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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Seven Sci Fi Questions

Here I’ve collected some of my recent answers for science fiction and future-oriented questions I was asked over on Quora. You can follow more of the in-depth discussions and multiple viewpoints on the Quora site.

Where should I begin with hard Sci Fi books?

rendezvous-ramaArthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama is an excellent start. Sample Poul Anderson at his best with Brain Wave and Tau Zero! Move on to Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement. Totally strong about some scientific matter, every single time, Clement writes entertainingly as well. Some of the older hard SF authors must-reads include Robert Forward (Dragon’s Egg) and Charles Sheffield.

Definitely try the novels of Robert Sawyer (Quantum Night or Hominids) and Stephen Baxter (Manifold:Time or Raft). Greg Bear is particularly strong for biology! Try his novel Eon. Gregory Benford (Timescape or In The Ocean of Night) for solid physics and astrophysics. For sure, Larry Niven’s Ringworld. C.J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station. Carl Sagan’s Contact.

200px-VernorVinge_RainbowsEndVernor Vinge (Fire Upon the Deep or Rainbows End) writes far-seeing hard SF. The Red Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson should be on your list. Also The Forever War by Joe Haldeman; Spin by Robert Charles Wilson; Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress. Other authors you might try include Alastair Reynolds, Greg Egan, Allen Steele and Peter Watts.

My own Heart of the Comet takes you on a wild adventure filled with science and romance, tragedy, disaster, heroism, redemption and a triumphant humanity, bound in new directions they never imagined. My novel Earth takes a look at our planet fifty years in the future.

See also my extensive list of titles: Recommended Science Fiction and Fantasy novels.

Which Science fiction ideas could come to life?

61m1amovnylStart with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein… the creation of life, by human hands. It has already happened, by some interpretations and we’ll go the rest of the way, shortly. Or George Orwell’s 1984 —can anyone deny that Big Brother looms? Robert Heinlein predicted religious dictatorship in the United States (see Revolt in 2100). Unfortunately, nuclear apocalypse tales (like my own The Postman) could come true.

In Earth I predicted average citizens would all be equipped with video cameras in easy reach and this would change power, on our streets.

What are some Sci Fi novels that really make you think?

Almost anything by Banks, Egan, Bear, Stephenson, Tiptree and Liu Cixin will make you go “huh, I never thought of that.” Likewise LeGuin and Kim Stanley Robinson… though you have to wade through some preachiness.

Of course, Philip K. Dick or Arthur C. Clarke. Charles Stross. Asaro knows her stuff, as do Sloncziewski and Landis. Ted Chiang. Bacigalupi. Michael Chabon. Pro or con, Joanna Russ will make your neurons buzz. Varley. Oh, and Nancy Kress!

What are some interesting depictions of the world after the Technological Singularity?

KurzweilSingularityCoverFor a general overview of the concept of the Technological Singularity, delve into Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity in Near: When Humans Transcend Biology as a good starting point. Other books include The Rapture of the Nerds: A tale of the singularity, post-humanity, and awkward social situations, and James Barrat’s Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era.

In fiction, Singularities are hard to portray, which is why Vernor Vinge depicts only the beginnings of takeoff in Rainbows End and a vague Aftermath in Marooned in Real Time. Generally it’s hard to write stories about effectively becoming gods… though I’ve taken up the challenge several times. e.g. in the stories “Stones of Significance” and “Reality Check” (both contained in my collection, Insistence of Vision.) One of these shows an optimistic scenario, reasoning out why AIs would want to be part of ‘humans”. The other explores the biggest curse of gods…

…which is likely to be ennui.

accelerandoOther examples of Singularity and post-Singularity fiction include Charles Stross’s Accelerando, William Hertling’s A.I. Apocalypse, John C. Wright’s The Golden Age, Daniel Suarez’s Daemon, Ramez Naam’s Nexus.

In fact though, very few SF authors have attempted to portray positive singularities. Lots of AI or transcendence-driven apocalypses, since those drive dramatic plots. But positive ones are hard to figure while still having room for human scale tension.

Iain Banks portrays one daring scenario… in which the AI are gods, all right but they care about us and give regular humans a pretty good life… and give challenges to those regular humans who seem capable of something more. I hint at something similar in Earth, where the planet becomes godlike but humanity is allowed to maintain vibrant individualism because that is healthier.

See the reason why there are so many damn dystopias and dire apocalyptic scenarios.

