Writing science fiction can be an abstract artform. You create (discover?) unknown civilizations, cultures, and religions, and populate them with new species speaking alien languages and holding values distant from Earth as their homeworlds. Technologies must be sci-fi friendly. Faster Than Light travel (if it exists in the Universe you are imagining), teleportation, particle beam weaponry, and molecular super-gadgets, the latter to dispense food or whatever else your crew needs. (See: “replicators,” thank you, Gene Roddenberry.) Medicine potent enough to cure a rainy day, as McCoy tells Kirk in TOS.
People sometimes ask sci-fi writers where they get their ideas. A better question might be, “How does a terrestrial lifeform like you take any of this seriously? You will live and die without leaving the only planet known to have evolved living organisms. Sci-fi? It’s all over the rainbow, sans Munchkins.”
Well, not really a whole world, just a chunk of space rock. (See photo.) You can tell this is a meteorite by its leading edge, smoothed by superheating as it burned its way through the atmosphere. It’s also lightly magnetic, another sign.
When I hold that space-born arrowhead in the palm of my hand, I recall that there really are other worlds out there. Even if this rock was never a part of a planet but floated in the void since the dawn of forever, it tells me, “Behold! Solid ground exists beyond earth. You hold a piece of it in hand. I traveled through the ages to strike land in a new world. Your descendants will bend the space-time continuum and voyage to worlds yet impossible to imagine. So play with the possibilities. Keep the dream alive. Other worlds exist. Write about them, now!”
The rock is my inspiration, a taste of reality in a world of fiction.
Reviewers and informal correspondents often remark about the array of alien races, planets, cultures and religions encountered in the main Star Lawyers series and its prequel spinoff, Star Lawyers Origins. Readers often comment positively on the multi-cultural spacefaring society I envision for the 32nd century. The complexity is usually well received, but one wag lodged an exasperated complaint that there was too much diversity!
Hello? A future where vast numbers of Earth’s people originate from non-European ancestry is not only likely, it’s already here. Currently, 75% of the human race lives on two continents: Asia (60%) and Africa (15%).
But let’s tie Donald Trump’s knickers in a knot and think about the untold trillions of undocumented aliens who live somewhere, out there.
I have had fun creating an even more complex picture of humanoid and non-humanoid star nations, species, races. (Using the word species and race interchangeably, rather than the limited and basically useless designation of “race” among our one-species human culture.) Here are some of the major players in 32nd century galactic civilization.
“The majority of alien lifeforms differ wildly from the children of Earth. Insectoid Yegosians and reptilian Saurians. Sentient creatures with hard shells and multiple limbs but no head. Others looked like big luffa sponges with a few dozen garden hoses drooping off the moist membranes. There were brainy birds, intelligent vapor clouds who solidified to grasp tools or prey, and assorted races of sentient beings whose form and function defied human language to describe them without sounding nightmarish or just plain silly…
“(However) some humanoid aliens—Meklavites, Parvians, Quirt-Thymeans and others—were similar enough to Terrans to allow sexual—albeit not reproductive—compatibility… In some humanoids, the DNA double helix twisted left, instead of its “normal” right-handed form. But structural similarities abounded among bipedal humanoids. It was a maddening question.
“Then Wolfgang Ziegler offered an elegant, simple solution. In his twenty-fourth century work, Humanoid Efficiency, Ziegler theorized that, since there are a finite number of ways a creature can solve its evolutionary problems, similarities are bound to occur.”
So, let’s run with Ziegler’s similarities. Here’s a sampler of four humanoid races whose political and social goals either align with humans or present no current threat in the 32nd century of Tyler Matthews.
Suryadivans – warm-blooded humanoid marsupial-amphibians with large, expressive head-fins. Not sexually compatible with H-sapiens. (Sorry, Captain Kirk. Neither are the green, plant-evolved, bipedal Kolovite women.) The Suryadivan Sacred Protectorate is the location for most of the action in Jump Gate Omega and Forbidden Sanctuary (Star LawyersBooks 1 & 2).
Quirt-Thymeans – Mr. Blue (A.K.A., Indigo, Prince Zenna) is a member of the humanoid race who founded the ancient Quirt-Thymean Empire. Although they are a single species, Thymeans are purple, Quirts blue. QTs are physically and sexually compatible with humans, albeit with short, doggy ears. Some scientists believe Quirts and humans might even be able to interbreed, with a little bio-tinkering. Mr. Blue frequently drives Tyler batty with his misreading of Terran metaphors and his indirect, high context way of communicating.
