Weird Planets in Science Fiction and Science Fact

Earth is (obviously) not the only planet; there are many both out there in real space and in the space described in speculative literature. And, in many ways, they’re as weird in reality as they are in science fiction. The first story we know of involving (or at least self-consciously involving) travel from earth to another world was The Man in the Moone, a 1638 novel by Francis Godwin, a bishop in the Church of England. Not too long after, in 1666, Margaret Cavendish wrote The Blazing World, the first sci-fi work acknowledged to have been written by a woman. In that story, explorers could reach another planet, a bizarre utopia, by means of interstitial, rather than interstellar travel. In other words, extra-dimensional travel occurred “between the spaces” of existing 3 dimensional objects. That’s rather quantum for the 17th century. 

The number of science fiction stories about alien planets proliferated in the early 20th century with serial movies and TV, and later with teleplays, movies and eventually TV shows. Special interest bloggers have made many lists of best and worst weird planets, with some planets (like the Dune planet) appearing on both best and worst lists. One list of the “worst” in the sense of terrible to visit or live on includes LV-426 from the movie Aliens, “inhospitable, lifeless and deadly” (poor, nasty, brutish and short, even) at first glance, even before the xenomorph began attacking the reluctant workers at the nearby atmospheric processing plant. This same “worst” list includes Mustafar, the planet with the lava-saturated surface in Revenge of the Sith, and Planet Number Two in the film Pitch Black, which is characterized by continuous daylight. A list at Discovery with the “best” creatively conceived and written planets includes Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris — from the novel of the same name, eventually turned into one of the best science fiction movies ever made (1972 Soviet classic, not the mediocre 2002 American remake). 

Some critics have detailed arguments for why particular fictional planets are good or bad. For example, a critique in Screen Rant argues that Ego, the Living Planet, from Guardians of the Galaxy 2, is particularly irritating because the character/planet makes no sense. Why does Ego stay where he is, when he could go anywhere in the infinite universe? Why does he take the form of a human when humans are weak and unimpressive? Why would he take Mantis as a ward when she’s so needy? These are questions creators and writers should ask themselves before we have to. 

But if science fiction planets appear strange, wait till you learn about some of the actual planets that have been identified. Humanity’s ability to spot extrasolar planets and speculate descriptions of them has massively grown over the past several years, and we’ve accumulated a catalogue of actually existing weirdness. There’s Tres 2B, the “darkest planet” reflecting less than 1% of all light that hits it (because it has light-absorbent gasses!) while emitting massive amounts of internal heat. And there’s 55 Cancri e, a third of which is made of solid diamond. And don’t forget GJ 1214b, a planet covered entirely with water, with a small gravity-compressed ice core. Any of these would be just as wild to visit as fictional planets, and just as ripe for speculative scenarios about rival colonies, mining outposts, or the conferral of planetary consciousness. 
Ultimately, “science fiction is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are written for ghosts,” author Brian Aldiss once wrote. Elsewhere, Aldiss has written that science fiction is the search for a definition of humanity. The existence of so many unique worlds both problematizes and redefines humanity.

Giant Hole in the Ozone Layer Isn’t Strictly Terrible News

Heat map of the Earth on a black background with a large blue area over Antarctica which represents a hole in the ozone layer.

Way back in 1893, President Grover Cleveland told Congress that we should pursue international agreements even if they are not enforceable in the same ways national or local laws are. “The law of nations,” Cleveland said, “is founded upon reason and justice . . . that obedience to its commands practically depends upon good faith instead of upon the mandate of a superior tribunal only give additional sanction to the law itself and brand any deliberate infraction of it not merely as a wrong but as a disgrace.” This hasn’t always been true, of course, but the times when it has been true are good case studies; the Montreal Protocol is the most outstanding example. Because of it, we’re less hot, and our ozone layer will eventually restore itself, even if things look bad up there now.