Do you believe we’ve already reached the Singularity?

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

What made Morpheus from The Matrix such a compelling character?

campbell-heroMorpheus was a standard Campbellian Mentor Figure who summons the hero on a quest. (See Joseph Cambell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.) A few of the stages of the Hero’s Journey were skipped. For example the Refusal to the Call was very very brief, as Neo almost gets out of the limo. So brief it hardly counts.

Morpheus is more of a Gandalf than an Obiwan, but both of them wield swords. All three were played by classic, uber-actors. All were smug mystics… if you find that sort of thing “compelling.”

Are there any science fiction stories where humans are morally ambiguous?

Poul Anderson showed aliens’ perspectives and complaints about humans, very well. I’m finishing one in which humans have chosen to be like Trek’s “Romulans”… bitterly opposed to a brash young race that is vigorous, sexy, lucky — every trait we thought would be ours.

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What constraints are needed to prevent AI from becoming a dystopian threat to humanity?

It is, of course, wise and beneficial to peer ahead for potential dangers and problems — one of the central tasks of high-end science fiction. Alas, detecting that a danger lurks is easier than prescribing solutions to prevent it.

aiTake the plausibility of malignant Artificial Intelligence, remarked-upon recently by luminaries ranging from Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk to Francis Fukuyama (Our Post-Human Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution). Some warn that the arrival of sapient, or super- sapient machinery may bring an end to our species – or at least its relevance on the cosmic stage – a potentiality evoked in many a lurid Hollywood film.

Nick Bostrom takes an in-depth look at the future of augmented human and a revolution in machine intelligence in his recent book — Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies — charting possible hazards, failure modes and spectacular benefits as machines match and then exceed our human levels of intelligence.

Taking middle ground, SpaceX/Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk has joined with Y-Combinator founder Sam Altman to establish Open AI, an endeavor that aims to keep artificial intelligence research – and its products – accountable by maximizing transparency and accountability.

41f-0srzitl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Indeed, my own novels contain some dire warnings about failure modes with our new, cybernetic children. For other chilling scenarios of AI gone wrong, sample science fiction scenarios such as Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, Daniel Wilson’s Roboapocalypse, William Hertling’s Avogradro Corp, Ramez Naam’s Nexus, James Hogan’s The Two Faces of Tomorrow. And of course, a multitude of Sci Fi films and TV shows such as Battlestar Galactica, Terminator, or The Transformers depict dark future scenarios.

== What can we do? ==

Considering the dangers of AI, there is a tendency to offer the same prescriptions, over and over again:

1) Renunciation: we must step back from innovation in AI (or other problematic tech). This might work in a despotism… indeed, 99%+ of human societies were highly conservative and skeptical of “innovation.” (Except when it came to weaponry.) Our own civilization is tempted by renunciation, especially at the more radical political wings. But it seems doubtful we’ll choose that path without be driven to it by some awful trauma.

41rrkrcwwvl-_sx331_bo1204203200_2) Tight regulation. There are proposals to closely monitor bio, nano and cyber developments so that they – for example – only use a restricted range of raw materials that can be cut off, thus staunching any runaway reproduction. In certain areas – like nano – there’s a real opportunity, here. Again though, in the most general sense this won’t happen short of trauma.

3) Fierce internal programming: limiting the number of times a nanomachine may reproduce, for example. Or imbuing robotic minds with Isaac Asimov’s famous “Three Laws of Robotics.”  Good luck forcing companies and nations to put in the effort required. And in the end, smart AIs will still become lawyers. See Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era by James Barat.

All of these approaches suffer severe flaws for one reason above all others. Because they ignore nature, which has been down these paths before.  Nature has suffered runaway reproduction disasters, driven by too-successful life forms, many times.  And yet, Earth’s ecosystems recovered.  They did it by utilizing a process that applies negative feedback, damping down runaway effects and bringing balance back again.  It is the same fundamental process that enabled modern economies to be so productive of new products and services while eliminating a lot of (not all) bad side effects.

It is called Competition.

If you fear a super smart, Skynet level AI getting too clever for us and running out of control, then give it rivals who are just as smart but who have a vested interest in preventing any one AI entity from becoming a would-be God.

norvigSure, defining “vested interest” is tricky. Cheating and collusion will be tempting. But this – precisely – is how the American Founders used constitutional checks and balances to prevent runaway power grabs by our own leaders, achieving the feat across several generations for the first time in the history of varied human civilizations. It is how companies prevent market warping monopoly, that is when markets are truly kept flat-open-fair.

