Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical science fiction.


Fiat Lux!

I'd like to take a few minutes to explain why yesterday's news from the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in Livermore, CA, was such a big deal — and why it also wasn't.

What I don't want to do is suggest I'm an expert in nuclear physics. No, I'm a geek with a lifelong affection for astronomy and hard science fiction, so this blog entry required interesting research. In many a Golden Age SF novel, sleek, reflective rocket ships powered by atomic fusion reactors plied the vasty spaceways, so I was already somewhat familiar with the idea but had a lot to learn about the mechanics of making it work. As of yesterday, the technology of artificially generated nuclear fusion left the realm of science fiction and entered science fact. I wouldn't book your passage on a fusion-powered flight to Ganymede just yet, though.

First, a catch-up lesson for folks who snoozed through high school physics: You're probably familiar with the Einsteinian equation E = mc2, but may never have thought through its implications. What it basically means is energy can be turned into mass, meaning stuff, or vice versa. The E on one side of the equal sign is energy, the m is mass, and c represents the speed of light. The lack of punctuation between the m and c2 means those two quantities are to be multiplied. Light is extremely fast, so the speed of light is a very large number, and multiplying that number by itself (squaring it, hence the superscript 2) yields an absolute whopper of a number. It follows then, that a relatively small amount of mass can be made to yield a very large energy release, as was demonstrated for the first time near Socorro, NM, on 16 July 1945 in the form of a mushroom cloud. About six kilos of uranium yielded a 21-metric-kiloton blast. The point is, messing with something even as small as an atom can lead to an enormous burst of energy, which in turn can be either constructive or, as has all too often been the case, horrifyingly destructive.

In theory, there are two ways to mess with atomic mass and convert it into energy. Both take advantage of the equal sign in Einstein's equation. The first, which was used in the 1945 Trinity device and in reactors and so-called atomic bombs since, is fission. That's when you take a very large atom, uranium or plutonium for example, and rip it into pieces. Those fragments partly reassemble themselves into materials made of smaller atoms, but the remainder is converted into energy. Blammo! Atomic fission energy is actually safer in many ways than our usual methods of burning matter from things that used to be alive. Our ecosystem is reeling from the effects of burning hydrocarbons and releasing the resulting carbon into the atmosphere. Of course, that's not to say atomic fission energy for civilian use is entirely safe; witness the terrifying accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island among others.

Then there's the other way, which is nuclear fusion. That's when you take two very small atoms, most often hydrogen, and smash them together at such high speeds that they're squished into the single configuration of a somewhat larger atom like helium. Not all the hydrogen stuff gets used in the helium recipe, and the rest of that matter gets converted into energy. That's the exact mechanism used by so-called hydrogen bombs, the sun and most stars. For billions of years now, the sun has been blazing away in a continuous fusion reaction, with hydrogen falling into its center and getting smooshed into helium and energy.

Now, obviously that creates very high temperatures, but that mega-degree heat can be used to boil water, which in turn creates steam, which can push a turbine around and around, and that turbine can generate electricity and now you have power for stuff like lighting and air conditioning and 4K Disney+. One advantage of fusion is it doesn't create greenhouse gases or radioactive byproducts. A disadvantage was, until yesterday, it cost more energy to jump-start nuclear fusion on earth than was gained coming out of it.

That sort of changed yesterday, sort of, when scientists aimed 192 carefully calibrated lasers at a golden canister about the size of a pencil eraser. Inside was an industrial-diamond sphere the size of a peppercorn, which in turn contained two varieties of hydrogen. When the lasers hit the canister, the gold superheated to millions of degrees, and that blasted X-rays into the canister's interior. Those X-rays in turn imploded the capsule, which triggered nuclear fusion of the hydrogen into helium. The laser trick shot lasted less than a hundred trillionths of one second, but it made scientific history because while the lasers shot two megajoules of energy, roughly the energy in two sticks of dynamite, the resulting fusion released about three megajoules of energy. News media were quick to assure us that meant inexpensive clean energy was now in the making.

Well, it isn't quite that simple. See, actually running and firing those 192 lasers required hundreds of megajoules of energy, and the heat they released, once converted to electricity, would run a single light bulb for a handful of minutes. I mean, whoopity-doo. Gold and diamond are a great deal harder to come by than hydrogen (which is, after all, the H ingredient in the familiar recipe for water, H2O), and once they were gone, that was it for this particular fusion reaction. To create useful power, you'd need to create similar reactions several million times a day. Happily, that means there's zero risk of a runaway chain reaction in 2022 or probably ever, but it also means we have a long way to go before anyone figures out how to turn nuclear fusion into electricity enough to run global civilization. Most experts think it'll be at least 15 to 20 years before fusion power plants are ready to go online. When they do, though? Hoo, boy. It'll drastically cut our need for fossil fuels and will help us turn the tide on global warming, which would be nothing short of a terrestrial game changer. Together with wind and solar power, we could finally have an ecologically friendly yet electricity-gobbling society straight out of Star Trek.

Oh, and make no mistake about it: Some country, perhaps some corporation, will get very, very, mega, obscenely rich in the process. As an American, I'm glad we're on the forefront of this technology. As a humanist and futurist, I sincerely hope it'll be safely but generously shared with the world.

P.S. Dec. 15: I edited this post for accuracy regarding nuclear weapons, with gratitude to commenter Alan Marshall.

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Game of Sabers: A Star Wars Speculation

If you aren't a Star Wars nerd, you can skip this post, I promise.

I think episode 5 of The Book of Boba Fett has been out long enough now that I can share a pet theory of mine here publicly. You might remember that four years ago, David Benioff and D.B. (Dan) Weiss were hired to create a trilogy of Star Wars features. At the time, we were told those movies would appear in two-year increments starting in 2023. For those who don't know, Benioff and Weiss were the showrunners of Game of Thrones, and they met with George Lucas in Italy as research for their trilogy-in-progress. Then, in October 2019, all that fell apart, and many speculated they'd blown the deal by either admitting they learned showrunning on the job (which I suspect was needlessly expensive) or by signing a concurrent, multimillion dollar deal to craft content for Netflix. Lucasfilm exec Kathleen Kennedy may not have liked sharing -- Who knows? We never learned the subject of their proposed trilogy, but that's where my theory comes in.

Lucasfilm has a habit of building expectations, dashing them, then repurposing that archived material to create new stories. For example, "kyber crystals" were in early drafts of Star Wars, then reappeared in the now-disowned novel Splinter of the Mind's Eye. Decades later, they're canon, with mentions in Clone Wars and Rogue One. Concepts from cancelled computer game Star Wars: 1313 have resurfaced as canon in The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett. The Obi-Wan Kenobi series debuting on Disney+ this year evolved from a planned feature directed by James Mangold. And so on.

