The death of science-based policy

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) was one of our jewels. It normally had about 60 staffers, to help assist White House staff in creating fact-grounded policy. President Obama expanded it well past 100 personnel, bringing in more question-asking consultants, scientists and speakers… like yours truly (twice in 2016 alone). “The size of the office under the Obama administration reflected Mr. Obama’s “strong belief in science, the growing intersection of science and technology—”

Beyond advising the President on scientific discoveries and their implications for national policy, OSTP was involved in encouraging breakthroughs in STEM education and re-igniting a generation of skilled programmers. It is also responsible evaluating investments in Research and Development, as well as for crisis response. Heading the OSTP was the Presidential Science Adviser, a position generally filled by some of humanity’s sharpest minds.

white-houseAll of that is over. President Trump has attrited the Science Office of OSTP to zero…  that’s zero staff to consult with West Wing policy makers over anything scientific or related to science. OSTP as a whole is down to a couple of dozen placeholders.

Elsewhere, I wrote about David Gelernter, who seemed a front runner for the Science Adviser post, under Trump. A bizarre and polemically-driven person, Gelernter apparently would have been far too scientific for this White House. Perhaps they sensed that he would be capable – in extremis – of saying the hated phrase: “um… that’s not exactly true.”

Trump has not yet appointed a Science Advisor. And yet… “The Oval Office is surrounded by interest groups who would sculpt the facts to fit their agendas, and the president desperately needs an expert who can de-spin the facts,” writes Brian Palmer in Slate.

That, after all, was the criminal offense of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) which was banished by Newt Gingrich in 1995 for giving honest answers. And the fate now apparently destined for the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), for similar treasons against dogma.

Iscience-policy-ostpt is this fevered spite against all fact-users that makes our current civil war completely unrelated to the old-hoary-lobotomizing “left-right” political “axis.” When all outcomes and metrics of US health and yes, economics and capitalism do vastly better under democrats, fact users become Enemy #1. And that’s ALL fact-users, now including even the FBI, the Intelligence Community and the U.S. Military Officer Corps. (Look up the term “deep state” to see how the mad right is justifying attacking even them!)

The EPA’s head Scott Pruitt recently axed 38 science advisors from the Board of Scientific Counselors — which advises the EPA on its research programs. “This says to me that they do not want objective science,” said Peter Meyer, who resigned in protest last month. Deep cuts are targeted for the EPA budget, as well as reduced enforcement of environmental regulations.  Pruitt defends Trump’s rejection of climate change, and is now launching a program to critique the scientific consensus on the issue.

Fans of the movie “Idiocracy” – and die hard confederates – may openly avow wishing for this rise of the know-nothings. But your conservative aunt might be swayed to pull away from this madness, if you dare her to name one profession of folks who actually know stuff that is not under open attack by her crazy husband and his ilk. She knows she will need skilled people, from time to time.

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The battle must begin at state level

There are vital issues that get shunted aside in the ongoing public obsession over Trump’s latest tweetstorm. In The Case for Paying Less Attention to Donald Trump, Ed Burmila, in Rolling Stone, makes a cogent point that we should pay less attention to our current president — and more to what the confederacy is doing to our fellow citizens, down at the state level, where the GOP’s lock on more than thirty out of fifty statehouses and 65 out of 98 state legislature chambers, has set them to work doing no less than re-establishing feudalism.

LESS“Donald Trump’s presidency has been a disaster, but he has succeeded beyond his wildest expectations in one key way: getting attention – attention that fills the void where the rest of us have a soul…. (But fighting back) begins with winning back the state legislatures that draw electoral maps and make the rules that shape elections,” writes Ed Burmila.

In other words, this is no time for timid appetites. The goal should not be to shift twenty-five swing Congressional seats, but 125! And that will be a hollow victory without a thousand State Assembly wins.

These state races are the most important battlegrounds for now.

This coalesces three themes that I’ve pushed for some time.

impeach-trump1: Don’t seek to impeach Trump! Not yet. Our civil servants are now fully alerted to the insanity and they should be able to protect us, for the time being. For now, Trump is the Republicans’ nightmare. Impeach, and the confederates will just rally behind a President Pence and march with savage discipline. See this explored in more detail in my essay, The Move to Impeach Trump is a Trap.

2: Gerrymandering (one of the most horrific betrayals of citizen sovereignty) and other electoral cheats — such as voter suppression — are central. These plagues upon our electoral system have metastacized till even Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts cannot ignore them, anymore. (Or else they are simply not Americans.) But we need clever and strong backup plans, explored further in Gerrymandering & American Democracy.

