Monday, December 2, 2013

We're Witnessing Our Own 20th-century Renaissance

We're Witnessing Our Own 20th-century Renaissance

Average IQ scores rose during the twentieth century.  Are people getting more intelligent?  James R. Flynn, a professor of political science at the University of Otago in New Zealand noticed this phenomenon, which is now called the Flynn effect.  Flynn himself does not see this as evidence of increasing intelligence.  People are probably just getting better at taking IQ tests.  In a profile in Scientific American, Flynn asked the rhetorical questions: "why aren't we undergoing a renaissance unparalleled in human history? . . . why aren't we duplicating the golden days of Athens or the Italian Renaissance?" (Scientific American, January 1999, p. 37) <>  His views are shared by many.

When the sensitive person thinks of the past century and first thirteen years of this century, their inclination is to see the horrors.  Two world wars that destroyed generations of people.  We remember the ovens of Treblinka, the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, the mass starvation of Stalin's terror, and the many cases of ethnic cleansing, from Armenia and India, to Bosnia and Rwanda.  Past centuries have seen such atrocities, just not on the same scale or so well documented.

In 1900, our planet supported 1.7 billion people; in 2013, the biosphere strains under seven billion people.  Of those seven billion, perhaps a third live in relative comfort.  Far too many live in the squalor of poverty with little if any hope for a better future.

We now live on the edge of ecological catastrophe.  While the growth of population and technology have degraded our environment, science and technology also offer the only realistic hope for understanding and coping with such a problem; that is, short of a worldwide plague that eliminates most of the people on the planet.

The Italian Renaissance was a "rebirth" of cultural vigor based on the rediscovery of ancient Greco-Roman learning.  Self-proclaimed humanists learned to savor their individuality and found glory in art styles patterned after Greco-Roman sculptures and paintings.  The Italian Renaissance spawned renaissances in other European countries, especially France and England.

Part of the Renaissance was a renewed appreciation for the value of the individual.  At the beginning, this valuation was reserved for white males.  The twentieth century witnessed the successful beginnings of women's rights and civil rights for racial minorities.  Despite the road that still must be followed, women and racial minorities enjoy greater opportunities in western nations than ever before.  The twentieth century has seen the triumph of the ideals of liberal democracy, moving from a European and American oddity to a more global aspiration.

The Renaissance created the intellectual environment necessary for the Scientific Revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  The growth of science is a continuing saga of gaining ever greater understanding of and control over our natural environment.

The twentieth century was revolutionized with Einstein's theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, the discovery of genetics, and plate tectonics.  In 1900, we thought that the Milky Way galaxy was the universe; now we know that our galaxy is one of many and not unique in any way other than that we live here.  We now have a science of ecology, showing us the complex relationships within the environment.

Medical advances have reduced the need for people to have so many children as insurance that some would make it past the gauntlet of infant and childhood diseases.  Certain types of mental illness are now treatable with drugs and therapy, giving hope where none existed in 1900.

Twentieth-century science has fueled technological growth.  Computers have allowed us to tackle problems that pencil and paper never could.  Telephone and telegraph provided long distance communication in 1900.  Now we send enormous amounts of data and video around the world by satellite and optical fibers.  Furthermore, we have the technological base to collate and interpret the resulting flood of data.

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, a event that riveted hundreds of millions of viewers and will stand as one of the greatest events in human history.  While the space program has faltered in fulfilling the fondest ambitions of its advocates, satellites now provide a web of telecommunications knitting the world closer together.

In its own way, the Space Shuttle was as impressive as Michelangelo's murals in the Sistine Chapel.  The shuttle was such a complex piece of machinery that the first real complete systems test came when John Young and Robert Crippen sat on top of almost ten million pounds of thrust in 1981 during the shuttle's first launch.  The Challenger and Columbia disasters and other deaths in the American and Russian space programs are sobering reminders of the cost of reaching beyond our planet, but are also a testament to the many successful returns of humans from the unforgiving vacuum of space
Five hundred years from now, when historians look back at the twentieth century, they will remember Einstein, the advances in genetics, computers, and our tentative reaching out from our earthly cradle.  Furthermore, the late twentieth century also saw the birth of the Internet, a web of network connections that has revolutionized commerce, learning, and social relationships.

To return to Flynn's rhetorical questions.  When people idolize the Italian Renaissance, they tend to forget the reality of that time.  Shifting alliances of Italian city-states, fueled by mercenaries, frequently warred with each other.  The vast majority of the population lived short, harsh lives, unprotected from disease and entirely oblivious to the creative ferment in elite, literate society.

Flynn also mentioned the golden days of Athens as a time that the twentieth century does not compare to.  Even though Athens practiced a form of democracy, they were known by their Greek neighbors as tyrants.  Athens fueled the awful twenty-seven year long Peloponnesian War, which ended with the complete defeat of the city of Athena.  We inherited the beginnings of science and mathematics from the Greeks, but those sages were not inclined to take the next step toward practical implementation.

The accomplishments of the Italian Renaissance and ancient Greeks were carried out by a few and known by only a few.  Accomplishments today are carried out by the combined efforts of millions and billions more can appreciate them.  In my study are thousands of books and hundreds of musical compact discs, combined with the millions of books and musical compositions digitally available at the click of a button, all which bring the wisdom and pleasure of many cultures to my room.  The telephone, television, and Internet allow me to live in a community that defies geography.

