Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s historical novel August 1914 recounts the beginnings of of the USSR. The novel centers on the disastrous loss in the Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914, and the ineptitude of the military leadership of Czarist Russia, and how a series of mistakes led to the end of Czarist rule and allowed the rise and victory of Communism in Russia. The book was never published in the Soviet Union. It instead appeared first in France in 1971, before being translated into English and other languages.
Ironically, it was twenty years ago in another August—this time in 1991—that the Soviet Union whose birth Solzhenitsyn had chronicled—began to come to a sputtering end. Only after the Soviet Union was no more, would Russians at last be able to freely and easily read what Solzhenitsyn had written.
The Fall of Soviet Communism did not begin in August 1991, however, any more than its rise began in 1917 when Lenin proclaimed the dictatorship of the proletariat. The fall of Communism began nearly two years earlier: in 1989.
Following World War II, the Soviet Union had managed to take control of Eastern Europe, picking up the flaming wreckage of Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and the eastern part of Germany among other nations such as Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. But by 1989, the economies of the Soviet Union and the eastern European nations were a shambles. Mikhail Gorbachev, who had become the sixth General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, was forced by rapidly deteriorating circumstances to attempt structural changes in the Soviet Union. He completely failed to staunch the decline and instead hastened the destruction of what the American President Ronald Regan called “the Evil Empire.”
The authoritarian systems in the Eastern European nations soon began to break apart. Strikes in Poland led to the collapse of the pro-Soviet government and the Soviet Union was now powerless to do anything about it. Soon, Hungary underwent a similar change—and the unrest in the remaining Soviet-dominated nations exploded.
By November 9, 1989 the East German government felt compelled to announce that its citizens were now free to visit West Germany and West Berlin. Crowds of East Germans crossed and climbed over the Berlin Wall, joined by West Germans. Over the following weeks, people began chipping the wall apart, hauling it away for souvenirs. Ultimately, the bulk of it was then torn down with industrial equipment by the German government. Less than a year later, on October 3, 1990, East Germany ceased to exist when formally unified with West Germany.
By the summer of 1991, Eastern Europe had completely moved beyond communist control: the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet’s answer to NATO was formally dissolved on July 1, 1991.
Terrified of what was happening across their former empire, the communist hardliners in Moscow staged a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, the head of the Soviet Union and placed him under house arrest on August 19, 1991. Instead of stabilizing the USSR and maintaining the communist system, their action led to its almost immediate demise. Within 72 hours, the coup had collapsed, and with it, the Soviet Union itself began falling apart. Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Republic, took over the running of the nation.
On August 20, Estonia declared its independence from the Soviet Union, followed the next day by Latvia. On August 24, Ukraine declared its independence, followed like dominoes by the other constituent republics that had made up the old Soviet Union. By December, ten of the republics had declared their independence and so on December 8, 1991 Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussian republics signed a treaty declaring the end of the Soviet Union.
On December 21, 1991, representatives of all member republics except Georgia signed the Alma-Ata Protocol, in which they confirmed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. That same day, all the former Soviet republics agreed to join what they called the Commonwealth of Independent States, with the exception of the three Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) and Georgia.
The Alma-Ata Protocol authorized Russia to assume the Soviet Union’s United Nations membership, including its permanent membership on the Security Council. The Soviet Ambassador to the UN then delivered to the Secretary General a letter informing him that, in virtue of that agreement, Russia was the successor state to the USSR for purposes of UN membership.
In the early hours of December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR, declaring the office extinct and ceding all the powers still vested in it to Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Republic. That night, the red communist flag with the hammer and sickle came down for the last time from above the Kremlin. The next day, the red, white and blue tri-color flag took its place for good.
The Soviet Union—and with it, Communism as a viable system—came to a surprisingly peaceful end.
Just about everyone has heard of Murphy’s Law: “If something can go wrong, it will.” And then there are the various well-known corollaries: “Murphy was an optimist.” And, “If something goes wrong, it will happen at the worst possible moment.”
According to Arthur Bloch’s book, Murphy’s Law, and Other Reasons Why Things Go WRONG, published in 1977, the law’s namesake was Captain Ed Murphy, a development engineer from Wright Field Aircraft Lab working at what is now Edwards Air Force Base in 1949. Block published a letter he had received from George E. Nichols which stated that Captain Murphy was frustrated with a strap transducer that was malfunctioning because of an error in the wiring of the strain gauge bridges. He remarked, according to the letter, that “If there is any way to do it wrong, he will” in reference to the technician who had wired the bridges. Nichols said that he assigned Murphy’s Law to that statement and all its associated variations.
