36,400,000. That is the expected number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy, according to Drake’s famous equation. For the last 78 years, we had been broadcasting everything about us – our radio, our television, our history, our greatest discoveries – to the rest of the galaxy. We had been shouting our existence at the top of our lungs to the rest of the universe, wondering if we were alone. 36 million civilizations, yet in almost a century of listening, we hadn’t heard a thing. We were alone.
That was, until about 5 minutes ago. […]
Even if you recognise where it’s going well before it gets there, very nicely done.1
Yes, you can quibble about the accuracy of that figure from the Drake equation given the number of approximations and ballpark estimates fed into it, or about how convenient it was that that last message was encoded as ASCII and contained a message expressed in English, but addressing those points would have lengthened the story to no great effect. At this length, it works well enough. ↩
Credit to @owenblacker for posting a link to the text of the story. ↩
A few thoughts after wasting away an hour or so of my Bank Holiday morning watching The Man from Earth, a relatively low-budget tale written by one-time Star Trek writer Jerome Bixby:
An impromptu goodbye party for Professor John Oldman becomes a mysterious interrogation after the retiring scholar reveals to his colleagues he has a longer and stranger past than they can imagine.
[Summary: turns out John Oldman is around 14,000 years old and his survival strategy is to disappear every decade or so and start again somewhere well away from his previous life. This time, after he’s ducked out of his farewell party and is packing up his truck, a bunch of his colleagues have turned up at his cabin and he finds himself telling them more of his life story than he’d planned. Including the notion that a few hundred years after he’d spent time learning Buddhist ideas from their source,1 he’d tried to impart some of those ideas in the Middle East under a different name. That didn’t go well, to put it mildly.]
Given that this dates from 2007, it’s crying out for an update/sequel/prequel. Will his anonymity be stripped away in the next few decades as more and more state bureaucracies make it ever harder to operate without official documentation? Or is he secretly planning a move to a society that resists that particular brand of “efficiency?” Or has he seen enough attempts by humans to design a watertight system to be confident that there will always be workarounds and holes to be exploited for those who look closely at the details?
At some level there’s got to be a lot more to John Oldman’s story that didn’t come up in this one night’s conversation around his fireplace. Presumably one of his traits, not displayed directly here, is that he understands that if he’s careful he can wait out lots of aspects of how societies choose to organise themselves, provided he’s willing to adjust his expectations of certain creature comforts and status in society. One suspects that he’s been observing humans and their institutions for long enough to see most cons or deceptions or traps coming from a mile away, so he’d be a trickier one to catch than you’d think, especially if he moves across civilisations over time and chooses his societies carefully.2
I could easily imagine this being a pilot setting up seven seasons and a movie about this portion of the life of John Oldman, except that the producers might not be able to resist turning it into something more serialised and grimdark than it needs to be.3 Modern TV is so in love with the notion of season-long plot arcs and tying together all the pieces by the end that I’m not sure there’d be much of an appetite right now for a show that dipped in and out of our central character’s life over the centuries, especially where one of our central character’s primary strategies is to not live in the same place or with the same group of supporting characters for too long.
The idea would work much better as a series of short stories and novellas. A shame that Jerome Bixby died shortly after this film was made, so barring someone with lots of money being a fan and buying the rights this is probably the last we’ll see of this idea. Unless it turns out that someone in the Star Trek writers’ room is a big Bixby fan and we get a prequel to Requiem for Methuselah that somehow puts our central character in a Starfleet uniform and he then gets spun off into yet another series, or we end up with Picard season 3 having Jean-Luc get fascinated by this Professor Oldman character whose backstory doesn’t quite check out.
Remember, he’d lived long enough and moved around the world so much that he’d had time to learn at the feet of Siddhattha Gotama. ↩
One point that a modern take on this script would surely have to address is that it’s very handy that he can pass as a white heterosexual male with an excellent command of English. Is the fact that John Oldman moved to the United States in the 19th century a sign that he saw that he’d be well placed to do well in the American Century to come? There again, he’s lived long enough that he’s seen the world change before and he may just be less bothered than we’d think. He’d been slipping through the cracks of society for long enough not to have to worry too much about which society is top dog, just so long as there’s room in it for someone like him to live an inconspicuous life. In comfort would be best, but his idea of what that requires might not be as similar to our idea of ‘in comfort’ as we’d think. ↩
I swear, if our putative series’ finale ended up with John Oldman finding his way into the crew of Elon Musk’s first Mars colony to escape the ever-tightening grip of the state’s bureaucracy I’d be so disappointed. ↩
After watching this week’s instalment of For All Mankind early this morning1 I found myself dipping into the first half dozen episodes of new Apple TV+ show Calls before starting work for the day, then picked up on the final three episodes this evening.
I was aware that this show was coming, but had deliberately not gone out of my way to find out more. I realise that goes completely counter to the modern trend that pushes viewers to try to find out as much as possible about forthcoming programmes and speculate endlessly online about what’s to come2 but I’m here to tell you that you definitely want to watch Calls with as little foreknowledge as possible of what you’re about to hear.
Yes, I said “hear” not “watch.”Calls is a TV show, but it could as easily have been a podcast or a radio drama. We never see any of the cast, and while the on-screen graphics do help viewers visualise what’s happening and who is talking to who, the audio is sufficiently well-produced that (IMHO) it’s perfectly possible to get what’s happening without visuals.
No, I’m not going to say anything more about what happens in the story: all I’ll say is that if you have any interest at all in a well designed and delivered piece of speculative fiction then Calls is a very worthwhile experience.
