Silent Running

As I've been working my way through old science fiction films from the earlier days of Science Fiction films, I've finally been able to knock another film off the list: Silent Running. A science fiction film that's been cited as inspiration for of some of my favorite recent science fiction films, such as Moon, Sunshine and Wall*E, Silent Running is a fun, but chaotic film that taps heavily into the environmental movement that was so popular during the 1960s and 1970s. The end result is a fun, entertaining flick that's become one of my favorites while I watch a number of the old classics for the first time.

Set far in the future, Earth seems to have become an environmentalist's worst nightmare: plant life has vanished from Earth, with their last remains in space, in large domed spaceships run by American Airlines, the Valley Forge. Lowell, one of four crew members, is the only one who really cares for the plants, and their significance for the human race: he hates the synthetic food that they eat, and hates his crew members for their lack of interest of passion. When the orders come along to blow up the forests and return home, he kills one of his fellow crew members and jettisons the other two into space, remaining with the last remaining dome and three small drone robots.

Alone with the robots, Lowell doesn't seem to have a plan, and sets about reprogramming the drones (which he names Huey, Dewey and Louie, after the Disney characters) and keeping the forest on his ship alive as they drift into deep space. As he does so, the forest starts to die, and his ship is rediscovered. Fearing that his disposal of his fellow crew members will be discovered, and awash in guilt over their deaths, he places the dome under the care of one of the remaining drones, and sends it off into space as he destroys the Valley Forge.

The film is a fun one - it has a tone that reminded me much of another recently viewed film, Soylent Green, which takes on some similar environmental themes for the storyline. It's a story that really holds up well today: Lowell ridicules his co-workers for the junk that they're consuming, noting that it's not real food, and it's an interesting take on how the future might turn our, forty years ago. Indeed, mass extinctions and the destruction of the environment is something that has been featured from time to time in science fiction - Soylent Green is one example, but also other recent stories such as Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, Amaryllis by Carrie Vaughn and more recent films such as Moon. With Silent Running cited as a seminal work in the genre, it's interesting to see how forward thinking it was, with a bit of twenty-twenty hindsight.

While the film is good in concept, if fails in story, with a number of plot holes that don't make as much sense. Lowell kills his fellow crewmen in a fit of passion at the destruction of the orbital forests, and escapes through the rings of Jupiter, trying to disguise what happened as a series of malfunctions. But, for a person who seems very intent on pointing out the many things that are wrong with the world (ie, no plant life), his actions confuse the story - blowing up his crew members would be a dramatic act, an ultimate thumbing the nose at the world before taking off with the plants. At the same time, he doesn't seem to realize that plants need sunlight, and the further away one gets from the sun, the more problems a gardener will have with their garden. It's trivial, but it distracts from the story too much.

The highlight for me was not the environmental element or the visuals (which hold up well), but Drones 1, 2 and 3, Lowell's minor companions when he's on his own. Tasked with helping the crew outside, they're small, two legged robots that seem like an early influence on R2-D2 and Wall-E - and I have to say, I liked them just as much as R2, if not more - and after Lowell is injured, he reprograms each to operate on him and perform other tasks, such as playing poker. They're handled masterfully, with minimal voices and subtle movement that conveys that their emotions and apprehension, especially when poor Louie gets blown off the ship, and after Huey is damaged. I'm a little surprised that they don't get as much attention as other robots.

At the end of the day, it's easy to see why Silent Running has provided a bit of inspiration for a number of films: it's a scary film that has some major elements of truth to it: pre-packaged, synthetic food, the loss of life and habitat on the planet, and an apathetic, uninterested population that simply can't bring themselves to care about the consequences of their actions. It's a scary future, one that still could very well happen within our lifetimes.

The Green Mountain Parkway and Vermont's Future

I heard a ridiculous commentary on the radio on the drive in this morning. As I cut through the hills between Montpelier and Northfield on Route 12, I listened to a comparison between the Green Mountain Parkway and a road that has been proposed in Tanzania, which would cut across the Serengeti.

