• Now, before you get too excited, there are plenty of arguments that this is wrong — but for the sake of Science Fiction let’s suspend any disbelief and take this paper by Alexei Sharov and Richard Gordon at face value.

    Here’s the idea: if you apply Moore’s Law to the demonstrated exponential rise in genetic complexity over time, it suggests that life as we know it formed roughly ten billion years ago. This is significant as the current estimated age of Earth is only 4.5 billion years.

    Origin of Life (Graph borrowed from a MIT Technology Review)

    This suggests all sorts of intriguing possibilities. For one, in this scenario, Panspermia is a foregone conclusion. Life did not form on Earth

    Sure this is not a new idea, but now Science Fiction as a genre has some numbers to play with. One of them is the possibility that in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, we’re not the backwards baby intelligence in a galaxy teeming with far more advanced races. We could very well be the ipso facto advanced intelligent race.

    How so?

    Consider this: We’ve always assumed that it takes at least 4.5 billion years for an intelligent race to develop. Now there’s evidence it might take as long as 10 billion years. Sure, we are leaving out a lot of factors, such as asteroid strikes and other mass extinction events – that you’d think would throw off the time table – but we’re not looking at that kind of physical history. We’re looking at the uniform rise in complexity of genetic material.

    Information.

    The assumption is that it somehow endures through these disasters and continues progress. After all, it somehow migrated through interstellar space through untold and unimaginable disasters – possibly the destruction and reformation of solar systems – to take root on this pretty little blue orb of ours.

    And so, this theory argues, thus explains the Fermi Paradox: We’re not hearing from any other intelligent species because they’re either close to, or behind, our own sophistication. That’s why we’re not being invaded by bug-eyed-monsters, or grey hive space aliens, or multi-trunked Pachyderms from Alpha Centari. If anything, we’d be the invaders, a la James Cameron’s Avatar.

    But beyond that lies the really intriguing questions:

    • Where, exactly, did life begin roughly 10 billion years ago?
    • Was it localized, as in a star that existed, and then perished, and the material reformed to become our current star and set of planets?
    • Is it spread through our entire galaxy, which means it permeates space and seeds all other hospitable environments such as Earth?
    • Are there other, wholly other alien forms of DNA-like substances which formed in a different time and frame, and that seeds other sections of the galaxy?

    The premise leads to endless conjecture – which is fuel for good Science Fiction – but more importantly it gives a more solid jumping off point, as – despite the inconclusive and tenuous evidence – it’s really the best we have right now. It’s something, other than nothing. Because before this paper came out, that what there was: nothing. Wide open nothing.

    This gives us something to test. Now, if we do finally find conclusive samples of life beyond planet Earth, we can see if it fits this model.

    That’s what science is about.

    And that is the best fuel for good Science Fiction.

  • A few summers ago, during a meandering and somewhat aimless road trip with my sweetheart, we came across “Snake Alley” in Burlington, Iowa.

    It reminded me so much of Lombard Street in San Francisco that I had to do some research. Which came first, and which one is more crooked?

    Well, having been built in 1894, Snake Alley existed 28 years before Lombard Street. And below I’ve put together the two using Google Maps images. I will let you be the judge of which one is more crooked.

  • The last time I watched Dr. No was several years ago, and the last time I read the book was when I was 15 — and that was a long time ago. I remember being disappointed in the movie, feeling that not only was it outdated, it lacked the action of the later films, the tension, and it was rather slow.

    James Bond point a gun

    Last night, however, I revisited it. It’s probably been at least 10 years since I watched it last, maybe longer, and I was prepared to slog my way though it more out of curiosity than anything else. However, this time I enjoyed it. I liked the slower pacing, the more mundane spy plot, and the way the Bond character relied much more on confidence, determination, and his wits than on spy gadgets. He was a spy. He did actual spy things. He saw traps and he went along with them, ready to take control of the situation when the trap was sprung.

