Here’s What Happened

Turns out, my old computer was still suddenly quitting as if the electricity had been turned off, despite his efforts to repair it. So the option was a replacement. He called on Friday to say it was ready.
on Mar 15, 2021 · 1 comment

I’ve been absent from this site for 2 and 1/2 months, and even before that, I was hit and miss. Long story short, my old computer needed to be upgraded. The operating system was no longer compatible to a lot of newer versions of the software running many sites. While I could still post here at Spec Faith, I could no longer comment from the site (I could still go to the administration page and search for comments I wanted to respond to, but I could not generate new comments). This went on for several months.

Then one December while I was watching a video, my computer simply stopped. Just stopped.

Since it was the week leading up to New Years Eve, I decided to wait until the new year to handle the problem

When I contacted my computer guy—a tech person who has a one-man business working with old Apple computers (the Apple people had long since told me they could not maintain my machine, because it was so old), I worked out a way to transport that desk top computer a half hour or so to his business. He laid out my options: he could try to repair the machine, but for a little more money he possibly could find a newer, used model that would have more life in it than my old computer which was likely to have other problems as time wore on. Fine. I

I expected in to call me that week to let me know if he’d been successful in finding such a used computer. Instead, nothing. OK, I thought, I’ve dealt with old cars before, so maybe he’s having a little trouble finding the part that he needed to get my old computer up and running. So I waited. And waited. After about three weeks, I considered the possibility that he was waiting for me to call him instead of the other way around. So I called.

Instead of his immediately picking up the phone, as he had initially, I can a recording that allowed me to leave a message. Fine. I did so, including my phone number, though I knew he already had it. The week wore on, and nothing.

So I called again. The recording said the number was being rerouted to a different number, where I gain left a message. A couple days later I called again and received the same recording.

Now I’m starting to get concerned. This was a man with a respected business, who had received 5 star reviews on Yelp, including a comment about how fast the service was. This was a business I’d used before, and had been very happy with. And now he had my computer and I did not. So many of the sites that require passwords were ones I did not have—only my computer did. Consequently trying to use my phone was out for practically everything.

Then I began to be concern for my computer guy. Did he have Covid? Had he been in an accident and was laid up in a hospital? As weeks went by, I prayed. What else could I do? Basically my brains were locked up in a shop in another city, and I had no idea how or when or even if I’d get them back.

Finally, in early March I called again, and my tech guy answered. Turns out he had been dealing with a family emergency. Now he was able to give me some answers. Turns out, my old computer was still suddenly quitting as if the electricity had been turned off, despite his efforts to repair it. So the option was a replacement. He called on Friday to say it was ready.

And he found me a good one. It’s big, has upgraded software and a much newer operating system. He transferred all my programs and documents—the info on my old hard drive, in other words, so at long last, I’m back up and running.

That was likely more information that you’re interested in, but the end result of all this time away from my computer gave me time to read. And mostly I read fantasy novels that I’ve had on my Kindle or as physical copies, and had not yet read. So I thought over the next little while, I’d give my thoughts on these various books—which will be a good thing because I haven’t had books to talk about in some time. I mean, ones I personally had read. Now I have some. And I’ll use this opportunity to give you my $.02.

The Fantastical Elements of Romantic Fiction, part 2

Romance is the study of ‘what if’ scenarios through the exploration of relationships.
on Mar 4, 2021 · 12 comments

Among writers, there exists, for some, a latent sense of snobbery when it comes to the romance genre. Perhaps, they feel as if romance is easy to write. Like, it doesn’t take any effort. As my good friend Travis Perry jokingly mocked to me once when we worked on a romantic fiction project together, “Kissy, kissy.”

It should be noted that some speculative fiction writers will add a romantic element in their stories. Often, the romantic element is under-utilized because the writers have a preconceived bias about romance. They don’t feel it’s important.1Couple 4K Wallpaper, Lovers, Proposal, Silhouette, Starry sky, Romantic, Engagement, Love, #995

Romance is just as fantastical. Romance writers create an engaging couple that, despite the ups and downs, survive and thrive. 2

Relationships – the glue of a romantic story

Relationships make the world go around. Regardless of the genre, every story is built upon relationships. No relationship, no story. Humanoid or not, sentient beings or instinctual predators, plant life, angels, demons – every story is built upon relationships.

Romance tropes and why they work

Here’s a secret: people read what they are familiar and comfortable with. Chances are, if you like dragon stories, you’ve read dozens of books about them. It doesn’t matter if the story has twists and turns, or even a fresh spin. What drew you to the story is that it contained dragons.

Some popular romantic tropes are:

First love – Exploring the characters’ first awakening feelings of romance.

Enemies-to-lovers – Friction between two seemingly aggressive and opposing characters that hide a romance.

Second chance – Presenting or gaining an opportunity to regain a lost romance ripped apart by conflict.

Best friends – Transforming an intimate friendship into a romantic relationship.

Forbidden love – An external or internal mandate or perception creates a taboo romance.

There are plenty more and while it is true that tropes can be overused, they aid in helping to defining the pathway of the couple’s journey.  It should be noted that tropes are reflections of real life. There’s not a person who is reading this blog post that hasn’t a relationship that started in one of these ways.  Or even a combination.

When authors who are trying to write a romance ask my advice, if they are married or in a relationship, I often tell them to remember what it was like for them. Often, I hear, “Well, our relationship was different.” “It’s complicated.”

Great! Go from there.

Hopefully, through the tropes I’ve provided, you can see how a speculative fiction story can utilize them. Starman (1984) What if an alien came to Earth and took over a man’s dying remains and falls in love with his wife?

Worldbuilding through romance

Retrieved from https://cherylwalsh.art/mermaids

Understanding the fantastical elements of romance is to understand that the dynamics of the couple is central to the storyline. We experience the world through the couple’s eyes, interactions, and responses to external stimuli. A story can have romantic elements in it, but simply having those elements doesn’t make it a romance.

In the movie Her (2013), our protagonist develops a relationship with his AI virtual assistant. Through their relationship, we learn about the world our protagonist lives in. Yet, it’s not the relationship that is core of the story. It plays a major role but at the end, the movie tackles other questions besides their relationship.

In Ex-Machina (2014), our protagonist learns the hard way that his AI Robot romantic interest passed the Turing Test with flying colors. We learn about the blurred line between the natural and programmed. Whether AI consciousness, allowed to develop, would be able to deceive us.

In these two movies, the romantic element moves the plot along but ultimately, the couple doesn’t end up together. In my opinion, and in the romance world, opinions differ, a romance is when the relationship, through the ups, downs, twists, or turns, the conclusion is the cemented relationship of the main characters.

That’s right — happily ever after!

In Jupiter Ascending (2015), the main story revolves around the relationship between June, the cleaning woman come galactic princess and her protector, a half human/half canine soldier Caine. Through our couple, we learn of the worldview, conflict, and more. I wouldn’t call the movie a romance as the couple’s relationship isn’t front and center. In the true nature of a space opera, other points of view intersect but at the core, you have strong romantic element.

C. S. Johnson’s book, Northern Lights, Southern Stars is a great example of romantic fantasy. A retelling of Snow White, we experience our world through the dark-skinned princess Ebony of the Southern Colonies and her love interest, the pale-skinned Prince Rion with commentary from his stepmother, the evil Queen. The romance is the core of the story with their relationship moving the action and plot along.

Plot development through romance

In Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, we follow the main characters, Richard Rahl and Kahlan Amnell through twenty-five books. Their relationship throughout the books evolves in ways through the external happenings all around them. Richard’s love for Kahlan remains true despite a dumpster truck of happenings. Goodkind considered his books to be fantasy, but I think he was shocked when his fourth book in the series, Temple of the Winds, won a Romantic Times award because, like it or not, the romance between Richard and Kahlan appealed to romance readers.

In the same way, romance can help develop a plot. In Carole McDonnell’s tribal speculative fiction book Wind Follower, Satha and her husband Loic are forced to deal with a long separation, invaders, and other elements. Through these events, they are changed and grow but the plot moves along because of them.

Every relationship experiences conflict. No conflict means no growth. You don’t know what type of hardships you can live through until you live through them.

As in life, a couple who experiences hardship and survives them, often grow stronger. In the agonizing slow-burn series, Colony (2016-2018), we follow husband and wife, Will and Kate Bowman as they navigate their life through the occupation of an alien race that dominates Earth. Will becomes a collaborator while Kate becomes part of the resistance. Will is acting as a double agent, pretending to be a collaborator but trying to gain information about his missing son. He’s forced to kill resistance members, which puts Kate in danger as this is a secret from her husband.  Throughout the series, their relationship is attacked from all sides, all while the plot of the story moves it along.

Romance makes the story.

I tell myself he’s not real, but it’s hard to remember that when he’s sitting across from me in the bathtub.

“Read my audiobook,” I command him.

His electric blue eyes gleam for a second. Do they gleam because he’s processing my request? Or because he’s excited to read this juicy part of the book just as I am excited to hear him read it in that deep, milk and honey voice?

He speaks, his full lips moving, reciting the sensuous words as I slowly sink deeper into the bubbles. I try to remember that the man in the tub with me is only a visual representation of millions of lines of code, a force field, and holographic technology. Layers of artificial means to simulate reality for my pleasure.

A jarring series of knocks almost…almost…takes away the magic of the moment, but I ignore them. The man before me may not be real, but he’s more real to me than my husband knocking at the door, begging to be let in.

The above snippet is ‘fan fiction’ of the Michael B. Jordan commercial I alluded to last week. In it, I ask the question: “What if a woman finds herself in a love triangle with her distant husband and a computer program?”

To conclude, the fantastical elements of romance are just as strong. Crafting a story utilizing the relationship as the main vehicle is a skillset to be honed and improved over time. Speculative fiction writers need to consider that in their great worldbuilding, can a couple fall in love and grow together?

As a pastor told me last week: Our whole relationship with God is romance, of the right kind.

Ah! Isn’t that romantic?

What are some ways you can explore your speculative fiction world through romance? Do you think romance is overrated? How does your own real-life romance show up in your stories or books you read? Share your thoughts!

  1. Look, the thing about romance, in fiction and in life, is finding the person that gets you on you on a bad day. Who flows with your crazy and you can flow with theirs. They live life with you, no matter what. These ideals sound trippy in today’s cynical world that turns it’s back on a loving God.  Divorce, affairs, failures seems to be norm and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.
  2. The journey of finding that person is the exciting part of romance. It’s being privy to their thoughts, emotions, and interactions. There are those who say the idea of ‘soulmates’, the man or woman who is builds your world and makes it better, doesn’t exist. I disagree. I believe we’ve forgotten to ask the Lord to lead us to our soulmates. But that’s another discussion for another time. Those of us who are believers, know we can only find true completeness in the Lord. Which is very true, don’t misunderstand. But can you see how when Adam was in the garden, the Lord said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” With that, he created Eve.

Settling the Solar System in Science Fiction, part 3: the Moon

Closest of any major astonomical bodies to Earth, the Moon would make a great military base or astronomy station–and has been in many stories.
on Feb 24, 2021 · 2 comments

The Moon, which Genesis describes as “the light to rule over the night,” has in fact been the subject of a great deal of science fiction. Though much of the science fiction dedicated to Earth’s moon describes exploring it or traveling to it, rather than settling it. Still, enough tales have been set there and it is so near to Earth, relatively speaking, that we ought to treat the prospect of settling on the Moon seriously. Though it may have more potential as a military base or scientific station than a permanent human settlement, if given the opportunity, human beings will consider settling on the Moon. And science fiction has already considered it.

