Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Better Ray Gun

From Philosophy Pathways Issue 192

I am gazing at a photograph. The photograph is of a weapon I once owned. It's difficult to get hold of these pictures now — the laws on so-called 'gun porn' are very strict — but I just can't bring myself to destroy the image. My sentimental side, I guess.

Wrecker, my pride and joy, was vapourised in a weapons disposal facility according to the conditions of the Interplanetary Peace Treaty along with the other two hundred or so known 3D prints. The original file long destroyed. Could there be a Wrecker out there, somewhere amongst those star-encrusted heavens?

This was a beast not to be argued with. Point and shoot. A single, widening coil leading to a muzzle shaped like a long amphibian jaw with multiple rows of of razor-sharp, translucent spikes. Just from looking, it was impossible to tell whether the spikes were meant to be functional, or a sign of the weapon designer's warped sense of humour. Or aesthetics.

Then again, who wants a ray gun only to be functional? The sheer scare factor can be important too. And also don't forget that all-important feeling of confidence that comes from knowing that you are, literally, armed to the teeth. The most effective ray gun is the one you don't need to shoot. 'A threat is more powerful than its execution,' as they used to say in chess before the computer programmers cracked it.

You could see neon blue and green sparks flying around Wrecker's mouth like drug-crazed fireflies as the coil warmed up. Made a hole big enough for a jet bus to drive through, and that was only on the 'low' setting. You'd better be wearing a protective suit if you set the dial to 'high'.

Wrecker had the familiar nuclear power pack that you see on so many ray guns of that period. But it's not the power, it's what you do with it that counts. How Wrecker did what it did, the mayhem and destruction it could cause, you had to see and hear and smell to believe.

There's only so much you can tell from a photograph. Photographs are fragile and fragmentary. They tell a story, but it's only part of the story and often not the most important part. And yet we treasure these images as the only concrete evidence of a time that is no more. Photographs help us to remember, and they are also like memories themselves.

I could weep.

Only one person had the original Wrecker file, my friend Karl, genius weapons designer and amateur philosopher. 'Why do you need to arm yourself? you could talk anyone to death,' I used to joke. A Martian, so he told us, but everyone knows that no human being has ever lived for any length of time on that hell hole. Who was he trying to kid?

Now Karl is dead and the Wrecker file and all the copies long gone. Karl was hoist by one of his own cunning petards. At least, that's the rumour that went around. I haven't completely given up hope that Karl might turn up one day at the front door in his retro leather-effect space suit with that quizzical look of his,


However, this story isn't about Wrecker. It's about another ray gun Karl made. Imagine Wrecker, then multiply the effect by one million, and you still won't be anywhere near. It is the gun that changed our world for ever. The most powerful weapon in the Galaxy.

We never gave it a name, so I'm just going to call it the Gun. In time, the Gun acquired a more descriptive title which you may have heard of. In order to appreciate what follows, all I ask is that you keep an open mind and don't jump to conclusions. Try to forget all that you think you know, or have heard about the Gun. Okay?

I'm only going to give the facts, nothing more.

I have a precious photograph of Karl holding the Gun, pointing it towards the camera with a wide grin on his face. The proud father. What was there to be proud of, exactly? The Gun didn't look like much. A plastic tube salvaged from a bomb site with a few metal bits stuck on. If you saw the Gun up close, as I had, it was difficult to see how it did anything. No nuclear power pack, either. In the photo, the Gun is even less impressive.

How wrong can you be.

Where to begin?

First of all, we need some historical context. Those were crazy times, and the Galaxy is so different now. I'm talking of times when you could have fun, I mean, shooting actual shit up and not just staring at a screen, chattering about the latest funny alien pictures or playing stupid computer games.

