Thursday, September 27, 2012

Winter is Coming

By Keith McDowell

I can’t believe I read the whole thing – all five volumes and nearly 5,000 pages! For the uninitiated, I’m talking about the series A Song of Fire and Ice by George R. R. Martin, otherwise known by its television adaptation, The Game of Thrones. Am I satisfied? NO! It was a game of stubbornness and survival on my part to make it to the end, independent of the quality of the complex story lines and often one-dimensional characters. I expected at any moment to die by slicing my finger as I rabidly turned the pages to get to the next inexplicable morsel.

And gee, I can hardly wait to get trapped into reading the next volume to see how many more of my favorite characters get senselessly killed off. Don’t the good guys ever win or is the plot strategy one of random variations and mutations to achieve survival of the fittest ala evolutionary dynamics? Actually, I think it’s more about making money through creating an ever-expanding universe of characters and plot lines.

Aside from the racy nature of the television show with nudity and explicit sexual activity as a guaranteed hook to enhance audience ratings, the underlying theme of The Game of Thrones – or perhaps better said, moans and groans – is that of a feudal society blended together with fantasy and the supernatural. But mostly it’s about bad-boy behavior to achieve domination and wealth for the few over the many coupled with religious intolerance. Does that sound familiar?

Yep! Even as I write these words, Syria is morphing from a condition of genocide into a condition of civil war fed by competitor states and ideologies. Religious fanatics get upset and riot because someone challenges their beliefs by mocking their chosen prophet with a stupid video. And the threat of a worldwide pandemic continues unchecked as a new strain of SARS has been detected and HIV continues to ravage the African continent. The economic meltdown caused by excessive greed and uncontrolled financial leveraging is being refueled by a form of austerity budgeting that is guaranteed to choke innovation and economic growth. Dirty bombs, biochemical warfare, computer viruses, West Nile virus, and a host of other such scourges pummel us daily into expecting our imminent demise. Who needs the fantasy world of The Game of Thrones when we live in the real thing? Even George R. R. Martin would have trouble coming up with such plot lines.

But wait! We don’t have a rebirth of dragons or a re-emergence of blue-eyed zombies looming on the horizon to bring a metaphorical winter into our lives. Or do we?

It’s called autonomous warfare. High overhead, stealthy Predator drones silently stalk our every move, ready to unleash on the unwary a blast of fire and death from a Hellfire missile. It’s the modern equivalent of the dragon, a centerpiece of the Fire and Ice series. Talk to a few of those dead jihadist in Pakistan if you don’t believe these modern dragons are real. Or ask the Israeli’s how they feel about Iran’s reputed development of a long-range drone.

Of course, drones can be used to improve the general welfare of us all by tracking the movement of drug traffickers along the Texas border with Mexico or, better, by flying into hurricanes to provide extended real time monitoring. If we put our minds to it, who knows what benevolent uses we can find for these dragons.

But what about blue-eyed zombies? Do they live among us waiting to emerge with the coming winter? I think yes!

It’s called synthetic biology by some and is equivalent in spirit to the great advances made by chemists over the past century through the creation of a vast array of new substances and materials including plastics and a cornucopia of medicines and drugs – not to mention napalm. The game for synthetic biologists is to take DNA strands and reconnect them in various ways to produce an engineered sequence with specific attributes. Ultimately, engineered “lifeforms” will emerge. Of course, as we learn more about how to connect such synthetic biological systems to nanoscale electro-mechanical systems coupled to “intelligent” computer systems, a new construct will emerge. And exactly what is that new construct? Why it’s the modern version of the blue-eyed zombie gracing the pages of Fire and Ice.

Cynicism, no matter its form, is never a healthy lifestyle choice, but sometimes a dose of it helps us to recalibrate exactly what it is we are doing, or not doing, to ourselves. From that perspective, I’m glad I made it through the Fire and Ice series. It reminded me that feudalism and its trappings, especially as practiced in modern-day Washington DC, aren’t quite so dead as we thought and that fantasy is really in the eye of the beholder, whether it be drones as dragons or synthetic lifeforms as blue-eyed zombies.

And George, could you please let one good guy survive the fire and ice?

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