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Tag: XK9 Books

Covers for Jan's three "Cops in Space" books, "The Other Side of Fear," "What's Bred in the Bone," and "A Bone to PIck."

What should police do?

By Jan S. Gephardt

We rarely think to ask a fundamental question: what should police do? What part should they play in a multicultural, representational democracy? The ubiquity of police forces around the world argues that many societies believe police do have a role in civilized life. But what – exactly – should it be?

As a novelist whose primary characters are science fictional detectives, I am in an unusual position, both to ask and to answer this question. But I believe it’s also a question everyone should ask. Especially every citizen in a representational, multicultural democracy.

Why should we ask? Isn’t the answer to that question obvious? Well, no. We’ve all grown up “pre-loaded” with conscious and unconscious attitudes and understandings of what police officers and police forces do, and why they exist. But clearly, those seldom-examined attitudes and understandings aren’t leading to very good outcomes. Not in much of the world. And certainly not here in the United States.

"Understand, our police officers put their lives on the line for us every single day. They've got a tough job to do to maintain public safety and hold accountable those who break the law." - Barack Obama.
Many thanks to BrainyQuote.

Asking as a Novelist

One of the best things science fiction does is hold up a mirror to society. If you think about it, all fiction does that in a certain way, because all fiction is a reflection of our experiences of life. I’ve written elsewhere about the role of the novelist in society. And yes, a fundamental aspect of our work is purely to produce entertainment.

But it’s not the only aspect. I would (and frequently do) argue that it may not even be the most important aspect, particularly in the realm of science fiction. That’s because science fiction is all about thought experiments.

When we start asking “what if?” a whole multiverse of possibilities opens up. What if a recent scientific discovery led to a new technological breakthrough? How would that change the world we live in? What if our society continues on its current course in this aspect, what might the future look like? How would our world change? How would we react?

So, as a novelist who writes about police in a future society, I must ask “What Should Police Do?”

"My role as a novelist is to explore ideas and imagination, and hopefully that will inspire people from my world to continue dreaming and to believe in dreams." - Alexis Wright.
Thanks again, BrainyQuote!

Asking as a Citizen

But I’m also a citizen: of the world, and also specifically of my country and community. I’m a taxpayer, a voter, a member of “the public.” I can be sliced and diced out and defined demographically, culturally, and any other way you choose. Mother. Wife. Daughter. Woman. Educated. Teacher (retired). Middle class. United Methodist. White. Senior citizen. Democrat. Science fiction fangirl. Creative person. Animal lover. Multiculturalist. I am all of those things and more.

And as that complex, multi-aspect creature, I bring all of my experiences, understandings, and biases into my role as a responsible adult in contemporary society. For me, that involves an active interest in news and politics. I have formed some rather strong opinions over the course of my life. Each day I refine them or adjust them or reinforce them as I receive and process information.

I see it as my right – indeed, my responsibility – as a citizen to ask if my government and community leaders are representing me and governing in a way I think is appropriate. Are they respecting and honoring values I share? If they’re not, then I have a right to question them, and to seek better representation. As do we all.

This means, as a citizen in contemporary society, I must ask “What Should Police Do?”

"Each day, millions of police officers do the selfless work of putting their lives on the line to protect civilians, frequently responding to or preventing crises completely with no recognition." - Letitia James
You’re now 3-0, BrainyQuote!

What Do We Ask Police To Do?

We currently ask police to fill a wide range of roles. “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” Dallas Police Chief David Brown said in a 2016 interview by the Washington Post. “We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. … Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. … That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

I tend to agree with Chief Brown. As a teacher, I learned all too much about the many things our communities want to dump in the laps of their public servants. Usually while also underpaying them, restricting their operating budgets, and asking them to do work they never trained or signed up for. I get it, and I agree.

But what problems are the police meant to solve? Unlike some observers on the leftward end of the spectrum, I do believe there is a role for police in society. Unlike some observers on the rightward end of the spectrum, I don’t believe we will ever be well served by our current system. Certainly not when it’s focused on criminalizing poverty and mental illness. Not when it majors on crackdowns on minority populations and small offenders. And certainly not when it perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline.

