Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Category: A glimpse of the future? Page 1 of 2

"A vote is a prayer about the kind of world we want to live in." - Rev. Raphael Warnock

It’s Important to Vote

By Jan S. Gephardt

In Kansas and Missouri, we’re holding a primary election next week. And every time there’s a primary, some people question whether or not it’s important to vote in it. I’ve blogged about Primary Elections in other years. Longtime readers of my “Artdog Adventures” blog know very well that I feel it’s important to vote.

I realize some of my readers don’t live in the United States, and many others live in states hold their primaries earlier or later in the year than now. I was talking about this with my sister recently. She agrees with me on the importance of voting, although for her the primaries are so last March (she’s a Texan, as longtime blog-followers well know).

But in my neighborhood, the primaries are looming (August 2). It’s important to vote because elections are always a potential turning point of some sort. And that’s where life is informing my art rather a lot, recently.

“So long as I do not firmly and Irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind – it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact – I can only submit to the edict of others.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
(Image courtesy of Medium).

Life, Art, and Science Fiction

I’ve already blogged some about politics on Rana Station. Rana is the fictional, far-future space-station home of the XK9s and their favorite humans, the setting of my novels. Readers of my stories may recall mentions of elections for Premier that were held while the XK9s and their partners were still on Chayko. POV characters Pam and Charlie voted absentee, and talked with their XK9s about the elections. It’s unspoken but clear that both think it’s important to vote.

There are political undercurrents throughout the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. On Rana, Boroughs are sort of a cross between a city and a state or province, politically. Readers saw the local Borough Council in a special session during What’s Bred in the Bone. In the second novel, A Bone to Pick, Ranan politics received less focus. But that realm returns in a big way –on a national level – in the third novel, Bone of Contention. As it happens, I’m writing some of that part now.

Of course, politics in science fiction is nothing new. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, recently.

"The job of speculative and science fiction is to envision future outcomes in accessible ways. It’s what we sf writers do: we create engaging thought-experiments about how things might be." – Jan S. Gephardt.
(See credits below).

Eroding Rights

Women who pay attention know our rights and freedoms are always under attack. Cases in point: horrifying recent stories about Mongolian schools that require “virginity checks.” Patriarchal cultures use force to suppress education for girls. Invading armies use rape as a means of terrorizing civilians. All across the world our freedom and bodily autonomy are at continual risk, and they always have been.

Even before the United States Supreme Court handed down the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health verdict that made it official, we in the USA saw the warning signs if we were paying attention. Remember “pussyhats” and the Women’s March on Washington in 2017?

As a science fiction reader and writer, I’m aware of many dystopian “futures.” It’s a time-honored science fiction tradition to base dystopias on contemporary trends taken to extremes.

And in nearly any dystopia ordinary people are powerless. They have no agency, no autonomy. Goes without saying they have no vote.

The cover of the book “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a page from a graphic novel adaptation of the book, and a background photo from the television show based on the book.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted into a graphic novel and a television show. (See credits below).

Tales and Parables

One science fiction story that has resonated deeply with women – and in the wake of Dobbs feels even more relevant – is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In this dystopia, first released in 1985. Starting production in 2016 (imagine that), a television series by the same name, based on the novel, has been renewed for season after season.

But the science fiction that’s resonating most deeply for me this week is Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. I’ve been re-acquainting myself with it. I remember when it first came out in 1994. Back then, I was a mother with young children and little time. I had difficulty reading it, probably because I wasn’t ready to contemplate a world like the one it depicted.

Now, in 2022 (the book starts in 2024, in a world both unfortunately like, but also different from our current situation), I’m finding the parallels interesting. Butler’s world, in fact, feels like an oddly familiar place. For one thing, there’s more than a small echo of the assumption I grew up with, that it was only a matter of time before disaster hit. At the age of Butler’s main character Lauren, I tried to learn canning and gardening, assuming I’d need such survival skills after the coming nuclear apocalypse. But there are other parallels, too.

Two book covers, one for the original novel by Octavia E. Butler, the other for a Hugo-winning graphic novel adaptation.
Octavia E. Butler’s book Parable of the Sower has been adapted into a graphic novel and optioned for a film. (See credits below).

A Different Apocalypse, But it “Rhymes”

The kind of apocalypse Californian Lauren Olamina faces in Parable of the Sower didn’t start with a bomb blast. Some reviewers call the novel “post-apocalyptic,” but that’s not correct. The slow-rolling apocalypse Lauren and her neighborhood face is protracted and actively ongoing. There is nothing “post” about it.

Its origin lies in steadily-chipped-away rights, a process that has disabled all government protections for ordinary people. This has led to savage economic disparity and inflamed racial division. Of course, those dynamics further cripple government. The power and importance of voting has been reduced to choices between bad and worse impotent politicians. But you can only vote if you can make it through the mean streets to the polls in one piece.

By the time of the novel, all the last safety nets of civilization have been stripped away. This dysfunctional dynamic empowers the rise of business behemoths that capitalize on the power vacuum to further entrench their own advantage. No surprise, there’s a massive and growing unhoused and dispossessed population that’s increasingly desperate and lawless.

"A vote is a prayer about the kind of world we want to live in." - Rev. Raphael Warnock
(See credits below).

The Antidote? It’s Important to Vote! (While we still can)

Does any of this sound familiar? If not in exact mirroring, it certainly takes little effort to recognize parallel dangers in contemporary gerrymandering and false claims of vote fraud that threaten to actually do the real thing. If it’s okay to declare that corporate “free speech” (AKA money) is protected, and that some people have no right to bodily autonomy, how far from slow-rolling apocalypse are we, truly?

All of this brings me back to the importance of voting. We’re not yet in full-blown apocalypse. We won’t be (barring unforeseen disasters) in 2024. But we’ve been flirting with it for longer than many people have noticed. And if more of us don’t wake up to the serious issues that threaten our freedom and our democracy, we’ll wander blindly into it.

Our rights are increasingly on the line. Our best defense is our vote, and here the advice is “use it or lose it.” That’s why it’s important to vote. Every time. In every election. Vote.

IMAGE CREDITS

The quote-image for Dr. King’s view of the importance of the vote came from Medium. The background for the quote from Jan is Nebula 2, ©2021 by Chaz Kemp, first published in the blog post “Looking for Hope.” Design by Jan.

Jan also assembled the two montage images built around two of the books mentioned in the post. The Handmaid’s Tale montage Includes several images. The cover for Margaret Atwood’s novel is courtesy of ThriftBooks. A page from a graphic novel adaptation by Renee Nault comes via Maclean’s. And a still from the television adaptation of the book is courtesy of Woman & Home.

The montage for Parable of the Sower features the cover of Octavia E. Butler’s book, courtesy of the North Carolina State University Libraries. Butler’s book also has been adapted by Damian Duffy into a graphic novel illustrated by John Jennings. No TV show yet, however it’s been optioned for a movie.

Jan first assembled the final quote-image in this post from a tweet by the Rev. Raphael Warnock (now US Senator Warnock) in November 2020. The background photo is originally from the Baltimore Sun, taken at the Maryland primary election, June 2, 2020 by the multitalented Karl Merton Ferron. Deepest appreciation to all of them!

An illustration depicts white, spiky coronaviruses as snowflakes in a wintry landscape with evergreen trees.

It’s Okay to Feel What We Feel

By Jan S. Gephardt

Around my neck of the woods, it’s the season of “holiday cheer.” But frankly, I’m not seeing a whole bunch of bright, sparkly people out and about, having a real good time. That may partly be because (when I go out at all) I tend to hang out with people smart enough to wear masks. I can’t see their smiles, if they are smiling. If they are, that’s nice. But if they aren’t, that’s all right, too. It’s okay to feel what we feel.

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a blog post titled “A Season of Small Bright Spots.” I sought out hopeful stories because I am by nature a hopeful, and generally optimistic, person. I thought that in the midst of “the COVID-19 winter” (I was assuming there would only be one), finding reasons to stay hopeful was a good idea. It still is. And there are still reasons for hope.