Rarely do the United Nations and other organizations have good news about the environment, which is why the most recent update on the ozone layer is so exceptional. Although there is much more to do, there is good news: the hole in the ozone layer could be completely repaired in about 40 years if we stay on track with (and perhaps improve upon) the Montreal Protocol

Mass awareness of the hole in the ozone layer was ushered in by a now-immortalized 1985 Nature article. Discovery of the hole, somewhat serendipitously identified by three British Antarctic Survey scientists, launched one of the world’s first international regulatory campaigns to combat the effects of emissions on the atmosphere. In many ways, this campaign — which culminated in the Montreal Protocol — was a template for the later (and more complicated) emissions agreements which we’re still struggling to effectively author and implement. 

What set this scientific concern apart and sparked the regulatory movement was the fact that one cause of ozone depletion was the use of “chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs for short) used in refrigeration, air conditioning, and foam packaging.” Eventually, in 1987, 46 countries would sign the treaty, known as the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. The agreement phased out the chemicals. It mandated research to find safe substitutes for them. And, there was almost immediately a “sharp decline in the use of CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances worldwide.”

In fact, the Montreal Protocol did more than just protect the planet from UV radiation. It also prevented an additional source of global warming. A recent Lancaster University study “revealed that had the ozone depletion continued unmitigated, we would have been facing an alarming rise in temperature by an additional 0.5 to 1°C by the end of this century.”

Now it appears we may need even more Montreal-sized action, because although that late 1980s agreement stopped ozone depletion from spiraling out of control, we’ve still lost ozone and the repair process is slow. The European Union has reported for two years straight that the hole is the size of the entire continent of Antarctica. It will take its time rebuilding itself, and will rebuild itself only if we focus hard on improving and implementing Montreal. At the very least, we’re going to need to strengthen the Protocol, something that we ought to be able to do, since we’ve recently amended it to phase out other gasses besides CFCs. 

In his address to Congress quoted above, President Grover Cleveland held the U.S. to a higher standard than we often hold ourselves. He said that “the United States, in aiming to maintain itself as one of the most enlightened nations, would do its citizens gross injustice if it applied to its international relations any other than a high standard of honor and morality.” While we wish this sentiment were always the case, the environment is a good place to insist it be. 

Automated Luxury Updates

“Not that the vision is a new one. John Maynard Keynes’s famous essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” imagines a world with far less work and far more leisure; Shulamith Firestone wrote about “cybernetic communism.” Yet the most complete picture of FALC or FALGSC might come not from radical leftists or academic economists, but from Star Trek. In that imagined universe, replicators produce physical goods and artificial intelligence takes care of services. There is no need for money, no need for work, and no problems with resource competition. People do what they want.” (Annie Lowrey, 2019)

Call it cybernetic social democracy, care ethics, whatever you want, but technology doesn’t just make life easier for people with disabilities — it has the potential to re-shape material reality and make it more accessible for everyone. If that sounds optimistic in a way that invokes Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism memes, hold up and hear me out. Aaron Bastani’s larger iteration of the meme, namely his book Fully Automated Luxury Communism, examines the potential to create a world of post-scarcity. Everyone should have what they need and even what they want. 

Overcoming Phone Ableism

Let’s walk a step further with Bastini: everyone should have access to everything — and access means more than just overcoming resource scarcity: What if we also demanded the development of technology to de-normalize certain forms of ability while providing access to all variations of ability?

Marx believed capitalism creates a lot of this technological possibility before finally giving way to socialism. Google may be the maker of the rope to hang capitalist ableism: “Google offers a powerful API that lets developers create tools for people with disabilities . . . “Camera Switches” essentially lets you use face gestures to complete a number of actions . . . the update lets you map around six face gestures to over a dozen phone controls. These can also be tweaked based on gesture size to prevent the app from constantly initiating actions.” This is rough around the edges and doesn’t seem to do enough now, but we’ve seen functionality rapidly increase for analogous advances in the past. 

