The Long View 2007-04-27: Next; Gliese 581c; National Greatness

Gliese 581 system compared to solar systemZina Deretsky, National Science Foundation [Public domain]

Gliese 581 system compared to solar system

Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation [Public domain]

This is my go-to quote regarding the works of Philip Dick:

He wasn't a nihilist, but he was ontologically subversive. In contrast, I believe that reality is fragile and merits our support.

Next; Gliese 581c; National Greatness

Philip Dick's stories are unavoidable for someone with my interests, but I cannot say that he has ever been one of my favorite science-fiction writers. He wasn't a nihilist, but he was ontologically subversive. In contrast, I believe that reality is fragile and merits our support. Whatever objections one has to Dick's work, however, no author deserves the sort of manhandling that Dick's story, The Golden Man, received in its just-released film adaptation, Next, starring Nicholas Cage. Here is a summary from Wikipedia of the plot and concept of The Golden Man:

The protagonists of the story are a government agent and his fiancee, members of a government agency tasked with tracking down and sterilizing or eliminating mutants, individuals with physical abnormalities and even superhuman powers (such as the ability to steal the appearance and memories of others) that make them a threat to normal humans. The titular "Golden Man" is a feral young man named Cris with gold-colored skin, who does not appear to be sentient, but possesses the ability to see into the future (specifically, the ability to see all possible outcomes from any single action, described in the story as similar to a chess player with the ability to see all possible moves 5 steps ahead).....The story ends with the protagonist reflecting on how animal instincts have triumphed over human intellect, and how that is the new direction evolution will take if Cris succeeds in replacing humanity.

In some ways, that story is as disturbing as Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. Not only is the human race past its sell-by date, Dick suggests, but there may be a biological property that trumps intelligence. That's a subtle thesis, but not unfilmable: the 1957 film, The Abominable Snowman, made similar points intelligently, and in black-and-white. For that matter, Stephen Spielberg's AI was not so different.

Now see what Hollywood has done with Dick's story in Next:

Cris Johnson (Nicolas Cage) is a Las Vegas magician with the ability to see a few minutes into the future. Seeking to escape government scrutiny, he lives off the grid, performing cheap tricks for meager cash under an assumed name. But when a terrorist group threatens to detonate a nuclear device in Los Angeles, FBI agent Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore) becomes determined to track Cris down and convince him to help stop the attack.

The public would be better served if someone would just film Dick's story.

* * *

Every science buff under our G-class star has heard by now of the discovery of Gliese 581c, the super-Earth (1.5 terrestrial diameters) in an orbit so close around a modest red-dwarf star that the year is only 13 terrestrial days long, but the planet is nonetheless within the "habitable zone" of that star system, where water would normally be liquid. Among the many wonders of Gliese 581c (most of them entirely speculative) I was struck by this point:

Astronomer Wesley Traub of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., doubts Gliese 581c is hospitable enough for life. "It is probably tidally locked to the star, like the moon to the Earth," he says. That means the star-facing side of the planet receives boiling heat, while the far side would be frozen.

Oh come now: "rim worlds" are a staple of hard science fiction. The early instances were based on analogy with Mercury, which was long mistakenly believed to be tidal-locked to the sun. On rim worlds, people live in the twilight area between day and night. One imagines an atmosphere that does not so much circulate as boil. The ice on the dark side melts from chaotic eruptions of light-side air; the melt forms rivers that may or may not carry enough runoff to keep lakes and seas in existence in the light.

There is, of course, not a scintilla of evidence yet that Gliese 581c even has an atmosphere, and if it has an atmosphere, that the atmosphere is not a perpetual furnace on the model of Venus. Still, if we are going to speculate about this planet, let me ask these questions:

On a world where the sky never changes (as it would not on the day side, unless Gliese 581c has one or more conspicuous satellites), how, or when, do you develop astronomy?

On a world where the sky never changes, how do you develop the concept of time?

This piece from the Telegraph may throw some light on the subject:

"We reset our body calendar every summer, when increased light inhibits the production of melatonin. This could explain why sunshine makes us feel happier."

Perhaps Gliese 581c is like the gaming rooms of a gambling casino, clockless and windowless, where obsessed people act out their joyless compulsions oblivious to the dwindling of their resources. I doubt it, though. If the sky did not keep time for us, we and the rest of the biosphere would have internalized the function, in rather the way that endothermic creatures have internalized the regulation of their body temperatures. Folks on Gliese 581c might have an exquisite sense of time. Indeed, perhaps a collectively felt "standard time" is the chief social glue.

