Saturday, July 09, 2011

Der Untergang des Abendlandes, Part CLXXXIV

While I was sleeping, there were two big milestones in the history that came back from holiday on 8/8/8: The last flight of the Space Shuttle and the independence of the South Sudan. 

I have a copy of ‘Star Trek: The New Voyages 2’, published in 1977, with an Introduction by Jesco von Puttkamer and an Epilogue by Nichelle Nichols. As do you all, I am sure.  Still, bear with me while I quote:

Let me tell you about that magic moment out there in the high desert of California when dream and reality came together in a spark of greatness and purpose for humanity.  The year was 1976, the day – the 17th of September. Out there among the tumbleweeds, on the lot of Plant 42 run by the Rockwell International Corporation, two thousand invited guests from all walks of life were assembled to witness the roll-out of the first U.S. Space Shuttle. 
 ... The eyes of the distinguished crowd fixed on the corner of the main hanger when John Yardley, NASA’s head of Space Flight, gave the signal for the long-awaited moment. The motor of a low-slung tow truck growled into the expectant silence, punctuated by a muted drum roll from the military band: The bow of Orbiter 101 nosed slowly around the corner. On both sides of it was painted the ship’s name, Enterprise.

And in that instant when time seemed to freeze, the band- clear and triumphant- struck up Alexander Courage’s rousing theme from Star Trek.

A moment never to be forgotten! For many, the joy was visceral. Like one, those two thousand were on their feet, yelling and clapping with delight. Up front, in the first row of seats reserved for VVIPs (very, very important persons) a small group of people stood petrified: there was Gene Roddenberry, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, James Doohan, and Walter Koenig. They, who had portrayed the ‘beautiful crew’ of the starship Enterprise, now witnessed the birth of the Shuttle named after their fictional vessel. 

... I looked at Gene- his head was cocked to one side as he listened to the music, and he clearly had tears in his eyes. Dee told me later about the goose bumps and the tingling in his spine when the Enterprise made its appearance. Tears burst from Nichelle’s dark eyes when she saw it – that gorgeously beautiful white space machine in the brilliant sunshine there underneath the Mojave sky. Later she told me about her feeling of being part of history in the making, of glimpsing destiny, of so much more that words could not describe.

Star Trek and the Space Program . . . what had brought them together?
... As a form of science fiction, Star Trek teaches us that our future is represented by an infinity of options or alternatives. Some possible futures are positive, others negative – but none of these options is predetermined or predestined. It is up to you and me to decide on a direction for the future and work toward making it more probable than the others. Star Trek fans are often asking what they can do to make the future they want come about. Let’s not ignore that dream, nor any other upbeat vision of the future, for there is something self-fulfilling in all visions. The energy of the soul, focussed  on such fantasy, should not go to waste.

And there  is the Space Program . . . As longs there is the determination to build the Space Shuttle, as long as there is growth, there will be hope of a positive future for humanity.

And here are a few words from Nichelle:

I used to say as a figure of speech that I felt Uhura calling me to get busy – calling any of us to get busy – so that her world could exist. Somewhere along the line it got to be more than a figure of speech. I kept finding myself in strange places. On a NASA C-141 observatory flight, where no ‘civilian’ had gone before. In Huntsville. In Washington. In the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the Viking touchdown on Mars. On the Mojave Desert, watching the Enterprise roll out...

And once, maybe with that feeling of- I will have been here before, someday...

So, the glass being half full, unmanned space exploration is of course vastly cheaper and more scientifically productive.  And there has been a long tradition in popular culture of space exploitation by ruthless corporations; there are profit-making opportunities out there, and as technology improves they will get more and more profitable. There’s no real problem with a future that looks more like ‘Alien’ than ‘Star Trek’. Surely.  

You know Uhura’s name comes from ‘uhuru’, the Swahili word for ‘freedom’. 

It is a word associated with the wave of hope that swept across Africa in the early 60s when countries were first becoming independent and had not yet ended up in the grip of corrupt, incompetent, and frequently genocidal dictators. I wish the people of South Sudan – which I want to keep calling ‘the’ South Sudan – the very best of luck with their new country. I know they will need it.  

Here’s what a long-serving African leader had to say about it last October:

Addressing the one-day Arab-African summit held in Sirte, Gaddafi described Sudan’s likely breakup as a “fever” that will spread throughout Africa.

“Ethnicities [in Africa] will demand independence, linguists [in Africa] will demand independence, tribes [in Africa] will demand independence, this is a dangerous matter. The final word is for the people of the South [Sudan] and the whole world is awaiting this,” the Libyan leader was quoted by the state agency (JANA).

“This is a foregone conclusion, that Sudan might become divided but this is not the important thing. It is imperative that we remain vigilant and keep in mind that this is not the end, this is the beginning .. the beginning of the crack in Africa’s map,” he told the gathering, which was attended by Sudan’s President Omer Hassan al-Bashir.

And I think he may be right. This is the first break from the old map that was drawn up by the European powers, the artificial map that was part of the Western Order and was drawn up for the convenience of the European powers and not the people who lived there. ( I remember reading a paragraph somewhere a quarter of a century ago about how the different peoples living in Uganda had almost nothing in common, they were ‘as different as the inhabitants of Finland and Greece’ . Hey, I’ve just realised there is another political entity of more recent coinage that also has subjects as different as the inhabitants of Finland and Greece, because they are. Hehe! What goes around comes around, European map-drawers...)

Parenthetically, the fissioning of Africa into a lot of tiny countries is part of the back story to ‘A Wreath of Stars’, my favourite Bob Shaw book, which also it seems came out in 1976.  The fictional African country Gil Snook works in is explicitly not a cartoon pretend country, but a fragment of Kenya.  So I can take the optimistic view that this historical event is taking us closer to the potential future where there is an inhabited anti-neutrino world inside the Earth. 

What these two things that happened while I was sleeping have in common is that they are both striking symptoms of the passing of one world order.  Since Sputnik the main political and economic power of the West has also taken the lead in space; now it’s not. Since the Congress of Berlin the political geography of Africa has been determined by the powers of the West; now it’s not.   

So, happy birthday, South Sudan!  You should so go ahead and do this.
And good luck world. 

And sorry Uhura. :(

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