Tuesday, April 25, 2023

An Essay on Philip K. Dick’s novel, “Radio Free Albemuth”

 In 2004, I was prompted to write an essay to address the following question:  Is America's role in the world contributing to the enhancement of general human welfare?

I had just finished reading  Philip K. Dick’s novel, “Radio Free Albemuth”. So I based my essay on that reading.


I recently read Philip K. Dick’s novel, “Radio Free Albemuth”. In this book, Dick speculated what might happen if the people accidentally elected a paranoid fascist dictator as the President of the United States. Dick died in 1982, and his estate published the book posthumously in 1985. But it’s amazing how closely his vision resembled the events of 2002-2003.

Dick’s fictional villain, Ferris F. Freemont, traveled the country speaking of threats from subversive elements out to destroy the United States. Like Hitler in the 1930s, he used patriotism and fear to rally the people behind his cause. He created the Friends of the American People (FAP). A Nazi-like organization that got people spying on each other in order to ensure their loyalty to the President.

Dick’s three protagonists were a novelist, a singer and a record company executive. Since recording artists often have the ability to inspire people’s passions and rally them to a cause, FAP wanted to prevent the singer from recording any music that might criticize the President. They blackmailed the writer into spying on the record executive, and the record executive into spying on the singer.

As I read Dick’s novel in March 2003,  I couldn’t help noticing the similarity to the Dixie Chicks controversy. President Bush was traveling the country in 2002 spreading fear about Al Qeada’s and Iraq’s potential for attacking American citizens. Bush said it was essential that we start a war with Iraq. And when a recording artist, Natalie Manes of the Dixie Chicks, criticized Bush’s position, the country jumped on her. 

Political commentators and several major news organizations blasted her. “Support your President,” they insisted. “Doesn’t he deserve your support?” they asked rhetorically. Political commentators harassed her for weeks. Bush’s supporters sent threatening letters, staged protests, and burned her CDs. They pressured her into backing down and apologizing for exercising her right to free speech.
Although Natalie Manes backed down, many other people stood their ground. Janeane Garofalo, Martin Sheen, Mike Farrell, Tim Robbins and nearly 100 other celebrities banded together and continued speaking out against the U.S. starting a war with Iraq. These people weren’t just fighting for peace, they were fighting for their Freedom of Speech. 

The founders of the United States declared that freedom of speech was a basic and inalienable right. Opinions expressed at the time reflected a belief that without the freedom of speech, there could be no true liberty.1 If the ability to pursue liberty is a measure of human welfare, then our welfare has been under a malicious attack by those claiming to cherish it. 

Like Dick’s fictional FAP, the mainstream news media can sometimes act like an oppressive watchdog organization, spewing propaganda under the guise of patriotism and unbiased reports; and doing everything possible to discredit or silence other voices. Dick’s novel shows clearly how losing the freedom of speech can create fear and mistrust among people, and how people ruled by these emotions become afraid to stand up for their rights, or the rights of others. They become afraid to openly question even the most obviously false rhetoric and propaganda.
We must never let these things happen to us.

Natalie Manes showed us that we need to stand up for our Freedom of Speech or it can be taken from us; and with it, our liberty. Tim Robbins and other celebrities show us that we can still stand up and fight for our Freedom of Speech and our liberty. But celebrities cannot do the job for us. We must all maintain the ‘eternal vigilance’ necessary to become aware of these attacks on our freedoms, our liberty and our welfare. 

The United States remains a rhetorical battlefield in which we must continually fight for the right to create a better society. We are all soldiers in this fight. Together we all must stand up for our beliefs and continuously fight to protect our Freedom of Speech.  When Americans fight to protect the Freedom of Speech, we contribute the most to general human welfare. 

It's amazing how good science fiction can remain relevant for so many years in spite of changing culture and technology.

Seven Mercies

Seven Mercies is the second half of the Seven Devils duology. (Read my review of the first book.) Like the first book in the series, it's a mixed bag; a lot to like, and a few things that don't quite work. 


