“I Still Breath the Wind” . . . by Mbizo Chirasha, Zimbabwean poet on the run

Male Lion in Hwange National Park courtesy of Tatenda Mapigoti, Upsplash

“. . . exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement.”  Edward W. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays

Unlike you and me, Mbizo, is without safe harbor. He poems from the trenches. He writes on the run. I think it is a good thing for us as artists and consumers of art and as simple human beings to understand something of this experience. Please also keep in mind as you read Mbizo’s essay today and the one that will post tomorrow, that I am still trying to find a host for Mbizo in Germany or someplace in Northern Europe, though England or the U.S. would work as well.  If you can help, please email me at bardogroup@gmail.com.  Thank you! / J.D.

Immersed in the cauldron of swirling floods, I flap my weighted wings with a singular drive carrying my dreams in a perforated duffle bag. My feet seek the sun at midnight in the land processing its abortion of tomorrow under the snipers telescope. No truth escapes unpunished.

I am a child of the South thrown further South where oceans crash with the fury of disagreed temperament. I am the child of the red soil darkened by falsehoods of high priests reading marching orders of disorders from a dishonored group purporting to speak for the gods of democracy.

North is more than a direction as my eternal campus throbs against the steel fetters of burnt hope as the night lights a path to the horizon dragging the flag of my totem along stranger’s homesteads. Baptized again and again by black night by men with no names. I now acquire a new name and a newer status. They baptized me grasshopper and I had to agree. Being a long jumper, being a high jumper and now attempting the triple jump. Grasshopper sounded a fair baptism name for a newborn boy/man lost the long road to the finish line under chase of fathers without hearts.

The process demanded I hit the road twice as hard into the no man’s square where mutation is official identity and “refugeeism” an international tag that comes in handy in the categorization of run-away undesirables as State gossip has branded me.

Back in the backyard where I first saw the sky through my father’s thatched roof, my village groans under my mother’s skirt birthing new hope in prayer for a child firm in his ways as it carries my umbilical on green banana leaves and the scented aroma of village songs now fading into the dusty thirst of warmth from a familiar smile. Eyes accuse my paranoid senses and it jump in nightmarish fever whenever a siren rings its ominous sound. Madness is a constant threat as shadows overwhelm daylight cornering it with harsh whispers of punishments of flame throwers onto my swollen feet and numb hands.

The next maternity ward aligned for my next rebirth and baptism is a grey room manned by grey suited men with faces long death of emotions. And the cesarean section they intend to perform is as crude as an amateur abortionist in a hurry.

What is left of my old decency and pride is crudely paraded on the cold operating table as men size my life’s worth with biased scales, perhaps from Shylock’s days. Help was alluded to without insurance or guarantee. Safety was mentioned in an undertone so I missed the term. But I came out dripping a cold near death sweat with a number like all patients must. I had arrived at the altar of earthly saving shore, and i had acquired a new name to add to all the odd ones of the past.

My name in full then is Birthright Exchange. Exchange took my surname and clan name. A born again, baptized vagabond just got a new name and home. Except, there is a price. The price of uprootedness is the cold feeling of life standing out in the frozen snow replaying life before truth became a dangerous topic to the ears of malfunctioning States back where democracies are still in nursery schools.

The mark of the hunted is in the ring of my new name. A name carrying
the character of its bearer drones on in silent torment as time sweetly
echoes old tales of the cost of a tongue to the ears of goons that live and act
as gods in their appointed times and territories. Knowing me my dozen
names as borders define me, restlessness sends me to the solitude of own
company to militate against failing to respond to the call of myself on

I have become a spy on me as others are. I spy on my moods and my mental status. I spy on my location; I spy on faces especially if too familiar. I spy on everything and everybody, and boy! Are there enemies!

I see the enemies and hear them rushing to uncover the real in the unreal. I feel them creeping to pounce on me to reveal the cluster of baptism names so far accrued. I sense them stalking me in my dreams waiting to trace my dialect and send me back to the hell recently escaped from.

Am so very tired. I have a craving for normal. I just want to take a walk and
feel the sun on my face. I miss bursting into spontaneous song just because.
I wish to call a friend and laugh at life. But I can’t. For I am a sinner in the
eyes of my landlord. And sinners such as I have been declared, are punished
by being deleted from living and their memories faded by being refused a
burial. So here I am. A born again human with an identity crisis like an old spy who believed his lies. Am cursing life as I eat with a mumble under my foul breath. I think of my lover and spit at the sky convinced she smiles at my tormentors as a measure of gaining favor against harassment.