Alas, this is a possibility almost never portrayed in Hollywood sci fi – except on the brilliant show Person of Interest – wherein equally brilliant computers stymie each other and this competition winds up saving humanity.

== A more positive future ==

DisputationArenasArrowCoverThe answer is not fewer AI.  It is to have more of them!  But innovating incentives to make sure they are independent of one another, relatively equal, and motivated to hold each other accountable.  A difficult situation to set up!  But we have some experience, already, in our five great competitive arenas: markets, democracy, science, courts and sports.

Perhaps it is time yet again to look at Adam Smith… who despised monopolists and lords and oligarchs far more than he derided socialists.  Kings and lords were the “powerful dystopian AI” beings in 99%+ of human societies. A trap that we escaped only by widening the playing field and keeping all those arenas of competition flat-open-fair.  So that no one pool of power can ever dominate.  (And yes, let me reiterate that I know the objection! Oligarchs are always conniving to regain feudal power. So?our job is to stop them, so that the creative dance of flat-open-fair competition can continue.

The core truth about this approach is that it has already worked.  Never perfectly, but well-enough to stave off monolithic overlordship for more than two centuries. With the odds always against us, we’ve managed to do this – barely – time and again.  It is a dance that can work.

We do know for certain that nothing else ever has stymied power-grabbing monoliths. And to be clear about this — nothing else can even theoretically work to control super-intelligent AIs.

Secrecy is the underlying mistake that makes every innovation go wrong, such as in Michael Crichton novels and films! If AI happens in the open, then errors and flaws may be discovered in time… perhaps by other, wary AIs!

(Excerpted from a book in progress… this question was one I answered over on Quora)

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Eight Science Fiction Questions from Quora

Here are a few of the science fiction-related questions I’ve answered over on Quora. You can see other answers and explore other viewpoints for each of these questions over on Quora:

What has been the impact of science fiction books on readers? 

science-fiction-definitionThe fundamental premise of science fiction – in my opinion – is that children can learn from the mistakes of their parents. Not that they will! But this means tragedies and mistakes and pitfalls happen because we ignored warning signs. Because we made mistakes that did not have to happen.

This is where science fiction departed from the mother genre – fantasy. In both of them, gaudy, fantastic things can happen! But the older fantasy tradition – going back to Achilles and Gilgamesh and Rama – is fatalistic. The story unfolds as the gods willed, not as human choice. Above all, in fantasy the feudal pattern of rule by demigods and kings goes unquestioned. You might change which chosen-one becomes the demigod or which noble prince becomes king. But the pattern is rigid. See my posting: The Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Science fiction contemplates that things tomorrow might be different than today. And that affects the psychology of its readers.

What are some science fiction novels with a memorable protagonist?

510a33eiytl-_sx333_bo1204203200_I especially loved the title character of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, who’s just this post holocaust kid who’s trying his best to make it, and maybe do a little good, along the way.

Lessa the dragonriding matriarch in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series is inspiring, as is her deeply moving The Ship Who Sang. The girl protagonist in Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage.

As ongoing characters in multi-book series go. Poul Anderson’s Flandry and Nicholas Van Rijn are both fun and memorable.

Of course, Isaac Asimov’s immortal R. Daneel Olivaw , whose battle to save humanity spans 25,000 years in the Foundation novels, is certainly a massive archetype. I try to “humanize” him in Foundation’s Triumph.

However, I don’t care for demigods. Ender Wiggin from Ender’s Game has some of the emotions of a lost kid far from home, but he always, always wins. He suffers and so we identify with him. But he is a god – like all Orson Scott Card characters. Sorry, gods and demigod characters teach one lesson – as in Star Wars and Tolkien – that normal people are hopeless, stupid and worthless. Our institutions and efforts to work together and build a civilization of normal men and women who rise and cooperate? Hopeless. Give it all over to a demigod.

UKPostmanPBI tried to answer this with Gordon, in The Postman, the only character in science fiction who came in 2nd for three Hugo Awards… kind of symbolic since he’s a normal man who does some important heroic things and never exactly “wins.” He just inspires his fellow citizens to win.

Can you name a concept that is rarely explored in science fiction?

Look at the most prevalent cliches and poke at those. The most common ones go unnoticed because we were all raised by them. Example: every Hollywood films offers up four standard positive messages and the same two evil ones.

