Monthly Archives: July 2012

Those Suicidal Pilgrims

Fox News recently ran a piece on plans by Mars One to launch one-way missions to Mars, with the first arrival in 2023:  Mars One Plans Suicide Mission to Red Planet for 2023.

The idea is that the astronauts are emigres, and not just visitors.  This removes the need for return spacecraft and the associated fuel, tremendously reducing the cost and complexity of the missions.  It also eases the concern that the early Mars missions, like Apollo, might eventually lose support and result in another dead end. 

Hyperbolic headlines aside, I agree with Brian Enke that “extended stay mission” is a more appropriate name.  The early settlers in North America arguably faced tougher physical and psychological hurdles, yet I doubt many would refer to their journey as a suicide mission.

A major theme of In the Shadow of Ares is the role of private enterprise in Martian development and settlement, though we initially expected government-led missions to open the frontier before “getting out of the way”.  Mars One proposes to conduct their missions completely independently, though it remains to be seen if they can obtain the required funding, estimated at $6 billion for the first mission.  I, for one, would love to see them pull it off.

I look forward to learning more, though an initial perusal led me to a few concerns, not least of which is Mars One’s stated intent to rely entirely on solar power on the Martian surface.  I believe their concerns regarding nuclear power are severely overstated, and smack of politics trumping science.  Readers of In the Shadow of Ares may recall politically-motivated power choices having deadly consequences for a group of settlers at Tharsis Station.

And the Award Goes to…

This year’s winners of the Prometheus Award are Ready Player One, by Edward Cline, and The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman.  Given annually by the Libertarian Futurist Society, the award recognizes the best in libertarian fiction.

We are honored that In the Shadow of Ares was a finalist, and wish the winners a hearty congratulations.

Killer Weeds, Pt. 2

I finished The Day of the Triffids on the flight to Krakow on Sunday, and I have to say that Wyndham managed to keep up the quality right until the end. The twist involving Josella should have been pretty obvious, in hindsight, but surprised me anyway given Bill’s fixation with finding the group from the university – it was a wholly effective bit of misdirection.

The ending was a bit of a let-down, in the sense that it just…ends. There’s no big set piece or climax to the story, the characters just ride off into the sunset. I was hoping to find that they’d developed a method of destroying the triffids, or that they’d discovered the truth about the plants’ ability to communicate and (apparently) reason, or the resolution of some of the many mysteries left unresolved. However, given that the story is presented as Bill’s in medias res memoir of the events of the disaster and it’s immediate aftermath, I suppose final answers weren’t to be expected in the time period covered by the story.

Some miscellaneous thoughts:

  • I found the response of the victims of the “meteor shower” to be both disgusting and interesting — most people just gave up and gave in, but as Bill himself sort-of observes at one point, this is a curiously British failing. They kept expecting “in Micawberesque fashion” that Americans would come and save the day again (remember this was written when WWII was still fresh in every adult’s mind), which encouraged in many of the blinded a mindset of dependence-bred passivity strongly reminiscent of people who ignored evacuation orders during Katrina on the assumption that “the government” would take care of them.
  • One glaring omission from his disaster scenario involved radio. Unless the “meteor shower” (in scare-quotes because there was substantial doubt as to the true nature of that event) somehow disrupted the ionosphere for 7-8 years or fried communications systems altogether (while leaving other electrical systems intact), there’s no reason why the protagonists shouldn’t have been in radio communications with others or have had some news of outside areas via those able to use radio communications (such as perhaps the university group in London). The story presumably takes place in the late 1950s or early 1960s, so radio communications would have been both pervasive and accessible even to laymen, and it was shown in the story that electrical power was available to the protagonists even 6 years into the disaster (in the form of electrified fences to keep the triffids out of their compounds). Bill mentions early on (within a day or two of the “meteor shower”) that radio and television frequencies are silent, but it’s hard to believe that that would have continued indefinitely in real life.
  • Wyndham handles the descent of London pretty well, I think. The decay is somewhat accelerated, given what we’ve seen with (say) areas like Detroit undergoing “re-wilding” through a couple decades (rather than years) of neglect, but one can pass that off as artistic license. The initial aftermath, with the confusion, chaos turning to tyranny, and finally epidemics of lethal sanitation-related disease, seems all too plausible (again, look at New Orleans after Katrina, and imagine how that situation would have played out without any outside assistance riding to the rescue, however belatedly).
  • He also handles Bill’s sense of isolation and loneliness well. It’s one thing to be off doing your own thing under normal conditions, but quite another when you don’t know whether you’ll ever see another living human being again. His relief at rescuing Susan is well done in this context.
  • Susan herself is rather amusingly handled. Given what Britain has become since the book was written, the image of a nine-year-old girl deftly handling a firearm and wreaking ruthless vengeance on the killer plants that wiped out her family is delightful.

All together, the book is a bit dated (given that it’s 50-odd years old, that’s to be expected), but is still a wholly worthwhile read as a post-apocalypse novel. No zombies, no preachy anti-human moralizing, no cliched premise – the book focuses more on the protagonists’ response to the events than the gee-whizzery of the disaster or the ensuing threats themselves.

Ambulatory Weeds that Spit Poison and Kill

Returning from a meeting in Cleveland on Thursday, I started reading John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (yes, the source material for the movie).

I’m about halfway through it, and it is so far a pretty decent post-apocalypse novel – one with a very different premise from your usual nuclear holocausts or zombie free-for-alls. The premise of the book differs slightly from that of the film (such as I remember, having seen it almost thirty years ago now – yikes), in that the titular vegetation apparently originated from a Soviet biological engineering experiment gone awry and not from seeds which fell to Earth. The meteor shower which blinded most of humanity left people at the mercy of the triffids, and didn’t in fact (at least as has been revealed thus far) “activate” or “awaken” the plants and send them on a mindless genocidal feeding frenzy.

While some of the events and characters’ actions are a bit twee, a lot of what they do makes sense in the context of a sudden, universal calamity of unknown origin. Wyndham spends a bit of time reflecting (through narration or dialogue) about the fragility of civilization, the tendency of civilizations to collapse, and the wryness of it collapsing in the wholly unexpected way it does rather than through nuclear holocaust or one of the other methods people had been fretting about up until the meteor shower. It’s the kind of intelligence one typically doesn’t find in books like (say) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

It’s also vastly superior in writing style to the other Wyndham work I read recently, The Midwich Cuckoos (the source material for Village of the Damned). That book was truly awful, filled with tedious asides and pointlessly overwrought descriptions of the bucolic scenery, as much a tour guidebook and ethnographic study of a small English country town as it was a science fiction/horror story. In the end, Wyndham’s treatment of the idea fell short of whatever potential it had — the movies are actually much creepier and better realized (even the Kirstie Alley/Christopher Reeve version). In contrast, Triffids is much more tightly written, shows a little more grittiness, and is far, far less twee, approaching at times a similar feel to Heinlein’s Puppet Masters.