In 1931, a highway was proposed the length of the state, similarly to the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina, and had the backing from various federal and state officials, while it was opposed by groups such as the Green Mountain Club. With a couple years of intense debate, the state voted in 1935, with the proposal failing in the House of Representatives, and going down again on town meeting date in 1936. Since then, the state has remained with two segments of highway: I-89, which cuts across West Lebanon and winds its way up towards Canada, travelling through Montpelier and Burlington on the way, while I-91 comes up from Massachusetts and shoots to the north. The Green Mountain parkway would have begun at the bottom of the state at Massachusetts and worked its way up through the middle of the state, connecting the western part of Vermont a bit more efficiently to New York and its namesake city.

I for one, would like to imagine what the state might have been like had the road been built. The 260 mile highway would have likely brought a number of needed jobs to the state during the Great Depression, and would have provided a massive infrastructure base for the future of the state. As the road never progressed beyond the planning state, we'll never know for sure, but after seeing the state have its own issues over the last couple of years, I would have imagined that such a project would have been heplful in the present day. The major population center, Burlington, is serviced by a small international airport (it goes to Canada), but is otherwise difficult to reach because of the lack of direct flights beyond some of the hubs, while reaching Burlington from somewhere like New York City by car means that someone has to drive up through Connecticut, Massachusetts and across the state in order to reach or, or up through New York and over some of the slower state highways. The short version is, it's not a quick trip.

Currently, the state has a difficult time retaining businesses. Companies such as Ben & Jerry's has remained in the state, but with most of its operations outsourced to other states or countries where regulations are a bit more lax. Burton Snowboards has relocated to Switzerland, and years ago, Mad River Canoe relocated away from its namesake Mad River Valley years ago. IBM has downsized some positions, and there have been rumblings that the company might leave at some point in the future, while a major startup, might put its expanding workforce in another state. It's difficult to grow a business here in the state, because of the location (NeW England is somewhat remote anyway), climate and terrain (Cold and mountainous) and its regulatory nature (fairly strict, geared towards preserving the state's image - Not a bad thing). One less avenue for transit is just one more thing against the state's own economy growing.

The reason, Dennis Delaney notes, is that the state would have destroyed a key part of the state's environment and natural beauty in order to make life easier for people. It's an easy enough reason to understand, and something that I support. I love how rural the state is, that its resisted the growth and population that New Hampshire (a state of similar proportions) boasts and that I can look up into the sky to see the stars without an incredible amount of light pollution. That being said, all of those benefits are able to be enjoyed because I'm employed and can enjoy Vermont for what it is, as well as the major source of income that comes from tourist dollars to see the state as it is.

What really gets me annoyed is Delaney's assertion that while infrastructure in Africa would likely help poverty (my understanding is that roads are bad, and much needed) in the continent, this major road project is something that should be shot down because it will harm the beauty of Africa, and the Serengeti. I can understand that to a point, but I would have to ask: how much does beauty compare to the human cost of poverty in the continent, and does the cost of keeping the African wilderness absolutely and completely pristine balance that? I'm not suggesting that the entire region be bulldozed and paved over, nor do I think that Western values will solve all of the problems overseas as a concerned liberal. Natural surroundings are important, should be preserved and protected, intensely. But at the same time, I believe that if there is something that can be done that will positively benefit the lives of people who have very little, it should be done, but it should be done intelligently. Create a roadway that will minimize the impact on the environment, put together protections for the herds that will travel across the road, create an engineering and technical marvel that will leave the road suspended tens of feet in the air.

I have heard the same arguments recently in the state (and out of state) when it comes to wind power farms that could reduce, in part, our dependence on energy technologies that are truly destructive, such as the failing Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant or coal plants that leaves us with acid rain in the hills. People place the intrinsic beauty of their surroundings over projects that are likely essential to the growth of the state and that support the well-being of its citizens. The alternative could very well be something that would be far worse to see: a coal fired plant in Vermont? The expanding slums of a city? How about a state that is forced into further economic problems because it cannot retain a profitable base that would ultimately help the state and its people?

I, for one, do care about the environment of the state, as contrary as it seems to what I just said. However, one needs to be fairly realistic as how we interact with our surroundings, and realize in just what state we can enjoy Vermont's natural beauty. I for one don't believe that the state has to be abandoned and undeveloped to retain the mountains and forests of the state. We just need to be mindful of how everything fits together. Personally, I would have been interested to see a Green Mountain Parkway weaving its way up through the mountains: I-89 is already a gorgeous drive, and that doesn’t really take away from the beauty of the state as a whole. It certainly allows me access to the beauty of the state.