This graph charts United States crime clearance rates in 2020, the most recent year for which the statistics are available. “Murder and nonnegligent homicide:54.4%. Aggravated assault: 46.6%. Violent crime: 41.7%. Rape: 30.6%. Robbery: 28.8%. Arson: 21.5%. Larceny-theft: 15.1%. Property crime: 14.6%. Burglary: 14.%. Motor vehicle theft: 12.3%”
Graphic ©2023 by Statistia.

What Problems WERE Police Meant to Solve?

If you were to ask the average “person on the street” this question, they’d probably say “Solve crimes,” or maybe “keep public order,” or perhaps “enforce the law.” Fair enough. So, how well are they doing?

Let’s take that first one, “solve crimes.” A look at the crime clearance rates (percentages of crimes that are cleared in a given year) is downright discouraging. “Clearance rate,” by the way, does not mean the full Law & Order-style litany of captured, charged, tried, and convicted. No, “clearance” means at least one person has been arrested and charged, or it means the probable perpetrator(s) are identified, but outside circumstances make arresting and charging them impossible. For two examples, circumstances could include that they died. Or maybe they’re in another country from which we can’t extradite them. Stuff does happen sometimes.

Clearance rates vary by the type of crime. But according to Statistia.com the only type that gets solved more than half the time in the USA is “murder and non-negligent homicide.” The clearance rate for that is 54.4%.

Flunking Crime-Solving

Think about it. That’s only a bit better than a 50-50 chance that any given murder will be solved. If I were grading a test and my student made a 54.4% on it, their grade would be an F (On a normal grading scale, 0-60% = an F). And that’s the best they do! You want them to solve your burglary? Sorry to tell you, but you have only a 14% chance that the perpetrator will be caught and charged with the crime. Someone stole your truck? Oh, dear. You only have a 12.3% chance they’ll ever arrest the thief.

So, basically, police in the United States flunk at crime-solving. Why? Well, there are a lot of reasons, and many of them are tied up in the other answers to the question “What should police do?”

"When you have police officers who abuse citizens, you erode public confidence in law enforcement. That makes the job of good police officers unsafe." - Mary Frances Berry
Thanks yet again, BrainyQuote!

What Should Police Do to “Serve and Protect”?

What does “keep public order,” “enforce the law,” or “protect people” look like, when it’s happening? Does “keeping public order” mean bulldozing camps of unhoused persons? Or imposing a curfew on a small population’s free movement during a specific part of the day or in a specific place? Does it mean beating or injuring protesters? The words “keeping public order” have been used to justify all of those actions.

On the other hand, it also could mean directing traffic away from an accident. Maybe it means repelling a violent insurrection from the Capitol. And it could mean shielding a person who has not been convicted of any crime from a lynch mob that wants to kill them. It’s an umbrella phrase, broad and nonspecific enough to be both used and abused.

Standards Without Clarification

And in the end, it’s not a very helpful standard without further clarification. The seemingly obvious “protect people” brings the same host of issues when we try to apply it to specific cases. Which people are the police to protect? From whom or what? In a racist, sexist society (don’t kid yourself: that’s this one), how many ways could that go wrong?

“Enforce the law” is only deceptively “more specific.” Does that mean “enforce all the laws, all the time?” By that standard, most of us should be, or should have been, arrested at many points in our lives.

People are fallible. There are times when we’re sick and can’t cut the noxious weeds in our front yard. Or we’re forgetful and only notice later that our driver’s license has expired. Perhaps we’re tired or in a hurry, so we jaywalked when we saw an opening, instead of walking down to the corner and waiting for the lights to change. Minor traffic violations, legally carrying a gun, or simply walking down the street have resulted in citizens being killed by police in the name of “enforcing the law.”

"Accountability for police officers should be an expectation, not an aberration." - Alex Padilla
You rock, BrainyQuote!