I am born again and bear a new name, but am far from whole, with all the holes punched on my psyche by this journey to the unknown. This process of my resurrection is digging me in deeper into a different detention camp. The only positive is I get to chronicle my spiral to where this ends, unlike my malevolent accusers who suffers, that I still breathe.

Yes. I still breathe the wind piloting me to the next bus stop of this life where I found a mango seed I flung out the window in a fate of distasteful and displaced anger sprout. I stopped in my tracks. I stared in utter disbelief at life fighting to stay afloat at the oddest of places. I went closer to check out this miracle of rejection turning to acceptance and daring to take chances.

The seed had lost the outer covering in the hostile manner of its rejection. What will eventually be the root shot out tenderly in form of a fading yellowish green tendril reaching down the edge of the stone where the mother seed hung on with nothing but the will to die so tomorrow the next generation of mangoes would have a chance to feed humanity?

I was ashamed of my anger that robbed this kindly nurturer of humanity and wildlife a proper positioning for the purpose for which it now struggled. I had walked a rough road for many a mile. There are nights when I wasn’t sure I would see light of day. I had run and sprinted from ghosts out to harm.

© 2020, Mbizo Chirasha

Mbizo Chirasha

MBIZO CHIRASHA is a recipient of PEN Deutschland Exiled Writer Grant (2017), Literary Arts Projects Curator, Writer in Residence, Blogs Publisher, Arts for Human Rights/Peace Activism Catalyst, Social Media Publicist and Internationally Anthologized Writer, 2017 African Partner of the International Human Rights Arts Festival Exiled in Africa Program in New York. 2017 Grantee of the EU- Horn of Africa Defend Human Rights Defenders Protection Fund. Resident Curator of 100 Thousand Poets for Peace-Zimbabwe, Originator of Zimbabwe We Want Poetry Movement. He has published a collection of poetry, Good Morning President, and co-created another one Whispering Woes of Gangesand Zembezi with Indian poet Sweta Vikram.

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FROM RESIDENT SKEPTIC, JAMES R. COWLES: Weird Comics and the Topology of Non-orientable Manifolds

James R. Cowles is a member of the diverse Bardo Group Beguines, publishers of The BeZine, which I manage and edit. James also regularly contributes to The BeZine’s sister site, Beguine Again. James isn’t shy of controversy and while you may not always be in agreement with him, you will always be encouraged to revisit and rethink … and, the man is endlessly entertaining. / J.D.

Not too long ago, I published a column on “weird”, X-Files-ish phenomena, the kinds of events and (alleged) experiences that are regularly recorded in Fate magazine. My original intent in writing and publishing that column was, quite frankly, to break my addiction to Donald Trump, Trump-ism, Russia-gate, and what was, and often still is, my unhealthy incipient addiction to the raw sewage that has flooded the White House and the Executive Branch, by getting my mind onto a different track.  But writing that column also had the unintended and unforeseen side-benefit of prompting some persistent reminiscences of the kinds of comic books I used to read just before and just after I entered puberty.  During that time, in addition to Fate, I read three comics published by the American Comics Group (ACG):  Forbidden Worlds (hereafter FW), Adventures into the Unknown (AITU), and Unknown Worlds (UW). I realize in retrospect that, just as the earlier column got me out of the rut of Trump and American para-fascism, the reading and remembrances of those four magazines got me out of what would have been the rut of unalloyed skepticism. Maybe the following will do the same for you. At the very least, maybe it will give us both a good laugh after having suffered through the passing of the fiscal kidney stone of the Republican tax “reform” bill, a.k.a. “No Multi-Billionaire Plutocrat Left Behind”.

The writing in the three latter magazines was almost unrelieved schlock, and the art on the covers — comprising buxom, scantily clad young women dressed in tight bodices and levitating hemlines, rather risque for that day — was often worse. (Fate was the most blatant offender, though in a different way, as a glance at today’s over-the-top-lurid Fate web site will attest.) But, at least as far as the writing is concerned, the operative word in the above is almost:  ” … almost unrelieved schlock“. Almost. But not always. Occasionally, i.e., often enough that I kept buying the “Big Three” ACG comics, the writing rose to the level of The Twilight Zone, Alcoa Presents One Step BeyondScience Fiction Theater (which was appearing at about the same time), and The Outer Limits. That the writing attained even occasional brilliance is all the more remarkable when you reflect that all the stories — every last one — were written by one man, the managing editor of ACG, Richard E. Hughes, who wrote all the stories under a series of five pseudonyms:  Lafcadio Lee, Zev  Zimmer, Kurato Osaki  (!), Shane O’Shea, and Pierre Alonzo, drawings of whose purely fictitious faces prefaced each story. To this day, I consider Richard E. Hughes to be a literary diamond in a cattle feed-lot. Consider …