Having sung the praises of the twentieth century, we must not forget that these Western pleasures and privileges are not available to the majority of people on our planet.  Perhaps the twentieth-first century will solve that problem and bring even greater equality.

While Flynn's misgivings about IQ tests are well-regarded and certainly accurate, not seeing the accomplishments of the twentieth century is blindness.  We may not be more intelligent than our ancestors, but we have witnessed a modern-day renaissance.

(Updated and modified from an Op-Ed piece published in the Ogden Standard-Examiner, 12 May 1999.)

Posted: 4 December 2013

Reponse to 8 Worst Mistakes Made by the Allies During World War II

Yesterday, I read an interesting post on io9 on The 8 Worst Mistakes Made by the Allies During World War II. I both agree and disagree with their choices.

I agree with the first four mistakes:

1. The Failure to Attack Germany After It Invaded Poland

2. The Failure to Anticipate a German Blitz Through the Ardennes

3. America's Failure to Immediately Adopt the Convoy System

4. Underestimating the Japanese

The other four mistakes are a bit more questionable, even completely wrong.  I have listed them with my opinions:

5. The Utterly Useless Raid on Dieppe

Yes, a mistake, but not a particularly dramatic one unless you are Canadian, who composed the bulk of the 3,600 Allied casualties.   We still don't completely understand what the goals of the Allies were.

6. FDR's Demand of "Unconditional" German Surrender

My major complaint, a perfect example of 20/20 hindsight; yet even then, this was not a mistake.  Most wars with coalitions fighting as allies end with the breakup of the coalitions.  The alliance between the United States and the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth nations was a natural fit; their alliance with the Stalinist Soviet Union was not a natural alliance.  Stalin had a long record of breaking treaties and other commitments and he was paranoid that the Western Allies would make a separate peace.  Considering his track record, the Western Allies were also afraid that the Soviets would make a separate peace with Germany, and the Americans and British knew that they could not win the war in Europe without the Soviet Union.  The public declaration that only "Unconditional surrender" would be accepted by the Allies was a brilliant way to show Stalin that the Western Allies would not quit the war early.

Furthermore, the First World War ended before any Allied troops had set foot on German soil.  Because of this, Germans entertained a widespread belief that the First World War had only been lost because of a "stab in the back" by nefarious forces, such as Jews, communists, and other revolutionary leftists.  This belief helped propel Hitler to power and justified in German minds a renewal of war to undo the injustices of the First World War peace settlement.  The German attitude after the Second World War was completely different: they felt utterly defeated with only perhaps one-tenth of their nation yet unoccupied by Allied forces at the end of the war.  In order to rein in Germany, the German people needed to taste true defeat.

7. The Failure to Seize the Early Initiative At Anzio

Yes, this would have shortened the war in Italy, but I would argue that the incompetent defense of the Philippines in 1941 and 1942 by the Americans was an even worse mistake.  Furthermore, retaking the Philippines in 1944 and 1945 was unnecessary for any purpose but to salve Douglas MacArthur's ego.

8. The Premature and Overly Ambitious Operation Market Garden

Yes, this effort to shorten the war was ill-conceived, but it made a pretty good movie, A Bridge Too Far.

 Posted: 2 December 2013

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Book Review

David Brin, Existence (Tor, 2012)

Its been too long since I immersed myself in a big science fiction novel where world-building and ideas hold sway, prompting me to think big thoughts and muse about the fundamental purposes of human life.  David Brin’s novels and short stories have often provoked those emotions in me, an example of the sense of wonder that is so key to good science fiction.  I have read most of his novels and two of his non-fiction books and enjoyed reading his most recent novel, Existence (Tor, 2012) (ebook).

This is a long novel (I estimate 300,000 words), a sprawling epic, scientifically-grounded and optimistic, similar in scope and intent to his 1990 novel Earth (ebook)  A large cast of characters and events occur over the course of the next hundred years or so, though the exact time frame is only vaguely described.  The plot centers around the discovery of large crystals which contain the virtual remains of extinct aliens.  Brin imagines a world with virtual overlays, instant information, a rapid rate of change, and human civilization striving to make the right decisions and avoid possible civilization-ending traps.  As is common with his writing, he focuses on themes of how alien civilizations might evolve, humans adding other intelligent species to our planet by genetically modifying dolphins and chimpanzees, and issues about privacy, transparency, and how political power works.

His characterization is good, particularly in showing how people can get excited about science.  His portrayal of autistic people, as a type of new human with different capabilities, is intriguing and heartfelt.  One character is obviously based on the late Michael Chrichton, well-known for his thrillers based on science gone wrong.  For Brin, the greatest human traits are curiosity, problem-solving, and diversity.

Brin ends the Afterword of the book with an ode to humans, decrying the idea that humans are a pox on the environment.
We aren’t a curse upon the world.  We are her new eyes.  Her brain, testes, ovaries . . . her ambition and her heart.  Her voice.  So sing. (556)

While it is not a popular idea among some circles, I personally believe that humans are the culmination of life on Earth and give the Earth meaning.  In the best science fiction, we see these ideas discussed and dissected, a useful activity for all of us, because these issues will someday become burning issues of the present day.