What’s the Moon Got for Survival?

(For a review of what humans need to survive in space, please see the section on Human Survival Needs in part 1 of this series.)

Oxygen, Energy, Water

You might think the Moon has nothing much, but in fact it has plenty of oxygen in oxides found in lunar rocks. It also has plenty of energy for food production and warmth–solar panels would work very well there. And, in addition to those two things, the Moon has water. Not just water trapped in craters that never receive sunlight at the lunar north and south poles–a 2020 report revealed there’s a surprisingly high amount of water on the sunlight side of the lunar surface. Water trapped in the microscopic glass bubbles common on the Moon or within grains of sand. Plus, the same article I just linked also reveals there’s probably even more craters with water ice in them than believed in the past. Plenty of water for a small colony.

Resources

I’m going to deviate from the order of the Mercury (part 1) post because I’d like to say the most important thing about the Moon at the end of this section. In the meantime, the Moon has plenty of mineral resources…but isn’t all that great in that regard. Much of the Moon seems to be undifferentiated material–that is, from what is known so far about it, it has no ores (Mercury probably has ores). Mining the lunar surface would seem to require scooping up a lot of moondust and running it through some kind of furnace that would superheat materials and allow separation into various chemical elements. A process that’s more difficult that processing materials on Earth, but which lunar settlers could pull off, given enough energy and the right equipment. Though we should note that unlike Venus or Earth, the Moon doesn’t have much easily-available carbon.

Protection

The lunar surface doesn’t offer any protection from radiation or meteors at all, except when incoming radiation or meteors are directed at the far side of the Moon, but digging underground would work there. It’s not known if the Moon has any natural underground caves–certainly it doesn’t have any created by water, but may not have any created by vulcanism, either. The other requirements for protection would have to be manufactured, though moondust could become the basis for creating soils that would be part of processing and eliminating waste. But the most important bit that requires humans to live on planets as opposed to deep space may be inadequate on the Moon: Gravity. With gravity at 1/6th of Earth (or 16%), the gravity on the lunar surface may prove to be insufficient to prevent destructive bone loss and malformation of human embryos–though on the other hand, it might be fine. Nobody knows. But there’s a separate issue concerning lunar gravity.

Gravity

The greatest thing about the Moon as a place humans could settle is also the worse thing–its gravity is much lower than Earth’s. While humans living there run the risk of bone loss and other medical problems, the lower gravity means if you wanted to build spacecraft or stations out of lunar materials to use in deep space, it would cost much less fuel to get those materials or pre-constructed craft in orbit from the Moon than it would from Earth. The difference in fuel needs is so extreme that it likely would easily make up for the extra costs of manufacturing on the Moon. So the Moon could be an excellent production center or military base–which might mean the Moon would do very well in the category of “protection from attack.”

How Has Science Fiction Seen the Moon?

There’s a tremendous diversity of stories that mention or feature Earth’s Moon. Such tales are not always clearly science fiction–literary fiction and fables have also featured voyages to the Moon. Although Wikipedia is not a perfect source in general, I’m finding its articles on planetary bodies in fiction to be very helpful. Please refer to the “Moon in fiction” Wikipedia article for more detail on what I’m summarizing below.

First Voyages

A tremendous amount of fiction concerning the Moon has simply imagined what it would be like to travel there for the first time, obviously produced prior to the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, the first actual landing. These include Lucian of the Second Century AD writing satire that features the Moon, a story by Johannes Kepler, another by Francis Godwin (which featured a Spaniard using a chariot pulled by geese), a tale by Cyrano de Bergerac, Daniel Defoe, Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov (in 1939), Robert A. Heinlein (who consulted on the script of a 1950 movie on the subject), and Arthur C. Clarke (in 1951).

Fantastic Adventures on the Moon

While stories about the first trips to the Moon described it as inhabited as often as not, the point of such stories was not the interaction with Moon people as much as the exploration itself. But other tales showed it to be a fantastical, even magical place. And set various stories there, where heroes have adventures of a wide variety of types–or alternatively, feature Moon people coming to Planet Earth. These stories include a 10th Century Japanese folktale, an Italian epic poem (Orlando Furioso), Pan Twardowski in Polish folklore, a story by Hans Christian Anderson, and even a tale by J.R.R. Tolkien, Such stories mostly came to an end after the Apollo missions found a desolate, empty Moon, but there are some modern examples nonetheless, such as David Almond’s The Boy Who Climbed Into the Moon.

A Future Moon That’s Been Colonized

A large number of science fiction stories have imagined a future Moon that has colonies, often in the context of talking about other developments in outer space–so a story many mention or feature lunar colonies, but also talk about more numerous and important colonies on Mars or elsewhere. These stories include about a dozen stories from Robert A. Heinlein, several of which I will talk about in more detail under the next point. Also included are four novels from Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven, Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, G.R.R. Martin’s Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Lunatics, Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series, Artemis by Andy Weir (of The Martian fame), and numerous references to an inhabited Moon in the Star Trek universe (among many other stories).

The Moon as a Military Threat to Earth

While the Moon has been very popular in terms of a place to imagine future colonies, science fiction at times has portrayed it as hostile to the Earth. That’s even though sci fi has much preferred Mars as a source of aliens interested in invading Planet Earth, but at least once the Moon provided invaders of our planet in fiction–though more often aliens hostile to us, though not invaders. Or, alternatively, humans inhabiting the Moon who represented a threat to people living on Earth.

Alien Invaders From the Moon / Hostile Aliens on the Moon

These stories include an 1809 essay with story elements by Washington Irving, which openly compared lunar invaders to what Europeans did to American Indians. Tales of hostile Moon aliens (though not invading Earth) include the greatest early science fiction series in Polish, The Lunar Trilogy by Jerzy Żuławski (written 1901-11) , which imagined the descendants of the first human explorers of the Moon becoming slaves of malicious lunar aliens. Likewise, C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength refers to the near side of the Moon having evil aliens the scientists of N.I.C.E. admired–while the far side had creatures the eugenicist aliens from the near side persecuted. And the very-low-rated 2013 film Stranded featured a shapeshifting alien on the Moon attacking a human lunar base.

Hostile Humans Threatening the Earth from the Moon

Perhaps more significantly than menacing aliens on the Moon, science fiction has shown humans inhabiting the Moon threatening the Earth. These tales include the 1925 novel Menace from the Moon, which imagined that humans had arrived the lunar surface in the 1600s and now were in a crisis and were attacking Earth with a heat ray. In a way more technologically realtistic, Robert A. Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo, in which teenage prodigies in a rocket club help a scientist convert a suborbital rocket into a moonship, features a Nazi base on the Moon. In the story, the Nazis landed there during WWII, bent on developing a weapon to allow the Third Reich to rise again. (Note this 1947 novel was the first sci fi novel Heinlein ever wrote–and the first sci fi novel I ever read). A 2012 Finnish film Iron Sky likewise featured lunar Nazis–and an Austin Powers film featured Dr. Evil pointing a laser at Washington D.C. from the surface of the Moon. However, there’s one novel about the humans on the Moon that stands apart from the rest in describing what humans living there could do to Earth.

The Moon is A Harsh Mistress

Robert A. Heinlein’s 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress describes a lunar society that declares its independence from the Earth. Earth had colonized the Moon in the story, including setting up penal colonies, but also funded the building of lunar mines. The mines launched their ore back to Earth with a giant electromagnetically-powered launcher, a piece of technology commonly known as a railgun. When the lunar colonists decided to declare their independence from Earth, they used the launcher to hurl lunar rocks at Planet Earth. Instead of destroying cities, which they easily could have done, they aimed at locations on Earth that allowed them to demonstrate their capacity to kill–mostly targeting the open ocean outside of a major city, warning the “Earthlings” an attack was coming to allow for evacutation. Then sending a tsunami wave at the targeted city as a body consisting of tons of moon rocks slammed into the Earth.

Copyright: Robert A. and Virginia Heinlein Prize Trust

Heinlein’s tale included him heaping praise on Libertarian economics coupled with enthusiasm for combat (Heinlein also wrote the novel Starship Troopers) plus featured a central Artificial Intelligence running lunar systems as a key member of the rebellion against Earth–all thought-provoking stuff. But what most distinguished the story was its use of relatively simple ideas, especially the potential the Moon has to attack Earth. Because the Earth has much higher gravity than the Moon, it has an enormous military advantage against the Earth. Launching rocks from there with an electromagnetic gun requires nothing more than building such a system, abundant lunar solar power, and abundant lunar rock. Getting the rocks off the lunar surface is relatively easy due to the its light gravity and lack of atmosphere, but the Earth’s heavy gravity guarantees that any body of rock large enough to successfully pass through Earth’s atmosphere will impact with a force equivalent to a nuclear weapon.

It’s like the Moon is on a high castle wall over the Earth. A lunar defender has to lift a rock over the ledge of the wall (i.e. launch it from the Moon), but from there, the rock falls on its own, doing tremendous damage to enemies below by the force of gravity alone. The Moon in fact provides an ideal base to build relatively low-tech weapons which would seriously menace Planet Earth.

What’s Unique About the Moon–Military Advantage And Space Telescopes

Close

As I mentioned in the section above, the Moon would be a great place to launch weapons at the Earth. I’ll say more about that in a bit, but part of the reason why that’s a menace to Earth is because the Earth and Moon are much closer to one another than any other significant astronomical body comes to Earth. The proximity of the Moon relative to even Venus or Mars is what makes it such a likely place for human activity. Such activity would likely include tourism, which in fact has been mentioned by numerous science fiction stories, even though I didn’t focus on that above.

Edgar Mitchell of Apollo 14 on the Moon. Credit: NASA

Low Gravity

The Moon’s low gravity is its double-edged sword so to speak. On the one hand, it means anything built there will be much easier to get into space. It’s got real potential as a place to manufacture spacecraft (though if Mercury has separated ores, Mercury might be better than the Moon for building spacecraft and as good at launching the craft from its surface with a rail gun). On the other hand, it may mean humans living on the lunar surface lose too much bone over time to make permanent lunar colonies impractical. (Only time and further experimentation will tell on the bone loss and embryo development issues low gravity worlds may pose human beings).

Military Advantage

As mentioned above, the Moon is a great place to build a base to attack Planet Earth. It also could be used to defend Earth, though the fact it is on only one side of Earth at a time means it could not defend against ships coming from all directions, meaning the Moon by itself would be insufficient for the defense of Earth (but could be a key part). But the Moon’s low gravity means it could be used to launch missiles and other smart weapons (as opposed to “dumb” heaps of rock). The Moon’s lack of atmosphere means beam weapons built on the lunar surface could easily shoot into space without pesky air, with variable optical qualities, getting in the way.

Outer Space Treaty Limitations

Since the Moon is such a great place to build military bases and since the weapons on those bases could be so potentially dangerous to Earth, nations of the Earth have seen the Moon and outer space in general as representing great potential danger to life on Earth. For that reason most nations have signed an Outer Space Treaty, promising not to put nuclear weapons in space and to in general use space for peaceful purposes. Note that the Outer Space Treaty was negotiated in 1966 and signed in 1967–after Heilein’s publication of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in 1966, which pointed out the military potential of the Moon. Science fiction does have the potential to influence public policy.

