Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Black Americans Can Never Be The "Smart Ones"


Very recently, the trailer for the new Ghostbusters reboot has been making the rounds and garnering a number of negative responses. In fact, according to Entertainment Weekly, it is the “most disliked movie trailer in Youtube history." Now, there are a number of reasons why this could be the case, from the general opposition to a reboot to some level of misogynist responses that refuse to acknowledge females as heroes in roles traditionally limited to males. Personally, I just didn’t find the trailer funny, which despite its horror elements, the original Ghostbusters movie was incredibly funny.

However, the reason I dislike what I’ve seen of the film so far, comes specifically from this line in the trailer: “You guys are really smart about this science stuff, but I know New York, and I can borrow a car from my uncle.” For the purpose of this discussion, I’d like to focus on the first half of that statement: “You guys are really smart about this science stuff, but . . .”

I would classify Ghostbusters in the science fiction & fantasy genre of film. For that reason, I took a look at the best 25 science fiction films according to Indie Wire. While I won’t recount the entire list, they include such venerable entries as Children of Men to Solaris and Sunshine. I’ve previously discussed the fact that black Americans rarely make up the leads, and that still holds true. Casts are still top heavy with white actors, with blacks almost never in the role of the lead protagonist (except when the Will Smith rule is in play) and typically relegated to a supporting role, at best (Billy Dee Williams, as cool as he is as Lando Calrissian, still falls outside the lead trio of Luke, Han, and Leia).
Things have improved, with John Boyega’s portrayal as Finn a recent example of a black actor in a lead role in the area of science fiction. Still, black actors continue to find it difficult to break into particular genres of film, science fiction being one of those. When they do, they are rarely the lead, and are constrained by tropes that demand certain ethnicities dominate certain roles.

A rare portrayal of a black actor as a lead in science fiction.

If not for the fact that Ghost Busters had a black actor, Winston Zedmore, in the original film, I don’t doubt that this reboot would be whitewashed as are so many films in Hollywood. However, the fact is that there is a black actress in this film, Leslie Jones. So, we must once again return to that same line we began with, the one Jones says in the trailer: “You guys are really smart about this science stuff, but . . .”

So what role does Leslie Jones, the black actress portraying ghostbuster Patty Tolan, fill in this film? The role of Patty Tolan is of the street-wise, sassy member of the group with an edge the rest, while funny, just don’t have. Now, Jones has previously defended her portrayal and, actually, so do I. I would never argue that this role isn’t one that black actresses should fill, because they exist. Hell, Xosha Roquemore, who plays nurse Tamra on The Mindy Project, communicates herself through social media to be at least as flippant and colloquial in her speech as her counterpart on the show.

These people exist. There’s nothing wrong with portraying them. That’s not the root of the problem.

The larger problem in Hollywood comes back to that line: “You guys are really smart about this science stuff, but . . .” In film and television, the sassy black woman is so persistently portrayed that there is an entire page dedicated to it on TV Tropes. Again, the trope isn’t the problem, and there are both good and bad versions of the portrayal. The character of Patty Tolan may very well turn out to be a good version of the sassy black woman, rather than a portrayal that skirts at exploitation. Bad versions of the sassy black woman reduce her to just being sassy rather than a complex character,
However, the stereotype of the sassy black woman is abundant to the degree that it infringes on the ability for black women to play roles as anything but sassy. This has been addressed by black actresses who have spoken on the issue and recalled times they went into casting calls, only to be told they needed to be “sassier.”
  Willona Wods is the Trope Codifier of “The Sassy Black Woman.”

Why is it that Leslie Jones plays the role of the street-wise character, and not the role of the lead engineer or the quantum physicist? Why is it that the character of Patty Tolan is an addition to the team, rather than one of its founders? This has partly to do with the limited roles available to black actors and actresses across the board, but also has something to do with the writing process.
I’ve spoken before on my own intentions when writing my series to portray a black female in the lead of a science fiction novel, as well as some of the negative responses I received from readers when they made the connection she was black. This is similar to the response that the original Hunger Games film received, when Rue died. There were actually audience members who said they couldn’t sympathize because they found out she was black.

