Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Dandelion Project


A Fond Farewell to the Planet

Copyright © 2006 by Tyson Gill

Adrian made one final inventory, carefully confirming each item against the checklist provided. He inserted the payment form into the pre-addressed mailer last, with no trace of hesitation about having spent an entire year of graphic editing work to cover the submission fee. Finally satisfied that nothing had been overlooked, he sealed the package with the reverence of a precious time capsule. Now that it was finally ready to mail, he could hardly bring himself to part with it.

“The postman is coming,” his golden retriever alerted him with a familiar woof.

Securing the package in his lap, Adrian swung his wheelchair around and rolled silently toward the door, tapping the over-sized button open it. A gust of hot, wet air swept in through the doorway, laying siege to the air-conditioners defending the widely spaced entryway.

Against the spectacular backdrop of an angry, storm-crazed sky, the nonchalant approach of the postman might have seemed incongruous were it not an everyday occurrence. The approaching postman adjusted his balance adroitly as the frenetic wind buffeted him from every angle. All in all, it was relatively pleasant weather.

Adrian always wished he could be a postman too, strolling from house to house, warmed and cooled within one of those signature post-office blue all-weather suits. He had read that they were made of high-tech Nanobiotic™ fibers that adjusted automatically to almost any weather condition. But it could never be. The nature of his injury precluded ever being able to even use prosthetics.

“Lovely weather we’re having today eh Adrian?” Mailman Max called when he got close enough to be heard over the wind without shouting. It was Max’s usual greeting. Adrian typically came out to greet him to break up his otherwise humdrum days. In fact he ordered supplies in separate shipments to ensure that daily bit of human contact.

“It’s beautiful,” Adrian confirmed, grinning, as he rolled forward to the outermost fringe of the household climate systems protection.

Max halted, a gust of rain pelting him from out of nowhere, as he regarded the package proudly resting in the lap of the crippled boy.

“That it?” he asked simply, following up with an easy smile.

“This is it,” Adrian announced proudly, holding out the package like a holy offering.

“Right,” said Max. “I’ll send it right off then.”

Max exchanged the precious mailer for a bundle junk mail.

“Don’t worry,“ Max assured the boy as he patted the parcel. “I’ll see to this one personally.”

“Thanks. Maybe I’ll run around some day still,” Adrian whispered, like making an almost sinful admission of improbable hope.

“Maybe you will at that,” Max agreed with a wink.

Max pulled his mail truck up to the massive door of the post office and pressed his entrance card up against the rain-pelted window. He hoped that the card reader would cooperate today because he didn’t want to open the window. The weather had suddenly turned more nasty than usual and he was still suffering from the alternating gusts of frigid and burning air that overwhelmed his all-weather suit before he finally found refuge in his vehicle. People imagined that mail deliverers were always comfortable in their suits, but more often than not the internal regulators just couldn’t respond to the weather fast enough to ever be just right.

After the fourth swipe, the door finally lifted open and Max pulled forward into the garage with relief. The lumbering metal started to lower back down even before his mail truck cleared the entrance. He hopped down from the driver’s compartment, unzipping his suit as he looked around.

“Hey Max-eee!” a familiar voice called his way. “How the fuck you doing bro?”

“Hey Vince,” Max didn’t need to look to know the source of the familiar greeting. “I’m good.”

Vince had already reached the rear of the delivery truck. It was his job to unload the outgoing mail and transfer it to the automated sorter.

“Ouch!” Vince cried out like a cuss as his hand recoiled from the door latch.

“Ya, it’s pissing down hot rain out there,” Max confirmed needlessly.

“Fucking hot rain is the worst,” Vince complained. Whatever the weather was doing at any given moment was by definition the worst to Vince.

Max walked over and looked on as Vince heaved the back open and rolled the mail cart out.

“Saying on the radio that Florida lost another 500 square miles last month,” Max told him by way of small talk.

“Fuck,” Vince commented, pausing to shake his head. “Where is all the fucking water coming from? The fucking north pole is gone but we still ain’t got none to flush a crap.”

