Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Real Dark Side in Star Wars




Review of  Star Wars The Force Awakens


I saw the recent Star Wars  movie on a Monday afternoon after the big opening. Kids were in school. Parents were at work. Fan boys and girls were asleep. There were plenty of empty seats. I have friends who preferred the frenetic crowds on the weekend but I was pleased to watch the show in a calm environment with less than spectacular popcorn.

You get what you pay for -- Stars Wars: The Force Awakens was a stunning, visual delight, powered by grand music that was inspiring. You felt it in your bones; resurrecting good memories.  And, hey, it was Star Wars offering all your favorite characters doing the same things they did decades ago. With all of that who needs a plausible plot or explantions. You could ask any bedazzled fan, "What happened in the movie?" You get the same response, "Ahhhaaaa . . . light sabers . . . Wookies. . .  It's a trap!" This was a setup for sequels like so many ebook authors who tell you, "This book one of a ten book series. You have to read them all to get to the conclusion." I saw this coming.

I try to  understand modern cinema with budgets of billions of dollars. One movie can not cover all the costs of production or expectations of profits for investors (Google: "Spring Time for Hitler").

Legacy


The Good Part: Black people are getting significant representation in the Star Wars universe. Producers have finally figured it out that people of color spend money to see speculative fiction where and when they are part of the story.  It is good to see so many Black actors working in Star Wars. We all love Finn and wish him well. He will have to fill some big shoes.


Sunday, November 1, 2015

A Multiverse of AFRO Speculative Fiction

"The Sheik's Favorite" by Rudolf Ernst 19th Century (with modifications by Scott Key)


According to my friends at Google and Wikipedia, "Depictions of Islamic 'Moors' and 'Turks' (imprecisely named Muslim groups of southern Europe, North Africa and West Asia) can be found in Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art." The societies distant from Europe were places of great mystery and power.  The Northern world was heavily influenced by the wealth, intellect and might of Asia and Africa. Artists of the 19th century painted "spectacular" expressions of African culture that are suggestive of today's popular fictional superheroes.



Marvel Comics, 21st Century

Fictional worlds often have their roots deep in reality.

The game of "what if" is a critical aspect of speculative fiction.  We can take a point in world history and branch it off into multiple possibilities. By examining the past, we can create futures of fantastic proportions. Good banishes evil. Poverty, starvation no longer exist. Global  climate stabilizes and all people prosper. This can happen in the many universes of the imagination. 

If we can dream it, we can make it come true.


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

October Black Sci-Fi Month 2015

Black Speculative Fiction Month

[Fiction -- This is my humble contribution for 2015 Black Speculative Fiction Month]

I Walked the Planet Mars 


Impossible. Yet the lesser gravity and dimmer sun implied that I was on the surface of the planet Mars,  millions of miles from Boston. I wasn’t sure by what technological or mystical mechanism that I had been transported. Amazingly, where I had arrived wasn’t the dusty, nearly airless and waterless orb that our scrawny NASA robots crawled on; probing and drilling into dead soil. The Mars I was experiencing was lush with spiraling trees displaying greenish-purple foliage heavy with strange, sweet smelling white fruit. The air was rich and wet. Giant insects hummed overhead; dragonflies  and wasps were the size of buses.  Their fleeting shadows crisscrossed the ground. Other fauna hid. Seas shimmered in the distance. The humanoid female holding my hand was beautiful and mostly naked like me as we scampered through the thick undergrowth like squirrels hiding from hawks. She wore bright feathers on her head.

Breathlessly, I said to her, “My name is Mark.” I wondered what had happened to my clothes. I wasn’t body shy but I was concerned that it might get cold. At first, the sounds from her mouth were confusing; maybe an alien language. This had to be a dream. “My name is Mark.”  A thorny branch scraped my forehead leaving a bright red line.

“Mark,” she said slowly. Then pointing at her own dark, bouncing breasts as we squeezed under a low branch she said, “SheeeeLaaa.”

I smiled and replied, “SheLaaaaaaa.” The word felt exotic and enticing.

We stopped under a clump of large leaves protecting us from the sky. She starred at me and said, “SheelaLaa. Sheila. Sheila Brown from London. You obviously are a new conscript from Earth. What do you remember?”

I stammered, “Ahh, nothing, nothing. Why I am on Mars?” Memories were swirling. This conversation suddenly was making me dizzy.  

“Stupid idiots. They rushed you here unprepared, not properly processed. Can you fight? "

“Fight?”

“Did you bring weapons?”

“Weapons?”