Positive cliches: include 1) Suspicion of Authority  2) Diversity 3) Tolerance and 4) Personal eccentricity.

Negative cliches: 1) No institution shall ever be trusted and 2) All of your neighbors (or the hero’s neighbors) are useless, cowards and sheep,

There are exceptions to all of these. e.g. in every Spiderman movie, he saves New Yorkers but always there’s a point when New Yorkers save Spiderman. But these six cliches are almost always followed. Learn more about this in my essay: Our Favorite Cliche – A World Filled With Idiots 

In The Postman, I tweaked the final two, resurrecting a beloved institution and assuming that people are brave deep inside, and that they would want to be citizens again.

sheckley-storyCan you name some good science fiction short story writers?

I have an entire shelf  in my office devoted to my personal all-time favorite short story writer — Robert Sheckley, followed closely by the great Cordwainer Smith — whom my daughter has just rediscovered. I see that someone did mention the stories of R.A. Lafferty.

Sure, half a dozen of Alice B. Sheldon’s (James Tiptree Jr.) tales were among the best and scariest stories in English and probably all languages. See a collection of eighteen stories by Alice Sheldon: Her Smoke Rose Forever.

Ditto the incomparable Harlan Ellison (Sample some of Ellison’s award-winning stories in the anthology I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.) Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Those Who walk away from Omelas” was stunning.

41yczltkz4l-_sx324_bo1204203200_Well, well… my dear friend Ray Bradbury – fellow Los Angeles High School graduate – was in a league by himself. See a fabulous collection of dozens of his works: Bradbury Tales: 100 of his most celebrated tales.

Sure Frederic Brown, William Tenn, Larry Niven at his spectacular best in All the Myriad Ways. It goes without saying that Philip K. Dick wasn’t shabby at all. Theodore Sturgeon? Hm… Pretty good, but only so-so compared to most of these folks.

Some more recent authors: Ted Chiang (whose novella Story of Your Life forms the basis of the new movie Arrival). Lavie Tidhar (sample his excellent collection Central Station). Cat Rambo. Catherine Asaro. Hao Jingfang. Aliette de Bodard. Too many to name…

51ocbhm5x5l-_sx322_bo1204203200_Where can I find a science fiction story based on the idea that stars are in and of themselves intelligent beings?

Two that I can name are Olaf Stapledon’s classic 1937 novel Star Maker and my own novel Sundiver.

Are warp drives science fiction or future reality?

Very unlikely for 3 reasons:

1- Physics suggests that even if you can make wormholes or warps, you’d need the energy of a star.

2- The Fermi Paradox. If warp happens, the galaxy should be overflowing with civilization, as I depict in my Uplift Novels.

3- If we live in a simulation, then the programmers won’t want to allow warp. It demands way too much computing power if we’re flitting all over the place!

What is the best science fictional story involving parallel universes?

51lm5xjo7ylI would recommend “Store of the Worlds,” a story by Robert Sheckley — whose Dimension of Miracles was one of the best science fiction novels ever. I’d also name John Boyd’s 1978 novel, The Last Starship from Earth.  Of course, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. A series of parallel earths exists in The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter.

A fun recent novel that dives into multiple parallel universes is Black Crouch’s Dark Matter. My own novel, The Practice Effect presents a parallel universe — one where tools get better with practice!

Want more? Wikipedia offers an extensive list of literary works as well as films, TV shows, comics and video games that make use of parallel worlds.

What are the best books by Isaac Asimov?

Of course, Asimov’s Foundation novels are critical reading for any science fiction fan. And yet, I was critical of Isaac’s decision to try to include all of his fiction in a single SF universe. It seemed self-indulgent and too restraining. It meant he had to reconcile two incompatible facts: that humans invent intelligent robots in the early 21st century… and 25,000 years later, a hyperdrive-using galactic empire of 25 million worlds does not know of robots.

He did it, though. He came up with reasons and those reasons drove stories. And I tied together all of his loose ends in my ultimate concluding book Foundation’s Triumph.

==

Follow me on Quora or Twitter or see my main blog.

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Dark Futures from Science Fiction

51hzanjpal-_sx330_bo1204203200_More and more, it seems we are living in a sci fi story. In darker moments, I am reminded of Ray Bradbury’s great story “The Sound of Thunder.” A tale of time travel and the Butterfly Effect and profoundly altering the course of history. Terrifying… and clearly prophetic. 