The deliberate de-militarization of space means the nations of the world will also not look kindly on space settlements building space weapons of any kind or declaring their political independence of already-existing nations. These political considerations may in fact keep the Moon from being used for its most obvious purpose as a military base. But the Moon has one more natural advantage worthy of consideration.

The Moon as an Astronomy Station

Because the Moon has no atmosphere and because its far side has over 2,000 miles (near 3,500 km) of rock separating it from Earth, radio signals from Earth that interfere with radio telescopes would fall silent on the moon’s far side. Also there would be no issue for light pollution for optical telescopes. So the Moon, specifically the far side, would be a great place to build a series of telescopes, primarily radio but also optical, exploring the depths of outer space.

Conclusion

Because the Moon is not as friendly to life as other planets seem to be, it remains an afterthought in plans to colonize the Solar System, even though a great deal of science fiction has imagined it as at least partially inhabited. The Moon in fact would be a great place to build bases to create spacecraft and provide for military defense of Earth–if, that is, humans could be persuaded to unify to defend Earth rather than attack it. And of course, the lunar far side would be the greatest place to set up astronomical instruments, including telescopes, especially radio telescopes.

Could you imagine yourself living on the Moon? Or going there as a tourist?

Had you ever considered the Moon’s potential as a military base before? Do you think the Outer Space Treaty is wise to prevent humans from building military bases in space?

Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share? Please make your thoughts known in the comments below.

The Fantastical Elements of Romantic Fiction, part 1

Too often readers reject romance as nothing more than fluff stories, overlooking the fantastical worldbuilding in this genre.
on Feb 17, 2021 · 13 comments

“Alexa, dim the lights,” the clip plays for the twentieth time.

Michael B. Jordan immediately obeys. Slowly—or too quickly?—he peels off his skin-tight black T-shirt, revealing smooth golden-brown skin striated with muscles and—

“Hey, what are you doing?”

I jump, tearing my eyes from the screen. My thumb pauses the Super Bowl commercial with a quick tap of the space bar. I blink, coming out of my trance to see my husband standing there, bare-chested with no rippling muscles.

“What?” I snap at him.

“What are you doing?” My husband’s blue eyes narrow, staring down at me.

“Can I help you?” I retort, wanting him to just go away so I can get back to my fantasy man.

“You’re watching Michael B. Jordan again, aren’t you?”

I clear my throat, my fingers shakingly caressing the keys of the keyboard. “So?”

“You’ve replaced me with him, haven’t you?” His voice raises, his skin flushing with color.

“Babe, you don’t understand. I love Michael B. Jordan.”

“He’s not me!” My husband’s hands curl into fists. “You prefer him to me!”

“Who wouldn’t? He’s better-looking than you, nicer than you, sweeter than you and has more money than you!”

Meanwhile, back in reality …

Actually, nothing like this happened. But admit it: I had you going there for a minute, didn’t I? There is some element of truth to it: Michael B. Jordan does have more money than we do. Can’t fault a man for his hard-earned wealth, can you?

In the real world, my hubs and I both laughed watching the commercial. He’s well-aware of my celebrity crush and he finds it funny. He’s not threatened by it. Back in 2012, I crushed on Korean actor So Ji Sub. Ever so often I get a new celebrity crush. Then, like every schoolgirl infatuation, it fades away.

Why readers critique romantic fiction

I use this fictional scenario because people who oppose romance fiction often give a reason like this: “Women use romance to create fantasy men that real men could never live up to.” They might add that men similarly use pornography to create fantastical women that real women can’t live up to. Romance books, they say, are simply women’s pornography.

So when romance readers say, “I’ve got a new book boyfriend,” opponents say, “See? They’re replacing fantasy men with real men.”

Recently, a guy in a Facebook group asked why romance was so popular. I got on my soapbox and said my few thoughts. Above me, someone had commented, “I stay away from romances because romances can be [deterrent to your spiritual condition].” I could flow with this statement. Then that person said: “Even if the reader is okay [with romance fiction], you should still stay away from it.”

Some people don’t even read romance, or have read only one or two books and fancy themselves expert critics of the genre. I’m often irritated when an author who doesn’t know the genre well says, “Oh, romance isn’t realistic.” Conversely, some authors decide to write romance for whatever reason, but refuse to read the genre and assume they know what a romance details. They craft a boring story that’s three thousand pages long with absolutely nothing happening.1

I thought I’d divide this article into a couple of parts. Yet before I can get into the fantastical elements, I need to answer or respond to critics and their concerns. After all, not all critique is wrong. For our purposes here in part 2, I’ll also keep the romance within the speculative fiction genre.2

Answering common critiques about romance

1. “Romance is all about sex.”

If you scrolled for sci-fi romances online, you’d likely see many books emblazoned with disembodied muscular male chests of different colors and textures. You’ll even see creature patterns like scales, blue skin, horns, red skin, tattoos, yellow skin, and other variant markings. An average romance reader would assume that these books all have sex in them. This may be true, and most often is.

Sex does sell. Let’s not forget that.

People often associate this image with romance and assume that all romance is just sex books. Add the fantastical element, and these books are just about a guy and girl rolling around on black sand on some distant planet, right?

That’s not always the case.

As a consumer of romance for years, I’ve found that good romance shows the exploration of a couple’s journey to togetherness. It’s a reflection of real life.

Imagine you’re in a relationship and even married. What did that journey look like? Did you look at your sweetheart and fall instantly in love? Had you been close friends since childhood and then something changed the dynamic of your relationship? Were you co-workers who developed a friendship that led to something more without your even knowing it? Perhaps you first hated each other’s guts, and you fought the attraction?

To explore a couple’s romantic journey, we need intricate details because people are complex. Yes, people may have sex in a romance. People do that in real life. We wouldn’t be here if they didn’t. God created sex—let’s not forget that. (And it seems like a lot of Christians do.)

But not all romance has sex in it. Some fall into the “clean and wholesome” category with a “first kiss and blush” level of heat. Some stories have more romantic or sensual tension in them. Others may go into detail, and then “stop at the door.”

Whatever the romance’s heat level, it’s ancillary to the couple’s relationship journey.3

2. “Romance can cause spiritual deterioration to readers.”

To some extent, I can agree with this statement. Women—and men—can turn toward fantasy instead of realistic expectations.

I used the Michael B. Jordan commercial as a humorous example of this kind of fantasy. After all, he is some fans’ ideal man, thanks to his sex appeal and muscular form. Near the commercial’s end, the wife in the bathtub tells Michael B. to read her an audiobook, while her husband is knocking on the door.

It’s humorous,  but if you know how the fantasy causes harm, you might not see this as humorous. Seriously: she’s shut her husband out and is entwined in the fantasy.

But oh! It’s Michael B. Jordan! Can you blame her?

Romance books can for sure lead to real harm. If readers seriously expect guys to act like a romantic fiction dude, that can cause rifts, just like pornography, with its presentation of sex without humanity or relationships. We cannot objectify people until they are mere body parts performing acts without the context of humanity.

I can hear someone say, “So Parker, since you’re saying that a little romance is okay, are you saying it’s okay to look at a little porn.”

No. So stop it. What am saying is that romantic fiction can lead to unhealthy reader fantasies. If a reader finds herself in that place, I would suggest getting help, just like someone with a porn addiction needs help.

3. “Romance writers who write steamy romances aren’t Christians.”

I’ve read some steamy romance books where I’ve concluded the author cannot be a Christian. But you might be surprised to learn that some Christian writers of romance have no issue with writing steamy content. They’re not always writing under pen names, either. I’ve also read squeaky-clean romances whose authors aren’t a Christian at all. We can’t brush all romance writers with one color of paint.

4. “Christian romance is all squeaky-clean.”

Many readers assume Christian romance is Amish fiction. I have no idea where they get that idea.4 I’m an advocate of edgy Christian fiction and realistic depictions of reality. A good friend of mine writes Christian fiction with real-life depictions, including the steamy parts of relationships.

Some Christian fiction, not just romance, over-spiritualizes sensuality. By over-spiritualizing it, we tend to sterilize it. I refuse to believe that the hero isn’t aware of the heroine’s physical charms.  Nor do I believe that a heroine doesn’t see those signs of masculinity that may appeal to her. That’s a big flaw. It’s one reason why the purity movement, despite good intentions, can become a stumbling block. These messages pressure Christians with “Don’t do it,” without addressing the real feelings and sensations of sensuality. Their focus is on virginity, like this will make you a better Christian, when all virginity does is make you obedient. You can still be a rather bitter, horrible Christian and be a virgin.

Plus, the purity movement puts so much pressure on these young girls and make their salvation based on a physical state and not their relationship with Christ. In addition, some proponents give the men a get-out-of-jail free card. Why should it always be on the women to maintain purity and not the men?

My critique of the purity movement doesn’t mean that I disagree with it entirely. As Steve Burnett reminded me, “we live in a society that burns incense to the gods of human genitalia, and it seems short-sighted for Christians to focus solely on debunking “purity culture.” Sexual impurity is distinct from other sins in a way that destroys from the inside out. 5

My own romance is ‘sweet and edgy’

With that, I think I’ve covered the critiques I’ve received the most.

For myself, I write what I call sweet and edgy romance. My books include romantic or sensual tension, but I also follow a behind-closed-door approach. That’s where I am comfortable, and my readers seem to share this comfort level.

Real romance explores a couple’s journey, including but not limited to their physical attraction to one another. When I think of Adam and Eve, I love thinking about how Adam must have reacted when he first saw Eve. What did Adam think when he learned that God had handcrafted this woman for himself, and that she, and she alone, was meant only for him just as he was meant for her?

Every great romance today mirrors the very first romance long ago. We see the one woman whom the man wants for his very own. We see the woman who basks in her man’s complete devotion, who in turn treats her as his one true treasure.

When Adam saw Eve, he said, “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”

Today, our vows also say: What God has put together, let no man put asunder.

Ah! Isn’t that romantic?

  1. What about Christian romance? Oh gosh! I would have so many things to say about that.
  2. In this series’ second part, my good friend Travis Perry will share his one experience with writing romance with me.
  3. The exception to this rule is erotica. Erotica uses sex as a plot device, and sex is the driving force of the couple’s journey.
  4. Even real Amish people need to be saved just like the rest of us. Some Amish cultures also have a works-based sort of religion.
  5. Furthermore:  (1) sex is a uniquely mystical act, so that sexual sins fall into a distinct category of sin, (2) sex is reserved for committed and loving relationships per covenant marriage (or even civil arrangements that still reflect covenant marriage), (3) people can find recovery from lost virginity or relationships based on sensuality abuse, but they will still confront some consequences all of their lives.

Settling the Solar System in Science Fiction, part 2: Venus

Venus used to be a main destination for sci fi, inspiring Dagobah-like settings. But Venus could well be more like Bespin…in the clouds…
on Feb 11, 2021 · 10 comments

Our second stop in our solar system tour lands on Venus, a planet long considered to be much like Earth (though wetter and warmer), then recognized as nightmarish hellhole (with every single day hotter than Mercury at its worst), but after that seen as having some prospects for colonies anyway. Venus was never as popular in old science fiction as Mars, but nonetheless many kinds of speculative tales set themselves on Venus, probably second in fictional prospects for settlement in our Solar System only to Mars. Far more popular than Mercury.

What’s Venus Got For Survival?

For an overview of human survival needs that applies to any planet, please reference last week’s post on Mercury, which covered that.

What Venus Is Like (Hellhole, Anyone?)

