A probably-incomplete list of books and short stories I read in 2020. I’d have expected a longer list, given COVID lockdowns, but then I’ve also been working a lot more than usual over the past several months. Most of the fiction was re-reads, as I haven’t seen much lately that appeals to me. There are also several books not listed that I grew bored with and gave up on – something I normally don’t do, but in each case the reading was a slog and was keeping me from reading something more interesting and useful.
“Alone on the Ice”
Giants Series: “Inherit the Stars”
Giants Series: “The Gentle Giants of Ganymede”
Giants Series: “Giants’ Star”
Frank Herbert, “Dune”
Walter Tevis, “Mockingbird”
Isaac Asimov, “Foundation”
Niven and Pournelle, “The Mote in God’s Eye”
H.P. Lovecraft, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”
H.G. Wells, “Anticipations”
Herodotus, “The Histories”
Lawrence A. Rubin, “Bridging the Straits”
“There Will Be War”, vol. 5
“There Will Be War”, vol. 7
“20 Master Plots and How to Build Them”
Nassim Taleb, “Antifragile”
“How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen, How to Listen So Your Kids Will Talk”
“Miss Manners Minds Your Business”
Harvard Classics: “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin”
Harvard Classics: “Journal of John Woolman”
Harvard Classics: “William Penn: Fruits of Solitude”
Harvard Classics: Plato’s “The Apology,” “Crito,” “Phaedo”
When famed science presenter Silas Hudson and his companion are brutally murdered while visiting Redlands, an isolated settlement on Mars, settlers take the law into their own hands. The justice they seek carries greater danger than the crime, however, and their actions threaten to conceal another crime with far-reaching consequences.
It’s a pity about Hudson, though. The more we wrote about him, the more unfortunate it was that we had to kill him.
From New Harmony to Ariadaeus Dome, utopias have been built on philosophical foundations by rational minds brandishing simple solutions to the eternal problems of human societies. The problem each has faced is that those eternal problems are the result of real people living in the real world and dealing with real circumstances.
Utopias fail not only because their philosophies are unrealistic or the rationality is unreasonable, but because they invariably deny the nature of the human material they have to work with. But we are human. Wherever we go, for good or ill, we take our humanity with us. How could it be otherwise?
Silas Hudson, Mars Ep. 1, “The Romance of New Horizons”
(Sometimes, I think Silas Hudson should set up a Twitter or Gab feed.)
On my next to last day in Iceland, I drove the Kaldidalur route from Reykholt to Thingvellir, passing en route the Langjokull ice cap. Much to my surprise, there was a modestly-marked turnoff that led not merely close to the ice but out onto it (just left of the prominent hill in the center of the image):
Between Iceland and Norway, I’ve been up close to a dozen or so glaciers but have only ever seen ice caps from a distance. I always pictured them as being bounded by ridges or mountains where they didn’t squeeze out through passes as outlet glaciers, and didn’t anticipate that the margin of the ice would simply taper off to nothing. Just look at this – is this what you would have expected? That such a huge mass of ice would just kinda…end?
I took some pictures and made some notes and filed it all away for when we eventually send characters to the North Cap. Expect to encounter this scene with a red tint at some point.
Another surprise, and the point of this post, was the tour vehicles used by Into the Glacier to ferry people to a man-made ice cave further out on the ice cap.
A little research turned up that they were custom made from MAN 8×8 military chassis by a British company, Army-UK. The things were huge – the pictures don’t convey just how large they seemed up close (but note the Ford Explorer for some sense of scale). I couldn’t see how many seats there were in the front cab, but it looked wide enough to seat four abreast. Army-UK gives a maximum cabin capacity of 38 passengers, which would work out to ten two-by-two rows (minus two seats for the entrance door and steps).
This one was even larger than the one above:
While these aren’t exactly how we pictured the rovers in the Ares Project universe (at least not the rovers sent to Mars as part of the titular Ares Project, which we describe as having cylindrical bodies with a single large front transparency akin to the submersibles from The Abyss), they are great analogues against which one can imagine what other sorts of rovers might look like. In particular, the rovers used by the ill-fated British Trans-Marineris Expedition of 2050…oh, wait, we haven’t talked about that story yet, have we…
Yes, we need to get back to blogging here. But you know how it is, sometimes other priorities intervene.