Meklavites –humanoid species, biologically compatible with Terrans. The Meklavite Union is a female-dominated oligarchical state in which women rule and men are subordinate. Mek women of means may form a Stable, essentially a harem, with as many husbands as they can financially support. This widespread practice of polygamy creates shortages of men, which means large numbers of middle-class women will never marry or have children. The major religion of the multi-planet, Meklavite Union is best described as witchcraft, with presiding witches and covens at ascending levels of the society.
Parvians – the Parvian Republic is home to the most compatible humanoid species yet encountered. (Until Book 5 – The Stellar Light Conspiracy, launching in May-June) Parvians have a well-earned reputation for ferocity among spacefaring civilizations. However, they are not expansionist and use their naval strength to keep the peace. As Noah Matthews says in Book 5, my work-in-progress, “Parves don’t start fights. They finish them.” They are loyal friends and merciless foes. Physically they are slightly smaller than the average Terran and well-proportioned, with multi-hued complexions, deep brown to pale beige, Afro-black to Norse blonde hair. Their species is known for its affability, zest for life, and for visiting devastation on anyone foolhardy enough to attack them. The common, cross-cultural watchword for dealing with citizens of the Republic: “Don’t fuck with the Parves.”
Except this voyage takes you to Pirate space aboard the creaky, captured Dengathi pirate ship Howling Tadpole. It also reprises the much-acclaimed courtroom cross-examination of Tanis Zervos by Prince Zenna-Zenn, a.k.a., Mr. Blue. And the trial takes place in a Pirate Courtroom, where the judge summarily executes convicted defendants and stun blasts court employees who fail to follow instructions.
What’s not to love about venues like that?
While writing the story, I wrestled with problems about how to create shady characters and let them talk authentically, knowing what they will say would be highly offensive in this age of enlightened sensitivities. I thought about making everybody politically correct, but the whole cast of characters—from Tyler to the sneering, racist, violent misogynists whom the Star Lawyers must cross examine—came to see me and demanded freedom to be what they were. And some of them are—well, see the above.
“Look, Tom,” Tyler said, “there are some bad guys in here. And the good guys don’t always sound nice, either.”
Suzie added, “But do let us prattle, luv. Your job is to take the ear-bashing from those gits who don’t understand that you are not us.”
“Oh, that’s peachy. You guys are en route the Ounta-Kadiis League. I’m here on 21st century Terra, explaining to friends and relatives why Captain-Judge Carman uses language that would get him thrown off the bench in any court system in America. He sounds like Donald Trump backstage at a beauty pageant.”
“You can handle it,” Tyler said. “If the morality trolls arrest you for sacrilegious and salacious content, call us via Apexcom.”
“If writing authentically still feels a bit dodgy,” Suzie said, “I’ll update your ethical sub-routines for the whole Series. Standard rates apply.”
Well, maybe they’ll give me a discount. My Galactic Credits account at the Bank of Rahjen is running on empty.
The Pleasure of Writing
All whining aside, writing this book was a flight of joy. Some sadness, too. And the story continues when Tyler reunites with brother J.B. in Star Lawyers Book 5 – The Stellar Light Conspiracy.
Look for it in late winter, March 2019. (I’m not promising Book 5 will be done by then. But look for it.)
And we’re aiming for the release of Star Lawyers Origins 2 – Bad Moon Rising by February.
Feel free to rave about the series to friends and loved ones.
PS: I’ve been contacted by Podium about the possibility of bringing out all the Star Lawyers books as a professionally narrated audio book series. More about that when the details are firmed up. As Rodney Rooney would say, “Wowzers!”
Giving Thanks for Humans, Aliens, All of the Above
Thanksgiving Blog ( Somewhat Preachy, but Non-sectarian)
This is Thanksgiving week in the USA. Yet, today serious problems linger in our world, making it harder to find something meaningful to say at the Thanksgiving table. Donald trump is president of the United States, and he seems determined to alienate friends of democracy and hearten the enemies of freedom. The world is, in biblical terms, “a house divided.”
And not just among nations, too often closer to home. At home, actually.
Capital of the World
In his short story, “Capital of the World,” Ernest Hemingway illustrated how the far “House Divided” reaches.The story, based on an old Spanish tale, was set in Madrid. A father and his son, Paco, had a terrible argument, and the son left home. When the father cooled down he tried to find Paco. He searched all his familiar hang-outs for months with no success. Finally, in desperation, the father turned to the newspaper for help. His ad simply read, “Dear Paco, meet me in front of this newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your father.” On the appointed Saturday, eight hundred young men named Pacoshowed up, every one of them looking for forgiveness and love from their estranged fathers.