* * *

Regarding the Iraq withdrawal measures in Congress, there is no way to avoid stating the obvious, but let me allow Mark Steyn's favorite Anglosphere head of government do it for me:

The US Congress' vote to push for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq was wrong and will bring comfort to Al-Qaeda insurgents, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said Friday. ..."I think it is wrong, and I don't think it is doing anything other than giving great comfort and encouragement to Al-Qaeda and the insurgency in Iraq," Howard said....If there is a perception of an America defeat in Iraq, that will leave the whole of the Middle East in great turmoil and will be an enormous victory for terrorism."

The term "War on Terrorism" may have been coined as a slogan, but it has turned out to be precisely apposite. The war really is a war against a specific terrorist technique, the suicide bombing, which was introduced into the Middle East in the 1980s and has been under successful development ever since. To everyone's surprise, this tactic in Iraq proved capable of producing sustained casualties comparable to anti-population aerial bombardment, but of course the most spectacular attacks of that kind to date occurred in the United States on 911. The withdrawal measures just passed by Congress are, in effect, declarations that 911 succeeded. The mystery is why anyone would expect those declarations to reduce the number of suicide bombings. If they work, there will be more of them. You could write an algorithm.

In reality, the situation in Iraq shows no sign of unraveling: rather the opposite, if you consider developments in Anbar Province. An American withdrawal is more likely to begin than to end next year. The argument in next year's presidential election will probably be about whether the shaky stabilization of Iraq was worth the cost, not whether the war is winnable. Or maybe not: Congress could get what it wished for.

Let me remark that I do not regard as illegitimate the withdrawal measures that were included in the military funding bills for Iraq and Afghanistan. Congress was given the power to appropriate funds for precisely this kind of situation. Yes, Congress does have the ultimate authority to tell the Commander-in-Chief what to do, and even how to do it. The spotless legality of these measures, however, in no way diminishes the fact they are literally suicidal. They are the gateway to a future, and not a distant one, in which cable news is showing the smoldering, slightly radioactive ruins of where the Capitol building used to be, and then cutting away to a room deep under Cheyenne Mountain, where some relatively junior cabinet officer is taking the oath of office as the new president.

After 911, Congress failed to pass legislation that would make assembling a new Congress easier in the event of a successful decapitation attack. That is a great pity.

* * *

And who is to blame for these morose reflections? Well, Mark Steyn is half right:

What these guys, the enemy understand more clearly than the Democrats do, is that America loses wars on the home front. You can’t beat them with the tanks and the planes and the battleships, but you can beat them on the TV networks and in Congress, and in demoralizing the home front.

Actually, the Democratic Party these days is not so much a political force as an opportunistic infection. The people responsible for this sorry state of things are in the Bush Administration. They misplayed a strong hand with a thoroughness that approaches genius. Any government can undersupply a war; the Bush Administration managed not to mention for months at a time the war it was undersupplying. Instead, like the putative inhabitants of Gliese 581c, the Administration compulsively pursued its domestic obsessions without regard to the environment. Even Small Government Conservative Mark Steyn is starting to get a glimmer of the real problem:

But frankly, I think the idea that part of the Republican base essentially wants just to talk about small government and low tax cuts and all the rest of it, yeah, I’m all for those things. But you can’t have those things if you have no credibility around the world as a superpower, and you’re being picked off on all kinds of strategic fronts.

The Weekly Standard promoted the term "National Greatness" to describe the magazine's favored synthesis of a forward US strategic posture abroad, combined with a a Reaganite, "get the government off my back" philosophy at home. National Greatness was supposed to marry Cold War conservatism to small-government, quasi-libertarian conservatism for the post-Cold War era. Candidate George Bush in 2000 was not much taken with National Greatness: his interest in foreign affairs was perfunctory. John McCain, rather, was the candidate of the Weekly Standard. After 911, when foreign engagement was no longer optional, President Bush perforce came around to the National Greatness way of thinking, and tried to govern with the political coalition that National Greatness commended.

In the event, National Greatness turned out not to be a marriage, but a deal with the devil. The defense against the Jihad became dependent on political activists who rejected the possibility of effective government and had even less interest in geopolitics than George Bush had had. Predictably, the domestic side of the deal reneged. The objectionable thing about Mephistopheles is not that he takes you to Hell, but that his checks bounce.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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