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Does science fiction need Alien life?

January 25, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m wondering if there’s bad news for science fiction in the assertion by an American scientist that there’s no hope of finding alien life anywhere in the universe. Conditions on all other planets are too hostile to support life, says Harvard’s Howard Smith.

After a new round of astronomical research, he’s summed up his findings:

We have found that most other planets and solar systems are wildly different from our own. They are very hostile to life as we know it,”

I doubt his announcement will deter either writers or readers from continuing to feast on their choice sci-fi works. either in books or movies.

Science fiction , it seems to me, provides a medium for realization of extreme speculation — the escape to end all escapes — while satisfying the human curiosity about whether life, in whatever form, might exist somewhere in the boundless reaches of the universe.

I’ve been addicted more to sci-fi movies than to books. In my opinion, the greatest of all films of the genre is the 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

This epic work, starring Michael Rennie as Klaatu, the other-world visitor come to warn us to avoid self-destruction, appeared at a time when nuclear annihilation was considered a reasonably likely fate for life on this planet. Fine acting and a suspenseful plot made the film seem entirely plausible.

The writer of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Edmund H. North, based the screenplay on a short story by Henry Bates called “Farewell to the Master.” I don’t know how the 2008 version stands up — I suspect not too well.

Smith, the Harvard man, says that recent discoveries of new planets have turned out to be disappointing. There was great excitement not long ago when a star was found to be orbited by a planet of similar size and appearance to Earth. But then it was realized that the planet lies less than two million miles from its sun, meaning it is roasting hot, stripped of its atmosphere and blasted by radiation.

I’m indebted to blogger Jim Harris for a piece he’s posted showing the number of Google hits for science fiction as a topic, and for individual writers. Apparently sci-fi is the third most popular search topic, after God and Jesus Christ. (Note: Maybe that means fiction claims the top three positions!).

Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov and H.G. Wells top the author rankings, followed by Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. I was surprised Ray Bradbury didn’t make it to that level.

Sci-fi is one thing, but fantasy probably has an even bigger following, which is a total mystery to me. I’m particularly turned off by the countless creep-style fantasies shown on the “Movies on Demand” channel thrown up by our cable company. Many of them gory and violence ridden, with supernatural overtones, but all of them stupid, unreal and badly written and acted.

Clinically, science fiction writing is supposed to deal within the recognized laws of nature, with plots that could happen, now or in the future. This means, of course, that it needs speculative ideas. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu makes everything on the planet (except things like emergency power in hospitals) come to a stop. You see scenes of traffic grinding to a halt in the great cities of the world.

Does some power great enough to overcome the laws of nature as we know them break the rule I’ve cited above?

Probably it does, which is what makes science fiction such an inventive and unpredictable genre.

The funeral as public relations

January 19, 2011 Leave a comment

The attendance of 14,000 people — many of them police officers from across Canada and the United states — was a telling tribute to the valor of Toronto Police Sergeant Ryan Russell. Sgt. Russell died in a particularly meaningless way last week when he was run over by a man who had stolen a snow plow truck. The irrationality of this act defies all logic, which perhaps accounts for the immense media interest in the incident and in the funeral.

The Toronto Star today devotes its first four pages to the funeral. The eulogy by Sgt. Russell’s widow takes up a full page.

There is no doubting the dedication of the fallen officer,  or the tragedy of the event. But I wonder if the practice of organizing huge funerals for officers who die on duty is calculated as much to bolster political support for the police as it is to pay tribute to fallen officers. Not to be crude about it, I have to ask the question : Are these massive outpourings orchestrated public relations exercises?

Interesting letter on this point in the Globe and Mail today. Nick Fillmore writes as follows:

I question whether it is the best course of action for thousands of police officers and other emergency workers to come from across Canada and parts of the U.S. to attend his (Sgt. Russell’s) funeral.This practice occurs across North America whenever a police officer is killed. With all due respect, it seems to me that the likely millions of dollars used to transport mourning officers to these funerals could be put to better use.

The police in Toronto have had a difficult year. Numerous cases of alleged brutality hang over the force in the wake of the G20 meeting in June. Police Chief Blair is apparently the only city official not being held to budget cuts for 2011. Yet crime is on the decline and experts warn that municipalities must begin to reign in police costs if other vital services are not to be devastated.

A LITTLE BIT OF COMMON SENSE, PLEASE

Two recent developments point up the need to stand fast for Canadian values in the face of persuasion and threats.

In Vancouver, the University of British Columbia has put the establishment of a hospice on hold because of complaints from Chinese immigrants living in the area. They say that accepting death in their midst is not part of their culture. They feel uncomfortable with the idea of a hospice down the road.

The University is wrong in bowing to this demand. It should instead explain that while Canada holds out a welcome hand to immigrants, our willingness to accommodate their cultural practices cannot extend to denial of our own.