Murphy’s law grew out of frustration, and it is usually cited with amusement when something gets messed up. It is a mistake, however, to take the law seriously. It shouldn’t even be taken as a rule of thumb. Because if Murphy’s Law were really true, if it really were one of the laws of physics, then nothing would ever go right. Life would be one huge snafu. Airplanes would not fly, and if they did, they’d fall out of the sky or run into mountains every time they did get off the ground. Cars would never start, and your computer would never boot up right and if it ever did, it would crash and lose every document and every bank transaction that you ever made–especially those that were most critical. Your bank account would then be drained of all its funds by Nigerian princes. Those Nigerian princes would, of course, immediately go to jail—since their attempt at amassing wealth, following Murphy’s dictum, must fail. And then those Nigerian princes would escape the prison, since that would be the last thing their jailers would ever want. But then, those escaped thieving Nigerian princes would promptly fall off a cliff and be consumed by ravenous wolves–who would immediately keel over from food poisoning. And so on.
Murphy’s law is easily falsifiable. For instance a friend of mine about three years ago asked me to build a computer for him. This necessitated a trip to Fry’s where we succeeded in getting all the parts needed to build a computer: a motherboard with CPU, a computer case, memory, graphics card, sound card, hard drive, DVD-RW drive and so on. With the purchase of the CPU, we were able to get a copy of the latest version of Windows on disc at a discounted price.
When we got back to my house, I assembled the parts easily, and then turned the new machine on. It booted up fine. The disc that came with the hard drive did its job of preparing and formatting the new hard drive for use and then the computer assigned the normal C and D drive letters to the hard drive and DVD-RW respectively.
When I put the Windows disc in the drive, the computer found it easily enough and began the rather lengthy process of installing the Windows operating system. It proceeded smoothly, without a hiccup, locating the sound card and graphics card and installing the right drivers for both. After the various reboots that Windows does during an install from scratch, the system came up and worked just as it was supposed to.
In putting a new computer together from scratch, the number of things that can go awry is rather high. When installing Windows, many glitches can easily occur. And yet, on this occasion, nothing went wrong and everything went right.
In science, when experiments are done it is not to prove theories right, but rather to prove them wrong: to falsify them. And all it takes for a theory to be falsified is for it to be wrong once. People were certain all swans were white. But it could not be proven true, since one could not examine every last swan in existence. But it was easily shown to be false when the first black swan was seen in Australia.
Thus, Murphy’s law is falsified every time something goes right: when you stop in time, instead of running into the child chasing the ball into the street. When the Dodgers win a baseball game. When the Clippers don’t lose. When you repair a lamp without electrocuting yourself. When you still have a job at the end of the week. When you pay off a debt. And so on. In reality, most of the time, things do not go wrong.
That’s why it’s news when there’s a school shooting, instead of when there isn’t.
Go outside tonight after the sun has long set. Find a place where there are no streetlights and you haven’t a flashlight or match. Choose a night when the moon is not up and its cloudy. Now, toss your car keys a few yards in front of you and try to find them. While you’re at it, attempt to make sense of the gloomy shapes around you: the bushes and trees, the rocks, any nearby or distant buildings, and that mugger waiting to attack you. Can you trace out the shape the mountains on the horizon?
Probably you’ll have trouble locating your keys or discerning any details about the landscape around you. Good luck identifying that mugger in the police lineup.
But now pull out your night vision goggles—surely you have a pair on you, right? Thanks to their ability to let you see the infrared wavelengths of light that are invisible to your naked eyes, the world will suddenly become bright and clear. You’ll find your keys and running away from the mugger will be a snap.
On Monday, December 14, 2009 a space probe was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the coast of California that was designed to do much the same thing for our view of the universe as those night vision goggles would do for you in a scary back alley. The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, also called WISE, is a telescope with a sixteen inch diameter mirror designed to survey the entire sky in the infrared-wavelengths of light. It was launched from Vandenberg rather than Cape Canaveral in Florida because it was placed in a polar orbit—so that it circles the Earth north and south instead of east to west like most satellites. It operated until it ran out of hydrogen coolent in 2011.
WISE took a total of 1.5 million photographs—about one every eleven seconds of its ten month mission. It was many times more sensitive than previous infrared satellite telescopes. The Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) and the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) both conducted full sky surveys back in the 1980s. IRAS used just 62 pixels to cover four infrared bands, while COBE had but a single pixel per band. In contrast, WISE covered a million pixels per band. The difference between the previous orbiting infrared observatories and WISE was like the difference between a poorly photocopied impressionist painting of a forest and what you see on your high definition TV when you watch a Blu-ray disc of a forest.