Anyway, getting back to writing, we’re (still) finishing up the crime story Dispatch we’ve been working on for a while. We’ve spent the past two weekends restructuring a portion of it to address a draggy sequence that was proving impossible to edit into shape. It’s turning out nicely, with a much more consistently-paced escalation of events following the titular crime.
Meanwhile, Act I of the second Amber Jacobsen book, Ghosts of Tharsis, is complete but for some fact checking on orbital mechanics, Act II is written but for a few additional thematic elements and some additional action, and Act III is written but (frankly) the denouement is still a dog’s breakfast.
I spent most of July in Iceland, which half-expectedly turned into a “location scouting” trip for writing purposes. Drove Kaldidalur, Kjolur, and about half of Sprengisandur, each of which crosses a number of Mars-like landscapes. Also drove the segment of the Ring Road between Egilstadir and Jokulsargljufur that I bypassed in 2010, an area that looked like the Moon and Mordor had a landscape love-child. Once I finish processing the photos, I may do a photo essay on the especially Martian landscapes I encountered.
I swore off reading most news as one of my new year’s resolutions, so I’m a little behind on this item. Now I understand the sudden sense of urgency regarding proposals I’ve been busy with this past week.
“At the direction of the President of the United States, it is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years,” Pence said. “To be clear: the first woman and the next man on the moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets from American soil.”
So much for the usual kumbayaa globalism. Heh.
Pence offered a warning that appeared to be directed at Boeing, the prime contractor for the SLS core stage. “We’re committed to Marshall [Space Flight Center],” he said. “But to be clear, we’re not committed to any one contractor. If our current contractors can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find ones who will.”
“If commercial rockets are the only way to get American astronauts to the moon in the next five years, then commercial rockets it will be,” Pence added. “Urgency must be our watchword.”
From what I’m seeing, what’s behind the sense of urgency is the perception that HQ will not hesitate when faced with delays or overruns to change contractors or cancel troubled programs outright. (Excluding SLS, of course…)
Having worked on a program (on the receiving side) that was taken away from one contractor and given intact to another due to poor performance, I hope that specific type of contractor change doesn’t happen too often. Shifting a existing program to an entirely new team may (or may not) fix the management and design competency issues, but it takes a lot of time for the new team to get up to speed. More importantly, it’s difficult if not impossible to fix all of the engineering problems simply due to the inertia of completed engineering – the new team may not be allowed to start from scratch, or to implement significant changes and improvements, simply because of the time and budget required to do so.
Definition: a half-page of text inflated into an hour of monologue via repetition, digressions, and zero-content verbal filler, and commonly delivered in a halting, stammering, screeching, uptalking, mumbling, or droning voice unsuited to the task.
One of the common themes in the Ares Project universe is the problems that result from the lack of a government on Mars – or, to be more broad-minded about it, the lack of formalized mechanisms for resolving disputes, something traditionally handled by government.
The Mars Development Agency is a non-governmental organization, and while some characters see it as a provisional government, it’s authority and powers are strictly limited in scope and degree by the Mars Charter. It was established primarily to run the land claim registry system and to build and operate essential infrastructure in support of settlement activities. As a number of characters have pointed out, MDA has no army or police force through which it can exercise a force monopoly – a fact the stories provisionally titled “True Crime” and “The Olympian Race” explore in some detail. Its power lies in its ability to screw over the commercial settlements that get out of line by cutting off their interplanetary communications and cargo shipments via Phobos, pressuring the (in some cases vital) concessions at Port Lowell to charge astronomical prices or not do business with them at all, and in the case of settlements whose land claims have not yet vested, taking away their provisional claim and thereby undermining their business by scaring off their investors. The settlements are left to work out their own rules for resolving disputes, and when this fails to litigate through their agents on Earth.
After reading the draft of “True Crime”, one of our reviewers noticed similarities in certain elements of the story’s background to David Friedman’s contractual/market-based alternative for rights enforcement – something quite unexpected, as neither Carl nor I had heard of David Friedman. In a nutshell, the concept is that individuals contract with a rights enforcement agency to represent them in disputes with others – think of it like having an insurance policy where the insurance company protects your rights. In the event of a dispute, your agency and the other party’s agency contract with an impartial third-party arbitrator to settle the matter. Along the way, a form of law evolves out of (among other things) what the agencies are willing to go to bat for you over under what circumstances, and the track records of agencies in accepting the rulings of arbitrators and of arbitrators in how they make rulings.
