Reflections on Jerry Pournelle

I saw in the midst of all the hurricane-related news this morning that science fiction author, technologist, and political advocate Jerry Pournelle has passed away. I am saddened by this, though not greatly surprised, as Dr. Pournelle has been in ill health for a while now. Still, he shaped a great deal of my thinking and post-formal education, and so I’d like to take a few minutes to share my thoughts on the man. Continue reading “Reflections on Jerry Pournelle”

48

I’m a few days late posting this, but it’s taken me awhile to conjure up some words to reflect my latest orbit around the sun. Partly it’s because I thought of myself as 48 a few months back. Still, I think it’s good to take my mental/emotional temperature to see how I’m doing and sort things out in literary form. Enjoy (or not) as you see fit. Continue reading “48”

Losing Your Voice

So here’s the problem with paranoia about your fellow human beings: you end up losing your voice. First you learn not to be an jerk—probably a good idea, especially if you become aware that a lot of what you’re saying offends or hurts people. Then you start worrying about giving offense of any kind. You start refraining from giving your honest opinions about the important matters of the day because you are only too well aware that you are in a minority or that some of your opinions are unpopular with a large chunk of your associates. You can’t be seen as too much of a partisan one way or the other or you risk getting kicked in the wallet when someone decides you’re “too controversial.”

If you’re an introvert, you dislike being the center of attention, and almost nothing in the current hot-house petri dish of politics gets you put in the media crosshairs quite like an unpopular opinion.

And let’s say you were bullied as a kid, so you’re quite aware of how human beings act if they dislike you or want to get you to shut up. Thugs appear, sometimes one on one, sometimes in pairs, sometimes in small groups, sometimes in mobs. They come with fists and weapons and voices raised in hostility. They leave nasty or threatening messages or make crank calls that threaten the safety of yourself or people you care about. They follow you home and to places where you are known to frequent so that you never feel safe. On the worst occasions, they take action and beat the snot out of you, preferably in front of an audience so you are seen to be humiliated and beaten down by others.

That is becoming the real nature of human beings engaged in “political discourse.” And if you wonder why the “voices of reason” are silent or ignored, it’s often because they’ve decided the exercise of freedom is not worth attracting the attention of the mob. So, congratulations, Humanity: the best in us is often destroyed by the worst in us because no one enjoys being alone in the face of the mob.

Maybe any thoughts you have aren’t the best that humanity has to offer; but they’re still yours. The “obvious price of expressing your opinion” need not be violence. Disagreement, certainly. Criticism, of course. But disagreement and criticism are not enough anymore. Any opinion that doesn’t ring true with the prevailing cultural orthodoxy must be shouted down; the characters of those speaking them must be impugned; their livelihoods must be cut off; their words must be suppressed with force. That is not what I was brought up to believe, but that’s where we are heading, and the gentle-souled introvert has obvious reason for concern just as much as the outspoken firebrand. How did it come to this?

What Good Am I?

Edith Keeler: Did you do something wrong? Are you in trouble? Whatever it is, let me help.

Captain Kirk: “Let me help.” A hundred years or so from now, I believe, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme. He’ll recommend those three words even over “I love you.”

–Star Trek, “The City on the Edge of Forever”

I don’t invent machinery, I help explain and market it. I rarely speak at conferences, but I have volunteered to work at or run them. I am neither a scientist nor a cheerleader, yet I help keep a bunch of them communicating and organized. I don’t write original ideas in paper or book form, yet I contribute editorial and narrative support to others. I do not formulate bold new space policies, but I do help polish the language and try to share them with others.  I do not build, I assemble. I cannot program a computer, but I am a quick study as a super-user. I am rarely a leader, but I make a good second or third in command. 

I am not handsome or dramatic enough to be a star, but I’d make a decent character actor. I might not form some amazing partnership–personal or professional–but I am likely to introduce people who do. I don’t come up with new philosophies or remarkable spiritual insights, but I will take them into my soul and integrate them into my life so others can see the results. I’m unlikely to be in a parade and much more likely to be one of the people cheering from the side. I don’t write great books, I read and review them.

Why am I sharing this? I suppose because I sometimes doubt the value I contribute. And maybe because as I get older I’m getting more realistic about what I am likely to accomplish (or not accomplish) in life. There’s a lot of emphasis in our culture on being the star or the originator of great things. There isn’t much glory attached to being just a member of a team. Yet my motto for years has been “I’m here to help,” and I try to prove that with every opportunity I can. There are those who originate and those who must deliver. Somewhere along the line, I learned the value of helping make dreams into reality even if it isn’t my dream. Maybe I’m content to let my life be this way, with the trust and hope that what I’ve done has been worthwhile. At the end of the line, I’ll hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” and that will be enough.