“We are on the absolute bottom of the food chain here!”

“Bottom?”

“Wake the hell up!”

She slapped me, hard. I staggered. Strange reminiscences cascaded into my awareness. Men and women in white lab coats. Noisy machines. Panic. Sirens. “I’m trying. I don’t understand what is happening to me!”  I grabbed her wrist before she could hit me again.

She paused then said, “Athletic.  Well, at least you look good and feel strong.  I can work with stupid. We don’t have a lot of Earth men here. African?”

“North America, Massachusetts. Massachusetts Institute of Technology or what was left of it.  The faculty and equipment were moved underground into the subway system to escape bombardment. What, where, how – explain please,” a slow panic crept up my spine.

“You are on a Mars crawling with giant, intelligent insects. Mammals are bred for food. Like what we did to chickens, cows and fish. The Insect Queens battle for dominance and territory and foodstocks. Earth was on the menu. Africans seem to survive longer than others here. Melanin probably tastes bad.  Maybe that is why they sent you.”

“Mars was mostly dry with a few sparse streams of flowing water.”

“That is a billion years from now in the future if we are successful."

“Okay.”  I stepped back and wished for a robe as she looked me up and down.  She circled me, grinned and said, “The primitive humanoids here look like us but are not very smart, yet. We suspect that evolution takes similar paths throughout the universe. It makes sense. I had to be sure of you before I revealed myself.”

I grumbled, “Where are my clothes?”

“It’s hot.  Humans taste good and clothes attract them but they hate the local birds which are also quite large.”

“Taste good?”

“The insects.”

“Shit.”

“What did you do at that fancy Boston University? Sweep floors?  Stop wasting my time. They feed soon. We must hide deeper.”

The smaller, dimmer sun was setting. The insect humming was getting louder. Wings fluttered overhead. I replied, “Lasers, energy focused beams using natural elements such as rock crystals and solar energy. I can build a concentrated pulsed light.  We can pump the heat out of the atmosphere. I hope that can help you.” She kissed me fully on the mouth. Her wet tongue lingered for a moment. That drew a reaction that I couldn’t control.

She pulled back and said, “Later for that, if you prove your worth and if we survive.”

“Survive?” I felt stupid but then an idea formed in my head. I added, “I need just a few lenses.”

“We have them in orbit. We hid them on the Martian moons.”

“But the damage to the Mars environment could be permanent if we are not careful.”

“We have to protect our species on Earth.”

“Yes.”

I worked enthusiastically. With the help of natives and transportees from a war-ravaged Earth, I constructed the apparatus on a solitary mountaintop. Directed energies bounced off the moons and sucked the planet dry.  

Eons passed. In the distant future, the attacks on Earth by the Mars Insect Kingdom vanished, abruptly. Their vast armadas faded away into nonexistence.

The Red Planet once again was a dead world where only solitary robots roamed and occasionally disturbed relics from the past.



 -- The End --

Friday, July 31, 2015

Eleven Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books You Must Read

In the year 2018, Mary Shelly's Frankenstein story will be 200 years old. Yet, today, in the 21st Century, after hundreds of books, cartoons, movies, TV shows and the Internet,  the Frankenstein myth still intrigues us and we continue to re-imagine it in many different forms.

To increase your enjoyment of science fiction and fantasy, discover how it was spawned and developed. Naturally, it is unrealistic to render all the marvelous stories published over the years. However, the following eleven suggestions will take you from the 18th Century up to current events. You will gain a powerful perspective of how sci-fi evolved.

There is no doubt in my mind, that today's very best AFROCentric speculative fiction writers based their own tales on the shoulders of literary giants.

The authors presented include futurists, staunch racists, teachers, mentally-ill patients, political activists, social misfits, or starry-eyed visionaries that we will never completely understand. But they all were/are gifted storytellers.

As writers and readers, we can learn much from them.
  1. Grimms Children's and Household Tales (1812)
  2. Mary Shelly's Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus (1818)
  3. Lewis Carrol's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass (1865 & 1871)
  4. Brams Stoker's Dracula (1897)
  5. Any collection of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe Stories and Poems (19th Century)
  6. H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man (1897)
  7. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (20th Century)
  8. Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars
  9. Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles (1950)
  10. Ursela LaGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
  11. Cory Doctorow's Little Brother (2008)


Grimms Children's and Household Tales

This is where Science Fiction began . . . .

