Welcome to Our Planet

Eight months ago, coincident with our Chaos President’s dark and threatening inauguration speech about “American carnage” (see my previous post, Inauguration Blues), six people entered an isolated environment on the Big Island of Hawaii, a NASA-run simulation of life on Mars.  Amazingly, their eight months separated from the world have passed, and yesterday the four men and two women emerged to discover that Donald Trump is still the Chaos President, still denying climate science, still unable to build the Great Wall of Mexico.  They will find the world unsubtly and unsettlingly different, however:  while they were gone, the US has withdrawn from TPP and the Paris Agreement, circling its wagons and surrendering its leadership position worldwide; multiple hurricanes, boosted by warm ocean waters and rising sea levels, have laid waste to the Caribbean and parts of Texas and Florida; DACA has been rescinded, exposing 800,000 young people while 11 million undocumented immigrants continue to live in fear; North Korea has launched missiles over Japan and tested a hydrogen bomb; the President has blustered at the United Nations that we may have no choice but to “totally destroy” North Korea; he has also doubled down on his statement that neo-Nazi white supremacists and those protesting against them are equally to blame for violence; a parade of White House officials have departed in disgrace; a special prosecutor is closing in on the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia to influence the election; the GOP is cynically trying for the fifth (or is it the sixth) time to bring their cruel and destructive healthcare agenda back from the dead (see my previous posts Vive le Healthcare and Kill Bill 3)– Trump wants this bill, which would result in millions losing healthcare coverage, passed by next week, before the Congressional Budget Office and other expert groups can provide any analysis of its dire consequences.

In Inauguration Blues, I advised the six Martians-in-training, when they finally came out of isolation, not to utter the classic line, “Take us to your leader.”  But I’ve changed my mind; they should absolutely see our Chaos President, if only to demand of him, “What’s happening to our world?  Why are you doing this?”


Denial and Detachment

This isn’t a doomsday blog, warning of some great approaching apocalypse.  But there is a pervasive sense of disaster in the air, as pointed out recently in the NY Times:  deadly hurricanes all in a row, record temperatures and numerous wildfires out of control in the West, a huge earthquake in Mexico killing dozens.  I would add the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, refugees from war denied entrance to some European nations, and the testing of a hydrogen bomb by North Korea.  Our Chaos President made some appropriate noises after Hurricane Harvey, but I’m not sure those wading through the flooded ruins of their homes got any relief from his saying the ground team was doing a great job; it was a beautiful thing to see; or “Have a good time!”  Political gain is clearly his first priority, not true concern for Houston’s storm victims.  What about the warming waters of the Caribbean boosting the strength of the hurricane?  Rising sea levels increasing the danger of the storm surge?  Prolonged droughts and heat waves predicted by climate science?  I’m afraid climate change deniers, including the President’s “base” in Florida and Texas, remain unwilling to at least consider the scientific evidence or the possibility of a connection–  even while standing knee-deep in its consequences.

The more evidence piles up, the more desperately they’ll cling to their denial:  cognitive dissonance is an amazing thing.  Add to that a sense of detachment and unreality, these calamities unfolding at a distance as though we’re looking at a movie or video game.  No matter how calamitous, we want to believe- and at some level do believe- that everything will go back to normal when it’s ended.  Game over?  Just reset.

In the case of North Korea’s hydrogen bomb, the President is playing a game of chicken.  His dismissal of science and ignorance of history (again, denial and detachment) does not increase our confidence that he knows what’s truly at stake.  Nuclear fusion, as in a hydrogen bomb, releases a thousand times the energy of fission, as in an atom bomb (physicists please chime in), and Kim’s missiles can now reach San Francisco.  So far, discussion of this fact has seemed rather abstract, lacking the immediacy that one might expect.

No, this is not a doomsday blog.  It was created to support my science fiction novel, Fourth World, and not to declare that the End Is Near.  But Fourth World does have a dystopian view of the future.  Here’s an excerpt:

They picked their way carefully up the stairway to the remnants of Market Street.  There was no throughway; large sections of collapsed buildings lay on their sides, the spaces in between them clogged with jagged chunks of concrete, twisted metal beams, and shapeless, glassy masses of stone/aluminum/steel/people/plastic/sand fused together for eternity.  The adjacent hillsides all looked the same; not a single street had escaped the crush of the giant falling dominoes.