Okay, so: What SHOULD Police Do?

As we’ve seen, that’s a really problematic question! But, both as a citizen and as a novelist, I want to find better answers to it. I cannot endorse a blanket approach such as “abolish the police.” I’m not a fan of “defund,” either. Neither of those represent where I think this conversation should go.

On the other hand, a thoroughgoing interrogation of that “what should police do?” question isn’t going to deal kindly with old-school “cop culture.” Not with many contemporary police training techniques and approaches, either. Nor even with a fair number of contemporary laws and standards.

Yes, dear reader, you’ve probably figured out by now that I’m cueing up a series of blog posts on this topic. I’m not sure how long it’ll be. Considering our upcoming publication schedule, it most definitely won’t be every single post for the next umpty-dozen times without a break!

But over the next few months, I propose to take up one aspect of “what should police do?” at a time. I’ll examine how it’s currently being handled in the USA, survey the critiques, and then explain “how we handle it on Rana Station” and why I think that might work better. I hope you’ll find the series interesting.

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to BrainyQuote (what would I have done without you for this post?) and Statistia.

Screen-capture of a monitor with the signature Star-Trek-style interface from a “The Next Generation” episode.

Creating a calendar for Rana Station

Since our prehistory, humans have focused on creating a calendar, then using it to keep time. We’ve based calendars on the seasons, the sun, and the moon. We’ve scratched symbols into clay, bone or stone, dug sequences of pits, erected poles, or even dragged enormous stones for fabulous distances, all to get a handle on “WHEN are we?

But creating a calendar that’s accurate over a long period of time is a harder thing to do on Earth than one might think it should be. That’s because a year—one revolution of the Earth around the sun—takes approximately 365.242189 days.

That pesky fraction of a day has been driving humans to distraction (and to doing higher math) for millennia. We’ve created intercalary days, weeks, or even months to periodically adjust our calendars and keep them accurate. (It’s enough to give one an embolism—sorry; bad joke: use the hyperlink to look at definitions 2 and 3).

How long is a year—in space?

Of course, Earth is in space, so that’s a silly question. A year is however long it takes to orbit the local star once. That’s different for every planet, planetoid, asteroid, moon, or other space-based object, because all orbit on different paths.

Including Rana Station. At least, up to a point. But when you’re creating a calendar for an exoplanet in a different system, a variety of rules may apply.

I’m certainly not the only sf writer to approach the problem of if—and if so, whatcalendar to use in their stories. Probably one of the best-known science fictional calendars is Star Trek’sStardate” system.

Screen-capture of a monitor with the signature Star-Trek-style interface from a “The Next Generation” episode.
TNG episode screen-capture via Memory Alpha Fandom.

It stands to reason that if you use the “Captain’s Log” as a framing device, you need a login time/date for it to feel authentic. The Stardate sounds futuristic, but what do those numbers really mean? Turns out they have less to do with futuristic dates than they do with episodes and seasons of the show.

Problems to solve, for Rana Station

I haven’t specified an exact future century in which my XK9 stories are set, or in what existing star system. In a time-honored sfnal tradition, I chose to set it “far away, in a different time,” rather than get too specific. Sometimes I tell people it’s set in the “Twenty-Fourth-and-a-Half Century!!

I’m more interested in telling my chosen stories than I am in charting a detailed and inevitably-wrong predictive “history” of future umpty-centuries. Who knows what technologies will have been developed, lost, and then recreated (or not) by then? In a multiverse, does it really matter?

But when we get down to more immediate times and dates, I needed to go into more detail. Year-dates within the Chayko System all begin from the time humans arrived in-system, after they were granted permission by the Alliance to claim the planet. Rana Stationers also often speak of the Ranan year (0-94, as of The Other Side of Fear), meaning how many (Chaykoan) years people have lived there. There are reference sources they can use when they need to cite Alliance-wide dates or Earth dates.

