Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Price of Private Beer in BC

I never have to look very hard to find someone singing the praises of privatization. Taking something that's run by the government and turning it over to a private, for-profit business will, they say, result in more variety, lower prices, and an overall better experience for the customer, because when you're in it to make money you can't cut corners and have the government always propping you up. It'll be expressed differently from person to person, but generally, that's what the most common arguments of its proponents tend to boil down to--that it's usually in everyone's advantage for something to be privatized.

I've never put much faith in arguments like that, because they never quite seem to accord with reality. In my experience, privatization instead tends to see prices go up and service quality decline, especially when you're dealing with an effectively captive market like healthcare and electricity supply, because "inexpensive products" and "high-quality service" are often treated as barriers to the true goal of every for-profit company, namely "make as much money as possible." Look at the ongoing healthcare crisis in the United States, for example, to see what happens when the profit motive takes over a social necessity, and you run into issues like $10,000 yearly deductibles--making it easy to pay an private insurance company $750 a year in premiums, and still have to pay all your own medical expenses out-of-pocket--and people with certain conditions being unable to get their own coverage because they would cost the company too much, even if they're willing and able to pay.

Today, though, I'm not interested in health insurance; rather, something that requires plenty of people to have health insurance if they use it enough--beer. Beer and liquor are hard to define, in some respects; nowadays, while a lot of people might call them luxuries, when it comes to society as a whole they're effectively necessities. Civilizations have been lubricated by alcohol for thousands of years, way back to the days when beer was the only reliable way to get water that wouldn't sicken or kill you. North America's historical love-hate relationship with alcohol has left a patchwork of differing supply mechanisms from coast to coast. Some are public, some are private, and together they provide the possibility for interesting data points on whether privatization is good.

In British Columbia this is a major issue, though it seems to have been slipping beneath notice as of late--the besieged Liberal government has been taking fire for its recent moves to sell its liquor distribution system to the privately-owned company Exel Logistics, ostensibly out of a desire to balance the budget--because after all, why have a consistent inflow of cash when you could have one quick payday that won't come again and will leave future paydays even poorer? There's a lot of sketchy business in the background of this deal, and I for one have no doubt that the BC Liberals are getting ready to burn down the house before they're annihilated in next year's elections.

But I was curious--particularly in regard to claims I've heard from the government as well as privatization proponents that it would mean cheaper prices for British Columbians. Does that really stand up? I decided to go find out.

It's always good to be able to illustrate an abstract concept.

One thing I had to get used to upon moving here was that beer and liquor sales are not a government monopoly, as they are in Ontario through the LCBO. While we do have the BCL, the LCBO's government-run counterpart, there are also a wide variety of private liquor stores, many of them attached to bars. In downtown New Westminster, while there's only one BCL outlet--and it's practically as far west as you can go while still being in downtown New West--there are three private sellers on Columbia Street and another one in River Market, and those are only the ones I know about. This variety gave me the chance to do some direct price comparison: both within BC and without, because ever since I arrived it's seemed like beer is rather more expensive out here than it is in Ontario.

Recently I stopped in at one of my local private sellers and noted down the prices of some of their wares, craft brews and national brands. I then ran them against the BCL and LCBO websites. Here's what I found.

ProductBC Private Store PriceBCL PriceLCBO Price
Hopworks IPA$8.00Not availableNot available
Innis & Gunn Canadian Cask$6.35$4.99*$4.95*
Driftwood Ale$7.30$5.00Not available
Twilight Summer Ale (6-pack)$19.95$15.99Not available
La Fin du Monde$8.30$6.50$4.95
Sleeman Cream Ale (6-pack)$15.15$11.99$10.95
Big Surf Laid Back Lager (6-pack)$10.35$7.79Not available
Cariboo Honey Lager (6-pack)$9.95$7.99Not available
Molson Canadian (6-pack)$14.95$11.69$11.50
Chimay Blue Cap$5.05$3.99$2.80**
Hobgoblin Ale$4.45$3.50$3.45
*prices are based on listing for Innis & Gun Canada Day 2012 on BCL and LCBO websites
**price is based on Chimay White Cap, the only variety sold by the LCBO
All prices listed are before tax.

Admittedly, it's only one data point--but it's a data point that matches up with the general sense I've gathered over two years of buying beer in this province. I'm sure there are others. Although LCBO prices trend slightly lower than the BCL's, that may be chalked up to vagaries like differing tax rates. When it comes to the private store, though, everything is more expensive than it is at the BCL--maybe only a dollar or two more, but that sort of thing adds up over time.

Sure, there's the convenience factor as well--but it's convenient the way a convenience store is more convenient than a supermarket. It may be right there, but it doesn't necessarily have everything you need. While there are private stores in Metro Vancouver with a widely varied selection, carrying beers I can't find anywhere else--Firefly near Broadway and Cambie in Vancouver, and the Central City Liquor Store on the other side of the SkyBridge, are the two big ones I know of--most private sellers I've visited are small and with very limited selections, particularly when it comes to single bottles or cans.

Privatization of the existing liquor distribution system wouldn't only mean that that state of affairs would become the norm--prices would go up even further from what the private stores charge now, because Exel Logistics wants to extract as much money as possible from the drinkers of British Columbia.

Don't believe the story that the folks in Victoria are trying to sell you--it's all foam, no substance. Take a closer look for yourself, and ask yourself who really benefits when the profit motive is brought in.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Photo: Gull Wings

Around here, if anything's bigger than an insect and has wings, it's pretty much either an aircraft or a crow. If I want to reliably encounter gulls, in my experience, I have to head down to Vancouver; I don't see many hanging around the Fraser River. The other day I found myself in a vantage point above a crow just chilling on the concrete edge of a pool across the street from Canada Place, and it didn't take long for me to get another chance to sharpen my instant-shot reflexes. I think this worked out okay.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

This means that you are free to Share (to copy, distribute and transmit the work) and to Remix (to adapt the work) under the following conditions: Attribution (you must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor, but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work), Noncommercial (you may not use this work for commercial purposes), and Share Alike (if you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one).

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Politics in the Pipeline

One thing I like about Twitter is the way that it's democratized communication, person-to-person and citizen-to-government. Once it achieved critical mass with people signing up left and right, politicians started creating their own accounts so they could have a new way to spew talking points at the people. Yesterday BC's embattled Premier Christy Clark--or some government functionary responsible for impersonating her on Twitter--used it to signalboost an op-ed in the Globe and Mail about the ongoing Northern Gateway Pipeline back-and-forth, and the five points that would be necessary to get British Columbia behind the project.

