"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Getting Serious about 'Humans Orbiting Mars'

The Planetary Society issued a new report detailing a path that puts humans on Mars by the late 2030s. As a Society member, I helped fund this report. I have a vested interest. Happily, this report is designed with non-scientists like me in mind. You don't need to be an astrophysicist to follow along.

Humans Orbiting Mars:
A Critical Step Toward the Red Planet

Visit the Society's Page for Highlights

Mars mosaic, featuring Valles Marineris, Photo Credit: NASA

A friend recently asked me when I thought a mission like the one depicted in the smash hit The Martian might plausibly happen. I told her notwithstanding calls to get us to Mars in the 2030s, I didn't see such a mission taking place anytime before mid-century...so 2050s. Even that seems a bit too optimistic on my more negative days.

Without a Kennedy/Cold War mandate like we had in the 1960s, there simply isn't enough money going into space exploration. Getting to Mars by the 2030s would take--at least on the scale depicted in The Martian--far more money then NASA currently receives. The Society's report backs this up.

For people wanting to take a step beyond the entertaining spectacle of The Martian, this report is an ideal starting point. Over the course of 40 or so pages, including helpful illustrations and bullet points, you'll get a sense of what it will actually take to put "boots on the ground" on Mars in our lifetimes. I'm not a big fan of that militaristic image, but its the title of Chapter 4.3 and well worth reading.

The key idea in "Humans Orbiting Mars" is having the first human mission to Mars orbit but not land on the planet. Test the technologies. Prove the concept. Then return for the flags and footprints ritual later. It worked for the Apollo space program. Count me in. (The plan also includes a very cool touchdown on a Martian moon.)

Here's a great quote from the report. It sums up my frustration: "The history of humanity's effort to reach Mars is defined by a disconnect between ambition and budget." So true. The good news in the Society's report is that a human mission to Mars is possible, even if NASA's budget only rises with inflation. We don't need another Cold War.

I hope you'll at least take a peek at this report. Here is a link if you want to dive straight in (PDF, approx. 3 MB).

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Mormon Tale of Folly from The Moth

Not long ago, I performed in a Moth StorySLAM at the Circus Bar in Ann Arbor. I told a story from my days as a Mormon missionary. The theme was "Backfired." This story recounts how one of my grand evangelical plans fell apart:

Backfired from Jake Christensen on Myspace.

This was my fifth appearance in a Moth StorySLAM. If you'd like to hear another, I have posted my winning story "Careless" as well. As always, thanks for listening!

To learn more about The Moth, please visit themoth.org.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The 'Aftermath' of my Childhood's Star Wars

Aftermath (Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens)Aftermath by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Seeking a Particular Charm

There is something every Star Wars novel I have ever read lacked, all the way back to Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy (which I liked). They have all lacked that particular charm the original trilogy bore like a fingerprint. This unique charm was achieved by a particular ensemble of actors, writers, designers, and directors who collaborated to generate a trilogy which could only have been made, and only have succeeded so remarkably, in the particular cultural period that birthed it--late 70s/early 80s. That particular charm has never, and I predict will never, be repeated again—at least not in any way that could be termed pure.

The only hope then for new Star Wars tales is to find their own particular charm. Enter author Chuck Wendig and his novel Aftermath--a sequel to Episode 6: Return of the Jedi and prequel to the upcoming Episode 7: The Force Awakens. (Did anyone else miss how sleepy the Force was getting toward the end of Jedi?)

Chuck Wendig comes to Star Wars novelizing with a worthy resume. According to his dust jacket bio, he has labored in the realms of novels, screenplays, and game design. On the dedicatory page, he cites The Empire Strikes Back as the first Star Wars movie he ever saw (at a drive-in no less). The question becomes will fans enjoy his particular storytelling style and narrative choices. Happily for me at least, the answer is yes.

