Posts Tagged ‘‘Xelee’’

Donald Trump Predicted in Stephen Baxter’s 1995 Novel ‘Titan’

July 16, 2017

I’ve been making my way through Stephen Baxter’s SF novel, Titan, these last few weeks. Baxter’s a British SF writer, with degrees in maths and engineering. He applied to be an astronaut on the Anglo-Soviet mission to Mir in the 1980s, which went to Helen Sharman. He’s probably best known for his Xelee-sequence books. These are set in a universe dominated by the extremely advanced, but mysterious Xelee, who are engaged in a war across the entire universe with the Photino Birds, dark matter creatures determined to age and extinguish the universe of ordinary matter. He has also written other novels about a variety of parthenogenic humans, descended from a lost troop of Romans, a catastrophic flood in the Bronze Age, and the books The Long Earth and The Long War, about parallel worlds, with the late, great Terry Pratchett. His novel, Voyage, an alternative history in which NASA launches a final manned expedition to Mars, was adapted for Radio 4 by Audio Movies in the 1990s. He was also the scientific advisor for the 1990s BBC SF series, Invasion Earth, about aliens from the higher physical dimensions invading the planet.

Titan is also about a last, crewed NASA mission. This time its put together by a team of astronauts, space scientists and ground control crew as the Agency’s last, great space expedition before it is closed down following a shuttle disaster. It’s set in what was then the near future – 2004 onwards – in America increasingly falling into right-wing extremism, irrationalism and Christian fundamentalism. The leading politician and subsequent president, is Xavier Maclachlan, a Texan with standing on an aggressively anti-science platform. Here’s the description of the man and his policies on pages 284-5.

Hadamard was in Washington during the inauguration of Xavier Maclachlan, after his wafer-thin win in the 2008 election.

Maclachlan called it a ‘liberation of the capital’.

Armed militia bands came in from Idaho and Arizona and Oklahoma and Montana, to fire off black-powder salutes to the nationalist-populist who promised to repeal all gun control laws. In the crowd, Hadamard saw a couple of Ku Klux Klan constumes, a sight he though had gone into an unholy past. Come to that, there was a rumour that a former Klan leader was being made ready to become a future White House chief of staff. And in his speech Maclachlan appealed to the people to end what he called the ‘Israeli occupation of Congress’…

And so on.

As soon as Maclachlan lifted his hand from the Bible, US peacekeeping troops in the Balkans and Africa started to board their planes to leave. Foreign aid stopped. The UN was being thrown out of New York, and there was a rumour that Maclachlan was planning some military adventure to take back the canal from Panama.

Army engineers – set in place during the handover from the last Administration – started to build a wall, two thousand miles of it, along the Mexican border, to exclude illegal immigrants. White it was being built, troops brought home from peacekeeping abroad were operating a shoot-to-kill policy.

There was chaos in the financial markets. Machlachlan had withdrawn the US from the North American Free Trade Treaty, from the World Trade Organisation, from GATT. Reviews of the country’s membership of the World Bank and the IMF had started – arms of an incipient world government, Maclachlan said, designed to let in the Russians. He had raised tariffs – ten per cent against Japan, fifty per cent against the Chinese – and world trade collapsed.

The Chinese, particularly, screamed. And so Maclachlan sent the Seventh Fleet to a new station just off the coast of Taiwan.

Meanwhile all the strategic arms treaties with Russia were torn up, as Maclachlan orderd his technicians to dig out the blueprints for Reagan’s old dream of SDI. In fact, Maclachlan wanted to go further. He was inviting ideas for what he called his ‘da Vinci brains trust’. The press was full of schemes for fantastic new weapons: smart remote sensors; dream mines that could shoot at passing traffic; smart armour that would use explosive tiles to deflect incoming projectiles; maybe even an electrical battlefield in which electricity-propelled shells would be zapped in by low-flying aircraft.

And back home, Machlachlan had cut off any remaining programs which benefited blacks and other minorities, and any funding that appeared to support abortion, which had been made illegal in any form.

Xavier Maclachlan was a busy man, and he was fulfilling his campaign promises.