There are many fantastic threads and speculative themes woven tapestry-like in the European folktales collected by Brothers Grimm. Despite being tagged "fairy tales" there are many surprises and horrid turnabouts that make fantasy and fiction so much fun. A drunken sailor, after reading Grimm, might blush and go to church. Talking animals, haunted forests, benevolent kings, evil queens, stalwart soldiers, common people in uncommon circumstances are the meat and potatoes of these folk fictions and life lessons.

The moral of the tales: stay alive and try not to get eaten or murdered by your kinfolk. In 17th Century Europe, a casual frolic in the forest or answering a whisper at the cottage front door could have been catastrophic. For instance, take the story of "The Wolf and the Seven Goslings"; mama goose leaves her young goslings alone at home and while she's gone guess who comes a knocking?

In the tale, "A Cat and Mouse in Partnership", a feline and a rodent decide to live together in domestic bliss. Of course, the cat, a player, has ulterior motives and the poor mouse, stuck at home, eventually must flee for her safety.

Forget about what you think you know about the lyrical fairy tales you sang and clapped to during your tenure in elementary school. The Grimm Brothers were renown scholars bouncing between having only one meal a day while at other times gracing the banquet halls of the European Monarchy. The Grimms changed the world. Hitler's Germany used some of their tales to promote the master race. Walt Disney created multi-colored cinema to sell hotdogs at his theme parks.

The Grimms are an excellent starting point for your journey into speculative fiction.




Lewis Carrol's Adventures in "Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass"

We should consider that . . .

The key to warmly enjoying Alice is picking the right lock so you won't be left out in the cold. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson better known as Lewis Carroll gave the world "Alice" and her adventures in Wonderland. The two books are more than a child's tale, Carroll's works are brainteasers. And, as with all games, when we win, we grin like a Cheshire cat. Count the puns, wallow in the triple and quadruple innermost hidden meanings. Study Carroll's literary "slight of hand". Pay very close attention to his pen.

Alice falls down the rabbit hole or steps through the mirror to an opposite world. There, plants and animals talk, a deck of cards come to life, fat oysters stroll down a beach and everyone say the weirdest things. Doors, entryways, portals, parallel avenues of thought all provide multiple levels of game play to explore and understand.

Consider quantum physics in Alice.

"That's the most important piece of evidence we've heard yet," said the King, rubbing his hands; "so now let the jury--"

"If any one of them can explain it," said Alice (she had grown so large in the last few minutes that she wasn't a bit afraid of interrupting him). "I'll give him sixpence. I don't believe there's an atom of meaning in it."

The jury all wrote down on their slates, "She doesn't believe there's an atom of meaning in it," but none of them attempted to explain the paper.

According the Lewis Carroll Society of North American, Dodgson books are among the most quoted works in the English language. Even Morpheus in the film "The Matrix" asks Neo about "tumbling down the rabbit hole". And, we all know what happened.

"Alice" entertains and challenges anyone willing to push beyond the veil to discover, relish and prosper in the unexpected.




Brams Stoker's "Dracula"

In my opinion . . .

Reading Bram Stoker's Dracula requires dedication. Written as a series of English Victorian journal entries, the pacing and timing of the novel can be challenging. This is a linear story told in a nonlinear fashion. Different narrators express observations of events and interactions from different points on the clock or calendar. Sometimes, we go back in time or ahead. Despite these literary theatrics, there is much to be devoured and enjoyed in this 19th century horror tale. So, let's discuss "food" and the roles of "predator and prey".

On page one, third paragraph of Dracula, Johnathan Harker tells us via his diary, "I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty." A few pages later, the coachman (Dracula) offers Johnathan a flask of plum wine for the journey. Once inside the castle, Dracula has prepared a magnificent table with "an excellent roast chicken", some cheese and another bottle of wine. Stoker pays close attention to culinary details throughout the story. The characters frequently come together for food and drink to fortify themselves against the evils of Dracula.

But Stoker is sending us another message: nourishment sometimes comes with a price.

Humans raise livestock, fatten them up and slaughter them for our dinner tables. Vampires require human victims not only for food but for the perpetuation of the vampire species. This is basic survival. This is top predator against top predator. We condemn the Count as an evil monster. That is one horror of Dracula. However, consider the fates of barnyard chickens, cows or pigs. It is very scary to imagine yourself in a lower position on the food chain.

Another horror is that we may be the evil monsters who eat children, bend the will of lesser creatures for our enjoyment and seek the extension of our lives regardless of the cost to other lifeforms that share the planet with us.


Mary Shelly's Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus

It should be considered that . . . 

The book Frankenstein brightly illuminates sexism, religion, science and the trappings of melodrama during 19th century. The traditional roles of men and women were abruptly changing. Science was overcoming magic and superstition.