Well, it’s just a story…or is it?
The world is a house divided
The world is a house divided. Every town and village is filled with people who desperately long for reconciliation—with each other, and with themselves.
Too many children grow with family quarrels and regular conflict as the normal daily fare. Not just domestic violence or abusive behavior—all of which is a form of pathology—but ordinary, nonviolent families will fight. We writers count on it. What would a sitcom be without screaming arguments later resolved?
Okay, let’s face it: when you live with other people, sometimes you’re going to disappoint them. And sometimes they’re going to disappoint you. We used to say, “A man’s home is his castle.”Anybody who’s lived long enough knows how quickly a domestic castle can settle into a four-season pattern of siege warfare.
Sometimes, we feel separated
Sometimes, we feel separated from even our closest loved ones. It’s the price you pay for the privilege of having a human body. Unless you’re an empath—like Esteban Solorio in my Star Lawyers series–you’re inside your head, they’re inside theirs. And it seems the longer you live with someone, the more you know about them, the less likely you are to actually listen to what they have to say. The little daily squabbles inside your domestic castle, especially with children, can teach you quickly that just because you have a castle doesn’t make you an absolute monarch.
People you love occasionally disappoint you
May I reveal a secret of the ages here, for anyone who hasn’t realized it yet?People you love occasionally disappoint you, just as you occasionally disappoint them. It isn’t because they don’t love you. It isn’t moral failure. It’s just the nature of the human psyche. People have bad days. People get lazy about things you passionately care about. And they don’t always know what you care passionately about, regardless how long you’ve been sharing the refrigerator. You’re not Cousin Esteban. Nobody is inside your head but you.
How much better to delete all moral and ethical subroutines from the circumstances which make you crazy? (Hint: When the kids forget to take out the garbage, it’s not for the express purpose of driving you stark raving mad.) Many people live in a house divided, but this week marks a pause when families gather. Thanksgiving. reconciliation is possible. The image of God—whatever god you acknowledge–is available in each person. Even your kids and that asshole boss you work for.
Our homes can be a house divided
Our homes can be a house divided. Family conflicts are commonplace, but also conflicts at work. Turf wars, disloyalty and deception, infighting and passive aggressive behavior can waste time and keep a business from realizing its true potential. Believe it or not, there is scientific evidence that cooperation (even among assholes) brings substantial benefit to all.
At a county fair, the townspeople held a horse-pulling contest. The first-place horse ended up moving a sled weighing 4,500 pounds. The second-place finisher pulled 4,000 pounds. The owners of the two horses decided to see what these horses could pull together. They hitched them up and found that the team could move 12,000 pounds. By working separately, the two horses were good for only 8,500 pounds. When coupled together, their synergism produced an added 3,500 pounds. It’s a hard lesson for us, but unity of purpose consistently produces greater results than individual efforts. Teamwork divides the effort and multiplies the effect.
And it goes beyond the workplace. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and nationalism…the environmental abuse of the Earth, too. If we feel separate from and superior to nature, as if we are floating on top of the ecosystem—walking paved streets, cruising along on asphalt roads, never touching the soil of the planet from which we evolved—how much easier it is to suck all the oil and fossil fuels from the veins of the Earth, like energy vampires? If we are alienated from our organic link to Mother Earth, why should we care if global warming melts the icecaps, or the barrier reefs and rain forests disappear, or the oceans are fished out, or species after species of land animals, fish, and birds go extinct?
And as a sci-fi writer, I tremble for the ecosystems we might despoil on Earth-like worlds yet to be discovered.
Yet, there is reason to hope
Yet, there is reason to hope. Responsible scientists are working on the problem, even if we can’t seem to get the President of the United States to admit that global warming even exists.
And there is the tree of Nagasaki. After the atomic bomb was dropped, scientists predicted nothing would grow there for decades. Yet, the plants came back rather quickly. More astonishingly, a slender sapling survived the blast and is today a great tree which puts out new leaves every year.
Halfway around the globe in the jungles of Africa, naturalist Jane Goodall carries a leaf with her from the lone tree of Nagasaki as she goes about her work with the chimpanzees in Tanzania. Jane Goodall says one of her reasons for hope is nature’s amazing resilience, which the Nagasaki leaf symbolizes to her.
So, thinking of all of the above this Thanksgiving, let’s envision a better world, where humanity comes together as one people, and voyages to the stars as mature adults who respect all cultures and protect all ecosystems, regardless of how exotic or alien.