Apple TV+ probably won’t get the credit they deserve for pulling it off, and given that Apple TV+ is very much the runt of the litter3 of modern streaming TV services Calls might be destined to be looked back on as an interesting failure. I do hope not; it’d be good to see more experiments like this.
No, I wasn’t sitting there trying to catch For All Mankind once it dropped on Apple TV+, I just happened to be awake at 5am and realised I wasn’t getting back to sleep so decided I might as well fill the time until the sun came up by watching something to keep my brain occupied until it was time to prepare for the old working-from-home-office-job. ↩
Contemplate Disney’s recent WandaVision multimedia extravaganza for a prime example of how that can go. ↩
Also, to be fair, I suspect Apple TV+ isn’t pulling in the sort of viewing figures that Apple would have hoped for, though I’m not sure they’d want to admit that publicly just yet. When the most critically-acclaimed shows you have – Ted Lasso and The Morning Show – are between seasons Apple TV+ just isn’t exactly the focus of much talk in social media, once you look beyond the more Apple-centric corners of the internet. ↩
Star Trek: Picard season one showrunner Michael Chabon has been sharing Some Notes On Romulans and I am eating this up with a spoon:
Traditional Romulan compounds — Romulans live in kinship units — are built at the center of a kind of hedge maze whose outer perimeter is often contrived to look like a “natural” grove of trees, as if, within, there were no houses at all. Once you reach the house itself, you ﬁnd a false “front entrance”; all Romulan houses are entered from the back. Even in big cities, modern housing megastructures have false front entrances, and are surrounded by some kind of token or symbolic maze, often a pattern in the paving stones. No visitor to a Romulan compound must ever arrive uninvited — it’s unheard of — and all visitors are asked to don a ceremonial blindfold (often of the ﬁnest materials) and are guided by their hosts into the compound, after being turned around the ritual three times. It is the height of rudeness to ask a Romulan for his address. It’s rude to ask a Romulan almost anything remotely personal. […]
I’ve not been following rumours about Star Trek: Picard season 2 so I have no idea whether this is a sign that we’re due to spend some time with the Vulcans’ cousins in season two, or simply a case of Chabon clearing out notes from season 1 so he can move on to the next project now he’s not being showrunner for the show’s second season.
Either way, this is impossible to ignore if you’re remotely interested in the continuing journeys of Admiral Jean-Luc Picard.
(For the record, it’d be good to have Picard reunite with his two Romulan “domestic staff” who we met back at the family vineyard on Earth, before he headed off-world in season one. They seemed to have stories to tell, not that they ever would, and who knows where that could lead?)
What is happening, seriously, what is even happening?
Your grandmother is becoming a starship! She has gone through many phases in her life already — infant, child, teenager, young adult, student, worker, in many cases spouse, parent, retiree. She has had hobbies like knitting, volleyball and carbon mitigation. She has travelled in planetary atmosphere whenever her circumstances allowed. Now she is uploading her consciousness into a starship! The circle of life is beautiful. […]
Competently done, heartwarming, wise even, yet oddly unsatisfying. Perhaps I was just not in the right mood when I read it?
I’m going to draw a line through 1930s agitprop, Ronald Reagan, methane-breathing zombie space aliens, the Mozilla logo, Barack Obama and the International Communist Conspiracy. It’s a long walk, so please stick with me. […]
It’s a longish read, but it’s about ancient history about important software and one of John Carpenter’s best films: how could I resist?1
[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
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. ↩
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.) ↩
The question of ebooks and the state of the publishing industry is a topic for another post. ↩
I never got round to reading Ready Player One because judging by the reviews I read at the time it sounded as if the book was unutterably proud of itself for stringing together lists of pop cultural trivia for geeks to recognise. Judging by Laura Hudson’s review for Slate, I don’t think I’ll be in any rush to devour Ready Player Two:
A cackling villain appears to menace our heroes and shout mean things that sound remarkably similar to negative reviews of Cline’s previous work: “Don’t you kids ever get tired of picking through the wreckage of a past generation’s nostalgia?” Wade responds by telling the bad man to go away and leave them alone, and subsequently drives off to fight Prince in a little red Corvette while wearing a raspberry beret. (This is not a joke.)
I have a feeling Spielberg isn’t going to be in a rush to put together another big screen adaptation of Cline’s work. Not that the first one was all that wonderful.1 I get that Spielberg was probably the one pop cultural figure with the clout 2 to get the rights to use so many pieces of other peoples’ intellectual property in his film, but exercising that clout in such an unworthy cause3 was not worth doing for this story.
Sure, it was a challenge to pull together a replica of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining when the plot led our heroes down that path, but I like to think that Spielberg directed those scenes fully aware that Stanley Kubrick was looking down from above and shaking his head at how small an achievement that truly was. ↩
Which is to say, the cash. I’m rather glad that according to Wikipedia he failed to get to use material from Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in this project. I’m still deeply unhappy that the film made such use of the rather distinctive profile of a replica of the Iron Giant. Dammit, he deserved better than to have such a throwaway part. ↩
As I understand it the scenes on the sets from The Shining weren’t part of the Ernest Cline novel. I suppose it could have been worse: we could have enjoyed a scene based on a clue to be found via a careful reading of a set of zero-G toilet use instructions that Heywood Floyd ponders briefly during his travels in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not sure why the gang would need to find themselves visiting the virtual set rather than just googling for the text like they were savages, but I’m sure the screenwriters could have come up with a good reason. Maybe that prankster Kubrick had embedded a vital clue. ↩