The Energy Internet of Things

3D printing is very cool: it has the ability to work with a multiplicity of materials and forms in the same print. That makes for better 3D printed houses or appliances, but it also now works in the field of energy. Lithium-ion batteries, which power smartphones, laptops, electric vehicles, watches and more, are still pretty inefficient. A “solid-state” battery is in the works, however — a “lighter weight, more energy dense, and ideally safer than today’s champion technology. The next frontier, they say, is the solid-state battery — and perhaps 3D-printed ones, at that.” Multiple materials can be deposited onto the matter that constitutes the printer’s “ink”. Anything extraneous to the performance of the batter is eliminated. In addition to the ability to reach far greater portions of the world and make power universally available, 3D printed materials are designed to have less “stuff” in them, which suggests that an unintended good outcome of a 3D-printed material economy is efficiency of resource use and materials, cutting down on extraction, associated exploitation of labourers and other burdens. 

The Amazing Catnip Disk and Why Pets and Humans Should Share Products

Pet toys are typically fun for the pets (at least we think they are) but maybe less so for humans. But Nerf’s taking on the pet toy market may bode well: Nerf’s pet toys are appropriately marketed to a generation of pet owners who grew up shooting or throwing or otherwise playing with nerf guns and other toys. The new products include tennis balls shooting 50 feet, and a “blaster” with a “spring-loaded mechanism [which] launches . . .  flying catnip discs about 10 feet.” And before you say this technology isn’t on par with 3D printed energy and face-guided phones, people who have fun with their pets probably live longer than those who don’t. All people and pets are entitled to better toys. 

Artist Cooperatives Are the Future

Musicians have long known the benefits of music cooperatives. In 2013 in the United Kingdom, as streaming services were making musicians’ income increasingly precarious, “the Musicians’ Union joined Co-operatives UK, the national trade body that supports co-ops across the country.” Similar efforts have been underway in many other countries, including the United States. Particularly over the last year, in response to Covid-19, musicians scrambled to find new ways—often cooperatively—to maintain their income streams, consolidate expenses, take on accessible and meaningful projects, and wait the pandemic out. These efforts have shown that working together can achieve greater results than working apart. The same is true of all artist co-ops. 

We need to go big on funding a new economy, because the old one truly is not working. The United States federal government should fund a variety of worker-owned (and other kinds of) cooperative initiatives. In a more rational world there would be a New Deal-style WPA of cooperatives, with streams of funding for converting entire sectors of the economy into cooperatives, from energy to agriculture to tech to the arts. 

Let us focus on the last one, for a moment: the arts. Writing about the benefits of both worker and studio co-ops, Nina Berman at Fractured Atlas says that studio co-ops “let you own a space without taking on the entire financial burden or burden of upkeep.” Berman points out that the landlord model pervades even many shared studio spaces. Even if people share the space, the property itself is “still in the hands of a single organizer or a single landlord who is ultimately responsible for that space.” And while a landlord supposedly will take care of maintenance and repairs, it’s also true that “if the landlord decides that the rent will increase by $200 per month or that the space is all of a sudden going to shut down or change directions completely, studio members have no formal say or power to shape the future of the space.” Studio cooperatives on the other hand, just like housing cooperatives, provide artists the benefit of ownership with evenly distributed risk and financial burden.  

In other words, co-ops don’t provide a financial and resource-sharing advantage in the market.  They also create a cooperative atmosphere among co-workers that is competitive in the market but which, fundamentally, builds skills around cooperation. Why is that important? For artists it’s significant because art itself is always a collective endeavor, even in the case of artists who are very iconoclastic. Being in community and connection with other artists encourages collaborative work, but also makes non-collaborative work easier.

Furthermore, cooperatives, as Richard Wolff extensively discusses, provide a model of non-capitalist commerce and labor. They are one of a small handful of alternative business models and institutions (including public banks, which can lend to cooperatives) that “redirect the economic, political, and cultural behaviors of enterprises, individuals, and governments” away from extraction and exploitation. Such a less-damaging world would be good for the arts — another reason for artists to seek cooperative models of sustaining their trades. 