But, as I discussed in last week’s post, Rana Stationers hail from many different Earth origins, and they’ve preserved many of their heritage customs, including religions and holidays.

Celebrating Earth holidays outside the Solar system

Creating a calendar is actually not that hard, if it’s for a fictional time and place “somewhere out there.” And if you aren’t trying to connect it in any way with Earth. Perhaps this is one reason why so many sf writers destroy our Earth in the “history” leading up to their story.

It’s also pretty easy to see how many holidays of Earth origin could be adapted to local conditions on an exoplanet. It’s entirely likely that the new planet would have seasons, and shorter or longer periods of daylight throughout the course of its year. Holidays based on solstices and equinoxes? No problem!

Lunar calendars would be more of a problem, though. Islam, Theravada Buddhism, and other world religions base their holiday timing on phases and cycles of Earth’s moon. But what if your planet has no moon? Or if it has several? What if you live on a moon?

A brown horse looms over a small trail of dots on a wall in Lascaux, France. A mystery for years, scientists now believe those dots may be the oldest lunar calendar ever found. The map at right shows locations of Lascaux and Peche Merle caves in France, plus Altamira in Spain. All contain priceless Paleolithic art.
At L, a line of dots may be a 15,000-year-old lunar calendar inside Lascaux cavern in France. At R, a map shows locations of three caves filled with stunning prehistoric art: Altamira, Lascaux, and Peche Merle. (BBC News/Khan Academy)

Chayko, for instance, is the human-inhabited planet in my XK9 stories. It has two small moons that used to be part of its planetary mass. They orbit closer to the planet than our Earth’s moon, and exert complex influences on Chaykoan oceans, ecosystems, and organisms that only sometimes resemble the effect of our moon on Earth.

Problems timing Earth holidays on Rana Station

Creating a calendar for naturally-occurring planetary bodies and their moons is one thing. What about a space station such as Rana? No moons. Banks of computerized mirrors adjust continually to reflect light from the system’s star into the sky-windows, filtered and directed to provide an optimal light spectrum for crop growth. On-Station, there are no moving shadows to contend with, as there are on Earth, no daily “rotation of the sun” (although the habitat wheels rotate, people can’t really see that from inside).

It’s always “high noon” on Rana Station, except for periods when the light is dimmed to simulate dusk, dawn, or full-on night. My illustrator friends Jody A. Lee and Lucy A. Synk have both complained about this. They’re right: Light and shadow patterns at noon are boring. They’re also unhelpful for creating 3-D visual effects.

But they’re great for delivering consistent light to growing crops. Days on Rana Station are always the same length. The temperature range is always optimal for a variety of agriculture. It’s not exactly “Camelot,” but the effect is something like living in a perpetually-ideal subtropical zone.

Distant crops grow on the terraces of Starboard Hill on Rana Station.
Detail from artwork ©2020 by Jody A. Lee.

Planet Chayko is only 23 hours away from Rana. This makes it a far more relevant context-point for Ranans than faraway Earth (two jump-points away). But Chayko has a slightly smaller mass, a slightly faster spin, and a somewhat longer orbit than Earth. No unaltered Earth calendar will work there.

Just coordinating a conference call between Rana and Chayko is hard enough! Setting any kind of Earth-relevant timing for a holiday is an exercise in number-crunching frustration. Clearly, compromises must be made.

Intercalary days to the rescue!

Planet Chayko does have seasons. It does have solstices and equinoxes. Thus, it’s possible to divide the year into twelve, fairly equal periods, named after Earth months. Yes, in the XK9 books, January, February, and all the other months we know as part of Earth’s most widely-used Gregorian Calendar have gone to space.

But the plain fact remains that a slightly faster spin and a slightly longer orbit both mean more days in the year than 365.2425 (or 365.242189, depending on your preferred approach). On Chayko (and consequently on Rana Station), every month contains 6 to 10 intercalary days not found on Earth calendars (Yes, February the 32nd is an actual date on Chayko—and therefore, on Rana Station).