Politics and Speculative Fiction

Michael A. Burstein (via io9) highlights an interesting point when it comes to genre fiction in a post that looks at the politics of a writer and looking to the point where a reader is alienated. It's an interesting read, and I recommend checking out both his review, and the other review that he's referencing. The question arose though, that wasn't really addressed on a larger picture: When has science fiction been free from politics?

The very nature of the genre is one that can lend itself to political elements, on both the right and left sides of the house. Science Fiction is about the changing nature of humanity and people's work to understand the world around them, either in the future, past or present, but most of all, science fiction is influenced by the culture that helps to shepherd its creation. Looking over a couple of books that I've read and am somewhat more familiar with, there's a good selection of books that cover any number of larger political issues, either explicitly, or referentially.

The story in question in the original review is Fossil Figures, by Joyce Carol Oats in the anthology Stories, where a pair of brothers are made distinct: one is labeled a Demon Brother, and through the course of the story, it's fairly clear that he's a conservative politician, and by extension, it can be interpreted that Oats is deliberately labeling the Republican party as one of demons. (At times, I can't say that I disagree) Clearly, there is a political statement to be made here, and I felt that the distinction didn't feel out of place, but helped set the story in a modern, relatable setting that the reader will identify. This tends to fall along one of the more explicit references to modern politics, but other stories that have come out recently delve into some other hot-topic issues.

Karen Traviss's Wess'Har Wars deals heavily into environmental policy, from the first book, City of Pearl, where her main character, Shan Frankland, is set off on a mission to Cavanagh's Star, several hundred light years away, to locate a missing colony. As the story transpires, a weighty, pro-environmental message comes out, as Frankland comes across the Wess'har, an alien race that has very set opinions and beliefs on the sanctity of nature, and have gone through great lengths to protect Cavanagh's Star, to the point where they are willing to destroy entire races and species. This ties in closely with the futuristic world, and it is possibly one of the earlier books to be influenced on the modern attitudes of global climate change. Another author, Paolo Bacigalupi, has penned two novels (The often mentioned The Windup Girl and Ship Breaker), both of which deal with a closer time of climate change, and the influences that is has upon human society: there are major consequences. In Traviss's take, these consequences take the form of an alien race that's very dedicated towards rolling back some of humanity's mistakes with the climate: at our expense. Bacigalupi paints a very bleak picture of humanity as a sort of post-human individual, where people have adapted to literally eat rocks in The People of Sand and Slag.

Global Climate change is a major political issue at the moment, and I personally believe that this is the next major movement when it comes to science fiction themes and content, much as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union sparked its own set of science fiction influences. Politically, Climate Change is one major issue, especially as its full effects aren't going to be instantaneous, but played out over a larger stretch of time. The future elements and implications associated with this have sparked the political world as people begin to think about how to plan ahead: the impacts on business and society are immense, and clearly, this is good trawling grounds for the near future. At the same time, a large number of people still harbor doubts about the concept, and in Bacigalupi's works, there's clearly a political message that will turn some people off, if a couple of the lower ratings are anything to go by.

Going back a couple more years, a read through Philip Pullman's fantastic novel The Amber Spyglass, which took the story that had been set up by the two prior books in the series, and dropped an extremely thoughtful and controversial story within that addressed the nature of the fall of mankind and original sin. This largely anti-established religion story had been building throughout the His Dark Materials Trilogy since it the first book, but The Amber Spyglass was the fulfillment of most of those thoughts. Around the same time, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series was aggressively attacked by people who fervently believed that the story was aimed towards converting children towards the occult, something I've always been puzzled by, especially with the release of Pullman's series, which could do a lot more serious damage to the Church itself with some of the ideas that were within it. Pullman's recent book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, where Pullman himself noted that there was a deliberate attempt to rouse people in the name of free speech. (His comments are here.) The American political right and the much of the religious community seem to work very well together, and when it comes to fiction, religious is likewise ripe for speculative fiction, given the similarities between searching for meaning and context in one's life, or in the future. Pullman's words have certainly put off readers, given the content, but at the same time, there's quite a story behind those words, which readers would do well to think about.