Venus is nearly the same size as Planet Earth, meaning the gravity humans need to avoid atrophy and to allow for embryo development is likely to be enough on Venus, which has 90 percent of Earth’s surface gravity. Venus’s gravity is enough to contain a substantial atmosphere–in fact, its atmosphere is 92 times denser than Earth’s.

Venus, with color enhanced. Credit: NASA.

Which is the cause of Venus-is-a-hellhole thing. The atmospheric pressure on the surface is equivalent to about 900 meters (3,000 feet) under the ocean on Earth–a pressure humans can actually survive given time to build up to it (breathing a mixture of helium and oxygen), but which is dangerous and would instantly crush an unprepared person. The atmosphere of Venus is also devoid of oxygen, consisting mostly of carbon dioxide with traces of nitrogen, argon, and other gasses.

Venus is entirely cloud-covered, but those clouds aren’t made of water vapor like clouds on Earth. They’re made of sulfuric acid, which can dissolve a human being and most things we build in short order.

Oh, and did I forget to mention the temperature? The average surface temperature is 737 K (464 °C; 867 °F) on the surface, heat driven by a greenhouse effect gone wild. By the way, that’s hotter that the hottest spot on Mercury when Mercury is directly facing the sun over its long, slow day. And the peachy thing is the thick atmosphere of Venus makes it so that the incredible heat of the planet is pretty much spread around everywhere, both night and day, poles and equator.

For what it’s worth, Venus also has a strange rotation, the opposite direction of every other planet in the Solar System, so that the sun would rise in the west and set in the east. It also has the slowest rotation at 243 Earth days–which is longer than the 224 Earth days of its year. (Venus is the only planet in the Solar System with a day longer than its year.) However, because of the retrograde rotation, the length of a solar day on Venus (the time it would take an observer on Venus to see the sun cross the sky) is significantly shorter than the sidereal (actual) day, at 116.75 Earth days. Not that you would be able to see the sun through the thick clouds and dense atmosphere, not from the surface anyway.

Winds on Venus, image copyright Universe Today. Note 370 kph is 222 mph and 220 kph is 132 mph.

What would be a tremendous heat differential between the day and night side has spawned massive winds to even out temperatures at the level of the clouds that circle Venus approximately every six Earth days, blowing hundreds of miles per hour. It seems the atmospheric motion causes lightning strikes on the surface, though instruments on space probes to Venus have given contradictory data on whether the surface gets hit by lightning or not.

Oh and the surface also seems to have some active volcanoes, with plenty of evidence of lots of past volcanic activity. So if the crushing pressure, furnace-level heat, darkness, and lightning strikes were not enough, there’s also volcanoes! (Hence my use of the word “hellhole.”)

What Could Possibly Be Good About Venus?

Well, as already mentioned, Venus has enough gravity to make worries about bone loss over time unlikely. Venus’s thick atmosphere would also provide radiation shielding. Copious carbon dioxide can be processed to separate out carbon, which is a pretty good building material, and oxygen, a human basic (or “nutritional”) survival need. Sulfuric acid contains hydrogen, which can be separated out and added to oxygen, meaning it’s possible to generate water on Venus. (In fact, all the chemical elements life needs to survive are available in Venus’s atmosphere.)

Wind motion, probable lightning, and solar energy (if high enough in the atmosphere), provide plenty of power for cooling and for growing plants. Which of course doesn’t matter at all if you are going to be burned/crushed and struck by lightning/covered in lava. However, the surface of Venus isn’t the only option available.

A concept of high-atmosphere living on Venus. Image by NASA.

What if human beings were to build a cloud city on Venus, parallel to what was imagined to exist on Bespin in Star Wars? What if we were to fill airships with lifting gasses and create habitats in the clouds?

The fact is that carbon dioxide is denser than the mixture of oxygen and nitrogen that human beings normally breathe. That means you wouldn’t have to do anything special to get breathable air to float in Venus’s atmosphere. Just fill a balloon at a pressure comfortable to humans and it will naturally rise to about 50 kilometers above the surface of Venus.

Since the atmosphere of Venus gets both colder and thinner at higher elevations (just like the atmosphere on Earth), the level at which a balloon full of regular air would naturally stop rising would be a place where temperatures and pressures would be much more survivable than the surface. In fact, the level of 1 atmosphere on Venus (at 50 km) is bit on the cold side for humans, close to freezing, but just a bit lower gets into atmospheric pressures humans can adapt to at comfortable temperatures.

A chart of temps and pressure on Venus. Credit: spacestack.

Note that a city in the clouds would never have to touch down on the surface of Venus. It could generate new building materials from atmospheric carbon and other elements floating around and also generate the oxygen and water and minerals for plants, all from high in the sky, without ever touching down on the surface of Venus.

However, I should mention that the artistic image by NASA of living above the clouds isn’t how things would actually be. Well, not if living in the best place for survival. First, the clouds provide important protection against solar radiation. Second, the optimum pressures and temperatures are within the cloud layer, not above it or below it…yeah, that’s right, within clouds of sulfuric acid…ahem…(though of course it’s possible to make materials that will shrug off sulfuric acid).

How Has Science Fiction Seen Venus?

Now that we’ve looked at what Venus is actually like, what did science fiction speculate about Venus? Was anyone in the past thinking of cloud cities? (On Venus, mostly no.)

Cloud-Covered Venus: Ocean or Swamp?

But early astronomers couldn’t help but notice that Venus is always covered in clouds. They wondered why that would be. Having limited knowledge of Earth–that is, they had no way of knowing that no part of Earth is always covered in clouds–they imagined Venus might be covered in oceans, where the clouds on Earth originate–and that would be sufficient to explain the continuous clouds. Or maybe swamps would do, which are often foggy. (In fact, the Star Wars concept of Dagobah, Yoda’s home planet, is probably influenced by earlier science fiction stories of Venus-as-a-swamp.)

Another feature of early Venus stories, especially the campy ones, was to borrow from mythology and imagine Venus somehow connected to women. Since, you know, Venus was a female goddess. So the oceans and swamps of Venus tended to be filled with scantily-clad Amazon women.

The Venus in Fiction Wikipedia article details the stories which imagined Venus as an ocean world or a world of swamps, but I will take note of two particular stories. The first because it be of interest to Christian fans of speculative fiction. That is, C.S. Lewis’s Perelandrabook two of his space trilogy.

By imagining Venus as a younger world than Earth, Lewis set up the drama of the Garden of Eden happening over again, with the human characters from Planet Earth serving as the tempter and almost as an angel of light, to the equivalent of Eve…which kinda repeated the stereotype of Venus and women, but in Lewis’s case, he did so tastefully. While Lewis’s choices and his story are interesting, what he did with his space stories was imagine that Planet Earth alone was an abode of sin and it as a result was effectively quarantined from the rest of the stars and planets.

What if he had done the same thing with his fantasy? What if Lewis had imagined that Narnia was a world where people crossed over from Earth to tempt the equivalent of Eve (in an alternate time due to an alternate “dimension”), but then when the temptation was over, they would never be allowed to come back? Such a story would be an interesting one-off tale, but would discourage anyone else thinking about similar stories and close the door to any sequels…which is exactly what Lewis did in his fantasy versus his science fiction. In fantasy he left the door open, but in science fiction, he closed it. Which is why I think Perelandra versus Narnia partially explains why Christians are more interested in fantasy than science fiction. But anyway…

The second story world featuring Venus I want to mention came from the short stories science fiction pioneer Stanley G. Weinbaum set on Venus. He imagined Venus as tidally locked to the sun, so that the very center of the sun side would be a blazing desert, but the desert would be surrounded by a jungle, surrounded in turn by a ring of temperate lands, surrounded in turn by icy terrain near the dark side, melting and providing water for the light side (with no cheesy Amazon women, by the way). My reasons for mentioning this story is not only do I think it was awesome, I re-packaged Weinbaum’s planetary adventures, which made no sense around Planet Earth, and imagined them taking place around another star (with the help of Heather Elliot and Cindy Koepp). Available on my website under: Worlds of Weinbaum.

A Third Vision of Cloud-Covered Venus

In 1922 scientists tried to read the composition of the atmosphere of Venus–and found no evidence of oxygen. So, some old science fiction imagined Venus to be a windswept desert, covered in toxic dust clouds, which maybe a human might be able to live on, but barely. This was by far the least popular version of Venus in fiction, but the one closest to being true. Which goes to show that humans are not necessarily drawn to realism in fiction. (Yes, scantily-clad Amazons by a world ocean really do appeal to male readers of science fiction more than explorers barely surviving on a desert Venus. Go figure. 🙂 )

Terraformed Venus

It wasn’t until the Soviets sent landers to Venus in the 1960s was it evident what kind of planet Venus really is. The realities of furnace-level heat, crushing pressures, acid clouds, and all the other “fun” features of Venus caused the popularity of Venus in science fiction to plummet considerably.

However, some science fiction authors switched to imagining Venus as a terraformed world, thinking that at some point in the future the terrible conditions of Venus would be made better. Kim Stanley Robinson, better known for his series about the terraforming of Mars, imagined Venus made suitable for human habitation by putting up a giant sunscreen and collecting the carbon dioxide atmosphere as it would freeze out, then seeding life and water (via comets) in the atmosphere.

The Victorian Venus anthology I supervised imagined much the same thing and included orbital shades to keep the temperatures moderate, though I never detailed the terraforming process–and I imagined much of the extra CO2 would be sent to Mars, rather than buried on Venus, as Robinson imagined (and of course I imagined Victorian culture being largely reproduced as well). But still, most of the modern stories featuring Venus imagine transforming it into a place where people can walk on its surface.

Cloud City Venus

The most realistic vision of how to live on Venus isn’t particularly popular in fiction. Geoffrey A. Landis‘s “The Sultan of the Clouds” (2010) features habitations in the clouds of the second planet of the Solar System, but my research for this article didn’t reveal any other stories set in Venus’s clouds.

Bespin. Copyright: Disney.

However, Star Wars, with its interest in unique planets dominated by one aspect such as a desert world, ice world, swamp world, urban world, naturally produced a vision of a city in the clouds featured in Empire Strikes Back. However, this Star Wars version imagines the city floating over the clouds, not buried inside them, where people would not be able to see even a hundred meters through dense obscurity. And in fact, the best place for a Venus colony would be in the clouds, not over them.

A Psychological Need to See Skies?

I admit my thoughts of living buried in a cloud that you could not face for one moment without protection from acid, not being able to see more than a hazy glow of light around you, living every moment in a carbon-fiber inflated dwelling, from which you never dare fall off, lest you plummet into crushing pressure and lead-melting heat, does not appeal to me very much.

I find the idea of living on Mercury much more appealing–at least on Mercury you could walk on the surface at night, though you’d have to be in a spacesuit. And maybe vast underground chambers are available for use on Mercury, on which images of the stars could be projected, like a planetarium, and where trees and other plants could be put into the ground–yes, using artificial soil, but still, on the ground somewhere.

But the idea of living on Venus appeals to me a lot more if the cloud city were above the clouds, even though that isn’t the optimal place on Venus for survival. (In fact, even the artist working for NASA portrayed their futuristic dwellings on Venus as above the clouds, not within them).

I’m not claiming to say anything profound here–who wouldn’t rather live in a beautiful city above the clouds than within an acid cloud? Maybe a colony on Venus could in fact fly above the clouds, using shielding to deal with excess radiation and otherwise compensating for less than ideal pressure and temperature. Or perhaps the airships of Venus could rise about the clouds on a regular basis, say on holidays or vacations, but return to the practical levels of being within the clouds afterwards.