But as we crank up for a second COVID-19 winter, I also want to say that it’s okay to feel what we feel. If you’re “merry and bright,” that’s awesome! Congratulations, and don’t let anybody cast aspersions on your joy!

Truth is, however, a lot of us are having trouble getting there, this year. Me included.

An illustration depicts white, spiky coronaviruses as snowflakes in a wintry landscape with evergreen trees.
An uncredited illustration I found on Medpage Today and used in my December 2020 post “A Season of Small Bright Spots.”

Exhaustion

We can be forgiven for feeling exhausted. Especially those among us in the health care sector have carried far more than a fair share of the burdens that never seem to end. My husband worked in an extremely busy lab until his retirement earlier this year, and my daughter recently secured a certification in health care, so I am “closely adjacent” to that overburdened sector.

To the anti-vaccine holdouts across the USA let me just say: Y’all please get vaxxed and boosted so we can end this thing before it ends all of us. And thank you to everyone else who already did take those measures.

Of her job, ICU Housekeeper Andrea says, “One minute you are important enough. The next minute it is like, no you aren’t that important to get the proper equipment, but you are important enough to clean it for the next patient.”
Quote image from Brookings.

Heavy Burdens for All

I’m not sure how teachers continue to cope, either. Between the historically chronic under-resourcing of time, funding, and facilities, combined with the most bizarre teaching environment in living memory, I’m surprised there’s anyone left in the field. Except, kids need to learn and teachers need to teach. God bless you all.

A teacher from Durant, Oklahoma said, “After 33 years, I just retired. I was already frustrated so much regarding public education and the route it was going. Covid just pushed me over the top.” A teacher from Pauls Valley, Oklahoma said, “I’m seriously considering leaving after 21 years because I’m immunocompromised. My passion or my health? I’m struggling to decide if the risk is worth it.”
Both quotes are from an excellent article in the Tulsa World.

A deadly pestilence has spread everywhere, and it’s ravaging the immune-compromised (and the misinformed) among us to a catastrophic degree. Complications from the seemingly-endless pandemic have snarled our supply chains, spiked inflation, and exacerbated food insecurity.

The exhaustion spreads much farther, of course. Maybe you’re a front-line worker living in daily danger just so our grocery shelves stay stocked, our deliveries get made, or our community services keep working. But you don’t have to be one, to be exhausted. Every single one of us carries heavier burdens these days, and it’s okay to feel what we feel.

"Workers on the edge of poverty are essential to America’s prosperity, but their well-being is not treated as an integral part of the whole. Instead, the forgotten wage a daily struggle to keep themselves from falling over the cliff. It is time to be ashamed." - David K. Shipler
From AZ Quotes.

Fear and Division

Meanwhile, one of our major political parties in my country has been taken over by death-cultists, insurrectionists, and white supremacists. It used to be a party of community-oriented, business-centric, mostly-responsible old white men. Now it fields “public servants” like the ones in Missouri who are trying to kill as many school children as possible. That is for sure scary.

So are the unmasked (yes, pun intended) efforts to subvert voting rights and election integrity, in service of keeping a dwindling minority in power. So they can . . . force young women to have babies they can’t support, in the name of the party of . . .  personal liberty?

“Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.” - Hannah Arendt
Quote image courtesy of BukRate.

Oh, yes, and so they can provide a continuing drag on efforts to mitigate climate change. In case we weren’t beleaguered enough already, there is always the existential threat posed by climate-driven superstorms. No one can argue that this month’s historic tornadoes and recent hurricane seasons were “normal. Not scary enough? How about extreme drought and ever-longer wildfire seasons? We’ve now got those, too. “Thanks,” climate-change deniers.

"People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! You are failing us." - Greta Thunberg, to the United Nations Climate Action Summit, 2019
See credits below.

It’s okay to feel what we feel, because our fear is justified. We can’t allow fear to destroy us, but maybe it can motivate us to push harder for necessary changes.

Grief

God help us, we have plenty of reasons to grieve. As I write this, we’ve had 805,112 COVID deaths in the United States, per the CDC, and 5,384,178 from COVID worldwide, as reported by “Worldometers.” By the time you read this there will have been all too many more. Of course, COVID isn’t the only health issue out there that’s killing people.

Among all the other dangers in the world, we’re also murdering each other at an astonishing rate, especially in the United States, where it’s easier to buy a gun than it is to legally drive a car.

And let us not forget the frightful toll of famine throughout the world. Food insecurity is widespread in the USA, but we’re far from the worst-case scenario. We could be living (or struggling to) in The Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, South Sudan, Syria, and more.

More to Grieve than Deaths

Egregious as they are, all the unnecessary “extra” deaths aren’t the only losses to grieve. We could be fleeing widespread violence and climate disaster, only to be penned up in squalid COVID hotspots at an international border. Or subject to slavery, torture, and genocide in “re-education” camps, at the hands of other authoritarian governments, or in failed states.

We may be climate refugees who’ve had to flee our homes. Or we may have been priced out of homes in our communities. We may have lost our beloved small businesses and personal financial resources during the pandemic. Political tensions and other stresses may have torn our families apart. (Yeah, Merry Christmas to you, too).

As long as poverty & hunger is prevalent in any continent or country, then the world at large is never safe.” – Oscar Auliq-Ice
Many thanks to QuotesLyfe.

It’s Okay to Feel What We Feel

Is it any surprise our children are struggling with mental health issues? If we’re honest, most of us are. So seriously. It’s okay to feel what we feel. In fact, stepping past denial and letting ourselves feel whatever we truly feel is the first step toward healing.

A reader new to this blog could be forgiven for having started to doubt my earlier claim that “I am by nature a hopeful, and generally optimistic, person.” This post has been pretty much of a downer. But we can’t successfully fight an enemy if we can’t name it, and we can’t overcome an evil if we can’t describe it. Given the misinformation abroad in the world and in our popular media, identifying the sources of our perils accurately is more of a problem than it should be.

We can’t help how we feel. Bug we can help what we do with how we feel. We must have the courage to face our situation, before we can do anything about it. It’s a vital first step. Only then can we can educate ourselves and start to build a stronger future out of the rubble all around us.

So, it’s okay to feel what we feel. In fact, it’s more than “okay.” It’s absolutely essential.

IMAGE CREDITS

I used the first illustration last year in my post “A Season of Small Bright Spots.” I found the uncredited illustration on Medpage Today. And it really bums me out that it’s appropriate again.

The quote image of Andrea the ICU Housekeeper is from the Brookings article, “Essential but Undervalued,” about the forgotten and underpaid front-line health care workers who keep hospitals running. I wanted to include both quotes from Oklahoma teachers. It was very hard to choose from among 20 insightful teacher-quotes in a Tulsa World article from July 2020. Many thanks to AZ Quotes, for the wisdom of David K. Shipler, and to BukRate for the timeless Hannah Arendt quote.

Deepest appreciation to Greta Thunberg for her iconic and straight-to the-heart words, to Wikipedia for making them available, and to the AP via the Los Angeles Times for the photo of Greta at the UN (I assembled the image-quote). And finally, I’m indebted to QuotesLyfe for the quote from poet, author, and founder of Icetratt Foundation for Social Investments, Oscar Auliq-Ice. Many thanks to all!

Cutaway views of a Stanford Torus and a Bernal Sphere from the mid-1970s.

Real and Fictional Space Stations

By Jan S. Gephardt

I love both real and fictional space stations. Anyone who’s read my books, or the blog posts I’ve devoted to this topic will probably roll their eyes and say, “No. Really?”

Yeah, really. You got me. I love the whole idea, and I’m endlessly fascinated by the many visions of what a space station—or space habitat—could be.

Why? I’ve enjoyed science fiction for decades. When I was a kid I thought of sf books as “the books that give you stuff to think about.” (Perhaps I should clarify: I considered that a good thing). I was interested in how we humans might someday live somewhere other than on Earth.