Clearly, much of this is an extrapolation from the policies and attitudes of the Republican party and the American extreme Right in the 1980s and 1990s. Reagan had brought right-wing Christian fundamentalists into the Republican party, who had previously stood aloof from politics as part of a corrupt, fallen secular order. He had also begun to wind up government welfare programmes, particularly those aimed at benefiting minorities, such as Black Americans. Fears of an imminent apocalypse, social breakdown and Russian invasion, even after the collapse of Communism, had resulted in the emergence of the survivalist and then Militia movements, armed right-wing paramilitary groups. These had a bitter resentment of the federal government, which culminated in McViegh’s bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma. They also tended to be bitterly racist and anti-Semitic. They believed and still believe in stupid Nazi conspiracy theories that claim that the Jews are trying to destroy the White race through racial intermixing and that America is covertly controlled by the Jews through the ‘Zionist Occupation Government’, or ZOG. These groups and right-wing American fundamentalist organisations also believed that there was a secret, Illuminati conspiracy to create a one world Satanic superstate centred on the UN. Phyllis Schlafly, who was actually a Democrat, regularly denounced the UN as well as women’s rights. And one leading figure in the militias – I think it may have been Bo Gritz, who supposedly served as the model for ‘Rambo’ – stated that the way they would clear America’s international debt would be by minting a single coin with the legend ‘1 Trillion Dollars’. As for the Klan, there were a series of scandals in which senior Republican politicos were revealed as having links to or membership in the White racist terrorist group. The most notorious of these was David Duke in Louisiana, who is unfortunately still around and blaming the Jews for everything even today.

And political scientists and economists were predicting the rise of China and the other ‘tiger economies’, which would dominate the ‘Pacific Century’ even then.

Of course, there are things Baxter failed to predict, like 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. He also takes the conventional view that the various free trade agreements and UN organisations, like the IMF and the World Bank, are nice, liberal, benefificial institutions, rather than the way corporate America imposes its own neoliberal policies on the rest of the world, particularly the developing nations.

Not that the Democrats have been much different. Counterpunch has reported that Obama was considering removing the ‘No first strike’ policy towards a nuclear confrontation, and Killary has been every bit as aggressive in her stance towards Russia and China as the Republicans, perhaps even more so.

As for the White extremist and racist groups supporting the new president, all that’s different is that the Klan has been largely replaced, or subsumed, into the internet-based Alt Right. But the hysterical fear of gun legislation, promoted and lavishly funded by the gun manufacturers and the NRA, against the desires of the majority of Americans, and even the NRA’s own rank and file membership, remains strong.

It shows how long the attitudes held by the American right, and which led to the election of Donald Trump, have been around. Since his election, left-wing news sites such as The Young Turks, Secular Talk and the David Pakman Show have reported that Americans have become increasingly dissatisfied with Trump. Sixty per cent of the American public want him impeached. This dissatisfaction even extends to Republican voters.

Trump, however, in his racism, his isolationism, aggressive nationalism and hatred of the welfare state and women’s rights, is very much in line with the general political stance of post-Reaganite right-wing American politicians. Indeed, he’s so much a part of this political trend that, with caveats, his election – or rather, the election of someone like him – was predicted by Baxter over two decades ago.

No wonder an increasing number of young Americans are looking to progressive politicos like Bernie Sanders for leadership and the redemption of their country against a corrupt political elite and the military-industrial complex. And I fervently hope they win, and that humanity will continue to reach out to the cosmos in a spirit of genuine exploration and wonder, and not as another arena for warfare.

Government Internet Censorship in Stephen Baxter’s ‘Titan’

July 6, 2017

One of the very real concerns about the current attacks on freedom of speech by British and American governments is these states’ demands for increasing powers to regulate and censor what is posted on-line. This has all been framed under the pretext of protecting the British and American peoples from pornography, especially paedophile, and terrorism.

Stephen Baxter is one of Britain’s leading writers of Hard SF. This is the subgenre of Science Fiction, which follows Asimov and Clarke in being based on real science, though obviously also with a greater or less degree of extrapolation and invention permitting the inclusion of FTL drives, AIs and aliens. Baxter’s best known for his Xelee sequence series of books. These are set in a universe dominated by the advanced and unknowable Xelee, an alien race so far ahead of humanity that humans and the other intelligent species compete with each other to scavenge bits and pieces of their technology. At the same time, the universe is being prematurely aged by the Photino Birds, dark matter creatures for whom the light and warmth of the universe of normal matter is a hostile environment.

Baxter has also written a number of novels set in an alternative world. In Voyage, he described a crewed NASA expedition to Mars, whose triumph – a successful Mars landing – comes just when the entire American space programme is cancelled. The book was adapted as a radio play and broadcast on Radio 4.

In Titan, published in 1995, Baxter tells the story of a group of NASA and JPL scientists and astronauts, who launch a manned expedition to Titan to investigate further the discovery of living biochemistry by the Cassini probe. This is to be NASA’s last hurrah after the crash of the Columbia space shuttle results in the cancellation of the manned space programme. The story begins in 2004, in a world that is almost identical to the present of the time the book was written.