"The Night of a Thousand Tears," a term that appears to be undercounting, in a screenshot from The Book of Boba Fett.

Well, obviously Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni are heavily invested in telling a grand, historical fantasy about planet Mandalore and its complex, Spartan culture. Here's my theory: I think Benioff and Weiss were hired to craft a similar epic tale about Mandalore. It seems clear to me Mandalore will be the focus of a Game of Thrones-style mythos over the next few years on Disney+. There are dueling houses, vigorous swordplay and even draconian beasts in the mix (though I still think the term "mythosaur" is a bit on-the-nose, even for Star Wars). If I'm right, Favreau and Filoni will have a lot of material to pull from, and we might even see some concepts from 1313 and Star Wars: Underworld, the series Lucasfilm worked on from 2005 to 2010 but never shot. We're told Underworld banked some 50 scripts, by writers including Ronald D. Moore of Battlestar Galactica and For All Mankind fame, but we've never seen any of them. I suspect they could easily be transposed to "the living waters beneath the mines of Mandalore." After all, we'd rather that location not look as much like Moria as it sounds, right?

Allegedly, this screenshot is from test footage for Star Wars: Underworld. Or that could be utter hooey.

Incidentally, now that Patty Jenkins is almost certainly off the Rogue Squadron movie, which was announced with great fanfare in 2020 but "postponed indefinitely" less than a year later, how great would it be if Ronald Moore took the reins of that exciting project?

This is the closest Patty Jenkins will probably ever get to a Star Wars title.

And while we're at it, here's my own Star Wars pitch: I want to write a Disney+ series set in the Outer Rim, maybe 10-15 years before A New Hope. I see it as kind of an anthology series, with characters drifting in and out of each other's stories, based on an awesome Mike Resnick novel from 1986 called Santiago: a Myth of the Far Future. If you've never read Santiago, look it up. It has the feel of a tall tale crossed with a spaghetti Western, which puts it exactly in early Star Wars territory despite being entirely unconnected to Star Wars.

For the record, I found no evidence whatsoever that Santiago was the "basis for" any "upcoming major motion picture."
But that's where I come in!

So what did you think Benioff and Weiss's trilogy would be about? And now that Jenkins is almost certainly off the Rogue Squadron project, who do you think should take it over?

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REVIEW: Dune (2021)

Stop me if you've heard this one: There's a desert planet, OK? And on this planet is a teenage boy with a Biblical first name. He doesn't want to be there. It's a world where moisture is currency, rusty mining vehicles share the surface with giant worms, and a tribe of hooded "sandpeople" ambush the unwary. This kid has one hereditary advantage, though: Thanks to a mysterious family history, he has an in with a cult of interstellar sorcerers. He'll build alliances and practice his swordplay, then take on a corrupt empire. Sound familiar?

If you say that's the plot of Star Wars, you are, of course, correct. But it's also the plot of Frank Herbert's Dune, a novel that became an international sensation a decade before Lucas penned his screenplay. Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky came thisclose to shooting a 14-hour film adaptation of Dune, a book he'd never actually read, and his album of storyboards had been making its way around Hollywood throughout the early '70s. Lucas never explicitly admitted the connection, but to claim he was unaware of Herbert's magnum opus would defy credulity. Of course, there were other inspirations, too: Asimov's Foundation, "Doc" Smith's Triplanetary, Flash Gordon serials, The Dam Busters, Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress. But Tatooine just is planet Arrakis, aka Dune, only renamed after shooting location Tatouine, Tunisia.

Until a year ago, Dune was probably best known in the non-geek-speaking world as director David Lynch's 1984 noble failure of an epic sci-fi film. The damn thing just doesn't work. But despite that, the novel and the movie's designers contributed so many interesting visual ideas that millions of Dune readers long believed the franchise deserved a third shot. (The second was a pair of Sci-Fi Channel miniseries debuting in 2000 to mixed reviews.) COVID-19 delayed the release of this newest version by a year, but it's available in cinemas and, for a limited time, on HBOMax. I've seen it twice. It's a whopper of a movie, so I wanted to make sure I assessed it carefully before reviewing it in detail.

If you've read the Herbert novel, or seen its 1984 movie or 2000 miniseries adaptations, you'll find no spoilers here. Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) brings his dreamlike vision to a story that's in large part about dreamlike visions. If you're still worried about spoilers, I'll give you the TL:DR version: It's a big, hypnotic epic of a movie, more Arrival than Star Wars, and unless you're easily confused I see no reason to believe you won't enjoy it. You may not love the ending, though. There's a reason the film's on-screen title is "Dune: Part One." Villeneuve and cowriters Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts elected, wisely it seems to me, to cover only the first three-fifths of the book in this episode. The sequel has since been officially greenlit, and you have only two years to wait for the next installment. In my opinion, Part One finds a way to arrive at a stopping point, though the ultimate fate of Paul Atreides, his mother, his adoptive tribesmen and his arid, hallucinogen-soaked planet remain to be seen.

For those unafraid of mild spoilers, here we go.

The first thing I want to say is Villeneuve does right by the novel, often by ignoring or obscuring parts of it. See, Dune is a killer read that absolutely deserves its prestige as the Lord of the Rings of literary space opera. If you've read one science fiction novel in your life, there's a good chance Dune was it, and rarely do we hear any serious objection to that -- but Dune was definitely written in 1965, by a Tacoma, Washingtonian who'd been breathing the spicy atmosphere of 1965 for both better and worse, and there's no way a 2021 movie can't address that. In the novel, for example, Paul encounters an overworked, underestimated desert culture called the Fremen. The Fremen sometimes call themselves the Ichwan Bedwine, so it's pretty clear Herbert was thinking of both Islamized Bedouin cultures and Arabized tribes like the Berbers. In fact, he probably muddled several African and Sinai cultures after a reading of Lawrence of Arabia, a mistake I'm trying (and possibly failing) to avoid. So here's a novel awash in what I'll call respectful racism. Herbert admires the Fremen for their ability to survive a brutal desert, but ascribes to them an equally brutal code of behavior. In Villeneuve's version, the Fremen are played largely by actors of color, but with no attempt to look specifically northern African.