Throughout human history, there’s always been a healthy exchange of life influencing art, which then influences life. In the case of real and fictional space stations, that’s definitely true.

When it comes to space exploration, the “art part” came first. From flip phones to satellites to space stations, visions cooked up by science fiction writers, artists, and filmmakers electrified and inspired several generations of 20th-Century rocket scientists, engineers, and designers.

Buzz Aldrin on the Lunar Surface July 20, 1969.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, stands on the surface of the moon near the leg of the lunar module, Eagle, during the Apollo 11 moonwalk. Astronaut Neil Armstrong, mission commander, took this photograph with a 70mm lunar surface camera. (NASA/Wikimedia Commons).

Living Somewhere Other than on Earth

I was a schoolkid when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, so I remember the excitement (and the setbacks) of the Space Race.

But that timing means more than just that I’m now “older than dirt.” It means I was an idealistic art major who embraced the environmental awareness of the 1970s. Concerned as I was about Earth’s future, I hated dystopian sf stories in which humans left a dying, poisoned Earth for supposed “greener pastures” (to, um, . . . poison and kill those, too? Great legacy, humans!).

Back then, a lot of us feared the “population explosion” that was supposedly going to devastate the planet. This was the era when Harry Harrison wrote his 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!, from which the 1973 movie Soylent Green was adapted.

Space habitats interested me, but not as places to flee after the earth dies. I was interested in their potential to ease some of the environmental pressure on our natal planet.

The "Earthrise" photo.
Earthrise, taken on December 24, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders. (NASA/Wikimedia Commons).

Digging into the Details

I wasn’t the only one interested in what were then called “Space Colonies.” NASA commissioned multiple studies into the feasibility of space-based habitats for humans.

Rana Station’s design origins came from those studies. The idea is a surprisingly old one, but interest at NASA proliferated, starting in the 1970s. The differentiation between real and fictional space stations got kinda thin when the ideas came from the space agency.

That is, until a Senator named William Proxmire made a big fuss about them as a waste of taxpayer money, and gave the programs a Golden Fleece Award. Publicly humiliated, the powers-that-be swiftly shut down that line of inquiry.

I felt wary of the “space colonies” idea, in any case. Colonialism was rightfully beginning to receive a lot of pushback. The idea of being a colonist dependent on corporate control smacked way too much of being trapped in a “company store” scenario.

Cutaway views of a Stanford Torus and a Bernal Sphere from the mid-1970s.
Two classic paintings by Rick Guidice, showing cutaway views of a Stanford Torus and a Bernal Sphere. (NASA via Space .com).

Real and Fictional Space Stations

“Space colonies” may have received a decades-long black eye, but we clever apes didn’t stop thinking about space. Nor have we stopped studying it, nor longing to explore space in person, as well as with our robots.

And in the name of exploring it in person, we started building space platforms where we could experiment. When I went into high school, the only kind of space stations anywhere that we knew about were those in science fiction.

The year before I graduated, the Soviet Union successfully launched Salyut 1. The early history of the Salyut series, Almaz (Soviet military) stations, and US Skylab included a lot of problems. Even so, ever since April 19, 1971 we have lived in an age of both real and fictional space stations.

I’m not sure it’s possible to explain how huge that step still seems. Nor my pleasure that I was privileged to (vicariously) see it happen.

Early space stations SALYUT 1 (rare photo), SKYLAB, and MIR.
Early space stations, L-R: Salyut 1, a rare photo of the first-ever-space station; Skylab; Mir. (See credits below).

Real Space Stations

The earlier stations weren’t as large or long-lived as the later Mir (1986-2001) and the International Space Station (commissioned by President Reagan in 1984 the first pieces went up in 1998, and development is ongoing to this day.

Are you old enough to remember when the ISS first went up? Or has it always been out there, hanging out in space since you’ve been alive?

Have you ever glimpsed it passing overhead? I’ve seen it—or at least I’ve thought I saw it—several times. But I usually can’t, because I live in a brightly-lit city with lots of trees. That means light pollution and an obstructed horizon. Thus, even when it’s a clear, cloudless night, station-spotting is a challenge. But when I can glimpse it, I’m always delighted.

Life Influences Art

The conversation between real and fictional space stations continues. Rana Station and I owe a long string of debts of gratitude to the International Space Station.

I’ve watched hours of videos showing the inhabitants of the ISS demonstrating various aspects of living and working in microgravity. I hope that’s helped me create more realistic depictions of things that happen in and around Rana Station’s Hub.

It’s from NASA information that I began to learn about the physical havoc human bodies undergo in any environment that strays too far from Earth-normal gravity.

These findings are the basis for my novels’ limitations on the hours one may spend “up top,” in the microgravity of Rana’s Hub. There are set lengths of time beyond which characters are not allowed to work in microgravity. These are my best guesses, based on what I’ve been able to find in available literature.

Infographic: women and men have different bodily reactions to microgravity.
This diagram shows key differences between men and women in cardiovascular, immunologic, sensorimotor, musculoskeletal, and behavioral adaptations to human spaceflight. (NASA/NSBRI).

Lessons from a Real Space Station

Making babies in something other than Earth-normal gravity? I find it hard to swallow the idea that we could do that without danger to both mom and baby (it’s hard enough, here on earth!). Mouse sperm is one thing, but there haven’t been nearly enough studies of the entire process and long-term effects, even in smaller animal species, to reassure me.

Meanwhile, the bottom line is clear, based on more than two decades of research (including a certain fascinating twin study)on the ISS. If we ever want to live and produce future generations any place besides on Earth, we’ll need to do one of two things.

Either we must change our biology, or we must create non-terrestrial habitats that support the biology we’ve got. There’s already ample science fiction that explores either choice. Art points to problems and opportunities with each direction.

I imagine genetic modifications may form a part of our future. But on the whole, I’m betting we’ll prefer the second option, and build to suit our biology. The “conversation” between real and fictional space stations continues!

IMAGE CREDITS

I owe a ton of thanks to NASA for the vast majority of the imagery in this blog post. Not only do they have an inside scoop on “all things space,” but their imagery is blissfully in the public domain (and also my blog posts normally fall under the “fair use” exclusion).

I also owe a massive debt of gratitude to Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Commons, which provided easy-to-find source information for the photos  I used. Makes giving credit where credit is due lots easier!

Specifically, the MOON LANDING PHOTO of Buzz Aldrin by Neil Armstrong is courtesy of NASA, NASA Image and Video Library, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. The iconic “EARTHRISE” photo, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders is courtesy of NASA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The NASA CUTAWAY VISUALIZATIONS montage features two paintings by Rick Guidice: Cutaway views of a Stanford Torus and a Bernal Sphere from the mid-1970s. Via Space.com.

Credits for the photos in the “EARLY SPACE STATIONS” montage: Salyut 1, an extremely rare photo by Viktor Patsayev (fair use), via Wikipedia. Final Skylab Flyaround, by crew of Skylab 4, courtesy of of NASA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Mir, from the Space Shuttle Endeavour, courtesy of NASA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The video about the assembly of the International Space Station components was created and published by ISS National Laboratory, and shared via YouTube. The “Women and Men—In SPACE!” infographic is courtesy of NASA and NSBRI, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute. Many thanks to all!

This quote from Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie says, “Holidays are about experiences and people, and tuning in to what you feel like doing at that moment. Enjoy not having to look at a watch.”

Holidays on Rana Station

Do they celebrate holidays on Rana Station? Of course they do!

Personally, I think holidays are not only some of the most fun and interesting things religions or other types of communities do. Despite all the stresses and upheavals we hear so much about, holidays fulfill basic human needs.

A family gathers around a table in a pre-Covid era.
(Hearing Health Associates/Shutterstock)

The reasons for the seasons

Even sober, serious, hard-working adults need to play, once in a while. We need to break the routine. To relax with friends or family. To do beautiful—or frivolous—or spiritually-renewing things. And to have excuses to make fancy recipes.

