A short haitus…

We’ve had a death in the family: my mother’s brother.  It was not entirely unexpected as he was ninety years old and in poor health.  I was not particularly close to this uncle, so I’m doing fine.  However, I have had family staying with me plus a few extra family obligations.  Something had to give, and blogging was it.  I’ll be back soon.

Mars One and Death

marsplanetMars One is a project to start colonizing Mars funded by a reality TV show of the volunteers who go. It looks quite serious, and they seem to have a reasonable technical plan for getting four astronauts to the surface of Mars with enough supplies and equipment to survive for an indefinite period going forward. The plan would be for more volunteers to arrive at the rate of four every two years, but this is to add to the population, not to rotate them back out.

The front-loaded price tag looks to be in the neighborhood of $6 billion USD, which they are trying to raise privately. Part of me wants to vent in frustration that if only NASA and the US Congress had the balls to step and fund something like this, it would be a done deal, but that’s a rant for another time. Perhaps the biggest challenge Mars One faces is not the technical problems but the financial one of raising that much money before much of any television revenue materializes. I wish them luck.

headstoneMostly, though, I want to talk about death, because that’s where these guys are headed. They make no bones about it, but this is a one-way ticket. I don’t think that they’re going to perish en route or in their first week, but the very real fact is that these volunteers are going to die on Mars. There is no return-flight on the horizon. This is nothing all that new in human history. There have been plenty of cases where colonists sailed off to the wilderness, fully intent on never returning, but in today’s world of jet travel, we’ve gotten away from that thinking.

But how soon will they die? Hopefully, they will a long time there, but conditions will be harsh, and simple activities will be fairly dangerous. I think there is a better than 50-50 chance that all four colonists would make it through the first two years. At that point, the next batch of colonists will arrive, and more construction will ensue for the next batch to arrive another two years into the future. However, if one of them dies before that second batch arrives, I worry that the project will falter. I’m sure they worry as well, and they seem to be doing everything they can to make those first two years as safe as possible with redundant systems.

Still, in the long run, there may be health problems associated with low gravity. Also, between the trip and years spent under Mars’ thin atmosphere, radiation will increase the risk of cancer. Furthermore, the limited food supply may cause other health issues. It seems reasonable to think that a colonist’s remaining life expectancy on Mars might be half of that on Earth. A fifty-year-old who thought he had another thirty years left to him might only get fifteen. A twenty-year-old hoping to last until eighty might be dead at fifty. But then, a seventy-year-old might only be trading away five years of life-expectancy.

So, is it worth it? Obviously that’s a question for each individual, and for the 80,000 or so who have already signed up, the answer appears to be yes. I suspect the selection criteria is going to aim for healthy people in their thirties to fifties. They have good life experience, and at that age, it seems less likely that their decision to go would be based on a youthful whim. Add another eight years of training, and we’re talking about sending people in their forties to sixties. They might only be trading away ten to twenty years.

For some, it would be worth it just to have the experience of living on Mars. I confess that if my life had gone another direction and left me without my wife, children, and other close friends, it would be seriously tempting. I’m a lifelong SF geek, and the idea of waking up every morning on another planet is serious wish-fulfillment territory. I might trade a decade of life for such an experience.

moonwalkingFor others, there might be a little lure for fame. Certainly with the reality TV show funding the ongoing operations, there will be a lot of fame back on Earth, but there is also the compelling allure of a place in the history books. They will be up there with Columbus and Neil Armstrong in the history books. Martian high schools will someday be named after them. Historians will perpetually debate the critical airlock decision of 2027. For some people, that is essentially their immortality, and an early death on the mortal plane is worth it.

But for some special few, I think they will want to do simply to push humanity into the heavens. They won’t care about Earth-side opinions. They won’t care if their name is spelled right in the history books. They’ll care that we got out there and someday, went even further. Hopefully, they’ll die decades from now when people are planning the tentative robotic exploration of some Earthlike exoplanets orbiting other stars. They will slip gently into the night, comforted by the knowledge that humanity won’t.

If I had my pick, these are the ones I would send up first.

Writing and Mortality

headstoneLast week a friend congratulated me on publishing my second book. He then asked me how many more books I had in me. Off the top of my head, I said fifty. He was surprised by such a big number, and I countered, “It mostly depends on how long I have to live.”