Posted: 16 November 2013

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Ultimate What-If of the Cuban Missile Crisis: What If There Had Been a Nuclear War?

The fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis just passed and America justly celebrated the event. Five decades ago, at the height of the Cold War, the world survived the most dangerous moment in human history. During the course of thirteen days, the Soviets and Americans confronted each other, but sanity won out and a deal was negotiated to end the crisis.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of historical archives, as well as participants speaking up, we have learned that the crisis was much more hazardous than initially supposed. The Soviets had four submarines in the Atlantic, each armed with a nuclear-tipped torpedo, and ambiguous instructions on when those weapons could be used. American naval vessels found some of the submarines and harassed them with noisemakers and grenades into surfacing. On Cuba itself, the Soviet troops were armed with tactical nuclear weapons, again with ambiguous instructions on when they could use those weapons. If Kennedy had followed the advice of the military and bombed or invaded Cuba, these weapons might have been used. While the American military knew that the Soviets on Cuba might have tactical nuclear weapons, they had no intelligence showing this and tended to believe that the Soviets had not brought such weapons with them.

The chances for an accidental war were very high. Many of us might assume that people are more rational than that, but nations are independent actors and when they are playing chicken, unwanted outcomes are the norm. World War I and World War II both effectively started by accident in that none of the major powers were seeking a general war.

What makes the Cuban Missile Crisis fascinating for me as a historian is not what happened, as grateful as I am that we all survived, but what could have happened. What if the U-2 flight that found the Soviet missile sites on Cuba, thus starting the Cuban Missile Crisis, had been delayed by just seven days? Many of the earlier reconnaissance flights had been delayed by too much cloud cover over Cuba. Because the time line of the crisis was dictated by how close the Soviets were to getting their strategic missiles on Cuba active, such a delay in discovery would have created a much shorter time period for decisions to be made. At the beginning of the crisis, the tendency of the president’s advisors was to be much more belligerent, and the longer length of the real crisis allowed emotions to cool and caution to prevail. A shorter crisis could have encouraged Kennedy to follow the advice of the Pentagon and resort to the bombing of the strategic missiles on Cuba before they became active and then to invade the island just to make sure that they had been destroyed. Removing Fidel Castro from power, who had already demonstrated his inclination to be a thorn in the side of American foreign policy, would have been a bonus.

Two years ago, I wrote a what-if history book based on the premise that the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated into a general nuclear war. The first half of the book was accurate history, with a few changes to match the narrative of fictional history in the second half of the book. The book was not a novel, at least not in the traditional sense, since it was written as a history book in both style and content, but it did later win an award that normally went to novels: the 2010 Sidewise Award for Alternate History. The recent documentary on the crisis, CloudsOverCuba, also portrayed an alternate outcome of the crisis. [Disclaimer: I consulted on the documentary.]

In my counterfactual history, because of the shortened time line for decisions, Kennedy follows the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Cuba is bombed. The Pentagon then implements its plans for an invasion, but the invasion fleet is destroyed by a Soviet tactical nuclear weapon and the world holds its breath. The Americans react to the loss of their ships and troops by dropping fourteen nuclear bombs on Cuba. Kennedy is assured by Air Force general Curtis LeMay that this will destroy all possible Soviet nuclear weapons on the island, a claim that LeMay could make because he was unaware that the Soviets had brought over one hundred nuclear weapons to the island with their troops.

The crew of the remaining Soviet medium bomber on Cuba, absent orders from their superiors, retaliate by dropping their nuclear bomb on New Orleans. Quick messages are exchanged between the two superpowers. Khrushchev recognizes that because his own strategic forces are so much smaller than the American forces, that the only hope for the Soviets is to strike first. The Soviets have 25 intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the United States, while the Americans have ready 180 ICBMs that can reach the Soviet Union; only 110 Soviet strategic bombers can reach the United States and 1,600 American strategic bombers can reach the Soviet Union. In other classes of weapons, the United States enjoys similar advantages. It is a classic case of desperately opting for war because of a sense of weakness, instead of strength.

My research led to an unexpected outcome. In 1962, because of the disparity of strategic nuclear weapons between the Soviets and Americans, a general nuclear war would have destroyed the Soviet Union and Europe, but only damaged the United States. Canada and the United States had strong fighter defenses, and Soviet missile-carrying submarines were all in port, so the United States would probably only be hit by less than thirty nuclear weapons. That is horrific, but not a civilization killer; in comparison, the Soviets took proportionally a similar number of casualties during World War II. Western Europe would be devastated by numerous shorter-range Soviet missiles and in return, the Soviet Union would be obliterated by over a thousand American nuclear weapons. The American war plan for nuclear war was politically inflexible, not taking into account that a global war might not include all communist nations, so in following the plan, China and other communist nations would also be hit hard by the Americans.

Nuclear weapons were set to either explode high in the air, as at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, maximizing the range of blast effects, or on the ground, in order to destroy command bunkers and missile silos buried in the ground. In 1962, the long-term effects of a global nuclear war would have been minimized because almost all of the nuclear explosions would have been air bursts in order to increase immediate damage and reduce fallout. For instance, the Soviets had no motivation for maximizing the fallout from their strikes on Western Europe, because the jet stream would have just brought that fallout to their own nation. The massive silo-building program of the mid-1960s had just began and had not yet forced a change in tactics.

