Sunday, November 23, 2008

Brainfood #3: Mars according to Kim Stanley Robinson

I've always enjoyed how the best science fiction both reflects on, and speculates about, the possibilities inherent in the human condition, regardless of where people frolic in time and space. The genre excels when it successfully redefines setting and context while playing around with long-established literary themes. (How's that for an introduction that tries to impart a certain scholarly air to a genre oft-associated with pulp fiction?)

A prime example is Isaac Asimov's monumental Foundation Trilogy, which draws deeply on human political history, particularly Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Like the fine novelist that he was, Asimov places his well-defined characters in a quickly-paced narrative that adds a personal element to historical events and political machinations. Foundation, as a political entity, is the product of individuals and their actions, and we're privy to their conversations and thoughts as they shape the fate of the galaxy. It's not so much a retelling of Gibbon as it is an interstellar Greek drama based on the story of Roman imperial decline, a tale where individual actions have consequences of epic import. But because it's sci-fi, these tales aren't bound by terran limitations: they bounce from planet to planet, providing Greek tragedy with a healthy side dose of intergalactic space flight. Greek with geek, if you will.

My interest in sci-fi comes with a planetary sized caveat: the genre, sadly, is rife with some truly mediocre writing. Sometimes it seems like sci-fi editors will forgive stilted narrative and lame character development as long as the gizmos giz and the zappers zap. Caveats aside, there is plenty of brilliance in the genre, and one master that I've recently caught up with is Kim Stanley Robinson.

Robinson's Mars trilogy has been on my reading list for some time, but I finally got around to it this month. He presents an environmental challenge: given a blank planetary slate, filled with the proverbial "building blocks" to support life, how would humans create a habitable environment on a planet from scratch? Over the course of three novels, Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars (1996). Robinson traces the colonization and terraforming of Mars, where several generations of colonist render a stark, freezing planet into a place fit for human habitation.

Yet as anyone who has paid attention to the environmental movement in our current time and place (Earth, circa 2008), environmental science is constantly battling with corporate interests and an array of related political wiles, ruses, and shenanigans. As it is now, so it is in Red Mars. Without spoiling the plot, a struggle develops among the settlers between keeping Mars in its pre-human contact condition (a group known as the "Reds,") and turning it into another Earth-like planet, with surface water, vegetation, and a breathable atmosphere (these folks are known as the "Greens"). As colonization develops, transnational corporate interests ("transnats"), with an unwavering eye toward profits, bring in settlers from war-torn and overpopulated Earth to work the Martian mines. A corporate police state develops, with eerie parallels to Appalachian coal towns and other dark sides of labor history.

While Robinson's initial acclaim came from the Mars novels, he's gained recent attention with his Science in the Capital trilogy, a set of novels examining the effects of Global Warming, consisting of Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007). And it's not just sci-fi fans who have notice Robinson's work; indeed, his environmental literature earned him a 2008 "Hero of the Environment" designation by that bastion of mainstream news reporting, Time Magazine. Last month, AMC announced plans to make a TV series based on Red Mars. His work is quite popular, and the Web's abuzz with information about him. One interesting source is the KSR Encyclopedia wiki.

Inside the Gusev Crater on Mars, from the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit

Isaac Asimov hawking Radio Shack TRS-80 computers in 1982.

Credits: Photo of Kim Stanley Robinson by Beth Gwinn, from the KSR Encyclopedia. The tracks were made by Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity when it scampered in and out of the Victoria Crater. The Mars images are from NASA's Mars Exploration Program website. The Asimov ad is blatantly ripped from the Web, but it was so cool I just had to do it. To help offset any guilt I have about stealing a Radio Shack ad, I promise to go to Radio Shack as soon as possible to pick up one of these cool TRS-80s. I've always wanted a color computer!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

First snow!

Much to my surprise, the forecast of flurries actually left some snow on the ground -- a bit less than an inch fell this morning, imparting a magical air to our walk. Asta, of unknown-but-possibly-Arctic-dog-lineage, had a blast scurrying around in the white stuff. And the forecast is for lows in the teens tonight. Here's some assorted shots of this lovely transition into winter:

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Full Frost Moon

With a bit of hazy fog in the air, this photo of the Frost Full Moon was taken from my backyard in Blacksburg last night. Fog and haze gave way to clouds overnight, and it was raining when I woke up this morning. The November full moon is also known as the Frost Moon or Beaver Moon. According to the Farmers' Almanac, it's called the Beaver Moon because it was the time "to set beaver traps before the swamps froze, to ensure a supply of warm winter furs." This particular full moon marks the closest the Moon will be to the Earth in 2008, just a scant 356,566 miles away. Touchable, don't you think? Gather beaver pelts? I think not - I'll opt for fleece and merino wool, thank you, but the folklore reminds us that the Frost/Beaver Moon is yet another autumnal sign of approaching winter.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Falling into the State: Veteran's Day

Dad was no poetry fan; he sometimes traced his antipathy back to an English professor at East Carolina Teacher’s College in 1943. “He made us read his poetry, and it was awful,” he said. “I never did like it after that.” But I often think he would have liked Randall Jarrell, the poet and former North Carolina Women’s College professor whose poems documented his service with the 8th Air Force during World War II.

Like Jarrell, my father fell into the State in 1944, when he was drafted into the Army Air Corps. He was assigned to the 449th Bomb Group of the 15th Air Force and stationed in Grottaglie, Italy, where he flew 52 combat missions as a gunner in B-24 bombers. On his very first mission, on January 14, 1944, the B-24 developed engine trouble and he had to bail out. Only 3 of the crew of 11 made it out of the plane. It was Dad’s first mission, but because the plane crashed before they reached the combat zone it didn’t count, and Dad went on to fly an additional 52 missions.