“Still lots of ice left in the Antarctic,” Max remarked.

“And we’re spending half the fucking national budget on those fucking see-oh two reduction plants,” Vince spat. “Thought they were supposed to clean up this fucking shit.”

“They are, but it takes time,” Max was used to having the same conversation every day.

“Fuck that,” Vince remarked as he pulled the mail cart toward the clanking sorter. “I don’t think they are doing crap. I think it’s all a croc of shit to keep us from realizing the fucking end of the world is already here.”

“Ya, you’re probably right,” Max always found it easier to just agree with Vince.

“Fucking right I’m fucking right,” Vince agreed wholeheartedly.

Suddenly, Max remembered something and darted back to the truck cab. He snatched a package off the passenger seat and ran to catch back up with Vince.

“Hey V, can you route this one personally? It’s kind of special and I don’t want that old crapper sending it off to Chinese-controlled Russia or something,” Max said, handing him Adrian’s package.

“You got it Max-eee,” Vince assured him, receiving the hand off like a football. “I’ll treat it like my own little baby.”

Somehow that didn’t reassure Max very much.

Sayonara Cheng reached for another package from atop the heaping mail container next to her desk. It had already been a long day and it was not getting any shorter. She had started working at The Dandelion Project as a temp over eight months earlier. Now they employed over 8,000 people doing the same job as her at different processing locations around the world.

It was a good temp job for as long it lasted. Open enrollment was supposed to end in three more months but she heard it would take another six to sort through the backlog. Probably more if submissions kept increasing as quickly as they had been.

Twenty-two million was the magic number. They needed at least that many paying donors to finance the project. They had reached that mark last month and were already at 36.5 million last she heard. Frenzied plans were underway to scale up the whole operation.

Their unlikely success thrust The Dandelion Project into the world spotlight. It graduated overnight from a wacky Internet scheme to a massive and controversial international joint venture. The protesters and picketers didn’t bother her much. Their office didn’t see many violent demonstrations. Sayonara just kept her head down, quietly and unobtrusively processing submission packages.

She opened the next kit, scattering the contents across her desk at the foot of her diet cola. She ignored the ancillary materials and picked out the data stick, deftly inserting it into a worn plug on her terminal.

Sayonara clicked the Import option from the custom application menu. After a momentary hourglass came and went, a graphic popped up on the screen. It was a cute young man, trying to appear as if he wasn’t imprisoned by the wheelchair in which he was obviously confined. His hand waved tentatively in front of a shy smile that made her feel as if he could see her there looking at his video portrait. The caption under the picture read “Adrian Davis, Age 24.” It was followed by a long personal data summary in a scrolling window.

She carefully opened the sample tube and placed it into the DNA Scanner. She absent-mindedly hit Scan Now on a popup menu and the device began to whir and hum softly, sending spectroscopic data to the central supercomputer for analysis. Sayonara used the time, as was her routine, to sip cola and review the notarized legal wavers and agreements.

A discouraging beep made her look up to see the garish  message flashing in red on the screen. That was fast, she thought, oddly disappointed. She had rejected thousands of applications without a second thought so it came as a surprise to her to feel reluctant to have to reject this particular applicant in accordance with her very specific selection protocols.

As she moused-over to select the Reject option, Adrian looked up at her from his wheelchair with renewed hope and longing. Sayonara peered deep into his pixilated eyes and felt as if they exposed his very soul to her. Her finger hesitated, hovering millimeters above the mouse button. She sensed a young man who wanted desperately to get up out of his rolling prison and play among the stars. How could she deny him that chance?

On an impulse, she clicked Accept, Override, and Confirm in rapid succession. She really hoped the auditors wouldn’t catch her on this one but didn’t much care.

“Bon voyage,” she told his image in a conspiratorial whisper.

It was obvious to Edwin Daniels long ago as a student at Cal Tech that global warming had exceeded the critical cascade threshold. No effort, no matter how extraordinary, could prevent atmospheric collapse. The extinction of mankind was imminent and inevitable.