Shelly explores fear of the "other". This is not merely class, gender or race confrontation but introduction of a new species of humanoids that could push prevalent homo sapiens into extinction.

Be advised, don't expect to see Boris Karloff's lumbering, mute giant or a jovial Herman Munster. The "real" Frankenstein monster in Shelly's book moves fluidly over icy obstacles, is more agile than humans, carefully plots, and tirelessly spouts philosophy from books he has read. Dr. Frankenstein's creation is a renaissance man -- able to accumulate and absorb the knowledge of the world and adapt to crude environments. The monster can survive in a harsh world that fears him. He thrives where most humans would fail. He is the ultimate outsider; the nameless creature who dispenses justice upon those who have committed  wrongs against him. He struggles to maintain compassion. But, like most humans, just beneath the thin surface layer of civility is a mad beast, who rages because the world considers him ugly or evil or unacceptable despite his best efforts to help humanity.

It is the role of the "other" that most intrigues readers. The creature brought to life by Victor Frankenstein may be probably the first "misunderstood" superhero. And like many superbeings he is flawed. Consider the much adored Superman if there were no Ma and Pa Kent to help him understand his  uniqueness and solitary position in society; no Lois Lane or fellow Justice League members to temper his frustrations and isolation.

Shelly's musing of a mad monster and its equally mad creator present the romanticism and horror of unchecked ambition.  The world should be warned.




Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe Stories and Poems

If you are afraid of the dark . . . 

Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe were born only four years apart in the early 1800s. After memorable careers as literary icons, they both died before the end of the American Civil War -- in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Both authors have been celebrated as frontrunners in the Romantic Era. More importantly, they helped to make popular "speculative fiction" which offered horror, fantasy, sci-fi and dark gothic tales to rabid readers.

Hawthorne is known for his love of New England lore involving alchemy, witchcraft, religion, and morality. His story the "Birth-Mark" explored the short-comings of a successful 19th century scientist who is intensely troubled by a tiny red scar in the shape of a hand on his wife's cheek. He uses his awesome scientific powers to destroy the anomaly yet in the end loses his wife. Again, we see the obsessions of a mad genius who has the ability to offer immortality to humanity, yet fails to see the simple beauty in the woman to whom he professes love (Victor Frankenstein likewise lost his wife because of his blind ambition). Hawthorne's words are infused with allegory and emotional references.

Poe,  renowned author and literary critic, offered travel, adventure and discovery of the unknown to his readers. He denounced the use of allegory and didacticism -- literature that was created to instruct. He entertained and mesmerized while not always presenting a moral message. Both "MS. Found in a Bottle" and "Decent into the Malestrom" takes the reader into fantastic adventure with the elements of the sea. This is reminiscent of Jules Verne's Captain Nemo battling the forces of nature or Star Trek's Jean-Luc Picard confrounting unknown dangers at the edge of a super massive black hole sucking in the universe.

The enjoyment and enlightenment both authors bring to modern readers are the result of the Speculative Fiction Revolution born in the 1800s, worldwide. But in their day-to-day lives,  both authors were a little creepy.



H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man

An original monster tale that will trouble your sleep . . . 

In good horror stories, the scariest villains appear sane at first glance  or a sad victim of misfortune. We are horrified when they become raging lunatics seeking mischief. The Invisible Man has anger management issues that would make Marvel's comic book icon the Hulk ask WTF.

In the opening, the Invisible Man (Griffin) takes refuge in a normal inn, in a normal English village filled with normal townsfolk. The mysterious Mr. Griffin is considered a pitiful visitor.

“The poor soul’s had an accident or an op’ration or somethin’,” said Mrs. Hall. “What a turn them bandages did give me, to be sure!” 

Tongues wag and imaginations soar, but no one could predict the terror to come.

His emotions frequently explode and we experience the real monster. In Chapter 6: The Furniture That Went Mad, he breaks chairs and slams doors. To observers, it appears as if the room is possessed by demons. In Chapter 7, he reveals himself, “You don’t understand,” he said, “who I am or what I am. I’ll show you. By Heaven! I’ll show you.” He is accused of theft and chased. He kicks a dog and runs away screaming. But he returns for some belongings and amuses himself by breaking out all the windows in the Inn as well as other wrong doings. The townsfolk are terrified of something they can't see or understand.

Reading further, we dig deeper into the history of the Invisible Man. Before he became invisible, he was a vile person who stole his father's money and turned a poor cat invisible. As he narrated his tale of mayhem to his former classmate Dr. Kemp, the reader senses the tension building. Kemp offers food and shelter. Griffin plots on creating a reign of murder.