There's an old saying which dates back to the time when there existed a species of Earth mammal known as 'mice'. Or, 'mouse', in the singular. Queer name, isn't it? Well, imagine your average pet Yiarr from Sirius Major, then reduce it by a factor of ten. That's a mouse. Although they were sometimes kept as pets, mice were generally regarded as a pest, much as genetically modified kiwi fruit are now, but much faster and more difficult to catch.

The saying was, 'Build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door.' That statement is about the economic importance of invention. People will pay or trade for the gadget that works best whatever it is. You don't have to come up with anything wildly original or Earth shattering. Just an item that does its job a bit better than the previous version. A mousetrap that's more efficient at catching mice, for example.

That was all Karl ever wanted to do. His dream was to build a better ray gun. 'Then we can both retire!'

I did the testing so I know the whole story, or most of it at any rate. But don't ask me any technical details of how the Gun worked. Karl was the brains. I just followed instructions, got rid of the carcasses after the test firings, scrubbed away all the soot, blood and guts and generally tried to keep the workshop as clean and tidy as I could.

The story starts around thirty Earth years ago, the time when wave after wave of alien invaders were making a real nuisance of themselves. They came from just about every known inhabited planet in the Galaxy. The inhabitants of Earth — still mostly human beings at that time — found themselves right bang in the middle of an interplanetary conflict between multitudes of alien species. A new war every week, or so it seemed.

The aliens (it seems somehow lame to give these disparate creatures all the same designation, but that will have to do for now) found the Earth an ideal refuge. A place to repair your space cruiser, enjoy a little R-and-R, hunt down a few of the locals (that was us!) and off again into glorious battle. By this time, the Earth was an anarchic mess. A backwater. We were virtually defenceless. Not the fault of the aliens, we'd done it to ourselves long before they appeared.

I'm talking about known history, but maybe what you don't realise is that the catastrophe that befell Earth wasn't the fault of the warmongers but the peacemakers. That's what Karl used to tell me, and I know in my bones that he was right. Warmongers like a good battle with lots of killing, and when they are done fighting they go home to their families and rebuild their shattered homes and cities. Peacemakers are never satisfied. No sacrifice is too great for peace!

When the fighting ended, there were no countries left, no government, no justice system. Just human beings making do with the scraps of technology they could salvage, living on their wits and a square meal every other day.

We had the military class, but they were a law unto themselves and didn't care for anyone who wasn't military. A lot of the time they were no better than the alien invaders. I did wonder, at times, whether they really were human or a cunning alien species who had come to exploit and torment us, a popular rumour at the time.

An arms race had gathered momentum between different ray gun makers, spiced up by the fact that every time another species of alien arrived, more often than not the old ray guns didn't work and you had to invent something new.

When you are shooting aliens, you don't want to disintegrate your jet car, or your swimming pool, or whatever your ray gun happens to be pointing at, do you? — That was a lesson humans were not slow to learn, after early disastrous experiments.

The military had a big stake in this, although they were generally gung ho about blasting houses, cities, or even planets on occasion. — I hardly need to add, the military loved the Wrecker, and stole the design from us without even a 'thank you'. It was pretty useless for household protection, as I've tried to explain, so wasn't that big a loss.

Karl and I shared a workshop which we rented from a local warlord. It was actually an abandoned police station (back from the time when they still had police, those were the days!) but the underground cells were useful for holding various species of captured alien, so that we could test our ray guns on them.

You'll probably say this is cruel, but Karl said, Look at it this way. A quick kill is much better than a lingering, agonising death. You want your ray gun to kill efficiently, rather than inefficiently, don't you? Unless you're a sadist who gets pleasure from causing unnecessary pain. Which we were not, no way!

Also, the aliens who gave their lives for ray gun development got to live a little longer than the aliens who were blasted as soon as they touched down in their space wagons. We gathered up the survivors, fed them, nursed them back to health, and generally tried to make their last days in the universe as pleasant as possible. One way or another they were going to die.

I told you Karl was a bit of a philosopher, and those are pretty good arguments, in my book.

So, now comes the one thousand Galactic Credit question: what do you need and want — from a ray gun?