We’re used to the December holidays being on similar days each year.
We’re used to the December holidays being on similar days each year. (Digital Illustration by Jan S. Gephardt, with lots of help from 123rf stock images.)

This means that Chaykoan Solstice and Christmas, for instance, don’t happen at the same interval as they do on Earth. In fact, Christmas, which always happens on December 25, often occurs before the Chaykoan northern hemisphere’s Winter Solstice.

Practitioners of several faiths that traditionally have varied their dates according to the lunar calendar have opted to follow the lead of Mahayana Buddhists, and celebrate formerly-variable holidays on fixed dates. Others use dates established on Earth for the closest year to the Chaykoan cycle. As you might imagine, disputes have arisen (dogmatists will be dogmatic, after all).

But somehow, they managed this business of creating a calendar. Somehow, things happen about the same time each year. And at some point, all the holidays get celebrated.

Even if it takes till December the 40th.

IMAGE CREDITS:

VIDEOS: Many thanks to National Geographic on YouTube for the clip from “Stonehenge Decoded,” and to “Jayypeezy” on YouTube for the clip of “Duck Dodgers in the 24th-and-a-Half-Century.”

PHOTOS: I’m grateful to Memory Alpha Fandom, for the screen-capture of Jean-Luc Picard’s “Captain’s Log.” Thanks very much to BBC News, for the photo of the world’s oldest known lunar calendar from the Chamber of the Bulls in France’s Lascaux Cavern. The map of caves known for Paleolithic art is ©Google, via Khan Academy.

ILLUSTRATIONS: The partial glimpse of agriculture on the terraces of Starboard Hill in the Sirius River Valley is ©2020 by Jody A. Lee; all rights reserved. I created the calendar illustration using images from 123rf. Many thanks to all!

Recent political-comment books

Politics in Science Fiction

Do you read science fiction as an escape? If you hoped the politics would die down after the election, and now you just want to get away from it all in a sci-fi world, I’ll try to break this gently. Politics in science fiction is pretty much baked-in.

No romance, no adventure story, no mystery, and no historical drama can completely evade society or politics, even when it’s not the focus. But most of these are based on actual events or places. If your romance is set in Tuscany, or if your historical novel takes place in Kublai Khan’s court, certain rules are already set.

But sf was kinda built for political or social comment. Science fiction can range from a simple town hall to a matrilineal nest-colony. But every sf story resides in a world that the author chose to create that way. For a reason.

Sometimes it’s just the wallpaper

Covers for Murderbot stories: “All Systems Red,” “Artificial Condition,” “Rogue Protocol,” “Exit Strategy,” “Network Effect,” and “Fugitive Telemetry.”
Jaime Jones illustrates the “Murderbot Stories” of Martha Wells, from Tor.com Publishing. Cover images courtesy of Martha Wells.

Would-be escapists take heart! Politics in science fiction novels isn’t always center-stage. Some sf authors choose the “background political system” more for plot-utility.

Martha Wells’ “Murderbot” stories take place in a system quite different from our own. What kind of place would allow such a cyborg to be made and exploited? We can believe this world would. It’s not obviously presented as a dystopia, but a writer with a different story purpose could actively portray it as one.

But maybe you’d rather take out your political frustrations in another way.

Dystopia

Maybe you’d like to see characters triumph over their politically- or socially-caused adversity. In that case, the politics in science fiction of certain kinds may be right up your alley. Perhaps counter-intuitively, some of the most inspirational science fiction unfolds in a dystopian world.

Writers use dystopian novels to critique some aspect of their current world. Suzanne Collins drew inspiration from both classical and contemporary sources for her “Hunger Games” books. Her critique focuses on social and economic inequalities, extreme versions of contemporary trends.

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale also makes an extremely relevant point about patriarchy taken to extremes. Women still struggle for the right to control their own bodies. Handmaid remains as relevant now as when it was published in 1985. Buzzfeed offers a list of 24 excellent dystopian novels you’d like to explore this subgenre.

