Tom Pittman's WebLog

2019 April 18 -- Dancing with Eternity

It was next on my stack of reading material, and the first half seemed like a reasonable sci-fi story, a little weak on the science and a little heavy on inner turmoil (which I let by because it seemed like a reasonable way to explain twenty centuries of back-story) but it also had a male lead (I usually check that before I bring it home) and no profanity. According to the author blurb at the back, John Patrick Lowrie was a singer and then actor with no scientific background at all, and as I have pointed out on numerous occasions, the best fiction is when the author writes what he knows. So his first-person lead character Mo also was a singer and actor. Maybe he was a dancer too, it got more ink than your average sci-fi, and no obvious referent in the text to the dancing in the title.

An important technological factor in his story involves a "sky-hook" to raise and lower people from an orbiting space ship without landing on the planet. It looks ingenious if you don't understand physics: the idea is that you whirl this very long, super-strong cable like a Ferris wheel centered on the low-orbiting ship, so that the far end of the cable with the hook on it gets really close to the ground going backwards at the same speed as the ship is going forward in the sky, so the speeds cancel out the way it works for the tires on a car.  You hook on, and it pulls you up and out to twice the hieght (and velocity) of the space ship, which if they release the cargo on that outer reach, it can be driven farther out into orbit, presumably with no serious energy lost in rocketing off the earth. The physics part is called momentum, first to get that thing whirling takes a lot of energy out there at the hook end, and if it doesn't have enough inertia (weight) coming through the atmosphere and hooking onto the load, the spin just stops (or at least slows down like a pendulum through a liquid). That energy must come from somewhere, it's not free. It takes just as much energy lifting a ton of load off the earth into orbit with a sky-hook as it does lifting it up in a rocket taking off from the ground. The only difference is that the rocket also needs to lift itself off. It still needs to do that, plus lifting all the fuel to keep it in orbit while lifting the load with the hook. It's fiction, authors get to invent stuff like that, but the scientifically inclined readers will notice the discrepancies.

Some time in the twenty centuries between now and the setting of this story, somebody figured out that dreams always involve (other) people and (according to this pseudo-science) those dreams are actually contact with other people who are also dreaming, and this goes through some kind of dimensional thing so it's instantaneous, not constrained by the speed of light. My dreams don't always involve people, and if they do, it's often that the people I'm dreaming about already died in real life. I suspect it might be because I'm a techie and work with things (not people) in real life, whereas singers and actors tend to be people-oriented (Feelers). Anyway, in his story, you just "log onto the net" and you have telepathy with anybody anywhere (who is also logged on, but you can "bullet" them like a telephone ring if they are not). From this and what mathematicians call "a hand wave" he gets faster-than-light (FTL) communications and travel. Space opera needs star travel, and only Orson Scott Card managed to do it without magic (for a while) -- but even he had FTL communications. So it's a permitted fantasy in otherwise hard sci-fi.

The most important technological break-through in his story is what he called "rebooting," where they have this facility that goes through your whole body and undoes the aging, and while they're at it, they can make physiological changes to the body, like adding fur or feathers or reptilian scales as a grown skin covering, or change your height and muscle strength. On a smaller scale, the (presumably same) technology can heal pretty much anything that happens to you by way of accident. If it's a fatal accident, you quickly upload your "perspective" (essentially your memories and thought patterns) to the net, then wait three months while they clone a new body for you. Rebooting is very expensive, so in order for everybody to get it, they sign up for one lifetime of slavery, followed by another reboot, and the corporation that is buying 80 years of your labor pays for the reboot at the front (to prepare you for whatever they want you doing) and another at the end to restore you to yourself or whatever you want to be. The result is that nobody ever dies any more, and the FTL enables them to go colonize new planets -- where terraforming is labor-intensive, paid for by corporations who profit from the resources, using the contract slave labor -- so the earth is no longer overcrowded.