After the real crisis ended, the Soviets resolved to not be caught in a position of strategic weakness again, and so embarked on a massive buildup in strategic nuclear forces. Both sides also buried their missiles deep in silos, which meant that during a nuclear war ground bursts would be required to destroy those missiles. A general nuclear war, in which each side used its thousands of weapons, throwing massive amounts of fallout into the atmosphere, would kill human civilization. The proposed outcome that I presented in my book, where the United States would have survived, however weakened and shocked, would not have happened after the increased nuclear buildup.

In the end, in an argument for what-if history, we need to remember that history may now be in the past, but at one moment it was in the present. Contingency is too often neglected by historians and other people. When thinking about history we assume that whatever happened was inevitable. This is a poor way to think about history and about why events unfolded as they did. Thinking about alternate outcomes of the Cuban Missile Crisis is an extended exercise in continency and helps us to imagine what the crisis must have felt like for people at that time ... and for what might have happened instead.

(Originally published on the History News Network on 12 November 2012.)

An article in the local newspaper, the Standard-Examiner, about my interest in this subject.

Posted: 22 October 2013

Monday, October 21, 2013

What If . . . ? Armageddon 1962

In July, I went to New York City to be interviewed for a documentary on the Cuban Missile Crisis.   It is called "What If . . . ? Armageddon 1962," and was created by NBC News for the Military History Channel, a Discovery Network channel.  Last week, Discovery flew me back to Washington, D.C. for the premiere, a panel, and dinner.   Four historians were involved in the documentary, all with books on the subject.  My book is When Angels Wept: A What-If History of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I saw the documentary for the first time and am pleased with it.  I think it is well-done, accurate, and the narrative made it easy to tell the difference between real history and the counterfactual history.  The Military Channel has arranged a radio tour for me tomorrow morning, being interviewed on seven stations within about an hour and a half.  The combined listenership is about 450,000.

My book had already attracted some earlier attention.  It won the Sidewise Award for Alternate Fiction (long form) in 2010.  It was the partial basis for an earlier documentary, CloudsOverCuba, which is part of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library web site.  That documentary just won a News and Documentary Emmy Award.  This article in the British history magazine All About History is an interview with me about the same subject.

The documentary airs on Tuesday evening on The Military Channel, which 195 on The Dish, 287 on DirecTV, and 112 on Comcast.  It will air at 10 PM (EST), 9 PM (Central), 8 PM (Mountain), and 7 PM (Pacific).

Posted: 21 October 2013

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

I was interviewed via email last week for an article that appeared in the local newspaper, the Standard-Examiner.  The article was about lying while using text messaging.  I was quite pleased with how accurately I was quoted, which doesn't always happen to me when I am interviewed.

While it easier to lie in a text than face to face, our new web-enabled world also makes it much harder to get away with lying. That is because we leave digital tracks on Facebook, in texts, and on the web that are hard to deny when we are called to account.

Earlier in the summer, I was also interviewed by the Deseret News and by KSL Radio.  The article was based on the NSA revelations and emphasized my point that digital privacy is an illusion.  We need to recognize this and not work for more privacy regulation, which is a fool's errand, but work to force more transparency on centers of power.  Governments and corporations, which are the centers of power in our society, need to be required to describe what they are doing with information and held accountable.  The light of day will make such centers of power more responsible.  My thinking on this matter has been substantially influenced by David Brin's The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom? (ebook).

Posted: 17 September 2013

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Author’s Afterword

When I was about twelve years old, visiting my grandmother's, I discovered a small bookcase full of paperback novels.  As a voracious reader, I was intrigued.  These novels belonged to my uncle, who had died in a car accident at the age of seventeen a decade earlier.  I borrowed a dozen or so and took them home.  Gradually all of the novels moved to my house, with a promise that I would take care of them.  A promise I have kept.  I think that my grandmother had always wanted to read them as a homage to her youngest child, but her tastes in fiction ran more to westerns and romances.

Many of the novels were by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Burroughs is best known for his Tarzan novels, which I enjoyed, but I found his science fiction much more interesting.  What Burroughs wrote was called scientific romance, because it really didn't meet the modern definition of science fiction.  I will not go into what science fiction is, mainly because I would never be able to climb out of that argument.  Burroughs had started publishing in 1912, long before the term "scientifiction" was coined by Hugo Gernsback in 1929, and died in 1950, over a quarter century before I started reading him.

The world of John Carter of Barsoom thrilled me, with adventures on a Mars where canals existed and a dying civilization struggled for survival.  The story was a combination of swordplay, daring heroics, rescuing the princess and other damsels, and futuristic marvels.  When the novels were written, the idea that Mars was a sister world to Earth, with canals on it, was still scientifically acceptable.

I also enjoyed the Carson of Venus novels, set on a jungle planet that thrived under the mysterious clouds that blanketed the planet nearest to us.  The idea that such a environment existed was quite plausible until the 1960s, when American and Soviet spacecraft passed by or landed on the planet.  We discovered not the steamy tropics, but a hellish furnace with temperatures over 800 degrees Fahrenheit and a surface pressure ninety times Earth normal caused by a run-away greenhouse effect.