I've already mentioned the scare factor. Unless you are dealing with other human beings whose psychology you know something about, you can forget about that aspect. What looks scary to one species would be another species' cuddly toy.

Do you want to kill, or just disable and render harmless? Either way, what do you do with the body, dead or alive? You don't want a body exploding, spilling guts and blood everywhere, often toxic to human beings. Then there's the collateral damage which I've already mentioned. An old fashioned bullet-firing pistol or rifle would be the ideal, leaving a tidy corpse and relatively little mess — but completely ineffective against an alien in full battle armour. Some aliens don't even need that, their skins are tougher than Kevlar.

The most promising line of research focuses on alien physiology. Stop the heart, or hearts if the alien has more than one. Or some other vital organ. Ultra-low frequency sound is one option we explored. It worked on one particular species with spectacular effect. Their bodies were mostly liquid, enclosed in a brittle outer shell. What a mess! The gun was useless, of course, unless you knew in advance which species you were going to be dealing with.

Karl and I had been working on a ray gun that disrupted neurotransmitters. The beauty of it was that, in principle, it would work on anything that had a brain, which as you know is nearly ninety per cent of all intelligent life.

We were trying out the latest prototype. It was a complete dud. The aliens we used it on seemed to become very agitated but that was about all. The howling, grunting and the screeching was getting on my nerves. I'd never heard anything like it, not even in the middle of a battlefield. 'Let's get some fresh air,' Karl said and I gratefully agreed.

We were fooling around in the back yard, taking turns to aim the prototype at various objects. The Gun made a funny 'phhhutt' sound as you shot it, like someone spitting out a piece of chewing gum. Then, somehow, I don't know exactly how it happened, I accidentally shot Karl.


'You stupid idio...,' Karl got as far as saying. Then a beatific smile spread on his face.

'You are wonderful, I love you!'

Two hours later, Karl was still pounding on the door of the nuclear waste store room where I had barricaded myself in for my own protection.

'Listen to yourself, Karl, dammit!'

I like to think that Karl, even at the height of his frenzy, still had a part of him that was detached and rational, and able to comprehend what was happening to him.

Eventually Karl did calm down. And then started the lecture. Moral Philosophy 101. Look what we have achieved. This could be the end of all war and conflict and the beginning of a new age of universal Love. Blah blah blah.

The rest of the story you can piece together from the news headlines. 'Love Gun inventor on the run.' 'Love Gun inventor sighted on Cygnus Minor.' 'One Million Galactic Credits for the capture of Love Gun inventor.' Et cetera.

There are models still around from the first hurriedly manufactured batch of fifty. Worth a fortune on the black market. Well, yeah, I can think of some cool uses which have nothing to do with war and conflict, heh heh.

Naturally, the war lords weren't too happy. The cottoned on pretty quick to what was going on and had the military kitted out in full protection gear, their sensitive brains safely encased in signal-jamming silicon helmets.

But Karl had one trick up his sleeve.

A Love Gun (I'm just going to call it that, even though I hate the word) only needs to work on one person, human or alien, it doesn't matter.

Give each of those people a Love Gun and they each find someone to shoot.

You can't keep your protective helmet on all the time. I mean, you have to have a shower occasionally. The logic — hell, this was the genius bit! — is the logic of seduction, not the logic of warfare. In warfare, you have to kill and keep on killing. In seduction, you only need to find one person to seduce, then wait around for the chain reaction.

The outcome was inevitable.

Today, universal peace reigns. We still have aliens — far too many! — who find Earth an ideal holiday resort. Business is booming, and the only deaths are from natural causes or the occasional accident with a nuclear powered barbecue. Politically, nothing much has changed. Who needs a government when people don't need to be compelled to be nice to one another?

According to the Interplanetary Peace Treaty all weapons had to be destroyed. There was a heated debate over the Love Gun, but in the end the delegates decided it was a weapon because even though you are doing the victim a favour and not causing any harm at all, the person you shoot isn't given the choice.