Artists are also taking advantage of cooperative platforms as alternatives to Patreon, enabling them to keep more of their donations and encouraging a culture of sharing the wealth.

We may not be able to give every musician his own Abbey Road Studios-equivalent or arrange for her to display her paintings at the Louvre, but cooperative management of artistic enterprise is still the way of the future. I suspect it will not only solve many problems for artists on the financial edges, but also change the nature, content, form, and presentation of art itself. 

Why is China Cutting Renewable Energy Subsidies?

Once seen as the global leader in the transition away from fossil fuels, China is struggling with an identity crisis, shifting priorities concerning renewable energy, allegations of human rights abuses, and the wrong kind of hydrogen.

Only a couple of years ago, China was the shining city on the hill of renewable energy, even as it continued to burn a lot of coal and other fossil fuels. By 2014, “China had installed 378 gigawatts (GW) of renewables capacity . . . to tap water, wind and sun to generate power.” The plan was to have more GW of renewables “than all the countries of the OECD combined.” Like many nations, China was doing this by subsidizing renewables, although (again like many nations) the renewable subsidies paled in comparison to fossil fuel subsidies, still seen as essential to the economy. 

That retention of fossil fuel subsidies goes against the recommendations of energy policy experts who instead recommend phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies and reallocating the money to renewables. And, it turns out, China is still supporting fossil fuels with subsidies while, in fact, phasing out renewable subsidies. Rather than supporting wind and solar power with subsidies, China intends to cut subsidies for them altogether. That doesn’t mean they won’t support a renewables transition in other ways though: the nation’s financial institutions will be asked to finance the transition “through ratings of commercial banks, deposit insurance rates and macro prudential assessments.” In other words, China would prefer investment to subsidies.

This seems unwise. It’s true that investment in renewables is massively increasing and the world is on the brink of a healthy self-sustaining renewables market. But we’re not quite there yet, and state-driven acceleration is still warranted. Aside from the urgency of global climate change, a recent study attributes one out of every five deaths worldwide—yes, one out of five of all deaths—to air pollution from fossil fuels. 

Meanwhile, China is investing in hydrogen vehicles, but there’s another problem here: the world has insufficient supplies of clean H2. According to Recharge news, the former industry minister, Li Yizhong, recently “told an audience at a recent conference that, while local governments in China are enthusiastic about the development of hydrogen, few have thought about where supply will come from.” China has plenty of “grey hydrogen”—essentially hydrogen with carbon in it—but it requires carbon capture to avoid producing between 9 and 12 tons of carbon dioxide for every ton of hydrogen, definitely not a good way to utilize hydrogen as clean energy.

China remains the world’s largest producer of solar energy products for worldwide use as well, and the shift in domestic production policy isn’t likely to change that. But what could disrupt its production is global complaints of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the province where China is allegedly abusing Uyghurs in contravention of the region’s autonomous status—through forced labor making solar energy equipment. “Companies based in Xinjiang produce half the world’s polysilicon, an essential material component in the solar photovoltaic manufacturing industry. Collectively, Chinese enterprises account for over 80 percent of the global polysilicon supply.” If this is disrupted, it would slow down the placement of solar energy in Africa and the rest of the world. 

This, of course, means the world should be working hard to duplicate China’s solar production efforts in places and ways that don’t violate human rights. The United States could do this, but U.S. lawmakers are still held hostage by the fossil fuel industry. It’s time to elect leaders who will break from that captivity.

Aren’t We Already Cyborgs?

“Cyborgs” are, fundamentally, just subjects of “human augmentation”—the use of technology to correct and enhance physical limits. At present, physical limits are typically brought about through disease or accident or birth variant. There has been some development concerning non-corrective augmentation—the enhancement of individual bodies—and this is not as large a scientific leap as one might suppose. 