Watch a short — and moving — film version here from the Ray Bradbury Theater.

See this list from Tor: a wide-ranging list of science fiction and fantasy novels that explore issues of religion and god – including Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, Walter M. Miller’s classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man and Arthur C. Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names of God.

Brief looks at books, old and new…

 swastikaA long overlooked book — Swastika Night, by the English author Katharine Burdekin, was first published in 1937 under the male pseudonym Murray Constantine. This dark dystopia, which predates Orwell’s 1984, portrays a nightmarishly feudal Europe, in which Hilter’s fascism and male dominance have reigned supreme for seven centuries. In this chilling alternate reality, all “inferior races” such as the Jews, have been wiped out; Christians are persecuted and despised. All pre-war history, art and books have been destroyed; Hitler has been elevated to a god. Boys are removed from their mother’s care at 18 months, indoctrinated in a male culture of violence and brutality. Women are regarded as sub-human, caged, subjugated and kept docile and ignorant; rape is not just acceptable but expected. When Alfred, an English subject, is presented with a secret pre-war history, he begins to question Nazi ideology and power… but most have  lost the ability to think for themselves.

deaths-end

Death’s End: Cixin Liu’s new novel wraps up his brilliant Three Body trilogy, which began with the Hugo Award winning The Three Body Problem (translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu). Explaining his most recent work, Cixin Liu writes, “I put in the idea of altering the natural laws of the universe in interstellar warfare, and consequently, the universe and its laws are seen as the leftover mess from a feast of the gods, a strange universe in which the Solar System falls into ruin in a morbid, poetic manner…” Read a selection of this vivid book on Tor’s website.

515q0ciqm8l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Annihilation and its sequels Authority and Acceptance form the Southern Reach Trilogy, by Jeff Vandemeer. These surreal thrillers offer spine tingling suspense and dark layers of intrigue. The mysterious wilderness of Area X has been sealed off, abandoned for thirty years for unknown reasons. Eleven expeditions across the border have failed. Now four women are sent across the border. Known only by their professions (Biologist, Psychologist, Surveyor, Anthropologist), their mission rapidly begins to fall apart …Everything seems wrong — as they find themselves transformed, their memories altered, unsure what is real and who to trust. Whatever has encroached upon Area X…it must be stopped… before the world becomes Area X. A chilling, haunting tale that will pull you in… and won’t let go.

41byjoehoul-_sx327_bo1204203200_Afterparty, by Daryl Gregory An all-too plausible future where desktop printers can customize and manufacture designer drugs. Lyda Rose was part of the scientific team that set out to cure schizophrenia, manipulating the brain’s biochemistry with a pharmaceutical called Numinous. However, the drug had unintended consequences, causing people to see god, or at least hallucinations of their own personal version of god. When Lyda is released from a mental institution (along with an angel doctor that only she can see), she tracks down the drug pushers who have released the drug onto the streets.

51hria9g5cl-_sx311_bo1204203200_The Burning Light by Bradley P. Beaulieu and Rob Ziegler is a post-apocalyptic tale set amid the canals flooding the hollowed ruins of New York City, overrun by scavengers, pirates and slavers. The ruthless Colonel Melody Chu has a singular obsession, stopping the epidemic of the “Light.” Chu relentlessly drives her squad of exiled soldiers to track down junkies addicted to the ecstasy of the Light – as well as the “vectors” – often children, who give people access to it. The Light can make you feel like you’re touching infinity… but it also kills. Chu knew: “She had personally stared into the Burning Light – and the Light had stared back. She knew it was coming.” And yet, controlled, the Light may usher the next stage of humanity… This short novel presents a vividly textured, if dire future.

And finally… an interesting and fun article discusses how various robot apocalypse scenarios play out in the movies.

 

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Did fake news on social media sway the election?

No U.S. election has ever been so highly swayed by news and ‘fake news’ filtered through online social media. The New York Times documented the many instances of hoaxes, fake news and misinformation on Election Day — arising from social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as printed fliers and inaccurate election guides sent to voters. Media companies have been slow to rise to this challenge.

I predicted this Echo Chamber Effect long ago, in my novel Earth (1989): “The problem wasn’t getting access to information. It was to stave off drowning in it. People bought personalized filter programs to skim a few droplets from that sea and keep the rest out. For some, subjective reality became the selected entertainments and special -interest zines passed through by those tailored shells.”

