Archive for August, 2012

The Space Race Is Over

This morning, in honor of Neil Armstrong’s passing, I listened to “The Space Race Is Over,” a song from about 10 years ago by Billy Bragg. It is the only pop song tribute (I know of) to the dream of space travel and the achievement of landing on the moon. The song is sentimental, heartfelt, and devoid of irony. If you haven’t heard it, here it is:

Listening to it this morning choked me up.

On July 20th, 1969, I had just turned 20. I was waitressing in a coffee shop in King’s Canyon National Park. I had asked for that night off, and had been given it. I planned to find an available TV, park myself in front of it, and watch the historic moment. But late that afternoon,the manager made a last-minute substitution. I was suddenly scheduled to work. I warned him, “I’m watching this thing. I don’t care what happens.” He assured me it would be okay to stop and watch when the first step happened.

I worked the counter that night, which was good; it kept me more or less in one place, near one of the TVs that had been brought out and scattered throughout the dining room. The landing had happened many minutes previously–it was a long time; I remember that–and we waited and waited and waited….

We couldn’t see that much. I wasn’t sure what we were seeing. It was all black shadows and indecipherable shapes against gray lunar surface. The minutes stretched on. The TV commentator kept saying, “Any moment now….”

Some man behind me barked for a cup of coffee.

I turned around and said, “This only happens once.” I turned back to the TV. I really didn’t care. I wasn’t missing this.

I grew up on fifties science fiction movies and books. One of the first books in my personal library was The Golden Book of Astronomy: a Child’s Introduction to the Wonders of Space. I had been waiting for this moment all my life. I would not have it stolen from me by some stupid clown who wanted a stupid cup of coffee.

It happened. Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface. He said the words. It was blurry, but I saw it. In that moment, I was still young enough, the world was still new enough, that I still believed I might get there someday myself.

I turned around. The man who wanted the cup of coffee had left.

Neil Armstrong always deflected attention from himself; rightfully so, as there was nothing more special about him than Buzz Aldrin or any of the others who made the journey, to say nothing of the massive effort of all who made the program a success. It was a journey for all of us, and Armstrong knew that. (It is worth noting that not everyone in the spotlight is capable of making that sort of distinction.) I was sorry to hear of his passing; I’d always thought of him as being younger than eighty-two.

So this morning, I listened to Billy Bragg’s tribute to manned space travel. These lines stand out:

It might look like some empty gesture/To go all that way just to come back

But don’t offer me a place out in cyberspace/Cos where the hell’s that at?

Cyberspace is what we got instead of regular nonstop service to the moon. I’m not complaining. I can’t help be aware, though, that no matter how fabulous the possibilities of this tool I use every day, it is not a place. It is virtual. At its bottom, it is no different than a movie. We are seeing fabulous video of Curiosity and its doings on Mars, but it, too, is virtual. It is not going to a place, because no one is there. Being there is different. Having a fellow human go there is different.

I’m well aware that, if I travel to the moon, the lunar wind cannot blow in my hair, and I will not wiggle my toes in any of the mares, nor enjoy the gentle scent of moon lilacs on the night air. It ain’t that kind of place. But I would see the beautiful Earth in the sky, and I would feel the odd lightness of the moon’s lighter gravity. I could bounce like a kangaroo. I could bounce like the astronauts did. I would be on the moon.

Thank you, Neil Armstrong, and all the others who followed, for going there for us.


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One of the Last Cave-ins Caves In

I had to join Facebook. I couldn’t put it off any longer. My friends I see regularly had to tell me things second-hand that they all already knew, and that made me feel un-hip and out-of-it. Ditto my friends who live far away, only worse. I found I couldn’t comment on online news stories without being on Facebook. Heck, I couldn’t even vote for Next Food Network Star, because I was not on Facebook.

It’s been a week now, and I’m still figuring out how it works. I’ll be figuring out what to do with it (other than vote on Food Network shows) for some time to come.

The question of how to use the technology has become less challenging than why do I want to? I’ve answered the why of Facebook, but now I am led to a deeper how question. Apart from its basic workings, what combination of time spent on the app and use of tools offered by the app will maximize my experience and make a positive difference in my life? I mean, I could spend all day noodling around, looking for people, changing my privacy settings, fretting about my profile picture, etc.