Cooperation and love “trump” egomania and hate
Let’s send a message to the people in our lives that—regardless of the pathologically bad model shoved at us by Donald Trump’s abusive, ignorant, political reality show—cooperation and love “trump” egomania and hate, on every world in the Cosmos. Terra included. We want to reconcile, not alienate.
What mysterious gifts are people hiding within them?
Passing people in the street, I sometimes wonder—as a writer and student of humanity—what mysterious gifts are people hiding within them?
True, people carry burdens and sorrows, sometimes almost beyond bearing, and there are real villains loose in the world, who choose to harm others for reasons beyond our current understandings. But if there are secret evil doers, surely the other kind of person—the secret good-doer, the person of kindness and appreciation for life. I suspect these folks are way more typical.
A true story from Southeast Asia takes this thought to a deeper level
Nobody knew how long the stucco Buddha had sat in the courtyard outside one of the Temples. In Thailand there are many, many Buddhas . All over Asia, for that matter. This particular Buddha had sat outside the grounds of a Wat, or Temple for so many years that people didn’t know where it came from. He was covered in clay stucco, about 15 feet (4.5 m) tall, the fairly typical image of Buddha sitting in the lotus position, eyes open, with a little half-smile on his face.
The stucco Buddha withstood Thailand’s political and social changes and weathered monsoon rains for generation after generation. In modern times, foreign visitors frequently posed beside the sacred image. Sometimes they overstepped the bounds—put hats on his head, or threw an arm around the good old Buddha like he was their good ‘ol buddy, culturally insensitive acts that can get a tourist arrested in some countries. Kids left candy wrappers in his lap. Other people brought flower and fruit offerings to the Buddha, or just paused to meditate before the image of Gautama Siddhartha, the Enlightened One.
And the Buddha kept smiling, as though guarding some deep secret, right in the midst of life.
Then the city of Bangkok decided to build a highway
Then the city of Bangkok decided to build a highway right through the courtyard where the Buddha sat. The Enlightened One got an eviction notice. The government was actually quite accommodating and offered heavy-lift equipment to move the stucco Buddha indoors.
The monks realized this would be good for the statue, too. Inside the Wat the Buddha could be venerated by the faithful and photographed by tourists in a more controlled way. After all, even though it was poorly constructed, the Buddha was centuries old and deserved to retire with dignity.
When the government crane began hoisting the stucco Buddha, the massive statue began to crack. To make matters worse, rain started to fall on the split stone. The head monk temporarily halted the project and ordered the workers to lower the Buddha to the ground and throw a canvas tarp over the big idol.
The workers went home and once more the Buddha sat alone in the rain outside the Temple, conspicuously hidden under a weatherproof shroud.
Something shining in the light beam
Sometime in the night the head monk decided to check on whether the cracked statue had deteriorated in the rain. He focused a flashlight under the tarp to see how dry it was. When the beam touched the crack a tiny glimmer radiated back at him. Removing the tarp, the monk examined the crack and found there definitely was something shining in the light beam.
So, he fetched a hammer and chisel and tapped at the stucco, which crumbled away, revealing more gleaming surface. After hours of work in the darkness, the dawn rose over a sight which had not been seen for nearly three centuries: a solid gold, 15-foot Buddhaweighing 5.5 tons.
The Buddha was cast from the gold
Scholars later suggested that Thai monks in the fifteenth century smelted gold to cast the Buddha. Three hundred years later another generation of monks desperately wanted to protect their beloved golden idol from an invading Burmese army. They secretly coated their divine treasure with clay in order to disguise it.
Apparently, they did their work too well. After the monks all died in that eighteenth century invasion, nobody knew what had happened to the golden Buddha… or had a clue about the true identity of this rather ordinary mud-stucco model in the now-deserted monastery. Later, when Bangkok was built, the statue was moved into the city and left outside a deserted temple. And the solid gold Buddha had been hiding in plain sight ever since.
How many people hide great, deep, incredible gifts under a rather ordinary coating of flesh and bone?
Now the question I sometimes myself ask is this: How many people do you pass on the street every day who are, in reality, solid Gold Buddha’s in disguise? How many people hide great, deep, incredible gifts under a rather ordinary coating of flesh and bone?
I encourage all my sci-fi writer friends (and their readers) to think about alien cultures and human beings through this lens.
Just a few thoughts from a true believer in spacefaring, alien civilizations, who nevertheless wonders, with Physicist Enrico Fermi:
“Where are they?”
What are the odds that we are alone in the Cosmos?
Let’s put it this way…
Las Vegas wouldn’t take the bet…
Astronomer Carl Sagan
AstronomerCarl Sagan: “With a third or a half a trillion stars in our Milky Way Galaxy alone, could ours be the only one accompanied by an inhabited planet?”
“How much more likely it is that technical civilizations are a cosmic commonplace, that the Galaxy is pulsing and humming with advanced societies, and, therefore, that the nearest culture is not so very far away…”
“Perhaps when we look up at the sky at night, near one of those faint pin-points of light is a world on which someone quite different from us is then glancing idly at a star we call the Sun and entertaining, for just a moment, an outrageous speculation.”
Sagan said a conservative estimate of the number of advanced civilizations in our galaxy alone runs into the millions.
Billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars…
The likelihood that Earth is the only inhabited world in that vast ocean of galaxies is incomprehensibly slight.
But let’s dispense with the lingering UFO issues…
The “Postage Stamp” Theory
The Cosmos is so vast that space-faring aliens might never find us.
But assuming our world has been visited sometime in the past—when could it have happened?
Let the Empire State Building represent the geological age of the Earth, about 4.5 billion years.
On the top of the Empire State Building, place a 12-inch (30.48 cm) ruler.
This represents how long our humanoid ancestors have walked the earth.
On the top of the ruler, place a dime, flat.
This represents recorded history since about 7,000 B.C.E.
On top of the dime, slap a postage stamp.
The postage stamp represents “modern” times, about 500 yrs, 16th – 21st centuries.
If we have been visited it was likely sometime way down on the 10th floor, or the 87th floor.
Separated from us by hundreds of millions or perhaps even billions of years.
Pale Blue Dot
In 1990, Astronomer Carl Sagan convinced mission controllers to turn the Voyager I cameras homeward and snap a picture of Earth.
Some scientists considered it a frivolous request, but the photo has become one of the best-known symbols of humanity’s place in the Cosmos.
“That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives.
“The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.”
If all those UFO sightings are valid…
Either we’re astride a major traffic lane or they’ve decided humans are fun to watch.
Isn’t it more likely that our neighbors haven’t found us yet?
Could you pick up the right grain of sand, out of all the beaches and deserts on Earth, surface to bedrock?
So, let’s celebrate Discovery Day in advance. One day, one of our descendants will make First Contact with an alien civilization.
I’m secretly hoping some of my brothers and sisters who write sci-fi have guessed wrong about everybody shooting up the galaxy out there, a la the 19thcenturyAmerican Wild West or current Afghanistan, pick your favorite analogy.
So, let’s boldly go their through the avenues of imagination, with firm belief our great-grandchildren—or theirs—will crew the first human starships and find friends/foes to contact in whatever manner is appropriate.
The motto of my Star Lawyers series seems to be, “Trust in galactic civilization, but go out there packing…”
Why is light better than dark as a cultural metaphor? The symbol of light as the Divine presence usually gets by without examination, yet, as I grow older, other parts of my day have begun to show the signature of goodness. Not just dawn, but sunset. Not merely light, but darkness. Ask yourself—what makes light a symbol of protection and dark a symbol of danger in so many parts of the world? The light-vs.-darkness metaphor travels cross-culturally among languages. From pale Scandinavians to the dark peoples who live nearer the equator, walking in the light brings contact with the divine presence while wandering in darkness often means separation from the good, safe path.
Not always. Taoism offers its central symbol of the Yin-Yang, a ball equally divided between dark (yin) and light (yang), with a dot of the opposite quality inside each curved half. No superiority of light over dark here, just two complimentary expressions which summarize life.
Other spiritual masters speak positively of dark. Jesus told his disciples to retreat into a (dark?) closet, find quiet space, and commune with God. Muhammad had his cave, presumably without lighting. Even Buddha lingered among the shadows of the Bodhi tree before reaching his insights about the Four Noble Truths. Arguably, silent communion and darkness go together naturally, or why would we close our eyes to pray and lower the lights for meditation? Even Vulcans aboard United Federation of Planets starships meditate by candlelight.
Fifth century mystic Pseudo-Dionysius perhaps came as close as human tongues can get us:
As far as possible mount up with knowledge into union with the One who is above all being and knowledge; for by freeing thyself completely and unconditionally from thyself and from all things, thou shalt come to the superessential brightness of the divine darkness.
(Thomas W. Shepherd, Friends in High Places, 3rd edition (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse Books, 2006), 55.)
The Young Raccoon
I love the Dionysian language, superessential brightness of the divine darkness. A few years ago, reading that passage started me thinking about what all people have in common in regard to light and dark. As I pondered, an incident from the past floated to mind. In 1987 I was completing my last full year as an Army Chaplain. Carol-Jean and I had just returned from a three-year assignment in Europe, and we were living temporarily in Post Guest House facilities at Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey, until regular housing became available.
Early one Saturday morning we took a walk around the periphery of the smallish Army base. As we strolled along, Carol-Jean noticed a small furry head jutting from the chain-link fence. It was a young raccoon who had tried to squeeze through the fence but got himself stuck.
He had been at it a while and looked exhausted. But he grew agitated as we approach. Carol-Jean knelt down and spoke softly to him, and the little guy drifted off to sleep. While she cooed the baby ‘coon, I flagged down a passing patrol car.
Of course, the NJ police cruiser flipped on its flashing lights and a gun-toting, smoky-bear policeman got out to offer assistance. When the nice, scary officer came to the fence, the little raccoon panicked, so I gently shook the chain links.
Fortunately, the little fellow was able to extricate his trapped head and stumbled under the nearby bushes, homeward bound after a long night. The story remains a Shepherd family classic, how CJ soothed the savage baby beast until mean ol’ Chaplain Tom shook him loose.
Broad Daylight, the Darkness of the Raccoon
We’ve laughed about this encounter for years. But I recently realized why it was so traumatic for the raccoon, even without the flashing lights and armed policeman. Raccoons are nocturnal. Yet, there he was, trapped in broad daylight, totally exposed and surrounded by danger. Humans, on the other hand, are diurnal, like the coyote, desert bighorn sheep, antelope, squirrel, and most eagles.
We sleep in the dark and work in the day. Darkness spells danger to diurnal animals like us. Humans quickly learned the night was full of creatures who might try to eat them—nocturnal hunters, like leopards, lions and tigers.
Look at our literature. European fairy tales show a recurrent theme: Don’t go into the dark woods alone, or the big bad wolf or wicked witch or something bad will eat you! But how would an intelligent, nocturnal species look at life?
Working the Night Shift
I’m currently writing Star Lawyers Book 4 – House of the Silent Moons. However, in my notes for the yet-untitled Star Lawyers Book 5, Tyler Matthews and his bioenergetic fiancé Suzie meet their first nocturnal space-faring species.
Captain-Father Urlis Tarkamin is both commander and chief priest of a starship manned by Eldirex, a rabbit-like species. Tarkamin ends a dinner he’s hosted for Tyler and Suzie with this benediction: “May the blessings of Holy Darkness descend upon you with its gloom of protection.”
The Universe is a vast, amazing habitat. Humanity has yet to meet any life form beyond this pale blue marble called Earth. When we do, I’m betting at least some of them will work the night shift.
“Raise the Jolly Roger, an’ go to FTL,me hearties!”
Yeah, pirates in the movies are campy, stereotyped, and ridiculous. But will real space outlaws be out there some day, laying in wait for fat ships to board?
The word for today:“Avast, Ye Scurvy Dogs!”
(Teaching point from retired professor: Nobody spoke like that, except a few dozen Hollywood buccaneers in the 1950s.)
Professional Space Bandits
My introduction to professional space bandits was the low-budget, “comic science fiction” motion picture, The Ice Pirates (1980).The opening scenes were provocative enough to make me eager for the plot to develop. Buccaneers in space ships, attacking ice freighters to steal the most valuable resource in the galaxy, dihydrogen oxide, a.k.a., water. Back in the 80s, most scientists thought water was a rare commodity, and our big blue marble, with three-fifths of its surface covered by oceans, marked a stunning exception to the rule. So, yeah. Steal the ice, It’s rare and hella valuable.
Ice is not rare
Except its not. In our solar system alone, outer planet gas giants have several large, cold moons orbiting them with vast amounts of water under the permanently frozen surface. “It is estimated that Europa has an outer layer of water around 100 km (62 mi) thick; a part frozen as its crust, and a part as a liquid ocean underneath the ice.” That would give Jupiter’s moon three times more water than all the oceans on earth combined.”And Saturn’s moon, Titan, plus even poor, demoted Pluto may have hidden oceans below. Turns out, water is plentiful throughout the Cosmos. There are vast clouds of it in distant galaxies.
Okay…that’s quibbling. The point is, the Ice Pirates concept quickly got shanghaied by terrible screenplay writing, which deteriorated from a potentially good story to a badly plotted farce that Mel Brooks would’ve rejected as neither funny nor adventurous.
Piracy in the Modern Era
The idea of piracy in a modern world resurfaced after the murderous, for-profit attacks on shipping by Somalian gunmen, called pirates by modern media. We say, “No! They are bad guys, not Johnny Depp trying to get drunk and/or laid and keep his captaincy against hordes of un-dead…” But despite its popularity, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise presents another series of farces that might’ve been better as a real buccaneering story with comic overtones but without the botched attempts at fantasy. And it never touches the criminal aspects of piracy and its toll on the innocent.
Pirates—true pirates—were not loveable rogues like Jack Sparrow. They were generally far worse than the thugs who board unarmed merchant ships off the horn of Africa to seize cargo and take prisoners for ransom; and they often acted despicably toward their captives.
I just finished reading Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Piratesby Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger. The Barbary Coast War in the opening decades of the 19th century happened because European powers were paying off North African privateers sailing under the authority of local rulers and attacking, enslaving, and robbing every nation who was not meeting their demands for annual tribute.
The USA was a new country and couldn’t afford the extortion, and when sailors and civilians were imprisoned in slave labor camps for years while the new democracy figured out what to do, the pirates kept up their reign of terror. Finally, peace-loving Thomas Jefferson was so fed up with the attacks on civilian shipping he bludgeoned the Congress to fund new ships and sent a small flotilla into the Mediterranean. The US Marine Corps Hymn celebrates their achievement in a single line of the opening stanza, “To the shores of Tripoli…”
Actual corsairs, not the Hollywood fantasy creatures, came in two basic types, which had nothing to do with how they treated prisoners.
Privateers sailed with the blessings of some recognizable government, which chartered their maritime adventures against adversary nations and often allowed them to rape women passengers, pillage and plunder the ships, and enslave anyone on the vessel. They also took the captured ships as prizes of war, to be sold or converted into more attack ships.
Pirates (a.k.a., buccaneers) were beholden to no one but themselves. They often had complex societies with codes of behavior and ruling councils. Believe it or not, they usually functioned democratically. This was because anybody who didn’t agree with the group decisions could (and did) jump ship and rejoin ordinary life, subject to recognition by non-pirates who promptly tried and hanged them when discovered. They were not happy-go-lucky, Captain Jack Sparrow-types. Nor were they forced to a life of piracy by tyrannous governments. They were rapacious, murdering thieves and were treated accordingly when apprehended by legitimate authorities.1
Piracy in the Future
So, assuming humans discover how to travel Faster Than Light and set up colony worlds and commerce with alien civilizations, will we find pirates or privateers lurking out there, awaiting a good payday by waylaying lightly defended merchant ships?
Of course not, some might say, it could never happen. When we go to the stars, people will be more enlightened, better self-disciplined, and disinterested in personal profit.
Unfortunately, humanity has proven to be remarkably resistant to peaceful ways. When inner city youth gangs defend their territory and earn profits through drug sales, armed robbery, and other extra-legal means, are they responding to the ancient drive within our species to “dominate or be dominated” as the motto of the old Parvian Republic says? (Star Lawyers, Book 4 – House of the Silent Moons, work in progress).
Pirates have plagued shipping on Earth since before the days of Julius Caesar. As a boy, Caesar was captured and held for ransom by Mediterranean pirates. The brigands were amused when young Julius told them that, when he was free, he would return and wipe them out to the last man. They weren’t laughing when he came back with a fleet and kept his promise.
While there were solitary corsairs, many organized themselves into groups whose efficiency at plunder fell somewhere between street gangs and the mafia. Their driving force wasn’t cruelty—although they often plied their trade with brutality and utter disregard for the well-being of their captives. It was personal profit. When the well-known bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he infamously replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” Won’t the same be true when convoys carrying goods or passengers between star systems present an appealing target for men (or women) with fast ships and few scruples?
I assume the space pirates scenario is at least plausible, because it supports the main storyline in Star Lawyers – Book 4 – House of the Silent Moons. (Work in progress. Release target: Oct-Nov., 2018.) While writing the book, I am trying to create memorable characters with a bit of the “Avast ye scurvy dogs!” attitude without using those silly, stereotypical words. And I’m struggling to understand how organize gangs of thieves—like the Somalian pirates—view the world in which they ply their trade.
They do it because they’re bad people
It’s too easy to say, “They do it because they’re bad people.” Nobody is born a bad person, but some of us choose behaviors which can be objectively described as anti-social, even while participating in a sociopathic subculture (gangs, pirate crews, jihadists, the KKK) which is far from the mainstream and harmful to innocent bystanders. The question of what makes someone do “bad” things has yet to find a satisfactory answer. My books wrestle with the gray areas and even the “good guys” do things which result in harm to others.