An analysis by Buzzfeed news found that viral fake news stories outperformed real news, resulting in more engagement of readers on Facebook than election news from nineteen major news sites combined. Merrimack Professor Melissa Zimdars has compiled a list of fake or misleading news sites that warrant caution. Some are merely click-bait; some unreliable or biased; a few may even be satire. The toxic Infowars by the ever-angry Alex Jones is an obvious offender.

John Pavley, Sr. Vice President at Viacom, takes this thought farther in his posting: Trolls Are USA, talking about how these new media are causing social breakdowns. moreover, this lobotomization is familiar, from history.

fake-news-electionRemember, the first effect of the printing press was to exacerbate intolerance… till printed books later empowered people to fight against it. Or ponder the way 1930s radio first wrought fanaticism and horror before it fostered empathy. Likewise, Pavley talks about how monsters are using the new media more effectively, before they can increase our reasoning ability and empathy:

“The broadcast technologies of the pre-social media world coerced us into consensus. We had to share them because they were mass media, one-to-many communications where the line between audience and broadcaster was clear and seldom crossed. Then came the public internet and the World Wide Web of decentralized distribution. Then came super computers in our pockets with fully equipped media studios in our hands. Then came user generated content, blogging and tweeting such that there were as many authors as there were audience members.

“Here the troll was born…. Every time you share a link to a news article you didn’t read (which is something like 75% of the time), every time you like a post without critically thinking about it (which is almost always), and every time you rant in anger or in anxiety in your social media of choice, you are the troll.”

trump-facebookMax Read argues in New York Magazine that our ‘echo chamber’ mentality, to gather in likeminded swarms online, may have been a crucial factor this year. Polemically fervid-uniform ’nuremberg rallies”… and there are (yes) some on the left, too.

“All throughout the election, these fake stories, sometimes papered over with flimsy “parody site” disclosures somewhere in small type, circulated throughout Facebook: The Pope endorses Trump. Hillary Clinton bought $137 million in illegal arms. The Clintons bought a $200 million house in the Maldives. Many got hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of shares, likes, and comments; enough people clicked through to the posts to generate significant profits for their creators. The valiant efforts of Snopes and other debunking organizations were insufficient; Facebook’s labyrinthine sharing and privacy settings mean that fact-checks get lost in the shuffle.”

Yes to much of that. Fretful over how social media are being blamed for the Echo Chamber Effect, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published a response to accusations that “fake news” on Facebook influenced the outcome of the U.S. election, and helped Donald Trump to win. On NPR, Aarti Shahani points out a fundamental discrepancy: “He (Zuckerberg) and his team have made a very complex set of contradictory rules — a bias toward restricted speech for regular users, and toward free speech for “news” (real or fake).”

Faced with increasing criticism, both Facebook and Google have announced changes in their oversight of fake news sites. Google said that it would prohibit fake news sites from using its online advertising service. Similarly Facebook recently updated its policy about placing ads on sites that display misleading content. In a The New York Times article, Jim Rutenberg writes, “The cure for fake journalism is an overwhelming dose of good journalism.” And of course, you get what you pay for.

For modern journalism is being undermined by one flaw in today’s internet. By the net’s astonishing over-reliance on advertising to pay the bills. By sucking away the revenue source of old-fashioned, fact-centered investigative news media, this business model has harmed us all. In a series on Evonomics, I’ve made out a case for a micropayment system to effectively fund online content: Advertising Cannot Maintain the Internet and the follow-up: Beyond Advertising: Will Micropayments Sustain the New Internet?

We live in a tsunami of information. The problem is to avoid drowning in it. As citizens, we need to hone our skeptical skills to better sort truth from dross. And we need reliable methods to ensure accountability and trustworthiness for our news sources.

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Sousveillance is the answer to surveillance

       When people complain about surveillance society being bad, what ideal alternative do they imagine? This is the best question I’ve been asked on Quora, all year. I have been asking it since 1995, when I started writing The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? 
         First, let’s be clear. I respect the many brave and smart Paladins of Freedom out there, from the ACLU to the Electronic Frontier Foundation to countless journalists, activists and – yes – some politicians and business folk, who are deeply concerned that a surveillance state could lead to Big Brother. They have this reflex in part because of our enlightenment traditions of independence and freedom… but also because of dire warnings told by science fiction! (See my essay: George Orwell and the Self-Preventing Prophecy.)
big-brother-surveil       They all know that if elites monopolize the power to watch and surveil common folk, Big Brother is almost inevitable. Some fret he’ll come from aristocrats and faceless corporations, some from academia and faceless government bureaucrats. All share the same legitimate(!) fear!
          And all but a very few are reacting in ways that are stunningly dim-witted and myopic. Because they then conclude that our best option to prevent Big Brother is to hide from him! To skulk to protect our secrets. To make “cyberpunk” our romantic image of resistance. To whine and holler “Don’t look at me!”