Writing about cyborgs back in 2014, Frank Swain pointed out: “There’s a big gulf between the fantasy vision of cyborgs, and the current reality of being dependent on an implant or a prosthetic in day-to-day life. If we’re to separate the two, we ought to pay close attention to those who are living in that world already.” That’s a lot of us, really, an important disruption of the commonly-held assumption that cyborgs are part of some imagined future rather than us.

Perhaps because the past year and a half has been a time of widespread social panic and conflict over disease; perhaps because we have had to struggle with isolation and the ubiquity of disability as a context of the threat of covid-19 exposure; perhaps because we just voted out a U.S. president who made fun of the differently-abled: the question of our bodies’ relationships with technology is again a topic of considerable conversation in articles on the internet. 

“When will we all be cyborgs?” asked the title of Frank Swain’s recent essay in Daze. Apple, accused of taking over our bodies and minds, is the culprit in a recent Guardian article. And Science Daily told us last August that cybernetic tech has applications that can save us by increasing diagnostic technology and not just erase us. This last assertion is important. Even if we end up walking away from or rejecting some new advancements in cyber, it will be important for us to still recognise the possible benefits that also come from that technology. 

There is still ongoing concern that cybernetics changes who we are as humans—the old Theseus’s Ship problem that asks, if you keep changing out the parts, at what point does the whole become something new, something different? 

In “Who Wants to Be A Cyborg,” published late last year, philosopher Susan Schneider points out that we’re already there: “Several large research projects are currently trying to put AI inside the brain and peripheral nervous system. They aim to hook you to the cloud without the intermediary of a keyboard.” 

Schneider is concerned that this is all happening in the context of capitalism: “For corporations doing this, such as Neuralink, Facebook and Kernel,” she says, “your brain and body is an arena for future profit. Without proper legislative guardrails, your thoughts and biometric data could be sold to the highest bidder, and authoritarian dictatorships will have the ultimate mind control device. So, privacy safeguards are essential.”

She wonders, as I also wonder, whether we can survive the kind of class divisions that will come from privatized enhancements, making people more competitive for jobs or college scholarships. Of course, we’ve been “enhancing” our bodies for centuries, and wealth has allowed some people to do that much better than others. Dental implants may be one of the salient examples, specifically because teeth are so visually representative of conventional constructions of beauty, influence and status in our society. 

On top of that, Schneider is worried “that given the metaphysical uncertainty involving the nature of the person, we may face enhancement decisions before we have a clear, uncontroversial answer to the question ‘What is the nature of the self or person?’” 

It is here, however, that I definitively depart from her critique. We have long stopped being pristine persons unaffected by internal or external technology. While I agree that the question of what “we” are is important—it lets us re-examine our values and judge our ethical choices—I do think that keeping “we’re always already cybernetic” in mind allows us to look backward in addition to looking forward. It lets us see history, with an understanding of economic systems and class divisions, which can inform present organizing and future visions and demands. 

When Gadgets Fail—Tech Hubris Roundup

Icarus flew too close to the sun, his wax wings melting because he used them too ambitiously. Dr. Frankenstein created a monster that destroyed his loved ones. In reality, just as in myth, technology is often used with hubris, or is hubris itself; and tech gadget marketing especially so. We are forever trapped in the retro-future, a regressive imaging of the progressive, a desire to have something that others do not, a gateway to an expanded reality. We want it first and we want it shiny and, often, we want it to give us some power over our environment that we did not have before.

These truths inspire product developers and advertisers to chase all kinds of rabbits and dive down all kinds of holes in an effort to create the next big—and importantly, the next revolutionary—technology. As the authors of the following articles describe, these goals are not without their problems, and sometimes those mishaps are the result of tech being deployed before its time. Other times, technology malfunctions in ironic ways. And, finally, sometimes its users make bad choices. 

One example of tech being deployed before it should is wearable gadgets. “Several other devices had to crash and burn so modern wearables could flourish,” writes Victoria Song at Gizmodo. Song also points out the very interesting retrotech fact that Chinese tech geeks in the 1700s could wear abicusess. Song’s article chronicles the Seiko T001, a watch with a TV like in Dick Tracey, “revolutionary” at the time but burdened with a terrible picture and a “walkman-sized receiver” the wearer had to carry around to make the watch work—truly an example of a technology before its time, if by “its time” we mean a tech innovation lacking a larger tech infrastructure for support. 