3: Retaking many of those states will not be done by running Santa Monica liberals in deep red districts. Go ahead and run liberals and Bernites etc in swing constituencies. But in districts that are deeply conservative by personality, we need candidates who are pro-science, pro-rights, honest, logically fact-loving and un-bigoted… but who can also relate to locals… by personality.

Elsewhere, in a 3-part series, I talk about the richest possible source of such candidates, military colonels and captains. Men and women of rectitude who can compel even the reddest voter to actually listen to a democrat, possibly for the first time in his or her life.

See also 314 Action, which seeks to advocate for a pro-science and fact-based agenda in public policy — and also to encourage scientifically and technically trained men and women to run for office.

crowdpacBack to the article by Burmila… the point relates to how YOU should allocate your political time and energy. Yes, national issues matter! Give money to the fight against gerrymandering, and Schwarzenegger will match your contribution in this  campaign on Crowdpac: This is our chance to make gerrymandering unconstitutional. 

Furthermore, Burmila adds:

“The payoff of being politically active simply is greater in down-ballot races. House and Senate races are of course important, but the marginal benefit of adding one more volunteer to those campaigns is small compared to what an activist can contribute to a local race. Throwing your donation and evening volunteering hours into the miasma of money and noise that is a modern congressional race is like spitting into the ocean. In a local race, the time and money you can donate will be much more impactful. Knocking on doors and speaking to a few hundred voters on behalf of an unknown candidate in a state assembly primary could make a real difference.”

This is where you can make a difference — at your local and state level.

Give the rest of it a read. Then give some thought about that retired officer you know, who happens to live in a red district. It’s arm twisting time.

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Russian relationships: collusion or treason?

I know bunches of sincere, thoughtful conservatives who are THAT close to defecting. They admit their party has gone insane, but cannot bring themselves yet to use the “T-Word.” They keep being distracted by squirrels. Like “There’s been no proof yet of actual collusion.” Or “Russian meddling didn’t clearly affect the election outcome.”

1. Irrespective of GOP-Russia collusion, the fact is that Putin’s FSB Security Agency wanted the GOP to win, not just the presidency, but across the board. That outcome is what they blatantly sought. And that is a fact of profound political redolence. It should deeply bother all patriotic Americans. While that motive and goal is not a court-of-law conviction, it is consistent with mountains of evidence that the Republican Party is not healthy for the U.S.

2. All right then, but did the GOP collude with Moscow, toward that goal? We are not (yet) in a court of law, so demanding court-of-law proof of GOP-Russia collusion is just plain wrong. The pile of circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. It’s a mountain!

Manafort, Flynn, Pence, the ENTIRE circle of people surrounding Jared Kushner, secret meetings and channels! Scads of business connections and sweetheart deals with Russian-mafiosi oligarchs. Exxon, for H sake! “Emoluments” amounting to billions! You know I could go on and on.

Dig it. We do not need to be hamstrung or stymied by court-of-law standards when deciding that something stinks to high heaven and the security of the American state is at stake. Those who demand court-of-law standards are Fox shills. They scream “witch hunt!” while the townsfolk close in on a coven of pointy-hatted, Satan-chanting crones who have children suspended over a cauldron. These may not quite be witches — (heck, not one of them is female) — but we are perfectly right to demand answers to our questions.

3. Court-of-law hairsplitting over definitions of “obstruction” are necessary when deciding on criminal prosecutions and whether to deprive the perpetrator of either life or freedom with prison. But it is an absurd standard politically. These are traitors, pure and simple. That is “traitors” with a small-t … for now… until it’s proved in court. But the shoe fits.

4. The same term applies to those who drag their feet over reforming the weaknesses that the Putin-cabal tried to exploit. The issue is not whether the FSB etc were THE tipping factor in 2016. The issue is the fact that Congress is holding ZERO hearings about how to strengthen U.S. electoral processes, investigating corruptible voting machines. The horrific influence of partisan secretaries of state. Gerrymandering. Weaponized narrative. They would leave all of that in place, for future elections. If you don’t call that implicitly complicit, then you have your head in the sand.

They are complicit. As the old saying goes: “We’ve settled what you are. Now we’re just trying to determine the price you sold us out for.”

It is the “T-Word.” We’re only arguing over whether it is “t” or “T.”

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Six Science Fiction Questions

I’ve been answering quite a few queries over on the question and answer site Quora. Here are a few selected questions about science fiction, dystopias, fantasy, and more…

How plausible do you find Huxley’s Brave New World?

BraveNewWorldYour question is exactly the one asked by Huxley himself, and by his top-caste character, World Director Mustafa Mond., who accepts that change may inevitably come to his tightly organized world. That is one of many contrasts with Orwell’s 1984. Where one party controls with fear and pain, the other does with eugenics, conditioning and pleasure, lots of pleasure.