This much took 200 pages of back-story woven into otherwise boring drunken existence with a lot of inner turmoil over past bad decisions, so that our first-person hero finally had the necessary basis for the theme of his story, which is what do people who live in such a culture do with death? At this point I began to realize this book had turned a corner to become a deeply religious tract. The function of religion, in his opinion, is to cope with death, to give people an immortal soul that transcends death, and a ritual to send their loved ones off to heaven or Valhala or wherever. And when death is abolished, then religion dies. Except for one planet where the religious nuts went to refuse rebooting and continue their religious traditions -- Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, whatever, it didn't matter, they were all equivalent in his mind.

Although he didn't say so that I noticed, another function of religions that he was willing to admit to is to provide a moral compass, to encourage people to act in civilized ways toward each other. Lowrie's Religion -- capitalized here, so to refer to my definition, which is to spell out for their adherents what is non-negotiably True -- Lowrie and his lead character Mo both have a Religion which solves the moral problem with telepathy. If you attack (like rape) a person, all she needs to do is go online and everybody can feel her pain, so rape and murder and stealing are eliminated. As if. The problem is that "the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked" [Jer.17:9], and we sinners are generally not willing to give that up. In Lowrie's 40th century, dying is so horrible, it overwhelms any sinful disadvantage we might see in telepathy. Anyway, it was clear that Lowrie was using his technology as a substitute redemption story that conferred eternal life, as pointed out in that ChritianityToday story some ten years ago (see my "Sci-Fi Redemption" blog post).

Lowrie himself can't really imagine a universe without sin, so his secondary character, the mega-wealthy female industrialist named Steel who hires Mo as a crew member on her starship, she needs to be accompanied by a 500-pound almost-sentient gorilla who serves as a bodyguard: when Mo first sees beautiful furry (but otherwise naked) Steel in the bar in the first chapter, his next thought is "Where's her bodyguard?" He looks around and sees him just outside the door. This is before Lowrie gets around to explaining why religion is dead. Why would this be necessary if the net eliminated the need for religion? Later it is revealed that the top crust of society (including Steel) can use the net, but are not on it the way everybody else is. I think it's Lowrie's way of telling us that in his Religion (like most movies today, where corporate greed drives the Bad Guys), industrialists have no moral compass, so they do Bad Things to other people. He writes what he knows, and it's a world full of sin. The story would be boring otherwise, because we readers want to read about sin -- if for no other reason than so that the Good Guys can beat the Bad Guys.

The last quarter of the book turned another corner, left off preaching, and became a rowsing action story. Still too much inner turmoil, but the religious focus turned against radical feminism. Lowrie seems to be only a nominal feminist: the starship owner Steel and her hired scientist Archie are both female, but Steel's bodyguard and our hero Mo and the pilot and the tech wiz are all stereotypical male. Pretty close to the 3/4 mark, Mo (who can do no wrong other than getting drunk when he has no job and spending too much time in senseless introspection) tells Archie,

If women are equal to men they're equal in venality as well as nobility. In stupidity as well as wisdom. In weakness as well as strength. That's the horror. The world won't be a better place if women run it; women are just men shaped a little differently. There's no one to run to, no bosom to hide in. We human beings are all we've got. Better to think that women are just 'kind of' equal to men. Equal but different, equal but better, more sensitive, less aggressive, just plain nicer. [page 285]

Some authors make their unisex women into "men shaped a little differently," but Lowrie does not. Some, but not a lot. That's because the reality, which Lowrie sees and knows and writes about (but probably does not understand), is that women are different from men in more ways than reproductive organs -- organs atrophied in this story except for sex acts, because children are "hatched" and not raised by families (except on the planet Eden, which is isolated from the net, and where Steel and Archie went to study the culture of people who die).

It's an interesting exploration of religion and death, by a person who obviously has no love for nor understanding of what Religion is all about, but recognizes that it serves a useful purpose in our society today, just one he wants no part of himself. If obscenities are the hallmark of anger, then the third quarter is where Lowrie exposes his anger at religion. But we need to remember that it's fiction, as that screenwriter put it, "it's make-believe, you can do whatever you want, because who's to say it can't work?"


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