In the movie as in the book, Herbert's future, roughly 20 millennia from now, is a feudal space opera in which an emperor shares power with dynastic houses (the "Great Houses of the Landsraad"), a women-only religious order (the "Bene Gesserit"), and a guild of once-human creatures whose addiction to spice allows them to transcend the speed of light. It's a lot to explain in 155 minutes, but my wife, a Dune newbie, was able to grasp it in a single viewing. That setup creates another problem, though. See, our hero, Paul, is the son of a duke, Leto of House Atreides, and House Atreides has long been at barely-cold war with another major house, the Harkonnens. The struggle between those colonizers for management of Arrakis is the engine that drives the whole plot. Herbert wants us to know from the outset that the Atreides of planet Caladan are the good guys, and Baron Harkonnen and his sons are just awful, awful, awful. But how do you accomplish that when the Atreides and Harkonnens are basically pursuing the same goal, especially when that goal is the imperialist domination of an all-but-enslaved indigenous tribe via the theft of their ancestral resources? Well, Herbert does what a lot of white, cis-heterosexual writers would've done in 1965: He makes Baron Harkonnen a morbidly obese homosexual with incestuous and pederastic tendencies so we'll abhor him. And that, of course, is a relic of a much crueler time.

So Villeneuve backs off. There's no hint of Harkonnen's sexuality in this film, other than the presence of a translucently clad servant girl. (If you've seen Blade Runner 2049, you know Villeneuve has yet to grasp modern feminism.) The baron's obese, but mostly so there's an excuse for him to use personal VTOL equipment. Unlike Lynch's decidedly Lynchian take on the character, he isn't also oozing from pustulent sores. Oh, we get he's the bad guy, but mostly because Stellan Skarsgård, the actor playing him in a ton of foam rubber and a Jacuzzi full of Pennzoil, growls his lines and rubs his bald head a la Brando's Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. Villenueve told Collider, "As much as I deeply love the book, I felt that the baron was flirting very often with caricature. And I tried to bring him a bit more dimension. ... Stellan has something in the eyes. You feel that there’s someone thinking, thinking, thinking." For me, the character works. For some of my friends, not so much.

Watching and rewatching Villeneuve's Dune, I was awed by its scale. We've been told we should see it in IMAX, and maybe that's true. I watched it on a 65" 4K TV with a mid-budget sound bar, and that seemed to do the trick, but there's no question the images are composed for a towering screen. Tiny humans cluster around spaceships the size of Ayers Rock. An interstellar tunnel structure looms in Dune's orbit, competing with a pair of too-close moons, allowing fleets of warships to drift through the Guild stargate like malevolent fleas. When the emperor's envoy arrives on Arrakis to transfer power from the Harkonnens, the proceedings have the scale and ornate beauty of a royal wedding. Every dollar is right there on the screen. Amazingly, Dune '21 cost 35 million fewer dollars than Jungle Cruise. It looks like it cost twice as much.

I worried about Hans Zimmer's score, partly because I'm not a Hans Zimmer superfan and partly because I've grown weary of pseudo-Middle Eastern wailing in place of an imagination, but the sound team has done an exemplary job of blending Zimmer's work with sound effects by Mark Mangini (Mad Max: Fury Road) and linguistics by David Peterson (Game of Thrones). Sound is crucial in Herbet's universe, and this adaptation nails it all.

The visual effects are flawlessly composed and designed to best simplify the story and world-building. They deserve and almost certainly will receive an Academy Award. The iconic sandworm, of which we get only a partial view in this first episode, makes as much sense from a biological standpoint as possible (take that, square-cube law) while also rearing up to form a symbolic eye.

The movie is very well cast, with both Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya believable as the teenagers those characters are in the book. I was surprised to find this movie belongs at least as much to Paul's mother Jessica, played superbly by Rebecca Ferguson, as it does to Paul himself. We learn the extent of his pain and suffering, and the hopes piled on his narrow shoulders, by watching her expressions. It's a smart screenwriting and directorial choice is a movie that risks being the quintessential white male savior cliché.

Look, bottom line (he said thousands of words later), this is an exceptionally well-made film based on a book that all but defines a literary genre. Despite all that, David Lynch swung for the cheap seats only to trip over home plate. It's an easy book to mess up. For half a century it's been branded as unfilmable. Denis Villeneuve filmed it. And now that I'm hearing teenagers have started buying the novel en masse, I'm looking forward to hearing what they think of it, how it chafes against their smarter sociopolitics. If Dune: Part Two is just as good, this will be a more adult Star Wars for a generation of ecological idealists. I hope it continues to inspire in a world that has largely left the novel behind.

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There Has Been an Awakening

Have you felt it?

I haven't updated this site in over a year. That changes now.

I've completed the first draft of a new novel. Expect to hear more about it soon.

COVID struck America hardcore in March 2020. With nothing to do but stay home for the summer -- my day job is teaching public middle school -- I decided to try living the way I always dreamed of living. In other words, I resolved to live like a rich author. I was still banking paychecks from the school year, so why not? I woke every morning, made a hot cup of coffee, spelunked research rabbit holes on YouTube and cranked out a thousand words a day. I was over half finished with the new book by the time school started again in September. I finished its first draft by Thanksgiving break.

This was easily the most fun I've ever had writing a novel. I hope that joy will translate to readers' experiences. I plan to revise and polish the novel over Christmas break, then attempt to have it accepted by a mainstream agent and publisher. Here's hoping the Force will be with me.

In the meantime, here, only very slightly edited, is the novel I began to write before I started this one. Over the course of several years, I made it through ten thousand words before giving up. I didn't quit because I thought what I wrote was bad; I quit because a tangerine clown sleazed his way into the White House, and then America was so obviously, cartoonishly insane I no longer saw the value of a Veep-style political satire.

Instead, a new idea grabbed hold of my creative consciousness. Someday, Muses willing, it'll be a trilogy of teen-friendly space operas in the vein of The Hitchhiker's Guide to, Spanner's or The Guardians of the Galaxy.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is ddd15d83-98a1-4a3b-b86a-5f33291d2097
This image is exactly what my new novel is about. Also, not at all.

But first, the book I didn't finish writing. You'll find it here. The actual, completed book's still an alien contact story, but the arrival of the superbeings in question looks different from how I first imagined it.

Watch this space! For more outer space!

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We need to rethink how we approach so-called "problem plays."

In Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, a woman is threatened with the death of her brother if she doesn't submit to sexual assault. The guilty party gets discovered and punished, but the innocent victim is victimized yet again by an allegedly just duke coercing her into a loveless marriage.

In The Taming of the Shrew, a character we've been asked to find adorable, Petruchio, embarks on a campaign of systematic spousal abuse. He promises his male buddies he can force his wife Katherina to accede to his every wish without so much as a sniff of complaint.

In The Merchant of Venice, we're asked to identify with a Jewish moneylender who conducts business in a rabidly antisemitic culture. Fair enough. Then the moneylender, Shylock, demands actual bloodshed in recompense, an indiscriminate response to cultural bigotry.

In Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, a woman who, not that it matters, has behaved unimpeachably gets assaulted by a centurion turned on by her chastity. Before justice can be served, poor Lucretia commits suicide.

For centuries we've referred to such stories as "problem plays." We're reluctant to stage them now, perhaps even read them, as they leave us feeling wronged. But why is that?

I think most of us have an intrinsic belief life is fair. It should be, we reckon, so it is. We think that so deeply, in fact, that most of us don't even think about the fact that we're thinking it. That's a charming quirk of human nature, I guess. Except no, it really isn't, because it leads to real-world consequences that are deeply destructive.

We think life is fair, so if a guy is behind bars, he must belong there. Surely The Innocence Project can't be right when it claims at least one percent of the U.S. prison population has been wrongfully convicted. That's about 20,000 people. That number couldn't be right — could it? We're talking about the American justice system here, the greatest, we claim, in the world. Life is fair, so how could American justice be unjust for so many?

We think life is fair, so when a woman gets sexually assaulted, we're immediately asked what she did to deserve it. How was she dressed? Did she scream or just say no? Has she ever taken a naked picture of herself? Is she pretty?

We think life is fair, so if an unmarried woman gets pregnant, many ask why she should be allowed to make that "mistake" free from decades of consequences. (The man's "mistake," bizarrely, seems a matter of little concern.)

We think life is fair, so if people are hungry or homeless or emotionally ill, we assume they must've brought it on themselves.

We think life is fair, so we believe billionaires must be special. Surely they deserve to keep all that money, even in a wealthy nation where one in eight people live below the (too-low) poverty line and 16 million kids reside in food-insecure households.

We think life is fair, so when African-Americans are treated unkindly we suggest perhaps they should do a better job of maintaining and policing their own communities.

We think life is fair, so when LGBTQ Americans suffer from bigotry, we shrug off recent findings that almost half of gay teens have contemplated suicide. After all, we're told, they could've just decided to be straight. It wouldn't be fair if homophobia persists in a world where homosexuality isn't a choice, so let's continue to allow schools where it definitely isn't.

Life isn't fair. I'm going to say that again: Life ... is not ... fair. It's unfair that a guy who's been credibly accused of sexual assault by multiple women has been punished with a seat on the highest court in the land. It's unfair that a guy who routinely masturbated in front of women he barely knew, women who looked to him for professional guidance and support, has been punished with zero jail time. Should he be allowed to resume his career, even as he embraces full-on mockery of massacre survivors? Geez, who can say? It's impossible to know for sure. After all, he's rich and famous and creative, so maybe in a fair world he deserves to stay on top. His victims are women who could've objected more forcefully, so perhaps that's on them.

I say again, life is not inherently fair. The only way it'll ever be fairer is if we demand that it be. We must be fairer ourselves. We must insist on that, from ourselves and our culture and our authority figures and ostensible justice system.

Back to stories. Perhaps it's time we accept that the problem with these plays isn't their scripts or their writers; it's the world. It's the world in which they're set. More to the point, it's a problem with our world. Because yes, our world obviously has problems. Our world is, in fact, a major problem. It's the problem we've all allowed it to be because we couldn't face obvious signs it was flawed. We waited for a superhuman, all-seeing Judge to make things fair when clearly, the only improvements in justice have come at the hands of progressive humans.

I submit to you it's time we reconsider these plays without trying to make them any fairer. My presentation of Measure for Measure at Tacoma Little Theatre (Jan. 31) will land hard on the absolute injustice of its conclusion. Perhaps Elizabethans did believe its outcome was fair; I don't know. I certainly do know it wasn't. So why can't we just acknowledge that? Why do we insist our plays end fairly? It's because we want so deeply to pretend life is fair that we insist on it from even our fictional fantasies.

I want to see a production of The Taming of the Shrew in which Petruchio is simply a spousal abuser. Don't make poor Katherina a harridan who deserves what she gets. She isn't and she doesn't. Call the play Petruchio the Abuser and stage it as written. Don't ask audiences to identify with and therefore excuse its least lovable ogre. He's the play's central character, yes, but he shouldn't be allowed to be its hero.

I want to see a King Lear who may or may not be developing senility, but is certainly an unrepentant a$$hole. Clearly he's surrounded by people who feel sorry for him in his old age; but if the past two years have taught us anything, we should know by now people make excuses for amoral authority figures. They also obfuscate mistakes and rewrite history to obliterate advantaged folks' misdeeds entirely. It's how monarchy persists to this day. We think life is fair, so if a person lives in a castle on a mountain of wealth simply because he or she had the good fortune to be born first in a royal family, we assume that must be part of God's plan. The royals deserve what they have, including governmental power over millions, we tell ourselves, because the ramifications of thinking otherwise are too immense to accept.

(I note in passing that even virulently anti-monarchist Americans still have no problem thinking of Christ as "King of Kings and Lord of Lords." After all, Jesus' Dad was a pretty big deal, so even after the Messiah does a vanishing act for two thousand years we're still fervently inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.)

I want to see a world of storytelling in which writers are able to illustrate an unfair world without directors sweatily sanding it clean.

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Cat Scratch Fever

It's taken me fifty years to understand this, but most people define good behavior (by themselves and those around them) as that which benefits them, not that which benefits other people. Laws that inconvenience them don't deserve to be laws, so those get ignored. One thing that confuses some people about the crappy behavior of misogynists, fraudsters and other offenders is their lack of self-awareness: "How can they not know they're being awful?" But that's like asking whether the sky smells octagonal today. They're words from two different, independent vocabularies. To these offenders, nothing they do is unethical. Rather, the system is deepening its own depravity by catching them, trying them and otherwise intruding on their never-ending quest to get their greedy way all the time. It's a profoundly egocentric flavor of sociopathy that runs so wide and deep we can display it without ever seeing how hideous it truly is.

My wife and I have a cat. Some cats are scratchers, some are not. Simon, our cat, is a scratcher, preferably of human throats. If you're sitting down, he sees that as his cue to attempt to tear your throat out. If he can't get access to your throat, he'll happily settle for scraping your ribcage. Your desires in this matter are not merely insignificant to Simon; they are, in fact, invisible. He does not see or care about them one iota. He never will -- not a jot. My wife tells the cat she does not wish to be scratched. Even allowing the cat a rudimentary understanding of English he does not in point of fact demonstrate, that effort is wasted, because cats are sociopaths who don't care what anything wants unless it benefits them. Supplying tasty snacks = good human, withdrawing from scratches = bad human. I have accepted this and simply throw up physical obstacles to block the cat from clawing my throat. After this becomes clear, the cat gets frustrated and leaps some distance away, where he gives me the back. That's the feline equivalent of a middle finger. I know that and find it amusing, but only because I got my way and Simon did not.