Seven Mercies starts a few months after the conclusion of the first book. The rebel forces are decimated. The empire is stronger than ever, and our heroes are struggling to find supplies. Rumors arrive that the other empire has found a way to free people from the Oracle's mind control. So two of the devils go under cover to verify it. 

In the mean time, the others try to free one of their former leaders from prison before he is turned into a mindless vessel for the AI that runs the empire. It's too late, of course, he's already fully under the AI's control. So when they bring him back, the AI speaks through him, persuading the youngest rebel to return to her job as the AI's programmer and engineer. The AI then persuades her young engineer to write the code that lets it take over everyone in the empire. Everyone with a chip in their head across the entire length of the empire is reduced to mindless drones. (Yep, that's essentially what just happened on Star Trek: Picard Season 3, Episode 9.) 

The rebels must fight through an army of drones to rescue their young engineer and destroy the AI. 

Most of the characters are well developed (although some make really stupid decisions) and action is intense. Making the book enjoyable to read.... if you can ignore the occasional clumsy writing and a basic world building error.

The Writer's Perspective

The first book was marketed as a feminist space opera. But the second book reveals that  four of the characters are bisexual and one is transgender, making this more of a queer space opera. This also creates an internal contradiction that shows the authors failed to do their research. 

In the real world, sexual identity and orientation develop during gestation. The genetic engineering program and artificial gestation process that the authors described would never have allowed the development of homosexual and transgender traits in just a few random individuals among a creche of engineered soldiers. 

This basic flaw in the world building prevents the suspension of disbelief necessary for the reader to totally immerse themselves in the fictional universe. It also highlights how important it is for science fiction writers to research the science they write about.

If you can ignore this basic error, you'll enjoy both Seven Devils and Seven Mercies.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Fired on Mars

Fired on Mars is a new animated sci fi show on HBO Max. Unfortunately, this is a slow, boring portrait of a man who gets fired and falls into a long depression. I barely got through the pilot episode without turning off the TV and picking up a book.

The pilot episode ignored some of the most basic requirements of a good storytelling: 1. Give your character a goal to achieve and 2. build a believable world.

Jeff Cooper (voiced by Luke Wilson) is a graphic designer who gave up his life to travel to Mars. But 8 months after arriving, the company eliminates his position. This leaves him with nothing to do, and no way to return home. So he falls into a terrible depression. He tries once or twice to let people know that he's available to work, but no one cares.

The worldbuilding is absolutely terrible. The office, even though it's on Mars, looks like any typical office from the 1990s. Brightly lit, spacious, and everyone in open cubicles. It could easily be on Earth. The computers look like iMacs (which I've never seen in a real office) from the late 1990s. Close ups show them running Mac OS 5 or 6 (which were obsolete by the time iMacs were produced) and software that looks like MacDraw from the 1980s. Yet Jeff has a modern smart phone that provides instant communication between Earth and Mars. 

The banal and superficial dialogue makes all the characters sound like idiots. Worse, nothing in the dialogue contributes to the worldbuilding. Most of this dialogue could have occurred in any generic company anywhere on Earth 30 years ago.

 I don't know what HBO was thinking when they produced this show. But I will not watch a second episode.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

The Magician's Apprentice

The Magician's Apprentice is a slow moving, poorly constructed prequel to Trudi Canavan's Black Magic Trilogy.

While I enjoyed Thief's Magic and Angel of Storms, I found it difficult to finish this book.

Every chapter has a different viewpoint character (the titular apprentice is only one of a dozen) and several are minor or inconsequential characters. 

Nearly every chapter is dominated by the viewpoint character trying to guess what other characters are thinking. While this shows that all the characters are empathic toward each other, it dilutes their personalities and eventually all the characters just kind of blend together, and you often forget who's viewpoint the chapter is supposed to be in. It also drags the story down, making the reader want to jump ahead to the next action scene. 

About two thirds into the book, the author adds a new subplot, which eventually results in the founding of a new city. I'm guessing this subplot was an origin story to some aspect of the Black Magic Trilogy.  (I haven't read those books) But it was unnecessary for the story in the Magician's Apprentice's, and didn't fit with the primary story.