The images that WISE took contained data on the local solar system, our galaxy, and the universe as a whole. The discoveries from this mission were unprecedented. Scientists discovered thousands of new asteroids and comets, including many of the kind that swing close to Earth called NEOs (Near Earth Objects). Given that asteroids have struck our planet with devastating results–most recently the close call in Russia–finding them beforehand is valuable. In June 30, 1908 a small asteroid estimated at only around 300 feet across exploded in the air about 5 miles above the surface of Siberia, near the Tunguska River. Estimates of the energy released by the explosion range from 5 to 30 megatons—at least 1000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. The Tunguska blast devastated an area of 830 square miles, flattening 80 million trees. Had the asteroid exploded over a city like Los Angeles, the death toll would have been in the millions.
WISE is found many new brown dwarfs—balls of gas more massive than Jupiter but too small to have become true stars. Astronomers also discovered a lot of new, dim stars called red dwarfs. They believe that it is entirely possible we’ll discover one or more that are closer to our solar system than the currently known closest star, Proxima Centauri, which is about four light years from us. Thus far in analyzing the data, scientists have discovered one previously unknown Red Dwarf only about 10 light years from Earth, currently designated WISE 1049-5319. WISE was not able to detect Kuiper belt objects, since their temperature is too low. It was only able to detect objects warmer than 70–100 Kelvins. A Neptune-sized object would therefore have been detectable out to 700 AU, a Jupiter-mass object out to one light year (63,000 AU). A larger object of 2–3 Jupiter masses was visible to WISE at a distance of up to seven to ten light years.
WISE was also capable of imaging any ultraluminous infrared galaxies that are out there, up to ten billion light years away.
All the WISE data has been publicly released, but the analysis of the mountains of data it beamed back will take years. Many more discoveries are yet to be announced.
So the portions of our universe, both nearby and far off that before WISE were dark to us, hidden by the shadows, are finally starting gleam brightly.
For most of my life I’ve found it very difficult to tell people no. No matter how busy I might be, I seem to always want to help my friends or family if they need something done. When I was in college I discovered the hard way that saying no is sometimes the right thing to do.
Back in the dark ages before computers, we used these large bulky and noisy devices called typewriters. I had come to college with a nice electric one and I made it a point to get my papers done early so that I would not have to stay up late the night before, unlike so many of my fellow classmates. Toward the end of the first semester of my freshman year, I was quite proud of myself for having my paper for biology class done a week early. I congratulated myself on how I’d get a good night’s sleep while I listened with little empathy to the other students moaning about how they were going to have to pull “all nighters” in order to get their papers done.
One of my classmates had asked me to type up his biology paper for him. I offered this to my friends for a nominal fee, far below the going rate, more as a favor than as a means for generating income. He assured me he’d have the paper to me early in the afternoon a day before it was due. I typed fast, so it wouldn’t take me much more than an hour, if that, to type up his ten page paper, with footnotes and bibliography.
Unfortunately, I discovered that this particular friend was a procrastinator. He gave me the first four pages of his handwritten paper about eight o’clock the night before it was due, assuring me as he gave them to me that he’d have the rest to me within an hour.
His optimistic pronouncement was inaccurate. Instead, he delivered the paper to me a page at a time, dropping off the last sheet about four in the morning.
Instead of getting a good night’s sleep, I very nearly ended up pulling a dreaded “all nighter,” catching an hour here and there as I awaited each page’s delivery.
From then on, for any future papers, I insisted that he give me the entire thing, not page by page—and he had to have it in to me by six PM the night before it was due or I simply wouldn’t type it for him. I had learned to say no, at least to him, from that night on.
He actually didn’t ask me to type papers for him very often, as a consequence. But I got a lot more sleep.
The lesson to sometimes say no didn’t really stick. After college, I’ve generally said yes to my friends and family members who request help from me. I’ve frequently helped people move, a task that I positively despise, whether it is moving an entire house or just helping someone relocate a refrigerator. I’ve helped people install various electronic gadgets, from televisions to stereo systems to new computers. I’ve even built new computers or cobbled together machines from random scattered parts.
A few years ago, I helped my wife’s parents do some more renovations on their house, which included installing new ceramic tiles in their bathroom and laundry room. One very long weekend, I pulled up the old linoleum in their upstairs bathroom in preparation for eventually installing tile in it. That same weekend I also replaced the corroded valves under their bathroom sink, and I replaced the old sink with a nice new one. This required removing the old sink, its pipes and its faucets. Then I had to cut the opening in the fake marble top to accommodate the new sink, since it was a couple inches bigger around than the old sink. I quickly found myself and the bathroom coated with white plastic dust.
Much of the weekend’s labor consisted of trying to find the parts and tools in my in-laws’ messy garage, or making trips to Home Depot to pick up what they hadn’t already purchased. Late that Sunday night, still dirty and smelly, I finally left for home just moments after I had finished with the sink. I had a two hour drive ahead of me.
Within moments of walking through my front door–still coated with white plastic dust and wanting nothing more than to take a shower–the telephone rang.