We ask why humans mistreat other humans. The reason we're compelled to ask such a thing is we have endowed those offenders with an empathy they do not in fact possess. Surely the fact that one's fellow humans suffer from our actions will dissuade us from acting unkindly! Nope. Not one jot. We do not generally perceive ethics from the perspective of other people, merely from our own. We want something, and anyone who gets in our way is not seen as acting with agency or even with respect to an ethical structure, they're being pains in our ass so we either force them to do what we want or give them the finger, because how dare they? How dare they?! Don't they know they're being difficult in our quest to get exactly what we want all the time?

Seldom if ever will we be able to reason anyone out of violating our own ethical standards. We might have success by engaging their empathy, but only if they can see us face to face and we've already made it clear we'll be an obstruction to their desires no matter what happens. The more successful strategy is simply to raise impenetrable physical obstacles. That's sad but true.

A guy sends you an unsolicited, unwanted dick pic. He wants a sexual charge, and it's your responsibility to give it to him. You push back. He keeps trying. You push back harder. Does he admit he was wrong? Of course not. He calls you a stuck-up bitch. That's the human equivalent of Simon giving me the back for being an obstacle to his absolute, perfect, eternal, fully-deserved ecstasy. Other people's desires or ambitions aren't just inconsequential, they're invisible.


Oh, not me, you think. Okay. Have you ever driven faster than the posted speed limit? Me, too. We tell ourselves our desire to spend less time driving is more important than any of the reasons that law was passed. The cops just want more money, we tell ourselves. It's a speed TRAP. Well, much like a perjury trap, it's only a trap if you break the law, but that's not the point, right? The point is we want something, and all these other cars full of humans are getting in our way. We ignore the fact that there's a good chance the speed was lowered on that stretch of road because someone died there and the public would've been furious had that not motivated a change in the law, but ho hum, fiddle dee dee, we want fast so go fast! We tell ourselves oh, it says 65, but everybody knows they really mean 75. There's a ten-mile-an-hour permissible range over the posted limit. Except then we pump our brakes to go below 65 at the very first sign of a cop, clearly demonstrating we know that thing we just thought about the ten-mile-an-hour-allowance was bovine by-products. Our knowledge of the law, or even of why laws were passed, does not affect our adherence to the law when it inconveniences us. Conversely, few of us are car thieves. We already have cars and wish to retain them, so yes, we are very much in favor of laws against car theft and feel outraged when anyone breaks them.

I get the consequences of what I'm saying. I get that I'm implying behaviors we hate will continue no matter how we regard them. I'm not endorsing, encouraging or in any way in favor of those consequences. But do not think reasoning with anyone will change their ethics. It won't. We must simply find ways of making unethical behavior unproductive from the perspective of the offender. If a guy sends you an unsolicited dick pic and then gets all aggro about it, send it to his boss. Get him fired. Get them all fired. Humiliate them. Shame them. Make it no fun whatsoever to even attempt these behaviors. Only then will the scratcher see a reason to scratch somewhere else or not at all.

As for the current administration, it's full of people who were breaking the law over and over and over and over and over and yet seem stunned when the law comes a-knockin'. They were willfully breaking the law, we say. They were aware of the law, knew they were breaking it, and sought to cover it up. Yes. All true. Except we're forgetting the sociopathic perspective on what happened, which is this: The law was inconvenient to those offenders, so they considered it irrelevant in theory and an obstacle to be worked around in practice. That's it. How you or law enforcement or anyone else felt about it wasn't merely inconsequential, it was invisible.

This is why it never serves society well to give a few parties far greater power than the majority. We're sociopaths who, far more often than not, will spend every dollar you give us and more if we can simply take them. Obviously we deserve that money more than they do; they're simply too "stupid" or inconsequential to block us from grabbing it.

You say I'm being cynical. Granted. Except I'm also just noticing a cat is a cat and not expecting it to be Mahatma Gandhi, y'know? Maybe it's time we all wised up and adjusted our society so fewer people have situational opportunities to be the sociopathic, egocentric abusers they're so clearly inclined to spend their lives being. When I block Simon from clawing me, I'm not being unkind to him. I'm being kind to myself because I'm fully aware he will not treat me kindly. Simon isn't a bad cat. He's an average cat. It's up to me, not him, to be smarter and more aware of my own needs than he is. Is that fair? No, not really. But life isn't fair, it's simply life, and if you don't believe me ask anyone who was just prevented from getting anything he or she wanted for even one second.

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Cinematic Interpretations

Let's take a break from politics to talk about one of my favorite subjects, the movies. As a writer, I'm fascinated by the various methods of transition from words on a page, whether from a bestselling book or that hot new screenplay some Hollywood upstart typed into Final Draft on his laptop in Starbucks, to thousands of video screens all over the world. I follow a huge stack of beloved novelists, but I also track the work of such reliable screenwriters as Frank Darabont, Lawrence Kasdan and Steve Kloves. They've succeeded at something I was never able to do, which is break out as a professional screenwriter. That's a triumph, yet one that all too often goes unsung.

But what about those words that can't be shaped into cinematic or televised images? What about movies imported from countries where English isn't the primary language? What about languages spoken by non-English-speaking characters in American movies? Today we're going to talk about the subtle art of turning non-English words into video communication.

Subtitles in movies are almost as old as movies themselves. They evolved organically from the intertitles used to display dialogue between the live-action clips in silent movies. But until fairly recently, the technology used to inscribe subtitles onto moving images made them hard to read, hampering American's interest in and enjoyment of foreign films. I still remember watching The Bicycle Thief in a grad-school film history class. I gather it's a masterpiece but, thanks to the ghostly subtitles on black-and-white backgrounds, I still have little idea what that movie is about other than, apparently, some kid gets his bicycle stolen. Ideally, one should come away from a film viewing knowing more than what he could've gathered from the name of the movie.

Maybe that's one reason the subtitles in Star Wars (1977) are so effective. Keyed in bright yellow rather than the standard white, they're easy for even young moviegoers to take in. Yet for some reason producers' fondness for white lettering persists, albeit sometimes with thin, black borders or wider, black boxes around the white letters. Hey, movie studios: Any chance you could give those plain, white titles a rest for, like, ever? I think many of us would appreciate that. And by the way, subtitles need to be bigger. I know, I know, the middle-aged guy is griping the letters are too small, but hear me out. Titles that read perfectly well on a movie screen are almost impossible for most of us to make out on even an HDTV across the room. I'd love to be able to watch foreign movies on Netflix without having to scrabble around for my glasses.

