Assuming there are any planets out there that are capable of supporting human life – which there probably aren’t – it’s unlikely they’re going to be like the endless array of Star Trek and Stargate planets, which all look like the west coast of the US and Canada. Or all those Dr. Who planets that look like a strip mine in Wessex.
I mean think of all the variations you can have in planets: heavier gravity, lighter gravity, bigger oceans, smaller oceans, no moons, one moon, two moons, five moons, a different colored sun, the amounts of inert gasses in the air, different lengths of day and night, and a jillion other things that could be different. Ever since I started reading Larry Niven’s “Known Space” stories as a kid, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of worlds that are only marginally habitable, or otherwise bizarre.
One of the questions that’s always interested me about this is what kind of psychological effect it would have on people, both the colonists and their kids. This is a subject that seems largely overlooked in the genre. Given that we evolved for a very specific set of environments, it didn’t seem to me like you could just turn that off and accept a planet that looked like a Yes album cover, no matter how cool it might look.
I invented the planet “Gagarin.” It’s pretty similar to earth, but it’s got two moons. One is about the size of Mars, the other is about the size of our own moon. As a result the tides on Gagarin are insane – a minimum of six hundred feet – twice a day. Think about that: Mountain ranges become island chains, then go back to being mountain ranges twice a day. There’s even a tide in the air, with the pressure gradually going up and down several PSI in time with the tides. And off course there’s the local exotic stuff: plants that have hair instead of leaves, weird animals, that kind of stuff, not to mention a thing in the sky that is way huger than humans are used to expecting in the sky.
Stick with me here…
For colonists on Gagarin, I dropped rural American Southerners. There were also a good number of Russians and Chinese – also rural – but the overwhelming majority were Southerners. Why? Because Southerners were low-caste enough that no one on earth would really miss them or care if they died. Such is the way of colonists through much of history: “Let’s ship off the undesirables.” This was a one-way trip for the 750,000 people I dumped there.
Well, once they got to Gagarin there was an epidemic of suicides. It wasn’t that the place was uninhabitable. As long as you stayed well away from the waterline, it was actually more hospitable than earth. It was just that it was strange. There’s a limit to how much people can adapt to, and how quickly. Food that doesn’t taste right, air that doesn’t smell right, not bad mind you, just different. The sun is a little too small in the sky. The stars are different at night. There’s that bigass moon in the sky, feeling like it’s going to fall on you at any moment. Add to this that they had to leave family and friends and most of their stuff behind, and were living in tents, and, well, it’s a recipe for mass psychosis, right?
Which brings me to the point of the story:
My “Gagariners” were so homesick, so starved for anything from their old lives, that they eventually chose the rebel flag as the symbol for their planetary government.
Well, duh, what else would you really expect a bunch of homesick rednecks to do, right?
This was not an uncontentious choice. Several people expressed extreme displeasure over it, but most people didn’t. In fact, even most of the Black people – who made up like a third of the colony – were on board with it, too.
“Why the hell would you do that?” you ask. Well, it wasn’t to be offensive. The very clear point of the story is to show how people can be sooooooooo far from home, both physically and emotionally, that they’ll cleave to anything familiar. There are hundreds of examples of this: the terrified kid on the first day of preschool who won’t let go of the little scrap of paper his mom gave him, the terrified Jew in a death camp desperately holding on to a star of David, Buzz Aldrin holding a communion service on the moon (really!), you name it. It’s human nature to grab on to what’s familiar and hold on for all it’s worth, until you get used to your new surroundings.
Those embers from the fire are important. They help us hold our heads together. They keep the monsters away. Of course they’re almost always arbitrary, and their intrinsic meaning isn’t the important thing. The important thing is familiarity. The more unfamiliar your situation, the more anything familiar becomes desperately important, be that thing good or ill, well, if it’s a good symbol you chose, so much the better. If it’s a bad one, well, any port in a storm, right?
So that’s why I did it: Not to be offensive, but to show how people react under stress, or at least one way they can. I was pretty proud of the story. I thought it was well written, and it went in an interesting direction, and dealt with stuff seldom seen in Science Fiction. Not the best thing I ever wrote, but pretty good.
I’ve written a lot of stories, and I’ve deliberately pushed some boundaries with some of them. There are places I will not go, but to me SF is all about asking questions and dealing with the answers whether you like ’em or not. I didn’t consider this story to be controversial all. It’s very clear what’s going on, and why it happens. It’s also made very clear that this is not an objectively desirable choice, but it worked.
Of all the stories I’ve ever written, this is the only one to ever get me hate mail. I mean really vicious stuff. All of it, curiously, from white guys. I’m not saying “Hey, Black people are cool with the rebel flag.” I doubt they would be. I don’t really know or care what the color of my very few readers are. I did find it interesting that only white guys complained, though.
I don’t have a solid hypothesis as to why. I suspect that it’s because an issue can be so contentious that some people can’t look at it objectively. Even if the story clearly, objectively says one thing, they see the forbidden bit, and immediately take it to mean exactly the opposite.
I was pretty shocked by this. I’m not even remotely racist, and the thought of being labeled one really upset me. I thought about changing the story, but anything else I substituted for that damn flag lacked the punch to make it work. I thought about just pulling the story, but it’s a neat idea. Then I thought of what Harlan Ellison said (Paraphrasing) ‘when the story is published, it isn’t yours anymore. It belongs to the audience, and you can’t say ‘oh, I didn’t mean that’ or ‘just let me change this one bit’.’ I agree with that. I did it, it’s out there, and I’ll just take the consequences. Is that wise? Hell, I don’t know. Obviously I don’t know anything. I was just trying to tell an interesting story. Fortunately, I suppose, no one ever reads my books.
It is odd, however, that a person’s reactions can become so rigidly programmed that they can’t accept contradictory information. I’m not saying I’m better than these people. I’m sure I’ve got some symbol or thought that triggers me the same way. I just find it odd, is all, that out of all the offensive and weird crap I’ve written, this comparatively trivial thing was what set people off.
But anyway, that’s the story of how I tried to write a story about really funky tides and ended up getting labeled a racist.
If you’d like to read the story and decide for yourself, and maybe discuss it with me, the story is called “The Cetian Sky”, and it’s included in this book here https://www.amazon.com/Undead-War-Other-Stories-ebook/dp/B018Y1LRFS/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8 (Which, just to bring things full circle, contains a story that Larry Niven liked. Not this particular one, though)
Fifteen to Twenty years ago, there were a bunch of Babylon 5 tie-in novels and short stories published. The novels are still fairly easy to find on the internet, the short stories are real tough to dig up, though: They were published only in various magazines, never reprinted, never collected, and they’re unlikely to be. I can’t reprint the stories, but I *can* at least review ‘em and let you know what you’re missing. Which I’m doing here:
PLAY BY PLAY
Ranger Marcus Cole wakes up to wonder why he’s waking up at all. Shouldn’t he be dead? Didn’t he sacrifice his life to save Ivonova? As it turns out he did. Susan ordered his body frozen, just in case they came up with a way to reverse his situation. Eventually they did, and here he is.
Marcus is overjoyed to know that he did actually save her life, but very underjoyed to realize he’s now living in the twenty-sixth century, and she, along with everyone else he ever knew, is dead. He wanders around the Ranger headquarters city of Tuzanor, dejected and rich: Turns out the Alliance started a trust fund for him, you know, just in case he came back from the dead. One day he goes to the graveyard, and looks at the Entil Zha Ivonova memorial. While talking to a Minbari, he discovers that by the time she died – around seventy years after him – they had a way to essentially make a recording of a person’s entire consciousness, everything they knew, and the way in which they thought. These things aren’t *alive,* and they’re not capable of thought, per se, but they can answer any question you put to them in the manner the original living person would have. They’re kind of like the hall of heads from Land of the Lost.
Marcus hatches a crazy plan which is probably supposed to be mysterious, but is immediately obvious to anyone who’s evolved beyond a simple notochord: He’ll steal the hard drive backup copy of Susan’s brain, clone her body, and download the hard drive into her new organic brain. This he then does, more or less without incident, thanks to his scads of cash.
The only tenuous complication is that they can’t instantly force-grow clones. If he wants a 32-year-old Claudia Christian (And who doesn’t?) then he’s darn well going to have to wait thirty two years. He gives a sample of her DNA to an illegal doctor, and then goes to Mars to have himself put into suspended animation while she’s cooking.
Thirty two years later, the little thermometer button thing says the turkey is done, and so Marcus has himself thawed, then goes and picks her up. She once said (Never on the show) that her idea of a happy ending would be to spend her autumn years with nothing pressing to do, wiling away the time on a tropical beach. (Really? That doesn’t sound like her…) Marcus knows of such a planet way outside of civilized space, Hawaii-like planet with no sapient life, in a section of space so remote it’ll probably never be commercially developed.
He lands, strews crap around, then sends his ship off into space on autopilot so they’re stranded there. Then he wakes up Susan. Evidently they didn’t download *all* her memories, because she doesn’t really remember anything beyond the attack on the Shadow Omegas. He tells her they were on their way back from the battle when Sheridan phoned to say the war was over, and we don’t really need you guys anymore. Then, he says, they crashed on this planet.