Note what happens when some alphas start asking inconvenient questions. Are they killed? No, they are sent to “the Islands” where they can study, experiment and keep arguing for changes to be made. This shows that Huxley’s directors are aware that change may come, but demand a steep burden of proof… while seeing value in those who question. A lot like Huxley himself.

For years, Orwell was deemed the one making a plausible prediction. But today the scientific and skilled classes and even the “prols” have so much potential power in their hands – making today’s “terrorists” seem lame by comparison – that no government can risk for long angering those castes or abusing them. Not for long. (Hence the utter stupidity of today’s oligarchs, who wage war on science and all the fact professions. Nothing else could show as starkly how deeply stupid the oligarchy is.)

No, any dictatorship in the future will have to be like Brave New World… or an augmented China … committed to keeping the populace content.

For more see my essay: George Orwell and the Self-Preventing Prophecy.

Which science fiction scenarios do you find the most disturbing?

MV5BNzQzOTk3OTAtNDQ0Zi00ZTVkLWI0MTEtMDllZjNkYzNjNTc4L2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjU0OTQ0OTY@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_The Matrix, for suggesting that advanced AI’s would be spectacularly self-defeating and stupid. The novel, Revolt in 2100 by Heinlein, for predicting with stunning accuracy how America might go crazy. The film Idiocracy, for coming true before our eyes.

Almost anything by Philip K Dick, for questioning our perception of reality. Orwell’s 1984 for prescribing tech empowerment of older means of despotism based on terror.  Huxley’s Brave New World for showing how the same thing could happen with pleasure and fun.

And hey, what’s my novel The Postman… chopped liver? Its premise is coming true before your very eyes.

Which science fiction book offers the most likely scenario to a better world?

51WFumUHOCL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_If you want prescriptive preaching, set in plausible tomorrows and above average writing, try almost anything by Kim Stanley Robinson (his latest is New York 2140). He chides and finger wags, like LeGuin. But his aim is always to propose A Better Way. (I agree with him a lot… but he gives up too easily on regulated market enterprise.)

Iain Banks novels show alluring, post scarcity societies. (See his culture series: Consider Phlebas.)  So does Star Trek!. So does Robert Heinlein’s prescriptive utopia Beyond This Horizon. (Ignore the silly gun stuff at the beginning.)

My own novels Earth and Existence offer ruminations on the path ahead.

What do you consider to be the best Sci Fi/TV franchise?

MV5BMTc3MjEwMTc5N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzQ2NjQ4NA@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Stargate was by far the best and most thorough exploration of a science fictional premise. It was tightly consistent and episodes all correlated with each other in a series of very well-managed plot and character arcs, while always striving to at least nod in the direction of scientific plausibility. It was also successful at engendering massive numbers of hours of diverse stories at a fairly low budget.

A final point about Stargate… it is one of the only SF franchises to revolve around a motif that is essentially optimistic. Of course, the equally good Star Trek had all of those traits, with a bit lower score on consistency, but even more hours and even more optimistic.

Ranking in the same general area – with similar qualities – would by Babylon Five.

See where I explain why optimism is so hard to do, in sci fi and hence so rare in my article: The Idiot Plot.

An excellent SF TV franchise at the opposite end of the optimism scale would be the remake of Battlestar Galactica. The premise and universe remained kinda dumb. But it had the best damn writing team imaginable. You had to watch.

And The Expanse has similar qualities.

What is the most interesting magic system from fantasy or science fiction?

Most magical systems rely upon a short list of basic fulcra:

fantasy1- similarity — make something similar to the object you seek to control. A voodoo doll of a person. Or a model of a valley where you want rain to fall.

2- contagion – add something that was part of the object to control. Add a person’a real hair trimmings to the voodoo doll.

3- True Names. Related to similarity. You gain power if you know the object’s full (or even hidden) names.

4- Appeal to powers…Invoke mighty spirits – or God – by offering what they want. Something valuable, ranging from a human sacrifice all the way to promising to be a good boy or girl.

5- Art… a florid- dynamic-dramatic VERBAL INCANTATION helps… it is the technique used by cable news and politicians – especially one side – to dazzle millions into magical thinking and hostility to fact-based and scientific systems. Other art enhancements could be visual or musical.

Note that all of these seemed to be reasonable things for our ancestors to try, even though magic almost never worked. Why? First, because these are all methods that work… on our fellow human beings! Persuasion uses all of them and other humans are the most important part of the environment. It was just an extrapolation for people to believe they could also persuade the capricious and deadly forces of nature.

Second, pattern seeking. We invest our hopes into an incantation… and shrug off when it fails, but shout with confirmation, if the thing we wanted happens.