Better yet, a few recent filmmakers and distributors have gotten truly creative with the banal art of subtitling their movies. Hopefully by now you've seen the Russian vampire thriller Night Watch (2004), but if you haven't, get on that. Its international cut not only subtitles the movie in readable English, it even plays with the layout of those titles to reflect what's happening on screen. They're not just consistent sentences at the bottom of the screen. Instead, they might be red letters that dissolve like blood underwater. They might be revealed in a wipe as a vampire slides across the screen. It's a fun movie, and for once, the subtitles are almost as much fun to watch as the action. It's more expensive, sure, and requires more creativity, but it helped Night Watch and its sequel earn millions in the U.S.

Even American filmmakers sometimes get to play with fancy subtitles in their own, primarily English-language movies. When Egyptians speak their own languages in the 1999 Mummy starring Brendan Fraser, the subtitles appear to be in the Papyrus font. See, papyrus is Egyptian! And they're speaking in Papyrus! And it's Egyptian! Get it? I suspect somebody took a victory lap around the office that morning.

There have even been movies in which the characters appear to notice the subtitles with which they share the screen. In The Impostors (1998), a character hiding under a bed can understand a foreign, non-English-speaking character by simply reading his subtitles. This joke echoes one in Fatal Instinct (1993), in which spies can follow a Yiddish conversation by reading. Other similar jokes include a subtitled horse in Men in Tights, subtitled conversational subtext in Annie Hall and a bar conversation amplified via subtitles in Trainspotting. In both Riff Raff and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, standard-English subtitles are used to clarify characters who are speaking English but in impenetrable accents. And in an episode of the sitcom Green Acres, Lisa (Eva Gabor) is not only able to read the English subtitles when she converses with her mother in Hungarian, she complains they're not accurate: "No, no, no, I said you hadn't changed a bit. We have a lot of trouble here with subtitles."

Sometimes subtitles are used to translate languages that don't even really exist, as when Greedo speaks "Huttese" to Han Solo in that Mos Eisley cantina. This proved so compelling that Star Trek was obliged to up its game. When the opening scene of Star Trek: The Motion Picture was shot, its Klingon characters spoke English dialogue to each other despite the fact that no Terran-English speakers were present. Actor James Doohan, the Canadian who played engineer Montgomery Scott, volunteered to create "Klingon" phrases that sounded plausibly alien but also matched the shape of the actors' mouths as they spoke. In some cases, the English subtitles were then rephrased so the overdubbing wouldn't be as noticeable to moviegoers with any facility for lip reading. A few years later, when the script for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan included an elevator conversation between aliens, linguist Marc Okrand (then working on closed captioning for the Oscars) was recruited to turn the actors' English-language lip movements into a plausible Vulcan sound library. That gig led to Okrand designing the Klingon language for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, a task complicated by the need to incorporate the few phrases Doohan had already devised for episode I. Obviously, nitpicky Trekkers would have noticed any possible discrepancy. Interestingly, Okrand complicated his own job by deliberately excluding forms of the verb "to be" from the Klingon language, purely as a private linguistic challenge to himself. Imagine his dismay when the script for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country included an extended riff on Shakespeare's "To be or not to be speech" from Hamlet ("You have not experienced Shakespeare," one alien character boasts, "until you have read him in the original Klingon").

Now it's standard practice for filmmakers to devise self-consistent languages with complex vocabularies and syntax for fictional races and alien species. Consider, for example, the "Dothraki" language devised by linguist David J. Peterson for Game of Thrones. If you find this stuff as interesting as I do, allow me to recommend the book In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent, a fun read by an author who not only teaches linguistics at the University of Chicago but has also earned her first-level certificate from the Klingon Language Institute (an actual thing). She's not to be confused with Marc Okrand, however, whose Klingon Dictionary was featured prominently on my bookshelf until the year I realized it was scaring away potential girlfriends. In point of fact, I only know a handful of Klingon words and phrases, including the standard greeting "nuqneH" -- "What do you want?" Friendly!

A special storytelling challenge occurs when characters speak to each other in a language that isn't English, conveying story points that English-speaking viewers still need to understand. It doesn't make sense to imply, for example, that all the Russian seamen aboard the Krasny Oktyabr in The Hunt for Red October (1990) would speak to each other in Russian-accented English. Director John McTiernan got around this problem in a memorably clever way. On page 15 of a screenplay draft by Larry Ferguson, a Russian character is reading from Revelation chapter 22, verses 12 and 13. McTiernan swaps that passage for Revelation 16:16, which refers to "a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon" (King James Version). Since that place name is the same in Hebrew, English and Russian, McTiernan's camera closes on actor Peter Firth's lips until he says the word, then backs away. At that point, the movie shifts from spoken Russian with English subtitles to spoken English (except in later scenes in which Americans share their environment). Even better, the movie's international cast members speak, for the most part, in their own accents: Sean Connery in Scottish, Stellan Skarsgård in Swedish and New Zealander Sam Neill in — well, Russian. I admit I've never figured that one out.

McTiernan was inspired to do this by a scene in Stanley Kramer's 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg. In that movie, Maximillian Schell plays German defense attorney Hans Rolfe. There's quite a bit of business in early scenes to establish how the plot's trial is being conducted in both English and German, including translators and translation headphones. (Ironically, there's also some business with translation headphones in Star Trek VI.) Soon, however, the camera closes on Schell's lips as he speaks German, then backs away as he switches to English. We know he's actually speaking German, the other characters on screen "hear" him in German, but we get to hear him in English. This saves the audience the trouble of reading hours' worth of subtitles, something American audiences are notoriously loath to do under the best of circumstances.

My wife prefers it when foreign-language films have been dubbed into English. I do, too, but only when that's been done exceedingly well, as in the Disney re-releases of Japanese-language films animated by Hayao Miyazaki. Otherwise, I feel I'm getting only part of the movie, because I'm missing the vocal performances of its actors. I'm an actor who believes the way I say something matters at least as much as how I look when I'm saying it, and I don't necessarily trust another actor to translate that for me. For my money, creative solutions are always the best ones. I hope American film directors and distributors will continue to look for new ways to address these challenges, making the cinema produced by increasingly wealthy and well-crewed studios in countries all over the world more accessible to movie lovers right here at home.

