China On The Rise

Last night, Harvard Prof. Graham Allison gave a talk, moderated by former Rep. Ellen Tauscher, at the Commonwealth Club in SF.  The topic was his new book, Destined for War:  Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?  Five centuries BC, Thucydides noted that the threat from a rising power, Athens, as perceived by Sparta- the ruling power in ancient Greece- led to the Peloponnesian War.  He drew a parallel with US/China relations- acknowledging some of the shortcomings of such a comparison, which have been amply pointed out in various reviews of the book.  China, he said, has caught up with the US in every major parameter, and surpassed it in some.  For example, when Reagan was president, China’s GDP was 10% that of the US, and now it is 110%.  In many aspects of technology, China is taking the lead:  social media, AI, robotics, clean energy, electric vehicles etc.  The US still leads by far in the military arena, but China may not care as much as we suppose (Allison reminded us that, when US and South Korean troops once pushed back a North Korean invasion almost to the Chinese border, China used conventional weapons to fight the sole nuclear power on Earth, all the way down to the 38th parallel).  Economic “warfare” is just as important these days, and as the US withdraws from the world stage (see TPP), you have to wonder:  which country now represents Sparta, and which Athens?  Sharing common interests- such as avoiding nuclear holocaust and preventing global warming- lowers the risk of war, but then having a belligerent and unpredictable president who denigrates NATO and pulls out of the Paris Accord weakens those commonalities.  It seems to me that under our Chaos President, fear of “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD) and climate change may not be enough to prevent war.  Also, the strong chauvinism and national fervor among Chinese- not mentioned in the talk- may tilt the balance towards war when a crisis erupts, for example on the Korean Peninsula or South China Sea.  As I pointed out in an earlier blog (A Day Without Women), the world is a lot more complicated now, but Thucydides may be right after all.

Here’s an excerpt from my sci-fi novel Fourth World, in which Chou Xia-Yu, leader of the world government in 2196, ponders the fate of expatriate anomaly Benn Marr:  will he have to be destroyed?

Chou silently nodded his satisfaction at the inherent justice of it all:  descendants of the American colonists on Mars had paid a steep price to atone for the imperialist policies of their ancestors.  And now, he speculated, this Benn Marr represented another level of reward for years of experimentation.  The ability to read and to project thoughts was similar to what Chinese monks (particularly in the Tibetan District) had been practicing for a thousand years.  The difference was that Eunigen had given Benn his abilities by modifying his genes, so that they could be passed on to future generations in large numbers:  the hypothetical implications for the PWE were staggering!  Unfortunately, Benn Marr, although of Chinese descent, had lost touch with his ethnic roots on Mars, and had no understanding of his rich cultural heritage.  As with all traditional Chinese, Leader Chou harbored the conviction that the Chinese civilization had greater value- it was simply superior- and should be promoted above all others; Benn was unlikely to feel such loyalty.

March for Science II

It was fun– and I don’t mean that in a trivial sense.  For me, the March for Science rally in San Francisco yesterday had the right mix of whimsy and angst, of hilarious satire and hard facts.  There were the white lab coats.  The DNA models.  The signs saying, “Remember polio?  I don’t,” “Science Not Silence,” and “If you think science is expensive, try guesswork!”  Although the march was supposedly non-partisan (one sign said, “Science is not Democrat or Republican” and another “Science is not an ideology”), it was hard to skirt the fact that our Chaos President’s administration has been Ground Zero for the unleashing of virulent attacks against scientific principles and evidence-based policies.  In the Trump White House, GOP partisanship and corporate financial interests are favored over data and facts, even if the consequences might threaten the world.  I saw a decidedly partisan sign with just ten characters:  OMG/GOP/WTF?

The speakers ranged from the humorous-but-pointed to the earnest and personal.  Gauging the applause level was my “eardrum approach” to surveying audience sympathies.  When it came to climate change and the denial thereof, the reaction was the most prolonged, almost angry in its intensity.  Then quoting Niels Bohr, who won the 1922 Nobel Prize for describing the atomic structure and later contributed to quantum theory (“Science is the gradual elimination of prejudice”) drew loud approval.  Other topics: support for NASA; the Clean Water Act on the chopping block; fear of a post-truth world in which evidence doesn’t matter; teachers of science and math as the first line of defense- all of these received wholehearted applause.  With the debunking of vaccine-induced autism, there was a slight but perceptible drop in volume.  How about genetically engineering crops to feed the world?  There was definitely a moment of uncertainty when folks had to decide how they felt about GMOs, and whether to clap at all.  Just as the Women’s March in January demonstrated divisions between those supporting women’s rights, the March for Science showed that belief in science does not translate in a homogeneous way to setting policy.

