Month: February 2021

Persevering in the Spirit of the Opportunity open to us

Call me a pessimist if you will (you will) but when I read stories with headlines like Nasa scientists hail Perseverance rover’s arrival on Mars with stunning images

The rover’s broad mission is to stay on Mars for a couple of years, gather data and harvest samples to be collected and returned to Earth on a future mission. The point is to determine whether there was life on Mars and answer subsidiary questions.
[Emphasis added]

… I can’t help but note that the "future mission" that’s referred to is a long way from being locked in. I appreciate that I’m quoting from WikiPedia here, but when I read things like this…

Over time, several concept missions have been studied, but none of them got beyond the study phase. The three latest concepts for an MSR mission are a NASA-ESA proposal, a Russian proposal (Mars-Grunt), and a Chinese proposal.

… that doesn’t sound promising. As I drafted this I was hoping to find some evidence that I was overlooking a whole bunch of detailed planning going on about this, but instead I found stories like this one at

The next step, if all goes according to the current (provisional) plan, comes with two launches in 2026. One launch will send the NASA-led Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL) mission toward Mars, and the second will loft the Earth Return Orbiter (ERO), which is helmed by the European Space Agency (ESA).
[Emphasis added]

… and this one about those two 2026 missions

Pristine samples of the Red Planet will come down to Earth a little over a decade from now, if everything goes according to plan. […]

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are working together on a highly anticipated Mars sample-return mission, which advocates say is the logical next step in our study of the Red Planet and its life-hosting potential. […] The NASA-ESA plan is not yet official, Muirhead stressed, and details are still being worked out. But here’s a rundown of the concept, as it’s currently conceived.
[Emphasis added]

Perhaps it’s just scientists not wanting to jinx funding for the logical next step before it’s locked in, and it’s not as if those samples are going to be going anywhere once they’ve been collected and packaged up,1 but somehow it feels as if NASA could be heading for a scenario where they end up never getting enough funding for that sample return mission and they get deferred or scaled down to the point they’re not worth doing, which would mark a truly sad ending to this portion of the NASA story.

Granted they have a provisional plan for the sample return side of the mission, but this is NASA we’re talking about: them having plans and them getting to deliver on those plans are two very different things. I can’t help but wonder if some future change of priorities might lead to diversion of that funding to other projects, perhaps on the grounds that wait a bit and you can ask Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk to grab the samples while they’re in the vicinity.2

Perhaps part of the plan is for Ingenuity, the helicopter part of the mission,3 to fly the containers that hold those samples slated for return well out of the line of sight of Perseverance. Otherwise I fear that a future xkcd is going to give us a sequel to Spirit where Perseverance‘s last sight will be of a bunch of sample containers never having been picked up. Sad Perseverance is not a concept I wish to see on xkcd a few years from now! (Yes, this is silly: Perseverance isn’t going to have emotions about the end of the mission. Just like Spirit didn’t.)

Of course, it could go completely differently. Perhaps the Chinese or the Indians or the European Union will launch a sample return mission aiming to pick up those samples the Americans have left lying around. That’ll be followed by the US administration insisting that even though there’s no official plan to fund that sample return mission those samples belong to the freedom-loving nations of Earth, and forming a Coalition of the Willing to defend that notion right back here on Earth. Then we can all die in the aftermath of the Sample Return Crisis War of 2030 while a few freedom-loving trillionaires and their acolytes4 expire slowly on their way to Mars as it becomes clear that perhaps SpaceX and Blue Origin could’ve benefited from a little more pre-flight testing. In a Neal Stephenson novel, this leads to one of them revealing an FTL space drive they’ve been working on in their side gig, and we jump to 500,000 years later when this corner of the galaxy is dominated by the human race because it turned out that the sample of humanity on board was not only ridiculously rich but also, between them, contained all the specialist knowledge the human race would ever require.5 In the real world, this leads to a few spaceships, devoid of human life, ending up not braking and going into orbit around Mars but carrying on until they are just a few lifeless objects in the asteroid belt, waiting to be a mystery to the next spacefaring race that passes by and notices that a couple of the members of the asteroid belt have an unusually regular design that suggests an artificial origin.

Now, I’m going to tear myself away from my web browser and watch the first episode of the second season of For All Mankind. It might feature astronauts lining up with small arms on the lunar surface, set to move against the local branch of the Evil Empire, but I have a feeling that by season’s end it’ll still be more optimistic and realistic than some of what I’ve written here. [This is what we get when I write here instead of sleeping.]