The only natural thing to do was to call her out. Of course I didn't get any reply. That, at least, hasn't changed since the pre-Twitter days. It's still just as necessary. The one thing politicians must not be allowed to do is believe that the average person agrees with them unless demonstrated otherwise. We need to register our opposition, again and again, whenever the opportunity rises--because this is all just the preshow to the BC Liberals' spectacular annihilation next year.

Back to Premier Clark, though--what's she saying? Whatever it is, it includes a lot of buzzwords. Her fifth point, about British Columbia getting "its fare share of the fiscal an economic benefits" resulting from the pipeline, has gotten the most traction in media so far, but what I was most interested in was her second and third points. Namely, the institution of "world-leading marine oil-spill prevention and response systems" and "enhancement of our on-land spill response to world-leading standards."

That's great, when it comes to irrelevant puff. Still, in keeping with all the finest traditions of political discourse, it doesn't actually mean anything.

Pictured: a world-leading decision-making tool for politicians everywhere.

Can you define what "world-leading" means here? That was the question I put to Christy Clark over Twitter, and I doubt if she'll answer me or anyone on that subject without a fight. It's nebulous and stripped of context, but it has "world" in it so you know it's good, just like how a "world-class city" is something to aspire to even though everyone defines it differently. This is a big problem.

Why? Because it gives the appearance that Clark and the BC government are holding out for the strongest assurances that there are, but in reality, it provides an out to take the economically expedient course and call that "world-leading" after the fact. The Liberals hardly have any motivation to do otherwise. If the Northern Gateway Pipeline is built, they will already have been turfed out of office by the time construction starts, and once the Northern Gateway Pipeline starts leaking it won't be the Liberals' problem--politically speaking, that is. But then, how many politicians in a position of power do you know who give a shit about anything else?

Lest you think I'm drawing long conclusions, keep in mind that Clark is the same premier who, just last month, announced that natural gas would be classified as a "clean" energy source because otherwise BC wouldn't be able to meet its clean energy targets once the liquified natural gas industry really starts going. Not that I'm saying expanding LNG trade to Asia would necessarily be a bad thing; I'd rather have China powered by natural gas than coal, if that was the choice, and cheaper natural gas would make that choie a hell of a lot easier for China.

The point here is that Clark has already demonstrated that she's more than willing to switch around definitions if she considers it advantageous to do so. Who's to say that, left vague and undefined, these "world-leading" prevention and response systems would be anything of the kind? What do you think is more likely--a government, especially this British Columbia government, doing the legwork and in-depth evaluations to ensure that the methods used are of the highest quality as per a carefully crafted, publicly transparent list of requirements to ensure the highest standard of pipeline safety... or for money or favors to change hands, so that whatever methods that end up being used end up being called "world-leading" because, well, who says what "world-leading" is anyway?

Three guesses as to what I think is more likely to happen. First two don't count.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Photo: A Rosy DeLorean

There are some things that plenty of people can recognize, are intimately familiar with, without ever having seen the real deal--this happened to me with parts of Los Angeles, given the sheer number of movies filmed there. It's also the case with the DeLorean DMC-12, probably the most well-known car of the last forty years that most people have never seen outside of a television or movie screen.

I went through my whole life without seeing a DeLorean up close and personal until I made it to Portland last month. My visit intersected with the Starlight Parade of the Portland Rose Festival, so I checked it out. I didn't expect to find a DeLorean near the front of the pack, decked out in neon in all its gull-winged glory. The flux capacitor is probably done up in the same way.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

This means that you are free to Share (to copy, distribute and transmit the work) and to Remix (to adapt the work) under the following conditions: Attribution (you must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor, but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work), Noncommercial (you may not use this work for commercial purposes), and Share Alike (if you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one).

Friday, July 27, 2012

Tunnel Visions: Portland's MAX Light Rail

Every once in a while I hop out of New Westminster, land in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and look around at different ways of getting around by rail, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.

It's easy to skip over Portland. Tucked away as it is in Cascadia's southern fringe between the cultural touchstones we call Seattle and San Francisco, in years gone by a lot of people just passed over it completely--not that Portlanders minded not having to share their city with the rest of the world, of course. In my own younger days I was barely aware of it, but over the past twenty-five years, Portland has become a significant force in the realm of public transit, both as an example to emulate and a challenger to surpass.

Like most American cities, Portland once relied on a streetcar system, and also like most American cities, after the Second World War it proceeded to tear the tracks out of the streets and build a roaring concrete spaghetti-plate of elevated expressways. Unlike most American cities, however, Portland didn't conclude that ordinary buses were good enough and leave things at that. Perhaps there's always been something weird about Portland, and while Seattle was spending its time digging a tunnel underneath its downtown to slam more buses through, Portland was quietly building Cascadia's second rail transit system.

As a contemporary of Vancouver's SkyTrain and a product of the 1980s, the MAX Light Rail system provided me with a finer insight into the early days of light rail. It's a product of a time when ideas like transit-oriented development were still finding themselves, back before cities were clamoring for money to build new urban rail networks. Portland was a trailblazer. That's not to say that it lacks problems and doesn't have room to improve--the one-two punch of the Great Recession and retirement obligations inked in richer times make it hard for TriMet, the MAX's operator, to keep the books balanced. Nevertheless, MAX has been making transit in Portland easier for years, and even after another coffee-loving city which shall remain nameless had a quarter-century to catch up, I found MAX far more effective at getting around--especially given the size of the city it serves.

Effective, and a bit strange and unlike any of the other transit systems I've studied so far... but honestly that's not much of a surprise, because Portland is a bit strange and unlike any other city I've visited.


Pedestrians cross Morrison Street in the Portland Transit Mall, well ahead of the next Blue Line train bound for Hillsboro.

Since its first revenue run back in 1986, the MAX (that's "Metropolitan Area Express") light rail system has expanded from a single east-west line connecting downtown Portland with some of its satellite suburbs into a network of four lines reaching in all four cardinal directions with a fifth under construction right now, supplemented by the Portland Streetcar and the modest Westside Express Service commuter rail line. These connect Portland to the suburban communities of Beaverton, Hillsboro, Clackamas, and Gresham, but if you want to get to Vancouver--that is, the other Vancouver, the one in Washington state, you're out of luck. The Yellow Line was originally envisioned to cross the Columbia River, but voters nixed that idea when it was put to them.