Maybe there should be a March for Science Fiction.  Poets and writers of fiction often set a stage for the interplay of multiple points of view.  This hypothetical staging leads to a grand conclusion, but also allows layering of multiple take-home messages, as I’ve tried to do in my novel Fourth World.  Even in science, there are shades of gray, when you take into consideration ethics, inclusivity and social justice, geopolitics and so on, and sometimes it takes imagination to untangle these factors.  “Science is Hope,” I read on a placard.  Science fiction, which projects current science onto a hypothetical stage by the power of imagination, is also hope.

The Latest On Fourth World

My science fiction novel Fourth World came out 6-7 months ago as an e-book, but now is available in paperback, on Amazon:  there is a link to the Amazon site on this blog.  Hope you enjoy it!  I want to thank readers of this blog, and of Fourth World, for all your interest and support.  Who knew there would be so many aficionados of medicine, genetics, geopolitics and Mars in the year 2196?

An update on the sequel, Fourth World Nation:  I know a sizable number of readers are anxiously wondering (and have given me grief over) what happens to Benn and Lora.  Well, the wait is almost over- I am nearly finished with the first writing of the sequel, and re-writing will take a couple of months.  Then it’s onward to the dramatic conclusion to the trilogy!

Grinding the Axe

In Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner, the narrator Larry Morgan describes the pain in his past, writing the final chapters of his book in tears:

Yet now, having held in grief and resentment, and evaded thinking too much about the episode that changed my life with the finality of an axe, here I am exalted by having made use of it, by having spilled my guts in public.  We are strange creatures, and writers are stranger creatures than most.

We write what we know, and sometimes what we know is painful- perhaps not as acutely as an axe falling, but more chronically, like a corrosive acid.  When writing about and making use of the pain, it’s important not to let self-pity take charge.  There are several themes in Fourth World, motifs intertwined like strands of DNA.  One of these, I imagine, is almost a universal feeling:  that of not belonging, of always looking in from the outside, no matter what one accomplishes in life.  In my case, that came from moving back and forth, as a child, between countries with different dominant languages and cultures, histories and aspirations.  One country (Malaysia) had the history of being the colony of another (the UK, where the British held- and still hold- strong prejudices regarding their former colonial subjects).  Feeling like an outsider in London was- and is, for Indians, Bangladeshis, etc.- not imaginary.  And, believe it or not, California in the mid-1960s was not a friendly place for Asian kids either- especially those who kept their original names.  Even with English as my first language, a vaguely British accent was a source of humor.

Despite objective evidence to the contrary, immigrants are often told that they are being too sensitive; reassured that the prejudice they see every day is not really there; reminded that after years of living in this country, they have reaped the benefits.  But do they truly belong?  I’m grateful to live in the US and feel much more fortunate than the vast majority, but still sympathize (which literally means to suffer with) today’s immigrants, especially in the current hostile climate.

In my novel Fourth World, Benn Marr has it much worse:  he comes from an Earth colony on Mars!  Here’s his conversation with Lora:

Benn snorted.  “You know, I do try awfully hard to keep the weird behavior to myself.”

Lora spotted a segue opportunity.  “Actually, you might rephrase that:  trying so hard to keep to yourself is your weird behavior.”  Lora took a deep breath- it was as good a time as any to say it.  “This has been bothering me since Highland City.  Benn:  you are, without  doubt, an extremely difficult person to read.”

Benn, who had a history of stumbling badly where Lora was concerned, thought she was still teasing.  “You mean difficult to read, as in a boring novel?  I’ll try to spice up my plot.”  She met his grin with a blank look.

“Difficult because I’m written in a foreign language?” he tried again.

“Come on, Benn.”  Lora rolled her eyes.  “Not a foreign language.  But you do act like a foreigner.  I always get the feeling that you’re holding back, standing apart and watching, as though you don’t belong.”

“That’s because I don’t belong.  And you do?  I admit, you fit in much better than I do, what with having social skills and all.  I’ll be forever an outsider, Lora:  the colonial subject visiting the imperial capital, tolerated only as long as I have something to contribute.  Otherwise it’s ‘Back to the colony, boy, your permit’s been canceled.’”

“You don’t need to feel that way, Benn.  You see yourself as more of an outsider than others do.”

“Do you really suppose these folks consider us Martians their equals?  Back to the original subject, do you think Torch Halsey thinks of us as neighbors or alien freaks?”

“Halsey’s not a valid example; to him, everyone is a potential terrorist!”