Or all of the above.

Much of the world (though not all) celebrates some kind of holiday around this time of year. As I explained on Artdog Adventures last week, cultures that developed in the Northern Hemisphere often have holidays around the winter solstice. This allows celebrants to come together and renew their hope at the darkest, and sometimes the coldest, time of the year.

I believe there are important reasons why every religion and nearly every human community we know about throughout history has paused every once in a while for celebration, food-sharing, and renewal.

This quote from Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie says, “Holidays are about experiences and people, and tuning in to what you feel like doing at that moment. Enjoy not having to look at a watch.”
(Quotefancy/Evelyn Glennie)

Religions in space?

Science fiction writers and readers often regard religion with deep suspicion. There are good reasons for this. Many religious leaders and groups have regarded science fiction and fantasy as corrupt, probably contrary to religious teachings, or even downright demonic.

Many creative people, particularly those with non-cisgender, non-traditional orientations, have been abused by misguided followers of religions.

So I understand the impulse to write science fiction that assumes all religions are either abusive, or outmoded superstitions. Either of those can be left behind with no loss by the enlightened ones who embarked for the stars.

But in real life it hasn’t worked that way, because religions that function in a healthy manner for their devotees are neither abusive nor mere superstition. I’ve made the argument in a past blog post that art and religion will come with us, if we leave Earth for the stars.

Ranan holidays

With that kind of lead-in, you shouldn’t be surprised that I have populated my fictional space station with followers of major (and some smaller) world religions. So far, some of my characters are Christians, some Muslims, some Jewish, some Hindu, some Buddhist, and some Wiccan. Others are not religious, or claim no particular religious identity.

With the religions come holidays (in addition to national holidays, such as Founders’ Day). Holidays on Rana Station matter in the stories, because they mean something to the characters. But translating any religious practices, such as holidays, into a space-based environment brought sometimes-odd challenges.

For instance, in what direction is the qibla (Muslim sacred direction), when there is no north, south, east, or west, only leeward, spinward, starboard and port? How does one meaningfully celebrate season-based festivals on a space station where the weather never changes?

I contend that clever, committed people will work out ways. I’ll look into some of the calendrical approaches next week. Meanwhile, consider that someone, somewhere, is celebrating a holiday every few weeks. Thus, Rana Stationers have lots of legitimate opportunities to party.

This quote from American aphorist Mason Cooley says, “Good parties create a temporary youthfulness.”
(Good Morning Quotes/ Mason Cooley)

The really important questions

My currently-in-progress XK9 “Bones” Trilogy takes place late in the year. In fact, just about exactly this time of year. Aspects of the holiday season enter into the action at least once (so far), and into the backgrounds of settings several times. It’s a “Christmas trilogy” in the way that the Lethal Weapon movies are “Christmas movies.” (Another Gephardt-family-favorite “Christmas movie” of this sort is The Long Kiss Goodnight).

So now I must address the jolly old elephant in the room: Does Santa fly his sleigh to Rana Station? Or is it strictly “Grinch Station” during the holidays? It’s supposed to be this great, kid-friendly place, designed to help everyone reach their full potential. Can that even happen . . . without Santa??

Well, whether you call him Santa Claus, Papa Noël, Father Frost, or “Christmas Old Man,” he’s known in most of the world (though not in many African nations). Ranans know about Durga Puja, Ramadan, Bodhi Day, Yom Kippur, Beltane, and Christmas, among many others.

So it’s a pretty good bet that Santa’s touched down on-Station in one form or another, too. How do reindeer, snow, and the North Pole translate, for children growing up in a world that’s eternally in “growing season,” and has none of those things? I think my best answer is to ask in return, “are parents and grandparents who’ve been reared to achieve their full potential likely to be imaginative and adaptable?”

Two live reindeer in fancy harnesses flank an actor dressed as Santa Claus, in the traditional red-and-white suit, with a long white beard.
(Sussex Life/uncredited photographer)

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to Hearing Health Associates, for the “holiday table” photo. I appreciate Quotefancy for the Evelyn Glennie quote about holidays, and I’m indebted too AIRBOYD on YouTube, for the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve broadcast in which the crew read from the book of Genesis. Thank you, “Good Morning Quotes,” for the quote about parties from Mason Cooley. Finally, I’m grateful to Sussex Life for the 2014 “Santa with reindeer” photo. I appreciate you all!

This illustrated quote from author N. K. Jemisin says, “If the first words out of your mouth are to cry ‘political correctness!’, chances are very, very high that you are in fact part of the problem.”

Freedom of Speech Part Two: Not a crime but not okay

Do we really have as much freedom of speech as we think? Do we have more than we realize? Or have we misunderstood the whole concept? Two weeks ago, I started a series of posts on the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Last week I discussed “When Speech is a Crime,” exploring the exceptions to the First Amendment.

Now might be a good moment to remember what the First Amendment actually says.

The text of the First Amendment to the US Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Many thanks to Indivisible Door County WI

In my first post of this series, I asked, “Is the First Amendment an aspiration, or a reality?” I got some pushback in comments online. As one commenter put it, “Of course the First Amendment is a reality. It’s the law!

But that might be an “alternative fact” in daily practice. The founding documents also say “all men are created equal,” and there’s a culture-wide concept that “equal justice under law” is a guiding principle. We haven’t even come close to getting those right, yet. Kinda like with the slaves in Texas between the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth. Just ‘cuz they wrote it, that “don’t mean we got it.”

Freedom of speech, and its limitations

As with all broad declarations of principle, the devil lurks amongst the details. Turns out, freedom of speech is a thorny issue, even (or perhaps especially) in the USA. The section of the First Amendment relevant to today’s post says, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech . . . .

This quote from Benjamin Franklin, reversed out of a painting of Franklin, reads, “Without Freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech.”
Courtesy of “Relatably

That all seems pretty straightforward. But even when the speaker is not committing a crime, s/he may hesitate to say something. There are times when even protected speech may technically be legal—but it also may be socially “not okay.”

Political correctness and “Cancel Culture”

In recent decades several terms have bubbled up from the cultural ferment: “Politically correct,” “cancel culture,” or “call-out culture.” Sometimes people abuse their new power gained through “the leveling effects of social media.” But still I agree with Spencer Kornhaber that it’s less a matter of “cancellation” than accountability.

Whatever you call it, these terms are used defensively. They push back against a changing social norm that abhors racist, sexist or gender-identity-denigrating speech or actions.

The definition for “Cancel Culture” given in this image reads: “Cancel culture is a form of public shaming that tries to hold someone accountable for their actions by publicly calling out their behavior as problematic.”
Courtesy of Parentology.

The pushers-back complain that these shifting social norms result in a climate that stifles freedom of self-expression. An excellent recent example of this can be found in a letter that, while set to be published in the October 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine, has already found its way into wide circulation. The inevitable response to this pushback also is easy to find.

Many, including several prominent comedians, have protested that political correctness “kills humor.” Those who disagree counter by saying what’s dying is out-of-date schtick that relies on bigotry for humor. More on that below.

Thought police? Really?

The complainers also say the country is more and more pervasively dominated by “thought police.” That to step out of line, especially on college campuses, is to risk scorn, ridicule, and ostracism. The critique of campus culture has some merit, as far as it goes. Sometimes unpopular speakers, especially those who support white supremacy or are known for hate speech, are booked for events on some college campuses. Almost inevitably, students have raised loud protests.

This back-and-forth has led to conservative-leaning students saying they feel unwelcome in some classes. They report being afraid to speak their views in classrooms or campus forums, for fear of being shouted down or shunned. The liberal-arts ideal of a “marketplace of ideas” never included this.

This quote from Noam Chomsky says, “If we do not believe in freedom of speech for those we despise we do not believe in it at all.”
Might note that Chomsky signed the Harper’s letter. (Courtesy of Minds Media.)