Ideas for books are actually pretty easy. At least, they are for me. Maybe they’re hard for you, or maybe they’re simply flying right past you without you noticing them. I don’t know, but I’m not worried about running out of ideas. Right now I have ideas for twenty books simmering on the back burner, and that’s not including the twenty-two book ideas I discarded before I actually managed to finish my first novel. I see no reason to believe that I’ve exhausted my pool of ideas. More than likely, some of those twenty simmering novels will never be written because there will be even better books to be found in the hundred ideas that will follow them.

But my point is not that ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s just to say that, for me at least, they won’t be the upper limit on how many books I write. Instead, it’s going to be how many years are left in my life. Barring Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia, I should be able to keep writing up to my final months. It’s hard work, to be sure, but it’s not physically taxing work. When I’m shopping for my third set of knees and an artificial pancreas, I should still be able to pull a keyboard onto my lap and pound out another tale or two.

IainBanksSo, how many years do I have left? While I can’t put a number on it, I can tell you this: it won’t be enough. Iain Banks died a few days ago. He was 59. Octavia Butler died at age 58. I’m 45. Maybe I’ll be lucky and hang on into my 90’s like Arthur C. Clarke, but whatever the final number is, it will be finite.

Given that the ideas seem much less exhaustible, I can state with confidence that I will die with books unwritten. I suppose that’s true of almost all writers. I feel sad for those for whom it’s not. I would hate to come to the end and feel I had nothing left to say. I suspect that, more than anything, would be enough to hasten the end for me. Sure, I suppose I’ll grieve the number of books unwritten, orphaned by my demise, but if I’m lucky, I’ll have written more than I leave unwritten.

So I’m writing, from now until then. Yes, I’m doing other things as well, but I hope to never again lose sight of the writing. Right now I’m trying to write and publish two to three books a year. If I have another twenty to thirty years left to me, then I could get to fifty books fairly easily. If I’ve got another forty years, then heck, I might even reach a hundred books.

But fifty would be good… especially if I go out working on the fifty-first.

The Last Book You’ll Ever Read

As I edit Ships of My Fathers, I’ve been thinking back to my father’s death. Specifically, I remember that towards the end, when it was clear that the second round of chemo was not going to work, he was reading a book on cosmology and faith. As a lifelong scientist and Christian, he was looking for some kind of reconciliation between two oft-conflicting viewpoints. I don’t know if he found what he was looking for, but I do remember thinking about mortality and limited time and that someday, I will be reading the last book I will ever read.

skullandbookWhat kind of book is that going to be?

It might very well be something of a religious nature. I don’t expect that, since I don’t feel I have a lot of open questions in my theological view of the universe, but you never know what you’re going to do when you’re staring death in the eye.

But I like to think, instead, I’ll be reading fiction. Maybe I’ll reread some old favorite tale. Maybe I’ll be tearing my way through some new series that a friend recommended. I have always loved to escape into stories, and I think they will be a great comfort to me in my final days.

If I know the end is coming soon, I don’t think I’ll put the book down when I’m done and declare, “That was the last book.” More likely, I’ll pick up the sequel, because I want to know what happens next.

And isn’t that perhaps the best way to go? With the hunger for story and a thirst for that great mystery of what comes on the next page?

What do you think your last book will be?

My Father’s Car

I’ve been driving my father’s care lately. Technically it belongs to my mother, and I’m the one who bought it, but to me, it will always be my father’s car. To explain why that is, I have to go back over forty years and talk about another car entirely.

I’m a little fuzzy on the date, but it would have been late 1970 or early 1971, and Dad’s old Dodge Rambler was ready to be taken out back and shot. Dad decided to give GM a shot, and we all went down to the Chevy dealer. I was only three, but I remember the trip.

Mostly, I remember sitting in the back seat of a few different cars. One in particular stood out because the seats were upholstered with white synthetic fur. Come on, fur? Who puts kids in a car with white fur? Maybe someone with a cleaning fetish, but not my father.

In the end, he settled on a 1971 Chevy Impala. It was gold, and it quickly became known as Goldie in our house. Ironically, the white car was never Whitey, but that was probably a sign of the times. But good old Goldie became not only dad’s commuting car, but we also took it on a number of vacations. It eventually gave up the vacation role to a 1976 Chevy Impala with a trailer hitch, but it remained his main commuting vehicle for more than twenty years.