One of the most notable examples of science fiction and politics merging is through Robert Heinlein, and his numerous books. Two of my favorites are Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, both of which touch upon libertarian and the overall relationship towards government. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress struck me as being far more libertarian when I read it years ago (it's currently awaiting a re-read), with echoes of the American revolution within it, as the colonists on the moon sought to free themselves from a distant government, while Starship Troopers is notable for its anti-communist feelings, but also the responsibilities of people to be active in their society, contributing towards the good of the whole, rather than a government enforcing such values from the top down. These books came at a time when science fiction was heavily influenced by surrounding cultural occurrences, from the possibility of war to competing political ideologies.

The political elements of science fiction are generally shaped by the culture around it. I'll go back to the argument that I've generally made before, that art is created within a certain context, and that people will gain different appreciations for things at different points in time. Politics represent a major opportunity for authors because of the variety of underlying philosophies and outlooks that they tend to promote: conservative values look towards a smaller, less intrusive government, while liberal politics look to a more well structured and powerful central government, and the conflict between these two viewpoints has existed for as long as the country has been around. Doubtlessly, it will continue to rage on in the pages of science fiction novels as well.

Soylent Green

My girlfriend and I have begun a sometimes-weekly thing, where we'll pick out an old science fiction film and watch it, a sort of date night in. A while ago, I solicited my Facebook networks for a list of such movies that I needed to watch; the list grew immensely, and ever since, I've been picking up a lot of these older films as I find them. I've found a couple thus far: Planet of the Apes, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, Alien(s), Omega Man, Logan's Run and recently, Soylent Green.

I had picked this film up, because it was on sale, but also because it has coined one of the absolute classic phrases in the genre: "Soylent Green is people!", screamed at the end of the film by the lead star, Charlston Heston, after he discovers the truth about the food that people have been eating all along. Most of these films, I've found, have been highly entertaining ones, watched simply for their status in the genre. But with Soylent Green, I found, there's a very relevant message in the film: when people and nature compete, mankind will do what it takes to win, even if by winning, mankind turns to somewhat drastic things in order to continue to survive.

Oddly, I was somewhat reminded of one of my favorite (and frequently mentioned) books, The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Both works feature near-future societies, where human populations have overrun their natural food supplies, and in a large way, are dependent upon larger companies to feed the larger population. The Windup Girl does this in a sophisticated, modern manner, while Soylent Green demonstrates the food shortages in a particularly excellent scene when Heston's character, Thorn, confiscates a stash of food from a rich murder victim's apartment, bringing it home for his elderly friend Sol.

At the onset of the film, set in 2022, the Soylent Corporation is the leading manufacturer of processed food, and is the only thing between the starving, overcrowded New York City, and total chaos of a hungry mob. Introduced is Soylent Green, created from plankton, which is rationed out to the people in the streets. Investigating the murder of William Simonson, Thorne discovers (from a report in Simonson's home) that the oceans have become depleted, and that the man had been a prominent member of the food company. The murder trail leads to a horrible conclusion: unable to cope with a vanishing resource, the company began to take dead people, and processed them as the namesake foodstuff. Unable to cope with what the company had been doing, Simonson arranged his own death.

At the heart of the action and dystopia that is presented, the film is an excellent cautionary tale, one that has an exceptionally well thought-out world that is frighteningly realistic. Recently, Charles Stross wrote an interesting blog post about the number of people that it would take to maintain the current level of society. Where most of everything that we do is supported in high percentages, from the design of the cars that we drive to the medicine that keeps us alive. When it comes to food, he notes that in the 1900s, it took around twenty to thirty percent of the work force to provide food for the entire population. Now, however, it takes .5 to 1% of the population, with an additional couple or percentage points to distribute it all, to do the very same thing. Just go to your grocery store and look at what is available at  your arm's length to see the variety of food. The logistical elements that go into creating everything there is enormous, automated and the nightmare of every green-eco activist who advocates for a clean living. With the preservatives, chemicals and emissions from cows that go into the whole process, there's a major impact to the world around us that just isn't visible to the average consumer. This makes the entire process far more scary, and in my mind, brings us quite closer to the worlds that have been presented in these sorts of bio-punk stories.