The greatest moments in horror occur when something ordinary becomes unrecognizable. Batman's Joker played by Heath Ledger was a quiet but vicious clown. Hannibal Lecter spoke softly as he digested a gruesome meal. And, take for instance, the strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Invisible Man is a part of your nightmares.




Edar Rice Burroughs' John Carter: A Princess of Mars and Charlotte Perkins' Gilman's Herland

Speaking plays an important role in  speculative fiction . . .

Language is an important aspect of any speculative fiction story. Meaningful conversation allows the characters to "know" and develop in their new environments with strange inhabitants. Thus, the reader gains insight as the characters learn how to interact and survive. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Charlotte Perkins Gilman offer two completely opposite examples of the outsider(s) dropping into vastly different societies and confronting the challenge of communication. In order to survive, the main characters must learn how to talk.

A Princess of Mars is a male-oriented, pulp fiction, adventure romp. A bare chested hero, John Carter, slashes and bashes his way to win the woman of his dreams. Herland is on the opposite pole; three  "civilized" white males fall into the clutches of an all female society where virtue is measured by temperance, cooperation and a vegetarian diet. Yet, both novels present the problem of communication. Learning a new language is not an easy task. In reality, months or years are required to easily exchange ideas with someone of a completely different culture. Even if the words are understood, deeper meanings may be misinterpreted.

Frankenstein's monster learned language by peering though a hole in wall. John Carter of Mars is thrust amongst the infants of an alien species. Van, Terry, and Jeff in Herland are given tutors; and are unaware that they themselves are being studied by the entire female nation.

The classic outsider must adapt and gain insight into their brave new worlds through the mastery of the language and the way things are done. On Mars, slicing off the head of a rival is socially acceptable. In Herland, forcing your wife to have sex is a capital offense.

Many writers cheat the reader on the importance of language in speculative fiction. Modern sci-fi yarns have universal translators, telepathy, or simply ignore the fact that people sometimes only separated by a river have great difficulty to clearly express themselves. Aliens from other planets will not speak the King's English unless they have spent years amongst humans.

Comprehension of language is needed to understand a foreign society. And, that creates the real drama.



Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles

This book helped to define the coming of the 21st Century . . .

Racial politics and science fiction collide in "Way in the Middle of the Air" by Ray Bradbury. The short story first appeared in a small magazine during the 1950s. Later, it was incorporated in some editions of The Martian Chronicles book during the 1960s and 70s.

"Air" openly presented white racism. African Americans are leaving Earth to go to Mars on spaceships that they had purchased and built in secret. A few good ole white boys were upset that their "niggers" were leaving. Despite setbacks and threats,  Black people were determined to find a better life. The actual northern migration occurred in the United States during the 1950s and 60s. Douglas Turner Ward's satiric play "Day of Absence" written in 1965 similarly presents a situation where one day all the Black folks in a small southern town disappeared and the whites (Black actors in whiteface) were dismayed.

There are many undercurrents in Bradbury's tales that expose the raw lacerations of America's treatment of non Europeans. A gold skinned Martian woman falls in love with a white, blue eye male from the first human expedition. Eventually, human interaction collapses the mighty Martian civilization because of a disease spread by Earth explorers. Throughout the European colonization of the Americas, that same scenario occurred frequently -- sometimes purposefully with small pox infected blankets, and sometimes causally when Europeans traders made contact thus spreading  diseases to natives who had no immunity.

Bradbury predicted the civil rights confrontations of the 1960s. He was anti-war, especially nuclear war. He opposed lack of freedom to criticize the government during its 1950s communist witch hunt. According to documents declassified through the Freedom of Information Act, the FBI investigated Bradbury in the 1950s and 1960s. Bradbury was not only a talented writer, he was a futurist, and social activist, like Martin Luther King, Jr., and others. Fiction was his primary weapon.


Ursela LaGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness

Creating worlds takes imagination and guts . . .

Empire building is a favorite theme among science fiction writers. Frank Herberts' Dune and the Star Wars/Trek sagas focus on building and maintaining empires. The Left Hand of Darkness offers empire building with a bold twist.

Gender roles exist in nature. A male lion's primarily duty is to fight other males to maintain a harem (empire). Lionesses cooperatively hunt for food and protect the cubs. Traditionally, western society considers empire building a strictly male activity. Men go to war for conquest and pillaging. Women are homemakers and birth more soldiers. The females of Herland were pacifists and who didn't seek territory or conflict; the male dominated societies of Mars were eager for bloody engagements and booty.