I wish I had a time machine.

© Geoffrey Klempner 2015


I Love Your Waspish Waist

From Philosophy Pathways Issue 192

Human history is made up of great events: conflicts, battles, revolutions, migrations. History books don't recount the lives of ordinary people like you and me. Chances are, your name will never appear in any history book and neither will mine. And yet everyone, every human and alien being, thinks of his or her or its life as a history-in-the-making, with a beginning, a middle, and eventually an end.

So many lives, so many histories!

Consider the first encounter with extraterrestrial beings. Much has been written about this momentous event, its effects on every aspect of human life — not to mention the fact that human beings now share this relatively small planet with members of many other alien species. Most of the time, we get along pretty well.

I'm writing a different kind of history. It is also a love story. The main actors in this story are two people who formed an attraction to one another. They happen to be people I know personally. On the face of it, falling in love is a pretty ordinary, everyday occurrence. However, at the time, what these two people did was not ordinary. It was a sensation, a scandal. It would not be exaggerating to say that it shook Earth society to its foundations and nothing has been the same since.

Now we live in a different world.

I'm not a historian, I'm a scientist. I know how to write up a lab report or a journal article. You put questions to nature, and sometimes, if you're lucky, nature responds in a way you didn't expect. That's how science progresses. History doesn't work like that. You already know what happened, at least in its broad outlines. The historian turns a sequence of recorded happenings into a meaningful story which, if not the complete truth, is sufficiently close to the truth to be believable.

The story is about Jeff and his extraterrestrial partner, his 'wife' as he called her, although at the time of writing the law still does not recognise marriage between humans and members of other alien species. Jeff and his partner were the first human-insectoid couple. Much of the story you already know. But I have the privilege of being a close friend and colleague of Jeff's, so I can tell you a few things that you won't find in the history books.

This is a love story, as I said, but don't expect some hackneyed account of how boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl get back together again and live happily ever after. It's more a question of, How on Earth did boy and girl get together in the first place?!

If you're not lucky enough to have first-hand knowledge of an inter-species relationship, you'll probably be curious to know 'how one does it', if that isn't putting the matter too indelicately. If you really want to know, just do an internet search. That's my best advice. You'll find an ample supply of information and disinformation in roughly equal amounts. If that doesn't satisfy you, then you'll just have to try for yourself. Be adventurous. What have you got to lose?

I've never been tempted. Frankly, I'm not that curious. You've got to want to do 'it', whatever 'it' is, and that desire is in one sense perfectly explicable — the instinct for pair bonding which so many terrestrial and extraterrestrial species possess. But that is as much a mystery in the everyday, supposedly 'normal' case of two human beings of opposite sexes. At least it is to me.

Today, human-insectoid relationships, as well as relationships with a growing number of other alien species are commonplace. Nothing to get unduly excited about. It requires an effort of imagination to picture a time when it was sincerely and universally believed that the only proper partner for a human being was another human being. Anything else was simply unthinkable, perverted, disgusting.

When the sensation first broke, there was much discussion of the Biblical sin of bestiality, human relationships with Earth animals which have taken place for millennia. How was relationship with an alien different? Simply because there are two adult persons involved, two self-conscious individuals freely choosing to make their life together.

History has shown that human beings are endlessly creative in trying out new experiments in living. That's how we managed to progress beyond cave dwelling. In essence, this story is no different.

With the benefit of hindsight, someone had to be first to take the plunge. That person happened to be my friend Jeff. I suppose an insectoid historian would be writing about Jill. There are two stories here, not just one. But I can only write about what I know. So I will just stick to my version of events. I won't pretend that I could ever see things from an insectoid perspective. We think we know a lot about the insectoid race, but all that knowledge is filtered through our human perceptions, isn't it?

