Klaatu, where are you?

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In the 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, an alien named Klaatu comes to earth and almost immediately is gunned down. Luckily for him, death is not an impediment, at least, not initially. He delivers a message to the world – stop fighting among yourselves and join a peaceful galactic civilization. It’s not a particularly original idea (except for the galactic part) but it falls on deaf ears. They shoot him again but rather than destroying the planet he saves it from destruction be all powerful robots by famously uttering: Klaatu barada nikto!

Say what? While no one really knows what those words meant (even the screenwriter) they did the trick and the earth was spared. The theme of bringing the world together to fight alien invaders has subsequently been a well-worn trope of science fiction movies, though generally in subsequent iterations, it actually worked.

Klatuu failed in his mission of world unity but that wasn’t the point. What the director and writer might have been getting at is that the world was doomed if it kept on its current road of nuclear proliferation. It would take more than the intervention of one man (or alien) to change that. It was a collective exercise requiring international collaboration. We signed a couple of treaties and the world didn’t burn (though a couple of guys seem determined to change that).

Sort of like what we are currently facing with climate change. Much like the arms race, the world has been in a competitive frenzy to have more, to make more, to control more. Economies have expanded—not a bad thing in itself—at the cost of the environment and, as well, as the end game plays out, at the price of greater social and economic inequality. It is not sustainable but, for most of us, present pleasure always out weighs inevitable pain. Anyone who has had more than one hangover can attest to that.

But nothing is inevitable. In 1980, most of the countries of Africa were in the hands of dictators who had clung to power—using violence, propaganda, patronage and corruption—for more than 20 years. Most had the support of one of the Great Powers at the time—the US and its allies on one side and the Soviet Union on the other.

Then Michel Gorbachev arrived on the scene with the idea of glasnost, which lead to the fall of communism and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, caused mostly by internal transformations rather than the exhortations of Ronald Reagan. The effect in Africa was dramatic. The iron grip of Marxist dictators was loosened and, in many countries, multi-party states began their shaky existence. Western powers, too, no longer saw the benefit of supporting “useful dictators” like Mobutu in Zaire. Without continuing CIA support many lost their positions (though not the billions they had stolen over the years). It was not the end of Africa’s problems but it set the stage so that, in some countries at least, real progress could be made, while in others, things became less bad.

So maybe we don’t need an alien invasion after all (though I’d love to hear Donald Trump say he was going to build a wall around the earth and make the Martians pay for it). What we need are a few brave leaders to transform the earth… No, that’s not it, we need the whole population to wake up and kick a few of our so-called leaders in the butt and then, get on with the job at hand.

Because we really can’t be saved by the actions of one person (look at Russia today) but only by the collective action of the many, even if we have to drag the rest kicking and screaming into the future. While we still have one.

And that’s ten minutes from Hayden Trenholm

Christmas Movies

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If you wanted to – that is to say, if there was something wrong with you – you could find a Christmas themed movie to watch every day of Advent. Each day you would open up a sickly sweet gooey gob of sentimentality (with the occasionally bitterly cynical nugget thrown in) and, depending on your nature, would either sneer in derision or sit, sniffling great snorting snotty tears. Most Christmas movies, as you can tell from my analysis, suck.

There are gems of course – often bittersweet pieces about personal redemption that may or may not require angelic or ghostly intervention, but generally can be watched as a life lesson about family, community and the role of good people in making the world a better place. White Christmas, for example, is completely without any kind of mysticism but is thoroughly uplifting – and a lot of fun, too. Its central theme is loyalty, between friends but on a larger stage as well.

On a more serious note, there is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the story of Harry Bailey and his struggle to support his family and make his community a better place. In this he faces the grasping banker, Potter, the very stereotype of the evil capitalist. One might think that Frank Capra, who directed it was some sort of socialist, but you would be wrong. Capra was a lifelong Republican who strongly opposed The New Deal and believed deeply in the American Dream. In fact, most of his movies were about how that dream had been suffocated by corrupt governments and evil rich people. As a conservative, Capra recognized that the American way of life depended on people being able to get ahead and that anything that prevented that – like excessive income inequality and monopoly capitalism – was a blight on the landscape. It’s a Wonderful Life is a paean to American capitalism – writ small – rather than a criticism of it.