In the 80’s, he bought me my first car, a used 1972 Chevy Impala. It was almost the same as his, except that mine was what they call a “hardtop”. For you classic car aficionados, no it was not the two-door collectible version, but rather the four-door. It ran well, and it had the same bit 350 cubic inch V8 that Dad’s had.

I have fond memories of that car, and I often thought it was neat… you know, me and Dad in our big roadsters. You didn’t so much drive them as you sailed them. The ride was that smooth. You didn’t feel speedbumps so much as you heard them.

But in 1995, Mom got a new car, a police package 1995 Chevy Caprice. It was in many ways the proper heir of the old 1970’s Impala. The smaller, underpowered (but more fuel efficient) Caprice of the 1980’s had been stretched, given a bigger engine, and the police package made it a peppy little car. It had the Corvette’s LT1 engine (again, a 350-V8 descendant), and the cam shaft was geared for high torque. While nothing compared to modern sports cars, it had a very respectable 0 to 60 time of 7.1 seconds.

But it had the nice, new interior, so it became Mom’s car while Dad was relegated to her old 1986 Caprice with the smaller engine. Yes, it could go nearly 600 miles on a tank of gas, but I could tell that at some level, Dad felt he’d been relegated to the kid car. He tried to hang on to old Goldie for another year, but it was old, faded, and according to Mom, “just plain ugly”. So he had to get rid of it.

I didn’t want to see him have to hand it off to the junkyard, so I bought it from him for about $200. I managed to keep it going for another year, but when the transmission went, I decided it was time to junk it. Dad understood, and I think that year had given him enough time and distance to let it go.

But he was still in that underpowered 1986 Caprice. He said he wished that he had bought a second Caprice like Mom’s, but 1996 was the last model year, and by the time he realized it, it was too late. Notably, the famed Impala SS of the 90’s was essentially the Caprice police package with a few styling changes and a slightly different suspension. The trend in the 1990’s was away from four-door sedans and towards the larger SUV’s, so the Caprice production died off early in 1996.

By now, my 1972 Impala was on its second engine and its third transmission and was showing its age. I wasn’t ready to let it go quite yet, but I decided it was time to get something newer, and I also bemoaned the untimely demise of the big Chevy Caprice. But then I noticed that they were still in steady use by police departments, and a vague memory that they retired them after a certain number of miles.

What began as a research project eventually led me to the quarterly auction of Texas’s Department of Transportation. I bought myself a 1994 Caprice in the spring of 1996, a retired DPS patrol car. It had 92,000 miles on it, but it had been expertly maintained. My research on the vehicles ahead of time let me avoid any with collisions or persistent problems. It was very bare bones, exactly like you’d expect a police car to be, but it made a great civilian car. There was that one time the mechanic found some shell casings rattling around under the hood, but that’s another story.

Eventually, I got one for my wife, and my brother came down to get one himself. Then, finally in the fall of 1998, I bought one of the last 1996’s for my father. You don’t get them in the original black and white trim. They repaint them in a solid color before putting them up for auction. This one was gold, so once again, Dad had Goldie.

He was grinning ear to ear when I presented it to him. He knew, of course, that it was in the works, but I hadn’t told him the color until he came to town to pick it up. It was smooth, roomy, and peppy — everything he had been missing from his old Goldie.

I was a little disappointed at first to discover that he was mostly keeping it in the garage while continuing to drive the old 1986 Caprice to work, but then he explained. He wanted to drive the old one into the ground, while preserving the newer one for his retirement. He still took it out and drove it for pleasure on the weekends, but he kept it otherwise pristine.

Alas, that retirement never really came. In 2003 he was diagnosed with stage four cancer, and while he got some use of it that year, his health deteriorated to the point that he could no longer safely drive.

He died seven years ago today. The car had only had another fifteen thousand miles put on it.

Eventually, Mom moved that car down to Austin so that she could have a car here when she flew in for visits. It’s technically her car at this point, but I still drive it every now and then to keep it shape.

But now all the others are dead or dying. The engine block cracked on my wife’s car two years ago. My brother’s died a few months later. In the last year, mine has started having transmission problems, and I’m still debating whether to repair it or let it go.

With that, I guess I decided it was time to pull Goldie out of reserve. Even without as many miles, it’s showing its age. So I’ve been driving it.  In some ways, it’s my last physical connection to my father, and if I could, I would try to keep it forever.

But time passes, and no matter how much these things may recall your youth and the things you’ve lost, they won’t last forever. Enjoy them now, while you still can.