His Caspak trilogy, beginning with The Land That Time Forgot, written in 1918, told of a green valley in the Antarctica, heated by volcanism, where the different stages of evolution were played out the further one walked up the valley.  Antarctica at that time was still a mysterious place.

The science behind Pellucidar, the land inside the hollow Earth, was discredited long before Burroughs created his stories, but they were a compelling read for me anyhow.  A whole new world, only miles below my feet, provided hours of enjoyment.  Other Burroughs novels such as The Moon Maid and The Mad King also excited my youthful desire for vicarious adventure.  Burroughs wrote about one hundred novels in his life and I calculate that I read about a third of them.  I also read other science fiction and fantasy novels in my uncle's collection, such as the Time Trader series of Andre Norton.

The novels of Burroughs are probably the one author that I regularly read repeatedly as a youth, other than the novel Swiss Family Robinson.  By my later teens, I could no longer read Burroughs.  The plots were too predictable, the characters too pulpy, and my tastes had changed.  Burroughs was a man of his times, and for modern sensibilities, he is racist, ethnocentric, sexist; a whole host of negative -ism's.  Burroughs was financially successful, and incredibly influential on the science fiction and fantasy fields emerging out of the pulps in the 1930s and 1940s.  The importance of Burroughs in the field of science fiction can hardly be overstated and one can say without qualification that he was the best-selling science fiction and fantasy author of the twentieth century.

The curious result of reading my uncle's books is that I was introduced to science fiction as if I had been twenty years further back in the past, and as my reading habits changed, they recapitulated the history of speculative fiction.  As a scholar interested in the history of the genre, this is an invaluable background.

It has been observed one can read older science fiction stories and novels and still enjoy them by considering them to be a form of alternative history.  Just remember what was known about science at that time and enjoy the story for what it was, not condemn it for what it got wrong.

[This Afterword is in the printed version of the novel, but not the ebook version.  I don't know why.]

Posted: 1 September 2013

Saturday, August 31, 2013



A short story by Eric G. Swedin

Handau enjoyed sunning herself while stretched across a small hillock, eyelids half-closed, her wings spread to catch every last particle of sunlight. As a junior member of her clan, only six hundred years old, she got the hardship duty–thirty years patrolling the airless, lifeless void of Luna.

Endless plains of gray dust and rock made life here so boring. Without air, she couldn’t fly, and what’s worse, the lunar dust clung to her scales. She looked like a dragon too aged to groom herself anymore. With no water to wash with, she practiced patience. Only three other dragons patrolled Luna and on those rare occasions when they came across each other, they pretended to not notice each other’s deplorable hygiene.

She spent a lot of time stroking her memories of places where air existed. The thin atmosphere of the red planet made flying a continuous struggle, but the joy of seeing a massive dead volcano from the air or skimming along the biggest canyon in the solar system, riding the rising warm air along the rugged escarpments in the late evening, made the effort worthwhile. Her mother had taken her and her créche siblings to the second planet when they were still young, before their wing tips acquired the hard edges of an adult. Flying through such dense clouds made visibility a problem and only screeching loudly and listening for returning echoes kept her from running into her brothers and sisters. They avoided landing on the surface, since the pressure down there was too strong, even for a dragon. Perhaps the finest place to fly was in the atmospheres of the gas giants, soaring among the multicolored clouds from one dragon city to another, hunting the fat-bellied wildebeests that floated like balloons.

On Luna she had only rocks to eat.


A tickling at the base of her skull roused her and she yawned. The Grand Council wanted to talk to her and she had to pay attention to a conversation that took place over millions of leagues.

The two-legged ones are coming. They will land on the flat land near the crater named by Jouldau. Follow our plan.

Handau knew the ways of her people from birth, the memories of her ancestors imprinted on her by her mother. Though Jouldau was no ancestor, her great-grandmother had known her, and so the knowledge of the crater was part of Handau. Jouldau had named the crater after herself when she was only forty years old, just on the cusp of becoming full grown, and already embarked on her famous career as an explorer. Even now, Jouldau continued to push the boundaries on a journey that would take centuries among the clouds of ice balls that surrounded the sun, so remote that the sun appeared merely as the brightest star.

Pulling her wings in, Handau stood up on all four legs and stretched, holding her leg muscles rigid and letting out little puffs of smoke from her nostrils. The slowly burning cauldron in her chest stoked itself, warming her muscles and limbering her up. She flexed her talons, enjoying the feeling of digging into the dirt. Finally having something to do, other than inventing silly games that she played with abandon, or trolling through memories, made her feel positively giddy.

She bent down and took a mouthful of gritty dust, shaking her head to make the pebbles slide down into her belly. Not the best diet, but it was enough; still, she yearned for the taste of real flesh, even a sand grub from the red planet.

Her destination lay many leagues towards the south, so she bounced forward, firmly thrusting with all four legs, propelling herself up and away. About ten body lengths later, she gently came back down onto the lunar surface. Landing neatly, she maintained her momentum up by thrusting with all four legs again. In this manner, she bounded across the landscape, making good time.