Ursula Le Guin breaks that mold and re-engineers gender roles and expectations. Her hermaphroditic Gethenians experience intense sexual desire as a man or a woman but only for two days each month. Their society has adapted with the ability to change sexes. Thus, there have been no major wars on the planet but "forays" and barn burnings, political murders and skullduggery are rampant. Jealousy and long term feuds exist.

Genly Ai is considered by the inhabitants to be a pervert because he has only one gender--one frame of reference as permanently male. He represents the Ekumen, an interstellar association of 80 planets spreading across 100 light years. According to the field notes of the first Ekumenical landing party: "The fact is that Gethenians, though highly competitive (as proved by the elaborate social channels provided for competition for prestige, etc.) seem not to be very aggressive; at least they apparently have never yet had what one could call a war. They kill one another readily by ones and twos; seldom by tens or twenties; never by hundreds or thousands."

Gethenians combine male and female tactics for empire building. Out of control aggression is tempered by measured compassion.


Cory Doctorow's Little Brother

Don't run away, use technology to challenge the MAN . . . 

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow follows in the footsteps of authors who used Science Fiction/Fantasy as protest literature. Although the book was written for young adults, it contains torture, radical activity, debate and life-threatening situations. The characters are forced to re-examine their world and decide what actions to take.

Like Bradbury's Martian Chronicles and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four written more than 50 years prior, Little Brother is an anti-establishment novel. Doctorow warns us of what could happen if our leaders resort to false imprisonment, unwarranted surveillance and the cultivation of fear for economic or political gain. The similarities and differences between 1984 and Little Brother offer valuable insight into what Doctorow suggests to his YA audience. According to Goodreads.com, 1984 is number 13 on required reading lists in high school. So, Doctorow was probably well aware that many of his readers would see the connection. Yet, his novel takes a different path from 1984 and instead of disaster at the end, the hero triumphs. Marcus uses his knowledge and courage to keep his freedom, earn the respect of his parents and win the girl.

Placing teenagers in life or death situations and watching them mature could be considered its own sci-fi genre. Devil's Wake by Barnes and Due presents a "zombiefied" world where juvenile delinquents hijack a broken down school bus and search for sanctuary. Slasher movies with bikini clad teenagers is almost a parody of itself since the 1960s. Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga has deadly vampires and werewolves romantically interacting with a high school girl. YA books are written to be fun, creating mildly dangerous situations -- and like a rollercoaster ride, you are fairly certain that you will walk away unharmed.

Yet, in today's political climate, Little Brother pushes us into a dark place. Doctorow offers real world solutions to overthrow an evil government that has turned against its citizens.



Note: These are my (slightly edited) essays submitted to the University of Michigan's free Coursea Course: Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World. The course was led by Eric S. Rabkin a Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, Professor of English Language and Literature, and Professor of Art and Design at the University of Michigan. I thoroughly enjoyed the course and wanted to share this with my readers.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Going Fishing 

 By
 Stafford L. Battle


“If you don’t wrap it just right, it will fall off.”

That always worried my younger brother. He would grimace as we trudged along the rocky, muddy path towards the river. Earthworms were expensive, almost a half penny each. We had to rob our joint piggy bank to ensure the success of every fishing expedition.

Daddy in those long gone days never seemed worried about our undertakings. He said to us, “Remember everything I told you. We don’t want your mother getting mad. Make her proud. We have a responsibility.”

In  previous Saturday trips, upon our return, we filled our only bathtub with fresh, slimy fish; mama was so surprised and angry, she made us eat double helpings at the Sunday fish fry. We publicly groaned but were secretly happy at the scrumptious task. Many of our friends and neighbors and the community church minister joined the misery; and they brought piles of warm potato salad, savory pots of collard greens, precious sheets of honey soaked cornbread, and gallons of sweet tea to ease our mother’s burden.

“Don’t run. Watch your step. Try not to fall.”

Indeed, my brother was still wiping the sleep out of the corners of his eyes as he stumbled stoically forward. He was determined to be the first person on the bridge as he strutted ahead. The wooden structure over the marsh was an ancient,  wobbly affair. If you tried to play marbles on it, they would roll away and plop, plop, plop into the dark water lost forever. Our father, told us that years ago, cars traveled this road to go south to Carolina where great, grandma lived in the cotton field. We asked him if many cars tumbled into the river. He laughed and said, “Not too many. Be careful how you step, that board over there is still loose. And don’t hurt yourself on exposed nails. Best fishing is on the south side.”