47

By the time you read this, I will be on vacation, not home. I decided to get out of town, even if it’s still in Florida. Still, I try to do one of these birthday essays once a year just as a way of checking in with myself and with you, my readers (I appreciate both of you) to see where I am with respect to myself or the world.

I’m coming more and more to know the sort of person I am and the sort of person I am not, and I’m willing to accept both. I am very much an introvert, for example. I can go hours or even days at a time without engaging in much verbal conversation. Much of the time my apartment is even quiet as I start my day: no radio, no TV, just me, the sounds of my daily routine, and whatever foolishness is buzzing about in my head. This does not mean I dislike people, merely that I don’t seem to require the presence of another person in my domicile. In fact, I’m usually more relaxed if I don’t have company. My habits are those of someone who requires a “Fortress of Solitude,” and is increasingly aware that such a lifestyle is likely to keep people at a distance. So be it.

I am still not an athlete, nor do I desire to be. Those of you who feel the urge to climb a mountain or run a marathon–God bless. You can take my turn. I won’t stop you, but don’t feel you have to invite me to your quest. My favorite physical activity is walking through aesthetically pleasing landscapes, interesting architecture, or preferably both. I can walk anywhere from one mile to ten at a stretch and do not notice or mind the passing of time. It’s hard to say what I’m thinking about on these walks. Often I’m not thinking at all, but merely using the exercise as a way to clear my mind and the scenery as a way to relax it. A long stroll through a museum would probably do me just as well.

I’m a very serious person, despite my verbal habits of wit and sarcasm. My reading list consists of a lot of philosophy, history, science fiction, and other such things that help me ponder or understand Big Questions. It’s all very abstract, dry, and contemplative. My musical tastes have been shifting, too. Not as much ’80s pop or John Williams soundtracks while I’m writing, more Mozart, Beethoven, or other classics.

Vexed by some of the rather angry chatter I’ve seen on Facebook, I’ve ratcheted down that hourly habit to something closer to a brief daily lurk before I find other things to do. The extra free time has allowed me to catch up on my long-neglected reading list, and so I’m trying to take a good whack at reading those books I’ve meant to read for a decade. So far, so good. Thirty-four books read this year; only 197 more to go before I can start adding books back onto the list again. I’m sure some will come to mind.

On the whole, thanks to a very loose freelance schedule that still manages to pay the bills, I’ve become less of a workaholic. I’ll do whatever work is in front of me gladly until the pile has dwindled, then I set thoughts of work aside and go read a book or take another walk in the vegetable-steamer heat of summer in Florida. Slowly, I’m learning how to be inactive, to take pleasure in downtime. This is a big shift, as I spent much of my time from 25 to 45 thinking about work. On the whole, I think this is a good thing.

Politically, I remain a gentleman of the Right, though more and more I find myself in the Libertarian camp, especially as the two most prominent prospects for president this year fill me with equal dismay. I maintain very strict standards for myself (and very definite opinions about others) but I have no interest in inflicting my personal morality on other people. Nor am I particularly interested in having someone else’s ideas foisted on my unwillingly. I live by an increasingly outmoded notion of “Live and let live.” I figure it’ll be appreciated somewhere down the line.

Otherwise, to quote that great philosopher Popeye, I am what I am: a graying, somewhat overweight, middle-aged and self-contained Anglo who usually has a book, pen, or computer in his hand. Eventually I’ll think of something useful to do with all the ideas I have in my head, but for now I keep on living my life, hopeful that eventually it’ll all make sense at some point or, barring that, I’ll do something constructive to do with myself that makes me feel like the journey has been worth the fare.

And so I celebrate living another year on this blue planet, curious to see what happens next.

 

Do We Belong Among the Stars?

For the last month or so, it has really sucked to watch the news. It started with the terrorist attack at a gay nightclub in my home town of Orlando, Florida, and it quickly devolved into mayhem and macabre behavior in Istanbul, Baghdad, Kabul, and elsewhere. Social turmoil roils abroad and at home, with the racial divide at its all-time worst level in years and law enforcement-related shootings and politicians of all stripes fanning the flames. At the same time, we have contentious elections and presidential candidates who don’t have the full confidence of the nation to solve the problems we face.

There have been worse times in human history, but there have also certainly been better, and right now we seem on one of those downhill slopes that does not bode well for peace or prosperity.

