Every Single One Of My Titles

Waiter, My Marswater Is Too Salty For Life — Isn’t It?

Mars Saline Flows 15-195_perspective_2

So, today NASA announced the presence of liquid water on the surface of Mars, in the form of seasonal saline (brine) flows. Which is exciting. And maybe a little disappointing, too.

A seasonal brine flow doesn’t exactly sound like something you could find life in at all — consider that salting is a pretty darn effective way to preserve food here on Earth. The salt prevents bacteria from thriving in the food. An old-fashioned salt-cured ham can hang from a rafter in your basement for 20 years and still be fine to eat. Not that I particularly recommend that experiment.

You’re certainly not going to find seaweed growing in a seasonal brine flow. Much less fish, and even less likely Tars Tarkas riding a thoat.

So it’s pretty cool, but it’s not super-exciting, because no life, right?

Maybe so. But then again, maybe not.

There are super-saline environments on Earth, too. And there are some extremophile single-celled life forms called halophiles (which means salt-lovers, big surprise) which appear to live in them. I say ‘appear’ because there is still some debate surrounding their existence and status as actual life here on Earth. Mostly because they live in rare difficult-to-access locations even here on our home planet.

But it looks like salt-loving life probably lives here. I lean that way, because life has a way of surprising us with its ingenuity. Life finds a way. Life has been found clustering around thermal vents on the ocean floor, thriving next to plumes of hydrogen sulfide and sulfur-laced water at 350 degrees Fahrenheit — the same temperature you use to bake a cake on land. There are forms of algae that thrive on snow, somehow, in some of the most frigid environments in the world.

There’s no guarantee life has found a way in or on or under those saline flows on Mars. But I have high hopes. Life, from the single-celled to the more complex forms like humans, have a way of enduring hardship.

And if it turns out, in the end, that nothing’s alive on Mars, there are always the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. There’s gotta be some extra-Earth life around here somewhere, if we rummage around the Solar System enough.

Thirteen Word Story: Collateral Damage


Collateral Damage

Faster than light, no warning to see: there’s a hole through Earth, collapsing.

To Labor No More: A Short Farce of Automation (Maybe Like Our Future)


Find To Labor No More at iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Google Play Books, Smashwords, Kobo, and maybe a few others I haven’t thought of.

The robot worker, it’s a-comin.

Automation, though we seldom think of it now, has already taken quite a few jobs that once were taken for granted.

The elevator operator used to control the rise and fall of the lift before the advent of the button-studded control panel anyone could just operate with one finger. Children (and the occasional adult) shined shoes before the coin-operated automated shoe shiner (itself almost extinct with the advent of easy to apply liquid shine goop). Robot welders and assemblers now dominate vast swathes of automobile production line once filled shoulder-to-shoulder with workers doing boring, repetitive, sometimes dangerous work that (here’s the upside) once paid wages good enough to admit the earner into the lower reaches of the middle class.

Soon, it seems, the working robot will likely dominate more jobs than we’d like to contemplate.  Long-haul truckers may stop being a thing before 40-somethings like me shuffle off their mortal coils. Same with the people who prepare food in low-end restaurants… and maybe high-end ones, too. A lot of food service jobs are prep-work. Look behind the scenes at your favorite 3-Michelin-star restaurant, if you have the dough to have a favorite one of those. You’ll find a bunch of prep staff doing repetitive menial tasks like slicing shallots, dicing onions, shredding lettuces, julienne-ing carrots, and so forth. I’m not the first one to think a robot could do an equal or better job dicing onions — that bot is already in the works.

There are even bots that can write blog posts. I shudder!

There may be downsides, even after we figure out what to do with all the surplus humans who will no longer be needed to dig ditches, cut carrots, flip burgers, and so forth. Personally, I favor Basic Income (but that’s a different post) rather than pushing them all out to die on patches of floating arctic ice. By the time it’s an issue, anyway, we may be fresh out of patches of floating arctic ice. But that, too, is a different post.

And that’s a lot of writing to get to my 99-cent short story. But I think the trip was worth it.

