One of the themes of my trilogy First Contact was that advanced aliens with a sense of morality would not wish to contact us. Yes, I know, there was some law to that effect in Star Trek, but in First Contact it is not so much that they are forbidden per se from becoming involved, but rather, if they do, they must take full responsibility for the outcome. Accordingly, they prefer not to get involved. This raises the question, should leaders of powerful nations adopt a similar philosophy? While no action can be guaranteed to succeed, should such leaders at least enunciate their end goal and a plan on how they will get there before intervening? At least give everyone an indication that they have a planned end position, and it is worth the risk.

This is where my views on Syria are probably different from many of the Western leaders. Let us consider the logic of the situation. Suppose we assert

The use of chemical weapons to kill innocent civilians is a crime.

I think we could all agree on that. Now, how about

Any act that leads to the killing of innocent civilians is a crime.

Agree? If not, why not? If so, why? These are not so simple questions, because the politician will assert that the cruise missile is a “surgical” instrument, and any deaths are unfortunate collateral damage. Perhaps, but what do you think the relations of the dead think?

What is going on in Syria is a continuation of what was effectively started in Iraq, although the seeds were sown when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. The resultant carve-up into countries based on someone using a pen and ruler on a map was not one of the Western leaders’ better moments. However, whatever you will say, the countries of the mid-east were fairly stable and relatively pleasant to live in until Saddam Hussein elected to go to war with Iran. We do not know the cause of this, but we do know the western nations did not exactly over-exert themselves to stop it, until it became obvious that it was not going anywhere. Nevertheless, leaving aside this war, Iraq was a tolerable place for Iraqis to live in, provided you were not considered to be a dissident. Now, the western leaders and our press did not like Saddam Hussein’s way of dealing with dissidents, nor for that matter, others’, nevertheless provided you were not a dissident, life was reasonably good in similar countries. Yes, some people who were favoured got richer than others, but name a country where this does not happen to some extent?

Eventually, the West decided to invade Iraq and get rid of Saddam, nominally to get rid of weapons of mass destruction. You may recall the assertions that such weapons were there: there was “undeniable evidence”, even though UN weapons inspectors could not find any. This hardly provides confidence in the current assertions regarding Syria. Of course, once the invasion was completed, there were no such weapons. Also, tens of thousands of otherwise innocent Iraqis were killed. So, what happened next? The army of occupation was too small, and the occupiers for some reason seemed to think that the Iraqis would be so pleased to have foreigners tramping all over their territory, but unfortunately they were not. Even worse, the US disbanded the Iraqi security police, and in the resultant chaos, there was unprecedented sectarian violence. Even now we still have dozens of innocents being killed per month. The West intervened, it had no idea what to do, and it walked away, taking no responsibility for the mess it made.

Having learned nothing, the West then bombed Libya. How many people really think that Libya is a success? Yes, Gaddafi has gone, but are the Libyan people better off? Now, there is the urge to bomb Syria. Exactly what will that achieve? If a quick burst would really prevent further uses of chemical weapons, then perhaps that is an achievement. Whatever else, however, it is fairly clear that it will not stop the overall killing. Worse, this sectarian violence is really simply yet another consequence of the Iraqi intervention, and once again, everyone will walk away if and when the dust settles. What is the West’s long-term goal in Syria? Getting rid of Assad may seem an achievement, but what will replace him? The most likely are the fundamentalist jihadis, or what we could loosely term Al Qaeda. Now, that would be an achievement for the West.

One last question. If you lived there, and had to give up one of the following, which would you give up? The right to elect your leader, or the right to always end up alive after walking down the street? What moral right do outsiders have to intervene if what follows is worse than what is there now?


Structure of a trilogy.

Two things happened this week, one important, one amusing now, but less so then. First, the important thing: My ebook Jonathon Munros  is now available ( ) and not only that, I got a good review ( This is the third (and perforce, final) of the trilogy, First Contact. One of the points raised by the reviewer was a comment on my comment in the blurb about whether the other two in the trilogy have to be read first. Now obviously it is desirable that they are, but it brings to question, how should a trilogy be structured? My personal view is that each should have an ending that resolves something, but until the last one, obviously not everything.

Trilogies (or other multiples) can go from essentially separate books that are connected by the same character(s) through to what is essentially one long story. Most are somewhere in between. One problem for the author is how provide the starts and ending at the transitions. Some authors seem to leave the endings as some sort of suspension, encouraged perhaps by the end of TV seasons where everybody is left in an impossible situation. My personal view is, as a reader, I do not like that. I think that when the reader finishes a book, even though the story is not finished, it should feel like the story has reached a stopping point and something has been resolved. Trilogies have a strong history, perhaps the most famous being Lord of the Rings. The structure of that is interesting because while each book has an ending of sorts, it is obviously not the end in the first two. Equally, the second and third start where the previous one left off, which probably requires that the earlier ones be read first. Is that desirable?