o Forbidden Worlds

Hughes wrote what I consider 3 classics in the “weird-comic” genre, the first of which is “The Train that Vanished” in a May-June (cannot recall the year) issue of FW. The story centered on a brilliant, avant-garde subway design engineer who, working on his own time, discovers a way to enable 2 subway trains to run on the same subway track at the same time. (Think of Albert Einstein working in the Swiss Patent Office.) As a proof-of-concept / “beta test,” this genius engineer designs a black box and installs it on the track. When train 1 passes the black box, it is shifted to dimension A; when train 2 passes that black box, it is shifted to dimension B, and the 2 trains then alternate by trading dimensions, each time they pass the black box, so they never occupy the same track in the same dimension at the same time. Subway senior management discovers what he has done, and, perhaps because the engineer had not filled out the “goldenrod” copy of his time-sheet correctly in quadruplicate, fires him, whereup0n the engineer boards a subway train, waits for it to shift dimensions, and then leaps from the car into a community of dimension-B beings, who do value his creativity and genius.

When I first encountered this issue of FW and the subway story, I was coincidentally getting interested in the topology of what I later learned were called non-orientable manifolds, intuitively, surfaces like Mobius strips and Klein bottles in which concepts like “up-down”, “in-out”, “top-bottom”, “inside-outside”, etc., cannot be defined. (Hence the term “non-orientable”.) Going into detail about the “weeds” of non-orientable surfaces would eat me alive. So suffice to say that, if a way could be found to alter the local topology of spacetime into a non-orientable manifold, then, with other, even more technical tweaks, what the subway engineer did with the subway trains would be possible. I am astounded that Richard E. Hughes understood such a recondite subject even well enough to write a — rather brief! — comic-book story around it.

o Adventures Into the Unknown

The second “Hughes classic” is “The Man Who Couldn’t Sleep” in a November issue (again, I cannot recall the year) issue of AITU. Larry Keith — I still remember the character’s name after 50-plus years — is a neurochemist who becomes fascinated with what human beings might achieve if they no longer needed to sleep … and thereby waste roughly one-third of their lives unconscious. So he formulates a drug which, he thinks, will perform all the functions of sleep and yet leave the person fully awake, conscious, and alert. He violates the canons of science, however, and tests the drug on himself.

At first, he only notices that he is up, out, and about ‘way past his normal bedtime. But as the night wears on, he notices that weird things begin to happen, the kinds of things that occur typically in nightmares:  his neighborhood is invaded by dinosaurs, including a troupe of great apes; a raucous Mardi Gras, New Orleans-style jazz band, hundreds strong, camps outside his window and begins to howl for human sacrifice, etc. Of course, they settle on Larry Keith as their victim. (I still remember their blood-cry from having read the story so long ago:  “Larry Keith! Let it be he!”) Finally, the drug wears off, and he awakes in his own living room unharmed, but splashed with mud and filthy water from his headlong flight away from the dinosaurs and the jazz-band musicians. The last frame of the story shows Keith, dressed in pajamas, and now in bed and remarking “I guess sleep is more important than I believed. So I’m going to get some. Good night!”

Aside from broaching the old conundrum about how one knows that the world one sees round about is the real world, and that one’s dream world is just a dream world, the story raises the unsettling possibility that, even if the waking world is the real world, perhaps the dream world would become real, were it not that it is just that:  the dream world. Maybe our dreams would come true in the absence of sleep, thereby, in a Platonic nightmare, releasing the visions of the id from the constraints of the superego and allowing them to become ontologically realized in what we are pleased to consider the actual world. If you are inclined to just smile indulgently at such a possibility, remember that Dr. C. G. Jung speculated that UFOs — phenomena with a demonstrably objective existence — were projections from within the mind’s collective unconscious. In any event, be careful what you wish for.

o Unknown Worlds

The third “Hughes classic” is a story that appeared in UW about an obscure, grey little man, much like Simon and Garfunkel sang about in “A Most Peculiar Man”, who keeps to himself in his basement apartment, has no friends, and who remains unknown to everyone. All that makes him conspicuous is that he has a prodigious talent for fixing all kinds of machinery. But not only does he repair it, he ends up improving it … without intending to or knowing how he does it. As the story unfolds, a young couple brings him a black-and-white TV to repair. They leave it with him, pick it up when he calls to say it is fixed, but immediately return, breathless with amazement. Their black-and-white TV now displays vivid color. (Remember: this story was published back when color TV was a high-tech luxury, unaffordable to anyone but the one-percenters of the late 50s / early 60s.) But notwithstanding, people still persecute and ridicule the little man because of his harmless eccentricities.