A New Trilogy Looks Back While Plowing Forward

Wendig crafts a story about a new ragtag band of Rebels, including one defected Empire agent, each of whom fought in the Battle of Endor or were directly affected by it. They come together in much the same chaotic fashion as Luke et al. did in Episode 4: A New Hope. We quickly realize they have intriguing personal backstories, but the author doesn’t let his action-driven plot become mired in exposition. As the original trilogy taught many of us, including Wendig, if you postpone exposition long enough, it comes out as revelation!

The title Aftermath perfectly characterizes the premise of Wendig’s novel. Just as Zahn discovered in his post-Jedi trilogy (in a now separate and thoroughly alternate canon), a post-Jedi galaxy proves unavoidably messy, troubled, and well…less charming. In the wake of any major battle, even a victory, there is aftermath. There are orphans. There are widows. There are refugees. And there is the tedious restructuring of government to be done.

In a clever choice, Wendig explores this post-Vader/Palpatine galaxy through brief Interludes. Functionally separate chapters, though not part of the central plot, the Interludes portray a range of characters coping with the fallout caused by the Battle of Endor. At their best, these Interludes force happily-ever-after seeking fans to reckon with the significant costs of civil war, however justified it may have seemed.

These interludes are also likely teasers for future Star Wars novels to be written by Wendig and others. They will grow from the root structure of Disney’s coming Episodes 7-9 (along with stand-alone films also in development). Yet a little while and new Star Wars films will arrive with all of the cultural impact of a new Marvel superhero flick…which is to say with dutiful fanfare that feels all too routine.

Wendig the Tinkerer

If Wendig’s narrative architecture emulates that of the original trilogy, his prose style is a spicy jambalaya of ingredients from whatever has worked in novel writing at one time or another. Some of his writing reminds me of the elegant grittiness of Hemingway’s short stories—simple, lean renderings of evocative physical detail. Elsewhere, especially in dialogue, Wendig bleeds lyricism via strings of similes. Some of this speechifying worked for me; some of it felt belabored. But it never stopped being entertaining.

Another key ingredient, sometimes jarring, is Wendig’s use of contemporary slang. The novel is written in urgent, sometimes taxing, third-person present tense. Some of it reads with all the charm of scripted stage directions (methinks this may not be a coincidence). Yet Wendig offsets this dry choice with playful language.

As happens so often in real world speech, an otherwise complete thought is given the needless tag of “so.” Annoying, but that’s how we tend to converse these days, so. In another case, we are treated to this sentence, “Because...gross.” This is not the grammar we learned in school, but it works because...vernacular! My favorite of these slips into contemporary slang comes on page 215 as one character is described as, “nothing but funny ideas, so oops, sorry, too late.”

Here is the kicker. All of the examples I just cited come from the third-person narrator, NOT from character dialogue. This is Wendig’s voice.

The Fate of Canons

At times I felt I was reading not chapters, but a series of Tumblr posts. From whence comes such Millennial (and I don’t mean the Falcon) sassy speechifying? As the author states upfront in his Acknowledgments: “Thanks, in fact, to all of Twitter because without social media, I don’t think I would have ever gotten to write this book.” Will we one day see a Star Wars opening crawl that includes emoticons? Will the next victor in a light saber duel cry out, “Awesomesauce!”

Part of me says, please no. There was something pure about the original trilogy, something that needs to be protected. Another part of me says, why not? We are now three mediocre prequels and dozens of novels and animated specials of varying merit removed from anything that could be termed classic. If Disney’s reign should prove ignominious, another corporation can always buy up the rights and begin yet another licensed canon.

As with the original trilogy, there is much in Aftermath one can choose to be cynical about. One might find they simply don’t like the flavor of Wendig’s storytelling. Yet to me it somehow works quite well. Wendig establishes a compelling ensemble of characters, sympathetic and torn by inner-conflict. For entertainment’s sake, he runs them through a gauntlet of action and suspense-driven chapters. This is a new Star Wars iteration which recycles the best devices of the past and outfits them with a new particular style. If you are hoping for anything else, or anything better, your best bet is just to re-watch whichever movie you loved the most.

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