Passing glances: choosing a calendar for Mars; a look at Annalee Newitz’s debut SF novel

A question for Elon Musk and the rest of us: What’s the date on Mars? Our first, unthinking impulse may be to say that of course it’s today everywhere—except where, because of that darned International Date Line, it may be tomorrow, or yesterday—and that today is December 4, 2017. But soon we remember that more than one calendar is in use upon Earth; our friends in China may label today differently, as do those who follow Islamic practice or another method. And a little reflection, combined with that dangerous thing a little knowledge, will convince us that, at least for certain purposes, none of these will work on Mars and a wholly new scheme will be needed if, as Musk and others propose, colonists are to take up residence there. Let’s say, for the sake of convenience, that people have just arrived on Mars and that they decide to mark the start of a new year at the same time as the Western system starts it here, at the beginning of January 1, 2018. When will the Martians next bring out the confetti? Mars won’t return to the same position in its orbit around the sun, which is what we mean by the passage of a year, for very close to 687 Earth days. The poor Martian colonists will have to wait a lot longer between New Year’s celebrations than we do. What’s more, if those colonists are counting the days, they’ll be counting Martian days, which are called sols, and which are a little longer than our days; they’ll have to wait a little more than 668 sols before they can pop a cork on a champagne bottle or—given that such spirits may be hard to come by on Mars—do whatever they do instead. And unless they’re content simply to number their sols, which lacks a certain elegance, they’ll want a system of months, but whereas we on Earth can use the orbit of the Moon as a rough guide, the Martian colonists won’t get much help from their moons, which zoom around the planet in a matter of hours. Even their clocks will have to be different, because a sol lasts about 24 hours and 39 minutes.

Scientists have already thought about these issues—for a long time, in fact. But they haven’t come to any settled conclusions yet, maybe because they don’t need to. The landers that are operating on the surface of Mars know nothing of time in the sense in which we know time; they’re like mechanical flowers, whose lives and welfare depend mainly on the position of the sun, which recharges their batteries and warms them considerably above the nighttime temperature. Because sunlight matters for the landers, mission managers who supervise them have kept track of what’s called local solar time, in which, if the sun is directly overhead, it’s noon. The managers have employed a stretched clock, in which hours, minutes, and seconds are 2.7 percent longer so as to match the duration of a sol, but they seem to have mostly ignored the other questions. Unsurprisingly, science fiction writers have also grappled with clocks and calendars for Mars. A few of them have settled on the notion of dividing the Martian year into 24 months, which shows, if nothing else, how fond we are of multiples of 12, but no consensus seems to have emerged. As in other things, wherever two or three have gathered in consideration of an issue, there too is Wikipedia; it has an entry on Martian timekeeping that’s illuminating and enjoyably complex, at least for the scientific-minded.

Today, no matter how you label it, these concerns are largely theoretical. Soon enough, it will matter in a concrete way, if some enterprising government or business leader sends people to the fourth planet to take up residence. How will the colonists denote the birthday of a child born on Mars? How will they track the seasons, plan their work, record the warp and woof of passing time, or reckon the anniversary of their own arrival? Even an exploratory mission, designed to arrive, poke around a bit, and return home, may find itself needing, at the very least, one of those stretched clocks; anyone employing an Earth-based wristwatch will very quickly find that the time is out of joint. But the colonists and the organization on Earth that sends them there face an important challenge, which I imagine somebody somewhere is thinking about even now, though I haven’t heard about it: whoever gets there first and stays may get to establish the Martian calendar.