On the other end of the phone was a friend who was having trouble with her computer: it had gotten infected with a bit of malware that was blocking her ability to install a new anti-virus program. I spent about a half hour on the phone diagnosing things and finally told her to bring it by in the morning. This despite the fact that at the time I was under deadline for a book. Only then, did I finally get my shower.
Monday morning, after about an hour’s work, I was able to solve her problem and get rid of the virus in her computer.
If I know I can fix something, or do something, to help someone, I’m generally not willing to say no. Besides, I still managed to work on my book and I remained on schedule. Despite rarely telling people no, I still somehow always get my own work done on time. Showers and sleep, however, are another thing. Perhaps someday I’ll learn to say no. Probably about the time I learn how to overcome feeling guilty from knowing I could help someone and then turning them down.
At the tiny seminary where I sometimes teach, we have both on campus courses and online courses. Most of the online courses are taken care of by a man who lives in Tennessee, even though our campus is in southern California. It’s the wonder of the modern connected world. Periodically, he sends me a short email, just to ask me how I’m doing.
Not so very long ago, I got such an email. Rather than just respond with a short, “I’m fine” I decided to rattle back a list of the stuff I’m up to.
It took me longer than I expected.
When you discover just how overloaded you are, how many things are waiting for your attention, you might think that maybe one of those time management books might be helpful. I know, I’ve had that thought.
But what I’ve discovered about such time management books is that they tend to work very well for people that are already organized and detail oriented. Such people don’t really need that sort of help; they already manage things fine. It’s in their nature.
For the rest of us? I have yet to transform my life through reading about time management, or installing a time management app on my phone, or getting a day planner. Setting goals, visualization, checklists—none of them have been transformative. Instead, day planners and list making become another to do item that I’m trying to cram into my already over crammed life. And so I get to feel guilty about something else I’m not getting done.
In the end, I’m not sure that there’s a solution beyond just continuing to slog on as I’ve always slogged.
Back to my response to my colleague in Tennessee. Telling him all the stuff that I’m doing and need to do turned out to be somewhat encouraging to me. It explained to me why I was feeling so tired and overwhelmed. Thanks to the request, I took the time to take a step back. Plato wrote that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” And so I suddenly had to examine what I’ve been up to. It was encouraging in a “wow, no wonder I’m feeling overwhelmed” sort of way.
Despite what the movies or TV may indicate, the life of a writer is not nirvana, paradise, or the promised land. It is simply life. Making books, writing essays, or creating short stories is just a job, with no more reward than any other job, and perhaps less, since you’re alone most of the time, no one is looking over your shoulder, and even your pay is intermittent and hard to come by. It resembles being unemployed, but without the perk of extra free time.
Then there are the normal sorts of things that happen: cooking dinner, cleaning the house, doing dishes, laundry, mowing the lawn, doctor and dentist appointments, grocery shopping, and occasional maintenance around the house.
So how do I manage my time? I just work on one task after another, and do whatever most needs doing at any given moment. There are twenty-four hours in a day. Theoretically, eight of those I will spend sleeping, but in reality I’ve not been sleeping anywhere close to that lately. Some half hour or so of my day will be spent traveling from place to place—I’m an author, so that means trips to my coffee pot. There will be some time taken by eating. The rest of that time is what is somewhat in my power to manage. And I’ve learned not to feel guilty about taking a break: websurfing has its place in my life. I only feel guilty when it takes up all my controllable hours.
Had I been interested in becoming wealthy, I suppose I might have made different educational choices. As an undergraduate, I went to a small Christian college, a liberal arts institution, where I majored in history because I was fascinated by the topic, not because I thought it had great career possibilities.
I did very well in college, becoming but the third individual in the school’s fifty plus years of existence to have graduated with a perfect 4.0 GPA. My advisor encouraged me to go to the University of Chicago to pursue a graduate degree in history. However, my interests had shifted to field of study with even poorer job prospects: the study of ancient dead languages, specifically, the Semitic languages. After having spent two summers working on a kibbutz in Israel, three years studying Biblical Hebrew and Old Testament, I decided that studying the languages and literature of the Ancient Near East was the thing for me.
So I applied to and was accepted into the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA. I chose to major in Semitic languages.
I was expected to focus on three language areas. Two were required: Hebrew and Aramaic. For the third language focus, I had the option of choosing either Arabic or Akkadian. Given that my reason for learning these languages was my fascination with the Bible’s Old Testament, I of course opted for Akkadian, the dead language that dominated the ancient Near East rather than the living language that dominates it today.
What’s Akkadian? It is better known by its two dialects, Assyrian and Babylonian and was spoken in what is today Iraq from about 2000 BC until around 600 BC.