Black actors and actresses continue to be told to “act blacker,” an infuriating phrase for countless individuals across the country. They continue to find themselves pushed away from lead roles and into sidekick, peripheral, or secondary roles. Often, these roles are contoured by society, and require a certain amount of “acting black” in order to succeed. What results is a toxic environment in which the character of Patty Tolan was written, and is why we have that line: “You guys are really smart about this science stuff, but . . .”

I want to see intelligent, black female scientists who conceives the Ghostbusters. I want to see the black lead of a new Star Wars style blockbuster series. I want to see diverse portrayals of black culture and society on the screen because, for many of us living in diverse communities, we get to interact with those every day. We get to interact with scientists, doctors, lawyers, insurance agents, artists, and professors who just happen to be black.

So why aren’t there more of those roles available in both film and television?

(Although the following video has to deal with the Indian American experience, it does relate to the pressure that POC experience in casting and Hollywood, and shows both sides of acting to stereotype: those who do it and those who can afford to say not to.)



Thursday, December 10, 2015

FLOOR 21 Promotional: Bargan Booksy

Let's talk about advertising your book.
So today is another in week 2 of two months of promotions push for FLOOR 21. In addition to the advertisement push that I'm getting from my publisher, I've also contracted with multiple ad sites. I'm going to be reviewing each site on the day of the promotion to help let other authors know about the services offered at the site. Today, I'm covering Bargain Booksy.

Bargain Booksy offers only one tier of promotions, but the prices vary for every genre. The following is a list of prices and the number of subscribers for every genre they promote:

Mystery / Thriller      115,200             $50
Romance / Chick Lit      108,800$70
Fantasy / Paranormal      86,200$40
Literary Fiction      76,200$35
Nonfiction      75,500$40
Science Fiction      66,800$35
Young Adult      62,800$25
Religion / Spirituality      56,300$25
Horror      48,600$25
Children      44,100$25
Erotica      42,500$70
 
To promote your book on Bargain Booksy, your book has to be no more than $5.00. Other than that, there don't seem to be many more requirements. For your money, you get a featured place on the website in your genre, and in the Bargain Booksy newsletter. These include blurbs about your book. With some genres claiming over 100,000 subscribers, you'd be expected to really get your money's worth from this venture. 

However, my experience did not back up this claim. When I previously reviewed Many Books, I jumped the gun and proclaimed the boost to sales to be less than Just Kindle Books. However, by 10 p.m. that night, I'd been proven wrong. I saw additional ranking bumps until I cleared the 10k rank, and I have no problem declaring Many Books a success. Even when it wasn't doing so well, Many Books still helped to bump me a few thousand ranks upward. 

But Bargain Booksy? No movement, all day, in the ranks. I waited as long as 10 p.m. to make sure I wasn't jumping the gun again, but there simply wasn't the level of success I'd need to justify an investment even as small as $35 again. Not when offers a cheaper promotional and brings a lot more results. Maybe if you're in the Mystery genre you'll see some return on your investment, but I'd guess for anyone in the literary fiction genre or lower, you just won't see results. Unfortuately, this makes Bargain Booksy a dud in my book. I've done some searching on the internet, and I don't think I'm alone in my opinion.  

Again, if you're promoting your mystery novel, this may be a place to check out. You can find them at 
http://www.bargainbooksy.com/








And if you're looking for a rousing Dystopian Sci Fi read that's getting rave reviews, check out FLOOR 21
here:
http://www.amazon.com/FLOOR-21-Jason-Luthor-ebook/dp/B00UNLBJN

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

FLOOR 21 Promotional: Many Books

Let's talk about advertising your book.
So today is another in week 2 of two months of promotions push for FLOOR 21. In addition to the advertisement push that I'm getting from my publisher, I've also contracted with multiple ad sites. I'm going to be reviewing each site on the day of the promotion to help let other authors know about the services offered at the site. Today, I'm covering Many Books.

Many Books offers two tiers of promotions:
Basic Promo ($10)
Plus Promo ($35)

There are different requirements for each promotional
Basic Promo is for anyone advertising a book that is free or on sale for discount. Plus promo is for anyone advertising a book that is permanently free. Depending on what type of indie author you are and how you're offering your book, either one might suit you. 