For a long moment, Benn and Lora stood in silent awe at this death-mask of a city.  The heat of battle must have been incredibly intense, with temperatures well over a thousand degrees…  He could almost smell the explosive combustion of oil, bones, flesh, starch, sulfur:  any substance whose molecules could combine with oxygen had turned incendiary…  Because of global warming and subsequent flooding, a seawall had been erected long before the war, to prevent the rising water level from claiming prime bay-front real estate.  Sections of this seawall had been severely damaged, forcing them to detour around wide flooded areas.  At one point, they had to turn westward to higher ground, where charred stumps of former skyscrapers huddled like an encampment of the homeless.  Only one building had not been completely leveled; judging by the sloped angles of its four corners, discernible as they got closer, Benn guessed that the building had originally been shaped like a four-sided pyramid, and still reached about one-third of its original height.  Here they traversed a small, serene forest of redwood trees which had miraculously survived the conflagration… .



Mars or Bust II

It’s really happening.  Among Earthbound, upward-gazing humans, there has always been a deep-seated fascination with outer space; witness the huge popular reaction to the recent solar eclipse.  But efforts by SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin and other commercial companies to fly folks into low Earth orbit in conjunction with NASA signal an acceleration of that interest, or what has been called a “new space race.”  When rocket factories, cargo missions, passenger flights and space exploration open up “a whole new world of business,” you know that momentum will build.  According to a NASA director, a manned mission to Mars is “the pinnacle of Mt. Everest” at this point– but once Everest has been scaled, what will keep the momentum going?

In my science fiction novel Fourth World, NASA’s Tharsis Colony on Mars is left stranded when a great war results in the formation of one world government (the PWE) and the elimination of NASA.  Here’s an excerpt:

“At other times, Mr. Walker suggested that the colony’s downfall actually preceded the PWE, that the slow death- he termed it the “apoptosis”- of Tharsis Colony was encoded in its DNA at the very moment it was conceived.  To explain this apoptosis, Mr. Walker would use his guiding principle:  follow the water.  The second manned mission to Mars, launched in 2049 (thus nicknamed “The New Forty-Niners”) discovered significant quantities of liquid underground water, which had only to be mined in order to allow large-scale colonization. Of course, water was necessary for supporting life, but beyond that, water was found in perchlorates, hydrated salts which could be converted to solid rocket fuel (this was before the harnessing of nuclear fusion, Mr. Walker reminded them).  The seminal discovery of water, he said, sweeping both arms dramatically to his left, then to his right, essentially divided the history of humanity on Mars into the pre- and post-Forty-Niner eras.”

Regarding the former, Mr. Walker reviews for his second-grade class the decades-long history of Mars exploration:

“… Many other missions contributing to the ultimate colonization of Mars, such as Mariner, Pathfinder, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Opportunity and Spirit, were never forgotten by history.

Also never forgotten:  the fact that the United States agency NASA had been responsible for all of these missions.  Sure, Mr. Walker allowed, successful probes were launched by Russia, Europe, China, India, Brazil, New Zealand, and even private enterprises.  But only the United States had the means to access the water- to monopolize this most vital of natural resources- and establish a full-fledged colony.  Tharsis was a triumph for the United States, but to the rest of the world, it was only the latest example of American empire-building and colonialism.”

But merely finding the means to colonize Mars doesn’t explain the need to colonize, does it?  There have to be assets to exploit once you get there (and in Fourth World, it turns out, there are valuable resources to discover).  Absent such assets, would escaping Earth justify the trouble and cost of such a long journey?  Despite Hurricane Harvey’s devastating effect on Texas and the startling rise in the number of 500-year floods in just the past decade, climate-change deniers in Congress and the White House still determine US policy.  It seems we will continue to prop up the coal industry until all the coal mines are under floodwaters.  In the original Mars or Bust (which appeared on this blog January 7th, while I was still in post-election shock), I coined a name for the manned SpaceX mission to Mars:  Elon’s Ark.  Let’s hope commercial space flight literally takes off:  when climate change can no longer be reversed, we’re going to need a lot more than one Ark!