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Tragedy Tomorrow, Comedy Last Night

I am a lifelong fan of stand-up comedy. Among my earliest memories are the hours I spent listening to and all but memorizing the classic Bill Cosby albums in my uncle's collection. When someone asked me recently what my favorite TV show of all time was, I decided it was Saturday Night Live, from the first-year episodes I watched with my dad to the stellar season that just ended. When I lived in Hollywood, I spent many a weekday night at the Comedy Store or Laugh Factory, dissecting the work of every open-mic performer, from never-seen-again nobodies to the soon-to-blow-up Dane Cook. And so, so many times over the decades, I've thought, I could do that … if only I could get over my terror of performing my own material in front of an audience. To me that phony brick wall behind the mic felt like the backdrop for an execution by firing squad. I never did take my shot, to my enduring shame.

Except here's a thing you need to know about me: I freaking hate it when I find myself limited by things I'm afraid of. It eats at me. I end up daring myself, and once I've done that my brain never shuts up about it. So for over thirty years now, I've been internally chastising myself for wanting so desperately to be heard by the entertainment industry, yet never availing myself of repeated invitations, even exhortations, to overcome my stage fright and tell jokes to audiences thirsty for laughter (and, in some cases, a minimum of two feeble well drinks).

With my fiftieth birthday looming, I resolved to finally put my self-recrimination to end. When I visited Vomity, an unfortunately-named, weekly night of open-mic comedy at Le Voyeur, a club in downtown Olympia, I knew it was only a matter of time before I answered that call to belated action.

Here's how it works. To sign up, one must first follow Vomity's Facebook page. Every Tuesday at noon, host Colt Barton posts a message inviting each aspiring comic to sign up by commenting with his or her name. Then, around midnight, he announces who got in and who's been relegated to the "bump list." If you made it, you perform the following night between 9 and 11. If you're on the bump list, that means you have to sign up again next week. By reminding them you were bumped, though, you guarantee yourself a slot the next week. And that's how it went down for me.

My material was already written. I'd culled it, in large part, from past social-media posts, so I was confident (based on likes and retweets) the jokes were funny to someone other than myself. I memorized it two weeks ago and repeated it out loud under numerous stressful conditions. The Vomity format only gives you three minutes to fill, so long-form storytelling was out. One of my observations from previous Vomity attendance was that new comics tend to space their punch lines too far apart, so I wanted to see how many I could pack in there. I whittled the material down to only necessary words and managed to squeeze in what I hoped would be seven or eight decent laughs. I was thinking of one-liner comics like Mitch Hedberg and Steven Wright, though not thinking for even a moment I wield their genius or would emulate their success in slipping from joke to joke every couple of seconds.

I took a risk and decided to dress up for the occasion. Granted, it's a room packed with comics and audience members less than half my age, most of whom show up looking like they were ejected by a tornado, but I donned a jacket and tie over sneakers and skinny slacks. My plan was to stream the set to Facebook, both for friends and to review later in private, and I wanted to look as good as possible. Also, this was a milestone in my life, for better or worse, and I intended to give myself every shot at remembering it fondly.

A few days before the big event, I searched the web for first-timer tips. Experienced comedians had differing advice, but they all agreed on two things: You will absolutely, positively bomb, Enola Gay, so don't you dare record your set for posterity or even invite your closest friends. I invited my wife to both attend and stream my set, and I found out hours before that my sister and brother-in-law would also be there to witness my debut. Well, whatever. Go big or go home and never show your mug in a comedy club again, am I right?

Probably not.

Andy Kindler: "My first performance on my own … was horrifying. I remember telling the crowd it wasn’t going well. They knew that already. I will admit to quietly sobbing in the car on the way home." So that can happen. And of course then you go home and off yourself, and you don't even bother leaving a note because all your friends saw the Facebook stream and know exactly why it was time for you to jump off a cliff.

Except that's not what happened to me. I'm proud to say I did face my fears. I hopped up on stage, grabbed the mic and did my three-minute set. Not, maybe, in the order I memorized it, but every joke found its way in there. I even managed to get about four or five decent laughs, a decent ratio for the room I was in. Several comics were lucky to get a few pity laughs. Others, including Sam Miller, headliner Bo Johnson and nineteen-year-old (!) Anna Eggleton, slew the room. I didn't kill; I didn't bomb. You can see for yourself. Try to ignore the glare off my head, okay? I know it makes me look like Reddy Killowatt in a suit, but it is what it is.

Video: Carv Does Stand-Up

I notice as I post this that the URL includes the phrase "feedback_reaction_generic," which seems about right.

So will I do this again? Y'know … maybe. I feel I brought no shame upon myself or my tribe, and few other comics seemed to know it was my first time performing my own material. I consider that a win. Also, from my perspective, that three-minute set felt exactly like, "Thanks, Colt. Hi. I'm Christian Carvajal." Everything else was a blur. So maybe it'd be fun to try it again when I'm calm enough to be present in my own mind and body, not floating out there in a galaxy of terror squillions of light-years away.


Meanwhile, plans continue for public performances in which I've grown more confident and comfortable these last few years, namely author appearances. I'll be reading from and signing my new book of short stories, called C Is for Collection. By then I might even have some new jokes! You can catch me Wednesday, June 13 (the day after my birthday) at 6:30 p.m. in Tacoma's King's Books, or the next night at 7 p.m. at Browsers Bookshop in Olympia. Or, thanks to the magic of the interwebs, you can simply dodge the whole process and order it now. Yes, today! It won't arrive signed, of course, but maybe you can buy me a drink or something and I'll throw in a free copy of Lightfall for your trouble, assuming you don't have one already. Pretty fair, right? I know. The word heroic gets thrown around a lot these days, y'know, but every once in a while you kinda have to admit it's justified.

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New Book C Is for Collection Coming June 5!

Mud Flat Press is proud to announce the release of C Is for Collection, comprising 21 stories by yours truly, arriving June 5. It includes tales about a child with a secret, a silicon deity, a monster on the loose in medieval Paris, the inventor of time travel and a custom-made afterlife.

After publishing novels about religion and marriage, I was well into writing a book about politics. Then America went banana boats in 2016, so I had to put that novel on hold till the country got saner than satire again. While I'm waiting and slowly chipping away at Novel Three, I decided to publish my first story collection, including stories I wrote over 35 years, and get that out in time for my 50th birthday.

I'm excited by this opportunity to review where I’ve been, look ahead to the future and share that with a community that’s been incredibly welcoming to me as a writer. C Is for Collection will be available in trade paperback and all e-reader formats. You can purchase it directly from Amazon or at many South Sound booksellers including Browsers Bookshop and King’s Books. I'll visit both locations in mid-June as part of a regional reading and signing tour.

Watch for further updates over the next two and a half months!

