Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Horizon of Desperate Events

Black holes are unpleasant things to be around, and that's not just because they're places so warped that mathematics means nothing inside them. All the familiar rules get twisted up around them, and if you're not skillful or you're not paying attention it's easy to end up getting your big, shiny starship trapped forever. Given the right black hole, you could cross the event horizon and the only indication would be all the light of the universe winking out behind you. You're perfectly fine, for the moment -- but you're always getting closer to the singularity, the ultimate destructor.

This is kind of how I feel about modern politics, specifically the United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union. Seventeen million people decided it would be a totally rad idea to skim the event horizon, and come now, it couldn't possibly be as bad as the rest of the crew was saying. Except now the universe has gone out behind them, and every trajectory in spacetime leads closer to the singularity, and they're realizing that playing chicken with a black hole is, in fact, not the wisest decision anyone has made.

I'm seeing commentary pop up now -- Charles Stross, for one, has a good rundown here -- that the UK may not have crossed the event horizon after all, that there's still a way out of the situation and a way to stay in the European Union. Whether it's a second referendum to say "actually, about that, wasn't that a capital joke, simply capital" or clauses in the Scottish and Northern Irish constitutions that could give them vetos over leaving the EU if you squint, there's a lot of desperation out there to walk it back.

Personally, I think it's not going to happen. Things have already gone too far for that. A wound can be healed, but it can't be uninflicted. Words, once said, cannot be unsaid. Democracy is an axiom of the United Kingdom and the European Union, and saying "whoops, just kidding!" undermines that whole foundation. I know it would be better for everyone for the UK to stay in the EU; my personal preference is for them to stay.

But they can't, not anymore. Look at it this way: if you took a shit on your boss's desk, how well-disposed do you think she would be to your frantic, frenzied apologies, your begging to not be fired, when she discovered you wiping your ass with a dayplanner? We've all experienced times in our lives where we wish more than anything we could rewind time, use the Omega-13 to correct a single mistake, but that never happened for any of us and I highly doubt it's going to happen for the UK.

The EU is not going to take a punch to the face with a smile. They're going to break the UK to the greatest extent they can, pour encourager les autres. Even as someone whose background is English, who knows people over there who are already broken by this -- I honestly can't say I blame the EU, or that I would do any different were I in its place.

In their way, institutions can be as cold and as mechanical as black holes. We forget that to our peril.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Short SF Review #24: Perspectives

"Perspectives," by W.R. Thompson
Originally published in Analog, November 1983

"You realize how dangerously tense things are up here, don't you?"
Bob looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that this is the most stress-filled environment in which humans have ever attempted to live."

The 1980s were interesting times for science fiction. The gosh-wow-isn't-this-gadget-rad-as-heck stories and odes to pocket-protected engineers solving technical problems that had once dominated it were an increasingly smaller part of a larger galaxy. The Space Shuttle had begun to fly, and proved the 1970s dreams of two-week turnarounds and $10-per-pound orbital launch costs to be just that--dreams. The world was becoming more like science fiction every day, but to some science fiction writers, the world was always trying to take it away.

A lot of those writers ended up placing stories in Analog, and as a result, many Analog stories in the '80s are built around space boosterism and reflect the anxieties of authors that, just as it had been possible to reach for space, their hands were being slapped away by "budgets" and "physics" and "U.S. Senator William Proxmire (D-WI)," about whom they complained mightily. Stories that come out of this zeitgeist often look rather... warped to modern eyes.

W.R. Thompson's "Perceptions" is one of them. Set in the near future of 1983, so probably ten or fifteen years ago, the United States has set up a lunar colony as the core of a space mining operation. Buffetted and battered by its dependence on Earth and its politicians, a deep vein of uncertainty and stress is piled on to the ordinary concerns of space life--you know, that unless everything keeps working, everyone will die. Into this comes Charles Augustine Hacker, a psychologist sent up to study the effects of stress in the colonial environment. Makes sense, really; a lunar colony runs in completely different circumstances from anything on Earth, and you'd want to have an outside opinion on mission-critical things like psychological stability, for the same reason you'd want air traffic controllers or nuclear reactor technicians to be in good mental health.

But he isn't 100% on board with the idea of space colonization, so in the world of a 1980s Analog story, he is of course the villain.

Hacker has an argument behind him -- the colonists act weird to his eyes, beyond their general-but-understandable unwillingness to dwell on the hostility of their environment; they're as sober as a temperance convention, they're careful to a fault, they use jargon-filled slang that implies they'd rather think of themselves as machines. He also has a solution: for the colonists to return to Earth, before their society snaps. The colonial leaders, being the colonial leaders, don't think much of this solution, and when they discover where Hacker's coming from, they immediately make plans to resolve the situation to their benefit.


I'll admit that the execution of "Perceptions" may suffer from being, as best as I can tell, Thompson's first professional sale. I know that my first sale to Analog, back in 2012, doesn't match up to things I'm creating now. Still, readers can only engage it by how it was executed, and honestly, I still can't decide if the author *intended* the reader to look askance at the story or to take it at its word. When I first read it on the subway, I reached a point where I said to myself "oh, I see what's going on, all these expectations that're being set up are going to get toppled," right until I reached the last line and the tower of expectations stayed defiantly upright.

The story is built around the colonists' realization that Hacker has an ideological axe to grind: specifically, that technological advancement had made civilization more and more stressful, that "technology has destabilized the foundations of life" and "form[s] dangers to life and limb which are beyond human comprehension." The leaders decide he lacks intellectual honesty because he filters things through his viewpoint rather than theirs, and come to the conclusion that abandoning the colony would end up dooming all of humanity to a new Dark Age. So, being calm, rational individuals who are in no way suffering from severe psychological pressure, they decide to give Hacker a nervous breakdown.


That's pretty much how it ends. The colony's director wonders how long it'll be until he can sleep soundly again, even though he's convinced himself that he's saved the colony -- and there's a lot of convincing going on in this story. The colonists convince themselves that they're totally okay, that Hacker is full of shit solely because he has a particular viewpoint, and that all of their actions are worthwhile and justifiable.

The key thing that the story appears to gloss over, though? Hacker isn't wrong. The moon is far more hostile than any environment on Earth. Stress can be a real problem, and it can sneak up on you. "I don't feel any tension," says Bob Dubois, the colonial director, as if that settles things. But tension is funny like that, and it's something I can speak to. I've been working the same job for nine years now, but it's only fairly recently that the tension migraines started to appear, and even more recently that I discovered they were tension migraines. You can think you're calm, collected, and in control and be totally unaware that the dam holding back everything has started to buckle.

I thought that this story would end by, in part, vindicating Hacker. Much of the story's middle is a dialogue between two characters justifying the colony's customs to each other, which I read as the characters trying to convince themselves that they were right, that nothing was wrong with them. There's never any self-awareness, never any doubt; the colonists know they are the Good Guys Here. It's like they're terrified to interrogate their own beliefs, in case they discover something they'd rather leave hidden.

In their own way, the colonial leaders are no better than their villain -- but you could make an argument that they're worse. They barely bother seeing if Hacker can be swayed, with the doctor justifying the induced breakdown by saying that he can't be reasoned with. What's left unsaid is that, to all appearances, neither can they.

"Perspectives," to me, is greater than the sum of its parts. It's not many stories that leave me thinking for days after I read it, wondering whether the author was pointing to this thing or that one.

what do you mean i haven't used this category for FOUR YEARS woooooow

Previous Short SF Reviews: