Ode to the End

Ode to the End

This week…a little poetry – Ode to the End –  instead of the usual brilliant analysis and insightful reflection.

Ode to the End

(Or, “Thank you for visiting the Universe. The lights will go out in 100 trillions years. Please exit promptly.”)

Me an’ you an’ the Milky Way

All must go our inevitable way,

Nothing’s permanent, nothing stays,

All things have their end of days,

No matter the priestly rate we pay,

Nor all-knowing god to Whom we pray,

The stars go out, we turn to clay;

It isn’t personal, just the way

This rolling reality must outplay,

But to the frozen Dark I say

At the End of Time, yes, win you may—

But not today,

Not today.

Infinitely? Definitely.

But not today.

Tom Shepherd

Tucson, AZ

Thanksgiving: Giving Thanks for Humans, Aliens, All of the Above

Thanksgiving Hope Collaboration

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 Paco showed 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.

Paco, come home. All is forgiven…

Tom Shepherd

Tucson, AZ

Message from a Stucco Buddha

Wat Traimit Golden Buddha

Message from a Stucco Buddha

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 Buddha weighing 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?

Today it sits in Wat Traimit (Temple of The Solid Gold Buddha).  Some art historians consider the Gold Buddha to be the most valuable sacred object in the world.

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.

Tom Shepherd

Tucson, AZ

Alien Civilizations and The Postage Stamp Theory

Postage Stamp

Alien Civilizations and The Postage Stamp Theory

Where are they?

Just a few thoughts from a true believer in spacefaring, alien civilizations, who nevertheless wonders, with Physicist Enrico Fermi:

Alien Civilization

“Where are they?”

What are the odds that we are alone in the Cosmos?

Bio-Diversity on Alien Worlds

Let’s put it this way…

 

Las Vegas wouldn’t take the bet…

Astronomer Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan - Astronomer
Carl Sagan – Astronomer

Astronomer Carl 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…”

Night Sky

“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

A Galaxy

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?

Empire State Building
Empire State Building

Let the Empire State Building represent the geological age of the Earth, about 4.5 billion years.

 

 

 

 

 


Ruler
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.
Dime

 

On the top of the ruler, place a dime, flat.

This represents recorded history since about 7,000 B.C.E.

 

 

 

 

 

Postage Stamp

On top of the dime, slap a postage stamp.

 

The postage stamp represents “modern” times, about 500 yrs, 16th – 21st centuries.

 

 

 

Empire State Building
Empire State Building

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.

Pale Blue Dot“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.”

Carl Sagan

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 19th century American 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…”

See you aboard the Patrick Henry soon!

Dr. Tom

Tucson, AZ

Knife Fight at Olathe-5

Jump Gate Omega (Star Lawyers Book 1) and Forbidden Sanctuary (Star Lawyers Book 2) and The Blue King Murders (Star Lawyers Book 3) are live. If you didn’t read it yet, the prequel to the series is also available and you can Download my free short story here!

You can also learn more about me in the about section of this website.

 

Light vs. Dark : Lesson from a Young Raccoon

Raccoon in the Night - No Light

Light vs. Dark : Lesson from a Young Raccoon

Light vs. Dark…

Light vs. Dark

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.

Complimentary expressions

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.

Tom Shepherd

Tuscon, AZ

4 September 2018

A Few Thoughts about Space Pirates

Space Pirates

A Few Thoughts about Space Pirates

“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 Pirates by 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

For more about pirates and privateers, I recommend The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates by Peter T. Leeson. (No, it is NOT an economics textbook, just a crummy subtitle.)

Don’t forget your free copy of the Star Lawyers prequel short-story, “Knife-Fight at Olathe-5”, because the hapless asteroid miner, Bertie Winther, will reappear in House of the Silent Moons.

“Dr. Tom”

Tucson, AZ

28 August 2018

[1] 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.

Knife Fight at Olathe-5

Jump Gate Omega (Star Lawyers Book 1) and Forbidden Sanctuary (Star Lawyers Book 2) and The Blue King Murders (Star Lawyers Book 3) are live. If you didn’t read it yet, the prequel to the series is also available and you can Download my free short story here!

You can also learn more about me in the about section of this website.

Know Any Music Bigots?

Music Genres

Know Any Music Bigots?

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.

Radical music

“This was so radical that sermons were preached against it,” I told them, switching to Dixieland. “Bill Bailey,” “Darktown Strutters Ball,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and the over-played “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Somebody recognized “Sweet Georgia Brown” as the Harlem Globetrotters’ theme. But they still looked dazed, confused. Could this have been the heavy metal or gansta rap of the past? No way!

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.

Dr. Tom

Tucson, AZ

A little Bio-Diversity, Please!

Bio-Diversity on Alien Worlds

A little Bio-Diversity, Please!

A blogger’s plea for complicated ecosystems, climate zones, and cultures on hab worlds. A little Bio-Diversity, Please!

The word for today: Bio-Diversity

Bio-Diversity in Sci-Fi

I love Star Wars, but Lucas went off the rails when designing the backdrop for the central action in the original three films (now 4, 5 & 6). Not counting the mechanical planetoid of the Death Star, we get the desert planet Tatooine, the ice planet Hoth, the Cloud City of eternally overcast Bespin, and the forest moon of Endor. The only earth-like planet of the original trilogy, Alderaan, appears briefly in the cross-hairs of the Death Star before foppish Governor Wilhuff Tarkin blows it to smithereens. To mix in a little Trek lingo, was this a message? “No M-class planets need apply!”

Studies of habitability suggest no “higher” (i.e., sentient) life forms could originate on any of the planets Lucas allows to coexist with the humanoid Death Star makers. Desert worlds lack the basic life ingredient, water. Ice planets might have water (unless it’s frozen CO2), but eternal winters are simply too cold for anything but lichens or fungi. And life evolving on planets requiring floating Cloud Cities—really? That’s like Neil Armstrong landing on the moon in 1969, hopping out of his spacecraft, and looking for the nearest Starbucks. (They weren’t founded until 1971. NASA still awaits the first Lunar drive-thru.) And although forest moons like Endor might evolve simple life and maybe animals, the habitat lacks seasonal variability, which challenges a developing species to increase its brain size and invent tools and technologies in other to survive. Ewoks used stone-age weapons. Effectively, yes. But still… you know… primitive.

Climate, Biology and Cultural Diversity

What can be said about climate and biology can be multiplied to the Nth degree about alien cultures. (I never understood the need for math-speak in that Nth business. Why not just say a helluva lot?) Let’s talk about why sci-fi aliens often sit on chairs, eat at tables, and have an alcoholic beverage after a hard day of planning to invade of humanity’s homeworld.

Look at the diversity of Earth cultures. (Caveat: Sweeping generalizations follow. Let’s stipulate that exceptions exist and continue, please.)

First example, bathroom facilities. In multiple Asian cultures, sit down toilets do not exist. People squat over floor-installed porcelain toilet bowls or some other aperture to do their business. They consider the Western habit of sitting on a toilet seat—especially one frequented by strangers—to be incredibly unsanitary, and they are right. I have seen Asians on US Military bases adapt to our sit-down latrines by mounting the toilet and squatting on the seat. For real.

In some Asian cultures people remove shoes at the door and sit on the floor. Mats or thick rugs are common. Low tables hold food and drink. Speaking of food, Sri Lankans eat with their fingers, even rice. (They got a spoon for me, because they are Buddhists and amazingly kindhearted.)

In my Series

House of the Silent Moons

An extreme example of cultural differences: Japanese traditionalists will sit seiza, like this excerpt from my work-in-progress, Star Lawyers Book 4 -House of the Silent Moons:

They slapped neural cuffs on Rodney and Suzie and led them at blaster-point onto the deck. After winding through corridors and up turbo-lifts, guards herded them into a suite marked 将軍. Not surprisingly to Suzie, those were the kanji for Shōgun. A fusuma, or sliding paper door, opened onto a large room in the traditional washitsu style. Straw composite tatami mats held low tables.

Hideki Tsuchiya sat at a table in the center of the room in the traditional seiza manner—legs folded under thighs, buttocks resting on the heels, ankles turned outward, hands folded modestly in his lap. Tsuchiya was flanked by four armed warriors, also resting at seiza, whose leather belts bore kinetic sidearms and traditional swords—long bladed katana and shorter wakizashi.

Tsuchiya chose only the long and short swords.

“Miss London, Lieutenant Rooney. Will you honor me with a moment of your time?” Tsuchiya said expressionlessly.

Rodney spoke first. “How about removing these shackles?”

Of course, I’m not suggesting this is how all Japanese live or sit to receive guests. They don’t wear swords or carry blasters, obviously. (It’s a novel, gimme a break!) However, the chasm between Asian and Western norms is deep and wide, even to the inexpressive remarks of their host, who does not want to lose face by showing emotion to an adversary.

If that kind of diversity exists on our home planet, what will it be like when we enter First Contact with a species like the blue Quirt-Thymeans in my novels, who eat six meals a day and fine you for skipping something trivial as Second Breakfast. Furthermore, QTs hold an annual ten-day religious festival of feasting and socializing, during which everybody is free to screw whomever he or she wants. (Yes, they are sexually compatible humanoids, albeit blue with slightly doggy-like ears.)

The Blue King Murders

Did you read that it’s a religious festival? “Impossible!” you say. “Religions are otherworldly and austere and favor sexual abstinence outside of marriage.” Ask your Hindu friends about the goddess Rati. Here’s an excerpt between J.B. Matthews and Parvati, the former holographic pleasure provider reprogrammed as the Patrick Henry’s Helmswoman, from Star Lawyers Book 3The Blue King Murders:

“This is so not like me. I was a Catholic monk, for God’s sake!” J.B. said.

“We have gods and goddess who exist to bring us sensuality. One is called Rati, the goddess of desire, lust, passion. And yes, love.”

J.B. shook his head. “I can’t believe this is happening to me.”

“Are you still a monk?”

He smiled sheepishly. “No.”

“Good, because I am no longer a whore.”

“Of course not. I’m glad. Sorry.”

Parvati laughed sweetly. “Jeremiah, in some matters, you are so very shy. I find that alluring.”

“I have no idea why.”

A classic cultural disconnect, and sometimes the differences bring more than a blush. For example, fundamentalist Muslims allow no images of the One God, or any artistic portrayals of humans or birds or animals in their Mosques or wider communities. In 2001 the Taliban destroyed the world’s two largest standing Buddhas, great artistic treasures of humanity. One of them was 165 feet (50 meters) high. They were blown up because graven images are offensive to the Divine. Islamists also have strict, one might say medieval, attitudes about controlling women and shunning literature and music which hints at sexuality.

Contrast that with the world’s oldest living religion, Hinduism. The Hindus have temples featuring carved images of their many, many deities, sometimes illustrating sexual positions of the Kamasutra in stone on those houses of worship. Sexuality is a religious path of which the Divine approves.

Can you imagine a scene in which two person from these radically different cultures—perhaps a Pakistani Muslim from Karachi and Indian Hindu from Mumbai—meet and discuss life in general? It practically writes itself.

The point is that many sci-fi writers are good students of culture and bio-diversity, but all of us need to be. Much good reference material is available online. And if you want to get serious about learning how cultures work, download or buy the CD of the “Great Courses” lecture series by David Livermore, “Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are.” Believe me, Dr. Livermore never realized how far away that “wherever” could be.

Write on, trust your gifts, and let the muse infuse you.

“Dr. Tom”

Tucson, AZ

14 August 2018

Knife Fight at Olathe-5

Jump Gate Omega (Star Lawyers Book 1) and Forbidden Sanctuary (Star Lawyers Book 2) and The Blue King Murders (Star Lawyers Book 3) are live. If you didn’t read it yet, the prequel to the series is also available and you can Download my free short story here!

You can also learn more about me in the about section of this website.

Disease from Alien Worlds? Living amongst the Stars

Alien Disease

Alien Disease

Dying of disease or indigestion under alien suns?

Blog about food, drink, and communicable disease in our journey to the stars.

The word for today is MEDICAL RESEARCH.

Admit it. You would love to swagger into a cantina on a distant world, amble to the bar, and order a big mug of Kelusian Cobalt Ale with a plate of deep-fried seafood and a side of sliced cheeses. Maybe a little Beriean bread, too. Those brown-crusted, blue-and-red baguettes taste like crunchy sourdough with a hint of salt. Yum.

And then your windpipe seizes up and you choke to death, because ale contains concentrated ethanol, and the flour for the bread comes from a local grain high in cyanide.

But don’t worry about missing the shuttle back to your ship in orbit. If you survive the toxins and poisons, you’ve already absorbed enough local pathogens—i.e., harmful bacteria, fungi, and viruses—to kill you twenty times over, so you’d only contaminate your shipmates and spread death at whatever ports you next disembark.

How serious can the threat be? I mean, space-faring travelers in sci-fi movies pay almost no attention to the dangers of contracting and passing along killer, alien diseases, like the Andromeda Strain.

Decontamination after Space Flight

But actual astronauts have taken space bugs very seriously. One of the least likely places where life might exist, even in microbial form, has to be the airless, radiation-blasted surface of Earth’s moon. Here’s what happened in part when Neil Armstrong and his crew arrived home.

A half-hour after splashdown, a frogman in an isolation suit passed three isolation suits through the spacecraft hatch… The astronauts’ exhalations and the frogmen’s inhalations were filtered… The astronauts climbed into a rubber boat and were scrubbed down with an iodine solution by a frogman. The astronauts, in turn, scrubbed down the frogman. After the crew had been lifted into the helicopter, the Apollo spacecraft got a similar scrubbing. The isolation garments and the scrubbing were phases of the elaborate precautions against possible, but unlikely, contamination by lunar organisms. [NASA Mission Report.]

The Danger of an Alien Disease

Think about the implications of treading upon a world with a viable biosphere. If you doubt the real danger, consult history books about what killed off the Aztecs (mumps, measles and smallpox), Incas (smallpox), and the indigenous population of the Hawaiian Islands (venereal diseases, measles, chicken pox, polio and tuberculosis).

All were European diseases, although some scholars have speculated that syphilis originated among the in the New World and returned to Europe as a real form of Moctezuma’s revenge. Those theories have been called into question in recent studies, but the point is well taken—bad news travels both directions.

How will we deal with contagious diseases “out there” without cauterizing every biosphere and replanting among the ashes? My book Star Lawyers Book – Jump Gate Omega forecasts advanced biofilters and high-tech smart-meds to prevent disease, plus the ability to enhance human immune systems to ward of alien pathogens.

Disease prevention in Space Ships

For the microbe threat, the Sioux City had a first-class set of bio-filters primed to destroy any contaminant lifeforms tracked inside the ship. That plus one good decon shower on the way home and he would be bug-free. Any danger to the local biosphere was also negligible, because onboard scrubbers killed all microbial and viral lifeforms on his clothes and body as he exited the ship. Well, that was the theory, anyway.

My contribution to the future of deep space settlement—which some scientists and ethicists say should not even be attempted, due to risks to alien biospheres and the possibility of corrupting natural selection/evolution on other worlds—is to make the repeated appeal for actual science, including speculative medical research, to be done about the problem before we sight our first big blue marble orbiting another sun.

If you’ve seen Avatar, you know there is no damned way the ethicists will hold back the tide of development on habitable worlds. My serious proposal is this: Let’s boldly go there, having done our homework, so we don’t kill off the natives or die from their diseases when M-double-I opens for business along Brightstar Curve.

“Dr. Tom”

Tucson, AZ

6 August 2018

Knife Fight at Olathe-5

Jump Gate Omega (Star Lawyers Book 1) and Forbidden Sanctuary (Star Lawyers Book 2) and The Blue King Murders (Star Lawyers Book 3) are live. If you didn’t read it yet, the prequel to the series is also available and you can Download my free short story here!