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Silent Sky‘s Closing Night

(Written September 16)

I have a lot to say tonight, on two different subjects. It was our closing performance of Silent Sky, and yes, I do tend to gush at moments like these. Je ne regrette rien, Gentle Reader.

Part 1: On Producing Silent Sky

Producing a show this big was a first for me. In eight years of college, I don't remember ever once hearing a lecture or reading a book about how to be an executive producer. I made it up as I went, tried to follow the film model when possible and remained determined to admit when I screwed things up. I learned a producer needs to trust her or his creative team to do the creative work the way they know best; your job as the producer is to smooth the path before them and make sure the flow of money and lines of communication remain unimpeded. I learned one may argue with doubters but never with the calendar. I learned the sincerest compliment is often a paycheck. And I learned, sometimes the hard way, a path toward success for Silent Sky.

I mention that because several people came up to me tonight and expressed sincere interest in porting our production to other spaces. As tempting as that may be, I gave them as soft a no as I could manage. It's not that I don't believe anyone else should produce Silent Sky — Oh, my, no, you most definitely should. It's so important for so many reasons that this singular script become part of our regional- and community-theater canon. But not our production. No, your Silent Sky needs to be local, and it needs to be offered from your heart, and it needs something very particular to this story.

I trusted my gut on this one, and I'm so glad I did. I knew this script needed a female director. Maybe not every year, maybe, but this year for sure. Then I went further, and in so doing, I learned something crucial about Silent Sky. Since you might produce it elsewhere, I will give you that lesson for free.

Silent Sky needs women. Great women. Brilliant women. Artistas, if you will.

What you want is to find a female director with enormous skill and a big heart. It doesn't matter if she's a science geek, but it'll be helpful if she's a sister. She needs to be able, as Deane Shellman did so gracefully for us, to convey complex ideas via magical images and sounds. Then, rally female designers to what is now that director's project. I don't mean one or two female designers. I don't mean a few. I mean your entire design staff should be women. Because to this day, even in our relatively liberal field, it's still all too common to see an all-male design staff but rare to see an all-female one. The latter should be and feel no more unusual than the former. As Gunderson points out in her script, "We need a model." We need everyone who does theater to see, and on a regular basis, that talent has no gender.

The rest will take care of itself. With much stress and little sleep, perhaps, but I promise you one day during tech week you'll look up and find yourself beyond the earth's gravity. It'll happen. Enjoy the view.

Part 2: The Meaning for Me

Directing and yes, producing, it turns out, are a lot of work, especially if you do those jobs correctly and with all your heart. And why would you do a job like that any other way? The object of the game is to find that charge of electricity you felt upon first hearing or reading that story and take a good look at it. Ease it out into the light. Name exactly what hooked you, then make that hook the focus of gravity for your own production. I can't and won't speak to what hooked Deane on this story. I can only tell you what captured me. Because just as Laughing Stock was my love letter to the theater that rescued me from loneliness, just as The Credeaux Canvas was my farewell to youth, my instigation of Silent Sky should tell you something about who I am on a very deep level.

Like the heroes of that story, I find a joy in learning I'm wrong about something. It's embarrassing, sure, but yesterday I didn't know what the truth was and now I know one thing it isn't! How amazing is that? Yesterday I imposed my wishful thinking on the world; today it told me its own truth — and entrusted me with the revelation! "You were perfectly wrong," Henrietta Leavitt announces, and her colleague cries, "I was!" — not with anger, nor resentment, but happily! That's part of what I find most persuasive about the scientific method over other ways of analyzing and interpreting the world. A good scientist understands it's better to know a less-than-optimal truth than to bank on vestigial fantasies. She knows graduating from the latter to the former is a moment worth celebrating rather than grieving.

Oh, and then there's that closing monologue. I fall in love with it every time I hear it. "A telescope named Hubble," says Leavitt, "with wings set for space, shows us how vast and beautiful it all is … Because wonder will always get us there — those of us who insist that there is much more beyond ourselves. And I do." And I choke back tears every night because Gentle Reader, that is my heart being spoken from that stage, by an actor who is not me, directed by an artist who felt that truth, too. And it means I'm not the only person who takes heart from that lesson. Lauren Gunderson does. Henrietta Swan Leavitt did. And I know from all the smiling, tear-streaked faces in the theater that our idealism has touched something in a hundred hearts each night at OLT. The audience members believe in that future; they just needed to be reminded of it. Hope is not lost, my friends. We may trip over our foolishness sometimes, we humans, but we do still have a calling. We are made of star stuff, Sagan reminds us, and there is something within us that looks up into the night sky and longs to go home there again.

Yesterday a machine made by earnest minds and begrudgingly rendered tax dollars met oblivion in the atmosphere of Saturn. Along the way, though, it sent us this photo.

Look at that pixel. It's the earth-moon system. It's you and me. It's everyone, in fact; all our stuff, all our art, all our music, all our wars, all our feelings, all our corpses, all our dreams. It's a stunning reminder of our fragility, our lifelong dependence on each other, and the ocean of silence and cold in which we swim. We are not merely a species. We owe each other and the universe — call it God if you like — more than that. We aren't just family. We are one. We are one tiny dot of desperate yearning but we are infinitely precious. Intelligence is the greatest thing the cosmos has yielded to date, and something tells me ours is not the gold standard for intelligence so it behooves us to get out there and mingle with our siblings. They have much to teach us, perhaps art and stories to share with us, and heaven knows we have much left to learn.

Last night I looked through a telescope at the Andromeda Galaxy. I gazed across two and a half million light-years of intergalactic space at the waltz of a trillion stars. I imagined them accompanied by all their associated worlds. Most were barren, of course, others spattered with life so primitive it could barely be said to deserve the title. Yet I find it impossible to believe I wasn't also looking at civilizations — starfaring species, perhaps, living and dying on the whims of supernovae and calling to each other dimly across the night. We will never meet those species. Their families and ours will have passed long before our galaxies collide four billion years from now; our sun will, in fact, be in the process of puffing itself up for a turgid, crimson swan song. All of that knowledge, all our music and art and beauty and emotions, will have come and gone long before that collision. So will theirs. Life is precious. Intelligence is a gift. Like all beautiful gifts, it comes with a responsibility to cherish and protect it.

The trick, I think, is not to waste energy seeing God as other earthlings do. We have a valueless tendency to lasso God down to our level, make him fallible and petty and vindictive like ourselves. It's a shame we ever feel that drive to domesticate the ineffable. No, I think the path forward is to see the earth as God does: a pixel in the whirlwind, a sputtering spark in a vast, frozen darkness, an embryo of life in the worthy throes of struggling to be born.

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