After many leagues, she paused to rest, the scales on her chest glowing from her caldron. As was her habit, she looked up at the blue and white ball hanging in the sky. It was one of the few things that changed during her time on Luna, waxing and waning over the course of the month. The white clouds changed shapes in ways that endlessly fascinated Handau. She particularly liked it when a great storm bestirred itself into a giant vortex and swept across the ocean until it hit land and spilled into scattered clouds.

That world was the original home of dragons, the source of many of her ancestral memories, but thousands of years ago, the land, sea, and air grew too crowded with too many clans. Emperor dragons had preferred the high atmosphere, flying for months at time when not sleeping in their mountain fastnesses. The yellow rock dragons chose the path of repeated dwarfism in their breeding, until they were no larger than a coyote, and just as dumb. The feral swamp dragons bred like mammals, lacking self-control and spreading everywhere, provoking the other dragon clans to band together to cut down on their numbers in awful hunting expeditions. Cave dragons burrowed through the ground and ocean dragons fought with strange denizens of the deep. Life on the home world had teamed with such a up a wonderful variety of dragon clans.

Then the two-legged critters came along, with their fire, their chattering talk, and their industrious hands. The two-legged critters liked to make things, tools and machines that gave them more power; not like the dragon folk, who needed no machines. When dragons wanted to do something different, they thought about it, and their next egg contained a new kind of dragon. That was how space dragons had been born.

The longer she sat still and looked at the blue world, the more the slits in her eyes narrowed into sharper focus, until she could see the cities of the two-legged critters. Memories from other dragons reminded her that the cities had grown rapidly in just the last couple of hundred of years and were often now obscured by brown smudges, caused by the fires inside the machines.

All the dragons on the home world had either been killed or driven into deep hibernation. Only the space dragons flourished. Now the two-legged critters had made machines that could leave their planet. Some of the machines had recently arrived on Luna, descending on a torch of flames, landing on four spindly legs with wide circular pads for feet. These machines didn’t have two-legged critters in them, but they had machine eyes that looked about and relayed what they saw back to their masters on the blue planet. Handau and the other three dragons in her patrol had been told to avoid them.

Now the Grand Council had changed the rules and so Handau resumed bounding across the lunar landscape.


Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin waved goodbye to their command module pilot, Mike Collins. It felt odd looking up at Collins, while he looked down at Armstrong and Aldrin along the length of the tunnel that connected the Columbia and Eagle nose to nose. The two men pulled helmets over their heads, rasping against four days of stubble. Harnesses held them in standing positions next to each other.

With hatches closed and seals checked, the lunar lander Eagle broke away. From the outside, their new home looked like an awkward four-legged spider. Limited bursts of thrusters moved the two spacecraft apart. For a moment, the only sound came from cabin fans pushing the air through the scrubbers, then the voice of a controller from Houston interrupted with instructions.

The lander controls were strictly utilitarian, with switches, gauges, and levers all in gray metal, fastened together by numerous screws and rivets. A row of indicator lights at Armstrong’s left shoulder showed all systems performing correctly.

The men passed into the shadow of the moon, blocking both the sun and Earth from view. Now stars were visible outside their two small windows. When the sun reappeared, its brightness drowned out the starlight and they only saw blackness.

Coming out of the shadow of the moon, the two astronauts found their radio contact with Earth turning patchy. The three-second lag when talking was bad enough without chancy communications. Without a good link, Houston might call off the landing. More than anything, the two men wanted that landing to happen, even if the risks became insanely high. One of the astronauts back at mission control suggested that the Eagle yaw slightly to the right to get a better angle. The radio signal came in clearly.

The men spoke rarely, concentrating on their mission, rehearsed so many times in simulators on Earth that they moved with the familiarity of muscle memory.

The computer turned on the descent engine. At first, the rocket ran so gently that only moving dials on a meter showed that the liquid fuel was being properly mixed and burning. After a few minutes, the rocket added more thrust, sending a vibration though the cabin. The lander was flying with the men facing upwards, their windows framing Earth, as the engine continued to slow them down.

At 40,000 feet, the landing radar began to feed information into the computer. The little brain did its math and regularly fired the maneuvering jets. Armstrong felt apprehension at how often the jets nudged the lander back and forth, much more than when they had used the simulator.

An alarm went off. The computer flashed an error code. Rapid consultation with experts back at Houston found that the computer was trying to juggle too many calculations at once. The computer stopped complaining and Houston decided not to abort.

At 7,500 feet, the computer pitched the lander upright, so that the men were looking down through their windows at the Sea of Tranquility as they flew past, named hundreds of years ago when the lava flows looked like the surface of a gentle sea in a weak telescope. Craters flickered past. The landing had been timed so that sun was only ten degrees above the horizon, casting long shadows and making it easier to see the terrain below–especially any boulders that might topple the spider as it landed.

Armstrong took control of the lander from the computer for a moment, test firing the maneuvering thrusters, making sure that he would be in charge when the final moments came, a decision beyond the capability of simple electronics.

Capcom back in Houston gave the final word. “You are Go for landing.”

The lander slowed even more, with the computer regularly buzzing its complaint about working too hard. Armstrong leaned forward, and saw that they were heading straight for a small crater surrounded by a field of boulders, only a thousand feet below them. Going too fast to stop before the crater, Armstrong overrode the computer, tilted the lander, and passed by the boulders.