Automation, like every other things humans have done ever, will have a downside. Some of them are obvious — if you see a machine screwing up a job, you can’t just yell at it to knock it off. You have to get to wherever the things are controlled from, shut it down, and then probably call tech support — which is an adventure in itself if you’ve ever been forced to do it. Especially if the tech support is automated, which it often is at the level of basic functions.

To Labor No More gets into one of those potential downsides, both for machines and humans. For example, what if your servant robots, at work and at home, are just a… little too servile?

Anyhow, you should give To Labor No More a try. Go ahead — it’ll be fine. The reading’s not automated, after all.

Here’s a little preview to whet your appetite:

Hate loading the dishwasher? You don’t even have to clear the table. Let a Right Hand Model 2100 do both for you. You don’t have to cook, either—your Right Hand can do that for you too! And if you run a small business, or even a multinational megaconglomerate, a few good Right Hands can take the wage-wasting drudge work off of your employees’ hands and let them devote all their energy to making your business as big and better as it deserves to be!”

–Transcript excerpt from Vintage 21st Century Collector, Right Hand Robotics Inc. television and web advertisement, late 2099.

… (sometime later in the story) …

“Yes! Come take my socks off before they smell up the whole living room,” he says, voice halfway to a shout. He forces the volume back down, tries to hold onto his cool. “It seems like I had to okay the placement of every damn box that went in or out of the warehouse today, and Zebediah was out sick so they pestered me all the way through lunch, too. I need a drink.” The 2174 pauses; it has removed one of Buddy’s socks and stops with the other one tugged halfway off. It lets go; the half-off sock flops over limp. The robot walks into the kitchen, its compact little spider legs mincing along directly under it.

“What the hell?” Buddy says, wiggling his toes hard in an effort to get the sock the rest of the way off.

“I think it went to make you a drink,” Eunice says, sitting down on the sofa next to buddy…

Thirteen Word Story: Still Time

Graduate rear perspective morguefile free photo file0001522837682

The first time I posted this, I managed to delete the story somehow. Or, worse still, not actually write it. So let’s try this again!

Still Time

S.A. Barton

Seventy aimless years: before the cure for aging, he’d never have become anyone.

SciFi News Network, 2357: Taifun Arrives In Lunar Orbit

Earth from moon Apollo 11 photo AS11-44-6551

Taifun Arrives In Lunar Orbit

L5 News & Entertainment Network
14 January 2357
Taifun took its place in Lunar orbit today, as projected. The asteroid, 9.8 kilometers in diameter, was first discovered in November of 2271. Its original trajectory was a near-certain direct hit on Earth in 2340 and would have generated a force roughly equal to what was produced by the Chicxulub impactor which was a factor in the decline and extinction of the dinosaurs approximately 65 million years ago.
Project Jade Emperor, named for a figure of ancient Chinese mythology who vanquished a primal and destructive evil from heaven and earth, began its work altering the trajectory of Taifun by 2280. Enormous on-site ion drives were built on Taifun’s surface; the first was ignited in 2288. Those same ion drives, the majority now over 8 decades old, have fallen silent. The work of establishing mines to take advantage of Taifun’s trillion-plus tons of rock, nickel-iron, and rare earth metals is projected to begin within 2 years. The ion drives will remain in place and are undergoing overhauls so they can be used for course corrections during the decades that Taifun will remain in lunar orbit; finally, they will be used to expel the mined-out remains from the Earth-Luna system.
More than 300 universities throughout the solar system have requested permission to set up research stations on the surface of Taifun, most applications being submitted within the last decade. Selection of approvals, anticipated to number 20 or fewer, will be announced in early 2358 according to a press release from United Nations Deimos Annex.

New Short Story Ebook: TORNADO GIFT


Available on Smashwords — FREE! No sign-in needed, you can even select “online reader” under “Download:” and read it as a webpage — just as you’re reading this page, with nothing to actually download!

You can also find it on Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Google Play Books, Kobo, and others.