    Of course, being a product of it’s time, there were many things in the film that today would be considered very problematic. Casting caucasian actors as asian. The unflattering and stereotypical treatment of the main black character. And of course there’s the James Bond trademark womanizing. As I rarely if ever watch older films, it was a bit jarring, but you have to excuse it for what it is: a bygone era.

    What I need to do now is go back and read the book, and compare the two. And being that I haven’t read the book in about 45 years, I’m curious to see how much of it I remember, or what memories it shakes out of the dusty old brain cells of mine. I know I was staying with my brother in Tucson Arizona that summer, and that’s what I was doing — going to the local library with my sister and checking out James Bond books.

    Do you have a favorite old James Bond book, or movie?

  • Goodbye Galapagos

    ·

    Darwin sat wearily on the back deck of the steamer, gazing out at the islands and bidding them farewell.

    A large lizard swam behind the boat, calling to him. “Darwin! Darwin, please… Don’t leave me!”

    “I’m sorry,” he said to the lizard. “It would have never worked.”

    “I’ll change for you,” the lizard called out. “I swear I will!”

    He shook his head, knowing she could never change. Her children perhaps, but not her.

  • Modern Love

    ·

    She closed her eyes and leaned forward, and whispered: “Give me some sugar, baby.”

    “I only have Splenda,” he told her.

    She pulled back, blinked a couple of times, then tried again. Eyes closed, leaning forward, she said, “Give me some Splenda, baby.”

    He opened a little paper packet and poured the white chemical on her tongue. It tasted sweet enough, but not quite the same. She sighed.

    “I can’t get used to this modern love,” she told him.

    “I’m plastic,” he replied.

  • The Hole in the Field

    ·

    We didn’t mean any harm. Seriously. We were just kids.

    I think I was about 10 years old when we first moved to Stockton, California, and our first house was right on the edge of town in an area being developed. Directly across the street was a large empty field, a perfect place for us neighborhood kids to play. With this huge field of dirt, all we needed was a shovel. I provided the shovel, and we took turns digging. We all wanted to see just how big a hole we could make.

    The project took weeks. At first we called it “The Hole,” as in, “Let’s meet at The Hole after school.” “Mom, we’re going to go play out at The Hole.” “I did more work on The Hole than you did!”

    The Hole became quite large, and then someone came up with the coolest idea. With all the construction going on in the neighborhood there was plenty of wood around (scrap and otherwise) so day by day we were able to start covering The Hole with a roof. As the roof was built, dirt was piled on top of it so that it couldn’t be seen. It was at this point it stopped being The Hole and became “The Fort.”

    With The Fort in place amid all the weeds and tall grass, it was the best place on Earth to play Army. We armed ourselves with cap guns, squirt guns, plastic battle axes and swords, and the filled that field with wars, insurrections, rebellions and general free-for-all mêlées. The Fort was a nexus for our little battles until summer, when a rival gang of kids, older and meaner, took it from us. Our interest in it waned, as we’d discovered new places to play (a creek with a railroad bridge, God help us) and so we finally gave up on The Fort.

    We let the bullies have it.

    Then I remember the day we spotted a farmer’s tractor out in that field, lumbering and squeaking through the tall grass. I stood on my front lawn with my friends, watching in fascination as the tractor pulled its plow back and forth across the field, edging closer to The Fort with each pass. Then there was this magic moment when the entire tractor suddenly disappeared from our view. From across the field came a terrific Wham!.

    Little did we realize that we’d created the perfect tractor trap.

    The tractor driver came up out of that hole hopping mad, and we ran. Later someone came door to door, inquiring about whose kids had dug a big hole in the field. My mom kept her mouth shut, no doubt fearing a lawsuit. Later it came out that the bullies who’d taken it away from us got blamed, and were in big trouble.

    Ah, karma.

    It took a huge semi-truck looking rig to pull that tractor out of The Hole. We stood on my front lawn watching that, too. Come next summer, they’d started building more houses there and soon the field was a block of brand new triplexes. It didn’t take five years for the whole area to deteriorate into a low-rent slum.