Aldrin stood at the computer keyboard, crisply reciting altitude, descent speed, and forward speed, all in feet. “Three hundred ten, down to two, fifty forward. Three hundred, down to one and a half, forty-six forward.”

Armstrong shared control of the lander with the computer, anxiously looking for a clear space to land. Capcom said nothing, knowing that they no longer had any way to influence the outcome.

It was all up to Armstrong.

He moved a bit to the left, careful to not build up too much horizontal speed. Too many boulders just waiting to kill them.

“How’s the fuel?” he asked.

“Eight percent,” Aldrin replied, not having to add that they had never run that low in any simulation.

Down to one hundred feet, only ninety seconds of fuel left, and finally a smooth place beyond a crater. The DESCENT QTY light glowed its objection to the dwindling fuel.

Armstrong fixed his vision on a single point, to judge when he had killed all forward velocity. Not doing so might mean the lander tipping over when they touched down, like a child stumbling onto her face, and there was no one to help them right the spacecraft if that happened. The rocket under their feet disturbed the lunar dust, making it hard for Armstrong to keep his eye on his reference point. He switched his focus to a rock above the blowing dust.

Sixty seconds of fuel.

The lander stopped moving forward and began to drift backwards, frustrating its pilot. Only twenty feet left. Dust became a storm below them.

Forty seconds.

Armstrong carefully settled the lander into the dust.

“Contact light,” Aldrin said, failing to keep the surprise out of his voice. The probe on the bottom of one of the landing pads had reported contact with the ground. The landing had been so smooth that the men failed to feel it through their boots.

Armstrong stabbed the ENGINE STOP button. “Shutdown.”

Only twenty seconds of fuel left.

“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” Armstrong reported.

The flight plan now called for a four-hour nap, but that certainly wasn’t going to happen. The men put on their moon suits, double-checked their hoses and seals, vented the oxygen from their cabin so that they now shared to vacuum of the lunar surface, and opened the hatch.

A little past six hours after landing, Armstrong exited the cabin, and slowly backed down the ladder to the lunar surface. He had already memorized the words that would make him immortal.

Reaching the bottom rung, he hopped onto the moon and turned around.

“Oh, crap, a dragon!”


Handau spat a burst of flame, using up precious reserves of oxygen, catching the two-legged critter in his white suit. It crisped black. For good measure, she used a talon to rip a tear down the front, making sure that the critter inside didn’t survive.

There was another two-legged critter inside the machine that had just landed. She scratched at the surface, pulling off a bowl-shaped object, but leaving only streaks on the metal shell. This was a challenge like cracking open one of the hard shelled fish on the largest moon of the ringed planet. The fish swam in an ocean under a mantle of ice, and hunting them took great skill, wiggling through the water like water dragons of long ago. Rising on her hind legs, Handau pushed with her forelimbs and toppled the machine over onto its side.

The first rock that she found crumbled when she used it to pummel on the machine. The second rock proved much sturdier and she pounded on different parts of the machine, making dents, but not breaking through. She found a place where she could look inside the machine and see that the other two-legged critter was doing something with his hands. She pounded this metal that she could look through and it cracked on the second blow. A third blow and she had a hole in the machine.

Sticking her forelimb through the hole, she swept around with her talon until she found some soft stuff. She dug at it with her finger for a few moments then decided that the other two-legged critter was dead too. It was hard to believe that such squishy creatures, so weak and pathetic, had driven her cousins into extinction on the home world.

She looked up at the blue and white world above and grunted with satisfaction.

That would teach the two-legged critters a lesson. When they looked at Luna, they would say: “There be dragons.”

(Previously published in Abandoned Towers Magazine.)

Posted: 31 August 2013

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review of H. W. Brands, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (Doubleday, 2000)

I have always been fascinated by Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790).  This was probably initially prompted by seeing the Disney short film, Ben and Me, as a child, where it is revealed that a mouse really developed all the inventions of the great man.  I even used Franklin as a minor character in my ‘secret history’ science fiction novel, Anasazi Exile.  Recently, I read that Franklin had written an essay on the future American population of colonial Pennsylvania, in which he described how the availability of land and early marriage was leading to a faster increase in white population for the colony than in Europe.  This essay was read by Thomas Malthus, who later wrote his famous “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1798.  Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, who both discovered the theory of natural selection, were directly inspired by Malthus’ essay.  In terms of intellectual history, we can trace a direct line from Franklin to Malthus to Darwin to the modern theory of biological evolution.  Once again, I found Franklin to be a fascinating man, so I read H. W. Brands, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (Doubleday, 2000).

Franklin was truly a polymath.  He was a self-made man as a printer, an accomplished writer and humorist, founder of numerous public services like a fire department and library, postmaster for both the colonies and the new nation, an effective politician, the ambassador who encouraged France to support the American Revolution, and a scientist with many varied interests.  His education came from voracious and wide reading.  These accomplishments were built upon a physically strong and robust body, which he nurtured with regular swimming as a youth.  He followed a strict diet, though that did not prevent him from suffering from gout in his old age.  Franklin was rarely limited by sickness and his long life of eighty-four years allowed him to even greater impact.  Oddly enough, for a man of so many skills, he was not a powerful public speaker.  He often wrote his speeches and then had someone else deliver them.  He also confessed in his autobiography that he had a weakness for consorting with “low women.”  His first child was illegitimate, raised by his wife, who he married at about the time that the child was born.  The real mother is unknown.  That child later became the Royal Governor of New Jersey and remained loyal to the king during the American Revolution.  He tried to reconcile with his father after the war, but the older man could not find it in his heart to forgive his son and they never saw each other ever again.