But perhaps it’s worth noting that having a view of skies, at least at times, may count as a human need as much as gravity and oxygen and warmth…

What’s Unique About Venus

Closest Neighbor

So what makes the second planet in the Solar System better for a colony than anyplace else? Well, overall, it probably isn’t the best, but it does have some strong points.

For the record, at its closest approach, Venus comes closer to Earth than any other planet. Also, the window for closest approach to Venus comes more often than the window to Mars (584 days versus 780 days, as mentioned in this Wikipedia article on the colonization of Venus). So Venus is literally the easiest planet to get a spacecraft to from Earth.

Gravity

What may be the strongest point has already beeen mentioned, that is, Venus has nearly has the same mass and density as Earth, so the pull of gravity is 90% of Earth’s. The fact is nobody knows what the minimum gravity requirement is for human beings. Over the long-term we’ve done zero gravity in the ISS and other space stations and established conclusively that microgravity isn’t enough for human long-term survival. But no long-term experiments have been done in low gravity. If 38 percent gravity is enough to allow for human embryos to develop normally, Mars and Mercury are viable. If even less gravity is enough, say 16 percent, a lot of bodies in outer space have enough gravity, such as Earth’s moon.

But if the minimum requirement for gravity for humans to develop normally proves to be say, 70% of what we find on Earth, then Mars and Mercury might possibly work if pregnant women spend nine months in a centrifuge to stimulate normal bone growth–but that’s not very realistic. In case the actual requirement for human life for gravity is high, then Venus is pretty much all there is, other than Earth. (Unless we want to discuss living in the atmosphere of a gas giant…which I in fact plan to bring up…)

Downsides

Other than the downsides already mentioned (acid clouds, crushing pressure and searing temps on the surface, lightning, volcanoes), Venus has the issue of its clouds moving around the planet as quickly as they do. The issue isn’t speed here so much as turbulence. In fact, the wind patterns seem pretty predictable, so once in the atmosphere, a settlement would move around in the wind without much getting shaken up…maybe. I don’t think the data is conclusive on this. Living in the clouds over Venus might be too dangerous, because of changing wind speeds. It could be from time to time, shifts in winds could be dangerous to human life.

The other big problem is getting away from Venus–without any ability to land on the surface, the means to leave Venus’s gravity (higher than Mercury or Mars) would have to use self-contained spacecraft which would have to be suspended on airships before takeoff. A technological hurdle–not insurmountable, but I can’t imagine leaving Venus would be easy. (“Landing” on Venus though could use plenty of air braking.)

And, if we are going to talk about physical security from attack, living in an airship that only has to be riddled with holes in order to sink to unbearable depths below may be rather less than optimal…

Conclusion

What are your thoughts, if any, about fiction set on the second planet in our Solar System? Lewis’s Perelandra, or anything else? Thoughs on Bespin? Dagobah?

Could you ever imagine yourself living on Venus? Would you be able to live in a cloud city?

Would you rather be above the clouds rather than in them, even if living in them is safer? Do you think humans would be able to adapt to living in a place where they never saw the skies?

What other thoughts do you have?

 

 

Settling the Solar System in Science Fiction, part 1: Mercury

How has science fiction seen the settlement of Mercury? And what would it take to survive there or anywhere? Is Mercury good colony material?
on Feb 4, 2021 · 9 comments

Science fiction has predicted many times that human beings will leave Earth to settle on the various planets of the Solar System. This dream may not be far away–certainly the technology to move humans into space has existed for roughly 50 years now but with SpaceX opening up seats to “civilians,” it may happen relatively soon. Perhaps in only a few decades the human race will become a multi-world species. This post begins a series looking at the prospects of living on the planets of our Solar System, both what living there would really be like according to current science and also what science fiction has speculated concerning each planet. Starting with Mercury.

Since it is possible that future generations really might leave Planet Earth, what science fiction has said about living in space might help us imagine what it would be like to live on another worlds–even though at times, past science fiction has been completely wrong about the planets of our Solar System. Some basic topics worth addressing in comparing science fiction with science fact include, “What is it that human beings need to survive?” Which will lead eventually to, “What is and is not the best real estate in the Solar System?”

Human Survival Needs

I remember my Fifth Grade teacher, Mrs. Ten Ham, Dutch accent and all, explaining that all humans need three basic things, food, shelter, and clothing, and that much of human history can be explained by people seeking these three things. Well, on Earth those three things are enough. Though they point out the three basic types of things people need. More broadly than food, humans need life-sustaining conditions, let’s call them “Nutrients” or “necessities of survival.” Broader than shelter, humans need protection from elements that can harm us. And covering a wider topic that clothing does, humans need resources to build things we want and need. So these are the three basic needs, with sub-needs below each of these: Nutrients, Protection, and Resources.

Nutrients–Necessities of Survival

  1. Oxygen–yeah it may be a bit sloppy to call O2 a nutrient, but I’m sure you follow my point. We’re talking about substances a human body needs to take in if it’s going to survive and of those, the first on the list is oxygen. Listed first because while a human may survive days without water and weeks without food, without oxygen you’ve gone in minutes. O2 carries with in a condition that in order to process the gas, human lungs can only operate within a range of air pressures–from about 1/3 atmospheric pressure on Earth if using pure oxygen, to about 100 times Earth atmospheric pressure, if we mix the O2 with a lot of helium and take other precautions. Ideally humans would want to live on a planet with free oxygen in its atmosphere–but on that account, none of the planets of the Solar System qualify, other than Earth.
  2. Water–while the human preference for water would be to have it in liquid bodies we can tap into easily, humans can easily melt ice for water and can even combine hydrogen and oxygen in minerals to create water. Oxygen itself we already covered in its own category, but places without a source of frozen water or at least access to hydrogen are going to create a problem with obtaining water.
  3. Energy (for food production)–while you might expect me to list food by itself, in fact energy pretty much equates to food in space. A hydroponic garden needs solar energy for plants to grow, or else electrically-powered lamps to replace the sun (you also need space for that, but we are going to assume up front that space has plenty of “space”). Harvested plants would feed any animals humans might choose to bring with them as food, if humans do that in the future. Or, alternatively, food could be shipped in from elsewhere, like the Apollo moon missions taking all their food from Earth–but that also takes energy, though in that case the higher energy cost of transportation by rocket fuel rather than the lower cost of local production.

Protection

  1. Warmth (energy for heating)–as is also true of atmospheric pressure, a human being can only survive within a range of temperatures. Given sufficient protective clothing and ample access to water for body cooling, that range is actually fairly large, from roughly minus 50 degrees Celsius (-58 F) to plus 50 (122 F)…though humans are only comfortable within a much narrower range, at most a dozen degrees above or below about 22 degrees Celsius (72 F). But of course there are ranges of temperatures a human cannot survive at all, not even for a fraction of a second.
  2. Radiation Shielding–the biggest heat engine in the Solar System, the sun itself, essential for providing enough energy to keep us from freezing to death and cranking out light that plants convert to food, has a negative side effect of producing a lot of ionizing radiation that kills human cells and causes cancers. Humans, while we can survive a robust range of temperatures, are much more sensitive to radiation damage than many other creatures living on Earth. Note though that true radiation shielding isn’t easy to come by. Earth provides it through both a magnetic field and also a relatively dense atmosphere. When talking about other planets of the Solar System, we have to account for the amount of radiation shielding they have.
  3. Meteor Shielding–Not only can radiation cook you or give you cancer, outer space is full of small bodies flying around at relative speeds much higher than a bullet. Even a very small bit of matter can ruin your day if it’s going fast enough and you’re in a pressurized chamber. Note that a planet with a dense atmosphere does much to protect from meteors.
  4. Gravity–in spite of decades of fiddling around in low Earth orbit, science has established quite well that a human body needs at least some gravity in order to properly function. Without it, bones atrophy, fluid builds up in the upper body, normal formation of embryos simply won’t happen, and so human life is in jeopardy. Which means any planet humans settle on has to be of a minimal size to provide enough gravity. How little is enough is actually unknown–but there definitely is a minimal amount humans require.
  5. Toxin and Waste Removal–some planets are full of chemicals that could kill humans. And, even in places where that isn’t a problem, humans in the very act of living produce carbon dioxide and solid and liquid wastes that threaten our survival. Without a means to remove or process wastes and toxins, humans will not survive. Soil that can absorb wastes is a good start on that and some planets have soils outside of Earth, though many don’t.
  6. Safety from Attack–since none of the planets of the Solar System are known to be inhabited, this seems a low-order priority. Though in general, humans have attacked one another often enough that the need to defend oneself could not be entirely ignored in the future.

Resources

  1. Survival Resources–I’ve already named these above, but let’s summarize them here: oxygen, hydrogen, energy for food production and warmth, a body of minimal size for protection provided by gravity and protection from radiation, with a means to clean toxins and wastes.
  2. Resources Beyond Survival–humans are going to want to have more than the bare minimum of resources. They are going to want to be able to cover themselves (back to the clothing thing Mrs. Ten Boom talked about) and create art and build new tech and have personal possessions of a wide variety of types. That means any place humans settle will have to have building materials of some kind.

Why Space Stations and Space Ships Suck For Human Survival

Reading through the list I generated above, it should be pretty obvious that the types of space stations humans build now or any time in the foreseeable future are not very good at providing for human survival.

First off, there are no resources in empty space itself other than what you take with you, other than solar radiation that you can harness with solar panels if you’re close enough to the sun. But that one resource comes with a danger of high-energy radiation zipping through a human body so fast that over time, a human suffers irreparable damage.

Second, if you lift everything you use from the surface of a planet, everything goes through a high energy cost just to get there. And, what you will be able to fly there will be insufficient to protect a person from high radiation, doesn’t supply gravity automatically, needs heating and cooling, and will vent into vacuum if a bit of space rock blasts into you at high speed. No bueno.

Yeah, careful designs can help with some of these problems, but this is an issue that’s often downplayed in science fiction, especially the issue of exposure to radiation. There are no energy shields that block radiation in the real world. You can block radiation with physical matter, but it would take about 1 meter’s worth (3 feet)(as this Space.com article mentions) of solid lead to roughly equal the amount of protection that Earth’s atmosphere and magnetosphere provides. Obviously a spacecraft can’t realistically move around with that much lead. Too much fuel would be needed. So a person who spent decades in outer space, as is often imagined in science fiction, would in fact die of radiation poisoning, barring some major genetic engineering of the human race in the future.

The known solution to this problem is moving through space as quickly as possible, then settling on a planet that can provide some protection.

What’s Mercury Got For Survival?

Mercury with enhanced color to show composition differences. Image source: NASA

Near as the sun as it is, Mercury has a massive potential for solar energy. It also has oxygen bound up in its rocks and many scientists believe that deep caters near Mercury’s north and south poles have water ice (though there’s no absolute proof of this as of now).

As far as protection goes, every patch of ground on the surface of Mercury (except right at the poles) faces intense solar radiation for about 29 days, then faces the blackness of space for about the same time, 29 days (Mercury has a full day that’s 58 Earth days long). It’s estimated Mercury gets up to 427 degrees Celsius (800 F) during the hottest part of the day and down to minus 180 C (-290 F) during the coldest part of the night. That’s a massive temperature swing that obviously no human being can survive. However, going underground deep enough would allow a person to find a level where the temps are pretty much the same night and day, within the range humans can handle.