And should a girl who is emotionally incapable of dragging-and-dropping a profile photo onto a page without going through a major dither-fest even undertake to ask such a question?

I can be quite the ditherer. I fret, I weigh, and I have trouble coming to a decision. The world is just too much stimulation for me. I don’t dither about everything, but I dither about enough to throughly complicate my life. I do okay with menus. Menus offer choices, and I can make the choice between, say, chicken and beef. Choices are defined and numbered. Possibilities, on the other hand are vague and limitless, or nearly enough so as to be indistinguishable. Facebook is the most recent new thing in my life offering vague and limitless possibility.

While a choice might be much better, a little better, more-or-less the same, a little worse, or much worse, than an alternative choice, a possibility can always be trumped by something more–more powerful, more elegant, more cool, just plain different. It is nowhere on the spectrum, and has no central position. It is like trying to GPS the Milky Way within the Universe.***

How can I live up to the endless possibilities of Facebook?

I can’t. And when I pull myself up out of my dithering fog, I observe that the people who Just Do It, like the ad says, have more fun. They put on their shoes, and stomp on in. They waste time. They make mistakes. They step on things. They go on. Here I go, blundering in.

I’ll wear these.

***Yes, that is a very nonsensical statement.

Photo: Mine

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Done (With Hugo Reading) But Not Dusted: Award Ambivalence

Now that I’ve submitted my Hugo votes, now that I’ve said all I have to say about this year’s nominees, I wish to revisit my basic discomfort with awards.

We have to have them, I think. They are a way for fans and professional organizations to celebrate the work that gives us all so much joy and meaning in our lives. They spur us to read stuff/see stuff/ listen to stuff we might not otherwise. For the authors, a nomination or award becomes a tag they can attach to themselves forever, which will further their success. And there’s the drama of the event itself, who’s going to win, and how excited are they. Awards are fun.

Then there are the problems. For instance, the apples-and-oranges problem.

Every year, the field of speculative fiction widens. It’s beyond science fiction and fantasy; it’s alternate history, and urban fantasy, and epic fantasy, and steampunk, and military sf, and near-future dystopia, and so on and so forth, every one of which has its own aesthetics, tropes, and flavor. In the Hugo Best Novel category, we have 1) A coming-of-age fantasy, 2) The fourth book in a six-book epic fantasy series, 3) The second book in a zombie trilogy 4) A far-future, end-of-the galaxy, political/anthropological/sociological sf novel, and 5) a nearer future science fiction novel of a more traditional sort. It is difficult to compare any of the two in absolute terms, because they are truly five different sub genres. They may be among the best examples of their respective sub genres, but they are not easy to compare.

I could say to myself, “Is this book a superior example of a coming-of-age fantasy/fourth book of epic fantasy series/second book of trilogy/etc.?” And, “Is this a better second book in a zombie trilogy than that is a far-future, end of the galaxy, political/anthropological etc., etc.?”

I could do that, or I could just vote for what I like. In this case I like (and was predisposed to like) numbers 2 and 4 the best. Number 4, the political/anthropological/sociological sf novel is my favorite genre-within-a-genre. Number 2 is not normally my thing, but I’ve seen the TV show, and I’d read the first three books, and the epic had its hooks in me. Number 4 did get my first-place vote, but Number 2 was further down the list, because I did not feel the fourth book ranked as high as some of the previous volumes in the series. (Yes, George R. R. Martin was in competition with himself, as well as with the others.) But I still loved it.

At the other end of the spectrum, Number 5 could not pull me in at all. It’s not my favorite type of sf, I was already tired from all my intensive reading, and I just wasn’t in the mood for something I didn’t feel drawn to. It must be said, this is not the fault of the book. I don’t think it’s an unworthy book, only that it’s not my thing, and in my less-than-open frame of mind, it could not seduce me.

In the end, my ranking came out of my sincere attempt at best apple vs. best orange analysis, combined with “Oh man, I loved this best, I really did.” I feel honest and fair about my efforts. I also got through the novellas, novelettes, short stories, and fancasts. I actually feel almost “hip,” and “with it,” rather than “square,” and “out-of-it!”

I am ready to see who wins, and to get into possibly passionate discussions about the results.

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