The Day After Mardi Gras

The President’s address to a joint session of Congress last night was like a parade of floats on Main Street America:  the Desperate Infrastructure Float, the Tax Code Float (diverted to Wall Street), the spectacle of the Imploding Obamacare Disaster, the gigantic Defense Budget carried on the shoulders of foreign aid workers and the Environmental Protection Agency, social safety networks, National Endowment for the Arts, etc.  Although appearing more “presidential” as he stuck to the teleprompter speech, the President remains very much a showman.  Misleading statements, statistics taken out of context, and claims of credit for processes begun in the previous Administration were no different from his campaign speeches, adding further confusion to the lack of details:  how would he pay for the floats (besides the vague “growing economy”), who exactly would benefit the most, how much pollution to our air and water would he tolerate, what immediate steps would improve the ongoing immigrant crisis?  And how would he repair the rift with the media and the First Amendment?  Fat Tuesday is over, and now the hangover begins.

Here’s a preview of the sequel to Fourth World (the second in a trilogy), which I have tentatively called Fourth World Nation, as the Mars colonies prepare to rebel against the world government.  Leader Chou Xia-Yu addresses the masses, on the 101st anniversary of the Pan-World Electorate:

To Leader Chou, it wasn’t so much the sheer numbers, staggering though they might be, but the quality of the show that mattered.  If he was slightly anxious, it had to do with the powerful symbolism embedded in every minute detail of the Festival:  the synchrony of waving flags and banners, the spotless neighborhoods on display (even gray earthen walls in the few remaining Hutong Exhibits had somehow been polished to a shine), the flawless complexions of happy, uplifted faces magnified two-thousand-fold on giant screens to his right and left.  Yes, billions were watching closely for any sign of disharmony or failure of leadership, any technological glitch or stumble.  A child throwing a tantrum on-screen, perhaps.  Or an outbreak of food poisoning.  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?

Inauguration Blues

Aren’t inaugural speeches supposed to be inspirational, aimed at unifying the nation after a divisive election?  Donald Trump’s speech did not appeal to the political parties to work together, instead excoriating them both in an “unpresidented” (sic) manner.  It failed to reach out to the majority of the population that did not support his campaign, the majority that voted against him.  Nor did it mention inclusiveness, tolerance, and healing a fractured system.  Which portions of his dark speech will be carved on future Trump monuments for posterity:  “American carnage” or the parts about crime and abandoned factories?  Trump touted “our” values (whose values?); our wealth; our borders and our security; at the cost of global security, trade, and alliances– as though they have nothing to do with each other.  At a unique moment of opportunity, when he could have pivoted from his grenade-throwing campaign rhetoric to a more mature and reasoned position, he pulled up a great wall of “protection”around the country.

And there’s still no Elon’s Ark in sight (see my earlier post on this blog, “Mars or Bust,” referring to Elon Musk’s efforts to send people into space).  Just yesterday, six people entered a dome on Mauna Loa, a Hawaiian volcano, as part of a NASA human-behavior study simulating a long mission to Mars.  These four men and two women will have no contact with the outside world.  Over the next eight months of being cooped up together, they may discover that one of them is an illegal immigrant, and another a radical Islamic jihadist.  By the end of the study, the two women may feel disrespected, dis-empowered, or much, much worse.  Half of the group may not have health insurance, and one may lose his job.  Some of them may be caught emitting too much methane into the sealed dome.  By the time they finally emerge after eight months of isolation in a Martian simulation, one thing’s for certain:  if their first request is “Take us to your leader,” they ought to seriously reconsider!

Mars or Bust

Discussing Fourth World with a college classmate, I mentioned that, according to my novel, the first manned mission to Mars lands in 2030.

“Why?” he asked.

“Why 2030?”

“No.  Why go at all?”

Although NASA has found its resolve, I’m sure that’s an argument still echoing in the corridors of Congress.  Is it simply in our DNA to push the limits of our capabilities, i.e. to go because we can?  Is the space race still a thing?  Do we hope to find life there, opening the door to unimagined scientific breakthroughs?  In the future Fourth World, there are minerals and fossilized genes to exploit- but really, why do we, in 2017, want to colonize Mars?  To escape overpopulation, global warming and rising sea levels?  Imminent nuclear holocaust?  Donald Trump’s inauguration (better start boarding)?  There does seem to be a shift worldwide towards confrontational, nationalistic, authoritarian governments, and climate change is real, but the Noah’s Ark (or is it Elon’s Ark) explanation can’t be enough- can it?  Our incoming president rattles the nuclear saber and wants to “cancel” the Paris Accord.  According to Al Gore and many others, there is a point of no return, beyond which climate change cannot be reversed.  When we pass that point, please save me a seat on the Ark!