All of the lines come together in downtown Portland, which means that if your destination is within a couple miles of the Transit Mall, there's a good chance that the MAX can deliver you there. Around Pioneer Square, where the rails cross, you'll find a stop at practically every intersection. The system is a boon to travelers, too; if you're landing at Portland International Airport like I did, the baggage carousels are barely five minutes from the Red Line station, and from there it's a direct ride all the way downtown. Likewise, train or bus passengers alighting at Union Station can heed the "GO BY TRAIN" sign, with Green Line and Yellow Line trains passing nearby.

As far as I can tell, none of Portland's original streetcar network survived to be incorporated into MAX, and the early-modern nature of the system distinguishes it both from reworked streetcar systems like the Muni Metro in San Francisco as well as the entirely 21st-century METRO Light Rail in Phoenix. To me, the MAX felt rather like a hybrid system. Within Portland, especially downtown Portland, it acts like a streetcar--stops are frequent and the rails are embedded directly in the street, although the installion different directions on parallel streets, such as westbound trains using Morrison while eastbound trains run along Yamhill, reduce the sort of traffic issues that lead to fulminations about streetcars "blocking up the street" such as there are in Toronto these days.

Outside central Portland, the situation changes drastically. MAX trains switch from street-running to former railway lines, and stop spacing drastically increases as the train spends as long as five minutes along a route threaded between the busy Interstate and indistinguishable business parks of the sort you'll find clustered around highway off-ramps all across North America. Though at times a route running parallel to the highway can let transit riders lean back in self-satisfaction as they roll past a traffic jam, there are spots in the system--such as the approaches to the tangle of tracks around Gateway Transit Center--where they screech to a crawl.

Still, the nature of the system means that its efficiency is inherently limited compared to elevated or underground rail--the MAX is far from being a true rapid transit solution, simply because a fair chunk of it runs on streets. Once the system transitions to the former freight rights-of-way its speed picks up considerably. Nevertheless, rush hour travel time for a Green Line train from Pioneer Courthouse Square to Clackamas Town Center Transit Center--and isn't that a hell of a mouthful--a journey of twenty-one stations and around thirty kilometers, came out to fifty minutes.

Some of the stops I passed along the Green Line between Portland and suburban Clackamas reminded me of nothing if not miniature GO Transit stations, plunked down right next to the highway and outfitted with significant long-term parking--the big daddy here is the Green Line terminus at Clackamas Town Center Transit Center, where a hulking grey multi-story parking garage squats immediately adjacent to the platform, and there's no question as to how most riders are getting there. To a degree, it's understandable; the railway lines taken over by MAX have been there for a while, and they didn't exactly attract transit-oriented development. Nevertheless, once you get outside the central city, it's as if MAX changes its mode entirely and becomes a high-frequency commuter rail system.

One of the many streetside ticket vending machines you'll find in Portland.

Still, for such a large system fares on MAX are eminently reasonable, and with the integration made possible by TriMet operating it along with the regional bus system and the Portland Streetcar, it's easy to get around for cheap. Sometimes you don't even need to pay a fare at all; much of downtown Portland and rather a bit beyond is enclosed within the Free Rail Zone, established back in 1975 as Fareless Square, and within this space it's all hop-on, hop-off without any ticket required at all. Unfortunately, thanks to TriMet's budget difficulties this freedom isn't long for this world, and on September 1st the Free Rail Zone will--poof--disappear. For now, though, it's a boon to Portlanders and miserly tourists alike.

At the time of my visit in early June, TriMet's service area was divided into three zones extending outward from central Portland, similar to the way TransLink has divided up Metro Vancouver but without interference from vagaries of geography. Even so, when it comes to the price tag TriMet has TransLink beat: an adult all-zone ticket, which allows the holder unlimited use of transit services for two hours, costs only $2.40. An unlimited-use day pass, which was my ticket to getting around Stumptown, set me back only $5. The September reorganization that's getting rid of the Free Rail Zone will also eliminate the zoned fares, and while the adult fare is being raised ten cents to $2.50, the price of a day pass will remain stable--still making it one hell of a deal. Here in Vancouver, it's twice that price.

The most direct way to get the tickets is to buy them directly at the stations--MAX is not one of those systems where you can buy your fare aboard. There on the side of the street you'll find ticket vending machines that accept cash, credit, and debit cards, and while they didn't have a problem running my Canadian credit card, some machines don't take cash at all and others just don't register the card you're sliding through the reader again and again. It's not necessarily a gamebreaker, since stations have multiple machines, but if you're in a hurry that uncooperative hunk of metal can mean the difference between taking your seat and watching the train breeze away while you're only seconds from the doors. What surprised me the most about these outdoor machines is that a lot aren't even covered--after all, Portland isn't exactly the driest city in the world.

There's one thing they don't go out of their way to tell you, though, but if you're a tourist seeing the sights it's a good way to save a bit of money--at the Oregon Zoo, directly adjacent to Washington Park Station, showing that you got there by MAX means you're eligible for a slight discount on zoo admission. So you can go in and see all the critters for even less than you'd expected to pay, all thanks to the rails.


People gather at Oak Street/Southwest 1st Avenue Station in Portland's Old Town.

The nature of MAX stations is highly dependent on what part of the system you'll find them in. Within Portland itself, they're as lightly brushed-in as possible while still serving the function of stations; there'll be a sign denoting the name of the station with colored circles indicating what lines service it, a couple of ticket vending machines, a few benches, TV monitors with next-train arrival times, some garbage cans, and perhaps one or two long shelters in case the rain comes pelting down. They're rather reminiscent of stations on the METRO Light Rail in Phoenix, in that respect--though Phoenix is far more likely to be the world's driest city than Portland.

The only areas where you're required to have a valid fare are aboard MAX trains and other TriMet vehicles, so there's no need for any permanent barriers; instead, they just blend into the surrounding urban environment. This does change from time to time--in its article "TriMet Life," Willamette Week drew attention to TriMet's practice of establishing temporary barriers around the MAX station at Jeld-Wen Field, home of the Portland Timbers, for fare enforcement purposes after games let out. It sounds similar to the way that the TTC staffs Exhibition Loop with collectors while the CNE is running, but without any fixed structure.

When it comes to fixed structures, though, Washington Park Station makes up for all the rest of them put together. With its platforms dug out two hundred and sixty feet beneath Washington Park, it's the farthest underground that urban transit has taken me so far. As Portland's only subterranean station, it's no surprise that it maintains a geological theme throughout, from the smooth stonework of the surface building to the rock core samples on display in the clear tubes at platform level. Public art also has a firm presence there, making up for its general absence at the central Portland stations, with the platform wall adorned with renderings of dinosaurs, dodos, and the development of the human skull, descriptions of geological and biological history, and a timeline of invention that goes from writing in 3500 BC through soap and the seismograph to microprocessors in 1969. Having that sort of stuff to read while waiting for the next train was a welcome change from the "advertising and also a few news clippings" standard that I've found in places like Vancouver and Toronto. What really struck me about washington Park is the entrances and exits: while there's presumably an emergency staircase or two for if things go sour, all regular access between the platform and surface is entirely by elevator.