  1. Unless the Barsoomian Ground Defence Forces, upset that NASA’s probes seem to be better at evading Barsoomian defences nowadays, decide to send out troops to move the samples so they’re not to be found. What a blow that would be to pride of the imperialists of Jarsoom. 
  2. Or (dear Ghu no!) it becomes a big part of a major party’s platform in the 2022 or 2024 electoral season that the returned samples might contain the seeds of the next pandemic, so best to leave those rocks back on Mars. Yes, that’d be silly in the extreme, but after surviving 2016-2020 would you bet against it? 
  3. Can I just add at this juncture: I cannot quite believe I’ve just written a post that includes talk of a helicopter on Mars. This is the future I signed up for when I was mainlining the Science Fiction shelves in my local library back in the early 1970s and, dammit, Arthur C Clarke was the best speculative fiction author in the world, unless that was Andre Norton or Hugh Walters. (What can I say, I was young and naiive back then. By the end of that decade I’d have been talking about Brian M Stableford for the Hooded Swan novels or John Varley for The Ophiuci Hotline or Frederik Pohl for Gateway.) 
  4. The sad thing being that 52% of the US citizens in the complement of those two vessels, in an alternate timeline, understood full well that the Martian rock samples were unlikely to contain anything that would survive long enough to cause us humans a problem if it somehow ended up being exposed to Earth’s biosphere, but the lure of tax cuts and racism took precedence and persuaded them to let that sway their votes and ensured that NASA didn’t get the funding it hoped for. 
  5. Or at least, they had a copy of Wikipedia on the local intranet and they knew how to search it. Shame the external links didn’t resolve any more. 

Novel Gazing Redux

This series of posts by Marissa Lingen about authors of speculative fiction posted at Novel Gazing Redux under the heading of Present Writers is fascinating stuff:

[On Lois McMaster Bujold…] One of the things I love about Lois’s work is that she is extremely speculative about relationship, family, and reproduction. You cannot separate out the “science fiction plot” and the “family plot” or the “fantasy plot” and the “romance plot,” because they are always, always inextricable. The speculative conceit is never window-dressing, but neither are the human relationships tacked on as an afterthought. The worlds the characters live in are integral to how they relate to each other in families, how they consider building their families in complicated ways–how they have children but also how they form other kin-bonds, which affines receive what kind of loyalty and why.

It’s sometimes hard to realize how ground-breaking some of her books were because they broke so much ground that two houses have been built and torn down for an entirely new gigantic business development in the short time since Lois broke that ground.

I wish I had time to follow up on all the works this series points us towards, but thankfully there’s no tearing hurry to get to it now. This sort of resource, hopefully sitting round for readers to discover for years to come so long as search engines and linkblogs continue to be a thing 1 is exactly what the web was designed to be good at.2 Here’s hoping that the content being written about is still available to read too.3

A terrific resource.

[Via smcg, posting to MetaFilter]

  1. Until some bright spark at Google or Facebook or Twitter comes up with a more compelling content delivery service that causes everyone to treat the World Wide Web as we do gopherspace nowadays and let all that content disappear from view. 
  2. Writing this, I feel a little guilt at how much of the content posted on Sore Eyes over the last couple of decades is not at present available online, due to my bad habit of saving off archives of content when the site undergoes a change in CMS or hosting service or software platform and my always meaning to get round to re-uploading/reformatting that content for the new service/system/platform but not getting it done. I know I’m a bad citizen of the Web for doing this, but I comfort myself that in the end Sore Eyes is primarily a linklog pointing at the real useful content other people post and hopefully that’s still online even if the pointer to it from Sore Eyes isn’t. In these days of powerful search engines linklogs aren’t really needed any more, and perhaps I’m just in denial about that fact. (I just plain refuse to contemplate the amount of linkrot that afflicts older posts linking to content elsewhere. That’s just too depressing.) 
  3. The question of ebooks and the state of the publishing industry is a topic for another post. 


I’m indebted to the Phil and Lisa Ruin the Movies podcast for bringing Skyfire to my attention yesterday.

