Archive for July 2005
Most of the world seems to remember Duncan Lunan for his debunked argument that long-delayed radio echoes indicated that an ancient probe the planetary system of Epsilon Böotes was in Earth-Moon space. Myself, I remember Duncan Lunan for his authorship in 1979 of New Worlds for Old. Back when I was a barely an adolescent, Lunan’s New Worlds for Old was one of the few books in the 500-520 section of the non-fiction stacks of the Dewey Decimal System-organized Confederation Centre Public Library that dealt with space and the solar system in any kind of broad detail. Just last week, I bought a used copy in excellent shape from for only $C9.95.
Lunan’s book is a superb monument to the state of human knowledge of the Solar System at the end of the 1970s, after the Pioneer probes had returned their data but just before the Voyager encounters with the gas giants. The Moon is described in the light of the Apollo missions’ discoveries, Mars after the Vikings, Venus after the Soviet Veneras and American Mariners, and the more distant worlds with the sparse information available (Jupiter and Saturn with Pioneer returns, the outermost three planets in the light of sparse telescopic data, the spaces beyond with theoretical insights). It’s interesting to read, in Lunan’s engaging prose style, about the issues preoccupying planetary scientists at the time. The possibilities for Jovian life and for massive gas-giant planets beyond Pluto are raised, for instance, while the existence of the Kuiper belt and Venus’ peculiar planetological environment are not. Ganymede, curiously, is oput forward as the Galilean moon with the greatest likelihood of an underice planetary ocean, not Europa. Too, it’s depressing to realize that, in the absence of any dedicated planetary exploration missions, we know barely more about Mercury and Pluto than we did at the time of Lunan’s writing.
What makes New Worlds for Old particularly interesting are the chapters contributed by guest authors. A.E. Roy describes strategies for interplanetary navigation; John Macvey speculates about the potential for life elsewhere in the Solar System; A.F. Nimmo imagines the impending massive colonization of the Moon; A.T. Lawton speculates about what lies in interstellar space. With the exception of Macvey, these authors are concerned with describing the impending colonization of space: Nimmo confidently expects that of the 12 billion humans alive in 2050, 30% would live on the Moon, on Mars, and in O’Neill cylinders. Lawton’s essay is of particular note, imagining advanced human civilizations capable of creating stars out of interstellar dust using reverse Bussard ramjet engines. (The failure of this otherwise forward-looking essay to imagine brown dwarves is another interesting lacuna.) Lunan’s guest authors are uniformly confident that humanity’s future lies offworld, that the great schemes put forward in the 1960s and 1970s in the full flush of the space race will be fulfilled. It would have been nice if these schemes could ever have been fulfilled, but we’re left with these essays, memorials to lost dreams.
New Worlds for Old does show its age, but it isn’t structurally unsound. As a basic introduction to the Solar System, it still works nicely enough. As a sampling of the unrealistic plans for space colonization mooted decades too early, it’s priceless.
One thing I noticed this afternoon, after accidentally wearing an older pair of glasses of mine, was how much little detail I could see with my newer pairs: the irregular shine of the sunlight on painted metal, the weave of light and dark fibres in the fabric of a pair of denim jeans, the speckled ground-in dirt on sidewalks.
As usual, at the Starbucks on the northeastern corner of Yonge and Wellesley at 1 o’clock tomorrow afternoon. Drop-ins are more than welcome.
A thought: Might the alien artifacts beloved of science-fiction–those exceptionally high-tech good manufactured by long-vanished extraterrestrial cultures, capable of great tasks and of being reverse-engineered for profit–be science fiction’s equivalent of oil?
Consider that the oil and natural gas industry is a capital-intensive industry drawing upon little labour or, for that matter, not necessarily having much of a connection at all with thye wider economy. The ambitious corporations or states which happen to control the industry have massive financial resources at their disposal, regardless of what happens to the wider economy. This can encourage very bad policy-making–the Ba’athist militarization of Iraq comes most quickly to mind.
In a science-fiction context where alien artifacts are presumably either rare or difficult to exploit, control and use of these artifacts would be limited to a select few. It would be difficult to insert these artifacts into the wider economy, at least until reverse-engineering proved profitable, but these artifacts would still influence the wider economy. The artifacts would exist apart, exerting influence but not being influenced in turn, providing their owners with a vital edge over non-owners.