That certainty had caused him to ponder the question; to what worthy cause can Man dedicate itself to even as Death is swinging his scythe? Then it came to him. He envisioned a great cosmic dandelion, releasing its seeds on solar winds far out into the great expanse of space.

He enlisted specialists with far more talent than he to join him in his mad project. His unprecedented plan required impossible advances in materials science, genetics, psychology, robotics, nanocircuitry, and artificial intelligence. If successful, mankind would perish in a glorious supernova of new knowledge and progress.

By force of raw passion and charisma, he organized a brotherhood of scientists who dedicated whatever free time they could manage to the project. They kept a low profile for two decades, working on the fundamental technical challenges in obscurity.

Once his team became relatively optimistic that the key obstacles could be overcome, they launched The Dandelion Project on the World Wide Web to fund development. They had never dreamt that it would capture the imagination and passion of the entire globe as it did. Though they never publicly admitted that this was a doomsday project, people around the world sent in their money and their DNA samples. Their database now contained over 173 million DNA fingerprints.

The Dandelion Project had taken in more money more quickly than any business in history. With it, they spent the next 18 years prototyping, developing, and testing the impossible.

Now, 37 years after the crazy dream first took seed, the project was coming to life without any further need of him. He could finally just relax and watch it unfold.

The daily launches continued despite the mass protests. Now that the deployment had actually begun, many religious leaders toned down their vehement rhetoric. The Chinese government finally gave the project their official sanction, lending the support of the largest and most influential country on Earth. Public relations continued to cite audits by independent auditing firms to quash conspiracy speculations that the DNA lottery was rigged.

Amidst the storms of nature and controversies of Man raging across the globe, the pods continued to launch night and day from locations across the United States, throughout China and its Russian territories, Europe, Australia, Africa, South America, India, and others. Every country was represented in the precious payload.

Edwin watched the television monitors replaying the time-lapse images taken from the international space station and the Moon base. There lay the solitary Earth, dying amidst the unsympathetic darkness of space, flinging thousands of pods out into the eternal blackness. It looked like a great cosmic dandelion, its metal composite seed pods brimming with databases of human DNA, flying out in all directions, going for broke on the longest of odds.

It was an unprecedented event in human history. The supernova of mankind as it died. All of humanity watched and marveled, strangely contented and satisfied as if collectively sharing one last fireworks finale.

“To be truthful, the odds are too infinitesimal to bother calculating. One in a thousand pods might survive millions of years of random collisions with space particulates to find a candidate planet. One in a hundred of those might find conditions compatible with human life. One in ten of those might succeed in re-synthesizing a random DNA record and growing a human clone. One in a score of those clones might survive and grow to into a functional human being. But the odds don’t matter. We are humans and all that matters is that we try. It is the only way that we frail humans can ever explore the universe first hand.”

Adrian looked up from the monitor. He had been watching an interview recorded back on Earth in some incomprehensible time past.

Mother, his robotic parent, stood protectively nearby. Nine years earlier, she had booted up and begun to execute her programming. She had reconfigured the pod into a shelter, acquired raw materials, and replicated a randomly selected sequence from the DNA database. Since then she had protected the child and tutored him in all the age-appropriate data available in their comprehensive Earth library.

“So that was him, Mother? That was the man who sent us here?”

Mother answered him with an exquisitely archetypical motherly voice.

“Yes Adrian that was Edwin Daniels. But many tens of thousands of people worked together to send us here, to our new home. All of humanity wished you bon voyage,”

“But I am all alone,” Adrian said to her. “What good is one person?”

Mother reproduced a tender smile, engaging all the micro-transducers of her synthetic face.

“One human isn’t much good at all,” she told him, squatting down to gaze into his eyes. “But one day soon you will choose another and we will raise her together.”

The boy was about to follow up with another question but Mother gave him a gentle shove.

“Go play now in the grass,” she urged him. “Bring some berries for a snack later.”

Adrian, naked in the warm, gentle air, jumped up and smiled, running off into the field. Animals, vaguely resembling little deer, bounded in around him to join in the romp.