Take a plot that amounts to Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom minus the dinosaurs. Throw in a couple of known Western names – director Simon West and actor Jason Isaacs – to help it get some profile in Western media, then shoot a film with lots of dodgy CGI and a plot that eschews any hint of irony or complexity in favour of a thrill ride showing people caught in a disaster working together for the most part, and the Chinese production company give us just over 90 minutes of undemanding silliness that is just what I was in the mood for yesterday evening.

Isaacs plays a debt-burdened Australian tycoon who has put together a project that built a resort on an island right next to an active volcano and hopes that the deal he’s about to close as the film starts will clear his debts. It may not come as a complete surprise to you to learn that by the time the plot plays out, his company is destined to be tied up in court for a decade or two, if it’s even got enough money worth pursuing in court.

Nobody is winning any awards for their acting here. Basically, we get a bunch of pretty but bland actors who are utterly unknown to Western audiences. After fifteen to twenty minutes of setting up relationships – the primary thread is that we have a heroine whose geologist mother was killed on this same island twenty-odd years ago during an earlier eruption, and who is now herself a geologist running a project to monitor the volcano using an array of sensors, but who can’t persuade Jason Isaacs’ tycoon to delay the next phase to let her continue studying what’s going on to make sure it’s safe – the volcano erupts and everyone gets to run/drive around dodging CGI fireballs and toxic clouds of hot gas and contending with some very dodgy physics. It’s laughable stuff, but no more laughable than it was when they added CGI dinosaurs and had various directors give us Jurassic Park sequels at umpteen times the budget, or when a different Chinese production company gave us Jason Statham (plus a few other names better-known in the West) versus a really big, ancient shark-ancestor in The Meg.

Basically, this branch of the Chinese film industry seems to have mastered delivering undemanding blockbuster-lite fare.1 The nicest surprise was that in the podcast they referred to this being something we could get from Amazon for US$10 and said there are plenty of other things we all drop that sum on in these desperate-for-entertainment times, yet when I went to Amazon Prime Video it cost me just £1.99 to add it to my Video Library. The exchange rate hasn’t plunged that far in a couple of days, so I have no idea whether this is different pricing strategies in different markets or just a mistake.

So, Chinese producers are starting to push out basic, palatable-yet-unhealthy junk at the Western market. It’s a strategy that served McDonalds well in a very different field, so we’ll see how it does in the world of film.

[Via Phil and Lisa Ruin the Movies podcast]

  1. I suspect that until the Asian stars and starlets turn out to have a following in Western media, Hollywood and British studios won’t get too worried about this. I didn’t spot this until afterwards when I visited the IMBD, but our Taiwanese-Australian female lead here was also in Skyscraper alongside The Rock the year before this was released. I didn’t notice her in that, and unless she ends up playing English-language roles I very much doubt I’ll ever notice her when next I see her. The language barrier doesn’t render CGI-heavy work like this unintelligible in other languages, but it’s still liable to be a barrier to further progress outside of the cheap-but-cheerful fast food market this film operates in. To some extent, stretching a film’s reach by adding CGI is mostly a sign of how cheap basic CGI has got, if you’re not too picky about breaking new ground. That’s not what anyone is trying to do here, so everyone’s moderately happy. 
, 14 February 2021. Category: Uncategorized. Tagged: .

Miss Skippit

Andrew O’Hagan on recently-retired London Review of Books editor Mary-Kay Wilmers, a.k.a. Miss Skippit:

Some people are orderly – to the point of disorder, obsessive-compulsively – and other people are disorderly in a productive way. Mary-Kay is in the latter class, good at appointments (hair, board meetings, eye drops) but not so hot on deadlines or at keeping her desk tidy. I once turned up at her house with a very long piece I’d been working on for months. For some reason, I couldn’t get the page numbering to work, so when she dropped the manuscript on the floor I nearly had a heart attack. She simply laughed, and said she’d work it out later. I knew then that we would never be married. Mary-Kay can endure any amount of doubt, and part of ‘the happiness of getting it down right’, as William Maxwell put it, may have lain for her in the mystery of not knowing exactly how she would do it. The spirit of Miss Skippit is alive in those moments, a certain coolness in the face of the unknowable.

Totally Eclipsed…

Folks, I give you Totally Fixed Where We Are:

Cheesy? Oh yes. A work of genius? Very possibly!1

[Via swissmiss]

  1. Perhaps you need to be of a certain age to fully appreciate this. Or perhaps not.