I like the concept, given that it could emerge naturally in a clean-sheet society with no government in the familiar sense, made up of people most of whom have joined it through a contract (the standard 5-year employment contract covering the cost of transport to Mars), who live in communities that are essentially company towns where conduct is subject to rules laid down in the employment contracts, and where relations outside the town are subject to the terms of commercial contracts. (I can’t see this ever emerging in an existing society and displacing an extant government.)
One question that I haven’t resolved is, unfortunately, something at the core of “True Crime”: what do you do when someone murders someone? No one in their right mind is going to contract with a rights enforcement agency that would countenance the death penalty, however unlikely they are to engage in a capital offense. I’m betting this is a plus for those libertarians who would consider this arrangement, given their philosophical opposition to capital punishment: in order to get any business, a rights enforcement agency would have to state in its contract and in negotiations to select an arbitrator that it will not accept execution, torture, or other extreme penalties. If one did not, they would get few if any clients, and their willingness to let them be killed would be rendered moot by the unwillingness of other agencies and arbitrators in this regard.
That still leaves the question of how murder (for example) would be punished under a contract-based society like this. The obvious alternatives are imprisonment, servitude, and restitution. Mars doesn’t have the resources for literal prisons (barring an unlikely rate of crime that makes private prisons paid for by the “losing” agencies economically viable). That leaves servitude and restitution, which in practice may amount to the same thing – indenturing the killer to work for the victim’s settlement for some period of time, for example, oradding the dead man’s remaining contract to that of his killer (payable to the victim’s settlement) as restitution.
But as with many bright libertarian ideas, it treats the problem in purely economic terms, ignoring the moral and societal aspects. Is simply paying what is in effect a weregild adequate punishment for murder? How would one ensure the establishment of social norms beyond simple payment of money, so as to ensure that one can’t simply murder as many people as one can afford? I suspect that anyone running into this more than once would render themselves ‘uninsurable’, i.e.: unable to find any agency to protect their rights, and thus ironically in the vulnerable position of the outlaw in Commonwealth Iceland instead of being able to murder at will. Given time to look further into this, I suspect answers to most such objections can be found in medieval systems of tribal or thing law.
Alistair1918came up in my Amazon Prime queue this week, a found-footage movie with a science fiction (specifically time travel) theme.
The story concerns a social work student making a video on homelessness for her master’s program, who encounters a strange man who claims to be a British WWI soldier. At first she and the friends helping her film dismiss the guy’s claims (quite understandably) as the delusions of a mentally ill man. But there is something about them that compels them to dig further and to help him out. Ultimately they come to the conclusion that he actually did travel through time, and set about finding a way to help him get back to 1918.
An interesting SF premise. And the writer (and lead actor) Guy Bartwhistle actually does a somewhat decent job with it. But…there were a few problems that I saw with the genre elements and the storytelling:
Alistair is a compelling character mainly because of Birtwhistle’s portrayal, but as written simply wasn’t believable as an Englishman transported from 1918 France to 2018 Los Angeles. He was entirely too matter-of-fact about a situation that would have been bizarre bordering on incomprehensible to someone actually in that situation. He doesn’t marvel about plastics or aluminum or television or assorted technologies that we take for granted with which a man from 1918 would have been completely unfamiliar. Even modern versions of technology like telephones and cars and Google Maps he accepts and uses without wonder or confusion – indeed, from the very beginning he’s completely at home with the film crew pointing modern digital cameras and microphone booms at him, with an anachronistic understanding of what they’re doing and how it might help him. One could on the other hand focus too much on the fish-out-of-water aspect of the character’s situation, but that element needed more explanation than simply stating that he’d been 2018 for 30 days already to account for his easy acceptance of the strange new world around him. I don’t recall him even once responding with wonder to any of the infinite number of things that to him should be marvels verging on magic.