I’ve never wanted to harm another person. I specifically volunteered to fly Medical Evacuation helicopters in Vietnam to avoid being the agent of death. Yet, when I was shot down on the Laotian border in 1971, I found myself on the Ho Chi Minh trail with a .38 revolver as my only weapon. There were several moments when I thought the “enemy” was coming and I pulled the pistol and realized, unlike Gandhi, I could kill in the “right” circumstances Fortunately, I never had to fire, and the American soldiers whose wounded I was trying to extract protected my crew and me until we could climb to a landing zone and get picked up by another Medevac helicopter.
The human family is full of heroes and predators
There are people who would never shoot, even to save their lives. And there are people who kill to gain wealth or personal power. The human family is full of heroes and predators. It is this mixed, contradictory consciousness we will one day take to the stars.
I am not certain there will be vast wars among alien races in which humans will find themselves targets and shooters. But I am certain that all the complex factors at play throughout our history on this planet will travel with us into the Cosmos. And I suspect other sentient races share this struggle between the angels and devils in their consciousness. It’s the price of free will.
So, dodge the pirates, touch down upon alien worlds, go forth among new species, and expect to be surprised. And remember to lock your parked starship.
 The lone exception might be French hunters living on the tiny Caribbean island of Tortuga in the 1630s. The Spanish drove most French forces from the area and tried to evict the French-speaking Tortuga settlers by systematically killing off the island’s game animals. The settlers resorted to piracy to make a living.
A few thoughts about an alien culture you know quite well… your kids and their music!
Free of Prejudice… but…
Today’s young people are remarkably free of prejudice, with one ominous exception: All kids—regardless of race, color, creed, religious preference, or sexual orientation—are rabid music bigots. Rap, Hip-hop, Grunge, Thrash Metal, Pop, C&W, Rock, or Punk, they’re all tooting for the home team and booing for the infidels beyond the true music community.
Do you doubt? Mention Country music to an R&B fan. You’ll deserve the torrent of verbal abuse you’re sure to suffer for such foolhardiness. Metalheads gag at Rap; Hip-Hop lovers tremble at the first notes of a Rock ballad; Country Rock’ers sneer at Salsa. The intolerance is universal and borders on self-righteousness.
Music bigotry, a fascinating cultural trait
As a former public schoolteacher who loves working with teenagers, I always found their musical zealotry a fascinating cultural trait. Kids, who never raised an eyebrow when I described the nuclear holocaust their generation narrowly avoided, become incensed when I put The Nashville Network on the classroom television. Other kids—the Garth Brooks crowd—grew sullen when I switched to BET or MTV.
The generational divide
However, a few years into my teaching career at a Middle School in Georgia, I found a way to unite them in a musical cause. While my students were writing essays or taking tests, I played my music: Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi. At first, they didn’t believe their ears. “Nobody listens to this kind of music!” their eyes told me. One young man put his forehead on the desk and moaned softly.
I decided some instruction was in order. “This was the popular music of the day,” I said as James Galway piped selections from The Magic Flute. Their eyes told me they didn’t believe it. So, I jumped forward two centuries and switched to ragtime. Scott Joplin’s ”Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer,” then other old favorites like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Tiger Rag.”
I hopped decades again. Big bands. Swing. Jitterbug. “This was wildly popular among young people, but their parents hated it.” My students sat up as Harry James’ orchestra wailed “Two O’clock Jump,” which I told them was recorded March 6, 1939. Their original assignment forgotten, my 13-year-old audience tapped their toes in time with Jimmy Dorsey’s “Parade of the Milk Bottle Caps.” Soon, Cab Calloway had them swinging to “Minnie the Moocher,” and the Andrews Sisters almost bounced them out of their seats with “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
When the class was over and I stopped the music, there were groans—of disappointment! A rap-loving student raised his hand. “Yo, Mr. Shepherd. Did the parents of kids way back then really hate this old junk?” Laughter.
“Completely,” I said. “But that always happens. You should have heard what my mother’s generation called Elvis.” More laughter.
“Why, Mr. Shepherd?” the student said. “I mean, this music—no offense—it’s totally whacked, you know, but harmless.”
“It’s a rule of the Universe,” I explained. “Every generation selects its music specifically to offend the previous generation. It’s one of the few weapons you have.”
As they marched from my classroom, I heard somebody humming a few bars of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” I smiled, but didn’t say what I was really thinking: These gangsta-rapping, head-banging, country-rocking kids have a terrible price to pay at the hands of the next generation.
If there’s any justice in the Cosmos, their kids will love Mozart.