    Frankly, I liked it better as a field.

  • The Tracks

    ·

    We were boys trying to fathom the mysteries of women.

    Summer morning, and I’d awaken and jump out of my bed, eat a bunch of sugary cereal, and then jam on down the street toward the train tracks to meet my friends. I had a Stingray bike with a tiny front tire, a banana seat, and a tall sissy bar. 5-speed, straight shift. Front wheel had a drum brake like a motorcycle.

    The bike was “boss.” It “burned rubber.”

    I’d race down the dirt of the levy road, dodging shadows and fallen branches, then leap over a mound of dirt and rumble down a rocky trail to the tracks. Turning north I’d follow the tracks to the second bridge where the creek was wide and deep. Usually I was the first one there, but not every time.

    Randy would show up, sometimes with his neighbor Philip. Sometimes Larry would be there. Other friends came and went; I don’t even remember their names. All us boys were in-between the 4th and 5th grades. Lizard hunters, proto-motocross riders. Creek swimmers. Train challengers.

    This was the lost Tom Sawyer boyhood of my youth.

    The railroad bridge was a quiet place. Overgrown with trees and brush, the creek ran gurgling at a good pace. There were mini-rapids both upstream and downstream, but right around the oily, wooden bridge supports it was almost a pond. Deep enough to swim in, and if I stood it would come up to my neck. Because of broken glass, swimming with shoes was mandatory.

    large bullfrogALT

    There were always new things to see or find. We’d catch at least one snake a day, but rarely do anything besides hold it for a while then let it go again. Only exceptionally cool snakes would be taken home so that they could escape and scare the bejeezes out of our moms. But there were also alligator lizards, and skinks (with really pretty red or blue tails), dozens of bluebellies, massive bullfrogs, and the occasional swimming turtle. They had the tendency to bite, though.

    The really fun stuff was more dangerous. One of our favorites was to jump our bikes into the water. I only did this when I brought my second “junk” bike out. We would zoom down the short hill from the tracks, up a big lump of dirt, and fly 15 feet through the air and into the creek. Another favorite was to huddle under the bridge as a train went by. There was talk of actually lying down the middle of the track and have the train go right over us, but thank God no one actually tried it.

    Then one day we found the hiding place of a genuine railroad hobo. Abandoned during the day, apparently this hobo returned at night to sleep in a corrugated metal pipe that ran under the tracks. There was clothes, cans of food, bottles of water, blankets, and a pile of really nasty, dirty magazines. They weren’t like our dad’s Playboy magazines. They were lurid and sleazy; wide open and shocking. We were fascinated, like deer unable to look away from oncoming headlights.

    We didn’t know what to do with this forbidden treasure. We were afraid if we simply left it, it would disappear. But no one would dare take it home. We could all imagine the nightmare of it being found. So it was decided we had to find a new hiding place for it.

    We searched the surrounding area for a likely place. There were piles of old railroad ties, and boards under grass, and areas where there were piles of concrete. We were surrounded by farmland, and we found what we thought was a perfect place: another corrugated metal pipe on the other side of a barbed wire fence, right below a small tree. It was perfect. It was about a foot wide and hidden by tall grass.

    The next day we came out and yes, the treasure was still there. We’d all pour over it, joke about it, ask each other question which none of us truly knew the answer (though it didn’t stop us from bluffing and stating our guesses as fact). We were boys trying to fathom the mysteries of women. We were trying to integrate our knowledge of our mothers, sisters, and girls next door with what we’d learned from the dirty magazines. It was difficult and ultimately frightening.

    I think we were all a bit relieved when several days later we came out to find the pipe holding our forbidden treasure was under water. As it turned out, the field was a rice field, and the farmer had come and turned the valve, flooding the area with water from the creek. The water had carried the magazines out into the acres of rice paddies and they were obviously ruined and lost. Our only consolation was that the next day we were treated to the joyous show of a biplane flying right over our heads, dropping sprouts into the fields of water. The daring of the pilot earned our undying admiration, especially after he waved at us from about ten feet off the ground.