Both promotions share most of the same common features. Each gets featured in the Many Books newsletter, which claims "110,000 quality subscribers." This increases exposure for your book, of course. However, the Plus Promo goes a step further. Plus Promo offers an upload to the Many Books website for download, and a featured position on the Many Books website for 1 week. 

I expect that the additional exposure of being on the website must be where Many Books gets any good reputation it has. Because FLOOR 21 is not permanently free, I went with the basic promotional. At the start of my sales day, before the newsletter, I was in the 15,000 rank. Four hours after the newsletter, I peaked a 1,000 ranks higher, but not much more. By the end of the day, I'd dipped back down to the 16,000 rank. With my previous promotion using Just Kindle Books my sales results not only increased but lasted through the end of the day. I'm assuming I saw some bump from Many Books into the 14,000 rank, but nothing I would consider earth shattering.

For the price, I suppose it's decent, but Many Books seems as if it's trying to attract authors with permanently free books more than anyone else, especially since permafree books get so much more exposure through them. If that's you, you can find them at 
http://manybooks.net/

And if you're looking for a rousing Dystopian Sci Fi read that's getting rave reviews, check out FLOOR 21
here:
http://www.amazon.com/FLOOR-21-Jason-Luthor-ebook/dp/B00UNLBJN

MASSIVE UPDATE: Nevermind, by the end of the day, FLOOR 21 had broken the 10,000 ranks. Many Books may be a lot more effective than I thought! Maybe the newsletter readers just wait until the end of the day before checking their emails or something. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

FLOOR 21 Promotional: Just Kindle Books

Let's talk about advertising your book. 
So today begins week 2 of two months of promotions push for FLOOR 21. In addition to the advertisement push that I'm getting from my publisher, I've also contracted with multiple ad sites. I'm going to be reviewing each site on the day of the promotion to help let other authors know about the services offered at the site. Today, I'm covering Just Kindle Books.sdfsdf

Just Kindle Books offers three tiers of promotions:
Budget Book Promotions ($10)
Premium Kindle Book Promotions ($25)
Premium Book Promotions Plus ($30)
Let's talk about what each of those entails.
Budget Book Promotions is the most affordable of the promo packages. For the cost, get you get homepage placement for a single day, a spot in the Just Kindle Books newsletter, and posts to multiple social media channels including Google +, Tumblr, and Delicious (Notice: NO post to Facebook, the most widely read social media site. That leaves incentive to upgrade to the next package).
Premium Kindle Book Promotions is the next tier of promo packaging and offers a top spot on the home page (increases your overall visibility), a top spot on the newsletter (again, increases visibility), a custom written Facebook post (differentiating this package from the social media offerings in the lower package and increasing visibility), as well as postings to all the social media packages offered at the lower tier.
Premium Book Promotions Plus offers the highest tier of promo packaging and includes everything in the Premium Kindle Book Promotions including a top spot on the home page and newsletter. When your spot on the homepage is over after the first day, you get moved to a Hot Books section for the next week that's located on the left side bar of the website. These are located just along side the main page posts.
So which did I opt for? I went for the Premium Kindle Book Promotions package. Why this and not the Promotions Plus package? To be honest, I believe there's a steep drop off as visibility decreases. So, what I chose to do was to buy the Premium Kindle Book Promotions package, AND THEN choose the add-on option of keeping it on the main page under the 'spotlight' section for an additional three days. The difference between the Spotlight and Hot Books section is that Spotlight retains your story blurb, and Hot Books does not. I essentially pay nearly as much as the Plus package, but I keep my book more visible over the next three days. At least, I believe so. This isn't science here, just observation.
Now! The numbers. Last week Tuesday (the first day my book started getting promos through the publisher), my sales rank was 30,000. Over the weekend it was between 20,000 and 30,000 Today it's broken the 20,000 barrier and has hit the 18,000 rank. So, I have to say my gut feeling is that there's been a positive impact from Just KIndle Books for a very reasonable price. 

Update: By the end of the day, I'd broken into the 16k=15k categories. 

If you're looking for affordable promotion for your book, you can go to Just Kindle Books at 
http://www.justkindlebooks.com/
And if you're looking for a rousing Dystopian Sci Fi read that's getting rave reviews, check out FLOOR 21
here:
 http://www.amazon.com/FLOOR-21-Jason-Luthor-ebook/dp/B00UNLBJNI

Monday, November 30, 2015

Writing in Media: How Stacraft 2 Fails as a Narrative

Another in an occasional series of discussions about how writing is done in media, from television to gaming. This post, regarding the full narrative of Starcraft 2, contains spoilers.