Once you’ve learned one Semitic language, the others are relatively easy to pick up, since the basic grammar and vocabulary is mostly the same for all of them. Sort of like how knowing Spanish makes learning Portuguese, Italian and French relatively easy, since all those languages evolved from Latin. Likewise, all the various Semitic languages descended from a common root.
Nevertheless, Akkadian is a bit trickier to learn than the other Semitic languages. Not because the grammar or vocabulary is any tougher, but because of its nightmarish writing system. Whereas Hebrew and Aramaic are both written with a 22 letter alphabet, Akkadian is not. Alphabetic writing systems allowed for widespread literacy. The Akkadian writing system, in contrast, made literacy rare and ensured the continued employment of the scribes who alone could read and write. Akkadian uses a writing system originally developed for a different and unrelated language: Sumerian.
The writing system that the Sumerians developed and that the Akkadian speakers adopted is known as cuneiform. It was written on mostly pillow-shaped clay tablets that could be easily held in one hand. The scribes used a wedge-shaped stick to make impressions in the clay, leaving wedge shaped marks (the word cuneiform means “wedge writing.”) The cuneiform writing system is incredibly complicated. Each symbol represents either a whole word, or for a part of a word—a syllable. Reading cuneiform is like reading a rebus, where for instance one might write the phrase, “I believe” by drawing a picture of an eye, a bee, and a leaf. Thus, the first picture is a homonym of the pronoun “I,” while the word “belief” is represented by symbols that individually could be understood as an insect and a part of a tree, but in this context represent the two syllables of the word “believe.” The entire Akkadian writing system functions in this way, so that every tablet you read is a complex puzzle.
It gets worse. There are about 650 different cuneiform symbols. And each of them is polyvalent—that is, each symbol can be read more than one way, with some having upwards of twenty or more possible readings or meanings. And you thought English spellings were hard! Understanding what a given cuneiform symbol means is dependent upon the historical period when it was written, its genre (that is, whether it is a religious text, an economic text, poetry, or history), and the context of the symbol—that is, what are the symbols around it. So for instance a symbol that can represent the name of the goddess Ishtar, might also be read as the word “god,” “heaven,” “sky,” or simply as a syllable in some other word.
Akkadian was but one of the thirteen languages I ended up studying during my graduate program at UCLA. Not all were Semitic languages directly related to my major. For instance, I took two years of Sumerian and a couple of quarters of ancient Egyptian just because I had the opportunity. I would have enjoyed studying more Egyptian, but the class conflicted with Ugaritic, which was a required course for my major.
Obviously learning all these peculiar languages was hard—especially given that I was also working 40 hours a week driving a shuttle bus at the Burbank Airport. And often I was studying four or more languages at the same time.
No possible job achieved as a consequence of studying these dead languages could ever come close to making me rich. Had I wanted to be rich, I should have studied engineering, science, or medicine—or maybe majored in business or economics. My educational choices were about as economically reasonable as betting the rent money on a game of three-card Monte. On the bright side, I do know how to ask, “do you want fries with that?” in several languages…that no one speaks anymore.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is one of my favorite authors. But most Americans today won’t recognize his name. He died August 3, 2008. He was 89 years old. He had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, an award he had not been able to accept until 1974 when he was expelled from the Soviet Union.
I had first learned about him from the news while I still in high school. I followed his travails with some interest. When it was announced that his book, The Gulag Archipelago had been published, I made a point of getting a copy and reading it. It was an enormous book of small print filling over six hundred pages in paperback. A few years later, I learned that it was only the first of three volumes. I subsequently read the other two volumes, too; they were equally hefty.
The Gulag Archipelago described the Soviet system of labor camps which were spread out like little islands across the face of the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn spoke of the history and character of the system, both from his research, as well as his first hand experience of living in a concentration camp for eight years after having been arrested for something he wrote to a friend in a letter while he was serving as a soldier in the Soviet army near the end of the Second World War. The book had a profound impact on my understanding of the Soviet Union. But I also developed a great interest in Russian literature, and wound up reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as well.
Over the years, I have read most of Solzhenitsyn’s other books, ranging from Cancer Ward—his experiences of being treated for his cancer following his release from the Gulag, but while he was still sentenced to internal exile—to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which tells the tale of one prisoner in a concentration camp, describing a single, rather ordinary day in the camp, from the time he got up in the morning, until the time he went to bed at night. It is a relatively short book, the only book of Solzhenitsyn’s which was ever published in the Soviet Union. It was published during the era of Khrushchev, and it was for that book that he won the Nobel Prize. All of Solzhenitsyn’s other books were first published outside his homeland. Not until the collapse of the Communist state in 1991 would his other books become officially published and available in his homeland.
Expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, he spent the next twenty years living in exile in Vermont. Finally, in 1994 he was able to return to his transformed country, where he settled in a house outside of Moscow. Ironically, the house had once belonged to a member of the KGB from the time of Stalin, the era when he was first arrested.
In college as an undergraduate, I took a course my senior year in the history of Russia, focusing on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One of the required texts for the course was Solzhenitsyn’s first volume of The Gulag Archipelago. When my wife took the course a few years later, it was still required reading. She didn’t much like it and unsurprisingly she rejected my offer to let her read the subsequent two volumes.
Enjoying the writings of a Russian author is an acquired taste. My wife never developed it. Still, I believe the effort in reading Solzhenitsyn’s work is worthwhile. Of his books, I would recommend that those new to him should start with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The book is short and fascinating. Then, Solzhenitsyn’s memoir, The Oak and the Calf, is quite accessible to those who haven’t before read Russian literature. His other works of fiction should come next. The Gulag Archipelago is an academic, in-depth history of a horrible system: it is not an easy to read tome, but will reward those who put in the effort to study it.
Although Solzhenitsyn’s death was front page news in many newspapers in 2008, the reality was that for most who read about him, his obituary was their first exposure to his life and his work. Since the collapse of the regime that arrested and oppressed him, few think about what he and millions of others endured. Over the seventy year history of the Soviet Union, the communists were responsible for the deaths of twenty million men, women and children. Communism is at least as evil and reprehensible as Nazism. It appalls me that old communists and Marxists are still revered on many college campuses. Communism, Marxism and Marxists should be as reviled as the Nazis.
In fact, more people have died at the hands of communist governments than have died from any other political ideal or movement. According to the Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, edited by Stéphane Courtois and published by Harvard University Press in 1999, all told, about 94 million people were murdered by communist systems, with the bulk of those deaths coming from the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.
People sometimes approach writers and offer them ideas. As if authors have any shortage of such things. I have more ideas than I have time for. More ideas than I can seem to focus on. At this very moment I’ve got four novels in serious need of rewriting: Spring of Goliath, a historical novel about the Mongol defeat on September 3, 1260 at the Spring of Goliath in what is today Israel, the first battle that the Mongols ever lost. Had the Mongols won, Islam would likely have ceased to exist, while the Mongols would have converted en mass to Christianity. Of course, the Mongols would also likely have devastated Europe and prevented everything from the Reformation to the Renaissance from ever happening.
I’m also rewriting Hacker’s Apprentice, the story of a couple of homeless guys who inadvertently overhear a wizard casting a spell. They get caught up in a search for the underlying programming code of the universe. Centuries of incantations by numberless wizards has created patches and hacks and odd subroutines in the universe’s programming. It seems to be destabilizing and is in danger of crashing. Has the universe been backed up recently? What happens if it reboots?
Then there is the novel Bent Anvil, a murder-mystery and science fiction novel set in a world where the corporation FourWinds (and its competitors) have set up a system where everyone and everything is “backed up.” If you die, if your house burns down, no problem: FourWinds will restore both you and it. Every ten years or so you get a body restore, so you never get old. Backups of yourself are made at least once a month; they are kept on file permanently. Convicted criminals are not incarcerated; they are reverted to an earlier backup, before they committed the crime, with all backups following the crime erased. Repeat offenders may suffer reversion back to their childhoods. But what happens when a B movie starlet’s body is found in a dumpster? And she doesn’t remember dying and there’s no record of her death and restoration in the system logs of FourWinds. It reveals a conspiracy by those who oppose the backup process, who feel that heaven has been stolen from them. They want to destroy FourWinds and restore death and reopen the gate to Paradise.
Best of All Worlds is another novel that needs rewriting: The protagonist, Albes Forlen has come to reject a belief in God following the tragic death of his son. He is a successful musician and author, with close ties to the entertainment industry in Southern California. An unexpected and mysterious visitor, the Wayfarer, appears at his door one day. Together they begin an experiment with history, to see if they can fix some of the most obvious and glaring mistakes, focusing first on trying to keep Hitler from destroying six million Jews. So they kidnap him as an infant and get a nice Rabbi and his wife to adopt him. Things don’t turn out quite as expected. Other experiments in changing history follow, resulting in even less satisfying outcomes; eventually, Albes tries to save his son’s life. The novel focuses on the question: if you could do it all over again, would you? If you could change the tragedies and mistakes in your life, would it make things better–or worse? Is this really the best of all possible worlds?
I’m in the process of writing a new novel called Cold, set on a tidally locked planet orbiting a red dwarf; it’s inhabitants live on the daylight side of the world, with no concept of day and night, and who never sleep. They have no concept of a year, and no nothing beyond the fact that their world is round and the backside is frozen and eternally dark. In an era roughly equivalent to the end of the 19th century, a scientific expedition sets out to explore the cold side for the first time.