Bully Pulpit II

Well, that didn’t last long (see my earlier post, Silence from the Bully Pulpit), did it?  If only our Chaos President had just played golf and not made it a working vacation.  While away from the White House, not only did Trump fail to give us all a break from his incessant tweeting, he managed to push us to the brink of nuclear war with a threat of “fire and fury.”  He further divided the nation after the Charlottesville murder by drawing a false equivalence between KKK/Neo-Nazis and anti-bigotry protestors, adding that there was blame- as well as “very fine people”- on both sides (being careful to point out, however, than only one side, the white supremacists, had a permit).  Then he reversed himself – not once, but twice, giving everyone a severe case of political whiplash- finally resorting to defending Confederate symbols as “beautiful statues and monuments,” treasures of culture and history on a level with statues of Washington and Jefferson.  Off Twitter, Trump gave a combative press conference in which he doubled-down on overt signals (I have a feeling we’re not using dog-whistles anymore, Toto) of support and solidarity to white supremacists.  On Twitter he blasted CEOs for abandoning his business councils.  And now he has decided to grind up and extrude Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon from his inner circle- along with Scaramucci, Priebus, Spicer, Walsh and Flynn, just another product of the White House Sausage Factory.

What continues to roil the public (now that the prospect of being nuked by North Korea seems to be receding) is Trump’s reaction to the violence in Charlottesville, which started with the plan to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee.  As the greatest general of the Confederacy- which sought to destroy the United States, at least partly in order to preserve slavery- Lee was a piece of history and culture that should be memorialized in the form of a “beautiful statue,” wasn’t he?  What if, after World War II, Germany had erected statues of Hitler, Himmler, and Eichmann?  Oh, that’s different, they weren’t the greatest generals of the Third Reich?  How about a statue of Rommel, then:  riding a tank on Unter den Linden Strasse?

Very funny cartoon from Tom Toles in the Washington Post today:  Trump pointing at a map of Europe 1944; a large swastika over Germany, and bold black arrows indicating the Allies closing in from all sides.  Trump says, “Sure, you had some Nazis on one side, but you had a group on the other side that came charging in, without a permit, and they were very, very violent.”

Trump’s Attorney General Sessions and many others have called the murder (a car slammed into a crowd by a Neo-Nazi) in Charlottesville an act of terrorism.  After the terrible tragedy yesterday in Barcelona (another motor vehicle driven into a crowd), for which ISIS claimed responsibility, Trump tweeted his opposition to terrorism.  But I was just waiting for him to point out that, in all fairness, there was plenty of blame to spread around…  I know, that would be ridiculous- but given the President’s distorted interpretations and chaotic maneuverings of the past week, nothing lies beyond the imagination!

Completely as an aside:  I wonder what’s taking so long with Robert Mueller’s investigation?


To Join This Couple

If only it were possible to love without injury- fidelity isn’t enough:  I had been faithful… and yet I had injured her.  The hurt is in the act of possession:  we are too small in mind and body to possess another person without pride or to be possessed without humiliation.”

The Quiet American, by Graham Greene


Proximity to several weddings and anniversaries has got me thinking not only about hope and wonderful relationships, but also- this may seem a bit neurotic- about the impossibility of attaining the ideal:  complete mutual understanding.  Ideal goals, almost by definition, are impossible to reach- and yet (one hopes) we strive on, grinding the rough corners, losing the old baggage, constantly adjusting our attitudes toward one another and admonishing ourselves to be better people.  In other words, if we are “too small in mind and body,” we need to keep growing!  If only there were an easier way; if only we had chimeric genes or the drug-induced ability to escape our limited dimensions and merge together, like Benn and Lora in Fourth World, both projecting their auras in an out-of-body experience:

“HUH!” was all Benn could manage as their two auras met.  It was not so much a physical joining of bodies- not the sensation he had hoped for, alas- but more like a merging of two liquids.  Lora feels like oil, the odd thought came to him: he pictured a large drop of oil falling into a pool of water.  As it splashed, the strong natural repulsion between auras took immediate effect:  the drop embodying Lora displaced a smaller drop- a portion of Benn’s aura- which rose straight upward.  Then the Benn-drop fell back in and splashed up an even smaller droplet- Lora again- which in turn fell, and so on, until inevitably the last micro-sphere of Lora was captured by Benn’s surface tension and could no longer escape.  As separate liquids, the two of them had different viscosities:  Benn flowed easily, whereas Lora’s character was thicker, more unctuous.  Their collision caused long, finger-like projections of Lora to penetrate into Benn’s aura, causing it to blush red before snapping back to attention.