In the pod, Mother set about cooking and cleaning as directed by her AI adaptive processor. On their little table, one old-fashioned picture rested prominently within a homemade frame. It was the still-picture of a young man that looked just like Adrian only older, sitting in a wheelchair and waving to them with wistful contentedness.

The Atheist Monster in Penny Dreadful

Vanessa speaks with John

Vanessa speaks with John

I’d like to share a powerful scene from a recent episode of Penny Dreadful, aired on Showtime on Mother’s Day.

Seeking a measure of solace from her struggles, Vanessa Ives (played by Eva Green) has come to volunteer in a cavernous underground serving as a makeshift cholera ward “in the shadow of so much wealth such suffering” of 19th century London.

There she encounters a horrendously scarred man named John Clare (played by Rory Kinnear). Not incidentally but as yet unknown to Vanessa, John is also the sensitive and articulate “monster” reanimated by the Doctor Frankenstein character in the show.

She notices John reading off in an alcove by himself. Intrigued, she approaches him. After an offer of soup and some preliminary introductions, Vanessa sits next to him.

“They make me nervous,” she confides, nodding toward a woman in a habit. “The nuns.”

“Why?” he asks.

“I was raised in the faith,” she admits. “It was arduous for me.”

“Have you religion?” she asks, changing the subject tangentially.

“Are you offering it?” John counters.

“Do you require it?” she answers with another question, smiling warmly.

“I never have,” he replies.

“Then I shan’t offer,” she reassures him. “And I would be a poor advocate. The Almighty and I have a challenging past. I’m not sure we’re speaking these days.”

A laugh comes awkwardly upon John as he returns a confidence. “I read the Bible when I was younger. But then I discovered Wordsworth. And then the old platitudes and parables seemed anemic, even unnecessary.”

“Mr. Wordsworth has a lot to answer for then,” she teases.

Summoning up deeply considered but rarely spoken words, John elaborates. “The glory of life surmounts the fear of death. Good Christians fear hellfire. So to avoid it, they are kind to their fellow man. Good pagans do not have this fear, so they can be who they are. Good or ill, as their nature dictates. We have no fear of God, so we’re accountable to no one but each other.”

“That’s a profound responsibility,” Miss Ives replies.

“And why you do this, no doubt” he asks, “helping those in need?”

“I came here for selfish reasons,” she confesses. “Do you truly not believe in heaven?”

John’s shy self-consciousness is replaced by a joyful radiance. “I believe in this world. And those creatures that fill it. That’s always been enough for me. Look around you – sacred mysteries at every turn.”

“But no exaltation in life beyond this?” Vanessa challenges, seeking confirmation.

“To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wildflower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour,” John responds, paraphrasing William Blake’s “To See A World…”

Vanessa looks a bit sad, “With respect to Blake, I see no wildflowers here, only pain and suffering.”

“Then you need to look closer,” John tells her with compelling certainty.

The conversation is interrupted when Vanessa is called away by a nun who casts a disapproving glance at John.

“Thank you for the soup,” he says.

“Thank you for the conversation,” she answers as she takes her leave. And then, pausing to look back, she adds, “You have beautiful eyes.”

I will not attempt to do a deep analysis of this scene. It is so rich with poetic humanist themes that it is best to let every reader take from it what they will. But I will point out how notable this treatment of humanist ideas is, not only in today’s mass media, but in the context of a show in which demons and by inference god are undeniable realities. It suggests that “even if” god were real, there would still be merit in a purely humanist worldview.

It is certainly not an accident that John, shunned as a monster by his society, was chosen to represent the atheist-humanist character in the show. Of more subtle symbolism is that he is undeniably the product of purely human manufacture. Certainly he was not endowed with a soul by his human creator. Yet he is uniquely passionate and thoughtful with an incredibly “soulful” sense of awe and empathy.

On the other side, Vanessa’s deep faith and powerful mysticism have only left her in desperate need of the comfort and inspiring humanist perspectives offered by this apparent monster.