As climate change occurs and becomes more noticeable, it's likely that the science fiction genre will begin to look far more closely at this sort of science and dystopian future as a means of creative origin. Already, it's fairly easy to point to Bacigalupi's fiction, but in other venues, such as Lightspeed Magazine, there's already been a story about a similar future, and as these stories will undoubtedly become true, it's entirely likely that a lot of these authors will see their stories come true, in some form.

I don't think that I'd like to see the overpopulated world of Soylent Green or of The Windup Girl. The huge numbers of people, competing for food, and at the mercy of the food corporations is a frightening vision of the future, but in some ways, it's already becoming reality.

Cause and Effect

A particular thought struck me last night as I pulled away from the Rochester police SUV: I really like to drive fast, and the past couple of years speeding along in my Mini have just hit the register, and it's time to pay up. I had been caught flat footed, something I somewhat predicted would happen at some point, and ten agonizing minutes later, I was issued a citation for speeding through the small village. The moral of the story? There are costs for everything, and my tendencies to drive a bit faster ends up with some additional risks and because of those risks, there's some consequences to that. Over the course of my driving history, the fine won't even out to be much, but it served as a humbling reminder that there are rules in place to govern my behavior, in the public interest.

Driving away, listening to the radio about more news on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I can't help but wonder if the same thing needs to be applied to companies such as British Petroleum. I've watched in a sort of numb horror as the situation has gone from bad to catastrophically bad, all the while hearing that the oil company is readying another attempt to stem the flow of oil. Up until now, they’ve been largely unsuccessful in capping the flow, and I can understand why this is such a time consuming problem.

The main issue is that the wellhead is under a mile of water – the pressures at that depth are immense, and the well itself actually runs another thousand or so feet below the bedrock to the reservoir. The pressure of the crust and ocean on top of it undoubtedly is pushing the oil out through the only weakness in the area: the wellhead, and hampering efforts to plug it up. It’s even somewhat understandable to realize why it’s taking such a long time: this sort of problem has never occurred before, and a lack of planning and experience is leaving BP with few answers.

BP and off-shore drilling advocates are at fault here for pushing a short-sighted agenda. As the United States economy grew, demand for oil increased, and alternative sources for cheap petroleum had to be sought out, while to help speed this along, incentives were granted to a number of companies to encourage them to look for more reserves. Increased pressure and instability from around the world, such as in the Middle East, has only further pushed this along as a reasonable alternative. The United States has looked to tackle the problem with the quickest method: there is a demand for oil, thus, more oil needs to be found, rather than looking at ways to reduce the need for demand for oil while accomplishing the same tasks and actions as before. During the 2008 presidential election, I was encouraged by President Obama’s reasonable approach to this, looking for alternatives that would allow for a far more sustainable course of action, one that would ultimately be cheaper and allow for less pollutants and risk to the environment.

BP is at fault for doing much the same thing: as more details emerge from the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon, it seems that there was no contingencies or planning on the part of the oil company for a disaster, but also that the company had sought to cut corners with experimental technology, only to have it backfire with untested and untried equipment that is ultimately poisoning the Gulf Coast. Their desire for a quick buck, BP has surpassed their desire to protect their workforce and the environment in which they’re working. BP will most likely come out of this disaster with a tarnished reputation while the livelihoods of those that depend upon the Gulf of Mexico are ruined for generations to come.

What needs to happen is a consequence for the oil company, and any others, that will become a major deterrent to prevent this sort of behavior. Just as my speeding ticket will serve as a potent reminder of the consequences of risking public safety by directly impacting my available cash for the next month, so to must BP be punished for their mistakes, in a way that directly impacts the company to make them rethink policy and once again put the public’s best interests first. Just as driving fast works well for the individual, it puts others at risk who are uninvolved, who have no say in how their livelihood will be affected. The oil spill in the Gulf has ruined a natural resource, because of the shortsighted policies of BP and the U.S. Government.

On my drive home last night, I stuck to the speed limit, closely. Today, tomorrow, and for a while, I’ll be much more careful, as I am reminded of the impact that casually breaking speed laws has upon me. BP, and other companies that operate and impact the public need to be held to the same standard. It doesn’t matter that they create some jobs and revenue for the economy because of what they do – mistakes like the ongoing spill demonstrate that they will have a much bigger, far more costly impact in the future, which sets everyone back.