The original Starcraft was a monstrous hit in the PC gaming world, one that would partly move to consoles in adaptations for systems such as the Nintendo 64. The Blizzard created Real Time Strategy game cams as a break from the studio's traditional swords & sorcery RTS, Warcraft. Starcraft represented a foray into the realm of science fiction and space opera. With an exceptional balance between three playable races (the Terran, Zerg, and Protoss), Starcraft won a place in the hearts of gamers.

The Game Changer
Its follow up, the add-on Brood Wars, kept the strategy flowing with the introduction of new units and a demonstration by the gaming studio that it was committed to keep innovation and new challenges. Along with gamer created maps, competition ladders, and tournaments, Blizzard kept finding ways of keeping Starcraft fresh in gamer's minds. At least, until it let the franchise go dormant for a decade. Before that, though, it was obvious that the game's complex dynamics of three races, each with their own strengths, was popular.

What sometimes gets under appreciated and overlooked is the impact the game's narrative had on fans. Let's recap the landscape of narrative and storytelling in gaming at the time. 1997 saw Squaresoft's landmark hit, Final Fantasy VII, shock the world with its massive world, engaging sci-fi setting, and the shocking in-story death of fan favorite, Aerith. It was a storytelling move that few were prepared for at the time. Gamers who spent time levelling her found their favorite character permanently removed.
These were good graphics in 1997.

Some even reported crying at the loss of a beloved, innocent character. This all occurred in a Japanese Role Playing Game, and Squaresoft had spent a decade establishing that it was willing to try and tell complex narratives in its games. What many didn't foresee was the success Blizzard would have in creating its own, complex science fiction world. The Terrans were inspired by the U.S.' southern Confederacy - in space. They talked with country accents while fighting across the stars against two foreign alien powers.

It was Firefly before Firefly. Parts of the setting were blatantly derived from the Warhammer 40k series, but what separated Starcraft apart was its characters. Each of the three races was prominently represented by a character that defined their species. For the Terrans, it was the southern sherriff and protector of the people, Jim Raynor. For the Zerg, it was the cruel, infested version of Sarah Kerrigan. For the Protoss, it was culturally defiant and sideways thinking Tassadar.

The original Protoss commander in chief.
Each was a 'cool' character in conception, in their own way, but Blizzard's commitment to characterization made them more than simply story stand-ins. Jim Raynor, a loose gunning Confederate sheriff on a backwater world, fought for his people while trying to understand Tassadar, a religious leader of a rigid, caste based alien system. Nobody won more hearts than Sarah Kerrigan, though.

Sarah Kerrigan had a dark past that served two purposes. One, it put a personal face on the cruelty of the Confederacy. The storyline reminded us of the corruption of the government, but Sarah verbally spoke of how she suffered beneath them. Two, it humanized the battlefield. Jim Raynor's interactions with Sarah, both between missions in story 'briefings' and in-game on the field, were lighthearted and eventually affectionate. This was something gamers had not seen in an RTS before.
Credit: Fluxen, DevianArt.

The Terran missions of the original Starcraft was made more entertaining as the rogue sherriff Raynor won over the heart of Kerrigan. At the start of battles, at the end, and at times in between, their banter lightened the mood. These characters bonded, winning over supporters for the two of them to grow closer. This is what made the betrayal of Sarah Kerrigan by her commanding officer, and her eventual infestation and transformation into the Queen of Blades, so tragic for both Jim and the gaming audience.

This isn't to argue that the original Starcraft was brilliant storytelling, but it was good storytelling. Despite a universe partly derivative of Warcraft 40k, the characters, and their interactions, made the narrative come alive. You became attached to the outcome of each race, not simply because you were supposed to root for the good guy and win, but because these characters won you over. Sarah Kerrigan's betrayal by her own commander ranks as highly as Aerith's death in the scheme of gaming shock moments.
It didn't look this good in 1997.