Some time before, the grey little man noticed he has a large hole in his apartment wall. He has never bothered  to fix it, and just hangs a curtain over it. But one day, especially depressed at being the pariah of his apartment building, he decides to explore. He climbs through the hole … and to his astonishment discovers an entire world on the far side of the hole. In that through-the-hole world, there are people of great compassion and discernment who, recognizing his genius, not only accept him, but accord him an exalted place in their society. The last frame of the story shows the grey little man as viewed through the hole, surrounded by his new adoring friends on the far side, who, like the people in our world, bring their devices to him, not only because they value his skill, but even more so, because they value him. As a kid who was a nerd before such a word had ever been coined, this UW story, for obvious reasons, resonated profoundly with me. Twenty-five years or so later, I found my own refugs — my own “hole in the wall,” if you will — in my wife and in my in-law family.

If there is a common motif in all three “Hughes classics”, it is that physical technology, especially when developed carelessly, can bite the hand that creates it. But the “technology” of compassion and dignity never turns upon and rends the one who practices  it. The former involves only confronting problems. The latter involves confronting Mystery. A mature skepticism always requires a recognition of one’s cognitive limitations. As the old Scholastics expressed it Omnia exeunt in mysterium.

James R. Cowles

Image credits:

“Adventures Into the Unknown” cover … Edvard Montz … Public domain
“Unknown Worlds” cover … American Comics Group … Public domain
ACG pseudonyms of Richard Hughes … http://www.a-zcomics.com/SCANS/UW.html … Public domain
Photograph of Richard E. Hughes … American Comics Group … Public domain
“The Train that Vanished” … American Comics Group …. Public domain


The Sociology of “Interstellar” by Resident Skeptic, James R. Cowles

James R. Cowles is a member of the diverse Bardo Group Beguines, which publishes The BeZine, which I manage and edit. James also regularly contributes to The BeZine’s sister site, Beguine Again. James isn’t shy of controversy and while you may not always be in agreement with him, you will always be encouraged to revisit and rethink … and, the man is endlessly entertaining. / J.D.

This “Skeptic’s Collection” column is dedicated to the life, work, and memory of Prof. Stephen Hawking, Lucasian Professor of theoretical physics and cosmology, Cambridge University, United Kingdom. “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” — Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses” / J.R.C.

If you have not seen the movie Interstellar, with Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Mackenzie Foy, and John Lithgow, you should run – not walk – to the nearest theater or streaming service and watch it.  Interstellar is a not just a science-fiction (SF) movie, it is a science-fiction movie, i.e., it does not cut any corners in terms of depicting the actual consequences of near-light travel, e.g., time dilation, black-hole physics, etc.  (In that respect, Interstellar is a cinematic fraternal twin to Dan Simmons’s excellent science-fiction novels Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion.) Many of our most admired science fiction sagas – Star Trek, Farscape, Babylon 5, Star Wars, etc. – skate over the sociological and psychological consequences of near-light travel by the simple expedient of ignoring relativity, leaving entire universes of potential reflection and exploration unattended. We concentrate on the science and forget the people.

Prof. Kip Thorne, a Cal Tech Nobel Prize winner, has recently written a virtuoso book, The Science of “Interstellar,” that tackles explaining the science of the movie to an educated lay audience. But, presumptuous as it sounds, I want to supplement Prof. Thorne’s book by similarly tackling what I call “The Sociology of ‘Interstellar’”. To that end, I propose a radical thesis:  the most formidable problems standing in the way of interstellar exploration will eventually prove to be, not technological, but sociological. The most formidable obstacles lie not in the stars or in our machines, but in ourselves.

In the world of Interstellar, the resources of near-future Earth are on the brink of exhaustion because of humans’ irresponsible and short-sighted exploitation of their home planet. Water is scarce. Crops fail. (The only way humans can eke out a bare subsistence from our ravaged world is by developing increasingly hardy varieties of genetically engineered corn.) There is a planet-wide Dust Bowl. The New York Yankees are reduced to playing sand-lot, pick-up games of baseball with local teams for food and lodging. McConaughey’s character, Cooper, a farmer, is a member of the penultimate generation for whom the planet will be marginally habitable. The next generation, that of his daughter, Murphy (“Murph” … Mackenzie Foy as Murph at age 10, Ellen Burstyn as grown-up), is the generation that, in order for humanity to survive, must leave our exhausted earth and colonize other worlds.