This is a short tale of weirdness after a storm — I’ll let the opening paragraphs speak for themselves:

Eventually, the walls-strumming throb of the tornado passed and the family emerged from their storm nest in the hallway. They had ridden through the storm—the hail and rain hammering on the walls, the gusts rocking the trailer home side to side on its blocks, the thunder shaking the roof, and finally the open-throated steam engine chug of the funnel cloud itself—encapsulated in the mattresses rushed from their beds and stood up against the hallway walls to cushion them in case the trailer rolled over. But it hadn’t.

The storm had been black, choking off the little bit of light that illuminated the hall from the living room on a sunny day. After the hail the electric lights had failed. The lights were still out, but now a weak sun filtered in again, gray.

Paul rushed ahead of his parents and little brother on the energy of thirteen, threw open the door and the screen, and burst out onto the open porch. Twigs, leaves, and small branches torn out of the big maple between them and the next trailer thirty feet over crunched under his sneakers. From the maple, from the woods engulfing their end of the trailer park, branches and leaves covered the grass and the gravel road, a green and brown carpet with only a few worn patches showing what lay underneath. Paul looked up. The clouds trailing the storm were high and thin, ragged, sending down random momentary sprinkles. The air was fresh, washed, green with the sap of bruised leaves and broken trees. Paul sucked in a deep breath, alive in the wake of the storm’s fear.

“We made it!” he shouted as his family crowded onto the porch. He ran down the steps into the yard, and from there he saw it between the back of the trailer and the woods. A refrigerator, tall and white but not square like all the ones he’d seen before. This one was rounded and smooth like an enormous bar of soap. The handle on the front was short, chrome worn dull on one end and attached to the fridge only on the other. The fat and round black power cord disappeared into the undergrowth of the woods’ edge as if it were plugged into the ferns and sticky sundews that grew there…

Fashion Victim


Pretty new prosthetic eyes: after the virus the world is a Munch painting.

Thirteen Word Story — Rolling Stone


He hopped planets at lightspeed, always afraid the children would catch up someday.

An additional, extra-story note:

This one, as presented, is an interesting study in how associated media affect the meaning of a story. The image of a child with a gun lends a sinister note. It would be quite a bit different — maybe better! — if the image was, say, a child holding a basket of flowers. Think of that image, a child holding a basket of flowers. What feelings does the story produce now?

Thirteen Word Story: Colonialist


Their ambassadors droned on while Xiplogeg pondered who would buy their native handicrafts.

In Defense of Pessimistic Science Fiction


(Thanks for the image, Pixabay artist ‘hucky’)

Look, I like optimistic science fiction. Sometimes. It’s like hard candy to me: I like a little nibble now and again, but it’s just too damn sweet to go eating a whole bunch at once. A bag of hard candy, like a collection of upbeat optimist short stories, can last me a month. Pessimistic or even neutral fiction—I’m focusing on science fiction because that’s most of what I make and read, but it really applies to all fiction; I mean, I read Saunders’ CivilWarLand in Bad Decline just earlier this year—just feels more balanced to me. Like a meal, like savory, like a candy balanced by notes of salt or sourness or even heat (ever have chocolate with red pepper flakes? Wonderful stuff).

I’m not even saying you shouldn’t like a steady diet of upbeat science fiction. They’re your teeth if you want to rot them out; what do I have to do with that?

But, like the damned health food purveyors who insist that I will be better off if I eat less beef and bacon (they’re right, and there are days I hate them for it, because MMMMMM beef and bacon), I am saying that you’ll be better off if you consume more pessimistic fiction than optimistic. Pessimistic science fiction is fiber and bitter and sour and garlic and meat that’s really sort of tough but once you get chewing you notice all this FLAVOR NOM NOM NOM.

So I am saying that all in all, I think the pessimistic stuff is just plain better than the optimistic stuff, on average. And I am saying that it’s my opinion that the pessimistic stuff is more likely to make you a better reader, a better thinker, a better writer (if that’s your bag) than the upbeat stuff.

But, you ask—and I would be disappointed in you if you didn’t—why is pessimistic science fiction better?