Starcraft 2's narrative fails for many reasons, not the least is the introduction of an eldritch god that took away from the more personal nature of the fighting occurring in the original Starcraft. Where the sequel really loses in comparison to the original is in the loss of character interaction to personalize the conflict. In this respect, Wings of Liberty came closer to being a narrative success than any other edition of the Starcraft 2 series.

Matt Horner, rigid commander of the Hyperion, has to deal with Raynor's drunk ways and regrets over Sarah. Meanwhile, he has a mercenary he was unintentionally married to hoping to reignite their 'love.' Tychus Finchley, a roving Southern badass with no respect for order or authority, was a hilarious break to the heavy mood of Raynor and Starcraft 2 in general. Raynor lost a little of his lightheartedness, and was a worse character for it, but the interesting cast he played off of continued to invest us in his story.
Tychus, the hero we needed, but the one we deserved.

Neither Heart of the Swarm nor Legacy of the Void give us a single quality relationship of the sort we received in the original Starcraft, something to carry us through the doldrums of the game and invest us emotionally. Heart of the Swarm's opening levels have the Raynor-Kerrigan dynamics to keep us interested, before she soon essentially becomes a solo queen with nothing but subservients around her. Some are interesting, such as Abathar, but none make you invest into the story.

Lack of characters to attach to lowers the stakes invested in winning, but the game is further worsened b the way it chooses to use the characters it does have. Starcraft has become a franchise in which emotions are boldly communicated at all times through intense proclamations, speeches, and dramatic moments. However, real life doesn't have many of these, and some of the most binding moments between characters are subtle times in between all the action. In this respect, the Protoss are the worst offenders.

When people aren't busy shouting out how they feel and spouting B-movie worthy speeches about heroism, the game is busy making the Overmind, which in the original Starcraft was a soulless being driven to perfection through the assimilation of all life, into a sympathetic hero. Manipulated against its will by Amon, the aforementioned eldritch horror, the Overmind was simply trying to find a way to save its Zerg.

The undermining of the Zerg collective damaging. Prior to this, the Zerg had been similar to the Borg and were, in essence, a force of nature. Uncaring, unceasing, the death of thousands, millions, or billions meant nothing to them. They were simply driven by their instinct, and posed a frenzied horror that threatened to wipe out civilization as we understood it. Blizzard chose to do with Starcraft 2 what it had done with its Warcraft franchise, and introduce a hidden god spoken of in prophecies.
PROPHECY!

They didn't even accomplish this well. Kerrigan, who in Wings of Liberty is discussed as a key to stopping the dark god, goes almost entirely absent from the final entry in the series, Legacy of the Void, until the epilogue missions of the game. Although I don't want to speak for the writers, it seems almost as if they remembered at the last minute they had set her character up as the key to defeating Amon (who had, only an episode before, been defeated by the Protoss).

It's difficult to sum up the many levels of how Starcraft 2 fails to live up to modern expectations of narrative in gaming. Considering what's been done in games such as Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite, though, there is some expectation of a quality narrative in a Triple A game with characters as beloved as Raynor and Kerrigan. However, due to a lack of characters to invest in, over the top dialogue lacking and subtlety, and the forced introduction of fantastical prophecies, Starcraft 2 simply fails to be an engaging story.
At least these things look cool.

Nothing better sums up Blizzard's failure to convey a tense scenario full of emotional investment than the difference between Blizzard's final episode in the Legacy of the Void epilogue, and a mission that occurs halfway through Wings of Liberty. Having just seen Kerrigan transform into an angel (you did not misread that), you then zip her across the map in a fairly easy quest of destroying large crystals to end Amon.This is the fateful, final moment, and it never feels as if you can lose.

In Wings of Liberty, meanwhile, one vision of the future pits the last of the Protoss in an unwinnable battle against an endless stream of Zerg. Heroes die. They bravely sacrifice. They speak of the legacy they must leave behind, even if their culture ends. There are strains of true heroism. This also might say something about the sort of dread threat the Zerg present in the gamer's mind. It's tense, and sad, and emotional, everything that almost the rest of the Starcraft 2 series is not.
Protip: Don't Die.

For a narrative to succeed, it has to have stakes with emotional investment, and rarely does Starcraft 2 create that in the gamer. It parades one-note, shallow character templates across the screen, performing bold speeches that just become tiresome. It removes the fear of the endless Zerg and their threat to all existence in a tensionless final battle during which Sarah becomes divine. Even if this story is about aliens, it still needs to connect to the human emotions and desires of its audience. Starcraft 2, unfortunately, does not.