In Ottawa, the National Archives cancelled the showing of a film  critical of Iran after complaints and threats were received from several quarters, including the Embassy of Iran. The film, Iranium, is critical of Iran’s nuclear program. Another gutless concession to political correctness by people who should know batter. Fortunately, the Minister of Canadian Heritage — whose department funds the Archives — has overidden the cancellation and has ordered the showing of the film.

These events follow on a decision by Canada’s privately operated broadcast regulator to ban the playing by radio stations of a song containing a satiric reference to “faggots.” This on the complaint of ONE person.

Oh! Canada, let’s have a little bit of common sense!

WHEN JUNK SCIENCE GOES PUBLIC

If you’ve ever wondered how “junk science” passes for credible research, here may be the answer.

The current issue of The Scientist features the 10 biggest scientific retractions of 2010 – cases where scientific papers were found to have been based on faulty data or where research results had been fabricated. Over the past 10 years, the magazine says, no fewer than 788 scientific papers have had to be called back for these or similar reasons.

The biggest retractions of 2010 included The Lancet’s pulling of the now discredited writings of Andrew Wakefield that falsely suggested a link between immunization and autism, and a paper on the effects of chemotherapy on breast cancer where a Duke University researcher apparently invented the data. Nobel Laureate Linda Buck retracted two papers from prominent journals because she was “unable to reproduce [the] key findings” of previous experiments.

So we can’t believe everything we read, even in the science journals.

My fight for Freedom of Infomation

January 10, 2011 Leave a comment

Canada’s lamentable record on Freedom of Information was made embarrassingly clear last week with a report from two British academics that looked at the effectiveness of FOI laws in five leading democratic countries. The story: We stand last, after Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the UK in ensuring the right of access to government documents.

Here’s a quote:

Canada comes last as it has continually suffered from a combination of low use, low political support and a weak Information Commissioner since its inception.”

I can speak from personal knowledge as to the silliness that ties up records that should long ago have been made public.

In 2007, I wrote an article for The Beaver (now Canada’s History) about Technocracy, an organization that advocated radical (but entirely non-violent and peaceful) social change. Their idea was to put the engineers and scientists in charge, replacing politicians and businessmen. The brain behind the movement was Howard Scott, a New York based engineer.

In The Last Uptopians, I reported that the Technocracy movement had gained considerable momentum across Canada in the Hungry Thirties. When World War II broke out, Technocrats advocated conscription of all our resources – financial as well as human. Naturally, this didn’t sit too well with the Mackenzie King government. The organization was banned from 1940 to 1943 on the grounds that one of its objectives was to “overthrow the government and the constitution of this country by force.” No evidence of any such intention was ever unearthed. Several other groups were outlawed at the same time, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Communist Party.

When I applied to Library and Archives Canada for the file on the government’s case, portions of several documents were withheld. The reason given, more than sixty years after the fact, was that their release could be “injurious to the conduct of international affairs … or the detection of hostile activities.”

I appealed the decision. Not hearing anything, I applied again recently and found out that the Post Office had failed to forward a letter sent to me in March, 2009.

Now that I finally have the letter, I learn that the Office of the Information Commission is backing LAC in its refusal to release “certain documents.” A letter from OIC director of compliance Sandra George, says:

…we are satisfied that it is information the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to be injurious to the defence of Canada and/or the detection, prevention or suppression of subversive or hostile activities.”

In addition, some of the information apparently pertains to people who have not been dead for at least twenty years. The Privacy Act prohibits such disclosure. On that score, I cannot imagine there being more than one or two persons who were active in the 1940s who would not have been deceased by 1990. And has LAC checked that out?

I conclude from all this that telling anything about those dangerous Technocrats running around seventy years ago (let’s see, they’d have to be over ninety years of age now, at a minimum) might render CSIS or the RCMP incapable of any longer protecting us from subversives and hostiles. What nonsense!

Perhaps the real reason for the lack of disclosure is that the missing documents put the lie to the government’s case for banning Technocracy.

But without vigorous defence of  Freedom of Information in Canada, we’ll never know.

Why books are forever

January 5, 2011 Leave a comment

There’s an encouraging endorsement from the Globe and Mail about why books will always be with us. In an editorial about Wikileaker Julian Assange’s plans to write a book on his trials and tribulations, the Globe says:

The release of hundreds of thousands of U.S. embassy cables through WikiLeaks has provided an incredibly detailed look at the inner workings of the U.S. diplomacy. But such a massive dump of information without context is entirely meaningless. Information requires order. Books – in whatever format readers prefer – serve the valuable purpose of sorting through large swaths of information, retrieving what is relevant and putting it in manageable form. This is a need that transcends technology. And it is because of this that readers will be prepared to pay to read Mr. Assange’s book, even if the raw material exists for free on the Internet.