One of the platforms at Washington Park Station, North America's deepest transit station.

Once outside downtown Portland the station designs change significantly, reflecting their surroundings as well as the time in which they were built. One of my trips took me out to Beaverton Transit Center in the suburban community of Beaverton, Oregon, the Red Line's western terminus but an intermediate station on the Blue Line. It's also the point where the Westside Express Service commuter rail connects to the rest of the system, but if not for the absence of huge sprawling parking lots it could have been any GO Transit station in the sprawling fringe of the Greater Toronto Area.

It's a complex station, as MAX stations go; there are three tracks serving Red Line and Blue Line trains, a fourth a minute's walk away where the WES commuter trains unload, and a modest station building that wouldn't be out of place on the Barrie Line, and stops for the multiple bus routes that converge there. It's open and simple to get around, but to me it felt like an outpost of transit flying the flag in an indifferent wilderness.

Now, I didn't see much of Beaverton while I was there, so I can't speak on what that community is like... but from the environs of Beaverton Transit Center, there didn't seem to be much of anything for the station to connect with. The half-vacant Canyon Place shopping center to which it's adjacent seems more like it's hiding the station. On my admittedly brief walk around the area, the only hint I saw of the transit center's existence was a "NO PARK AND RIDE" sandwich board in the mall's parking lot--otherwise, had I not arrived through there, I could easily have not realized what was right next door.

Outside of Portland, where the nature of the streets demands the use of side platforms carved out of the sidewalk, the stations themselves vary between side and center platforms; the problem I found is that there's not much consistency in terms of "group of side-platform stations" followed by "group of center-platform stations," and so on my ride out to Clackamas I found myself performing the Nanaimo Station Shuffle--that is, stepping out of the car to let people in or out, because that's the only move I can make--as soon as Lloyd Center.

The terminus at Clackamas Town Center Transit Center is a center platform sandwiched between two tracks--and there "sandwiched" is not an exaggeration, but a simple statement of fact. The platform is perhaps twelve feet wide, and when you combine that with an unloading train that was still standing room only, I had to fight against a human riptide to get to the best position for the photograph I wanted.


Two Type 2 trains rest side-by-side at Beaverton Transit Center.

The MAX may have a relatively short history, but that history is clear to see in the shape of its rolling stock. Until 2009, the system relied on trains that made no secret of their 1980s design heritage, even the ones produced in the 1990s and early 2000s. These older models, the Type 1s manufactured by Bombardier and Types 2 and 3 by Siemens, harken back to the early days of light rail in North America. With their boxy frames and physical rollsigns, they first struck me as predecessors of the Kinki Sharyo cars used in Phoenix and Seattle or beefier cousins of the ALRV, and their lines are reminiscent of the ALRV-derived rolling stock that were used by the Santa Clara VTA Light Rail until 2003 and which are still used by TRAX in Salt Lake City. They're close to being one model in multiple varieties, like the Mark II cars on Vancouver's SkyTrain - recognizeably similar to one another, but with noticeable design differences.

For me, the differences between the Type 1 cars and their immediate successors are most obvious on the inside--they're high-floor vehicles, which is not particularly surprising for something that entered service in 1986. Subsequent MAX rolling stock is low-floor, with the entire car accessible without having to climb a single stair, and MAX was among the first of North America's light rail networks to roll out low-floor cars, back in the late 1990s. No matter what type, they are big and roomy and feel very open with their high ceilings. Type 2 and Type 3 cars have spaces for bicycles as well as dedicated wheelchair spots, and priority seating for seniors is marked out near the doors. The operator, like in many other designs, is completely separated from the passenger space. Considering the amout of assaults that happen when that's not the case, it's not a bad idea, though the double-ended nature of the cars does cut down on seating somewhat as a result.

These cars are smooth while accelerating and quiet when driving, with the loudest noise coming from the thankfully-present air conditioning system, although when they're at top speed I noticed a tendency towards what the notes I took at the time call "a manic electric wail." It wasn't anything particularly annoying, as I recall, only a bit unique.

These older cars are most frequently seen in two-car consists, but due to the limitations imposed by the size of Portland's blocks they can't get much larger than that. Still, they are double-ended, so it's a fairly common thing to encounter one-car Green or Yellow Line trains later in the day.

Then there are the Type 4s.

One of the new Type 4 Siemens S70 trains running the Blue Line to Gresham negotiates a curve along SW 1st Avenue.

Even if you've never been to Portland, you may already be familiar with the Type 4 train. Outside Portland they're known as the S70, and it's quickly becoming one of the workhorses of modern American light rail; it's also used in Charlotte, Houston, San Diego, Salt Lake City, and even on the French networks in Paris and Mulhouse, where they're used in a tram-train role. It would also have been the main rolling stock of the expanded Ottawa light rail system until that plan fell apart a few years ago. If Surrey's light rail ambitions get off the ground, they may end up using them here.

They're futuristic, fast, and sleek--"the sleek ones" is how I thought of them before I got around to looking up what they were actually called. Their rollsigns are digital and, for me, far easier to understand at a glance--where Type 1 through 3 trains have the written destination on a background of the line color it's serving, Type 4s just have a simple square of color next to the destination. As far as I recall, all of the cars have side-mounted rollsigns as well, a necessity given the degree of interlining that occurs across the system.

As befitting modern vehicles, the Type 4 trains are all low-floor and manage to squeeze in a little more room for seated and standing passengers, topping out at a per-car capacity of 172 and thereby beating out even the modern Mark II cars on the SkyTrain. I never saw Type 4 trains running on their own, though, and there's a good reason for that--unlike the rest of the cars in TriMet's inventory, Type 4s are not double-sided. Instead, they have seating at the end of the car opposite the operator's cab in the same way as CLRVs and ALRVs do. One of the other things that struck me as odd about the Type 4 cars is that the lion's share of the seats face backwards. They also make unique sounds--on multiple occasions while riding different Type 4 cars, I encountered an odd creaking noise during braking and not during braking, because that really narrows it down, you know?

Across all of the cars there's a very limited advertising presence, and most of the ads that are there are for TriMet itself. These include civil rights reminders of the sort that surprised me on encountering them in the BART--surprised that this kind of thing needs to be spelled out--in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, Korean, and Chinese, but otherwise the notices tend to be in English or Spanish only. There are passenger assistance alarms, but no mechanism for a passenger to request an emergency stop.