Jason Luthor is the author of the Amazon contest winning FLOOR 21, a science fiction dystopian novel that tells the story of the last of humanity as it struggles to live at the top of an apartment tower, safe from horrific threats in the floors below. You can buy it here.



Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Pluto: A History



Tuesday, July 14th, 2015. Maybe you were at work, stressing out about a deadline. Or, maybe, you were with friends, distressing after having to fight off your boss one too many times. LeBron James was probably sitting at home somewhere, trying to understand how he could lose in the NBA Finals yet again. His Cleveland Cavaliers had just fallen to the Golden State Warriors less than a week before. South of the border, the Mexican government was putting out a bounty on the infamous drug kingpin, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

With everything that was happening on Earth, you’d be excused for not looking up at the stars and realizing something historic was going on. Space is the last thing we’re thinking about between family, friends, work, politics, sports, and all the other little things that are always grabbing for our attention. Out there, though, roughly five billion miles away, humanity was getting its first close-up of the dwarf planet, Pluto. 

You’re excused if you didn’t realize that, but you need to know this was important.

The history of Pluto’s a complicated one. As early as the 1840s, men like Urbain Le Verrier were making sophisticated predictions, which were based on Newtonian mechanics, to assert that there had to be other planets beyond Uranus. Uranus, at the time, was the planet we thought was farthest out in the Solar System. The problem for astronomers was that Uranus didn’t have a steady orbit around the Sun. Something was interfering with it. 

That planet wasn’t Pluto. It was actually Neptune, but for the first time in human history, mankind was pushing the limits of the known Solar System. Once people realized Neptune was out there, governments started making huge observatories to start searching further and further out. Neptune was discovered in 1846. Pluto, though, wouldn’t be found for nearly a hundred years more. 

The problem for astronomers was that Pluto was legitimately hard to track. That’s understandable, considering the distance was far outside the scope of most observatories that existed at the time. In 1906, the equivalent of an outer space manhunt was declared to track down this rouge “Planet X.” Astronomers started scanning the skies and predicting possible locations. Some of those involved in the search even accidentally picked up images of the wandering planet, then failed to realize they had.

The epicenter of this search was occurring at Lowell Observatory, in Flagstaff, AZ. Created by a wealthy Bostonian named Percival Lowell, whose pockets were deep enough to self-fund such a massive project, the Lowell Observatory’s mission for decades was to track down this undiscovered planet. Most people are aware that space is big, but what they don’t realize is just how big it actually is. You have to carefully pick your battles when it comes to taking photos out there.

So, the Lowell Observatory staff did the best they could to make predictions about that path Pluto was travelling. It was the kind of obsessive mission that Captain Ahab of Moby Dick fame would have been proud of. In fact, it was a never-ending pursuit that drove Lowell until his death in 1916. He died, never aware that he’d actually captured faint images of Pluto, and went to his death without having ever found his version of the white whale.

After his death, a legal battle started to brew as his widow attempted to claim a multi-million dollar settlement from the observatory. Over ten years, that legal battle raged, bringing the search for Pluto to a halt. Once the dust settled and the observatory returned to work, Vesto Melvin Slipher, the observatory director, handed the mission of finding Pluto over to a young astronomer named Clyde W. Tombaugh. It was the beginning of the end to the 30-year mission.

Clyde Tombaugh was the kind of guy that would beat anyone else in a game of Where’s Waldo? because his mission for a full year was to basically do just that. Instead of finding a happy-go-lucky, glasses wearing oddball, Clyde’s mission was to take photo after photo of space. Then, one by one, he’d search those images for even the slightest changes. 

Over the course of six days, from January 23rd to January 29th, he finally noticed that there was an object that seemed to be drifting through the photographs. He had to confirm this before making any big declarations of the world. He was looking for his smoking gun. That came in the form of a picture taken on January 21st. As he compared all the photographs, he found the streaking Pluto yet again, and made a path for its movement over sets of multiple pictures. 