    After that it was back to normal at the bridge. Snakes, lizards, bicycles, and swimming. Seeing how long we could stand on the train tracks while a train bore down on us. Stupid boy things like that. I’m sure we spent the whole summer out there, but when school started again and the weather grew colder, the place wasn’t as much fun. Things changed, bulldozers pushed things around, and the old wooden railroad bridge was replaced by a new, modern, concrete one. And for some reason they cut down all the surrounding trees.

    It was over. The next summer the tracks didn’t hold the same magic, and it took many years to find a place like that again. By that time I was a teenager in a different crowd of friends, and girls were involved, and there was not much innocence left. People had jobs and responsibilities. Car payments had to be made. It was different.

    Like Tom Sawyer, we were doomed to grow up.

  • SleepLink

    ·

    Raymond’s phone emitted a crystalline chime. A message, he knew, from another world.

    Swaying back and forth with the train’s motions, his eyes blinked open and he reached into his jacket pocket, feeling for the warm metal. Pulling it out, he held it in front of his bleary eyes and focused on the screen.

    SLEEPLINK Message from Mary North – Ray I need your help! My hair has turned to metal! I think it’s like Brillo or something! Can you come home right now?

    “Uhh yeah,” he whispered to himself. Thumbing the phone’s keyboard he replied, “You are asleep and dreaming right now. Nothing is wrong. Either wake up, or shift your dream in another direction.” He hit send then plinked the screen off with a push of a button, and then slid the phone back into his pocket. Oh man, he thought, it would be nice to be at home right now, asleep, instead of riding a stuffy crowded commuter train at 5 in the morning.

    From deep within his pocket came another chime. Raymond gave a half-sigh, half-laugh. Why, he wondered, did we ever think this SleepLink service was a good idea? He slipped his hand once again into his pocket, finding the phone, pulling it out.

    “I’m not the one dreaming, you are,” she’d replied.

    “No sweetheart,” he typed back. “You’re the one logged into SleepLink, not me. Everything is okay.” He almost quipped something about making sure her Brillo hair didn’t get rusty, but he restrained himself. He was too tired.

    Accessing the control app, he thumbed through the menu and chose something he was only supposed to do if absolutely necessary: RESET PARTNER’S DREAM. He knew he was supposed to try to talk her through a nightmare first, because using this was kind of like teleporting at random and not knowing where you would land.

    The wheels hit a bump in the tracks, and the lights flashed inside the train. The jolt threw Raymond’s head against the window so hard he was amazed the glass didn’t break. It felt like it had cracked his head. He clutched it a moment, feeling a wave of dizziness, and after he recovered Raymond felt a warm body next to him in the seat. Glancing over he was startled to see Mary sitting with him.

    She was in her pajamas. Her sexy pajamas.

    “What the hell?” he exclaimed.

    “Oh, you hit the dream reset!” she said. “Great. Just great. I’m naked in public. Thank you Ray.”

    It took him a moment to find his voice. She wasn’t naked, exactly — though the nightie was pretty much see-through. What stole his voice from him was the fact that her head was festooned with a mass of dull gray steel wool instead of hair. “Oh crap,” he said, “I teleported you out of your dream!”

    “No, stupid, you teleported me into your dream.”

    “I’m not dreaming!”

    “No? Then how do you account for me being here? Teleportation isn’t actually possible. And—” she pointed “—explain why there’s a Klingon sitting in the seat across from us.”

    The Klingon looked over at them, bemused. “I’m heading to a Star Trek convention,” he said in a low, guttural voice.

    “He’s going to a convention,” Raymond said. “See.”

    “Of course he’s going to agree with you,” said Mary. “He’s in your dream.”

    Something occurred to Raymond. “Wait a minute,” he said to the Klingon, “it’s five in the morning! What Star Trek convention is going to be open this early?”