Franklin’s research on electricity is most commonly known through his kite experiment with lightning.  Some scholars have doubted that this was anything more than a thought experiment, because the effort itself will usually lead to either death or severe injury.  His research in electricity made him a celebrity in Europe among the educated who were fascinated by science.  He used that social status as a tool to promote the cause of the colonies.  He also did research on many other scientific topics, such as the Gulf Stream.  His numerous inventions included the lightning rod, a more efficient stove, and a musical instrument, the glass harmonica.  He was a true scientist who studied what was already known on a topic, conducted his own experiments or observations, speculated on what he had found, and strove to divine the deeper rules of nature.

The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin is an excellent book, very readable, well researched, and it is not surprising that it was a  2001 Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography or Autobiography.   Aptly named, because through the narrative we see Franklin gradually move from being an Englishman loyal to his king and country, to becoming an ardent believer that the English Parliament itself was corrupt and had betrayed the ideals of what it meant to be English, and that the American colonies needed to break away from crown and country in order to truly fulfill what it meant to be an enlightened nation of liberty.  Franklin had become the ‘First American.’

Posted: 27 August 2013

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review of John Grenier, The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814 (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

A colleague recommended this book, which he uses as his first text in a course on American military history.  The book was fascinating and disturbing, always a good thought-provoking combination.  The American War of War is a phrase coined by the late historian Russell F. Weigley to describe how the United States Army developed a tradition in which they fought wars of total victory and sought to decisively defeat enemy forces rather than fight wars of attrition.  While Weigley’s thesis has merit, explaining American thinking about regular wars, he ignored irregular wars, or what was called petite guerre or little wars.  In his book, Grenier argues that a tradition of irregular warfare characterized the first two centuries of American history and the Weigley completely ignored this earlier form of war.  This lack of consideration is not surprising, since professional soldiers have often abhorred irregular warfare, which is messy by nature, morally ambiguous, and often more savage than regular warfare.

Grenier’s description of early American warmaking was everything that “professional soldiers supposably abhorred: razing and destroying enemy villages and fields; killing enemy women and children; raiding settlement for captives; intimidating and brutalizing enemy noncombatants; and assassinating enemy leaders.” (5)  These earlier wars were not fought by professional soldiers, but by citizen soldiers, the militia.  This first way of war was an effective way to either eliminate or subjugate the Indians who originally controlled the land that settlers desired.  Early Americans also developed the practice of turning backwoodsmen into rangers in order to fight irregular wars, so that they could compete on equal terms with the Indians.  The early Americans also adopted the practice of scalping.

I was shocked to learn that colonial legislatures would offer cash bounties for scalps during times of war.  While the practice of scalping may have been learned from the Indians, the Americans put the practice to different uses.  For the Indians, a scalp was a trophy showing the counting of coup, a mark of honor showing a warrior’s skills.  While Indians sometimes fought wars of elimination, they usually fought such extreme wars with a goal of absorbing their enemies into their own tribe or nation.  The colonists, driven by fear that the Indians may attack at any time, wanted the greater sense of security that came from totally eliminating the Indians as a threat.  The legislatures paid enough money for scalps that it made sense for non-militia men to freelance and kill Indians for their scalps.  This was a form of privateering on land, instead of at sea.  Even more shocking was that sometimes the scalping bounties were paid out for any scalp, whether man, woman, or child; at least once, the scalp bounties were even paid out based on age and gender, with men’s scalps worth more than a woman’s or child’s.  My skeptical frame of mind wondered how you would tell the difference between the scalps of a man or woman, other than by hair decorations.  During times of war with the French, bounties were also offered for French scalps, and the French offered the same type of bounties to their Indian allies for British or American scalps.

Grenier does not use the word genocide, which would have been appropriate at times, but that word has been so overused for so many different ideological agendas, that its use is problematic.  He uses the older term, extirpation, which was used at the time by the colonists.  The word implies the goal of eliminating the ability of the Indians to live near the colonists by not only killing them, but also by burning their homes and destroying their crops.  If the Indians fled for safety by moving further west, that was just as satisfactory as having killed them.  When Indian-settler wars broke out, Indian warriors bands and groups of white rangers roamed the frontier, attacking individuals, homesteads, or small groups.  This type of warfare induced terror among civilians and the frontier rapidly became a no-man’s land as white settlers and Indians both fled to find safety.

While Grenier’s book only covers up to 1814, after which the regular army came to dominate the military narrative of the United States, he briefly speculates that the first war of war occasionally returned during the later wars against Indians in the American west, the Civil War, the strategic bombing campaigns during World War II, and during the Vietnam War.  In each of these wars, noncombatants became legitimate targets, which we now call “collateral damage.”

Posted: 25 August 2013