All told, magic has been a horrid sickness that hobbled humans for ages, preventing us from honestly separating what work from what doesn’t. But we are all descended from priests and shamans who got extra food and mates because they pulled off this mumbo-jumbo really well. Their genes flow through our brains, today. No wonder there’s a War on Science!

But if you truly want a different system of magic, try my fun novel The Practice Effect! 😉

What is your most promising science fictional concept?

I suppose most people would cite the “Uplift” of pre-sapient creatures like dolphins and apes to full partnership in our civilization. It looks more likely by the day.

EarthHCIn my novel Earth, I posited both gravity lasers and a way the planet itself could become self-aware.

In Sundiver it’s — well — a way to go to the Sun.

In Existence it is the ultimate implication of self-replicating interstellar probes.

But my favorite is the machine I wish I had, from Kiln People, in which you can make 5 or 6 cheap, temporary clay “ditto” copies of yourself, each day, so that every single thing you needed to do, that day, could get done. I want that. I need that!

== See more questions on Quora, follow the links for more answers and lively discussions of each of these questions, or follow me on Quora.

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Do we need an election fraud panel?

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday forming a commission on voter fraud and elections, an action many Democrats say is aimed at justifying his unfounded voter fraud claims.  (“Millions cast illegal ballots, giving Hillary Clinton her huge popular vote margin,” right.)  Instead of appointing a blue-ribbon, bipartisan committee of nationally respected sages, the commission will be spearheaded by Vice President Mike Pence and controversial Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Kobach, who helped on the Trump transition team, is a lightning rod for critics who have accused him of extreme racism and having ties to white nationalists.

Kobach has advocated for strict voter identification laws. Riiight.  Kansas. By far the worst governed state in the Union. Go there for wisdom.

To be clear, I have never objected to gradually ramping up the requirements that voters show ID. But there are two giant considerations:

(1) there is not evidence at all that this is a major problem requiring urgent-rapid action. Voter fraud has repeatedly been shown to be almost nonexistent.

(2) there is a simple test as to whether the  red state GOP legislators, where voter ID laws that have surged, are sincere, or attempting bald-faced suppression of US citizens exercising their rights.  What is that simple test? When red states have passed these restrictions, have they also allocated money for compliance assistance? 

Whenever the federal government – or most states – apply new regs upon business, there is almost always some provision offering those businesses help in complying with the new regs. Sometimes the help is modest, often it is substantial. But the principle is well-established. Moreover, if a new regulation’s impact hits small fry hard – like mom and pop establishments – then the calls for compliance assistance are compelling! See my earlier posting: Voter ID laws: scam or accountability?

So, here’s the simple test. Have any of the GOP-led state legislatures who passed stiff voter ID laws also passed funds to help poor citizens to GET the IDs they need? Very few actions would be as much a win-win, since getting clear ID will also help poor folks to do banking, establish businesses and lift themselves out of poverty. A concerted effort to help a state’s citizens get ID would be both beneficial and prove that those legislatures were sincere. It would refute the accusation that these laws have one sole purpose – cheating.

Okay, here’s the crux. The on-off switch. The total fact that proves criminality and treason. Not one of these red states have passed even a single penny of compliance assistance, to accompany a stiff, new regulatory burden they slapped on their poorest and most vulnerable citizens.  In fact, many of these red – no, they must be called gray – states went on a binge of closing DMV offices “to save money” and mostly in poor or democratic-leaning counties. They made compliance with their own law harder. Deliberately much harder.

Hence the indictment is proved. As it is with the utterly laughable-hypocritical “commission” that Donald Trump just appointed.  They are exposed as liars. Cheaters. Betrayers. Hypocrites. Confederates.

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Science: To March or Not to March?

I will be marching for science on Earth Day this weekend, to support scientific research… and our future. If you can’t attend the main march in Washington DC, there are over five hundred events in cities across the globe.

What is it all about? The organizers explain, “The March for Science is a celebration of science. It’s not only about scientists and politicians; it’s about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world. Nevertheless, the march has generated a great deal of conversation around whether or not scientists should involve themselves in politics.” As Brian Resnick writes in Vox, “The March for Science will celebrate the scientific method and advocate for evidence-based decision-making in all levels of government.”

Specific issues of concern include steep cuts proposed for science and environment budgets, the marginalized role of science in policy decisions and the lack of a science advisor for the current administration. Trump’s view of climate change as a hoax is particularly worrisome.

slate-scienceIs this the best way to engage the public? A recent essay in Slate – Scientists, Stop Thinking Explaining Science Will Fix Things – attempts to show (days before the march) that scientists need better tactics in explaining matters like climate change to the public. And yet, I find the writer’s proposed methods to be little improvement:

Tim Requarth writes, “Research also shows that science communicators can be more effective after they’ve gained the audience’s trust. With that in mind, it may be more worthwhile to figure out how to talk about science with people they already know, through, say, local and community interactions, than it is to try to publish explainers on national news sites.”