And while all this is going on, I’ve been contemplating human beings going into space. Not just to the International Space Station, our 16-year effort to engage in international engineering and science. No, I’m a space advocate by inclination, which means I spend some of my free time writing things to encourage policy makers or the general public to get behind the notion of going back to the Moon and on to other places in the solar system. Maybe even different solar systems eventually.

I can hear some of you now: For gosh sakes, why?!? Be realistic. Don’t we have more important things to worry about? Don’t we have better things we could spend our money on?

Maybe. And then again, maybe not. Space advocacy—all geekiness aside—has lofty goals for humanity:

  • Improve our technologies out in space and, by extension, here on Earth.
  • Expand and improve Civilization.
  • Ensure that humanity survives somewhere in case there’s some sort of massive war or other disaster here on Earth.

Our imperfect species

And yet the question must be asked: are we capable of putting aside substantive and petty differences to unite for the purpose of expanding out of this world? Some of my more cynical friends would even ask, should we?

I won’t deny that there is more than a helping of utopian optimism in the space advocacy community. Some of it is born out of the Star Trek vision of a positive future, some of it born out of perhaps-unrealistic expectations about how space settlement will affect us as human beings. We tend to accept only our best and brightest into the astronaut corps, and the Russians, Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans set high standards for their space voyagers as well. And yet we’ve had astronauts who cheated on their wives, one astronaut who drove cross-country in pursuit of a romantic rival, and another former astronaut charged with killing two kids in a drunk driving accident.

Astronauts are people, too. They’re not mass murderers, to be certain, but neither are they immune to the frailties of our species—rage, lust, pride—pick your deadly sin. For as much as the late Gene Roddenberry and others might believe that we will improve as a race, I’m not so certain.

And yet…

Despite all my misgivings, I still get angry with people who suggest that humanity is so far gone, that we have done such awful things to ourselves and the Earth, that we should stay here so as not to contaminate the rest of the universe. I consider that, to put it mildly, balderdash. For all our hubris and evil—and heaven knows there’s plenty of both to go around—I’m not convinced we’re that far gone.

Human beings are also capable of great ingenuity when it comes to solving problems. The tech blogs I read regularly identify new technologies for or from space that can solve many of the environmental challenges we face here on Mother Earth. Some of them are at a technology readiness level (TRL in NASA-speak) of one—meaning only theoretical. Others are in testing. Some are operational—level 9.

There have been, are, and will be lessons learned space that can help make life better here. That’s been proven many times. The effort to investigate and explore other worlds continues to pay dividends and will do so as long as we continue the effort.

But should human beings establish permanent settlements on the Moon, on Mars, or on stations flying above our heads in orbit? To borrow from one of our more popular space operas, when Luke Skywalker asked his mentor Yoda “What’s in there?” The little green oven mitt replied, “Only what you take with you.” So will it be when we send people to other worlds to be permanent residents.

We will have capitalism and communism and socialism. We will have greed and lust and rage. We will have politics and regionalism and struggles for power. We will have religious practices, both sublime and sinister. We will have love and generosity and kindness and heroism. We will have families and strong communities and people we admire. We will take all that we are and move it into the harshest environments imaginable because we seek glory or power or wealth or military advantage or freedoms or ways to fix the environment on Earth. We will take all these things with us because that is who we are.

What is it all about?

We have international treaties and statements of intent to prevent specific types of conflict from happening. We have banned weaponry in space, though we continue to develop space weaponry. And even Star Trek, optimistic as it has been, uses phasers and photon torpedoes.

Some would prefer that we establish only a small set of justifications for going into the space frontier, but until space is opened up to multiple interests, we will most likely not go. (And for those who think we are irredeemable as a species, that would probably be just fine.)

We’ve had great plans to explore the ocean floors or polar regions, yet those places remain nearly empty and they’re easier to work with than the Moon or Mars. “Science” is not enough of a motivator to build in those places and so we don’t—such was the intent.

So should we extend human civilization to other worlds? A similar question to ask might be, “Should you and your spouse have a child? If so, why?” The bottom line is that we have children to perpetuate ourselves. We do so out of love for our partners or hope for the future. Mind you, I don’t have a spouse or children, but I see that as a reflection on my limitations as a potential spouse or parent, not because I think marriage or children are bad things.

I believe we’re capable of doing good—enough good in the future to warrant staying around and making more of ourselves. In similar fashion, I believe that we will and should one day spread out into the solar system. No, it will not be Utopia. But we can try to make things better than we’ve had them, one person or instance at a time, just as we keep trying here on Earth.

That’s still worth doing, regardless of how the headlines read