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.

2 Comments

Filed under books, media, movies, science fiction

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.

1 Comment

Filed under politics

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under politics, science

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.

 

4 Comments

Filed under books, future, history, literature, novels, politics, science fiction, society

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under science

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…

2 Comments

Filed under science fiction

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under books, fiction, literature, science fiction

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under future, science fiction, writing

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)

3 Comments

Filed under science, technology

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.

2 Comments

Filed under novels, science fiction