Sure, but those suggested methods are way to wimpy for this stage of a civil war, in which every fact-centered profession is under fire. As the author himself shows:

“At a Heartland Institute conference last month, Lamar Smith, the Republican chairman of the House science committee, told attendees he would now refer to “climate science” as “politically correct science,” to loud cheers. This lumps scientists in with the nebulous “left” and, as Daniel Engber pointed out here in Slate about the upcoming March for Science, rebrands scientific authority as just another form of elitism.”

P1010497This kind of tactic needs ferocious, not tepid response. How have I dealt with those who wage war on science?

It’s useful to remind people of the benefits of science. “Science has always been at the heart of America’s progress. Science cleaned up ur air and water, conquered polio and invented jet airplanes. Science gave us the Internet, puts food on our tables and helps us avoid pandemics,” writes Denis Hayes in The Los Angeles Times. Our exploration of space has led to innumerable payoffs, including solar cells, fuel cells, advances in robotics, human health and image processing, as well as communication, navigation and weather satellites — plus a generation of scientists, engineers, artists and teachers inspired by the marvels of space.

Basic research keeps American manufacturing and industry competitive. I find it effective to point out that at least half of the modern economy is built on scientific discoveries of this and earlier generations. And… that Soviet tanks would have rolled across western Europe without our advantages provided by science and research.

I ask whether expert opinion should at least inform public policy, even if experts prove to be wrong, maybe 5% of the time. I ask them if we should listen to the U.S. Navy, which totally believes in climate change, given that the Russians are building twelve new bases lining the now melting Arctic Sea.

I ask why, if they demand more proof of climate change, their leaders so desperately quash the satellites and cancel the instruments and ban the studies that could nail it down.

Sure, it pleases vanity to envision that scientists – in fact the most-competitive of humans – are sniveling “grant huggers.” But if that’s so, then:

1- Where is a listing of these so-called “grants”? After 20 years, no one has tabulated a list to show that every scientist believing in climate change has a climate grant?

2- What about meteorologists? They are rich, powerful, with no need of measly “climate grants.” Their vast, sophisticated, world-spanning weather models rake in billions from not just governments but insurance companies, media and industry, who rely on the miracle TEN DAY forecasts that have replaced the old, ridiculous four-hour “weather reports” of our youth. These are among the greatest geniuses on the planet… and nearly all of them are deeply worried about climate change.

science-haiku3- Funny thing. The Koch brothers and other coal barons and oil sheiks have offered much larger grants” to any prestigious or widely respected scientists who will join the denialist cult… I mean camp. None has accepted. So much for the “motivated by grants” theory.

No, I’ve weighed in elsewhere about how to deal with this cult. And it does not pay to be gentle.

Science matters. If you can’t make it to the March in Washington D.C, find your local Science March and let your voice be heard, loud and clear.

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Science Fiction, Cool War and Civil War

Science fiction – or more accurately, speculative fiction –  has a rich tradition of exploring What if... scenarios, exploring alternative paths of important historical events, asking questions such as, “What if the South had won the Civil War?” or “What if America had lost World War II?”

Just a few of the multitude of novels diving into divergent paths for the American Civil War include Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South, Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain, and Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee. The recent, best-selling Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters posits that the Civil War never happened and slavery persists in regions of America. Even politician Newt Gingrich has written in this genre: his novel Gettysburg, co-written with William R. Forstchen, explores how history might have unfolded if the Confederacy had won this crucial battle. In a more outlandish speculation, William Forstchen’s Lost Regiment series, beginning with Rally Cry, envisions a Civil War era Union regiment transported through time and space to an alien world.

But science fiction more often projects into the future. Something deeply human keeps us both fascinated and worried about tomorrow’s dangers. Several recent novels have foreshadowed a possible – and plausible – hot phase of the recurring American Civil War. I’ve written extensively about what I view as ongoing Phases of our American Civil War; luckily most segments of this persistent animosity have been tepid or cool, though the 1860s fever was near devastating. Indeed, I fear, with current tensions, the possibility that something could go volcanic. This was portrayed – in retrospect – by my post-apocalyptic novel The Postman, which has been receiving a surge of attention lately, for its depiction of “holnists” whose rationalizations sound very much like those of Steve Bannon.

One novel I’ve touted lately is Tears of Abraham, by Sean T Smith, which chillingly takes you toward a disturbingly hot second Civil War, a deadly struggle of countryman against countryman. What would happen if the U.S. split apart into warring states — set off by a far-reaching conspiracy? A president who declares martial law as states take steps toward secession. This page turner offers vivid, believable action and characters, along with sober, thoughtful insights into what it may mean — when the chips are down — to be an American. What divides us… and what unites us?