There's not much bench seating in MAX rolling stock, mostly just in the central articulated sections of the cars, which works just fine for me--I hate bench seating, those rows of seats next to each other along the walls of the car. Mostly the seats are arranged two-by-two, though there are a handful of single seats here and there. They're hardly common, though. I imagine that during busy periods, they would become rather hot commodities.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

The wide-open interior of a TriMet Type 3 car.

There are no barriers to riding the MAX. There are no fare-paid zones, no turnstiles, nothing--it's an honor system, like the SkyTrain still is until they finish the reconstruction, and though there is fare enforcement done on the system I never encountered it during my four days in Portland. Proof of payment is all that you need, and that proof of payment can take you far; a ticket or day pass purchased at a MAX ticket vending machine is equally valid on the Portland Streetcar or TriMet's bus system.

The rules for passengers are fairly standard, the sort of thing you find at transit agencies across North America: no consumption of food and drink, no blocking of aisles or doors--a rule, incidentally, that may be very difficult to follow depending on the design of your rolling stock, such as the Mark I SkyTrain cars--and no bicycle riding, rollerblading, or skateboarding on TriMet property, although these restrictions generally are followed as closely as you'd expect. More than once I saw someone hop on their bike or skateboard and ride along down the platform only seconds after getting off the train.

Like other, modern systems, MAX is equipped with automated voice announcements, and it generally follows the pattern I've noticed earlier of "female English speaker, male Spanish speaker," although for some reason Green Line notifications seem to use a male voice regardless of language. Destination information is simple, taking the form of "This is a Green Line train to Clackamas Town Center," repeated in Spanish. At every stop the cars announce which doors will be opening, a technological leap that most transit agencies are still puzzling over, though I found it an odd bit of anthropomorphization in that the announcements state this in the form of "doors to my right." Unlike other agencies, there are no door-closing chimes--the car just tells you that "the doors are closing."

The announcements also mean that, whether you're a new Portlander or an fumbling tourist, you don't have to mispronounce street names out of ignorance. Here's a hint: "Couch" and "Glisan" are not said the way they're spelled.

Depending on how you arrive in Portland, reaching the MAX can be easy or a little less easy if you don't know to look for it. At Portland International Airport, the signs pointing to the MAX platform are difficult to miss, as is the huge revolving door that leads to the station and the wall of Red Line schedule pamphlets. If you come by train to Union Station, it's only slightly more tricky because there's no signage anywhere that I could find admitting to the MAX system's existence. If you came by bus, there is room for potential misunderstanding: while there is a platform right outside the main terminal doors, served by the Green Line and Yellow Line, boarding a train there will take you away from downtown Portland.

Whether you're going to or from downtown, headways can be a bit of an issue. In the Free Rail Zone, of course, it's effectively irrelevant--the high degree of interlining delivers a train every few minutes when things are going well, and if you're not going far you may be able to just hop on the first one that shows up. Beyond that, though, the time between trains telescopes massively. At 9:33 AM on a Saturday, for example, the next Green Line train was scheduled for arrival in eleven minutes, and the next one after that wasn't expected until 10:21; nearly a forty-minute separation. There are commuter rail systems that have better headways than that. Likewise, as early as 9:30 PM, I observed Blue Line trains already starting to be short-turned at Willow Creek Transit Center, well in advance of the line's usual terminus at Hillsboro.

One thing that you do have to be careful about while in downtown Portland, when it comes to stations, is making sure that you're at the right station--not in terms of whether this platform will take you in the direction you want, but whether or not it's a MAX station at all. In addition to rail, Central Portland is heavily served by buses, many of them paralleling MAX routes for at least some distance in the core, and it's easy to confuse a bus station for a MAX station if you're not careful. The main differences are that the stop sign will have a logo of a bus instead of a MAX train, there will be no ticket vending machine--since tickets can be purchased directly aboard buses--and the monitors will have arrival times for multiple bus routes. Still, it's an easy mistake to make that could eat up time you don't necessarily have.


A Green Line train unloads passengers at Union Station.

I won't ignore that TriMet and the MAX have problems--it's a common affliction of transit providers everywhere. Vancouver has TransClunk, Toronto has Take the Car, Portland has Try-Mess. Even though MAX is setting ridership records, even in a city like Portland and its surroundings it still has to reckon with ingrained cultural attitudes of car ownership. The article that Willamette Week published about the system while I was there was enlightening, because when reading between the lines it made it seem like there are a lot of people in the Portland area who are still essentially unfamiliar with the system, even after twenty-five years.

Part of this is due to the structure of the system; even in Portland, there's a lot of the city that it doesn't even come close to serving since the old rights-of-way didn't go that direction. Expansion of the Portland Streetcar, as well as the construction of the new Orange Line south to Milwaukee, will bring higher-order transit service to areas that lack it. Nevertheless, Portland itself has hardly reached "built-out" status when it comes to transit, and there is a lot of room for it to expand physically and culturally.

It faces problems doing that, of course, problems strongly rooted in the past. Portland's downtown is heavily evocative of the past, from the towering architecture that still stands as a badge of 19th-century prominence, to the numerous "FOR RENT" and "FOR LEASE" signs that mark a city in some respects still recovering from the one-two punches of the postwar migrations and the recent economic crash, and the ubiquity of parking. There's one parking garage at SW Alder and SW 4th that advertised an $11 per day rate, and one street away at SW 3rd there was another garage hawking an $11.50 "Early Bird" special and a maximum daily rate of $16, and they were just two of many. It didn't seem like it would be particularly difficult to find a parking space in downtown Portland, and though community opposition did rally to prevent the 1950s transit vision from fully materializing, Portland remains heavily stocked with highways. Against that sort of convenience, and when culture has spent decades encouraging the use of private automobiles, any transit system would be at a disadvantage. Even today, there are people still campaigning against the extension of MAX service to their stomping grounds.

But MAX has potential nevertheless. Potential power to the MAX!

Previous Tunnel Visions

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Photo: Motion Blur Power to the MAX

It's remarkably easy to get light to smear--that's the wonder of non-instantaneous exposures. The easiest way I've found to do it is wait for the late evening, when the sky is a deep, dark blue but it's not quite night, and take a photo of something moving at any speed, really. I like the almost otherworldly effect that is created by it, where the world is frozen but the subject of the photo is moving too fast to be anything but a blur.