Pessimistic science fiction is the pointing finger that says there—right there—is a problem that we must solve before it comes to this. A story about a dystopia inspires us to start thinking of ways to prevent that dystopia from coming to pass. It’s no guarantee, mind. Orwell’s 1984 did not prevent the rise of the current regime of surveillance; it did not prevent the widespread use of propaganda techniques. But it did, and still, keeps many of us questioning what we are told and why we should or should not be surveilled. And whatever the failings of today, they’re certainly not so bad as in 1984, and part of the credit for that goes to Orwell and 1984. The decidedly downbeat Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, as well as older tales of golems, inspired Isaac Asimov to construct his three (later four) laws of robotics, a bit of problem solving that is still hotly debated today among roboticists and programmers and futurists (plug inspired by Asimov’s laws of robotics into your favorite search engine for a sampling). Paolo Bacigalupi’s works of dystopian climate-change-focused science fiction invite readers to think more deeply about the complications of climate change and what we might do about it—and how they might help. At the least, they contribute to raising awareness of the problems. You can sneer at that if you’d like to be cynical, but the bottom line is THE FIRST STEP TO SOLVING A PROBLEM IS RECOGNIZING THAT THERE IS A PROBLEM.

The ‘pointing hand’ of pessimistic fiction invites you, the reader, to recognize problems and consider taking a hand in the solution, however small or large your hand might be.

Secondly, optimistic science fiction, in being upbeat, tends to gloss over the negatives. And, let’s face it, there are always negatives. The introduction of agriculture in human history led to the growth of cities and the eventual industrial revolution, which led to people being able to sit in air-conditioned rooms and write blog entries on computers to ultimately be distributed to potentially millions of other human beings worldwide via a global telecommunications net composed of ground-based and orbital transmitters and relays.

But the introduction of agriculture also led to fun things like economically viable mass slavery and serfdom, reduced lifespans (at the time; they’ve since rebounded and more, thanks medical science), favorable environments for the spread of epidemic disease, and mass warfare. Many of those ills are still with us today in one form or another.

I’m not saying that this means that humanity should never have taken up agriculture. That debate is long since settled, and here we are in our air conditioned rooms in front of our internet-connected computers.

But what I am saying is that pessimistic science fiction doesn’t gloss over the negatives. It’s fuller, richer; as I said above, it’s not just sweetness but sweetness and sour and other flavors. It’s more true to life, and more relevant to our own lives, and more relevant to our own problems. Our own lives are not optimistic realism. Your life just might be way upbeat; I don’t know you like that, so I can’t say that it’s not. But most of us have our struggles. They may not be dramatic, they may not be earth-shaking, but our pain is ours. Maybe one struggle is marked by abuse and addiction and poverty, and another is marked by social struggles in academia and the upper socioeconomic classes. Fiction that sets out to be optimistic and deliver a happy ending mutes both experiences. It has to, or else it becomes pessimistic. What else would you call fiction with a happy ending that talks about the pain and unhappiness of the characters and their environment along the way? So, to be optimistic, it has to stay shiny-happy. The poor guy is a can-do fellow who washes dishes until, in the end, the office of President of the Universe falls in his lap by dint of hard work, that’s all you need everyone, and it’s just a great spiffy job, thanks much, none of that pressure that makes the hair on the head of a mere President of the United States start to turn gray in just a few years, nosiree.

The message of optimistic fiction, finally, is just not an honest one. It’s one-sided, it’s the happily-ever-after that, at best, excuses and dismisses the struggle that it takes to get there, the uncertainty in achieving a happily, and the certainty that eternal change will lop off the “ever after” shortly after the book is set down by the reader.

I’m not saying that there can’t or shouldn’t be positive or hopeful elements in fiction. Those, as much as anything, are part of the most pessimistic story. What makes pessimistic fiction pessimistic is the possibility of what might have been. Frankenstein’s monster might have been accepted for the human being he truly was, instead of being hated. Reading the story, you wonder how things might have been different. And maybe, when you meet someone strange and alien and a bit scary, you try to look past the monster you see to find the human, and make a friend instead of hounding an enemy with torch aflame.

That’s the value of pessimistic science fiction.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,869 other followers