What about tech going wrong in almost-poetically ironic ways? Just a couple of weeks ago, Yoni Hesler reported that a much-celebrated voltage tester was recalled by the U.S. Product Safety Commission because of the risk of electrocution associated with its use. Being attacked by voltage while using a voltage tester is the very kind of irony science fiction writers love. 

Then we have human foibles. This article details two instances of such stumbles in the development or deployment of military technology. The first scenario is a kind of Babel-like parable: try to make something too big and you’ll pay. Shortly before the Japanese Empire invaded Pearl Harbor, its Navy built the largest battleship ever built and equipped it with “cannons that could fire 18-inch shells over 26 miles and 9×450 mm guns” — ending up with a monstrosity displacing 63,000 tons of water, creating “a four foot high tidal wave, flooding the riverbank homes of Nagasaki” and capsizing hundreds of ships in the surrounding harbor. “Frightened citizens rushed into the streets as water poured through their doors, completely bewildered by the source of the flooding.”

But the vanity trope is even more interesting than the Babel trope. The true fumble of our epoch occurred in 2010 when two pilots from “Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 41” were flying their copters over Lake Tahoe and one of them nose-dived into the water because the pilots were trying to take Facebook selfies. In many ways, this sad anecdote evokes the myth of Icarus. 

In fact, we’ve seen many examples of people getting seriously hurt and even dying while trying to get selfies on high buildings and cliffsides, in front of wild animals or tidal waves, on the edges of waterfalls or roaring fires. But oftentimes, it’s easy to dismiss those events—they happen to civilians (untrained yahoos) rather than highly trained pilots or crack soldiers. Part of the technological mythos is the cult of expertise, and there’s a virtue assumed about the well-trained that the helicopter story savagely deconstructs. 

All of which suggests that the problem of tech hubris could also be called by its good old-fashioned wry characterization “operator error,” but perhaps with the prefix “egregious.” 

Tiny Universes and the Stories They Hold

A few years ago, science and tech media began reporting on the phenomenon of “spacetime foam,” alternatively called “quantum foam.” Though it has only recently received media attention, it is not necessarily a new theory; in fact, it’s been around since the theory of relativity has been clashing and intersecting with quantum theory: decades. The issue until recently, however, was that scientists could not figure out what space was filled with. Energy and mass that we predicted would be in certain places was found not to be there—it was “effectively hidden.” To explain this phenomenon, physicists and astronomers have hypothesized that this “emptiness” isn’t smooth, but actually full of “messy” stuff: that “spacetime might not be the trampoline-like plane scientists once envisioned. Rather, it might be a foamy mess of bubbles, each containing mini-universes living and dying inside our own.”

Conceptually, quantum foam feels difficult to grasp, but read articles about it and I promise you’ll almost understand it. There’s also a great book about it as well: Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam

One scientific press release describes spacetime foam in this way: “At the smallest scales of distance and duration that we can measure, space-time – that is, the three dimensions of space plus time – appears to be smooth and structureless. However, certain aspects of quantum mechanics, the highly successful theory scientists have developed to explain the physics of atoms and subatomic particles, predict that space-time would not be smooth. Rather, it would have a foamy, jittery nature and would consist of many small, ever-changing, regions for which space and time are no longer definite, but fluctuate.”

Fictional accounts of microverses—universes within universes—have existed since long before the development of quantum foam theory. A strong theme within such stories has been radical empathy, a call to recognize the beings who inhabit the smaller universe. Notably, microverses aren’t any more far-fetched than the existence of multiple universes. Researchers speculate that these universes could interact at the quantum level, and one researcher even says interaction at higher than quantum levels “is no longer pure fantasy.”

Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who is a familiar example of an encounter between the “big” everyday world and a tiny world. Although Whoville is in this iteration a “world,” or more likely a planet, it is symbolically close enough to the theme for us to assume it’s a kind of “closed system” universe (plus, if this Whoville is the same as the Whoville of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, it would appear that Whoville is part of a larger world-system). The story’s moral, that we should extend ethical recognition to beings “no matter how small,” is similar to other literary references to tiny universes. The story uses sound as a method of contact between the two worlds, with a small child in Whoville providing the decisive extra decibels to attract the attention of the skeptics in the bigger world.

Arthur C. Clarke’s The Wall of Darkness jumped emphatically into quantum foam many years before others did, and in fact did so before the public really had the opportunity to contemplate the theory at all. The Wall of Darkness is considered part of the genre of “Mathematical [Science] Fiction” and takes place in a universe consisting of one star and one planet. The planet intersects with an impenetrable wall, inspiring two men to attempt to scale the wall to see what is beyond it. Like the Seuss story, the Clarke work is fundamentally about barriers. Unlike the Seuss story, The Wall of Darkness articulates the quantum reality of multiple universes and suggests a somewhat absurd method of contact. 

The idea of tiny universes is provocative for many reasons—universes smaller than ours suggest the existence of universes larger than ours, and even the possibility that we are ourselves a tiny universe inside a bigger one. (We might even ask how this could not be true if quantum foam is an actual thing?). Even more provocative, as suggested by Horton Hears a Who and The Wall of Darkness, is the potential of communication or contact past our own universe and with the wholly other. 

Re-reading H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine

As most people know, H.G. Wells was a utopian socialist. And, in many ways, we can legitimately call Wells’s famous novel, The Time Machine, a kind of late-steampunk, socialist fable—late steampunk because it depicts advanced technology arising from the limits and material context of mid-period industrial revolution and the early use of electricity. (For justifications for using early electricity in steampunk, see this post and also this one).  

But what makes The Time Machine explicitly socialist, apart from the known beliefs and aspirations of the author? In fact, its political undertones and overall theoretical approach may be what makes the novel most interesting. Wells writes about material transformation not just from the perspective of Jacobin reformism and high-minded utopianism. Rather, The Time Machine reveals not just socialist sentiment but Marxist analysis and it utilizes base-superstructure Marxist dialectical materialism to explain the evolution of two races—Eloi and Morlocks—in the year 802,701 AD. 

In the novel, the Time Traveler encounters the Eloi—fruit-eating, childlike with short attention spans, communal and mimicking the mannerisms of the upper class of Wells’s time. They’re depicted as very weak, both in strength and constitution. Later on in the novel, the Time Traveler encounters the Morlocks, who are stronger and smarter than the Eloi, but who manifest as outcasts and monsters. The Time Traveler decides that the Morlocks have served the Eloi as, the Marxist would say, the proletariat serves the bourgeoisie. But the upper class became so weak from its dependence on the workers that the upper class was eventually rendered inert and nearly helpless. Thus, thanks to the fruit-bearing trees abundantly growing wild (flora and fauna have overtaken the inert civilization), the Eloi can still eat without much effort, but they are also subject to being eaten—by the Morlocks. 

And the Morlocks do, literally, eat the rich. Accordingly, their bodies and society have formed out of their material conditions.

A great post on the Shadows of Light blog, a site devoted to utopian and dystopian fiction, describes these material antagonisms. Wells paints the Eloi as descendents of the English factory owners of his time, while the Morlocks

are the descendants of the poor factory workers who, having to work to survive, kept getting exiled out of the sunlight by the bourgeois until they had no choice but to live underground and adapt to the darkness. They ended up living in pitch blackness for so long that their bodies adapted until they no longer resembled normal humans.

The Eloi were physically transformed too—weakened from lack of need or stimulation, in many ways embodying Frederick Douglass’s (dialectical materialist) observation that “if there is no struggle there is no progress.” The Eloi don’t eat meat, but the Morlocks need to, because they’re actually doing work. So they eat the Eloi. And because they eat them, and given that the Eloi have lost any ability to exert influence over their circumstances, the relationship between the Morlock and the Eloi has transformed into something like ranchers (Morlocks) and cattle (Eloi). 