Covers for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Ecotopia,” and “Brave New World,” as well as a boxed set of the Suzanne Collins “Hunger Games Trilogy” and the flag design for Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets.
Atwood book cover courtesy of Thriftbooks. Hunger Games boxed set photo courtesy of Goodreads. Ecotopia and Brave New World book covers courtesy of Bookshop. Star Trek United Federation of Planets flag by Shisma-Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Utopia

Ernest Callenbach’s novel Ecotopia gets pointed to a lot, as an example of a utopian novel—one set in a supposedly “perfect” society. Published in 1975, it influenced the dawn of the Green movement (so did fact-based books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962). See my 2016 post “How Science Fiction Impacts Environmental Awareness.”

Utopias are harder to find in fiction—especially influential utopias. How do you present an interesting story set in a perfect world? Conflict and problems are the soul of plot. This may be the primary reason the Solarpunk movement has been able to produce inspiring and beautiful visual art, but no “breakout” novel to date.

The background society of the Federation in the Star Trek universe has a utopian nature. But few stories in the franchise take place there. Most are set in a less-utopian corner of the Final Frontier.

When one person’s utopia becomes another’s dystopia in some way, we tend to find more stories. Aldous Huxley took that approach in Brave New World (that society’sinhabitants believed it to be a utopia).

Political and social commentary

Politics in science fiction and speculative fiction is alive and well. And has been, all the way back to the genre’s roots.

Many people consider Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) to be the “first science fiction novel.” It’s a cautionary tale against technological hubris ( see Victor Frankenstein’s dying admonition to “avoid ambition”).

H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine commented on his contemporary social class system. He employed Darwinian concepts to speculate in an oh, so Victorian way that the upper and lower classes would evolve separately over the millennia into separate sub-species of humans.

Covers for historic books “Frankenstein” and “The Time Machine,” contemporary novels “Ancillary Justice” and “A Memory Called Empire,” and XK9 books “The Other Side of Fear” and “What’s Bred in the Bone.”
Book covers for Frankenstein, The Time Machine, Ancillary Justice, and A Memory Called Empire are courtesy of Bookshop. Covers for the “XK9” novels courtesy of Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. XK9 cover art is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk and © 2019 by Jody A. Lee.

More recent examples

But the sf writers of the past have nothing on today’s works. Nnedi Okorafor, for one example, frequently tackles such topics as racial and gender inequality, environmental destruction, corruption, and genocide through the lens of her fantasy and science fiction.

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice takes a unique approach to gender (for one thing, the “default pronoun” is she, which leads us interesting places). Her long, hard look at what Genevieve Valentine calls “the disconnects of culture” opens more parallels to consider.

Arkady Martine‘s acclaimed debut novel A Memory Called Empire tackles political intrigue (she’s a Byzantine Empire historian), and the multiple facets of colonialism.

Politics in the world of the XK9s

My own science fiction isn’t overtly political. My focus in the XK9 books is trying to tell a good story. But I built Rana Station, the environment where most of the action takes place, on ideas garnered from decades of teaching, studying history, and observing our contemporary society.

What kind of environment would enable all of my students to reach their full potential? If a political and social structure made that its guiding question, how would the resulting society look?

I built the world of Rana Station on ideas I started gathering during my coursework. But I don’t believe in “perfect” worlds. In my next post I’ll go into more depth on how and why I created the system where my fictional characters live.

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to all of the following: Jaime Jones, who illustrates the “Murderbot Stories” of Martha Wells, from Tor.com Publishing. Cover images courtesy of Martha Wells. Atwood book cover courtesy of Thriftbooks. Hunger Games boxed set photo courtesy of Goodreads. Ecotopia and Brave New World book covers courtesy of Bookshop. Star Trek United Federation of Planets flag by Shisma-Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0. Book covers for Frankenstein, The Time Machine, Ancillary Justice, and A Memory Called Empire came from Bookshop. Covers for the “XK9” novels courtesy of Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. XK9 cover art is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk and © 2019 by Jody A. Lee.

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