At this point of crisis, a wormhole is discovered in orbit around Saturn. Because wormholes are inherently unstable, persisting only perhaps a fraction of a second, the permanence of the wormhole decisively indicates that it is an artifact of high intelligence. (Disclosing the builders of the wormhole would spoil the movie.) A project is undertaken by the sparse remnants of NASA to launch a spacecraft, the Endurance, to fly to Saturn, enter the wormhole, presumably emerge in some distant part of our, or another, galaxy, and begin prospecting for habitable worlds. There is real reason to hope: automated probes, sent through the wormhole in advance of human explorers, transmit back information about four potential candidate worlds, all orbiting a supermassive black hole the human astronauts, who will follow them in the Endurance, appropriately christen “Gargantua”.

To travel to the vicinity of the wormhole, the four-person Endurance crew – plus what I think is the coolest humanly intelligent robot ever to appear in an SF movie – undertake a 3-year journey to Saturn. No surprises here. They are traveling fast but far less than the speed of light over great but far less than cosmologically significant distances.  It is when they traverse the wormhole and begin to orbit the worlds around the black hole Gargantua that relationships, as well as spacetime itself, begin to warp. It is then that questions arise about the limits and capabilities of human individuals and human societies.

The first such question, in fact, one of the milder questions — by now actually rather cliché among the scientifically literate — is the way the intense gravitational fields encountered near Gargantua, combined with the immense distances traversed by communication signals to Earth, result in the rapid aging, relative to the Endurance, of the loved ones Cooper, et al., left behind vs. the essentially non-aging, relative to Earth, of people on board the Endurance, who are subject to the time dilation resulting from Gargantua’s immense gravitational potential. Video-conferencing with Murph and her brother Tom (Timothee Chalamet) reveals that, during the astronauts’ brief time of the Endurance reference frame, decades have passed on Earth:  Tom now has grey hair, has gotten married, and is a father; Cooper’s father has passed; Murph, now a young woman, has matured into a scientific prodigy; etc., etc.  This begs questions of tectonic significance:  when traveling near the speed of light and experiencing radically different times in different relativistic reference frames, how are humans to maintain vital relationships … and even can those relationships, so constitutive of the human condition, be maintained at all? And what, anyway, does “maintain” even mean in such a context? Relativistically significant gravitational potentials will tear matter apart. Will the associated time dilation, relative to remote observers, do as much damage to human relationships, and therefore to the human spirit?

Albert Einstein
Stephen Hawking








But the consequences of actually landing on the surface of one of the four candidate worlds orbiting Gargantua are, if anything, even more wrenching.  The more intense a gravitational potential, the slower time passes as observed from a reference frame arbitrarily remote from that potential.  In the case of that one candidate world, the difference is significant. (The dialogue among the Endurance astronauts at this point, if transcribed and read with care, would constitute the framework for an excellent first course in general relativity.) In the specific case of this one candidate world, the strength of Gargantua’s gravitational field at that point — dictated by the mass of Gargantua and the distance of the candidate world from Gargantua’s event horizon — means that, for each hour the astronauts spend on the candidate world’s surface, seven years pass on Earth. Go to bed and get a good eight hours of sleep on the candidate world, and when you wake up, it will be 7 years / hour x 8 hours = 56 years later on Earth than when you went to bed.

Given that the entirety of planet Earth is living on borrowed time, the counsel of Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway), an Endurance astronaut and the daughter of Cooper’s professor and mentor on Earth (Michael Caine), is especially urgent:  time must be considered a scarce resource. Every hour spent on the planet’s surface is seven years subtracted, not only from the physical life of our planet, but from the viability of its sociopolitical structures and the very psychology of its inhabitants. As the environment breaks down, so do the bonds holding together societies, political systems, and human relationships.

(In fact, the equations describing time near a black hole indicate that, as one approaches the event horizon, time passes more and more slowly [at least for a non-rotating black hole … an important qualification … but let’s not get lost in the weeds], and in fact, precisely at the event horizon, time simply stops. An observer outside the event horizon would therefore see an in-falling object “get stuck” on the event horizon, like a fly on flypaper. What happens with respect to time inside the event horizon? No one knows. Attempting to calculate that means attempting to calculate the square root of a negative number [i.e., rs > r in the above linked article]:  general relativity breaks down.)

There are multitudes of other aspects of the sociology of Interstellar we could explore. One of the more enticing, in fact, is the potential relationship between humanly intelligent robots, like the robot on the Endurance, who is de facto the fifth member of the Endurance crew, and human beings. Could such robots serve as, essentially, human surrogates as the possibility of human-to-human relationships undergoes gradual attrition because of relativistic time dilation? Such robots could be programmed to provide emotional comfort to humans without, for all that, being subject to feelings of bereavement through humans’ absence. “Comfort robots” could support without needing to be supported by their human companions. (This is, of course, just a form of the classic “Turing problem”:  if the responses of a robot are indistinguishable from those of a human being, then is there really a difference at all? Are phenotypic differences really all that decisive? This would probably be an even sharper question during a future age when technology enabled light-speed travel. Robots would incorporate cybernetic human parts — basically, benevolent cyborgs as in the later Terminator movies — and vice versa.) They might serve the same purpose as “comfort animals” for emotionally fragile humans. I find that possibility at once horrifying and intriguing. But I think a more compelling issue is what Interstellar implicitly says about the implications of human mortality for the exploration of “cosmological” space.