This seems particularly relevant considering the deep divides across America during the election cycle of 2016, where Red States and Blue States were more bifurcated than ever, seemingly unable to fully comprehend the opinions and problems of their own neighbors.

220px-TheCoolWarAnother science fiction vision that came to mind, given evidence of recent efforts by foreign powers to sabotage our democracy and economy, is The Cool War, published by science fiction master Frederik Pohl back in 1981. This tale portrays ongoing slow-simmering international tensions, a series of shadow wars where rival countries seek to sabotage the economy and markets of their enemies — and allies. In fact, I deem no novel to be of more immediate pertinence to any member of our defense and intelligence communities.

Wars, cool, cold or hot? David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Affairs, distinguishes them, commenting, “The purpose of the Cold War was to gain an advantage come the next hot war or, possibly, to forestall it. The purpose of Cool War is to be able to strike out constantly without triggering hot war, while making hot wars less desirable (much as did nuclear technology during the Cold War days) or even necessary.”

51YXFeqOcQL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In a similar vein, the near-future thriller Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War by P.W. Singer and August Cole envisions a revived Cold War, with rising tensions between the United States, China and Russia. An all-too believable war played out not just on land and sea, but also in space and cyberspace.

Returning to parallel universes, Philip K. Dick’s alternate history of World War II,  The Man in the High Castle — follows a scenario where the Nazis have won the war; it has been vividly adapted in the recent television series of the same name by Amazon. I’ve also explored that dark aftermath where the Nazis won World War II in my graphic novel, The Life Eaters. Connie Willis has revisited World War II in her novel, Blackout. Three time travelers find themselves stranded in London during the Blitz, facing air raids and bombing raids.

Another book just hitting the shelves –  American War by Omar El Akkad – is a dystopian novel about a Second American Civil War breaking out in 2074. The United States has been largely undone by devastating ecological collapse, a presidential assassination, the onset of a virulent plague arising from a weaponized virus, and a militantly divided North and South. The novel vividly portrays a doomed country wracked by vicious guerrilla raids, refugee camps interning displaced citizens, accompanied by relentless violence and death.

Whew! One can only hope that dark visions from these nightmarish scenarios might serve as self-preventing prophecies — much as George Orwell’s prophetic 1984 girded many to fight against the rise of any possible Big Brother to their last breath. Can we resist the divisions that threaten our country?

Indeed, our civilization’s ultimate success may depend on our foresight — perceiving potential problems we are able to navigate, mistakes we manage to avoid. Science fiction has often served to shine a light to reveal possible — and catastrophic — pitfalls in our shared future.

Warnings we would be wise to heed… and wounds we would be wise to heal.

 

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A few of the weirder questions I’ve been asked

Authors get asked a lot of questions — about what inspired their writing, how they write, what authors they admire. But then there are the other questions… about aliens, world domination, and alternative timelines. These are just a few of the odd queries I’ve received, specifically ones I’ve answered over on the question and answer site, Quora:

How do you know that your mind is not being manipulated by disembodied alien forces who crave world domination?

Simple. I am their front man.  I embed clues in all my novels and stories. In one recent novel I was even totally blatant about it!

Yeah, yeah.  You don’t believe me… okay then.

questionsDo you believe you’ve ever met an alien?

Every generation of human beings is invaded by weird aliens, parasitical ones, called our children.

As for your actual question… I kind of answer it in my novel Existence 😉

What’s the first question you’d ask an alien if you found yourself on their planet?

“How did I get here? I was at home, trying to answer a Quora question… when now, suddenly…”

Oh, never mind. They hit a resend and I’m back. Which answers the question of whether this is a simulation. That was next.

What country gets the most alien abductions?

I’d have to say… Hollywood.

Would aliens think in the same way as humans.. or have the same psychology?

Depends on what their ancestors ATE!. Seriously, the descendants of pack carnivores would likely have different ways of viewing morality than the descendants of paranoid solitary omnivores like bears, or herd herbivores or solitary stalking carnivores.

What would be the most efficient way to get one billion humans into space in five years?

If I can have my druthers of super tech, I’d come up with suspension capsules, freeze ’em and shoot them into space using a mass driver. Then later generations can collect and revive them after building the civilization out there.

If you could take one alien species from Star Wars and put them into Star Trek, who would it be?

Yoda — so he would be laughed down and have to work as the clown that he is.

Which superheroes or villains are using their super powers ineffectively and how could they be put to better use?

You’re kidding, right? All of them! Batman could use his surveillance powers… or Superman his supervision … to simply publish lists of folks “of interest.” and that added attention would stop those people from doing bad things. They could spend all day simply dialing a “Super-911” so that our own normal cops would arrive in time to stop crimes in progress.