He recognized her myriad layers, those melodic strains, the steady internal rhythm he had so admired.  With their thoughts intermingled, mutual understanding arrived instantaneously, and no longer required the cumbersome verbal exchange of ideas expressed ploddingly one at a time, over periods measurable on a stopwatch.”

If only we could do that!  But in the sequel, Fourth World Nation, Benn wrestles with the ups and downs of sharing auras:

“Benn thought long and hard before giving his answer.  Even though she had quickly apologized and even made a joke about it, Lora had meant what she said about the survival of their relationship.  Admittedly, he often worried about misconstruing her intentions, being insensitive, and appearing apathetic when he really did care; why would she not have her own set of worries about appearing moody, contentious, or needy when she was anything but?  Only when their auras fused together was there instantaneous and true knowledge of one another.  Who wouldn’t want a relationship completely free of misunderstandings, mistrust, manipulation, projection, guilt, dishonesty or domination?  No more mumbling, lapses of attention, slips of the tongue or difficulty hearing, either!  What could be better?”

Unlike Benn and Lora, the rest of us remain in separate, finite minds and bodies.  It’s as though we are talking through a wall, in different languages, our voices muffled and disguised.  Of course we’ll never achieve complete understanding that way, so we need to keep growing, grinding, adjusting.  But come to think of it, this continual striving on our parts reflects an untiring commitment to our relationships, doesn’t it?  We may not hear each other perfectly well, but that untiring commitment, I think, is at least one ideal we can attain.



Silence from the Bully Pulpit

Our Chaos President is off to one of his many golf courses again- but this time he won’t be back in Washington for two more weeks.  So maybe we can hope for a brief respite from the daily White House effluvium:  the constant stream of bullying messages directed at Congress, Democrats, Republicans who voted against Repeal and Replace, the Attorney General, the intelligence services, NATO, China, the Clintons, Obama, Muslims, immigrants, transgenders, insurance companies, Reince Priebus etc.– anyone but Vladimir Putin!  Maybe we’ll get a break from the early-morning tweets about witch hunts, transparent walls, 60-pound bags of drugs and fake news, SAD!  But look out:  resistance to Trumpism is increasing markedly within his own party, e.g. the bill on Russian sanctions he was forced to sign; several GOP candidates (including the V.P.) have started holding rallies, filling their war chests and sharpening their knives for the 2020 presidential election; Robert Mueller is tightening the circle of Russian collusion around Trump; John Kelley plans to instill White House discipline as Chief of Staff, when the most undisciplined person there is his boss; then there was the embarrassing leak of his conversations with heads of state in Mexico and Australia.  When the Tweeter-in-Chief returns from New Jersey, I guarantee the bullying will start all over again, with renewed viciousness.

On the other hand, maybe it won’t:  let’s not forget Melania Trump’s pet project; every First Lady takes one on (such as Hillary on healthcare, Michelle on nutrition).  Purportedly, Melania’s project as First Lady is to stop cyber-bullying.  Over the first six months, there are no indications she has done anything about this, but perhaps she’s just been waiting for the right moment to arrange an intervention with Donald.

Fourth World Nation, the second novel in my science fiction trilogy, is complete, except for editing and a final re-write.  Here’s an excerpt; in an early scene, Leader Chou Xia-Yu steps up to a huge podium at the gates of the Forbidden City:

Censors couldn’t possibly suppress every human interest story or news item, which would instantaneously feed the so-called free press and the voracious social media.  More  antisocial than social media, the way the tiniest bit of trivia would be blown out of all reasonable proportion, noted Leader Chou, who thought of the media collectively as a great shrieking voice.  And what if some rebel’s explosive were set off in the middle of Tienanmen Square today?  What would the great shrieking voice make of that?

The amassed throngs began to chant, but Chou couldn’t make out the words:  pronounced in Mandarin, it sounded something like, “More onions!  More onions!” but that seemed improbable.  He glanced at the numerous food stalls lining the periphery of the Square.  The aroma of smoke and grilled onions is already more than sufficient, he sniffed, while outwardly nodding with great seriousness, pretending to understand, and indeed to sympathize.  Enough:  he suddenly raised both arms to signal for silence.  The crowd had been rehearsed from this point by members of his military staff, and an anxious hush now fell upon the multitude, a wave of silence rising out of the ancient Forbidden City; crashing onto the thousands of people wedged together around Mao’s Tomb; then fanning out at the far end of the square, like a surge of seawater hissing into the sand.  Leader Chou spoke crisply in perfect English, with a slight accent he had acquired while a graduate student at Cambridge.