With a predicted line of motion, the observatory was able to take even more pictures, confirming for good that Pluto was out there. All it took to make the news official was a telegraph to Harvard College Observatory on March 13th, 1930. The mission to find Pluto, that began with predictions by astronomers in the 1840s and became the obsession of Percival Lowell in the early 20th century, was over. Clyde Tombaugh had made history.

The discovery of a new planet created a tidal wave of scientific investigations. It’s a curious little place out on the edge of the Solar System, and it has some odd behaviors. Its orbit around the sun, for instance, makes it intersect with the orbit of Neptune. Pluto moves at an angle to the sun, and the only reason it doesn’t collide with Neptune is that Neptune’s rotation is just a little bit slower. Otherwise, instead of planets beyond Uranus, you’d have just asteroid belt.

Pluto’s got a couple of other quarks, just like any person. It takes 24 hours for the Earth to make one rotation from day to night. Pluto is a bit lazier. It takes a little over six days for it to make a rotation. Because it rotates at an odd angle, it doesn’t have constant seasons. A quarter of Pluto is in constant daylight, never experiencing nighttime. It’s like living in Alaska over the summer and never leaving.
Not that you could live on Pluto if you wanted to. Its surface is almost entirely nitrogen ice, with just small traces of methane and carbon monoxide. There’s no oxygen, so there’s nothing to breath. It’s also incredibly cold. We’re talking -390 degrees Fahrenheit. That would be -233 degrees for the Europeans out there. Either way, when you start talking about temperatures that are anything below zero, you know it’s not going to be pleasant.

Of course, the most infamous debate surrounding Pluto’s history revolves around its status as a planet. When Clyde Tombaugh found it, he naturally just declared it a planet. By 2003, the way astronomer’s categorized stellar bodies had changed. There’s another object beyond Pluto, named Eris, and it was that discovery that sparked the discussion of what made a planet. Pluto is too small and because of its odd place in the Solar System, it no longer made the cut as a full planet. Now it’s a dwarf planet.

So, Pluto has an odd history and place in the Solar System. It’s also incredibly distant, which made close up observations impossible for decades. That was the case until a group of scientists started planning to launch a new mission to Pluto. Much like the astronomers of old days, it took a group of science obsessed, space loving individuals to lay out a plan that would actually get a space probe close to Pluto.

Scientists like choosing cheesy names too, so they called their group The Pluto Underground. Established in 1989, they started lobbying NASA to begin seriously looking into a mission that would capture close photography of the distant dwarf planet. The biggest problem was that there was no real understanding of how Pluto’s atmosphere behaved. How would a space probe react once it was in orbit?

The project started picking up some serious steam in the halls of NASA until it was declared a mission of “low importance,” which really meant that the funds were taken out from underneath the scientists looking to explore Pluto. There’s nothing quite like a group of angry scientists, though, and groups like The Planetary Society started hitting back hard at NASA. All the complaints and lobbying finally got a new exploration program started: The New Frontiers program.

Begun in 2000, it would take six years of around the clock research and work to create the New Horizons probe. Even once it was off the ground, there was a period of nine years of anxious breath holding. Would this work? Would the probe intersect with Pluto’s orbit and get the photos people had been dreaming of for so long?

Back to July 14th, 2015, almost 175 years since Pluto had been predicted by early astronomers. The New Horizons probe wasn’t intended to land on Pluto, but to get close enough to take the kind of pictures that would scientist better understand the planet. It did its job. Within a week of the probe’s flyby, new pictures were emerging of alien atmospheres full of stellar rays, great, flat plains that rise up into mountain ranges, and frozen rivers of nitrogen ice flowing along the planet’s surface.

The mission to better understand Pluto is not over, though. Two new probes, launched in May and August of 2011, are expected to pass along Pluto sometime in 2016. These newer, more advanced probes will bring back even more stunning imagery and scientific data of Pluto. It’s the sort of photography that men like Clyde Tombaugh could only have dreamt of years ago.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

An Englishman from Mexico



                His name was Reginald Benedict Gonzalez.

                He hated his last name.

                Reginald, or Reggie, as he liked to be called, was born the first and only son of Charles Benedict Senior. If there was a junior, no one could say, but Charles had always announce himself by that appellation. Unlike the entirety of his family, avowed Shakespeareans who lived in Stratford-upon-Avon, Reggie was born in the far more American town of Waxahachie, Texas, before relocating to Manhattan.