Subjects like this Type 4 MAX train I caught one evening in Portland, pulling away from Skidmore Fountain and heading toward the airport. It makes it look like the train's moving a lot faster than it really is; that's just one of the ways the camera lies.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

It's Not Easy Being A Pro-Nuclear Environmentalist

The manner in which you, the reader, reacted to the idea of a "pro-nuclear environmentalist" may well illustrate just why I say that. If you're looking for a position that leads you to believe the rest of the world has gone somewhat askew, that enemies have made common cause to frustrate you, then I suggest you give it a try. You'd certainly have a greater understanding of things, at any rate, and understanding is one of the most vital things in the world. The lack of it is a problem--since I'm sure that if I was writing in a newspaper with any sort of circulation, the preceding paragraph would have been more than enough to spark angry comments about how I'm obviously a nuclear industry shill and "no nukes is good nukes."

Like I've said before at other times, there's something about nuclear power that twists plenty of people. I get the impression that a lot of folks think of it the way our ancestors thought of witchery and black magic, almost as if the reactor cores are really portals to Hell and everything that comes out of them is inherently evil and bad. Those attitudes show through fairly easily, particularly when I see newspapers oh-so-innocently drop references to atomic power. It's like they're saying "we're just presenting the facts, and by the way, you do remember what else was atomic, right?"

Sometimes I don't even have to look particularly hard to find it. Like, say, the cover of the Georgia Straight that's on the streets of Metro Vancouver right now, a very obviously unbiased design involving "fresh fish" that happen to have three eyes, are lying in flourescent slime, and are setting off a Geiger counter... because the average levels of radioactive cesium in Japanese fish were thirty-six becquerels per kilogram in June, below Japan's own ceiling of 100 Bq/kg and well below the Canadian ceiling of 1,000 Bq/kg. Less than ten percent of catches in June exceeded the ceiling--but hey! Nuclear. Not that anything is entirely free of radiation, of course--thanks to the decay of potassium-40, your body probably registers somewhere in the neighborhood of four thousand becquerels.

Still--the environmental movement and the anti-nuclear movement have gone hand-in-hand for quite a long time. I could understand the rise of an anti-nuclear movement after Chernobyl and Fukushima. After all, these were significant events with lasting legacies, and there's nothing unusual about things like that giving people pause. It's only natural to react like that, right?

That's not how it happened, though. Instead, the modern anti-nuclear movement grew out of the understandable and sensible opposition to nuclear weapons during the height of the Cold War... afterward, of course, it transformed into what we know today. The first protests against nuclear power emerged in the 1960s and started gaining steam in the mid-1970s, well before Three Mile Island. Chernobyl and Fukushima only energized the opponents, but really, it's not as if tens of thousands of people protesting against nuclear power is something that's started just in the last year. It's been going on for longer than I've been alive.

The movement even has a logo: the Smugging Sun... no, wait, the Smiling Smug... sorry, I meant the Smiling Sun, accompanied in English by "Nuclear Power? No Thanks." This was designed in 1975, a full eleven years before the first accident that I feel could have prompted rational opposition. The fact that the Sun is, itself, a gigantic nuclear reactor is conveniently ignored.

It's been going on for decades, and today I feel like I was betrayed by people who should have been looking out for me before I was even born.

NO NUKES! NO--wait, you're saying that's a COAL power plant? No uranium? Not even with the cooling towers? Whoops, terribly sorry for the mistake, just keep on doing as you're doing. We thought this was Three Mile Island.

Let me ask you something: when's the last time you remember hearing about tens of thousands of people protesting the construction of a new coal-fired power plant? How often do you hear of Greens in government using what clout they have to engineer fossil fuel phaseouts? When was the last time you heard about a coal power plant being closed well before its intended lifespan ran out because of environmental concerns? For me, the answers to all three are "never." The closest thing to a coal protest I can remember is the event a couple of months ago, when people blocked a coal train near the border. Among all the jurisdictions in the world, Ontario is the only one I know of that has actively legislated an exit from coal power.

I could be wrong--I could just not be hearing about these things... but that's part of the problem. I take an active interest in informing myself. I go out of my way to look things up and expose myself to information. I read newspapers from across the world, and yet I'm not hearing about any of this stuff. Simply put, then, if I'm unaware of this sort of thing, how aware would the average person who only reads the sports and comics sections be? Events like nuclear protests are transcendent, in their way--they gather attention. They're things people talk about. It gets its own inertia.

Meanwhile, the real problem chugs on. Meanwhile, coal power stations continue to belch their waste into the atmosphere. Even ignoring the issue of carbon dioxide emissions, the fact remains is that coal is the dirtiest source of power in existence. Coal plants emit sulfur dioxide, the main agent of acid rain. They emit hydrochloric acid. They emit fine particulates that can be inhaled and cause lung disease. They emit mercury. Some of these things, they emit tens of thousands of tonnes of it every year. when everything is working exactly as it's supposed to. They emit, and if they could I'm sure they would laugh as environmentalists furiously unload their chambers against nuclear, keeping their back to a force that's been steadily polluting the world for more than a century.

I would be disturbed, but I would not be particularly surprised, to find that environmental organizations like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club and so on have been financed in part by coal companies--because over the past forty years they've sure done a hell of a job to ensure that nobody cares about pollution from coal.

So it feels lonesome, like I'm one of the only ones who recognizes that even if a tool can be dangerous when it's not treated with the respect it deserves, it's still better to use it than try to get along without it. I wouldn't even have a problem with a world that managed to move beyond nuclear fission... so long as it had already moved beyond coal, oil, and natural gas. Sure, there is Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy, but it's a fringe thing--its website literally looks like something you would have found on Geocities in 1998, from the animated flag gifs to the frames.

Don't expect new technology to come without a fight, either. Sure, the Sun is actually a nucelar fusion reactor... but remember, nuclear fusion is still nuclear! When it comes to fusion and organized environmentalism, it seems, don't hold your breath on any kind of accord - back in 2005, the French group Sortir du nucléaire criticized ITER as dangerous because scientists didn't yet fully understand how to control the fusion process... you know, exactly the sort of thing that you would build a research reactor to discover! Greenpeace got in on the dogpile as well, criticizing the investment of time and money into ITER because if ITER ends up being successful, it won't be until midcentury... so I guess the implicit position there is "cross your fingers that the world can be powered by wind, solar, and hydroelectricity, because we're certainly not going to support any potential way out if it can't."

I'm of the opinion that actions speak louder than words... and in that respect, it's clear to me that the anti-nuclear movement backs fossil fuel energy 100 percent.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Photo: The Dawn of a New Toronto Day

I previously posted a photo taken at around the same time as this one, but they're hard enough to get that want to keep sharing. Back in November, I had a stop to make at Pearson on a flight from Fredericton, New Brunswick back to Vancouver, and while the plane from out east was descending low over the megacity the sunrise peeked above the horizon.