There is a transcendence here that manifests one of the principles of change found in Dialectical Materialism as a theory: the transformation of quantity into quality. Granted, this wasn’t a Leninist minority-driven revolution or a classic majority-driven revolution. There’s probably no conflict point where the proletariat had to overcome bourgeois hegemony through battle and bloodshed. Instead, the Morlocks gradually gained control over the Eloi by allowing (and in some way engineering) the culmination of the material and labor relationship already there. But whether sudden and apocalyptic, or gradual with countless slices and cuts into the micropolitical and cultural fabric over time, dialectical transformation involves some kind of violent disruption. Such violence is the only possible way to break from the violence embedded in existing oppressive structures in the first place. 

Finally, and notably, consider that the Eloi don’t know they’ve been overthrown. It is definitely time to reread this multilayered and fascinating work, with an eye to its socialist undertones. 

Gadget Oddities Roundup

We never seem to tire of new technology. It flows into our lives, sometimes providing solutions to problems we were very aware we had and, more often than not, creating solutions to problems we never knew we had. Over the past few months, as people from across the internet continue to fight pandemic fatigue, we’ve uncovered many blog posts devoted to emerging tech like electric pets, robot taskrabbits, and high-tech health aids. We’ve assembled a few of the best of each here. 

For Real and Unreal Pets: Lauren Wadowsky at the Gadget Flow blog: lists a number of new technologies from 2020, and three of them are strongly associated with pets. There’s a very attentive and proactive cat litter box—a “smart cat toilet,” one might say—that the Consumer Electronics Show bestowed an innovation award on, and it has “…built-in stool and urine image recognition” and “excretory behavioral algorithms.” And for those who would like to invent new pets rather than rummage through the leavings of established ones, there’s “the Petit Qoobo Tailed Cushion Robot,” a headless android pet designed to comfort people (like folks in nursing homes) who can’t keep an actual pet. And then there’s an adorable rolling ball robot (think of a “tennis ball that follows you around.”). This delightful (or irritatingly cute) ball doesn’t just adorably follow you, it also serves as a calendar, a to-do list, even a remote control for your IoT (internet of things) devices. It also has a built in camera and can thus serve as a security guard for your domicile.  

We’re Taking Care of You: More recently (April 2021), Adrian Willings of Pocket-lint.com made a rather long and ubiquitously impressive list of new gadgets, the most interesting of which were devoted to safety and survival. Willings discusses a sonic fire extinguisher, designed in 2017 by researchers at George Mason University. The device uses sound waves to extinguish fires, and appears to work. The implications of not needing to use as much water to put out a fire are substantial. Then there is an edible aid drone, which can be used for disaster relief, lost parties, and the like. Named Pouncer, its wings are stuffed with food and its frame and skin can be used for firewood and tent shelter. Finally, Singapore is experimenting with roads made not only of gravel and concrete but also of “non-toxic UV absorbing minerals” that absorb light to enable “a safe glow at night.” A glowing road can increase safety, for drivers, passengers and pedestrians. It’s a great idea; we knew someone was eventually going to develop it. 

Do You Believe We Can Fly? And in January, Angela Moscaritolo of PC Mag covered the famous and influential Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and shared some favorites. Of those, one stands out in particular. Audaciously named “The Cadillac Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) vehicle,” it hauls humans one-at-a-time to wherever they need to go. In other words, it is a zero-emissions “air taxi service that generates zero emissions.” We’ve covered jetpacks in a past blog post and the VTOL vehicle comes close: it is a tiny one-person flying machine that “can carry [singular] passengers at up to 55 miles per hour.” However, taking a cue from the Gadget Flow list mentioned above, is the next logical step is to create a one-person flying drone with a sidecar for pets? Personally looking forward to future iterations with space for my furry friends.