Autonomous cover (w)In Autonomous, a dystopian novel set largely in the 2140s, property, especially intellectual property, is paramount; almost everything has a price, including the right to work, and little is free—indentured servitude applies to most robots and even to many humans. Fighting the system is a biotech pirate calling herself Jack, who recreates pricey drugs and sells them more cheaply, and who finds a serious defect in a major corporate product that she’s pirating; as she struggles to find a fix and get the word out, murderous agents of the prevailing order are on her tail. Meanwhile, between those two poles of piracy and property rights, a sort of biotech freeware movement struggles to find a new way. Annalee Newitz, in her provocative, ambitious, but not entirely successful debut novel (published in September), apparently wants us to see villainy only in the prevailing system, so she glosses over some ethical issues in her handling of those agents. And she relies on a dubious though tangential technical notion about machine understanding of human emotional expression. On the other hand, her exploration of machine intelligences and of human-machine relations, including love, is thoughtful and sometimes oddly affecting.

The above is a slightly revised version of a short review I posted on Goodreads.

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Get smart: Nick Tosches serves up a scam to warn us against scams

Under Tiberius cover

In Under Tiberius, a 2015 novel from Nick Tosches, a well-off Roman named Gaius who has been Emperor Tiberius’s speechwriter loses his job, goes to what we’d now call the Middle East, meets a scraggly Jewish thief who calls himself Iesous, and decides to work with him to fabricate a messiah named Jesus. The region is rife with would-be prophets and the like, but those guys are howling madmen or mere street preachers; Gaius knows the arts of persuasion, Jesus proves to have potential as a performer, and together they begin raking in money as well as piling up followers. The crucial thing, though, is that they begin to take their job more seriously.

One implication of Tosches’s premise is obvious: Continue reading

Unsold! My New Yorker cartoon idea

Now and then, I tinker with ideas for cartoons and captions. Long ago, having noticed that the typical fortune-cookie fortune is unspeakably boring, I thought of a captionless image that would show, in the foreground at left, a restaurant table with a fortune reading, “Call the kids! Something’s wrong—I just know it!” In the background at right, we’d see a woman rushing madly out the door, followed by a man who was perhaps flinging dollars at the cashier on his way. Continue reading

What’s the future of being human? Beats me, but here are some guesses.

A prize-nominated portrait of an android

A prize-nominated portrait of an android, discussed in a recent New York Times article here.

It isn’t necessarily the job of science fiction writers to predict the future, any more than it’s necessarily the job of other fiction writers to describe the present or reconstruct the past. I don’t know about you, but I can’t tell you what I’m going to wear to work tomorrow, much less tell you what anyone else will have on, and if I were a science fiction writer it’d be no different. As a second-look review of Isaac Asimov’s SF novel Foundation recently pointed out, that book premised on the possibility of predicting the future failed to anticipate changes in the social roles of women that were just around the corner. But then Asimov wasn’t trying to see the future; he was just playing the old “what if” game. That baseball-playing font of wisdom Yogi Berra hit something home when he remarked, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” What’s more, we can’t always say after the fact whether somebody got it right. Novelist William Gibson is sometimes credited with foreseeing the Internet in Neuromancer, published in 1984, but networked computers already existed when he wrote that book, and no one yet experiences the Internet as the enveloping virtual space that he termed a “consensual hallucination.” In some cases we can’t even be sure about the past; about 10 years ago, no one knew whether that line about predictions should be traced to Berra or Niels Bohr. (Maybe that’s been settled now; to adapt another supposed Berra-ism, the past ain’t what it used to be, any more than the future is.)

Still, it can be fun to try predicting the future, Continue reading

Getting back to work in Houston: the drama of Harvey and the Alley Theatre

Not long after Hurricane Harvey put much of Houston underwater and practically turned it upside down, the Houston Astros played two baseball games in their hometown and reportedly sold out both. It turned out that Houstonians wanted to see the games—it was something normal amid the disorder. I imagine the team wanted it too. Baseball is their job; it’s their duty, in a way; it’s something they know how to do and do well. If they didn’t play, the storm would’ve taken away, for a while, their raison d’être. It’s a simple and fundamental feeling: when the world around us goes awry, whether it’s the illness of someone we know or a large-scale disaster, most of us want to be able to do something.

The same is true for the workers of the Alley Theatre in Houston, which is about to premiere a play by Rajiv Joseph. Continue reading