The human species evolved in an environment that neither rewarded nor encouraged long-term thinking. We needed fire to cook our food, warm our caves, and keep predators away tonight and maybe tomorrow night.  Large-scale use of wood certainly would lead to gradual deforestation, along with the associated ecological and social dislocations.  But the key word is “gradually”. Only with millennia of time did it become obvious that humans needed to develop long-term planning to deal with the consequences of advancing technology and its impact on the environment. Quite candidly, we are still not very good at this. We still habitually choose fossil fuels for the next five years over renewable, non-polluting alternatives for the next five hundred, with the result that, sometime during the next century, e.g., San Diego itself will become Sea World. And the root of that problem, in turn, is dual.

First of all, humans are a very short-lived species.  Consequently, we find long-term planning difficult because our very lives are not long-term. A 7-year delay occasioned by an hour on the candidate planet’s surface is roughly 10 percent of a typical human lifetime in the First World of the 21st century. Perhaps somewhere in the Universe there are intelligent species with typical lifetimes measured in say 10,000-year increments and perhaps billion-year histories as civilizations (as distinct from homo sapiens sapiens, which has been around about 150,000 years). Think of the ent-trees in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or the Vorlon of Babylon 5. Either that, or there are species that, though as short-lived as humans, have developed sociopolitical structures and practices, unimaginably more advanced and enlightened than their human counterparts, that permit planning cycles measured in multiple millennia, short individual lives notwithstanding … whichever. 

The second reason humans are not good at long-term planning is because we are, perhaps all species at some point are, incorrigibly tribal. We care more about “people like us over here” than about “people like them over there“. I have written about human tribalism within the comparatively parochial context of interplanetary exploration. I strongly suspect that there is a causal relationship between limited lifetimes and limited spheres of care for others, though I will not speculate on which way the cause-effect arrow points. Regardless of  which is cause and which is effect, however, it should be clear that serious exploration over cosmologically significant distances, as in Interstellar, will require planning and coordination over scales we can scarcely imagine now, especially if the exploration is to be accomplished by beings within very limited life-spans. I hardly need say that such planning and cooperation will require correspondingly profound social and political — even religious … perhaps especially religious — changes. We will have to learn to think of ourselves as human beings first and as Americans, Russians, gay, straight, Caucasian, black, etc., second, just as American colonists in the early Republic had to learn to think of themselves as Americans first and Virginians, Georgians, Pennsylvanians, etc.,, second — except on a stupendously larger scale. We have to learn to think cosmologically — politically and socially, not just astronomically.

I hope I am wrong, but I am not optimistic. (But then, as a “para-professional skeptic,” I am never optimistic about much of anything!) Observing the current xenophobia and the lengths to which nations and their people are willing to go, and the distortions to their political values and systems they are willing to tolerate, to preserve their latent “Other-phobia” virginally intact, together with the self-inflicted myopia of the “There is no Planet B” (of course there isn’t if we refuse to even look for it … duh!) ideology, at the very least, we are not likely to apply for membership in any United Federation of Planets anytime soon. The Caretakers in Carl Sagan’s Contact would laugh us out of the Galaxy! But then, I have to remember … the Caretakers of Contact did not laugh us out of the Galaxy, and on the contrary treated the human species with meticulous respect.  Furthermore, after the impact of the Chixulub meteor 65 million years ago, and after the great end-Permian extinction 180 million years before that, the prospects for life-as-such, life-per-se, life-tout-court on Earth would hardly have been a draw on the smart money. Even if nothing else, we are an adaptable species, socio-politically as well as evolutionarily.  So when I reflect too long on human folly and its potentially fatal consequences, I like to recur to William Faulkner’s great Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

So, though it may be in spite of ourselves, there is reason to be optimistic that the starship Endurance may well carry a more prophetic name than we perhaps dare believe.