If you're a fan of the Black Magic Trilogy, you might find The Magician's Apprentice a little interesting. But otherwise, don't waste your time.

Sunday, April 9, 2023

The Ark

Since the cancellation of Stargate SG-1, the Sci Fi channel's programming has deteriorated considerably. It's gotten so bad that I quit looking at the channel's listings. So I nearly missed The Ark.

Unfortunately, this show's is off to a poor start.

The Premise

The Earth can no longer sustain human life. So mankind builds arks, puts the best and brightest in suspended animation and sends them out to colonize new worlds.

Still a year from their destination, something strikes Ark 1, killing the command crew and forces the junior officers out of suspended animation prematurely. With another year in their journey, little food, little water, and a barely functioning ship, the junior officers have to step up and save themselves. 

Except that the crew, supposedly comprised of Earth's best and brightest young people, immediately devolve into petty high school-like rivalries and arguments over who's in command. The dialog also often contradicts the 'best and brightest' premise. Angus, the chief agriculturalist says he's not a scientist, in spite of having a degree in agricultural science. Alicia, a computer genius who was originally assigned to work in waste management, has to explain basic astrophysics concepts to the new captain and the navigator. 

In the third episode. The ship is in danger of colliding with an asteroid. In spite of the water shortage,  no one asks for an analysis of the asteroid's composition until they see from their window that the asteroid has a tail. This is very bad science. In the real world, even a comet totally composed of ice wouldn't have a tail this far from a star.

The show starts to improve in the seventh episode, where they find Ark 3 disabled and the crew dead, They also discover that in the years since they left Earth, the ark program developed faster than light travel, and the later arks can travel faster than Ark 1. They later find video records showing that Ark 15 had attacked Ark 3, surmise that probably attacked Ark 1, and is racing ahead to their destination. 

The poorly written dialog and all the petty dramas often made me cringe. But each episode so far has ended on a cliff hanger that made me want to watch the next one. And starting with episode 7, each episode has revealed a bit more of a potentially complex fictional universe. This gives the viewer the impression of something bigger come. So in spite of the poor start, this show has potential. I'm going to keep watching, hoping it continues to improve.

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

The Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse

The Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse is a comic space opera from Hugo Award winning author Jim Hines.

Book 1: Terminal Alliance

Book 2: Terminal Uprising

Book 3: Terminal Peace


After a mysterious plague devolves the entire human race into feral monsters, the alien Krakau come to earth and develop a partial cure. The 'cured' humans are recruited as soldiers in their war against the Prodryan. And those who are unfit to be soldiers become janitors on the K's space ships. 

Mops is the lead janitor on the Pufferfish, fortunately for her. While Mops and her crew are in hazmat suits cleaning up the plumbing mess in the alien sector of the ship, the rest of the human crew reverts to their feral state, basically acting like mindless zombies eating the non-human crew and trying to eat anything else they can. 

Mops and her janitorial team are spared this fate, that means the janitors must find out what happened and try to save the rest of the crew. Their investigation sends them across the galaxy chasing clues. Along the way, they discover that most of what they've been told about Earth's history might be a lie. 

Humans might not be as monstrous as they've been told. And the aliens who claimed to save them from the plague, may have been responsible for it.

The Writer's Perspective

Two things I really love about the first book:

  • Nothing is easy for the crew.
  • Even after the janitorial crew take over the ship, they continue to think like janitors.

The janitorial team has to step outside their comfort zone. They have to learn to fly the ship, navigate the galaxy, fire the weapons, infiltrate a space station, steal classified data, treat a plague, and avert a war. Nothing is easy. It takes days/weeks. And it results in a multitude of comic errors. 

But while learning and growing all the characters stay true to their origins. They continue to think like janitors, and find solutions to their problems in their janitorial experience.

Satire can get away with many things that serious space operas should never even try, including toilet humor, aliens that act like humans, and zombies on space ships. (I've stopped reading several books after the first few chapters because the aliens acted like humans.) But Hines combines these elements wonderfully. 

All three books are wonderfully written and lots of fun to read.