The sun was a thin yellow sliver expanding on the horizon. The air was cool but we knew it would soon be uncomfortably hot later in the morning, especially in July on the Potomac. My brother grunted and placed his hopes on securing our favorite spot between two ancient wooden columns stuck deep in the river. The metal fishing box slid and stopped precariously by the pylons.

“You fall in, your mother will whip your butt for messing up your clothes.” My father guided us to a sturdy oak plank that had railings tied to the posts. “The best tasting fish are right below you. Now, bait your hook. Your mama invited a horde of relatives and church folk to dinner. We gotta bring home catfish.”

White perch were always easy to trick onto a hook with a dangling earthworm. But you needed many buckets of the small fry to make several decent sandwiches. The larger shad and herrings ran together in big schools along the banks of the river; a long handled scoop or three-pronged snag hooks worked fine, but shad and herring possessed many thin stiff bones and had to be cooked long and hard before consuming. Catfish, however, those distinguished denizens of the dank mud and muck, were the most difficult to catch; they had a sizable fishy brain and seemed to knew how to best evade the tempting hook and line. Daddy coached us on how to jiggle the bait just so and pause briefly as the wily cats inspected the offering before chomping on the barb. Once hooked on the line, there was always a fine struggle.

The sweet delicate flesh of the whiskered prey yielded a memorable feast after you figured out how properly to prepare it. Cats had no fishy scales like normal fish and the skin was not truly edible. Daddy would nail the fish to the side of a shed and use pliers to pull off the foul covering. Mama had a special flour coating and spicy broth she had learned from her African great grand mother to expertly steam the fishy delight. It was always delicious.

My baby brother was very angry when daddy failed to take us to the bridge one summer weekend. Brother was so angry, he poked his fingers in all the slices of bread in the house. Our baloney sandwiches leaked mustard and mayonnaise for over a week. That anger turn to frustrated tears when the minister told us fishing trips with daddy would never happen again in this life. Daddy was with a different fisherman. We didn’t completely understand until much later.

“Fishing is a noble endeavor and one must be respectful,” my brother tells his youngest son and daughter clinging beside him. “There is a proud history that goes a long, long ways back.” We stand on the precarious bridge now supported with steel beams. “People use to go south on this bridge to great, great grandma’s house. It is still standing.” It is hot and moisture flows freely down his face. He wipes his cheeks and smiles at his memories.

I cherish the shared emotions passing through his thoughts. Gazing down the lazy river, my eyes dampen from the heat. I say, “We need catfish, church folk are coming to dinner. We have a responsibility.”


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Monday, April 20, 2015

A Letter to my Great, Great, Great Grand Kids



Dear Kids:

I suspect that more than likely in your world, letter writing and reading flimsy paper documents may be considered old-fashioned and painfully slow (I’m guessing that you are using digital mind transmissions or some other interplanetary techno-magic to communicate with one another) but I hope you’ll take a moment to put away your quantum nano-computers to cherish the feel of real paper this letter was written on. Please allow these carefully typed words to pass leisurely at a mere
mortal’s pace.

Sometimes, the young take lightly when forced to listen to elders who drift back on the outgoing tide of ancient history; but the ocean flows in both directions. In order to have a more perfect future
and a tolerable present, we may need to understand the wisdom and eccentricities as well as self-sacrifice and vicious gluttony of our ancestors.

Thus, these are some of my observations.

The human animal will always be clannish and slow to accept members from a different tribe of thought. The war between men and women may expand to include newly recognized genders; but regardless of the battle lines, the species will never stop procreation. How we worship and pray has seen many transformations; if you still believe in God, then you know there is only one God who chooses to appear in different forms to different people but offering the same message: it is not the text of the holy book that matters but the actions of the believers that is most significant. If we don’t help one another, then we all suffer. The notion that only one special group or culture or human
race has the singular connection to the Almighty is most assuredly false.

In fact, the whole notion of human “races” should be totally obsolete and frowned upon as a completely useless definition of the human animal. You can not define a person by their skin, hair, eyes, or speech. There are no human races; there is no African, no Oriental, no Caucasian; there is only humanity. Yet, even though we should never define ourselves using out-of-date racial terminology, “racism” does exist. Racism is the outcome whenever one group seeks to exploit or harm another group.

It makes no sense to hurt each other. We are all one kind. We must coexist intimately or die out completely as a biological species.

