the ghastliest slums Barron had ever seen … [and] made Harlem, Watts, Bedford-Stuyvesant look like Scarsdale.”  The governor of Mississippi takes it as an undeniable fact of life that he can never aspire to the Presidency due to his skin color, and therefore resigns himself to projecting his ambitions on sympathetic whites (or “black shades” as he calls them).  And even though the viability of the SJC depends on fusing the interests of progressive whites with African-Americans, there is still evident tension between the white and black wings of the party.  And, interestingly, Spinrad foresaw that African-Americans would reclaim the n-word.   None of this sounds all that unfamiliar.

One last final political element of Bug Jack Barron worth noting is a plot point about separation-of-powers concerns.  The piece of proposed legislation that is the main subject of the book would establish a 5-member Presidential Commission to oversee all of the activities of the Foundation of Human Immortality and regulate the field of life-extension.  This specific legal framework is exceptionally important to the billionaire overseer of the Foundation; his ultimate intent is, by virtue of controlling the President and hence his appointments to the Commission, to get the Commission to sanction certain Foundation activities that would otherwise be illegal, without risking Congressional interference.   Although the technical details are somewhat inapposite, it’s interesting to note that the Sarbanes-Oxley Act created a similar commission to regulate the accounting industry (the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board) and that there was a 2009 Supreme Court case calling into question the constitutionality of that scheme.

All in all, Bug Jack Barron is a somewhat dated but nonetheless worthwhile read for those who are interested in poli-sci-fi (and willing to tolerate copious amounts of vulgar language!)