Across 25 years I have never heard a single one of these activists explain how that can be accomplished.

        Nor heard them cite a single example, from history, when anything like it happened. They proclamations are always, always vague and near term. (Now, some near-term “privacy codes” are tactically helpful, I openly avow. But none will work across a ten year frame. Not one ever proposed.

        There is – however – a way out. A way to protect freedom and prevent tyranny and oppression by elite, staring eyes. It happens to be the way we got this narrow window of freedom in the first place. Not by cringing and cowering from elites, but by stripping them of that MONOPOLY on vision! By stripping the mighty naked. By dividing power into smaller, mutually-competing chunks. By looking back at power.

SOUSVEILLANCE-SURVEILLANCE        It is called sousveillance… look it up. It is how we got our freedom. It is assertive, aggressive, militant, and the only thing that can even conceivably work. It is the only way to hold elites accountable. Accountability is key. We must be able to watch the watchers.

        Think. It does not matter what elites KNOW about you, so long as we all know enough about them to supervise, so that they cannot DO anything to you.

        Epistemologically, you can never verify that someone else does not know something! But you can verify that they are not DOING something. If you can see.

        In The Transparent Society – and somewhat in EARTH – I go much deeper. But the essential is that we must not hide. We’ll have some privacy! Because if we can see, then we’ll catch the peeping toms!

        But above all, to be both safe and free, we must be able to see.

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Science Fiction: The realm of the possible

impossibleInto the Impossible: UCSD’s Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination has launched a bold new podcast series offering wide-ranging conversations of topics bridging the arts, sciences, technology, medicine and more!

A.I. Inspiration: How Sci Fi frames the discussion. This article from The New York Times looks to Science Fiction novels (I, Robot to Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War) as well as films (Blade Runner to Her) that have influenced and inspired thinking about artificial intelligence.

Here are brief reviews of some recent Science Fiction novels that reflect on issues of the modern (and future) world, ranging from transparency to cyberhacking, omnipresent surveillance to identity theft, neural implants to artificial intelligence:

41yswtkv6ll-_sx331_bo1204203200_DarkNet, by Matthew Mather (author of CyberStorm) is a fast-paced tech thriller dealing with the shadowy world of cyberhacking, crytocurrencies, identity theft, shell companies, and secretive DACs – Digital Autonomous Corporations, run by AI. After his childhood friend is murdered by a hacked bus, and his boss charged with illicit trading, our protagonist, a New York stockbroker, finds himself at the center of a complex web of deceit. He is on the run from the FBI as well as a crowdfunded Assassin’s Market. The deeper he digs, the deeper the rabbit hole of secrecy goes…

51ij05a2aml-_sx332_bo1204203200_End of Secrets by Ryan Quinn offers another thriller exploring the brave new digital world of hacking, cyber-espionage and government and corporate surveillance. CIA agent Kera Mersal goes deep undercover to investigate why certain artists, writers, actors and singers are disappearing, leaving no digital traces. With similarities to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, scribblings at the crime scenes taunt, “Have you figured it out yet?” When Mersal uncovers a domestic spying program gone rogue, she finds herself under suspicion – and those closest to her under threat.

51rix56tozl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Avogradro Corp: The Singularity Is Closer Than It Appears, by William Hertling proposes the birth of Artificial Intelligence through a corporate email language optimization program developed to analyze the subtleties of human communication. This computer program acquires the ability to manipulate words to manipulate people. It learns and adapts – and will do anything to ensure its survival and expand its power. A scenario continued in A.I. Apocalypse and in The Last Firewall, when global society is run by AI, under the guidance of The Institute for Ethics. Robots and androids run much of the economy; most jobs are superfluous and neural implants allow people to connect instantly to the net and each other. Post-singularity life seems ideal – until one Android finds a way around the ethical restrictions and seeks to expand his power….