Rightly or wrongly, I feel that structure is important and I think I have it under control. Fortunately, First Contact has a “three-act” type structure, but that still required something to close at the end of each book. At the end of the first book (A Face on Cydonia), five main protagonists had embarked on an expedition to assess whether the face was an alien monument, and if so, what was it there for? However, the story that linked the three books involved the problem that Earth’s economy was largely beholden to giant corporations, and the people in them were prepared to do anything to promote themselves. These five protagonists had five different and almost mutually incompatible agendas, and the book ended with the question of the face being resolved, but in a way that was unexpected to each of them, and each was presented with exactly what they did not want. So one problem was resolved, a new one (what could they do about it?) was introduced, and the problem of governance remained unresolved in the background. The protagonists had plans, but at the end there was no pressing crisis, and I think that is a fair ending, although it was probably the least satisfactory of the three.

The problems for the second book (Dreams Defiled) included how to start it and how to end it satisfactorily. The starting involved each protagonist setting out on his or her particular objective, and that permitted a small reminiscence. However, each protagonist failed in some sense, failures included accidental death, murder, subversion, lack of ambition, too much ambition, a lack of morality and a willingness to do anything to advance, so the second book ended with all the protagonists of the first either dead or subdued, but with the dystopian background enhanced. The second book is essentially about what the Romans called imperium. The book ended with the dreams of the first book vanished, and a general lack of justice being prevalent.

The third book starts out with revenge, it produces androids, and they seek revenge, first on what they think they ought to do, and then for what happens to some of them as the authorities try to stop them. So, while its beginnings require acceptance of some background, such as why a character wants revenge on another (and it is explained briefly early in the story) if that is accepted, it is essentially stand-alone. Each book is really about something different, but with an over-riding struggle between protagonists throughout the trilogy. The ending resolves all previous issues, except the dystopian nature of the social environment. It ends not with everyone living happily ever after, but rather a return to an inherently rotten “business as usual”. That leaves the question, is this structurally sensible? Someone else will have to tell me.

 My second major event. Once again, shaken but not stirred! I was sitting in front of my computer when a 6.6 on the Richter scale struck. The chair I was using has a swivel and the ability to rock back a little, and it appeared that the frequency of the ground waves (about 15 Hz, I was told) struck some resonance with me and the chair, so, full value! (A bit scary, actually, at the time, but once over, these thoughts run through the head, so I thought I should share them.) Another little story. Apparently one of the junior schools was practising “earthquake drills” and they were just under their desks when it struck. Later one of the young children remarked, “Great special effects!”

Evolution – a mathematical certainty

In the previous post, I mentioned evolution, and the reluctance of some to accept it, so I thought I should post my views on this, as a scientist, but one with no involvement in that area of science. I feel I can analyze information, but I have no personal involvement hence I have no position to defend. At first sight, evolution is a topic that causes more people not to think properly than any other. I disagree. I think evolution is simply a topic that attracts more attention. I think such faulty thinking is widespread, and this is partly the cause of the trouble that I think society is heading for.

One of the arguments against evolution is you do not see the intermediate stages. There are two answers to that. The first one is that we consider evolution over, say 400 million years. I do not know how many fossils we have, but according to Wikipedia the total number of known fossil species is less than 5% of all the currently living species, which means less that 1% of all species that have lived. If 99% of species have no fossils, it is hardly surprising that transitions between species are hard to find. The laying down of fossils is an unusual event. Most animals die and their remains simply rot away, or they get eaten, or digested by bacteria, or whatever. If some cause, such as a tar pit or a gigantic flood lets things fossilize, then what happens is you get a lot of fossils from that event. Furthermore, the argument is false because we do get intermediate stages. If we look at the evolution of the horse, there are fossil records from a small Echippus (about the size of a dog) to the modern horse. There are records of about 13 stages, so what more could you ask for? Then, of course, there is the dog. Do you think a chihuahua closely resembles the grey wolf? Check Wikipedia for the number of various dog breeds. These have all evolved. And what I find particularly disappointing is that after having this sort of thing pointed out, the anti-evolutionists refuse to acknowledge it.