You can also learn more about me in the about section of this website.

Sexy Humanoid Aliens

Sexy Humanoid Alien

Sexy Humanoid Aliens

Sexy Humanoid Aliens—How Likely?

Most sci-fi Writing—books, teleplays and screenplays—feature humans in the lead role. Makes sense. If you want to sell dog foods you need to feature a dog in the promo. But even smart dogs can’t buy their own grub, so advertising shows attractive women or men playing with and preparing delicious vittles for their four-legged friends. Humans are hopelessly anthropocentric. Probably so with any intelligent species.

But how likely is it that future explorers will encounter sexy aliens who look like garden variety Homo sapiens, plus pointy ears and oddly tinted coloring? Sci-fi writers have succumbed to the temptation with wild abandon. The conquests of Captain James Tiberius Kirk are not limited to space combat. There was that hot scene with the green “Orion slave girl.” (James Bondage?)

Humans in the Trek universe have shared beds with Betazoids (Counselor Troi—yum!), Trills, Vulcans, Bajorans, Kazons (rejected for assimilation by the Borg—yuk!), the short-lived Ocampa, and others. It’s a plot device to inject sex and romance into the pseudo-geek-speak world of running a starship at warp speed. TNG’s Riker even flirts with a pair of Klingon female warriors, whom he jokingly offers to bed in a threesome. (You dodged a phaser blast, Will. They would have killed you with rough love.)

How possible is this? Scientists have smiled politely, like visiting scholars watching a third grade Halloween pageant, then issued condescending disclaimers about the impossibility of finding human-like species in large numbers, if we ever did develop the scientifically impossible, faster-than-light technologies needed “to boldly go” where nobody’s ever gone before. (They might even mention the split infinite.)

Alien Life will be… well.. alien

After all, alien life out there will be… well… alien. To paraphrase 20th century thinker Arthur Eddington, it will be stranger than we are capable of imagining. Okay, let’s play with that thought a little. We know only one habitable planet so far. Earth, sometimes called Terra in sci-fi literature. (I use both, but favor Terra.) What happened here, on the human homeworld?

Bilaterally symmetrical, bipedal creatures have developed rather profusely. Velociraptor to Homo sapiens, who were definitely not related. Some creatures, like lemurs and grizzlies, acquired optional bipedalism—front legs to help them run—but also to manipulate edibles and climb trees. Eyeballs evolved at least forty different times along unrelated evolutionary paths.

Humanoid Aliens – Why the similarities?

Because when creatures needed to navigate their world and grasp prey, front limbs became arms and hands. When they needed to see the world by visible light, evolution provided eyes in abundance.

Evolution isn’t going somewhere; it is not a program running until it produces an advanced creature. Evolution is a response to the needs of the organism, usually from environmental or demographic pressures. Limbs with hands can manipulate tools, increasing the creature’s survival options. Opposing thumbs make gripping those tools easier. Eyes, ears, and noses consolidated in a skull containing the animal’s brain make sensory input quicker, enables comparison among sounds, scents, and sights, again providing survival benefits. And placing the mouth in the head allows a two-legged creature to watch for danger while munching fruit, leaves, or prey.

Given the advantages of the five-star, humanoid shape for the development of tools and technology, is it really likely we will encounter no other species in the galaxy who are similarly configured?

Now, if we meet comely aliens who are inclined toward mixed-species dating… You might wonder whether Tab A would fit in Slot B? That’s a question of artistic license, and from the look of busty alien princesses on the covers of sci-fi literature, I think that license has not yet expired. (Thank you, Cap’n Kirk!)

In my Books

See the first volume in my new series, Star Lawyers Book 1 – Jump Gate Omega, to meet the Suryadivans, humanoid aliens who are not sexually compatible with Homo sapiens. (The blue-skinned, green-blooded, and seriously hot Empress Veraposta doesn’t appear until Book 3.)

Knife Fight at Olathe-5

Star Lawyers Book 1 – Jump Gate Omega releases June 10thmeantime, my prequel to the series is available and you can Download my free short story here!

You can also learn more about me in the about section of this website.