Another bonus of going underground is doing so would provide radiation protection and meteor shielding. And Mercury has about 38 percent the gravity of Earth, which is probably enough to allow humans to survive and thrive (note Mercury and Mars have practically the same amount of gravity).

Toxin and waste removal probably would not be helped by doing everything underground and Mercury doesn’t have any soil, but there are ways to solve these issues. But security from attack would be better underground than on the surface.

And Mercury, with the largest metallic core in proportion to its interior of any planet in the Solar System, would have quite a lot of metal for building, especially iron and steel, but other metals, too. Not much carbon though–in fact, to do things like make good soils or fabricate plastics, Mercury would have to import carbon. And would benefit from importing hydrogen or hydrocarbons as well, but still, has most of the things humans need to survive and prosper.

How Has Science Fiction Seen Mercury?

Let’s note up front that a lot of old science fiction imagined much of the Solar System to be friendly to life or to contain alien life. Relative to Mars or Venus, it was relatively uncommon in science fiction to imagine anyone could live on Mercury. Sci fi writers commonly saw it as just too close to the sun, too hot.

Tidally Locked?

However, “Relative to Mars or Venus” still allowed for quite a lot of speculation that perhaps there are places a person could live on Mercury. Most of the speculation was based on the theory that the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli came up with in 1889–that Mercury is “tidally locked” so that one face is always pointed at the sun and the other is always pointed towards the cold darkness of outer space. Once that concept became popular, some people believed that perhaps there might be a literal twilight zone between the hot and cold sides that would be temperate. Perhaps a canyon system in this temperate zone could hold an atmosphere, creating a place where humans or human-like creatures could live and breathe. Ray Cummings wrote a trilogy that imagined this very thing: Tama of the Light Country (1930), Tama, Princess of Mercury (1931) and Aerita of the Light Country (1941).

There are other examples of these kinds of stories, detailed in a “Mercury in Fiction” Wikipedia article I’ve linked. Though in fact not all stories set on Mercury imagined anyone could live on the surface of Mercury. Some saw it as a place of exploration or for a solar observatory or a place silicon-based aliens would set up a base, or, on the dark side, the coldest place in the Solar System.

An old “If” magazine cover showing astronauts exploring molten Mercury. Image now in the public domain.

New Mercury

In 1965 scientists discovered that Mercury is not in fact tidally locked, but rather has an odd rotation in which its day is two thirds the length of its year, meaning that at certain locations in its orbit, Mercury always shows the same face to the sun–but in fact the whole planet, other than the poles, gets hot and cold. So, many concepts of an inhabited Mercury went away, though a few remained.

Arthur C. Clarke in Rendezvous With Rama imagined Mercury metal miners inhabiting Mercury (as did the tongue-in-cheek Captain Proton series-within-a-series in Star Trek Voyager), while Kim Stanley Robinson imagined Mercury hosted a city named “Terminator” mounted on rails which allowed it to always remain in the twilight on Mercury’s surface, though it would need to be under a dome due to Mercury’s lack of atmosphere. Note Robinson imagined Mercury would be the abode of musicians and artists rather than the miners many other authors thought would inhabit Mercury (note also the word “terminator” in his city refers to a technical term in astronomy for the point where day meets night–not where cybernetic “terminators” seek to assassinate specific targets 🙂 ).

Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson in their transhumanist cyberpunk comic series Transmetropolitan imagined Mercury completely covered in solar panels, with energy beamed back to Earth, while Karl Schroeder’s novel Lockstep imagined a future in which Mercury would no longer exist, being broken up into pieces in order to create a “Dyson bubble” around the Solar System. Which would also harvest solar energy. (These and other concepts of Mercury are detailed, again, via the Wikipedia article on Mercury in fiction.)

Summary

So in essence there have been three basic science fiction ideas about living on Mercury:

  1. Living on the surface somehow, in the twilight zone or at the poles or on some kind of movable city. This idea has the disadvantage that even in twilight quite a lot of harmful solar radiation would come through. But still, the idea isn’t impossible, even though Mercury isn’t tidally locked, as Kim Stanley Robinson’s fiction shows.
  2. Underground settlement of Mercury, which would mostly mine metals. I think this idea is quite realistic.
  3. No settlement but use of Mercury for energy production: This idea is possible, but in fact Mercury is good real estate for human underground settlement, providing most of the things humans would need to survive–if underground far enough. But it could be that Mercury is never settled.

What’s Unique About Mercury

Transportation Hub Potential

Mecury in true color. Image source: NASA

It’s counterintuitive, but did you know that Mercury is on average closer to any other planet in the Solar System? Or to put that in a slightly different way, did you know that on average, Mercury is closer to all the other planets than any one planet is to any other planet? How can that be?

It’s because planets usually spend only a relatively small amount of time in the position of the closest approach to one another. Planets spend a great deal of time on the opposite side of the sun from each other or in otherwise unfavorable positions relative to one another. Whereas Mercury, with a year 88 days long, comes to its closest approach relative to every single other planet at least once during its short year. Meaning that even though, for example, Mars and Earth get very close to each other once in a while (when in the same place in their orbits at the same time), they spend most of their orbits far from each other.

Mercury gets as close as it will get to either of them on average much more often than they make their closest approach to one another. Meaning the average distance between either of them and Mercury is less than the average distance between Earth and Mars.

This is a bit of a mind-blower but it’s completely true and even applies to the outer Solar System. On average, Mercury is closer to Pluto than Neptune is, even though for part of Pluto’s orbit it crosses inside Neptune’s orbit. Again, that’s because for much of the orbits of Pluto and Neptune they are on completely opposite sides of the Solar System–whereas at some point every 88 days, Mercury is not only on the same side as either of them, it’s at the closet approach to them.

If Mercury had some kind of launch system for shooting goods to other worlds–say a giant electromagnetic railgun, then Mercury would be the idea place for a warehouse to supply and distribute goods to other places in the Solar System (without the railgun you’d have to bring in fuel to Mercury or perhaps make fission-powered rockets from radioactive metals in Mercury’s core to ship goods out). This idea is awesome in theory, except for one little problem…

Landing on Mercury is Hard, Though Some Solutions Are Possible

Because Mercury is relatively close to the sun, a vessel from the outer Solar System will pick up velocity heading Mercury’s way. Velocity that the craft will have to carefully balance or get rid of once arriving at Mercury itself in order to safely land. Mercury doesn’t have an atmosphere substantial enough to use for air braking or parachuting in, so all things considered, moving things to Mercury and touching down there for a landing is relatively difficult. Which could mean that Mercury as a hub for moving things to other planets would only work if the goods Mercury sent to other worlds carried the tag, “Made In Mercury.”

Or perhaps that would mean the one thing a colony on Mercury could really use is some kind of electromagnetic system that would capture vessels flying in at high speeds and slow them down enough to land safely without using a lot of fuel. If Mercury had such a system, it could both send and receive products produced elsewhere in the Solar System and distribute them out efficiently.

Also note that flying towards the sun to get to Mercury would expose a spacecraft to a much higher level of solar radiation than staying further from the sun. Yes, this is a real problem–though one made better if designers used automated ships to go to and from Mercury.

Conclusion

Have you ever read a story set on Mercury? Thought about writing one set there? Considered the potential of living there? Would it bother you to live underground all the time? Or would you need to be on the surface, in a city like “Terminator”?

It’s interesting perhaps that the science fiction series “the Expanse” sees a future Mars being a powerful player in Solar System politics, but in fact, Mercury could be every bit as powerful as Mars, if not more so. Humans have just been imagining living on Mars a lot longer…

What do you think about these issues? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

How Horror Films Subvert the Fatalistic Tragedy of Alzheimer’s and Dementia

Some horror films fall into a subgenre that explores mental illness such as dementia and Alzheimer’s in a unique fashion.
on Feb 3, 2021 · 8 comments

Memory is the bridge of connection. It builds relationships, community, and a societal framework that encompass every person on the planet. Without this bridge, every man is alone on a deserted island.

Alzheimer’s is a disease that destroys that bridge between family members and loved ones. Along with it is the erosion of familial bonds. The death of bonding from a mental illness such as dementia can be a horror story.

Horror has a unique way of subverting the tragedy of mental illness and using it as a plot device that propels the story along and uses it in a metaphorical way. For simply creative purposes, the protagonist with dementia or Alzheimer’s is not an merely object of pity, or sadness, or tragedy. They are usually a forceful part of story, taking hold of your attention and carrying you along for the ride. Not the other way around.

The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)

In The Taking of Deborah Logan, we follow a medical student film crew who follow an Alzheimer’s patient, Deborah Logan and her daughter Sarah and the effects of the disease on both.  Deborah, when we first meet her, seems to be doing all right. She’s well put together, a woman of great tastes, impeccable style and seemingly coherent. Yet, the daughter explains that her mother can have good days and bad ones. Throughout the story, Deborah’s signs of Alzheimer’s increase. Her daughter’s stress in evident by her smoking and outbursts.

Had this been any other genre film, the tragedy of this declining relationship would be on display. Yet, with theThe Taking of Deborah Logan (2014) - Watch on Prime Video, ConTV, Shudder, Tubi, and Streaming Online | Reelgood horror element, Alzheimer’s and its effects doesn’t become the focus of the film but the plot device that brings about something more sinister to the forefront.

Deborah begins to exhibit behavior that shows something more than Alzheimer’s is afoot. There’s a scene where she goes into a room and is found staring out into the space at a dark corner.  Another scene, she’s seen walking into a room naked and closing the door, found later hurting herself for no apparent reason.

I won’t tell the gruesome parts of the film, but we discover that because of her condition, a dark entity begins to take over her to use it for its own hellish reason, mainly to commit a child sacrifice so it can live again. Basically, it’s a spirit that acts as a parasite on the weak, the old, and the young. This entity and Deborah have a connected past.

As her condition deteriorates, her acts of violence and self-harm increase, turning her into a vessel for the dark entity.  To save her and the child, the rest of the people involved figure out to burn the bones of the dark entity left behind. This causes the entity to leave Deborah and the child is saved. However, Deborah is fingered as the culprit of the crimes, but her mental state is so bad, that she can’t stand trial.

Yet, as the viewer, in a very odd way, you’re almost glad for her because it would destroy her if she knew what she had done.

In this scenario the disease sort of protects  the sufferer from reality. I don’t mean to say that we should jump up and down and clap if a loved one who has Alzheimer’s is living in another reality. It’s heartbreaking. But, I think if they knew they couldn’t remember their children, or grandchildren, or spouse, or whoever it was that had once held a special place in their heart, it would be destructive to them.

Relic (2020)

In Relic, this film takes a more metaphorical approach. The family home is inhabited by Edna, the one suffering from dementia. Her daughter Kay, and her granddaughter Sam come to see her when they receive a message that she’s gone missing. When you see the home, it’s crammed with stacks of mementos, lots of post-it notes, and other things that show Edna’s declining cognition.

Kay has a hard time accepting her mother’s condition. Sam, the granddaughter, has a closer relationship with herIFC Midnight Debuts Haunting New Trailer For 'RELIC' Starring Emily Mortimer - Icon Vs. Icon grandmother. While they wait for Edna to show back up after a failed search with the local police, it’s revealed there’s a strange rot in the house that grows through the movie and on Edna’s body. The arc of Kay is being able to accept her mother is changing and being supportive.