Yes, I’ve been watching Babylon 5 lately. Why do you ask?
Thursday’s Globe and Mail featured a fantastic article by Gayle MacDonald: “A trip down Avonlea lane.”
In 1989, a young girl named Sara Stanley skipped across the TV screen in blond curls and a pinafore, and into the hearts of thousands of viewers.
Played by the Toronto-based actress Sarah Polley, she was the star of the seven-year, Lucy Maud Montgomery-inspired series Road to Avonlea, which aired in Canada on CBC Television and in the United States on the Disney Channel.
When it ended its run in 1996, fans were distraught, mainly because it was one of the few remaining feel-good family shows — cut from the same cloth as better-have-a-hankie-handy programs such as The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie.
Unable to turn their backs on the bucolic, turn-of-the-century Prince Edward Island town of Avonlea, fans in far-flung locales around the globe stayed connected through the Internet, chatting about their favourite episodes and characters such as the inimitable Hetty King (played by Jackie Burroughs), the geeky but decent Jasper Dale (R.H. Thomson), and the handsome boy from the wrong side of the tracks, Gus Pike (Michael Mahonen).
Then two years ago, one diehard Road to Avonlea supporter, Ruth Williams of Southfield, Mich., had an idea: She’d organize the first Avonlea Convention. Last July, Toronto’s Black Creek Pioneer Village hosted the inaugural event, which drew fans from across Canada, the United States and Hungary. This year, the two-day Avonlea pow-wow — which has been shortened to AvCon 2005 — will be held from tomorrow through Sunday at the same venue.
Williams, 45, hopes to attract several hundred Avonlea aficionados. “I figured if fans can organize conventions for Star Trek [the 19th-annual Toronto Trek convention took place recently] and Andy Griffith [thousands flock to Mount Airy, N.C., to celebrate that show’s anniversary each September during Mayberry Days], then why can’t we?”, Williams asks.
Go read the rest of the article, please. Popular/mass culture is monstrously regenerative, isn’t it?
The title of Steve Jacob’s article “Belgique: chronique d’une mort annoncée”, published by the Montréal daily Le Devoir last Friday and also available here, translates literally as “Belgium: chronicle of an announced death.” An assistant professor in political science at Université Laval, Jacob argues that after 175 years the Belgian state has reached a dead end, with federalist reforms doing little to satisfy discontented nationalists and the very idea of a pan-Belgian identity evaporating.
Ainsi, 175 ans après la création de la Belgique, l’union entre les Flamands et les Wallons semble être consommée. Même si le couple dort encore dans le même lit, il y a bien longtemps qu’il ne fait plus le même rêve. Les forces centrifuges gagnent du terrain. Leurs points de vue prennent de l’ampleur et reflètent les aspirations de la population. Ainsi, le courant indépendantiste, majoritaire au Parlement flamand, dicte l’agenda du gouvernement fédéral en matière d’autonomisation de la fiscalité, de la sécurité sociale, de l’emploi, etc. Dans ce contexte, il devient de plus en plus difficile de gouverner la Belgique puisque la plupart des discussions politiques achoppent, tôt ou tard, sur une tension communautaire — ce terme désigne les relations entre les communautés linguistiques — qui frise la scène de ménage. Actuellement, la Belgique est coincée dans un cul-de-sac où il n’est pas possible de faire marche arrière. Le seul dénouement semble donc être la disparition programmée du pays. Les solutions en cas d’éclatement du royaume sont différentes dans les trois régions du pays.
What would Belgium’s three regions–Netherlandophone Flanders, Francophone Wallonia, and the city-state of Brussels–do if the Belgian state collapsed? The Flemish would at last have «Een Vlaanderen Staat in Europa», while the Walloons are apparently strongly interested in the rattachiste ideal (in a 2003 poll, 36% of Walloons favoured some sort of federation with France while only 14% favoured independence) and the Bruxellois would prefer an ill-defined autonomy from both the Flanders that surrounds their city and the Wallonia that shares their language. (The European Union may take on a major role in determining Brussels’ fate–Brussels, the European capital district?)
Jacob’s predictions seem almost too gloomy, but then, what if he’s right? An independent Flanders, a Wallonia that’s a French region just like Picardie-Nord de Calais or Lorraine, a city-state of Brussels: Will these plans ever transcend the realm of theoretical cartography? At the very least, none of these are impossible outcomes.