A Christmas Carol – perhaps the most produced Christmas story ever with everything from serious renditions with Alistair Sims or Patrick Stewart to more frivolous examples like the Muppets or Scrooged with Bill Murray – is a slightly different kettle of fish. Dickens, while not much of a human being at a personal level, was a great reformer, viewing the excesses of the industrial revolution and the rising power of individual wealth as a danger not simply to society but to our humanity. He struggled in his writing and his personal campaigns to uncover the worst excesses of capitalism in early nineteenth century England. It is notable that Dickens relies on ghosts rather than angels to do his dirty work; he had a certain skepticism regarding the role of the Church – especially the high Anglican one – to actually make things better.

Rather, Scrooge is visited by three ghosts who are given the task of giving him three basic lessons, which can be simply stated as these:

  • No man is an island – everyone owes their wellbeing to those who went before and those who helped them; before anything, we are part of a community.
  • Hoarded money does no-one any good, not even the hoarder; we are all human and misery is ultimately shared, as is joy.
  • Money will not buy you happiness or a way into heaven and, if you are foolish about it, will not even buy you comfort or pleasure.

So there you have it. Christmas in a nutshell, whether you are a conservative or a progressive. Community, sharing and a beautiful dream.

And that’s ten minutes.

Interstellar

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Most everyone I’ve read – mostly science fiction writers and fans – have described Interstellar as the best science fiction film of the last twenty years. There have certainly been comparisons to 2001 and so there should be – the references and homages to Kubrick’s classic were obvious. The focus of most people seems to have been on the space travel component and the treatment of concepts like relativity and the effect of gravity on space and time. And that was excellent. Spoilers ahead.

But to me the real strength of the movie revolved around the backstory of environmental collapse and the consequences for society when the planet can no longer sustain the human quest for more stuff. Whether you want to pin the blame on climate change or the depredations of Monsanto, the message is clear: we are pushing the world toward another extinction event and our only hope is… well, what is it? Abandon the planet or fix it?

At first neither seems possible. Science has run up against the wall. In fact, for most of the people involved, science has been thankfully abandoned (the Apollo mission was fake – which is another way of saying that progress is a lie — a central theme of all ultra-conservatives) as people subside into survival mode. Just hanging on and hoping that next year will be better.

But can science overcome human nature? Some certainly think not. Dr. Mann has abandoned hope – his view is that individual survival is understandable but that people are incapable of thinking in the abstract, of acting in ways that ensure the survival of the species even if their own survival and that of their children is the price to pay. It certainly is a conundrum but people have shown themselves capable of working on things they know will never be completed in their lifetimes. Visit the cathedrals of Europe most of which took 400 or more years to construct and you will see what I mean.

Others – Professor Brand – pretend to be almost there with the solution, even though he knows that the answer can’t be found without more data. He fakes his work so that people won’t lose hope. His plan B is plan A all along. He abandoned individual humans long ago so that the species can continue. He incorporates recursiveness in his equations as a way to hide the awful truth.

This is all well and good but really, isn’t that what we all do? None of us expect to actually reach the promised land but we all work hard to take a few more steps on the journey so that our children , grandchildren, or if you are like me and have never produced any, the children and grandchildren of our neighbours can have a better life. Individual selfishness is certainly a barrier to that but not in the simplistic way you might think.

What I really liked about the movie was the way it seemed to include a mystical element without ever having one. The solution seems to come from advanced aliens who want to help us (i.e. God) but in fact comes from the human future. But the person transmitting the message is from the present, from someone who only wants, selfishly, his children to survive.

In other words, the answer to our current problems can only be solved by us – in the present – driven by selfish motives that are ultimately altruistic. The answers don’t come from God; they certainly don’t come from abandoning science or accepting second best solutions because the real solution is too hard. It comes from the on-going scientific conversation and keeping an eye on the future. While the temptation always exists to hold onto what we have and fight fires as they come, to constantly look to the ‘more simple’ past, the world can’t take any more of that. The future is coming, one second at a time, and we need to prepare for it rather than deny it.

And that’s what good science fiction is: a conversation with the future.

I just wish all the actors didn’t mumble so much.

And that’s somewhat more than ten minutes.