What becomes apparent is the use of the family house. The family house holds memories and is an anchor to keep Edna in the present. It also reflects Edna’s mental condition. Along with the spreading rot is a shadowy figure that frightens Edna and the others, manifesting itself as the condition grows.

Toward the end, the houses changes and morphs, reflecting Edna’s fractured mental state.  The rot on the walls of the house spread. And Edna completely succumbs to her condition by becoming the shadowy figure she saw. Her skin peels away, and this gaunt-like monster version of herself is revealed, showing that the Edna they knew no longer exists. Yet, at the end of the movie, the once Edna creature, Kay, and Sam all lay side by side, showing love and support for Edna even though she is physically and literally unrecognizable anymore.

The chilling factor at the very end shows Sam, looking at Kaye’s back, seeing a small spot of the dark rot that took over her grandmother, indicating that Sam may one day be holding a woman that no longer resembles her mother as her mother is doing, too.

The movie dealt with more of how our response should be to our loved ones who are suffering with Alzheimer’s. And granted, although turning Edna into a gaunt-like monster isn’t likely to happen in the real world, the point is that the family NEEDS to show support for their loved one. Don’t abandon them. One thing that Edna asked her daughter before her transformation was if she was going to leave her alone.

No Tears in Heaven

A much brighter future awaits for those of us who love the Lord and suffer with dementia and we, the caregivers who love them.

As the movies depicted, the bonds are severed. Imagine that being it – your loved ones die having never remembered who you are, who was important to them, etc.

Thanks be to God, that is NOT the end for those that love Him.

The following verse is often used for eschatological discussion but allow me a little license as I say this:

1 Corinthians 15:53-55

53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.

54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.

55 O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

Sin and disease corrupts these bodies.  The cure is found in Christ. Romans 6:23 makes that abundantly that these corrupted bodies will one day no longer be affected by a sinful nature. We will be given new bodies that will live eternally with God. The bonds we once had with our loved ones will be renewed but in a far greater, richer capacity. Nothing will ever break those connections again.

In Eric Clapton’s song, “Tears in Heaven,” he mournfully sings:

Would you know my name?
If I saw you in heaven
Would it be the same?
If I saw you in heaven

This song, written after he experienced the death of his four-year-old son, hauntingly asks if the relationship he had with son would be any better in heaven.

A question that a lot of people ask is, ‘Will I recognize my loved ones in Heaven?”

The answer is yes. No Alzheimer’s or dementia there.

As Mahalia Jackson sang, it’ll be always, “It’ll be always howdy, howdy and never goodbye.”

What do you think? Share your thoughts below.

Stargate SG-1 Update: Christianity in the Episode “Demons”

Midway through season three, “Stargate SG-1” directly addresses Christianity in an episode called “Demons.”
on Jan 28, 2021 · 4 comments

My previous post on the Stargate TV franchise I wrote after finishing season one of Stargate SG-1. It was already evident to me then that the mood of Stargate is anti-religion in general, portraying gods of the past as either malevolent Goa’uld or benevolent Asgardian aliens, demonstrating in essence that past beliefs in deities and the supernatural were very much mistaken, because the “gods” were actually aliens. Plus, the first season featured a character searching for God who lost his mind (“The First Commandment”) and a penny-pinching Senator who wanted to cut the stargate budget, who said God would defend Earth from any alien invaders (whom I referenced in my previous post; the episode was “Chain Reaction”). Now, I’ve finally run into an episode that addresses Christianity directly: Season 3, Episode 8, “Demons”–and this post will show the general anti-religion trend in Stargate SG-1 unfortunately continues in “Demons.”

Before I get into my main topic, let me mention the idea Stargate expresses that the gods of Asgard treated humans as equals as opposed to the Goa’uld of Egypt, who were aliens who used religion as tool to deceive and enslave the masses, is rather ridiculous to me. Sure, Norse society was more egalitarian than Egyptian as general rule, but there are archaeological digs that show top Vikings buried with slaves who were, all evidence indicates, killed so they could serve their Norse master in the afterlife. Which is a practice much more similar to Egyptian burials than it is dissimilar. That is, if we see Norse society, including slavery and human sacrifice, as a reflection of the “Asgardians,” then there is no reason to see the residents of Asgard as any better than the Goa’uld. But anyway.

A Mixed Portrayal of Christianity

What distinguishes the episode “Demons” is a number of other episodes show ancient people who were deposited on various planets by the Goa’uld thousands of years ago, but all of them pre-Christian prior to the episode “Demons.” In this episode, this time medieval Catholic Christians have been moved to an alien world and are met by the SG-1 team. By the way, some spoilers of the episode are in this post, even though I don’t go over the plot in detail.

Early in the episode the main characters notice a Christian church and the display of crosses, even before they meet anyone from the world. Before the discussion can kick off as to whether Christianity itself can be considered a Goa’uld imposition like Egyptian religion, Teal’c says the following: “I know of no Goa’uld capable of showing the necessary compassion or benevolence that I have read of in your Bible.” Which inspires the “You read the Bible, Teal’c?” question, to which he answers that understanding the Bible is important to understanding Western culture.

So Teal’c’s interest in the Bible is mainly academic, though he is portrayed as having respect for the Bible and the benevolence of the Christian God. Which is obviously a positive portrayal, though it’s noteworthy that no member of the SG-1 team is stated to be a Christian, though Col. O’Neill seems to reference God as if he might possibly believe in God. He also says he’s listening to the Bible “on tape” in reply to Tealc’s question if he has read the Bible, though the answer seems aimed at humor.

Other than Teal’c’s quote about the Bible, another positive portrayal comes in the character Simon, who lives in the medieval village the SG-1 team discovers. He helps release the team after they are captured and shows courage in the face of danger and is portrayed as a man of Christian faith. Which is also a positive portrayal.

But most of the rest of the episode can fairly be seen as taking a negative view of Christianity, though that portrayal isn’t as negative as the view of Egyptian religion to be sure.

The Demon in “Demons”

The basic idea of the story in “Demons” is the Goa’uld don’t appear as God in the world of medieval Catholic villagers–instead, a member of an alien race subservient to the Goa’uld openly states he is a demon and demands the villagers provide five human beings for his master Satan. This is something the “demon” routinely does, and the villagers as a result are inclined to see anyone who comes through the stargate as being in league with the Devil.

The “demon” Unas–copyright MGM.

Which wouldn’t be such a bad portrayal, except most of the villagers on a regular basis, out of a sense of terror and self-preservation, support offering up their fellow humans to the Goa’uld who they think is Satan. The leader of the villagers, who carries the interesting title “the Canon” (as in Church law or the books of the Bible accepted as authentic), the latest in a long series of such rulers, has a ring given to him by the “demon” and uses the power it provides him to enforce the power of “Satan.” Yes, in the name of God, the Canon rules the village for the benefit of “Satan.”

The reason the Goa’uld would do this makes sense in the story world. The Goa’uld implant alien symbiotes in their human hosts which forces the human host to do the will of the alien inside them–a physical process remarkably similar to how many Christians think of demonic possession. The Goa’uld are always looking for new hosts–and the medieval-Catholic-world supplies these hosts out of a sense of fear.

No Fear Like Medieval Fear

Of course the medieval folk immediately see Teal’c as a minion of Satan, based on the seal in his forehead he has as a former servant of the Goa’uld (a Jaffa). Which could be interpreted as racism, since the actor portraying Teal’c is black and the villagers are white, though that may not be an intentional story element.

Teal’c gets subjected to both a trial by fire and a trial by water to determine if he really is on Satan’s side. Both these procedures were used in medieval and Renaissance Europe during witch trials–though the concept of “trial by ordeal,” along with “trial by combat,” came from pre-Christian Northern European culture and not the Bible or Roman culture (thanks, Norse barbarians and related Germanic peoples!). However, the episode simply looks at what medieval Christians did and doesn’t explain these nutty ideas came from Pagan culture. So yeah, the medieval village looks like a pretty horrible place.

Teal’c, with a hood over his head, just before “the Canon” to his right pushes him in the water.
Copyright MGM.

If the giving-people-over-to-Satan bit were not enough, the village engages in other barbaric practices. The villagers see a woman with chicken pox as possibly demon-possessed, so they were preparing to put a hole in her head–trepanning. Which is something ancient and medieval people really performed to treat a variety of ailments. But I think a medieval person would shrug off chicken pox without even hardly noticing something was wrong–the average person then was more used to disease and physical hardship than people today.

Note the trial by water seems to drown Teal’c, but he recovers, allowing Col. O’Neill to joke that obviously nobody around there has ever seen a resurrection. The line is played as for laughs, but may contain the opinion of the writer of the episode about whether any Christian ever saw any resurrection…

Overall the people are portrayed as terrified to the point they are easily manipulated into doing evil by a self-serving alien. It’s hard not to feel in the context of other anti-religion expressions in Stargate SG-1 that the writer of this episode believes Christianity can be at least as bad at its worst, if not worse, as any religion of a highly structured and partially-unfree society like ancient Egypt. Out of fear of demons and the Devil, Christianity, like other religions Stargate criticizes, can be a means to manipulate people into doing evil, a form of mind control. Or so this episode seems to say.

Softening the Blow

Several elements in the episode soften the drumbeat of anti-Christian criticism. One is the quote from Teal’c about the Bible, which I already mentioned. Also there’s the already-mentioned character of Simon, the one villager willing to believe the Stargate team are not demons, and who risks his life helping them and shows courage portrayed as inspired by faith–though he also, early on, is frightened that the team seems demonic.

Simon, the “good Christian” character in “Demons.”
Copyright, MGM.

A third element that softens the blow of criticism is the fact the “Canon” is not a priest or bishop or pastor or any title we would easily recognize as directly relating to Christian leadership (though I’ve found out that it’s an uncommon alternate to “priest”). So any counter-criticism of what the episode seems to say about Christianity could be met with, “Well, this is just what Christianity is here, on this one world, not everywhere.”

Though in fact it seems likely to me that maintaining a bit of plausible deniability is the very reason “the Canon” carries that title and not another. It seems to me that the producers of Stargate SG-1 had to know a segment of their audience included Christians and they didn’t want to rock the boat with their audience too much. It seems they wanted to criticize and also avoid any potential negative backlash for their criticism.

Having said that, while Star Trek has a few positive allusions to the Bible, most notably in the original series episode “Bread and Circuses,” never does Star Trek make a statement as positive about the Bible as the one Teal’c made–even though the statement came in the context of an episode generally negative about Christianity.

So overall, in spite of an overall negative view of Christianity in the episode “Demons,” there are also positive elements. I think I know what the producers meant to say, but there is room to see the episode in other ways.

So Other Than That, How’s Stargate SG-1 Beyond Season One?

Now that I’m mid-way through season 3, yes, I’d say the show improved from season one. The characters were well-written, the settings became less redundant, and the series continued to carry forward consequences of previous episodes in a way that Star Trek often fails to do.

I still think the series is playing from a weak basic idea, but the Goa’uld became less cheesy over time and the elements emphasizing that the Earth is at risk from even having a Stargate at all are well-played. So in spite of redundancy and special effects weaknesses, seasons two through where I am in three are clearly better than one. (And I thought season one itself improved throughout its episodes.)

Conclusion

After watching “Demons” I did a Google search to see if Stargate ever directly addressed Christianity again. It doesn’t seem that it does, not from what I was able to find. I mean, there isn’t another planet of Christians, anyway. Which is in itself a kind of statement–“We already said all we have to say on this topic.”