                Charles claimed Reggie was a Texan. Reggie hated him for it.

                Reggie spent his earliest years abroad. His father, an oil businessman with offices in China, Venezuela, Scotland, and Houston, took his son with him on his business trips. Whether by airplane or boat, Reggie was accompanied by the finest tutors in the world. Charles often, and proudly, announced the hundred thousand dollar salaries he paid his employees. “This is my son,” he said proudly at dinner parties. “Did you know just one of his tutors costs me a hundred grand?” Charles had never been shy about his wealth, and by all accounts was something of a bastard. 

                He was also a renowned world traveler, seen on the cover of Yacht Owner’s Fancy and Delectable Boats. He was particularly proud of standing with his finger stretched outward to the sun, his leg propped against the railing of his boat with a cob pipe jutting from his teeth. Reggie, for his part, did not stay out of the spotlight. He was quite often featured alongside his father, and the child’s great intellect was often put on display. In Russia he played a series of chess games against some of the world’s most renowned Chessmasters. He took his first game, lost his second, and stalemated his third. He was only eight at the time, so it was considered quite the accomplishment by all. His father was slightly disappointed. 

                Despite some of his other unsavory predilections, Charles Senior was an avowed conservationist. He took his son beneath the Arctic Circle during whaling season, where the two of them boarded a Japanese whaling vessel. The sight of a nine year old boy being taken prisoner was considered an international scandal, and the official whaling season was called off that year. It made for a good summer vacation, and in the fall, Charles and Reggie returned to shore. They stopped off in France, where Reggie took music lessons from the acclaimed artist, Pierre-Louis Courbet. The child’s painting, A Vision of Terror, was featured in the winter edition of Painter’s International. 

In short, his father took him everywhere, and so it was that, by the age of ten, Reggie had seen the Great Wall of China, Edinburg Castle, Angel Falls, and the Alamo. 

                Reggie’s mother was a Spanish woman with family in the states. She knew him for only a brief time, and he knew her even less. She had family in Texas, where she had met Charles. The two of them had what some described as the “erotic heights of tempestuous love” before they split in a firestorm of accusations and broken hearts. She was a passionate woman with a desire for close affection, and he was a man of the sea who could never stay still long. She left their suburban home in the Houston area, leaving only a half-written note that began, “Dear Charles, I…” before running out of ink. She hadn’t bothered trying to find another pen.

                Charles kept his son on into his teen years, when he began to travel more frequently and found less time to stay in any one place. Reggie increasingly spent time in the States, a turn of events he despised. His aunt and uncle, Mary and Gil, would go on to permanently adopt him. This was shortly after Charles’ fateful voyage around the tip of South America, during his attempts to replicate the fateful circumnavigation of the world first completed by Ferdinand Magellan.      

                So it was that Reginald Benedict Gonzalez, future heir of the Benedict fortune, a globally travelled prodigy who once sat at the feet of the world’s greatest instructors, found himself once again in New York. From the age of 14, he stayed on with his new parents in the house Charles Senior had left to them. He attended the prestigious Westington House, a private all-boys school attended by the children of princes, diplomats, and business tycoons. Charles’ name continued to haunt him, since it was engraved in stone over the library’s main entrance.

                By 21, Reggie found himself commuting to the private college of Saint Bartholomew. Rumored to have been established by a fraternal order whose wealth was plundered from the Orient during the Boxer Rebellion, Saint Bartholomew made all its students sign a pledge promising they wouldn’t look too closely into the history of the school. Reggie hadn’t particularly cared about the pledge either way.

                The only thing Reggie cared about was the dwindling money that was draining out of his bank account. For as rich as he had been, Charles Senior had not made it clear where he had stored the family fortune. Reggie had the house that had been left to him, and the sizeable sum of money that he inherited, a sum that was nearly exhausted after a lifetime of private schools. 

                So it was that Reggie, in his final semester of college and nearing his 22nd birthday, began to face down the reality that he would never again be known as the globe travelling genius. After a lifetime spent training at the hands of masters, being featured in magazines, and living the life of a trust fund enriched nomad, Reggie found himself with the greatest challenge of his life. Soon, he would have no money.

                And that’s when the letter arrived.