Photo credits: Interstellar film illustrations courtesy of the production company and here under Fair Use; wormhole travel illustrations as envisioned by Les Bossinas for Nasa, public domain; Albert Einstein during a lecture in Viana in 1921, courtesy of Ferdinand Schmutzer, public domain; Stephen Hawking at the Bibliothèque nationale de France to inaugurate the Laboratory of Astronomy and Particles in Paris, and the French release of his work God Created the Integers: The Mathmatical Breakthroughs that Changed History, 5 May 2006, public domain; World With Tripple Sunset is from an artist’s animation shows the view from a hypothetical moon in orbit around the first known planet to reside in a tight-knit triple-star system. The gas giant planet, discovered using the Keck I telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii, zips around a single star that is orbited by a nearby pair of pirouetting stars, NASA, public domain; Colonization of the Moon, artist rendering, courtesy of NASA/Dennis M. Davidson; public domain.

© 2018, James R. Cowles, All rights reserved


Becoming Earthlings by Resident Skeptic, James R. Cowles


James R. Cowles is a member of the diverse Bardo Group Beguines, which publishes The BeZine, a publication that  I manage and edit. James also regularly contributes to The BeZine’s sister site, Beguine Again. The jumping off point for this essay is The Martian (2015). The screenplay was written by Drew Goddard and is based on Andy Weir’s book (2011) of the same name. The questions are: Do we (the human race) have the “heart-ware” for space exploration? Have we (the human race) matured enough for the venture?  / J.D.

It might be a good idea to save this “Skeptics Collection” column, print it off, and put it in a safe-deposit box or a time capsule. You see, this post is going to be in the nature of a movie review. Sorta. Kinda. I normally do not do movie reviews, and consider movie reviews about as relevant to me, personally, as a bicycle is to a fish. Or a condom to a Republican. (Sorry … couldn’t resist!) But I am going to make an exception in the case of the recent and justly renowned Matt Damon science-fiction movie The Martian. Virtually all the reviews I have read concentrate on the movie as a paean to international cooperation, the STEM disciplines, and an essential optimism about the ability of the human species to triumph over catastrophe. All that is true. The Martian is all those things. But there is a darker and far more pessimistic subtext to the movie that, at least so far, has seemed to escape the notice of all the critics whose reviews I have read. Matt Damon’s razzle-dazzle and the technological / special-effects pyrotechnics, both Oscar-worthy, easily cause us to lose sight of the movie’s departure from – even its detachment from – historical context.


My apologies in advance for any spoilers in what follows. But the number of people who have not at least read a synopsis of The Martian could hold a convention in a phone booth. But just in case … the movie is about a medium-future – a few decades, but less than a century – expedition to Mars on the part of six astronauts. (I say “medium future” because all the cell phones look suspiciously like late-model i-Phones.) The expedition in question, Ares III, is the third of a projected five human expeditions to Mars jointly comprised by Project Ares. But a little less than halfway through their projected stay on the surface of Mars, a severe storm blows into the landing site, and the Ares III mission commander, Commander Melissa Lewis, coolly played by Jessica Chastain, orders the astronauts outside the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) to return to the ship and to prepare to liftoff the surface and into orbit:  if the wind blows the MAV over on its side, no one is going home. On the way back to the MAV, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by a piece of wind-driven debris, knocked unconscious, and basically buried in the shifting sands. Since the MAV is about to tip over from the vertical, Lewis orders the launch, leaving Watney behind. The rest of the movie is about the near-miraculous survival of Watney, his ingenuity in bolstering the abandoned living quarters on the Martian surface, his communication with Earth, and his eventual rescue by the mother ship, the Hermes, whose crew – basically staging a mutiny against the express orders of NASA senior management – elects to swing around earth, postpone returning to Earth, and return to Mars to rescue their lost-but-now-found comrade Mark Watney.

We can nit-pick at the few places where the movie taxes credibility. The most prominent such – though still inside the envelope of believability – is Mark Watney’s psychological resilience. But then, presumably one of the salient requirements for being a Mars astronaut would be exceptionally robust emotional strength. There are a couple of technical points one could question. For one thing, the vehicle Watney uses to rendezvous with the Hermes – a MAV for the future Ares IV mission pre-positioned on the Martian surface – is stripped of its nose cone to provide a means of egress into the mother ship … so, as Watney himself notes, when he ascends from Mars in the Ares IV MAV, he will be flying a “convertible”. There is also a subtle issue in which a Jet Propulsion Laboratory mega-nerd equates a slingshot trajectory with a Hohmann maneuver using the Oberth effect. But that may well be just a misinterpretation of movie dialogue on my part. (The movie plot was getting pretty intense at that point.) And in any case, all such reservations pertain to the “picture” of the movie. My problem is a more comprehensive issue with the “frame”, i.e., the larger historical context.


In what follows, I wish I were dead-wrong. But I don’t think so.