And then there are all the fragments and starts of novels that I have written outlines for, that I have written the opening scene for, or maybe even a few chapters of. In going through my “novel” sub-directory tonight, I noticed a bunch of them. Here are some fragments. I wonder if I’ll ever get around to doing anything with them:
“That doesn’t seem like a good idea.” Thomas frowned at the campfire.
Jesus’ face danced with orange and shadows from the flames. He was twirling a long stick with his left hand. “Like you would ever think it’s a good idea.” His lip twitched in a half-smile.
“They tried to kill you last time we went there.” Thomas poked at a glowing ember with his own stick. “I’ve been talking to people here, listening to them. The support here is strong. If we build on that base, then maybe in another six months…”
“We go tomorrow.” Jesus tossed the stick at the fire. Sparks showered the dark sky.
“But they’ll try to kill you again.”
“That’s the whole point, Thomas.”
Not all human beings live but three score and ten years. Some are mutants that can never die.
This does not necessarily make them nice people, however.
It reminds you, in case you ever forgot, that some people really need to die.
And the sooner the better.
Or if that isn’t possible, just a prison that would never let them out would just barely do. Ordinary methods of punishment were not fatal, not even beheading. Ian had found that out the hard way. He shuddered at the memory. He suspected that more modern possibilities, such as being vaporized by an atomic blast at close range, or simply being tossed into a wood chipper might do it, but he wouldn’t bet on it. Though there was one person he wouldn’t mind testing that and any other methods out on. Sequentially.
Ian’s thoughts skittered away from him; he tried to gather them back together. Especially, he tried not keep them from traversing such well-worn paths. Letting them go there never did him any good, and just left him in a bad mood.
And he didn’t want to be in a bad mood. Not here. Not now.
The sounds from the bathroom indicated his new bride was just about done doing whatever it was that new brides did just before joining their new husbands for the first time in bed.
As quaint and old fashioned as it was, there was nothing better than marrying a virgin and waiting until the wedding night for the first time. Delayed pleasures were the grandest of all. So few seemed to appreciate that any more in the Instant age. But then, fast food was considered haute cuisine, so what could he expect?
For the briefest moment, the nearly two dozen previous wedding nights flitted through his mind, in sequential order, each similar to the previous encounter, though the difference between the first and the here and now spanned a radical difference in honeymoon styles, not to mention just a hair over two thousand years. And, except for the first night, so very long ago that it hardly seemed real, he had always been the actor, pretending that he, too, was a virgin. Only with his first wife did he not have to act. Trysta.
Had to try not to let his mind drift down that path, either. It was his honeymoon. Be happy. Everyone was always happy on their honeymoon, and it had been long enough. Far too long.
Grief was a permanent guest in his home. Sometimes he could pretend he wasn’t there, but pretending changed not a thing about reality.
His new bride exited the bathroom and framed herself at the foot of the bed, hands spread, a triumphant grin on her face.
“You’re so beautiful!” he managed to say. And then he blanked on her name. But by then she was in his arms.
“Sophie, dearest,” he began, interrupting himself with a sip of coffee. He remembered her name now. They were seated on the same side of a booth in the restaurant tucked off the lobby of their hotel in Tiberias. He let his eyes momentarily drift toward the window and caught a glint of the morning sunlight off the rippling waters of Lake Kinerret.
“It’s early; I don’t want to think about it. Let’s enjoy the moment, Ian.” Her mouth was set in a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “We can finish breakfast without rushing.”
The waitress appeared, pad in hand. “Ready to order?”
“Did you bring me the papers?” Paul lifted his right index finger and stroked the side of his nose gently, relieving a sudden and intense itch. As he lowered it, he brushed at the offending black hair that had displaced itself and caused the itch to begin with.
The man he was staring at twisted his mouth, pouted his lips and made a quick shake of his head. “No.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I thought you should know.”
Jonas’ face remained mildly twisted, but then, that seemed to fit his general disposition. “Miriam and her daughter are in custody.”
Paul let out a sigh. “That’s very good news. Ananias and the rest of the Sanhedrin will be pleased, too. I think.”
And there at at least twelve others–I kind of got overwhelmed and stopped counting: some mostly done, some with multiple chapters, some only bare outlines, some barely an idea quickly typed and filed on my hard drive. I’ll never want for something to write, to rewrite. The frustrating thing about it all is 1) finding time to do it all 2) coming up with some way of working through each of them 3) being able to focus on anything long enough to finish it, and finally 4) I’m constantly coming up with new ideas that I write down, think about, and find myself fiddling with. I don’t approach these things in order. Some ideas cut ahead in line, and insist on my working on them first. So some of these ideas have been waiting around a long time. Some of these stories will never get written; they’ll be stillborn things. And they’ll hang over my head making me feel guilty for not getting around to them, even as I rush off on other tangents.