Here, downtown North York along Yonge Street is a narrow corridor of skyscrapers bathed in streetlights, and the circuit diagram of quiet streets outlines neighborhoods where people are still waking up--after all, it was barely 6:30 when this shot was taken.

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Star Trek's Creative Stagnancy

When I was young, Star Trek was not only my gateway to science fiction - aside from a few books like Ender's Game or Escape from Splatterbang, it was essentially coterminous with the entire idea of science fiction. In Central Ontario in the early 1990s, before the ubiquity of the internet and the cultural universalization of what had once been the domain of the strange and timid nerd, it was easy to fall into that pattern; when it came to televised science fiction, Star Trek was pretty much the only game in town--resulting in an audience concentration that enabled things such as CityTV booking out the SkyDome in 1994 to screen the last episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. That wouldn't necessarily happen today; after eighteen years, the fans have diffused.

Honestly, it's for the best. In many respects, Star Trek can be seen as "beginner's science fiction," an easily approachable, entry-level gateway to everything that lies beyond. A similar thing happened fifty years ago: when the pilot of the original Star Trek was screened at the 24th World Science Fiction Convention in 1966, science fiction fandom was vastly, vastly smaller and more insular than it is today. After Star Trek hit the airwaves, sf conventions were deluged by new fans who had been introduced to this entire new world of possibilities. At the time, of course, there were concerns that the tide of new fans would swamp the structures that had existed up until then; David Gerrold's The World of Star Trek, written in 1973, gives a good look into the concerns of the time. Still, it didn't end up becoming a dry run of Usenet's Endless September; many of the new fans integrated themselves into the existing structure, and Star Trek provided another avenue for people to become aware of this thing called "science fiction."

They may move on, but on the whole Star Trek itself remains behind. When I finally started branching out into things that weren't based on an idea by Gene Roddenberry, it was like the gates of the world had swung open. At its core, Star Trek is fundamentally limited by fifty years of precedent--a dense kudzu of stories that often contradict each other, and restrict possibilities.

That chair looks like it's got lots of possibilities for comfort, though.

Honestly, looking back on it now, at times Star Trek just seems fundamentally uncreative. I know that this is mostly a result of how television has changed in the last twenty-five years; after its debut in 1987, almost every episode of The Next Generation was effectively self-contained, and when there was a two-parter with the "Previously on Star Trek: The Next Generation" trailer, you knew you were in for something out of the ordinary. Being unable to build on what you've built previously, except for minor callbacks like Picard's Ressikan flute that don't require any prior familiarity anyway, means that everything has to be simple.

For me, what really sums up this sort of attitude is, for me, the way it deals with planets. Only a handful of worlds in Star Trek actually have their own names, and even then they're almost always derived from the people that live there--Vulcans come from Vulcan, Cardassians come from Cardassia, Ferengi come from Ferenginar, humans come from Huma, and so forth. Klingons come from Qo'noS, which is the only departure from the pattern I can think of. Otherwise, the tactic is always "Star Name, Orbital Position." So humans would instead come from Sol III, and so on. It doesn't matter whether it's a colony just starting out or the sprawling homeworld of a species that numbers in the billions. It strikes me as a sort of creative sterility. After all, by the time of The Next Generation the writers had almost moved away from the senseless Greek letter combinations that were in vogue in the 1960s, aside from insipidities like the "Alpha Omicron system." They still had to come up with the name of the star anyway--why not just apply it to the planet of interest, instead?

It's certainly more natural. In fact, as I got older that was one of the factors that attracted me to Star Wars: the fact that all the planets had their own names! Like they were important in and of themselves, that people lived there that weren't satisfied with living on the Eastern Continent of Beta Whatsis IV! This was particularly true in the Expanded Universe novels, which I got into through the Thrawn trilogy--a trilogy written by Timothy Zahn, someone who'd already found success in science fiction writing, and who brought those sensibilities to the Star Wars universe.

Honestly, after fifty years that sort of thing is what Star Trek is in dire need of: a re-evaluation, a re-opening, more possibilities for creativity to flow in unanticipated directions.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Photo: Toward Misty Mountains

It's about time all that Siberian wildfire smoke and general haze lifted from the Lower Mainland; for a while, the North Shore Mountains were reduced to faint suggestions of themselves even from downtown Vancouver. The sky was wide and clear on Thursday evening, when I took this shot looking north from the end of the platform at Surrey Central Station, looking toward one of the walls of the world.

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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Going for Gold in the Race to the Bottom

When I was young, I was a fool; I thought the Olympics were a good thing. These days, reading the news that comes out of the United Kingdom puts me in the same frame of mind as watching a chemical train derailment in slow motion--there may be something oddly beautiful in the way so many tons of steel can dance when given the opportunity, but the end result isn't going to be pleasant for anyone around. Only a few days are left until the Summer Olympics get underway, and already the Games have provided an unparalleled view of what a twenty-first century police state really looks like.

You may have heard about some of the more glaring abridgements of Londoners' everyday freedoms: entire lanes reserved for use of the "Olympic family," which in practice means the bigshots of the International Olympic Commission and their corporate guests; businesses, like pubs looking to draw in a crowd to watch the events on their bigscreen, are restricted from advertising with terms even as innocuous as "2012 Games," thanks to starkly overzealous government legislation, and Olympic spectators can't even bring in potato chips in their original packaging--that is, unless they were made by McDonald's, Coca-Cola or Cadbury, the official Olympic sponsors who would evidently shrivel up and die if their advertising dominance was questioned. Nevertheless, the Olympics isn't just corporate brand policing festival or the world's largest showroom for modern security methodologies. It's also pioneering the enforcement of precrime--that is, official sanctions preventing people from doing things that the Powers That Be suspect they might possibly do. No word yet on whether they're getting their information from hairless precognitives, though.

It's cold comfort to Darren Cullen, though. Billed as a "professional graffiti artist" in the Guardian, Cullen has worked for major companies including Adidas, one of those Olympic sponsors, with the creation of advertising murals and so on. Nevertheless, earlier this week Cullen and three others alleged to be graffiti artists were arrested on charges of suspicion of conspiracy to commit criminal damage - incidentally, that sounds like the sort of charge name I'd come up with to imply an out-of-control police state - and while none were charged, they were subjected to onerous bail conditions on their release. Namely, they cannot go near any Olympic venue, they cannot own unset paint, etching equipment, spray paint or other artists' tools, and outside of a tightly defined set of circumstances, they are forbidden from accessing "any railway system, including tubes and trams, or [being] in any train, tram, or tube station or in or on any other railway property not open to the public."