The “frame” of The Martian, its fundamental presupposition, is a very simple – and simply impossible – postulate: the US has embarked alone on a massive, demanding, presumably staggeringly expensive, and unprecedentedly sophisticated multi-phase program of human exploration of Mars. The crew members are international, but the project is entirely American-financed – judging by some dialogue concerning congressional reluctance to finance Ares IV and V if an attempt were not made to rescue Mark Watney. Project Apollo “only” went to the moon, but Apollo strained America’s science economy to the breaking point, and even so, funding only persisted because the US was competing with the Soviets. (Without naming names, of course, I will say that I know perhaps a baker’s dozen NASA scientists, most deceased, some retired, who still resent Apollo’s monopolization of funding for space exploration.) The point is that The Martian – again, I wish I were wrong – is predicated on the type of large-scale science project that no individual nation has the resources to undertake: human exploration of the planets. (In fairness to the movie, I should probably say that, if the writers had dealt with this issue, neither the story nor the movie would ever have gotten off the ground … so to speak.) I say “I wish I were wrong” because I have always had a burning curiosity – “lust” would not be too strong a word – to see just what the hell is out there. And, while robotic probes are indisputably impressive, I want humans to venture forth and see for themselves. My conclusion: long-term, sustained human exploration of the planets — or even one relatively earth-like planet such as Mars — is a project that can only – only – be undertaken, not by any individual nation or even any restricted consortium of nations, but by the human race itself. Are we – meaning “the human race” – presently capable of this? That is, do we (= the human race) have the ability to work together as a global civilization, not for a few years or even for a few decades, but for time-scales that would support the sustained exploration of the solar system … almost certainly generations at least, most likely centuries?

My short answer: no. Nor do we (= the human race) show signs of being able to do so for generations … it may well be centuries. Remember Stanley Kubrick’s still-iconic 2001:  A Space Odyssey? It projected the human exploration of Saturn by 2001, a degree of optimism that makes my toenails ache now for its naivete. No wonder Mad magazine entitled its satire of the movie 2001 Minutes of Space Idiocy. Admittedly that is a bit harsh.  Remember: we were much more innocent and much less nihilistic in 1968.


Hardware is the easy part. Ditto software. In fact, I would venture the educated guess that the technology exists right now – this moment – to undertake a real-world version of The Martian’s Project Ares. What we lack, and will lack into the indefinite future, is not hardware but … well … call it “heart-ware”. The sustained, large-scale exploration of the solar system will require human beings to develop the capacity to act, not as a loose collection of squabbling, often warring, nations and tribes competing for preeminence on this one small planet, and will require something like the subordination of nationalistic competitions, religious prejudice, and racial fractiousness in favor of devoting prime loyalty to the human race as such, the human race per se, the human race tout court. Conservatives’ knees will jerk toward the charge of “collectivism” … one minor but telltale instance of the problem.

Herewith an analogy:  during the run-up to the American Civil War, it was customary to reference the United States with a first-person plural verb — ” … the United States are … ” — because the antebellum States were thought of as quasi-autonomous sovereignties in their own right. After the Civil War, the first-person plural verb became first-person singular: ” .. the United States is … “. State sovereignty was not forsaken. People still knew they were Virginians, Georgians, etc. But this sense of separateness was subordinated to a sense that the United States was not only, or even primarily, a collection of sovereign States, but “one Nation indivisible”. Then the process of Nation-building could begin in earnest, and the energies hitherto diverted by controversies over the great Compromises, States’ rights, nullification, etc., etc., could be directed toward truly national goals. The great Question of all questions had been settled:  we were one Nation. Note that this required, above all else, a change of heart. That is what I mean by “heart-ware”. In the period following 1865, the Nation underwent, is still undergoing, a “heart-ware” update. Something analogous will be required, something above and beyond and transcending mere law, something in the heart, before we (= the human race) can ever hope to undertake the serious and sustained exploration of the planets and — who knows? — someday, perhaps, the stars. Only then can the energies we presently devote to pointless competition among religions and ideologies, to developing newer and more efficient ways of hacking one another to bits, to the despoilation of the very planet we all share be diverted to the welfare of each other, the  nurturing of the common human spirit, and the exploration of the Universe before which we all stand in awe. Somewhere in the Galaxy, there may be species that comprises “hive minds”, a benevolent version of Star Trek‘s Borg or the formics of the Ender’s Game cycle. But I would speculate that, for species that evolved as individuals and developed tribal identities — in other words, nations — this may well be one of the “gates” determining how long the species survives a la the Drake Equation. In any case, before we have any hope of becoming Martians, we first have to become Earthlings.

We first have to grow up.

© 2015, James R. Cowles