We also must coexist with the earth. The air we breath, water we drink, and food we consume are all part of a sacred chain of survival. People, as well as animals and plants all belong to each other and to the planet and the universe that spawned us. Yes, we are children of the universe. The atoms of your body or from a mountain were both created in a Supernova explosion that occurred billions of years ago in a distant part of our galaxy. The atoms and molecules and biological manifestations of everything we call life are constantly in motion and change.

In your history books, you may come across an historical reference to the Internet/World Wide Web. This electronic network was the first tool of its kind to allow humans the crucial step to breaking
through barriers that have caused human strife for centuries and to change for the better our existence. Digital communications -- especially what we called “virtual worlds” -- helped coalesce the various  factions of humanity into a linked global village. There was once a real threat of a digital divide to further separate affluent populations from poor ones, educated individuals from the intellectually naive, old and young. But as the rampant and profit-driven commercialism as well as crass materialism slowed and more socially conscious net innovators emerged offering free transfer of knowledge, the net became an essential key to greater prosperity for larger segments of the human society.

Most important, we saw the beginning of the end of global warfare. No more war. Thanks to your parents (my generation’s offspring), large scale weapons manufacturing was banned totally. Even the so-called secret factories were exposed and dismantled by people who believed that no human should ever kill another for purely monetary gains or land grabs or water rights.

There has been tremendous technological, social, and political advances during the period between my generation to yours. I know there is still a lot to do to help all of humanity and earth kind to survive. I firmly believe that you will continue to build on the successes of your forebears. Good luck and remember to occasionally take a look at the history books and family genealogy databases to reaffirm our evolution as a society and celebrate the foresight of your elders.

Best Wishes,

Great, Great, Grand Dad
Stafford Levon Battle


Originally published in "How We Love: Letters and Lessons for the Next Generation"
ISBN: 978-1-888018-59-2
Capital BookFest

Fall  2009

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Catching up with Ceres

Artist’s impression of DAWN spacecraft close to asteroids. Courtesy: NASA/JPL

NASA's space probe Dawn has reached Ceres, the largest object in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.  Furthermore,  the New Horizons spacecraft, after a voyage of nearly nine years and three billion miles came out of hibernation for its July 14,  2015, encounter with the dwarf planet Pluto and its moons on the edge of the planetary system.  The Voyager spacecraft became humanity's first interstellar spacecraft last year. It was launched 36 years ago and is still sending back pictures to its creators.  

This is an appropriate time to reinterpret humanity's role in the conquest of space. 

Gone are the Apollo years when astronauts bounced on the surface of the moon like giddy school boys. Gone are the Space Shuttle successes; when it roared into space and gracefully glided down onto a runway landing like an ordinary passenger plane; ready to be refueled and sent back to the Space Station. 

Apollo is in the Smithsonian Air and Space museum. The Shuttle has retired and private companies are competing for the orbital ferry business.

Now, we must dream bigger. The solar system we inhabit is much larger and more complex than what we formerly believed. The definition of where life could exist has drastically changed. Life, as we know it, evolved in Earth's seas.  But Earth may not possess the largest  ocean in the solar system.  Therefore, life could exist on several  moons and dwarf planets that orbit our sun (not in the Goldilocks Zone believed by scientists). 

If you want to build a space colony, which planet would you choose? Mars has very little air and is extremely cold. Venus has a surface temperature that could melt lead, but it may have a comfortable climate high in the Venusian sky where humans could survive without bulky space suits. Cloud Cities could be built floating high over the landscape. And even though it is closest to the Sun, the planet Mercury may have abundant pockets of water ice that could sustain a human colony where miners could extract rare metals and other resources critical to maintain an interplanetary society.

So, we should not cling to the immediate area around our planet. We need to push out. And, that is exactly what is happening.

Our robots on Mars have been happily wandering the Red Planet for several years, sending back tons of data. New space telescopes will have the ability to peer to the very edge of reality and reveal more secrets of creation. For instance, what exactly is Dark Energy and Dark Matter, the forces that make-up more than two third of the universe. We could be swimming in dark matter at this moment and not know how it affects our existence.

Therefore, a fancy rocket-powered, winged craft blasting off into space a few miles above the desert may no longer be news. Any billionaire with a few extra bucks can build a spaceplane, fly into low orbit and glide back down after taking a few snapshots of the horizon. 

Once again, we have to adjust our sights and look deeper. Dawn is NASA's first purely exploratory mission to use ion propulsion engines; advanced technology that may power all our new spacecraft. A trip to Jupiter could take a few weeks instead of years. Catching up with  the fast moving Ceres is just another small step for greater things to come.