And these conditions last until November, well after the Olympics become nothing but a huge balance sheet liability and a massive throbbing hangover for the British taxpaying public.

Well, you see, freedom is all well and good, but in certain circumstances...

This is the first time I've heard of restrictions like this being handed down, so I don't know how common it is, but no matter what it's a terrible precedent to set or uphold. As someone who relies on a public railway system to get around, the prospect of such a senselessly limiting restriction being passed down is chilling. Bans from public transit make sense only in limited and relevant circumstances, such as a person who habitually hits the silent alarm strip for no reason or keeps starting fistfights on the platform. Not when the "crime," if there even is one in this circumstance, has nothing to do with the railway.

This shouldn't stand. Think of it this way - if people could be arrested on suspicion of some crime that had nothing to do with activities behind the wheel, immediately released, but barred by law from using their automobile, would that be reflective of a government that's responsive to the rights and liberties due to the people it serves? Or would it represent more a government out of control, thrashing about madly, casting suspicion and blame hither and yon in a feverish daze?

When I look at this, it isn't about justice or crime prevention at all. As far as I'm concerned, it's about control. It's a reminder that the agents of the state can ruin you, should they but feel the need to do so. It's yet another data point reinforcing my view of the United Kingdom as a land that's on a downhill slope toward a police state. I wouldn't be surprised to see the UK descend into velvet-gloved authoritarianism in my lifetime, because I keep seeing news like this. Harsh news for one of the crucibles of democracy.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Photo: The Crow Has Taken Off

There are some photos that depend purely on split-second reflexes and luck. Every once in a while the dice come up in my favor and I press the big silver button just at the right moment--like yesterday. While wandering around Richmond and waiting for the crows to do something photogenic and entertaining, I snapped this shot of one of them an instant after taking flight. It's one of those things that we see all the time but yet never see; some motions are just too fast for the brain to process.

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Short SF Review #24: The Man in the Moon

"The Man in the Moon," by Mack Reynolds
Appeared in Amazing Stories, July 1950 and March 1969

There was no night and no day; there was no sound and there was nothing to do; there was practically no food to eat and little water to drink. And this lasted for four days.

There was nothing to do but sit and think.

Forty-three years ago tomorrow Neil Armstrong took one small step off the ladder of the lunar lander, but when it comes to journeys in spirit he wasn't even close to being first. In decades when spaceflight was a distant dream of engineers, enthusiasts and scattered scientifictionists, the moon was the shining objective, the great goal. Moon journey stories are littered through the corpus of science fiction, from Asimov's "Trends" to Heinlein's "The Man Who Sold the Moon," and go back past Jules Verne and the supergun Columbiad all the way to Cyrano de Bergerac's seventeenth-century moonflights by firecrackers and more.

The years between the end of the Second World War and the first spaceflights weren't just the Golden Age of science fiction--they were also a shining time for moonflight stories, a time where the technical state of the art was advanced enough that it was a "day after tomorrow" idea, but when there was still wide room for speculation as to how it would all come about. Many of them didn't resemble the form that the actual lunar missions took--but they're still valuable, both for entertainment value and as windows into a vanished time.

Mack Reynolds' "The Man in the Moon" is one of these. Republished by Amazing Stories in early 1969, a copy of which I found in a Portland vintage store, its first appearance was in the July 1950 issue of Amazing and looks at the moon from a time when some people still thought rockets wouldn't work in space because there was no air for them to push against. It's the story of the first successful manned flight to the moon, and resembles Apollo 11 in two respects: the flight was by rocket, and it was American.

Other than that, well...

The year is left unspecified, but from the nature of the story it seems to be set twenty minutes into the future--that is, probably around 1955--and it's a world where the United States and Soviet Union (or "our potential enemy," as the story calls it) have thrown themselves into space with even more reckless abandon than they did in real history. The United States has been attempting, in secret, to make a successful lunar landing because the Potential Enemy has successfully placed a space station in Earth orbit, and it's taken as a matter of course that a space station "completely dominates earth in the military sense"--this is, of course, why Don Pettit is now the Science Lord of Humanity. Therefore, the United States is desperately racing to land men on the moon to counterbalance the enemy space station.

I'm sure it must have made a lot more sense back in 1950.

This was the state-of-the-art in rocketry back in 1950, incidentally.

The story follows Captain Jeff Stevens of the United States Space Service, an astronaut in the scattershot effort to claim the moon for America through a secret space program that resembles nothing if not a shotgun blast. Rather than using a single powerful rocket to send up sizeable capsules, Mack Reynolds' moonshots involve as many as one hundred rockets being fired at the moon--most being unmanned, and more than half of them somehow managing not to make it to the moon at all. Stevens is one of three astronauts who are to be fired at the moon in individual rockets in hopes of claiming it--of the previous three sent only one managed to land, only to suffocate from lack of air.

This story is thick on desperation--the problem is that it assumes the need for things to go in such a desperate way is so obvious that it's unnecessary to establish them in the story itself. As a result, from my 21st-century vantage point it all looks rather crazy, like "Kerbal Space Program: The Story," but with dudes instead of kerbals. Pre-flight checks? Not in this world; the astronauts aren't informed that they're flying until twenty minutes before launch, and once Stevens finishes strapping himself into his own rocket, he's only got four minutes to wait before launch.

Another oddity of the story is the terminology that's used, an artifact of its predating the actual Space Age. The story opens with a quote from Willy Ley's Conquest of Space, and Reynolds uses Ley's preferred terminology: the German term brenschluss is used continuously throughout the early parts of the story without explanation, and it wasn't until I got to a computer that it made sense; it refers to engine cutoff, it's a term Ley unsuccessfully tried to get the American aerospace industry to adopt. Similarly, the story refers to the moon rockets as multi-step vehicles, when in reality we would call them multi-stage.

While "The Man in the Moon" is an interesting adventure story, it does have its flaws. Not only does the story's triggering event feel particularly artificial, the ending struck me as hollow. Sure, Stevens manages to land and assemble a crude base bare-handed from the cargo rockets that preceded him. He's also got a broken arm because the descent stage collapsed while he was on the ladder. He is the commander and sole occupant of Fort Luna... to what end? So the United States has a base on the moon. In what world does that translate into "dominance of Earth," and how does it prevent simple Cold War one-upmanship?

This story's real value is, I think, getting across what science fiction readers in 1950 were prepared to accept as realistic and believable.


Previous Short SF Reviews: