Stronger than one building

The Artdog Image(s) of Interest 

Shotgun, Third Ward #1, 1966, by John T. Biggers.


John T. Biggers painted this image, Shotgun, Third Ward #1, in 1966–yet to me it hauntingly resonates with recent headlines.

Likely inspired by a rash of arsons in black churches during the early-to-mid-1960s, Biggers chose to focus on the community, rather than the sensationalism of the fire.

Then as now, the church is more than just a building, although churches were a central gathering place for the African American community during the Civil Rights era. Thus, attacks on black churches were attacks on civil rights activism, as well.

The word Shotgun in the title refers to the houses, not the weapon–and not, as popularly alleged, because a fired shell would travel through from one end to the other. Indeed, the African word “shogon,” which means “house of God,” is more likely the origin of the term (bringing us full-circle back to the church).

Shotguns, 1987, by John T. Biggers

The narrow, rectangular design, in which several rooms in a row open directly into one another (with no hallway) was popular for several decades, especially in the South. By the 1960s, however, “Shotgun houses” were associated with poor people, especially impoverished African Americans. Biggers returned to the image of the shotgun house for his iconic 1987 painting Shotguns

IMAGES: Many thanks to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, for the image of Shotgun, Third Ward #1, and to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) blog, for the image of Shotguns. I deeply appreciate both.

Challenging assumptions in science fiction: 3. Worth their weight in diamonds

This is the third in a series of posts that question some of the classic tropes in science fiction. This series was inspired by observations made while reading Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey.

The book is a really wonderful space opera, first in The Expanse series, which later inspired the creation of the SyFy Channel show, The Expansein its third season as I write this. But it does seem to accept unexamined some of science fiction’s time-honored (and, in my mind, outmoded) tropes.

In particular, my comments center upon Ceres Station, its population, and its governance, as portrayed in the book. I compiled a short list of outstanding reasons NOT to live on Ceres:

  • Human life is apparently cheap, and easily squandered with no penalty.
  • Freedom of speech is nonexistent, and so is freedom of the Fourth Estate.
  • The nutritional base is crap. Seriously? Fungi and fermentation was all they could come up with? Readers of this blog don’t need to guess what I think of this idea.
  • Misogyny is alive and well, but mental health care is not.

Last week I took issue with the idea that there would be abundant, expendable excess humanity available in the extrapolated setting and time span.

The primary reasons why humans won’t be that abundant are the difficulty of achieving a viable pregnancy in most space (or space-adjacent) environments, and the lowered rates of childbearing among well-educated women who can control their fertility, a reality we already have seen played out in developed nations for several decades.

Today, I’d like to look at the reasons why the humans who do get there won’t be expendable at all. ASIDE from the human rights angle, which ought to be the FOUNDATION of any discussion about the “expendability” of human lives, if we’re not going to have lots of excess babies in space, then Earth is probably exporting the vast majority of the people who live in space.

Every human being who is technically educated to the point of being employable Out Therethen hauled up out of the gravity well is going to be an extremely valuable commodity. 

Hauled up out of the gravity well” alone gives you one reason. In 2009, Michio Kaku explained the cost of transporting someone to Mars this way, in a Forbes article: “imagine your body made of diamonds.

The XKCD Web Comic gives us ALL the gravity wells (in the solar system, that is)!

Even now, it doesn’t cost as much to put a human in orbit as it did in the early days of the Space Race, and that cost will inevitably continue to go down. But I guarantee you it’ll never be so cheap and easy that “anybody can do it.” 

Nor should “anybody” do it. Space is dangerous. Learning how to survive there takes a lot of training and highly specialized (not cheap) equipment. Which brings me to my next point: the “technically educated to the point of being employable” part.

If humans are neither able nor inclined to breed like rabbits in the tunnels of Ceres, that means in space most of the “grunt labor”–and more of the advanced processes than you might imagine–will be done the way more and more of it already IS, here on Earth: by robotsRobotic manufacturing processes are already essential to the current aerospace industry, and this trend won’t go away. I examined this and related automation issues in a series of posts about the automation of labor that started last March. 