Apart from a common language — which only means we can point to the same things and agree on a name for them — there is surely something else, what it is actually 'like' to be us, or them, which mere words can never convey. How does an insectoid see 'blue' or 'red'? That's just the simplest example I can think of. If we don't have an answer to that question, how can we possibly understand their feelings and emotions — pain, joy, regret, love?

I am talking about something deep, an unknown unknown. You can only go so far in sharing experiences with insectoids or any other alien species, then you reach a blank. You must do, how could it be any other way? That's my personal feeling and experience. I know that most people would say there just isn't anything to worry about. I'm not worried. But something about this still disturbs me, just a little — like the feeling of vertigo you get when you're right at the top of a roller coaster ride, waiting for the rush, realising just how far it is down.

It could happen to anyone. So I suppose it could happen to me. Let's not go there!

Jeff is an entomologist. Of course, you know that because you've seen him countless times on TV. Ever since the first insectoids made contact, entomologists have been much in demand. With a PhD you're practically guaranteed appearances on all the major talk shows in your first professional year.

Never mind the glaring fact that anyone who understands the least bit about extraterrestrial biology knows that the insectoid race has only the most superficial resemblance to Earth insects. A wasp the size of a human being would collapse under its own weight. That's why insectoids have a rigid skeleton, just like us. As for wings — get real! It's been calculated that a six foot insectoid of average weight would need a wing span of thirty feet or more — in fact, the same as it would be for a winged human being.

It turns out that despite outward appearances insectoid biology is remarkably similar to ours. How did that come about? As you probably know if you read the science magazines, there's now growing evidence in support of the theory of panspermia, that life on a multitude of planets in our galaxy all derived from a single source, originally distributed in clouds in interstellar space. How those clouds originated, we still don't know. In any case, that's just a theory, it is possible that a better explanation will be found.

So there is still a lot we don't know. But whatever the detailed cosmological or biological account, it seems that it's no mere accident that underneath the skin, humans and insectoids, and indeed all the other alien species that we have since encountered, are so fundamentally alike.

Looks are an entirely different matter.

Suffice it to say that in a beauty competition, a giant wasp with all its bits dangling would win against an insectoid every time. Of course, I'm speaking from a human perspective, which as I have explained is the only one I know.

Jeff was rather unusual in this respect. He didn't think insectoids were ugly at all. Granted, Jeff had a long history with bugs. As a small boy, he collected spiders and beetles. While his friends played with toy ray guns and space ships, he made homes for his tiny pets, kept a meticulous notebook of all their activities, incessantly drew, painted and photographed them.

Jeff eventually went on to gain his doctorate in entomology, as his family and friends had long expected. After the insectoids came, he appeared on all the talk shows. He was good. Everyone said he had genuine enthusiasm coupled with an admirable gift for communication.

But there must surely have been something else about Jeff that made him the first to take that fateful step?

We were talking shop. The subject came round, as it so often did, to the topic of insectoid phylogeny, genetics, developmental biology, evolution. How did they end up so very different from us, and yet at the same time so similar? If they weren't really insects, what was the exact function of those dangly antennae? Wasn't it strange that they seemed to have so little difficulty with our Earth speech, lacking anything resembling a tongue or palate?

And then Jeff came out with it, just like that.

'I'd like to show you a photo.' Those were his exact words.

'That's... one of your experimental subjects?'

'That's Jill.'

''Jill' is the also your partner's name, isn't it?'

'They are one and the same. That's my partner.'

Talk about a conversation stopper.

Jeff had gone native. How else would you describe it?

But life goes on.

In every other respect, Jeff is just a normal guy. Someone you'd enjoy sharing a beer with. When we used to ask him about his home life, he would say things like, 'I took Jill to see the latest Star Wars movie,' or, 'Jill and I are going to Scotland for our holidays,' or, 'Jill made me my favourite meal last night, chicken risotto.'

Those conversations take on an entirely new meaning. Then again, they don't, not really.