“People of Tienanmen.  People of Beijing and of the Asia Zone.”  He raised his arms again.  “UNITED PEOPLE OF THE WORLD!”  His salutation echoed across the square and was greeted with a loud roar of approval, only partially pre-recorded…


Vive Le Healthcare (a.k.a. Kill Bill 3)

Ding dong, the bill is dead!  The “skinny repeal” bill died in a close final vote last night, a surprise attack at 2 AM as Sen. Mitch McConnell tried to ram it through on short notice.  It was killed by unified Democrats and three brave Republicans, to the great relief of nearly everyone, including many Republican senators who had voted to destroy health coverage for millions of their constituents for the sake of party unity.  But is the zombie GOP healthcare bill truly dead (see my post from last week, Vive Le Healthcare II, in which Repeal and Replace first passed the House, morphed and died in the Senate, then came back as Repeal Only, was killed again, then struggled back to life under the guise of Opening Debate on Healthcare).  Well, it soon died again, then- guess what- rose from the dead as Skinny Repeal, which would have deprived 16 million people of health insurance and raised premiums by removing the individual coverage mandate.

And now that, too, has died, and McConnell has finally said it’s time to move on.  Nothing more to see, folks.  I’m reminded of the classic horror movie ending:  ominous music plays as funeral mourners head back to their cars, sniffling with heads bowed under gray skies.  Behind them, the freshly-turned earth on the grave begins to shift.  Terrified movie-goers scream as a claw-like hand suddenly reaches up through the soil!

Just as insurers and exchanges can now look forward to a stabilized market and resume setting rates not artificially raised due to uncertainty (“just in case” the GOP bill had passed), our Chaos President tweets “let Obamacare fail, then deal!”  Even a GOP-owned Congress sees that as a catastrophic option, but Trump wants to win so badly, he’ll force his opponents (and with them, the American people) to their knees.  He’ll “win,” for example, by weakening enforcement of the individual mandate or increasing uncertainty regarding cost-sharing subsidies.  The President will breathe life back into the moribund Repeal and Replace agenda by sabotaging his own nation’s healthcare.  Say… did you see the earth on that grave shifting just now?  No?

In Fourth World Nation, the second novel in my science fiction trilogy, I offer a tongue-in-cheek view of healthcare in a dystopian future.  By the way, I’m doing a final rewrite on the finished book, so you can expect a notice on this blog very soon!  Here’s an excerpt:

True, at each patient’s initial visit, the mobile AI units did all of the diagnostics and prescribed treatments.  And inevitably, some of those treatments would fail; in those cases, according to DOW policy, the second visit would be scheduled with a human provider.  “For the human touch,” said a DOW brochure.  Lora barely felt human at this point, but when the green light flashed above the door, she always took ten seconds to clear her frazzled mind before putting on a smile and heading into the exam room- especially with cases of treatment failure, who tended to be hostile from the outset.  Taking a full ten seconds was actually self-indulgent, comprising over eight percent of the two minutes allotted for the diagnostic phase of each visit.  The patient, seated in a chair which entered the Intake Room through a sliding door on the left and slowly moved along a conveyor belt toward the Probot chamber on the right, had exactly six minutes with the physician before the exit door slid shut.  Yes, spending ten seconds to gather herself was generous, she admitted; but then again, when providing the human touch, good bedside manner was important, wasn’t it?

Six minutes would seem to be plenty of time to take a history, show the appropriate level of concern, perform whatever physical examination was rarely required, assess the psychosocial peculiarities of the patients (“each to be treated respectfully as an individual,” she recalled the admonition from her early days in medical school), and then wish them wellness as they disappeared into the domain of the Probot, where the real work was done.  But those six minutes, Lora had discovered, flew by much faster than expected.  Some patients insisted on elaborating on the history, reporting new symptoms or irrelevant details about family members at the last second:

“Oh, by the way, did I mention that I have triple-vision?  And I can’t feel anything below the waist?  Great-uncle Leo had the same problem when he was my age.  Should I worry?”

Fortunately the patients were belted to their seats for safety’s sake, as a number of them had tried to get up in order to show her some physical finding, such as a fungus on the foot or a growth in the groin.  Completely unnecessary, she would hastily reassure them:  the Probot would diagnose all of these imperfections much better than she could.

To my readers, stay tuned, in good health!