A short “Political Correctness” debate

Lest this discussion get too heavy, let’s pause for a short “political correctness” debate in the form of a meme war. Contemporary social media culture seems awash in such soundbite messaging. And memes fly in especially thick flurries and flocks when it comes to political correctness. Why not let the memes duke it out?

This photo montage consists of three photo-based memes. 1. In the upper left photo, an angry young woman seems to yell. The meme says, “Judging people by their race and sex is wrong . . .  I wish you privileged white men would get that.” 2. The upper right photo shows a snarling miniature schnauzer dog. The meme says, “That moment you realize . . . that “political correctness is the P.C. euphemism for censorship.” 3. The third is a photo quote from comedian George Carlin that is often used as a meme. It says, “Political Correctness is Fascism pretending to be manners.”
(Clockwise: Politically Incorrect Humor, Lather, via MemeCenter, and Meme Generator)
This photo montage consists of two cartoon images and a photo-based meme. 1. In the upper left image, from Some EE Cards, a man and a woman in old-fashioned clothing embrace each other. The words say, “When I complain about ‘political correctness’ what I’m really saying is that I want to be able to act like a douche without people pointing out that I’m acting like a douche.” 2. In the upper right photo-meme a man gives the camera a squinty-eyed look. The meme reads, “Claim to be against political correctness . . . Call torture an enhanced interrogation technique.” 3. The cartoon at the bottom is by B. Deutsch, titled, “The Straight, Ablebodied, Cis, Rich, White Man’s Burden.” It shows a slender young white man with a day-pack on his back, yelling at four other people bending with effort beneath much larger, bulkier bags. His listeners are a man with a prosthetic, a short-haired woman, a person with vaguely Asian or Hispanic features, and a Black man. The young man with the small pack says, “Why are you people complaining? Can’t you see I’ve got a burden, too?”
(Clockwise: SomEEcards, and “Chris1787763,QuickMeme, and Claire’s Passion Blog/Ampersand by B. Deutch.)
In this photo-based meme, the puffin struts across a grassy surface. The meme says, “Just because your (sic) offended doesn’t mean your (sic) right . . . Just as much as being offensive doesn’t mean your (sic) right either”
(“unusedimgur,” via Imgur)

There now. Who says humor is dead? There are times when we may be tempted to side with the Puffin. Unfortunately, the puffin meme supports a false equivalency.

The philosophical throughline: underlying bigotry

As far as I can tell, there’s one huge problem with the arguments against political correctness. It lies in the kind of “truth” and “humor” they defend.

That “freedom” they desire? It often turns out to be the freedom to use racist or homophobic language. The “truth” they defend? All too often it’s not objective truth, but instead derisive racial or gender-identity stereotypes. The “humor” they want to keep alive boils down to racial slurs and ethnic jokes.

Dig down to the bottom of the “anti-P.C.” arguments, and you’ll mostly find white privilege defending hate speech.

You may be surprised to learn that hate speech normally is protected speech—at least, in the United States. Mind your expressions of racial hate in other parts of the world, though.

Hate Speech, the ultimate “not a crime but not okay.”

Defined as “distasteful, offensive, or hateful speech that causes others to feel grief, anger, or fear,” hate speech truly does offend. But as long as people stop short of hate crimes, they can say pretty much any awful thing they want to.

And they definitely do say despicable things. There are lots of reasons why, but it all boils down to one. White privilege doesn’t want to concern itself with others’ problems and feelings, because it’s never had to do that before. Well, sorry to all you white snowflakes in your gated communities. That’s got to change.

Outside her St. Louis mansion on June 28, 2020, Patricia McCloskey points a handgun at Black Lives Matter protesters, one of whom also appears to be armed. Her husband Mark McCloskey stands farther back behind a hedge with a rifle. Later, Mark McCloskey said he was “scared for my life, protecting my wife.”
Outside her St. Louis mansion on June 28, 2020, Patricia McCloskey points a handgun at Black Lives Matter protesters, one of whom also appears to be armed. Her husband Mark McCloskey stands farther back behind a hedge with a rifle. Later, Mark McCloskey said he was “scared for my life, protecting my wife.” (Photo: CNN).

An unaccustomed concern

I understand. Always having to accommodate another culture takes a lot of effort. You must always think about the other culture’s standards, ideas, perceptions, and understandings. Even if you don’t “get” them.

It’s really hard. You’ll get things wrong, and there’s a price to pay when you do. Sometimes you’re wrong, no matter what you do, just because of what you look like, or where you came from. And you never, ever, get a break from it. That’s uncomfortable and exhausting.

I can almost hear all the Black folks out there saying, “Mmm-mm, you know that’s right.” Because that’s the reality they live every day.

But white people’s moans about “political correctness” are whimpers of a dying privilege. Sooner or later—actually, about 2045 or so—demographics will have their way with this country. No matter how many pathetic little (I’m sorry: “Big, beautiful”) walls we build.

Rather than huddle inside our compounds, if we white people are wise we’ll start expanding our horizons, and working for justice.

This illustrated quote from author N. K. Jemisin says, “If the first words out of your mouth are to cry ‘political correctness!’, chances are very, very high that you are in fact part of the problem.”
Courtesy of Gecko And Fly.

IMAGES:

Many thanks to Indivisible Door County, WI for the First Amendment’s text. I am grateful to Relatably, for the quote-image from Benjamin Franklin, and to Parentology for the “cancel culture” definitionDeepest gratitude to MindsMedia, for the Noam Chomsky quote-image.

MEME-WAR: I’m grateful to Politically Incorrect Humor for the “Judging people” meme, to Lather, via MemeCenter for the Schnauzer image, and to MemeGenerator (no legible additional credit) for the George Carlin quote.

I’m also grateful to SomeEEcards and “Chris 1787763” for the “act like a douche” image, to QuickMeme (no additional credit) for the “P.C. but Torture” meme, and to Ampersand by B. Deutch, via Claire’s Passion Blog on the Penn State University website, for “The Straight, Ablebodied, Cis, Rich, White Man’s Burden” cartoon.

Many thanks for the peace-puffin meme to “unusedimgur,” via Imgur.

MORE IMAGES: Many thanks to CNN for the photo of the McCloskeys confronting BLM protesters, and to Gecko and Fly for the image-quote from the wonderful sf author N. K. Jemisin.

Several signs promote a growing push to defund and demilitarize the police.

Rethinking policing on Rana Station

Rethinking policing has always been an important part of my world-building  for the futuristic world of my science fiction novels. Recent protests and calls to abolish or defund the police have given me fresh material to work with. But they haven’t changed my plans for the series.

Jan S. Gephardt’s current “XK9” books are “The Other Side of Fear,” and “What’s Bred in the Bone.”
At the time this post went live, these were the “XK9 books” available. Cover art for The Other Side of Fear is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk; Cover art for What’s Bred in the Bone is © 2019 by Jody A. Lee.

Balancing reality and fiction

One of the joys of speculative fiction is that you get to make up your own world. That makes it possible to explore all sorts of thought experiments. How would this or that work out, if this or that other thing happened? The challenge that comes with the joy is making your world believable.

I wanted to combine my love of science fiction, dogs, and mystery stories into a science fiction series. 

But I couldn’t assert spontaneously sapient, talking dogs (sure, that’s believable . . . or is it?). No, they’d need to be engineered and equipped. Most people probably wouldn’t do that for a pet. Contemporary smart dogs are already sometimes too smart for their own good. Plus it would be expensive, and take a long time. My fictional dogs needed a job that required the development. I already knew I wanted to write a mystery in this futuristic settingso K9s–police dogs–were a natural choice

A German Shepherd places its paws on a computer keyboard in a police station office. The meme reads, "Saw bad man, bit same. End of Report."
They aren’t using computers yet, but dogs are smarter than we think. (GSCSafety/Donna Clayton/Pinterest)

I set my story on a space-based megastructure built on designs actual rocket scientists thought might work. My canine-cognition, robotics, and other research led me to other extrapolations. I hoped I’d figured it out so my readers could suspend their disbelief, and enjoy the story.