— Chicken risotto! What did Jill eat?

As a rule, insectoids and humans tended to keep pretty much to themselves up to that time. They had their own bars, restaurants, cinemas and theatres. There was no prejudice as such, we just didn't seem to have a lot in common, culturally speaking.

On the other hand, the insectoids were excited to discover our Earth insects. There were no species like this on their home planet. I guess if you want an explanation why Jill went for an entomologist, that's as good as any I can think of.

In science, it was pretty obvious from the start that the insectoids were significantly more advanced. They have taught us a lot. Most importantly, they have an abundantly rich economy — which goes some way to explaining their relatively unhindered acceptance in Earth society.

Earth was indeed becoming a popular vacation destination for the insectoid race, while their home planet in Alpha Centauri was a vacation destination for the lucky few human beings who could afford the star cruiser fare. I guess in a way we are seen as poor relations from an Interplanetary perspective, although with their help we are making big strides forward.

Insectoids are smart. You have to give them credit. When the first space ships landed — right on the White House lawn! — and the crew stepped out, they were wearing Walt Disney masks. It broke the ice immediately. I guess they had been monitoring our air waves for a while.

Anyway, back to Jeff and Jill.

They were adopting. By mutual agreement, two insectoid grubs, one male, one female. It wouldn't have been right to experiment with a mixed family, Jeff said. Today, as you know, fully mixed families are commonplace. Human and insectoid children have no difficulty in getting along. At the time, however, it was a sensible decision. So typically Jeff. The last person whom you'd expect to do anything rash.

What am I saying?!

Still, it seemed to me that Jeff was pretty much out on a limb expecting insectoid infants to warm to a human father, and I told him so. I'm glad I was wrong about that.

It was of course out of the question that Jeff and Jill would attempt to have a child together. Even if Jill had succeeded in conceiving, it would be a risky genetic experiment. That's still a taboo subject today, although I guess given what I've said, someone will have to be the first to try.

Now to more important matters.

The day that changed everything is etched in my memory. It was a private moment shared by just a few people, and yet through its repercussions it has become a major event in Earth history. I'm just glad — in fact, I feel very privileged — to have been there.

Jeff had invited my wife and I, and another couple, round to their apartment for chicken risotto. (Apparently, it's Jill's favourite meal too!) This was the first time we were getting to meet Jill, see her in the flesh — hard as it was to imagine that an insectoid's body could be made of the same substance as ours. We were more than a little apprehensive.

Jeff met us at the door, still wearing his apron.

'Sorry about that,' Jeff said, quickly removing the kitchen garment adorned with images of fifty varieties of moth, 'My turn to cook. Come in, come in!'

As we turned into the living room, Jill was singing.

It was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. An octave above soprano, clear and bright but not piercing. A sound of pure, unadulterated joy. 'This is how angels sing,' the thought came to me, as it came to the others too, in that same instant.

When she saw us, Jill hesitated for a moment. Her head cocked slightly. She gave me a look which I could half read. Enigmatic. Except that it wasn't intended as an 'enigmatic look', the kind of the look you give when you don't want to give too much away.

What I mean is, I could imagine how one could learn to read what Jill's expression 'meant' — how Jeff would read it — although all I could assume (how can one ever know for sure?) was that it was surprise, mixed with slight embarrassment, and maybe something else: pride.

No, Jill wasn't hiding anything. She and her partner Jeff had taken an incredible risk. They were coming out.

Jill won us over that night.

As I said, insectoids are smart.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

© Geoffrey Klempner 2015


Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Better Ray Gun and other tall tales

Science fiction for deep thinkers.

1. A Better Ray Gun  —  Published 25.3.15

2. I Love Your Waspish Waist  —  Published 25.3.15

3. A Million Dark Years

4. The Last... What?

5. Alien Baby

6. Perfect Day

7. Hare and Hounds

8. Hold That Sucker Down

9. Go Deep

10. That Feeling When