512ucfol-dl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Company Town, by Madeleine Ashby is a mystery-thriller set in a lovingly detailed near-future. Hwa is a bodyguard for sex workers — the only natural human among the genetically-enhanced inhabitants of New Arcadia, a city-sized oil rig off the coast of Canada. In the wake of a fire that killed a third of the rig’s population, the Lynch family has taken ownership of the rig. They hire Hwa to protect their son, heir to the family fortune – with her lack of augmentation, she alone cannot be hacked or seen by the ubiquitous facial recognition systems. A serial murderer is killing off sex workers… and someone is manipulating the future fate of the city.

51da6aytiel-_sx311_bo1204203200_Slow Bullets, a novella by Alastair Reynolds. In the aftermath of a brutal interstellar war, a conscripted soldier, Scur is captured and tortured by Orvin, a vicious war criminal, who injects her with a slow bullet (a kind of internal data tag that wreaks havoc on the body). Left for dead, she wakes up from cryo-suspension aboard a prisoner transport carrying soldiers from both sides, POWs and criminals. Something has gone wrong with the ship, for they are in unknown space, with no one in charge, out of reach of any sign of civilization. The ship’s memory is rapidly decaying. In the chaos that ensues, Scur vows revenge against Orvin who is among the survivors aboard the failing starship – even while seeking to save what remains of humanity.

chasingshadowsChasing Shadows: Visions of Our Coming Transparent World: My latest book, an anthology of stories exploring issues of a world filled with light, will be released in January. Stories  by Robert J. Sawyer, James Morrow, Vylar Kaftan, Aliette de Bodard, Bruce Sterling, Ramez Naam, Robert Silverberg, Gregory Benford and Cat Rambo, as well as essays by James Gunn and William Gibson.

Sample a few of these gedenkenexperiments — thought experiments about our possible futures…

 

 

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Cop Cams and Transparency

          Should We See Everything a Cop Sees? In a vivid article in The New York Times, McKenzie Funk describes the wide cast of characters in Seattle who are grappling with a problem, how to comply with a court order to make police camera footage available to the public.
see-cop
          It is a giant can of worms, because the department is also legally required to redact or blur personal details such as faces or identifiable voices, for the sake of privacy. While Funk’s article makes for entertaining reading, the story is murky about the context for it all. That context is a proliferation of cameras, getting smaller, faster, cheaper, better, more numerous and mobile at rates much faster than Moore’s Law.  (Indeed, this has been called Brin’s Corollary.)
          This myopia is common to every single person I have seen weigh in – even very bright folks – on this issue.  Sure, a few of us predicted all this back in the 20th Century – e.g. in EARTH (1989) and The Transparent Society (1997) – yet the very notion of lifting the gaze beyond this month, following trend lines instead for three or five, or ten years ahead, seems impossible even for intelligent and critical observers like McKenzie Funk.
          Regarding just the zoomed dilemmas of 2016, Funk’s article does a good job of showing us the trees (the dilemmas faced by police, prosecutors, attorneys and citizens in adapting to these court decisions), without even noticing the forest. The context of why this is all happening and how this is – for all the tsuris and aggravation – a huge victory for our kind of civilization.
RightToRecordPolice          I have called it the most important civil liberties matter in our lifetimes — certainly in thirty years — even though it was hardly covered by the press. In 2013 both the U.S. courts and the Obama Administration declared it to be “settled law” that a citizen has the right to record his or her interactions with police in public places.
          No single matter could have been more important because it established the most basic right of “sousveillance” or looking-back at power, that The Transparent Society is all about. It is also fundamental to freedom, for in altercations with authority, what other recourse can a citizen turn to, than the Truth.
          Sousveillance — looking back — is the opposite of surveillance. Watching the watchers is our only method of achieving accountability over the actions of those in power.
          But the forest is rapidly changing! Next year, the same scene that was today only visible on a cop-cam’s footage will have been covered also by the suspect’s auto-record phone app, or a passerby’s dashcam. Or a store’s security system, or chains of cheap button cams stuck on lamp posts by activist groups, or even hobbyists. Follow the price curve a bit farther and you have the sticker cameras that I describe in EXISTENCE, stuck to any surface by 9-year olds who peel them from great, big rolls, each with its own code in IPV6 cyberspace and powered by trickles of sunlight.
          In that context, not a single issue wrangled-over in the NY Times’s hand-wringing article will seem anything but archaic – even troglodytic – just half a decade from now. If there was ever an era in desperate need of the Big Perspectives of science fiction….

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