Likewise, his manners and views were jarringly anachronistic. A randomly-selected middle-class Englishman from that time ought to have been openly religious, especially one freshly plucked from the front line of the Second Battle of the Marne. His telephone etiquette would have been more formal than was shown (think of how different it was before cellphones, when one actually answered the phone with a greeting rather than a grunt). When one character (inevitably, because Hollywood) casually reveals that she is a lesbian, he has no reaction to that revelation at all, nor to the fact of that same character (platonically) sharing a bed with another character who is pining for her. Nor to the fact of that same character inviting him to sleep on her couch. For an ordinary middle-class Englishman of that period, such things should have seemed inappropriate, but Alistair accepts them without comment (apart from not wanting to impose) exactly as a contemporary man or woman would be expected to respond. It’s not that he’s biting his tongue, or cautiously withholding judgment of these future-people and their unfamiliar ways – it’s that he doesn’t appear to notice them at all.
The science fiction element of the wormhole is handled poorly (and, this being a low-budget flick, the special effects involved are terrible). I liked the concept of naturally-occurring wormholes moving around unseen and waiting for the right conditions to be opened, but the technobabble tried too hard to explain things and ended up cringe-inducing. A better appreciation for the genre conventions would have kept the exposition to a minimum and left more to the imagination. It would have made things a little more believable had the scientist in question already been aware of the wormhole that brought Alistair to 2018 through sensor data or the like, and that this natural occurrence serendipitously confirmed and corrected elements of her theory, allowing her to finally understand the phenomenon well enough to manipulate it.
I did not like the first attempt to manipulate the wormhole phenomenon. If it was going to fail, it should have failed utterly with no visible effects at all, making the scientist look just as delusional as Alistair appeared to be. Like Alistair with modern technology and mores, the modern characters accept this holographic blob appearing above a swimming pool far too readily. There is no wonder or apprehension at this unfamiliar apparition before them. Far better for us and them to see nothing, Alistair makes his leap based on blind faith in what she thinks she is seeing based on instruments alone, and the whole thing fails as shown and they’re all disillusioned. Then later, when they try again and it actually works, then you give the characters and audience some sort of visual indication as confirmation that this time she got it right. And because this is a low-budget film using the found-footage gimmick, that visual indication can occur partially or wholly off-screen, with the characters backing away in awe and caution from the wormhole that’s just materialized before them, the steadycam whirling around as they flee and only getting a fleeting, overexposed shot of the phenomenon itself and Alistair disappearing/having already disappeared into it.
The French scientist was a missed opportunity for some brilliant writing. She should have been an older woman, perhaps in her early sixties, whose grandfather (vs. great grandfather) fought in WWI, told her his stories personally, and introduced her to his war buddies. She would then have had a personal connection to men with direct personal experience of the war, allowing her to more believably recognize Alistair’s shell-shock and other subtle tells. Being from the area where Alistair fought should have been milked for clues that he was telling the truth (at least about having been there) – she could have served as an unexpected confirmation of details of his story that he couldn’t possibly have fabricated.
Related to this, one detail that I didn’t see exploited correctly was the distinctive cut on Alistair’s wrist. This injury was presented as a Chekov’s Gun early on in the film, a clue prominently set up for later use, but never (that I noticed) delivered on later in the story. Imagine the scientist, at first doubting Alistair’s story of time travel, but gradually growing suspicious over the subtle, uncanny details that remind her of her grandfather and his friends. She comes to recall a hazy memory of an elderly Englishman, visiting her grandfather when she was small…a man with a distinctive scar on his wrist, who told her one day she would meet a man with an incredible tale and help him return home. (I should note here that we do something similar to this in Ghosts of Tharsis, inspired by my tripping over a ladder and not by this movie.) This would also have been a more effective way to twist the plot, with the moderns seeing him up to that point as a fascinating lunatic whose deep and detailed delusions have as-yet-unrevealed mundane explanations (he’s a history buff/reenactor, for example), and after that point accepting that he was telling them the truth all along. As presented, though, the ambiguity of whether Alistair’s predicament was real or delusion was drawn out well past where the story called for it to be decisively resolved.
It’s not the greatest movie, but it’s interesting and thought-provoking despite its many flaws. At worst, it’s another entry in the long list of genre movies whose script I wish I had been asked to review before filming started. So much potential right there, already in the mix, just not realized.