Reality and fiction in policing for Rana Station

But how to portray the police? I knew from the start that TV and movies were no guide. They tend to show cops as good-guy protagonists. They’re frequently wildly erroneous.They often glorify, erase, or excuse terrible misconduct for the sake of drama. 

My original goal was to portray a style of policing that a real police officer could read and think, “yes, this is right. This is how it really works.” 

Never having been a police officer or worked in that world, I had a lot of learning to do. But the more I’ve learned about the way it really worksthe less I think it fits with the rest of how Rana Station is conceived

Several signs held by protesters promote a growing push to defund and demilitarize the police.

The society on Rana Station is yet another thought experiment. This one is steeped in my roots as a teacher in urban schools. I built it on understandings from working on my Master’s degree in Multicultural Education. As one of my characters says in a later chapter of What’s Bred in the Bone, Rana’s “governmental aim is to support the realization of each and every inhabitant-being’s full potential.”

The rest of the surrounding universe looks more like systems we’re unfortunately familiar with. In some ways Ranans themselves don’t live up to their ideals. In others, they do better. Part of the fun is speculating about what might happen when social systems, values, and priorities collide.

Rethinking crime 

One thing about humans: crimes happen. People screw up. They fight. Greed gets the best of them. Con artists run their scams. Passions rise, and sometimes people die. There are plenty of cases to solve, even on Rana Station

But a society built on respect for everyone, and dedicated to supporting their achieving full potential, isn’t going to criminalize many of the things our society uses the police to address.

Members of the Pinellas Sheriff’s Department Forensics Team and St. Petersburg Police gather evidence at a murder scene in St. Petersburg, FL in 2017.
When murders occur, they must be investigated. Members of the Pinellas Sheriff’s Department Forensics Team and St. Petersburg Police gather evidence at a murder scene in St. Petersburg, FL in 2017. (Uncredited/Tampa Bay Times)

Addiction isn’t illegal on Rana Station. People can have small quantities of controlled substances. But authorities regulate potentially dangerous substances and try to stifle smugglingSapient-trafficking is illegal pretty much everywhere (but which beings are sapient?).

Digital thievery plagues everyone. Rana’s “second-story men” (and women) sometimes intrude on residence towers. As in Chapter One of What’s Bred in the Bone, people sometimes get mugged.

Assaults, rapes, and murders do still occur (although there are lots more conflict mediation efforts on Rana Station than in the USA right now).

And the XK9s, along with their human allies, are on the case.

Rethinking policing in more ways than one

But a social system designed to support every inhabitant-being reaching their full potential would not look like our reality. That means not only is the agriculture different. The schools are different. Ranan mental and physical health-care infrastructure is different (to name just a few).
And Ranan policing is different, too.

Today’s “defund” advocates demand some changes that already were planned features on Rana Station. Even before our collective consciousness raising on police use of force. For instance, police won’t be the first responders called for most mental health crises. Mental health professionals called “Listeners” will. Many current “de-criminalize” issues are handled outside of the justice system on Rana.

Police prepare to clear a camp set up by people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco, in 2017.
The criminalization of poverty reaches an extreme when it comes to people experiencing homelessness. Police prepare to clear a “homeless” camp in San Francisco, in 2017. (Judith Calson/San Francisco Public Press)

Readers of What’s Bred in the Bone may recall that the Orangeboro Police Department has a STAT Team (for “Special Tools and Techniques”). I originally called them a “SWAT” Team, but “Special Weapons and Tactics” recalls the old-fashioned militarized unit of contemporary practice. That’s not what I intend to portray.

In very special circumstances some SWAT-like tactics may be needed. Think sharpshooters, or psychologist-trained negotiators. But Ranan STAT teams also embrace what we think of as search-and-rescue,  bomb squads and communications and surveillance specialists. They’re known for saving lives, not kicking doors.

Rethinking police mental and physical health

One major area where my police research appalled me is the real world of police officer/first-responder stress. Rather than write in generalities, I’ll share a summary of an all-too-typical case study. This one’s from the March 2016 AA Grapevine, but unfortunately none of it seemed unusual, or out of step with other cases I’ve studied. 


Erika J.’s story

The writer was a young woman who’d wanted to be a police officer since she was in high school. Right at the start of her first rookie year she had a “suicide by cop” call. Although it was devastating, she felt compelled to “lie my butt off” to the department psychologist so she wouldn’t lose her job

There are so many wrong things, just in that one element of her story.

From the beginning, this young employee understood if she was honest she’d be fired (like most people, she needed her job). She didn’t feel supported, and that pattern continued. Later promoted to detective, she was “the only police officer in town assigned to juvenile cases.” Not surprisingly, the caseload overwhelmed her. She asked for a reassignment after six years, unsure how many more autopsies of abused babies she could handle. Her request was denied.

So she “boarded out” and qualified for a promotion. Later, as a now-sergeant with a 3-month-old breastfeeding infant, they denied a reassignment that would make it easier to care for her baby. “I was told to quit whining and do my job.” There’s more. But if you’re like me you’ve seen enough already. It’s really not surprising this woman developed a problem with alcoholism. The way she was treated–by her brothers (and sisters?) in blue–ought to be criminal.

Mitchell, SD Police Officer Mici Bolgrean does paperwork.
Stress and feelings of isolation can build up for cops if they’re not given adequate support. Mitchell, SD Police Officer Mici Bolgrean does paperwork. Only 5% of South Dakota officers are female. (Sean Ryan/Republic)

So many wrong things

Instead, it’s not uncommon. She probably got more grief because she was a woman (way to diversify, people!!). But male officers don’t get much less pressure. That old-school police culture is toxic, no matter who’s on the receiving end. As other pressures in society build virulence, police officer suicides have hit an upward trend.

Cops also work long hours with few breaks and little access to healthy food. That’s why you see so many fat officers after they’ve been on the job for a while. They’re usually not so much lazy as stressed-out and overextended. You won’t be surprised that police officers are at 30-70% more risk of sudden cardiac arrest than others, when thrown into stressful situations.

It’s not an acceptable reason, but it’s easy to see how some officers grow jaded, callous, or abusive. That kind of job environment is practically a formula for inappropriately-displaced aggression. Give that human powder-keg a racist system to work in, a history of oppression, and a gun, and you have a police brutality offense just looking for some “uppity” brown-skinned person to trigger it. 

Rethinking policing in a better way

Ranan culture doesn’t put up with any of these ways of doing things. They are stupid, counter-productive, and deeply destructive. Excuse me while I’m “unrealistic,” and explore a better way.

We need to ask why our own contemporary society puts up with those stupid, destructive ways of doing things. Must we abolish the police and start over from scratch to get rid of rampant, racist old-school police culture? If so, it might be a better way of rethinking policing than many people believe.

IMAGE CREDITS:

The covers of my books are from my Jan S. Gephardt’s Artdog Adventures website. Many thanks to Greater St. Cloud Public Safety Foundation, via Donna Clayton’s Pinterest Board, for the K9-making-a-report meme. I’m grateful to The Hill, for the photo of the “defund” protesters. Many thanks to the Tampa Bay Times for the photo of the murder scene investigation. I am grateful to Judith Calson of the San Francisco Public Press, for the photo of the police outside the “homeless camp.” and thanks also to the Mitchell (SD) Republic and photographer Sean Ryan for the photo of Mitchell, SD Police Officer Mici Bolgrean at work.

This meme shows police violently throwing a protester on the ground. The superimposed words read "Protect and serve Yer doin it wrong"

Abolish the police?

If we abolish the police in the 21st Century, why should people need XK9s in the future? 

Wait! That wasn’t the question at the top of your mind?

Here are Jan's XK9 books, that she'd published by June 2020: "The Other Side of Fear," and "What's Bred in the Bone."
Learn more about Jan’s XK9 Books on her website. She writes science fiction police procedurals about sapient police dogs on a space station. Cover artwork for The Other Side of Fear is © 2020 by Lucy A. SynkCover artwork for What’s Bred in the Bone is © 2019 by Jody A. Lee

Actually, it wasn’t my first question, either (although I do have answers). When I originally learned about the movement to abolish the police, my first question was why would we do that? 