And that’s just novel length fiction; then there are the short stories, some finished, some needing rewriting, some bare ideas. And the nonfiction books. And essays.
It’s a flood overwhelming me and I’m barely treading water.
I don’t need any more ideas. But they’ll keep coming. I can’t shut off the spigot. But I don’t suppose I’ll actually drown, either.
So please, if you have an idea for a story, for a novel, for a nonfiction book–just write it yourself.
It may not seem like it, but the world changed on May 31, 2012. Less than a year after the Space Shuttles were retired, an American spaceship had once again reached the space station and returned safely. Launched on a Falcon 9 rocket on May 22, the flight had been practically trouble-free. It had delivered more than a thousand pounds worth of cargo to the station, and had returned with more than 1400 pounds.
Since this was a test mission, the Dragon was not fully loaded in either direction. But once it goes into regular service later this year, it is capable of hauling about 13,000 pounds to orbit and returning with more than 6600 pounds.
Of all the currently flying spaceships, Dragon is the only one that can return materials back to Earth. The other cargo ships—the Russian Progress, the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle, and the Japanese HTV can only take materials into orbit. They can never return to Earth. Only Dragon can survive reentry and land safely—and then be reused over and over again.
This flight of the Dragon was described as the first commercial flight to the space station. But some critics have asked: haven’t all of America’s spaceships been built by private companies such as Boeing or Lockheed? How is this product from SpaceX any different?
When the government buys a rocket from Boeing, not only has the government told Boeing in some detail exactly what it wants, it has supervised the design and construction of said rocket very carefully. More significantly, the contract Boeing has with the government is what is called a “cost-plus” contract. That is, Boeing gets the government to not only pay for the rocket and all its development costs, it also gets the government to pay for any and all cost overruns. If something goes wrong during development, the government will cough up ever more money to cover all the costs. If it turns out that Boeing can’t provide the product at their originally predicted cost, the government must fork over the extra money Boeing decides it needs.
With SpaceX, the contract doesn’t work that way. SpaceX developed both the Falcon 9 and the Dragon mostly on their own dime. The government did not dictate the design and it did not closely supervise the building. More importantly, SpaceX gets paid only the originally agreed upon price. If SpaceX should have trouble, should get behind, should have an accident, SpaceX has to eat the cost. If SpaceX underestimated how much it would cost to produce the spacecraft, SpaceX loses money. The government won’t bail them out.
Let’s put it this way. Let’s pretend that when you buy something, you buy it the way the government normally buys things. Say you want to buy a bicycle. You go to Wal-Mart, tell them what you want, supervise them as they build it, and then pay them for it. When you get home with the bike, you suddenly get a call from Wal-Mart: “You need to send us another hundred dollars. Our operating expenses have gone through the roof this quarter.” And then, six months later, you get another call, “We’re having trouble making the chain work on these new models. We need another thousand dollars from you.” That’s how it works for the government with most things it buys from Boeing or Lockheed, whether fighter jets or rockets.
Not so with SpaceX. The government is merely purchasing a service from SpaceX. SpaceX developed the Falcon 9 on its own, initially using only its own money, designing everything itself. In fact, everything from the engines to the electronics of the spaceship is designed and built in their Hawthorn plant in Southern California. NASA told them what they needed to have to human rate the craft, and what it needed to have in order to dock with the Space Station; but otherwise, NASA had nothing to do with the development and design of the rocket. SpaceX was founded in 2002; it didn’t get any money from NASA until 2006, long after the company had designed and started building the rockets. And the government is not SpaceX’s only customer. They have almost 4 billion dollars in flight orders from a variety of corporations and foreign governments. The Falcon 9, the Dragons—they all still belong to SpaceX. From the government’s point of view, it’s sort of like renting a car at the airport, or paying FedX to deliver a package.
NASA will pay SpaceX as it succeeds in delivering at least 12 cargo ships to the station (with the potential for more later if NASA remains satisfied with their work). And later, after multiple cargo deliveries, SpaceX intends to add seats and a life-support system to the Dragon so it can start ferrying human beings to the station and elsewhere. The company ultimately plans to make human trips to Mars both common and affordable. In fact, getting people to Mars was the reason Elon Musk founded the company. Delivering cargo to the space station is merely a way to make some money and get some practice so SpaceX can reach its long term goal.
And that’s why what happened on May 31, 2012 is so remarkable. Space travel has been turned into a simple and ordinary business.
And that will ultimately make spaceflight both cheap and common. Someday you won’t find spaceships any more exotic than UPS trucks or a jet planes. Another cargo ship reaching the space station might not seem so special. But twenty years ago, who knew how important the internet would become?