Who will manage, troubleshoot, and integrate those robots? That’s the role for highly technically skilled and trained humans. Humans with master’s degrees and doctors’ degrees, sure–but also highly skilled technicians, to keep everything running as it should. We’re already experiencing a critical shortage of skilled labor, and the push into space will only add competition to entice workers in this job niche.

Typically, competition for workers means good salaries, signing bonuses, enticements, and perks added to sweeten the offer. If you want a model for what the workforce of the future will look like, look at Silicon Valley and the current aerospace industrynot the coal mines and textile mills of yesteryear.

Skilled workers, designers, and more are needed to put Spacex rockets into orbit–and the need for such teams will only grow as human expand their enterprises into space.

Moreover, companies are going to have to treat their employees with respect, or those intelligent, educated people will find ways to organize for change, mutiny, or jump ship to sign on with a competitor. How has science fiction not figured this out yet?

IMAGES: Many thanks to Amazon, for the Leviathan Wakes cover image; the XKCD Web Comic, for the gravity wells size comparison chart; to Cerasis, for the photo of robots manufacturing something (I can’t tell what, though, and Cerasis author Adam Robinson didn’t include that information in the article); and to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, for the photo of the Spacex Team.

Recognize, accept–and celebrate!

The Artdog Quote of the Week

IMAGE: Many thanks to Healthy Place for this quotation from Audre Lorde and the image that sets it off so well! 

A glimpse from Capricon 38

The Artdog Image of Interest  

Paper sculpture by Jan S. Gephardt, as displayed at Capricon 38, in February 2018.

I’m in Wheeling, IL, for the weekend, at Capricon 38. So far, it’s been fun. I’ll probably have more thoughts about Capricon in future posts, but here’s a look at my Art Show panel, as it appeared before the show opened.

IMAGE: I took this photo, in part for this blog post. If for any reason you re-post it, please do so with an attribution and a link back to this page. Thanks!

Challenging assumptions in science fiction: 2. Oh, the humanity!

This is the second post in a series that questions some basic assumptions that underly several classic science fiction tropes. To start from the beginning of this discussion, go back to last Wednesday’s post.

Last week I took serious issue with the way the people running Ceres Station were doing their job in the must-read space opera Leviathan Wakesby James S. A. Corey.

Apart from the abysmal law enforcement practices I discussed last time, I made a list of other outstanding reasons NOT to live on Ceres:

  • Human life is apparently cheap, and easily squandered with no penalty.
  • Freedom of speech is nonexistent, and so is freedom of the Fourth Estate.
  • The nutritional base is crap. Seriously? Fungi and fermentation was all they could come up with? Readers of this blog don’t need to guess what I think of this idea.
  • Misogyny is alive and well, but mental health care is not.
I’d specifically like to take up the first point this week, because it’s one of the great, universal “givens” in most science fictional universes: that humans will breed like rats, once we’re finally unleashed like a plague on the universe, and that we’ll mostly all live miserable, short, brutal lives under the heel of this or that authoritarian system.
1973’s Soylent Green created a what-if future (in this case, in New York City) overrun by excess population, as envisioned in both the movie and the 1966 book Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison, which inspired it. Realities have changed since then, but the trope hasn’t.
Yes, life is brutal, out there in the Mean Future, but it makes a handy low point from which Our Heroes can rise up and conquer whatever their particular nemesis is. And I suppose if that’s the story you’re writing, it certainly has a long and–sorry!–storied history as a canon trope in sf.
But seriously. This trope treats human life like detritus, and the vast bounty of space like a zero-sum game. I personally do not see either of these things as inevitable, especially not in an in-system situation such as what we have in The Expanse. Let me explain.
First of all, where are all these people supposedly coming from? Six million on Ceres Station alone? Really? If you are going to treat human beings as if they’re worthless, this implies that there’s an endless, inexpensive supply of them, readily available. But would there be?
This tiny person (fetal development at 16 weeks shown here) would really have a hard time surviving and developing properly in a space environment.
It’s not as if we’re going to be growing them like having litters of kittens out there on the Final Frontier. I mean, pregnancy would be a really hard thing to support in a space-based environment. Yes, I’m going to talk about matters that concern icky lady-parts (note, that’s any lady-part NOT being currently utilized by a protagonist for coitus). If any of you guys can’t handle it, you can skip down a couple of paragraphs.
Like many physical functions, human pregnancy and childbirth have evolved in a 1-G environment. Heck, we can’t even maintain muscle strength and bone density in micro-gravityNot to mention what space radiation can do to sperm or growing fetal cells (yeah, it’s a good thing the squeamish folk skipped this paragraph). Ceres Station supposedly has a gravitation of about 0.3-G, which means mamas ain’t havin’ no (healthy) babies there.
Yes, all that.
I know I’m probably not the only woman who daydreamed, when I was 8 or 9 months along, of floating in micro-G, where my ankles wouldn’t blow up like balloons and my kid’s head wasn’t squashing my bladder into a 1-cc-capacity pancake. But so far the science isn’t encouraging. studies on animals show viability levels are lower, and serious abnormalities can develop. Given that kind of outlook, I’d choose put up with football-feet and micro-bladder.
Also, birth rates fall, even without the environmental difficulties, in more technologically advanced societies. We’ve seen that industrialized nations with access to good birth control (which you’d absolutely have to have, in space) historically show birth rates well below the replacement fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman.
Somehow, science fiction consistently misses this basic fact.
Thus, any model that assumes runaway population growth in an industrialized society is based on a seriously retro–and misogynistic–fallacy. Actually, I believe it’s based on a flawed model promulgated in the 1950s-through-1970s. As far as I can tell, it has not been seriously examined in science fiction since then. I think it’s time we did.
IMAGES: Many thanks to Amazon, for the Leviathan Wakes cover image; to The Ace Black Blog, for the still from Soylent Green; to WebMD for the 16-week-old fetus image; to MumBlog, for the “Pregnancy Symptoms” graphic; and to ValueWalk, for the fertility rate chart. I deeply appreciate all of you!

Unreasonable

The Artdog Quote of the Week

IMAGE: Many thanks to Brainy Quote for this thought from Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Improvisation on a classic

The Artdog Image(s) of Interest

Kehinde WileyOfficer of the Hussars, 2007Collection of the Detroit Institute of the Arts Museum

Today I get to feature one of my absolute favorite pieces by Kehinde Wiley, an artist I’ve been aware of, and admired increasingly, ever since I ran across one of his amazing portraits several years ago at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. That painting was part of a traveling exhibition, I didn’t retain the name in my memory, and I haven’t been able to scare up information about it online.

But periodically I’d run across another Wiley–and, as you can imagine (if this is your first Wiley, God bless you, now you know!), once you’ve seen Wiley’s work you don’t forget it. Recently, the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art acquired another Wiley, his painting St. Adrian

Wiley’s Officer of the Hussars is based on another painting I’ve known and loved for years, The Charging Chasseur, or An Officer of the Imperial Horse Guards Charging1812, by Théodore GéricaultYou may remember seeing a reproduction of the artwork (the Wiley, not the Géricault), if you’ve watched the Fox TV Show Empire.

I’m a Géricault  fan, too, not only for his dramatic compositions and masterful renderings, but because he liked exotic places and people who didn’t all look just like him. At his best, he portrayed many of those “exotic” people as individuals.

do tend to think Wiley improved on the original–but you can compare, and decide for yourself.

The Charging Chasseur1812, by Théodore Géricault – Collection of the Louvre, Paris.

You’ll see more Kehinde Wiley art from me in the months to come, if all goes well. He’s got so many wonderful paintings to share!

NOTE: While researching this post, I also discovered that former President Barack Obama shares my enthusiasm for Wiley’s artwork: he recently chose Wiley to paint his official presidential portrait. It will hang in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, alongside an Amy Sherald portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Deadline Detroit and Alan Stamm, for the photo of Wiley’s Officer of the Hussars, and to Wikipedia for the photo of Géricault‘s painting.