Whether he wants to admit it or not, Mr. Assange’s seven-figure deal stands as tangible proof that books will be with us for a long time to come, and that they’re still worth paying for.”

Bravo!

MORDECAI RICHLER AS SOCIAL HISTORIAN

I spent much of the Holidays plowing through Charles Foran’s excellent biography of Mordecai Richler — The Life and Times (Knopf Canada). It is a formidable book although its 800 pages contain  so much detail that I found myself scanning parts of it. I had the pleasure of meeting up with Richler in one of his favorite haunts, the Maritime Bar of the Ritz Carleton Hotel in Montreal. Our five o’clock date was the prelude to an uproarious evening during which he managed to get thoroughly drunk and insult the client whose affair I’d arranged for Richler to speak at that night.

It’s said that Canadian universities are neglecting Richler in their Canadian lit reading lists (report here). If they don’t want him in the English department, I suggest his Duddy Kravetz and St. Urbain’s Horseman be made required reading in History studies. Like all great novelists, Richler was a social historian as well as a story-teller. Reading Foran reminds me that Richler drew on a rich treasury of social history reposing in his Montreal Jewish community. He wrote of what he knew, capturing his society from an era that has now largely passed away. His books are a form of contemporary history rooted in his 40s and 50s upbringing. In fact, his writing was so concentrated within that genre that one critic, according to Foran, remarked: “I love his book. I buy it every time he writes it.”

Foran points out that Richler, of course, delighted in pricking the academy. He wonders if this is why “little scholarship has been devoted to Richler’s fiction in recent years, an absence all the more striking given that his two greatest novels may also have been his last: Soloman Gursky Was Here and Barney’s Version.”

Foran’s book is so fact-filled it’s inevitable he got a few things wrong. He cites the ban on  U.S. comic books in Canada during World War II (which created a temporary bonanza for Canadian comics) as an effort to conserve paper. Wrong: it was a foreign exchange decision, one of many measures to stem currency outflow. Also, he has Richler writing for Maclean’s as a weekly when it was still being published semi-monthly.

REASONS FOR FIXING THE COPYRIGHT ACT

Toronto author Bill Freeman, chair of the Creators’ Copyright coalition, makes a good argument in the Georgia Strait for fixing the Copyright Act when Parliament resumes study of Bill C-342 in February. It’s here.

I’ve always viewed copyright as a rather arcane subject, but the issue here is whether educational institutions should be allowed to do wholesale copying without compensation to the creator. As Bill says:

Bill C-32 will allow universities, colleges, and school boards to copy works and distribute them to students without payment to writers and publishers. Just how much we don’t know. The legislation is imprecise and so the courts will have to decide. With this legislation a school board or university could scan parts of text books, trade books, or journals and distribute them without payment.”

I understand there’s an Opposition motion to pin down the lawful copying section more precisely. That could help.

A new book idea for 2011

January 2, 2011 Leave a comment

Here’s an offbeat subject that I think would make a great book topic for 2011:

LAST DAYS OF THE NEANDERTHALS

I’ve been reading of new discoveries about the Neanderthals. For some reason, these ancient pre-human types, whose time span interlaps with humans, have always intrigued me. We once thought of this specie as a crude, non-verbal, animal-like character, way below homo sapiens capabilities. No more.

The latest evidence, from a cave in  Spain, suggests Neanderthals were, among other things, cannibals. A very human quality, I’d say. This report tells of the findings of broken and apparently gnawed upon bones of a family, suggesting they were attacked by another tribe. There’s also new evidence — taken from plaque in Neanderthal tooth fragments, that they had fire and cooked their food.

What happened to the Neanderthals is of course a question for the ages. My private theory is that we homos wiped them out. Surely some great dramatist could create a marvellous story of the interaction  of humans and Neanderthals – potential for lots of conflict, suspense, and moralizing. Just remember where you got the idea!

WORDS THAT SHOULD BE BANISHED

An obscure little university in Michigan — Lake Superior University — has made a bit of a name for itself with its annual list of words that should be banished. Its nominees for 2011:

Viral, epic, fail, wow factor, a-ha moment, back story, BFF (best friends forever) man up, refudiate and mama grizzly (both courtesy Sarah Palin), the American People, I’m just sayin’, Facebook/Google as verbs, and Live Life to the Fullest.

I’d also give the heave-ho to NDP leader Jack Layton’s “ordinary Canadians” and new Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s “Just call me!”

THE LAST WORD

It’s Never Over was the title of one of Morley Callaghan’s first novels (1929). Anyone who’s written any kind of long form literature knows it’s never over until the last carefully marked proof is sent back to the printer. So I’m  celebrating the completion of the first draft of my historical novel, Vandeleur. Put the finishing touches to it on New Year’s Eve. It goes in now for a professional edit. Maybe this time next year?