They could pay courtesy calls on spousal abusers, and friendly-like bend a steel bar and hand it to the guys “as a souvenir, in hope we’ll never meet again.”

Superman could lift into orbit all the parts we’d need for a super space station to mine asteroids and make humanity super-rich.

He could give every whaling ship and fishing poachers small leaks forcing them back to port over and over and over again till they stop.

Wonder Woman could lease her golden lasso to women wanting to get real truth from their fiancés! And for government background checks.

Best of all, they could submit their powers to study by science… which we never ever ever ever see them do. So we might find ways to not depend on aliens or mutants anymore.

Should we just limit our rockin’ to the free world?

Rock’s radicalism is to enlarge the Free World… which rock n’ Roll and Hollywood have done more effectively than any action by western militaries.

Will humans ever invent an ultimate happiness generator?

They can already use a wire to trigger pleasure centers in the brain. Rats will press the button over and over until they starve. Science fiction has a word for this… a “tasp.” In my novel Existence I portray wirehead junkies pressing such buttons.

Can Darth Vader storm the White House himself, take out POTUS (from the bunker), and escape alive?

Depends. No one in his galaxy uses bullet guns. Either because they long ago developed perfect defenses against them – maybe stopping bullets in mid air like Neo…

…or else they found the Force and it led to lasers and blasters and light sabers and never gunpower and bullets which… by the way… pass easily through any form of light. So he either can’t detect or cannot “block” bullets. Especially when a dozen are coming at him from a dozen directions at once.

If it’s #1, then heck, I suppose he’ll flounce on in and do his thing. And we appeal to the author of this ridiculous scenario to also beam in an away team from the Enterprise, who will deal with Vader easily. After all, he is a borg.

If it’s #2 then he’s toast and we get all his gear to study.

And the most common question I’m asked: Do you think we’ve ever been visited by aliens?

Possibly by little silver guys in ships… but not by intelligent life.  Look… at their… behavior.  Twirling wheat, disemboweling cattle, probing lonely farmers.  Sorry.  I refuse to acknowledge such jerks.  I say snub em.

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Nine Sci Fi Questions

Here are a few science fiction questions I’ve answered over on Quora, the crowd-sourced question and answer site. Click to follow the questions and answers in more detail:

What are some great less known science fiction movies for those who feel like they’ve seen them all?

moviesA few science fiction movies that have been particularly memorable to me:

Primer.

Predestination.

Moon.

Dark Star.

See also a more extensive listing of my favorite science fiction films.

What are the best action sci fi adventure books?

Almost anything by Poul Anderson, especially the Flandry series. Some older authors folks tend to forget: Keith Laumer, H.Beam Piper, and Andre Norton.

What is the most relevant type of science fiction story?

61olauv4syl-_sx331_bo1204203200_I believe that the most important kind of science fiction is the “self preventing prophecy” that helps stop its own tale from coming true.

The most blatant being George Orwell’s powerful dystopian novel  1984 for its portrayal of Big Brother — and the unforgettable movie Soylent Green, based on Harry Harrison’s book, Make Room, Make Room for its portrayal of overpopulation and ecological collapse.  I discuss self-preventing prophecies on my website.

What if machines created humans in the first place?

We are exactly what they’d need, to colonize a moist and uncertain environment like a planet.

In my novel Existence, I talk about alien probes that intend to make bio-beings to land on such a world.

Sci Fi novels often depict an impoverished overcrowded earth. Is such a future inevitable?

There is a very great value in sci fi dystopias. They are our early warning system. Indeed, I go into the value of Orwell, Huxley, + Soylent Green and the lot in my essay, George Orwell and the Self-Preventing Prophecy.

clicheBut for every valid and scary and useful “self-preventing prophecy, there are a hundred drooling stupid sci fi dystopias that cast gloom on the future for one reason and one reason only, that I reveal discuss in my article, Our Favorite Cliche – A World Filled With Idiots.

Having said all that, your question is truly whether humans are doomed to the logic of Malthus, to breed till we outrun our food supply or destroy the ecosystem. To the amazement of everyone, this does not seem to happen. Everywhere that women are empowered with safety, education and rights and where their children are expected to live, in those places most women choose to have two, maybe three kids.

It is a bona fide miracle, the greatest on the planet. And not one SF story predicted it.

As a novelist, how difficult was it to have your manuscripts heavily edited?

The “heavy editing” should come in phases during your apprenticeship, while workshopping , ideally with other would-be authors of your same level . If a professional editor is doing heavy changes then either (1) you weren’t ready or (2) the editor is meddling way too much.