Then I realized that by asking that question I had already marked myself as a person who owns property and benefits from white privilege

Clearly, there was a disconnect happening. I needed to remedy it by educating myself.

Why would we abolish the police?

Let’s start with my “Why would we abolish the police?” question. The answer depends on why the questioner thinks the police exist. Well, their motto is “to protect and serve.” But protect what? Serve whom? That’s where it starts to get dicey

This meme shows police violently throwing a protester on the ground. The superimposed words read "Protect and serve Yer doin it wrong"
(Meme courtesy of Cheezeburger.)

Functionally, throughout their history police forces have existed to protect the property and persons of some of the people from basically everyone else (except when they don’t protect property or the personal safety of civilians). And in recent days we’ve heard many authorities cite “protecting property from destruction” as a reason for cracking down on protesters who linger past curfews.

They also don’t exist to protect public safety in all the ways we tend to believe they do. Did you know that according to the Supreme Court, the police are not obligated to protect a person from physical harm, even when it is threatened? 

Above all, they primarily exist to serve the current power structure, for well or ill. And that’s a big part of the problem. If you have a racist or corrupt power structure, police exist to support it

Police in riot gear advance in a line through billowing blue tear gas smoke, with their batons out.
Minneapolis police advance through tear gas on a group of protesters. (Photo courtesy of Scott Olson/Getty Images, via NPR).

Do we have a racist or corruptible power structure in the USA?

I feel kind of silly, even writing that question. Of course we do.

We certainly have a racist power structure in the USA. If anyone can have lived through the last several years and still doubt that, they probably live in a gated community, are relatively wealthy, white, and only watch Fox News. In other words, they very carefully tune out many distressing aspects of reality

But you can’t close your eyes, cover your ears, yell “La-la-la-la!” and magically transport yourself into a post-racial America. No such place exists.

Do we have a corruptible power structure in the USA? A look at the situation in Ferguson, MO, in 2014 offers a window on such a power structure. It was a community mostly run by the minority population of white people, with a mostly white police force.Racial profiling led to repeated arrests for petty infractions, and jail time when fines weren’t paid. The city basically criminalized poverty, as well as driving or doing almost any other action while black.

A person holds a poster that lists all kinds of things people weren't safely able to do "while black."
The most discouraging part? This list only hits the “famous ones.” (photo courtesy of KISS).

But wait! The police are the “good guys!” Right?

Well, they’re certainly supposed to be. Both in real life and in our mediathey’re portrayed as (and quite often are)braveself-sacrificing, and strong protectors of the weak or vulnerable

A white DC police officer interacts pleasantly with several black kids, in a demonstration of community policing.
The District of Columbia has been at the forefront of the “community policing” effort. But is it enough? Many don’t think so. (Photo courtesy of Governing)

But again, whether you view them as good guys or not depends on your experiences. After some of the experiences and understandings explored in this blog post, you may be starting to feel less happy with the police.

But . . . abolish the police? Entirely? Is that realistic? And is it even remotely desirable? Don’t we actually need the police for a lot of important things?
What about murders? What about armed robbery? Car theft? Rape? Human trafficking? Fraud? How would we deal with those things, if there were no police? I have yet to find comprehensive answers from the “abolish” advocates, other than promoting a decentralized approach that parcels out some duties to other agencies. 

But unpacking many of the angles will take at least another blog post or so. I’m looking forward to examining how the “abolish” and “defund” advocates may turn out to inform (or not)the process of reforming, reducing or in some cases completely dismantling the ways policing is done–as well as implications for the future (both ours in reality, and in my science fiction).

IMAGE CREDITS:

The covers of Jan’s books are from her website. The meme about protecting and serving “the right way” is from Cheezeburger. The photo of the cops and the tear gas is courtesy of Scott Olson/Getty Images, via NPR. The very long list of unsafe things to do “while black” is from KISS, and the photo of the officer doing “community policing” is from Governing. Many thanks to all!

This Muhammad Ali quote says, "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth."

What are our priorities?

I think we all understand that life will change after the pandemic, but what are our priorities? What guiding principles will light our way and inform those changes? In the face of glaring inequities revealed by the crisis, I worry about this.

Perhaps I should explain where I stand. I believe that the proper role of government is to defend and work for its citizensAll of them, not just the rich and powerful. This idealistic view parallels passages in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, or, at least it does the way I was taught to read them.

Unfortunately, what we see unfolding in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic all too often reflects different priorities.

Priorities revealed

It’s a truism that we don’t really know what we’re made of till we’re tested. 

This quote from Warren W. Wiersbe reads, "After all, a crisis doesn't make a person; it reveals what a person is made of."
Many thanks to QuoteFancy, for this quote from Warren W. Wiersbe.

For every prediction that smart investors should migrate to renewable energy, there also seems to be a view to the contrary that “We can no longer indulge the impulses of “environmental” activists. Sanitary plastic grocery bags are safer than reusables. Mass transit and densely-packed cities spread infections. Automobiles and suburban/rural living are healthier,” as Jerry Shenk put it recently.

Other decision-making whipsaws reflect just as little consensus. Whose priorities should we value? Whose should we reject as unworthy? 

Varied views of future outcomes

I’ve read interesting stories about wildlife venturing into areas where traffic has dropped off. Others about historically clean air in places where traffic has dropped off. And one about ways to make cities more walking friendly and keep car traffic at lower levels after the pandemic (see a trend, there?).

I’ve seen several articles about ordinary people’s decimated savings. Others explore the disastrous effect of recent public policies. And a flood of new ways for creative people to grow their businesses continues as people discover new and old techniques. 

Not only that, but there are predictions about ways our minds will change about things such as social distancingwork from homechild care, and universal health care. I’ve also read more cynical predictions about how some will spin retrospectives to skew perceptions if possible.

This quote from James Baldwin says, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."
Many thanks to Goalcast, for this quote from James Baldwin.

Our decisions reveal our priorities

Most of my fellow countrymen/women are pretty decent folks, as individuals. We’ve seen gallant examples of selflessnessself-sacrifice, and public spirit as this pandemic rolls out. These warm my heart and give me hope.

Some of my most-accessed blog posts in recent weeks have been those about ways to thank first responders, and how to understand and respond to their stress.

Many Americans–many people all over the world–understand the deep things. The value of honest work, the worth of a thank-you, the joy of praising admirable deeds.

This Muhammad Ali quote says, "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth."
Many thanks to Discover Corps for this quote from Muhammad Ali.

But we’ve also seen a different spirit. 

It reveals itself in the unseemly scramble of large, publicly-traded companies grabbing up vast sums of money meant to go to small businesses struggling to stay afloat. The rules allowed it, so they grabbed. Some of them gave it back once they were caught. 

We’ve also seen banks garnish stimulus money from overdrawn customers, pre-empting what was meant to be grocery and rent money from ever reaching the desperate would-be recipients.

And we’ve seen crowds of closely-packed protestors, mostly white folk with guns, demanding that the lockdowns be ended immediately so they can get haircuts, among other things. They claim a constitutional right to liberty, plus economic insecurity, drives them. Although other motives have been noted.

What are our priorities? 

Now is the moment for us to decide. Are things more important than people?

Is our convenience more important than other people’s lives? Do we even have the right to make the decision that it is?

Who gets to decide how many deaths are “acceptable losses”–and, acceptable to exactly whom?

Do we live in a country that is of, by, and most especially for the people? All of the people? And, for this question’s purposes, corporations are not people, my friend. 

This quote from Mahatma Gandhi says, "The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members."

I very much worry how history will evaluate our true measure, based on how we order our priorities today.

How do you think we should form–and inform–the priorities that will guide us into the future? What are you doing to join that conversation?