She believes him.
They live happily ever after, presumably having lots of sex.
Wow. That was bad. That was really really bad. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s briskly written, it’s not an utter turd like “Genius Loci” was, the characterization of Marcus feels spot on, but it’s still really, really bad. When I gave this synopsis to R2, he said “How sad that Joe has been reduced to writing his own shipper fanfic.” I think that about sums it up: This is fanfic written by a real author in his own universe. Not even particularly good fanfic.
It suffers from the shortcoming common to all of Straczynski’s B5 short fiction: The resolution is obvious almost from the outset, and there’s no satisfying complication. Ivonova has a problem with The Titans, so she goes to B5 hoping they can fix it, which they do without incident. Lyta and G’Kar want to find the legendary planet of the telepaths, and so they do without incident. Lyta and G’kar get involved in the mystery of the planet of the telepaths, and Lyta resolves it pretty much just by staring cross-eyed at it. Marcus wants to bring Ivonova back from the dead, and so he does. The End.
Granted, Marcus’ personality feels spot on. This *is* exactly the kind of thing he’d try, and he’d do it with lots of flourish and aplomb just like this. Just the same, resurrecting two beloved-yet-tragic characters simply for the sake of giving them a happy ending seems false and wrong to me, like when The Man From Atlantis took it upon itself to go *into* an alternate universe where Romeo and Juliet was real, and change the ending (http://www.republibot.com/content/retrospeculative-tv-man-atlantis-%E2%8… ) It trivializes their sacrifices.
Now, I’m not opposed to giving people happy endings, even dead people. I once wrote a story expressly to give Elvis a happy ending, which is probably something I should be ashamed of, but I’m not. (And if you’re interested to read it, you can buy a copy of my book here:http://www.amazon.com/Ice-Cream-Venom-ebook/dp/B004XNLU8Q/ref=sr_1_1?ie=…
) If the resurrections of Marcus and Susan was a background to a larger conflict: if there was a problem that only they could solve, a peril that called specifically for them, that requires getting the band back together again, I’d go for it. I’m all for trucking the camera back with them silhouetted and kissing against the Technicolor sunset while we roll credits. That’s cool. But bringing them back simply for the sake of *making* them smooch?
Sad. Sad waste of time and talent, and reader’s good will.
On top of that, Sleeping in Light was always the hard finale of the B5 universe, conceptually. We’ve seen glimpses beyond it, but for all intents and purposes the story ends there. Violating that for a pointless bored-chick-typing-on-a-Sunday-afternoon story like this is like saying your last goodbyes to a dying friend, leaving, and then coming back in to see if the guy wants to go get a snow cone.
It’s sorta’ creepy, too, you know? Marcus building a sex slave that thinks it’s a real girl, stripping her two thirds of a lifetime of memories, and stranding her on an island with him for ever after. Am I the only one who has a problem with that? I mean, they guy is basically stalking a dead chick! That’s just icky on so many levels. And uncharacteristically selfish of Marcus.
They did mention that Marcus’ body was frozen in the “Rising Star” episode of B5. This was around the time that Claudia Christian abruptly left the show, and he was toying with the notion of bringing Marcus back to life. He decided against it, however, so it was a dangling thread. One he decided to pull on here, unraveling oh so many things…
The genetic material they used to clone Susan came from a hair that happened to be on Marcus’ uniform when he was frozen. This is a frequent, and irritating plot device – they used it in AI, they used it in Superman IV, they’ve used it in TNG (“Unnatural Selection”), it’s been used in a lot of places. Thing is: Hair has no genetic material in it, it’s just protein. It won’t work. I’ll forgive bad science in SF when it’s original, but come on, do we have to keep making the same mistakes over and over again across three decades?
WILL FANS LIKE THIS STORY?
To be honest, I don’t know. I’m gonna’ say ‘no’ on moral grounds, there’s just too much ‘ick’ here, much as we all love Marcus and lust for/fear Ivonova, it just doesn’t work. Made worse by the obvious fact that it’s *supposed* to be charming.
And so it comes down to this: This is, chronologically speaking, the final story in the B5 universe, the end of everything. The entire saga *should* have ended with “Sleeping in Light,” but instead it fades away here, certainly not going out with a bang.
So, goodbye, Babylon 5, goodby forever. I loved you, and you meant a lot to me, and I will miss you. Goodbye.
Oh, hey, by the way, you wanna’ go get a snow cone? ‘Cuz, you know, I’ve still got more stories to review, and I’m still doing the “Retrospeculative TV” thing, so…