Though people who have seen more episodes of Stargate than I have will be able to better comment than I can. Does the Stargate franchise take an approach to Christianity other than what I observed in the episode “Demons?” If so, is it more positive or more negative? Or the same?

Also, do you think I’ve seen “Demons” fairly? Do you agree or disagree that the episode seems to show Christianity in an overall negative light, even though it allows for a few positive elements? Does that concern you–or do you find this aspect of this story universe insignificant overall?

If you had a chance to do a similar story differently, what would you do different?

What Tolkien Taught About Fighting Evil

Some of the most epic battles of fantasy fiction were penned by J. R. R. Tolkien. So what did Tolkien show us in his fiction about fighting Evil?
on Jan 21, 2021 · 4 comments

We live in a world in which many of us feel evil is on the rise. Not everyone feels that way, which is interesting enough, but more interestingly, readers of Speculative Faith who are convinced rising evil is a problem likely don’t even agree on what the evil we are facing actually is. Do we face a dangerous rise in socialism, communism, fascism, cancel culture, racism, Critical Race Theory, too much herd mentality, too much individualism, neo-paganism, fundamentalism, feminism, or patriarchy? Or do we face a puzzling and disturbing mixture of all of the above?–just to name a few things people are often concerned about. Please note though that what we should care about most isn’t addressed by this post (though I’ll mention a particular reason some people are concerned). What this post does do is look at the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, in the Lord of the Rings in particular, and extracts what this wise author of the past had to say about how we should be fighting evil. What should our methods be in our epic real-world struggle between good and evil? Does such a struggle even exist?

Is Fighting Evil Actually a Thing for Christians?

When you read the Bible from cover to cover, you can’t help but notice the Scriptures list both a good power–God (also Jehovah, etc.) and an evil power, Satan (the Devil, etc.). There are also epic struggles between human armies recorded at times. King Hezekiah and the Judeans surrounded by sinister Assyrians, who were struck down by the angel of God. Moses with arms upraised and the Israelites fighting the Amalekites. The Ammonite king Nahash (whose name meant “snake”) came up against Jabesh-Gilead, saying he would put out an eye of each man of the city and make them his slaves, only to be foiled by King Saul. The armies of heaven destroying the armies of the “Beast” at the end of Revelation. All direct examples of fighting evil.

So we do see evil and good in toe-to-toe battle on multiple occasions in the Bible, in a style as clear as the obviously-evil orcs besieging Helm’s Deep or Gondor.

An objection some Christians could raise to the idea of fighting evil is that Jesus called on us to love our enemies, not to fight them. We are not to overcome evil with evil, but rather overcome evil with good. But the simple answer to that objection is that the Bible clearly shows Christians fighting Evil, even if we refuse to kill enemies we perceive to be evil.

That’s because Bible has quite another story to tell about evil, other than fighting evil in physical combat: Moses losing his temper, Noah’s loss of self-control when drunk, Miriam’s arrogance against Moses, David’s adultery, Saul’s jealous rage, Solomon giving in to idol worship, Peter’s fearful denial, Thomas’s doubt. Evil not facing Good on a battlefield, where swinging swords will vanquish the enemy, but where Evil is in the heart of human beings and where it must be fought by choosing to submit to God. Perhaps the clearest example of this kind of struggle shows Jesus in the wilderness, not fighting the Devil with angelic or miraculous power, but rather fighting evil as in the temptation that Satan offered, the battle being over what Jesus would do and would say rather than physical combat.

Of course the Bible also includes some morally muddy figures like Sampson, who was good at killing Philistines but basically worthless otherwise. Or Lot, living in a wicked place, trying to protect angels, but willing to subject his daughters to abuse. Or Eli, who both tenderly cared for young Samuel, but also allowed his sons to profane serving God with sexual conquests and robbing from sacrifices. Or Pilate, discussing truth with Jesus, unwilling to condemn him, but for the sake of political expediency orders him put to death. Yet, in spite such figures, it’s clear the Bible overall shows a struggle between Good and Evil, even though that struggle doesn’t always involve physical combat, even though it’s sometimes hard to say with some people what side they are on.

Yet there are people, including some Christians, who deny that fighting evil represents a basic human reality.

Substituting Fighting Evil For a Model of Illness

The chief competitor to the idea that life includes Good and Evil and part of a good person’s duty is to fight evil is not Christian pacifism. Rather it’s a model of mental health. There is no Good or Evil in the ultimate sense in this view. There’s only sickness and wellness. Some people are mentally ill and need treatment. Others are functional but not necessarily “Good” with a capital G.

Such a worldview should produce a type of fuzzy moderation that’s unwilling to absolutely condemn anything. All can be good, all is morally relative. There are no actual villains or heroes in any absolute sense–there’s only people who are well or sick. Fighting evil is not necessary.

Note this type of attitude was very common in the Modernism of the Twentieth Century and still is with us, especially in stories in which no one is really good or bad, or better said, all have their own motivations and all justify themselves but nobody is actually truly moral or immoral, since morality is entirely subjective. J. R. R. Tolkien was quite concerned with this type of “morality,” all the rage in his day, as was C. S. Lewis.

Note though that this type of non-morality does carry with it some ideas we easily could call “moral” that holders of this view “fight” for, metaphorically speaking. Such as a strong belief in treatment for the mentally ill. A desire to cure rather than punish negative behavior. A feeling that science expressed in medicine will be able to make things better, if only we give science the opportunity. Science and medicine becomes de facto Good (yes, with a  de facto capital G) and not providing treatment or seeing science as our “salvation” is Evil. Fighting evil amounts to fighting old ways of thinking, including the worldview of the Bible–though the term “Evil” mostly wouldn’t be used.

A third thing to notice about the mental health view of morality that tried but failed to eliminate the concept of ultimate good and evil was that it pretty much wiped itself out. Modernism led to post-modernism (though some Modernists are still lingering around), and Postmodernists, while they wholly embrace the notion of subjective truth, do not in fact embrace subjective morality. Critical Race Theory, and the Social Justice movement in general, is linked to postmodern thought and yet has very clear concepts about what is good and evil, leading people to fight with a fervor for what they believe as if there really is such a thing as fighting Evil with a capital E, even if they avoid that term (though Postmodernists sometimes actually use the word “Evil”).

So in spite of some people objecting to moralistic terminology, pretty much everyone believes in fighting evil. Even if we don’t agree what Evil is. So let’s return to what Tolkien said on this topic.

How Tolkien Showed Fighting Evil

Lesser Evil

You don’t have to be a scholar of English literature like my friend Anthony Cirilla to notice that with a few exceptions such as the balrog in Moria, the least dangerous villains in Tolkien’s fiction are those merely trying to kill the heroes. Orcs and trolls who smash and stab represent a real danger, a real evil that has to be fought, but the orcs and trolls are lesser-order baddies. They are not calling the shots from Mount Doom or Saruman’s tower. They are not the masterminds capable of destroying all of Middle Earth.

Greater Evil

The greatest evil in Lord of the Rings is the Ring itself. Its power to pull a person towards corruption is its greatest asset. Yet Sauron has the power to corrupt minions into his service without the one Ring, as he did with the nine riders, the Ringwraiths. The power to corrupt is part of what makes Sauron terrifying.

And the Ringwraiths call on Frodo to come with them to Mordor as well as try to slash him with swords. Yes, they are willing to kill him, but are also eager to turn him to their side.

The struggle between Gandalf and Saruman isn’t just a duel of magical power, it includes Gandalf’s appeal to the soul of Saruman, a protest of his decision to follow evil. Though that part of the struggle doesn’t last long, because Saruman is already committed to Evil.

Likewise the struggle Galadriel has within herself about whether to take the Ring doesn’t last long. She is too committed to Good. However, even though brief, this struggle is very important to the story.

Theoden and Boromir are in different ways captured by Evil–but they come back to help Good, both giving their lives to save others. Gollum is also called back from evil–but can’t quite return, though his fall back into wickedness served the purposes of those aligned against the powers of Evil.

Frodo as the ring-bearer is of course the clearest example of how fighting Evil really is more about fighting evil in yourself in Tolkien’s writings than smashing an enemy with a club or impaling him with a sword. Frodo’s struggle is the essential part of the Lord of the Rings quest. Unlike the film adaptation by Peter Jackson, the battles fought against orcs and other enemies in no way helps Frodo on his quest. He and he alone held the key to victory–and his struggle, apart from a few exceptional bits like the fight with Shelob, was internal. It was much more about whether or not Evil would control Frodo in the end than if he’d be killed.

Note that while Frodo did very briefly fall to the power of Evil, if he had done so any time sooner, the quest would have been over. Evil would have won.

If Boromir had not repented, if Theoden hadn’t come back, Evil might have won. There’s an important lesson here–good people turning bad does much harm. Winning them back does much good.

Also, people who should be good, who foolishly work against Good, such as Denethor, Steward of Gondor, or who work against Good because of being corrupted by Evil, such as Saruman, do much harm. It is vitally, vitally important to the quest to keep Evil from conquering everyone that good people don’t surrender themselves to personal darkness.

Tolkien made it clear that the greatest, most important way to fight evil is to make sure you don’t give yourself over to Evil.

Guard your own heart, as the Bible says in Philippians 2:12: “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” Don’t be arrogant about yourself and presume you are right. Check your own heart–guard yourself from Evil–resist temptation, as Jesus did. That’s the most important way to be fighting evil. Inside, not out.

Why I’m Bringing This Up–Conclusion

While the issue of what we can learn from Tolkien about fighting evil could be brought up at any time and applies to every person on the planet, it is true that I know Christian people in dismay over the current political situation in the United States. There’s a thought that political opponents will use their power to suppress dissent–that just as the former president of the United States lost access to a platform of communication, so could anyone who disagrees. Many have a sense that hard times are coming, beyond just the suppression of dissent.

So I’m writing this bit to remind everyone that your most important duty is not to remold the culture in your image or triumph in politics. Your most important duty is to resist Evil yourself. To be the Aragorn wandering in the wilderness if need be, separated from the halls of power but doing good nonetheless, waiting for the due time when providential circumstances will call you out of the forest (metaphorically speaking, of course–you don’t have to go live in a forest 🙂 ).

If you are allowed a Shire, enjoy it. But if not, you are not justified in setting up your own tower like Saruman, forcing others to follow your will through malicious power. Tolkien did show a need to fight those trying to do immediate physical harm to others. But that isn’t the greatest struggle between Good and Evil (nor did he show Shire people decide to execute a pre-emptive strike on Mordor).

Image copyright: New Line Cinema

One of the worst things you can do is to try to seize power for the supposed purpose of obtaining a good goal. The most important thing is to keep yourself from Evil and to work to win back the Theodens of the world–those under the control of the power of Evil. That’s the fight we need to be fighting. Not physical combat–the physical battle will ultimately be resolved by the armies of heaven, not you and I.

So, having said all of that, I don’t feel I’m in any danger of being mistaken for a scholar of Tolkien’s works. I think my observations were simple and straightforward and this was not the first time someone on Speculative Faith addressed the issue of evil in relation to Tolkien (Rebecca Miller did, more than once, and Anthony Cirilla had some very interesting observations about the Hobbit, though not specifically about Evil).

What do you think, reader, about what Tolkien’s fiction showed about fighting evil? Do you agree or disagree with my take on the Lord of the Rings? What other thoughts come to mind?