He rarely talked about the war, and then only in generic terms, but he did save his parachute ripcord and his membership in “The Caterpillar Club,” an honor given to men who parachuted from planes using silk ‘chutes. Years later, when he was a professional picture framer, he framed the ripcord and the Caterpillar Club card (that's them above). He wore the tiny caterpillar lapel pin for the rest of his life.

Dad became a military man, a cold warrior. Unable to find work after the war, with a family to feed, he reenlisted in the newly created Air Force and served a total of 23 years, retiring as a major in 1965. During that time he worked as the ordinance officer for a fighter squadron with nuclear weapons, and went on to command a Titan II missile launch trainer just before he retired. That's a photo of him sleeping in a B-29 sometime in the late 1940s, I believe when he was stationed in Roswell, New Mexico.

But he never took to poetry, preferring the newspaper, history books, the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer – I come from well-established Episcopalian stock on my father’s side. Yet on this Veteran’s Day, with Dad being gone a full eight years now, I turn to Randall Jarrell to honor my father’s life. Dad was lucky - he made it home and lived to age 78. Many of his friends, including the man I was named for, didn't share the same fate.

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
-Randall Jarrell

Dad and me, sometime in the early 1990s.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Autumn leaves: seasonal musings

We've celebrated fall with this array of gourds in an old bread mixing bowl. My aunt drew the chalk pumpkin paintings in her later, self-described Grandma Moses years. Our good friend CindyLou made the fairy.

Autumn has become my favorite season - full of richly hued colors that slowly give way to a myriad of browns and tans, offset by darkly green conifers and other evergreens. This wasn't always the case, for in my younger days I preferred summer, reveling in the heat and humidity of the southern Appalachian mountains. Fall holds sway now, and I love the colder nights, the lay of the light as the sun angles lower in the afternoons, and the views that are beginning to emerge from hillsides as foliage falls. Offered here are some autumnal musings.

Mid-afternoon oak leaves, backlit by the slanting sunlight. War Spur Loop trail, late October.
Autumn is a time for festivals and celebrations, when the harvest is brought in and victuals are stored for the upcoming winter. Nearly every culture has some form of harvest festival, dating back to festivals in ancient Egypt, China, and Babylon. A contemporary version of the traditional harvest festival is the modern America celebration of Thanksgiving, complete with all the patriotism and mythologies associated with European colonization.

Of course, the Pilgrims were fleeing Britain, which has a pretty well established set of autumnal celebrations. Tucked into mid-November after Hallowmas, is Martinmesse, or Martinmas. While widely celebrated today, it's been called the "forgotten festival" of Great Britain by scholar Martin Walsh, who says that Martinmas "is seen as both the last harvest festival and a curtain raiser for the extended revelling season, in effect, a 'Carnival' in late autumn" (if you're curious, see the citation below). Celebrated in honor of Martin of Tours, a "pacifist soldier-saint," Martinmas falls on November 11, and is marked by butchering beasts and testing new wine. Walsh cites scores of literary references to revelry accompanying St. Martin's festival in British litertaure, and unlike the holy reverence that Martinmas has in other European countries, Walsh notes that "St. Martin quite comfortably belongs in the raucous world of the Elizabethan tavern" as part of "a long English tradition of Martinmas inebriation."

A cult of St. Martin developed in early England, and persisted for centuries. But such merrymaking wasn't always seen in a good light. In fact, the Puritans cited the cult of St. Martin as one of the problems with the Catholic Church in 1580 in the tract Beehive of the Romish Church, where they lambasted the poor saint thusly: "St Martin...the aleknight, tavern-hunter, and drunkarde." Another anti-Romish tract of the time associates St. Martin's behavior, "drinking deepe in tankardes large," with the coming of the Antichrist. That's St. Martin on the right, and he appears curiously sober.

Festivals aside, autumn's a wonderful time to go hiking. We took a hike up to War Spur Loop a few weekends ago, and Asta had a great time. That's her on the left, zipping down the trail with abandon. I had stopped to take some photos and Barrie had gone ahead, so this is Asta coming back to herd me.

Hiking brings this Zen poem to mind:

Visiting the Mountain Hermitage
of a Monk at Gan-Hua Monastery

He waits at dusk, bamboo walking stick in hand,
at the headwaters of Tiger Creek,
leading us on as we listen to mountain echoes,
following the water's way.

Patches of wildflowers bloom.
A solitary bird calls from the valley floor.
We sit evening zazen in the empty forest:
quiet pine winds bring the odor of autumn.

Morning light on Poverty Creek, mid-October.

Finally, a few live performances of a seasonal favorite, "Autumn Leaves," originally written by Joseph Kosma and Jacques Prev with French lyrics and the title "Feuilles Mortes." Johnny Mercer wrote the English lyrics for the 1956 film Autumn Leaves, and the movie version was performed by Nat King Cole. It's a true jazz standard now, having been recorded by dozens of musicians. These two versions are by two of my favorite piano trios. The first is the great Bill Evans Trio:

The second is Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and Gary Peacock:

Another backlit leaf and moss. Love that autumn light!


"Medieval English Martinmesse: The Archaeology of a Forgotten Festival, by Martin W. Walsh. Folklore, Vol. 111, No. 2 (Oct., 2000), pp. 231-254

"Visiting the Mountain Hermitage of a Monk at Gan-Hua Monastery." Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese. Boa Editions, Ltd., 2000. p97.