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to QuoteFancy, for the Warren W. Wiersbe quote; to GoalCast, for the quote from James Baldwin; to DiscoverCorps, for the quote from Muhammad Ali; and to AZ Quotes, for the Mahatma Gandhi quote. I appreciate you all!

Report from the Swamp Thing

Some reports come from me as the Author Ascendant; this is a report from the Swamp Thing.

On normal weeks, I like to write a thoughtful post about something that’s caught my attention or is part of a series, on Wednesdays. I think of it as my “main” post of the week. 

This has not been a normal week

This photo shows a beautiful sunny day in the swamp forest surrounding Colakreek in Suriname, as well as three people swimming in the dark waters of the creek.
The “The almost black water of Colakreek in Suriname is popular for recreational swimming,” according to the photographer, a person using the name Forrestjunky. Of course it is.

Becoming a Swamp Thing

The past two days have felt like wading through a metaphorical swamp. In the fullness of time, this’ll be “old hat.” I keep clinging to that thought. But anyone who’s gone through the process of bringing a book into published form knows how much fun the “maiden voyage” is (not).

It seems like I’ve been dragging my dinghy full of dreams through muddy waters and masses of mangroves. As if I’ve waded through waist-deep bayous of online forms that ask arcane questions, the like of which I’ve never had to answer before. 

This is a photo taken during the annual Riverland Dinghy Derby in Australia. It shows a man in a helmet leaning over the front end of a red dinghy, as it cuts through green water in the middle of a swampy grassland. What we can't tell is that the boat is traveling at speeds up to 50 mph, and that guy is effing crazy to stick his head out like this, holding down the front of his boat.
This guy is not dragging his dinghy–he’s holding down the front end. We Americans have no corner on the “wild and crazy” market. This is a photo from an Australian event, the Riverland Dinghy Derby, during which two-man crews race through a swamp at speeds up to 50 mph. My efforts this week never reached a parallel velocity.

I’ve striven to raise coherent, properly-formatted graphics up out of the muck of previous musings and hastily-jotted notes. I’ve fended off biting swarms of glitches, frozen forms, and rebooted programs. And I’ve beaten back time-sucking leeches of error messages that come with opaque reasons that offer little insight about how to address the flagged problem.

This photo shows a line of mangroves, which look like brown mats of roots rising out of fairly calm brown water, with vibrant green, spearhead-shaped leaves opened upward to catch the sunlight.
Real mangroves are incredibly valuable plants, bridging land and sea, and doing way more than their share to sequester carbon, stabilize the land, and provide natural breakwaters from storm surges. These grow “on the banks of Vellikeel river in Kannur District of Kerala, India,” according to photographer Lamiot.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Swamps and wetlands are really valuable, essential ecosystems. Far from being “wastelands,” they are among the most vitally important natural places to preserve. But your average human is generally at a disadvantage in that terrain. 

Evolving to Thrive in the Self-Publishing Swamp

We bipedal land-mammals would navigate them better if we really were Swamp Things. It is my aspiration to someday be a publishing-website “Swamp Thing,” who floats past the flotsam and parses the particulars with ease. But in this report from the Swamp Thing, I’m still wearing my swim fins.

This is a screen capture of the front, spine, and back covers for my paperback book, as formatted into their IngramSpark template.
Here’s a screen-capture of the project that ate most of my day. Finally uploaded, but still under review. The cover artwork is © 2019 by Jody A. Lee. The rest of the design and art direction is all my fault.

All joking and metaphor aside, however, I’ve finally made it to the point where I’m hovering on the brink of offering What’s Bred in the Bone for pre-sale and Advance Reader Copies. Stand by. There will be another report from the Swamp Thing soon! (Even if I’m still just starting to grow my gills).

IMAGES

Many, many thanks to Forrestjunky and Wikimedia, for the right to use (and in my case crop) the photo  of Colakreek in Suriname. I also appreciate New 99.1 Country from Ft. Collins, CO, for the photo and story about the Riverlands Dinghy Derby–oh, what a “hold my beer and watch this,” moment that race must be. And finally, I deeply appreciate photographer Lamiotand Wikipedia, for the permission to share a photo of some of the Kannur District’s mangroves. As noted in the caption, The cover artwork is © 2019 by Jody A. Lee. The rest of the design and art direction is all my fault.

In this photo from the original Star Trek series, Leonard Nimoy as “Mr. Spock” sits at the console of what looked in the mid-1960s like a very futuristic computer array. The console has a black frame with readout windows that shows many different-colored, glowing rectangles above a console covered with buttons and toggle-switches. Nimoy’s costume consisted of a blue velour tunic with a black collar and a Starfleet badge. His character’s black hair has straight-line-cut bangs and the pointy ears that became iconic. Photo courtesy of “Subspace Communicator” blog, collected in 2018.

Design fiction and science fiction

Have you ever heard of design fiction? WALDENLABS’ John Robb explains it this way: “Design fiction is a way for designers and artists to visually depict the future in inspiring ways. Typically, design fiction is associated with how technology will change our future.” But in my opinion he misses an important aspect of design fiction with this definition.

What is “design fiction”?

Robb offers examples of companies that are developing products they want to promote. To do that, they’ve put together videos to show how those products might be used in the future. He suggested that one by Corning, “A Day Made of Glass,” is an excellent example (see above).

It was made in 2011, but it still looks pretty futuristic . . . except in a few of the ways that women are portrayed. Did you catch them? Some are subtle, others quite blatant. What struck me most forcibly however, was how old that “art form” of design fiction by companies making products really is, and how it actually misses the mark if you want to think of it as “art.”

In my opinion, Robb conflates corporate design fiction with science fiction wrongly. He points to Star Trek‘s best-known innovations. That show’s  communicators inspired the development of cell phones. Their glass computers later came into reality as touchscreens. Science fiction readers need not look far to point out other innovations first portrayed in sf. But they were made for a different purpose.

In this photo from the original Star Trek series, Leonard Nimoy as “Mr. Spock” sits at the console of what looked in the mid-1960s like a very futuristic computer array. The console has a black frame with readout windows that shows many different-colored, glowing rectangles above a console covered with buttons and toggle-switches. Nimoy’s costume consisted of a blue velour tunic with a black collar and a Starfleet badge. His character’s black hair has straight-line-cut bangs and the pointy ears that became iconic. Photo courtesy of “Subspace Communicator” blog, collected in 2018.
Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and his shipmates used an inspiring computer unlike anything the 1960s had seen before. But Star Trek wasn’t “design fiction.” That is, it was created to tell engaging stories, not sell computers.

The difference between design fiction and science fiction

Note that corporate design fiction is created for different reasons than science fiction. At recent sf conventions, I participated in programming that showed examples of corporate design fiction from the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s.

Those visions focused on kitchens, cars, and houses. They presented fascinating glimpses, but they were made primarily as marketing tools. Companies developed them to create brand identity and to sell the companies’ products of that day. The design fiction imagery associated their products with futuristic visions. It was a way to say “we’re advanced!”

Here’s an example of futuristic design fiction from 1956.

Doesn’t sf have an agenda, too?

Science fiction offers a viewpoint, of course. But each individual science fiction writer develops their own unique viewpoint. An author may represent more than one viewpoint, over a lifetime of work. But science fiction is not primarily designed to preach, teach, or sell products.

Our wheelhouse is different. We shine a light on new thoughts, ideas, and potential problems . . . and also always to entertain, beguile, and if possible, enrich our readers’ lives. If those technological wonders we invent in the course of doing that become real someday, well, that’s icing on the cake.

About the Author

I’m Jan S. Gephardt, and I’ve been writing this blog since 2009. As you might guess from this topic, I write science fiction, as well as make paper sculpture. Learn more about my XK9 series from my publishing company, Weird Sisters Publishing. I originally wrote this post in 2018 and updated it in 2024.

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to Corning via YouTube, for the “A Day Made of Glass” video. Thank you, CBS Sunday Morning, for the 1956 GM vision of the “car of the future.” And I’m grateful to Subspace Communique for the photo of Mr. Spock and his computer.

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