There are a few exceptions, however. Amongst the new inventions of this future past are computerised tattoos, which change shape according to the wishes of the wearer, and soft computer/TV screens, which can be rolled up and pasted on walls like paper.

And one of the issues that is very alive is the American government’s ruthless censorship of the internet. This is discussed in one scene, where NASA’s head, Hadamard, meets Paula Benacerraf, an astronaut aboard the ill-fated Columbia mission, her daughter, Jackie, who is responsible for publishing the discovery of life on Saturn’s moon, and her young son, at an official ceremony in Texas to honour China’s first taikonaut, Jiang Li.

He found Paula Benacerraf, who was here with her daughter, and a kid, who looked bored and restless. Maybe he needed to pee, Hadamard thought sourly. On the daughter’s cheek was an image tattoo that was tuned to black; on her colourless dress she wore a simple, old-fashioned button-badge that said, mysteriously, ‘NED’.

Hadamard grunted. ‘I’ve seen a few of those blacked-out tattoos. I thought it was some kind of comms problem -‘
Jackie Benacerraf shook her head. ‘It’s a mute protest.’
‘At what?’
‘At shutting down the net.’
‘Oh. Right.’ Oh, Christ, he thought. She was talking about the Communications Decency Act, which had been extended during the winter. With a flurry of publicity about paedophiles and neo-Nazis and bomb-makers, the police had shut down and prosecuted any net service provider, who could be shown to have passed on any of the material that fell outside the provisions of the Act. And that was almost all of them.
‘I was never much of a net user,’ Hadamard admitted.
‘Just to get you up to date,’ Jackie Benacerraf said sourly, ‘we now have one licensed service provider, which is Disney-Coke, and all net access software has built-in-censorship filters. We’re just like China now, where everything goes through the official news agency, Xinhua; that poor space kid must feel right at home.’
Benacerraf raised an eyebrow at him. ‘She’s a journalist. Jackie takes these things seriously.’
Jackie scowled. ‘Wouldn’t you, if your career had just been f***ed over?’
[Censorship mine].
Hadamard shrugged; he didn’t have strong opinions.
The comprehensive net shutdown had been necessary because the tech-heads who loved all that stuff had proven too damn smart at getting around any reasonable restriction put in place. Like putting encoded messages of race-hate and smut into graphics files, for instance: that had meant banning all graphics and sound files, and the World Wide Web had just withered. He knew there had been some squealing among genuine discussion groups on the net, and academics and researchers who suddenly found their access to online libraries shut down, and businesses who were no longer allowed to send secure encrypted messages, and … But screw it. To Hadamard, the net had been just a big conduit of bullshit; everyone was better off without it.
(pp. 130-1).

This is Science Fiction as the literature of warning: against cuts to the space programme, and net censorship. It even mentions rising graduate unemployment, in a scene where Paula Benacerraf arranges a meeting with her team to discuss the possibility of launching a crewed mission to Titan. They meet at dinner party in Benacerraf’s house, served by her housekeeper, Kevin. Kevin is a fine art graduate, who is working as Benacerraf’s housekeeper in order to work off his student debt. His works are the usual horrors inflicted on the world by contemporary artists. In her only visit to his atelier, Benacerraf is shown a 1/4 size sculpture of himself which Kevin has gnawed from a block of lard. This is just a study for a full-size work, which he intends to gnaw from his own liposuctioned fat or faeces. As she and her guests are being served by Kevin, she reflects that he is like the majority of graduates, who will never have a job.

Well, the shuttle programme has been cancelled, but hopefully this will not prevent the further exploration of universe. The Chinese certainly are looking to put a person into space, and are believed to be aiming to land a human on the Moon by 2020. Baxter also mentions this in Titan in his description of the spacewoman’s mission to the Deep Black, where he states that this is believed to be in preparation for a moon landing in 2019.

And Baxter is absolutely correct about the demands for a comprehensive censorship of the internet by the British and American governments. The only difference is the terrorists the governments are panicking about are Islamist, rather than neo-Nazi. So far, the demands for censorship have been limited, so there isn’t the almost-complete shutdown of the net described in Baxter’s version of the recent past.

But this is still a very real danger, as these accompanying threat, which Baxter didn’t predict, of increased state surveillance of electronic communications, for the same reasons as censorship.

Someone once remarked that all science fiction is really about the issues of the time they were set. Titan reflects the fears about the internet that were present back in the 1990s, when it was first emerging. These fears, and the consequent demands by government to censor nearly everything we see or read online, are still very real, and Baxter’s book is still very relevant.