Evolution is actually a requirement of simple logic. Either genes can mutate/change or they can not. If they cannot, all life is accurately reproduced, and Mendel’s cross-breeding of flowering peas simply would not work. Nor, for that matter could we ever breed sheep with the wool we see now, because wild sheep, while they have wool, it is very tiny and submerged below hair. If they can, then some variations give an advantage, such as faster running, or the ability to eat more things. Animals with an advantage are much better at capturing scarce resources, so at times of hardship, only those with an advantage survive, and at other times, they still prevail. Eventually, given enough changes in isolation, a new species will evolve.

In a recent edition of Nature, there was an interesting example of this sort of thing. About 11,000 years ago, mankind began farming cows for meat in Europe, the technique being introduced from the mid-east. Cow’s milk was indigestible because all adults at the time were lactose intolerant, which means that attempts to drink milk leads to extremely unpleasant fermentations in the stomach. Nevertheless, by about 7000 yrs ago the dairy industry was underway. We know that because some pottery residues have been found of objects that would be used to make cheese, specifically to separate curds from whey. If you make hard cheese, it has very little lactose in it, and cheese was a storable food, something to give protein and energy over the winter months. Some time later, a gene evolved that allowed those who possessed it to digest lactose. The net result appears to have been that those with it simply replaced those without it (of course breeding will have rapidly expanded to pool of those with it) for eventually most of those in Europe are lactose tolerant, while in many other parts of the world, they are not. A single genetic change such as that does not make a new species, and breeding will spread a desirable gene so that it becomes standard for that society. Suppose, however, we have two groups isolated from each other. Eventually, the accretion of sufficient changes in one group will lead to a species that can no longer breed with the other group, which has none of the first society’s changes, but presumably some different ones of its own. Our ancestors split from others similar to them at some stage when they left the forest and tried to make a living on the ground. Accordingly, we have evolved away from apes, but of course the apes have also evolved away from us, and as species, from each other. The concept is completely simple, and has absolutely nothing to do with religion.

Voting: a right or an obligation?

Nobody can predict the future, but I think you can make reasonable guesses about some aspects of it based on applying logic to current evidence. An example might be, eventually, if we keep expanding our use of fossil oil, there will come a time when production cannot match needs. After all, we are using oil that was formed tens of millions of years ago, and even if nature is still making it, it is doing so too slowly to be of any further use to us. We do not know how much is there, so we do not know when the shortage will bite, but we know it will sooner or alter. In logic, our choices would appear to include (a) find an alternative source of energy, (b) find an alternative means of making products similar to what is made from oil, e.g. biofuels, (c) find an alternative means of propelling vehicles, e.g. electric vehicles, (d) transport fewer things and more slowly, e.g. walk to work, use wind-powered ships. There are probably others, but that is not the issue. What is obvious, at least to me, is that at some time in the future, those in power will have to make some very difficult decisions that will affect everyone’s future. The question is, how will they decide? And how will the decision makers be chosen? In a democracy, the voters select the decision-makers, but what happens if the election is based on little more than attractiveness on TV?

 What bothers me is that only too many people are not interested in thinking, but in our democracy, they have equal influence. As an example, check out some of the debates on evolution. Some people seem to believe asserting evolution is a challenge to their belief in God. Their thinking then goes, God is, therefore evolution is not. This is just silly logic. There is absolutely no connection between whether God or evolution, or both, are true. Einstein was amongst one of the greatest scientists of all times and he happily accepted evolution, and he believed strongly in God. The issue lies in the failure of many to accept and analyze the facts through logic. Strictly speaking, it hardly matters whether everybody properly consider evolution, but it matters if people stop logically analyzing the facts when forming policy upon which millions of lives depend. Should not everybody who wants to vote accept the responsibility of thinking about the issues?

 The question then is, what can be done about this? When I was writing the trilogy of futuristic novels, starting with A Face on Cydonia, I needed a new form of government to get around this problem. What I proposed was that many countries formed a Federation, they retained their national governments, but the Federation Government had members appointed partly by election from sections of the community, but all candidates had to be approved as capable of doing the job for which they were standing. Their role was to determine whether a given policy was workable, and to show what the consequences of implementation would be, and to prevent anything that would give consequences outside those considered “acceptable”. People standing for power had to announce in advance essentially what they were going to do, although of course there was always flexibility for reasonably unforeseen circumstances. The novels, of course, are not intended as a political treatise, but merely to provide some rules that the characters must follow.

 What I was trying to do, though, is to suggest that decisions have to be made based on analysis of the situation, and based on the facts. The stories are based on the obvious problem: people do not necessarily follow the rules. Nevertheless, I feel that it is important that governments behave logically. I am sure that with climate change, debt, decreasing availability of easy resources and an increasing population, some difficult decisions will need to be taken. If we get it right, future generations will be secure, but if we do not, then we are in trouble. My argument is that the time to start thinking about these problems is now. Do you agree?