    The Klingon now had a third eye. “Meow,” he said. He smiled at them with long, sharp, pointed teeth.

    Everyone else on the train turned around to smile at them. They all had three eyes and sharp teeth. Raymond and Mary looked at each other, and then both fumbled quickly for their phones, scrambling to open the DreamLink app and hit the reset button. Mary — lord knows where she had been keeping her phone — beat him to it.

    The lights blinked, and instead of being on a train, they both floated in a kind of blue-violet void surrounded by large stuffed panda bears and Hello Kitties. “Oh no!” Raymond cried. “We teleported into your dream!”

    Mary spun upside-down and smiled. “Isn’t it wonderful?”

    “No!” Hello Kitties terrified him, and these were over 15 feet tall. He fumbled for his phone but lost his grip on it, and it went tumbling away into space. Raymond watched it in horror, especially as one of the giant stuffed pandas grabbed it and crunched it to bits with its very real, very non-fluffy teeth.

    “Raymond?” said a voice that wasn’t Mary’s. “Raymond? You okay? Raymond?”

    He sucked in his breath and lifted his head in one convulsive movement. Raymond found himself sitting at a table with a bunch of people who were all staring at him. His co-workers. The lights were dim and a PowerPoint presentation shown on the wall. His face felt wet, and he reached up to touch it, finding drool all over his chin and cheeks.

    “Uh, yeah, I’m okay,” he said, his tense and breathless voice undermining his words. He had to put his hands firmly against the table to hold himself upright. He felt dizzy and disoriented.

    “Are you sure?” asked his boss. She looked concerned.

    Raymond’s phone, sitting on the table in front of him, chimed and the screen lit up. INCOMING SLEEPLINK MESSAGE, it said. Without reading it, Raymond grabbed the phone and turned it off, then shoved it into his shirt pocket.

    Up on the wall, the projected PowerPoint slide depicted a giant Hello Kitty.

    His three-eyed boss said, “Meow.”

  • Eternal Summer Dream

    ·

    Creatures of shadow, light and dark,
    Weighing nearly nothing
    Drifting like wind-borne mist
    Past the fitted stone and ancient archways
    The long grass under the tangled branches.

    When the afternoon sun beats down
    With the pressure of a dry August heat
    They rest in a quiet summer dream
    Of past years and childhood games
    Of restless yearnings and the touch of someone fond
    A time spent long ago.

    When the sun drifts down, finally
    They stir in the evening twilight
    And wander aimlessly, sleepwalking
    Dimly aware of who they were
    And what they are now.

    When footsteps quietly come
    To them it drums like thunder
    All still, they watch
    As a young couple wanders
    Arm in arm through the courtyard
    Hardly more than children

    There’s a hush as they pause and kiss
    There’s a rush of life and joy
    Then as the two walk aimlessly along, they follow,
    They follow along, just follow, watching,
    Watching, the night itself watching,
    Just watching

    As the sun brightens the sky
    And as the lovers sleep
    They pause to wistfully touch the life
    So fresh and so warm
    Then drift past the cold archways
    And etched stone
    To the place they lie dreaming
    Just dreaming, holding onto what they’d touched
    Until the sunlight melts it away.

  • May I Take Your Order, Please?

    ·

    Something I wrote to get my head around a scene that I was working on in Eleven Days on Earth.

    A waiter walked up to the table
    Wearing a suit jacket that was far too small—
    There was no way he could button it, and the
    Sleeves came halfway up to his elbows
    He sported a overlarge red bow tie
    Black curly hair with oil in it, and
    A large, obviously fake mustache
    Which curled in waxed spirals at the ends.

    “May I take your order, please?” he asked.

    Before we could answer
    A nude woman holding a pomegranate, with a
    Bayoneted rifle slung over her shoulder
    And flanked by two huge yellow and black tigers
    Complained that she had been stung by a bee
    And wanted her money back.

    We sat for eleven minutes waiting
    Then realized that ants were eating the silverware.