Naturally I am pleased you are writing and offer my encouragement. Still, there is good news and bad news in this modern era. The good: there are so many new ways to get heard or read or published that any persistent person can get out there. Talent and good ideas will see the light of day! The bad news… it is so easy to get “published,” bypassing traditional channels, that millions can convince themselves “I am a published author!” without passing through the old grinding mill, in which my generation honed their skills by dint of relentless pain.

Alas, fiction writing is a complex art that involves a lot of tradecraft… as it would if you took up landscape painting or silver smithing. It is insufficient simply having ideas and being skilled at nonfiction-prose, nor does a lifetime of reading stories prepare you to write them.

Story telling is incantatory magic and there are aspects to the incantation process that are mostly invisible to the incantation recipient (reader). Skills at rapid-opening, point-of-view, showing-not-telling, action, evading passive-voice and so on are achieved by studied workshopping — and as in most arts, the whole thing is predicated upon ineffable things like talent. e.g. an ear for dialogue that only a few people have. Indeed, point-of-view is so hard that half of would be writers never “get” it, no matter how many years they put in.

advicetowritersThis is not to be discouraging! It is to suggest that extensive workshopping and skill-building are as important today as they were 30 years ago.

What I can do is point you to an “advice article” that I’ve posted online — A Long, Lonely Road — containing a distillation of wisdom and answers to questions I’ve been sent across 20 years. (Note, most authors never answer at all.)

Then there is my advice video, So You Want to Write? One Author’s Perspective.

What does a writer need to do to win a Hugo Award?

Well it helps to tell a cracking good yarn! Of course, science fictional exploration and storytelling should be central. Alas, yes, there are now very active in-groups, some of them motivated by personal likes/dislikes and some by strong political fetishisms. I don’t disagree with all of them! Indeed, a tilt toward increasing the presence of all kinds of backgrounds in SF has enriched and broadened a field that should be diverse and broad.

Could biblical stories like Adam and Eve and Noah be Iron Age mistranslations of interplanetary travel?

shaggy-god-storiesThis is the oldest cliché in science fiction. From Twilight Zone to The Outer Limits and One Step Beyond, they all did takes on the story of Adam and Eve — always ending with a male and female astronaut stranded on a planet. As have a number of science fiction novels and stories. And yet every single thing we know in science and history proves it wrong. Author Brian Aldiss has a name for it: Shaggy God Stories — tales which invoke science fictional tropes to try to explain biblical stories.

The biblical story of Noah though…  Around 10,000 BCE the strait of Bosporus opened, flooding the Black Sea Basin. Could that event have echoed down 8000 years in legend? Hmmmmm

What is your estimation of whether we have already hit the tech singularity and why?

The apparent steep decline in IQ of the American and other electorates would appear to indicate that intelligence has already moved to artificial matrices.

Check out Quora for more questions and answers…

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Fifteen authors (and a few more)

I was recently asked on social media to name fifteen authors, from whom I would automatically purchase books… without question. Now, I took this to mean authors who are still living (and publishing) — which eliminates a great many old favorites from science fiction, such as Robert Sheckley, Roger Zelazny, Octavia Butler, Alice (Tiptree) Sheldon, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and innumerable others.

Of course, fifteen is such a small (and arbitrary) number! But that was the challenge, so I’ll stick to it. This list focuses largely on science fiction, yet I’ve included a few nonfiction authors as well.

In no particular order, here’s my list. I’ve annotated one particular book written by each author as just one example of their many fine works:

  1. fifteen-authorsVernor Vinge (Rainbows End)
  2. Kevin Kelly (The Inevitable)
  3. Kim Stanley Robinson (2312)
  4. Michael Chabon (Moonglow)
  5. Nancy Kress (Beggars in Spain)
  6. C.J. Cherryh (Downbelow Station)
  7. Tim Powers (The Drawing of the Dark)
  8. Robert J. Sawyer (Quantum Night)
  9. China Mieville (The City and the City)
  10. Greg Egan (Diaspora)
  11. Gregory Benford (Timescape)
  12. Greg Bear (Eon)
  13. Rebecca Solnit (A Paradise Built in Hell)
  14. Peter Diamandis (Abundance)
  15. Liu Cixin (The Three Body Problem)

For a longer list, I would most certainly add Joe Haldeman, Larry Niven, Nalo Hopkinson, Jack McDevitt, Alastair Reynolds, Charles Stross, Stephen Baxter, Neal Stephenson, Ursula LeGuin, Connie Willis, Peter Hamilton, John Scalzi… and the great Robert Silverberg to name just a few.

How can I stop? So many of the books are like old friends… and so many of the authors are old friends.

You can see my more extensive list of Recommended Science Fiction and Fantasy Tales on my blog, and a list of recommended SF titles on my website.

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