Category Archives: movies

Six Science Fiction Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which science fiction scenarios do you find the most disturbing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And The Expanse has similar qualities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your most promising science fictional concept?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Defying Godzilla… and other “games”!

First some sci fi news! Multiverse: Exploring Poul Anderson’s Worlds hit bookstores on April 30th.  Terrific stories dedicated to one of the greatest of the greats.

== Just ASKING to be stomped…. ==

Okay, I’m about to risk all by bearding the fanboys in their dens. Bets whether I’ll survive?

Godzilla-movie-2014To be clear, I will go to see the new Godzilla flick. I hope it is well-done and I’ll turn down as many dials as I must, in order to enjoy all the roaring and stomping and useless-shooting that’s a metaphor for the futility of war… or the futility of all human endeavor.

Still, let me turn to all you guys out there who are going nuts over this prospect, and ask… really? I mean….

…I mean it looks like just another plodding, invulnerable, tail-dragging act-of-nature. An unpleasant guest. A bully, void of any personality or motive, other than malevolence, trashing up the place in revenge for our effrontery for daring to develop technology, for all its plusses and minuses. A stomping expression of the modern-cowardly obsession with apocalypse and the simplistic balm of hopelessness.

Do I hate all monsters? Nonsense! Frankenstein’s creation is a tear-jerker. And I howl in fury at what Hollywood has done, lately, to the lycanthrope wolf-man, who used to be the bourgeoise, middle class monster! Between the effete, lordly vampires and the innumerable, shambling, proletarian zombies, there was the story of a guy with a mortgage and a wife and kids who won’t listen… and a monthly dread that came with every full moon… what a story! Ruined by recent, coke-addled producers, who turned wolf man into a pack of cheap, white-trash versions of vampires.  So sure, I like monsters.  But I’m picky.

Godzilla-1998-emmerichHeck, Godzilla can be cool! The very first version had some genuine pathos. The 1998 Roland Emmerich version (with Matthew Broderick) featured a female titan who — while huge and lithe and deadly — was also vulnerable, courageous and FAST! And even kinda sympathetic, in her own way. She was in and part of nature, not a stomping-cranky, invulnerable, walking-destroyer-god metaphor.

Oh, sure, the overall Godzilla 1998 flick kinda sucked as cinema. But the monster? She lived by her wits and had understandable motives. The audience felt conflicted and even came to view her as a tragic underdog.

So this new guy-in-a-rubber-suit can take hits from nukes? Where’s the fun in that? Yaaaaaawn….

== Grousing about even MORE popular culture! ==

Dystopian-Teen-FictionAfter Hunger games and Divergent and Ender’s Game and Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, is it possible to see a theme? Other than a fetish for the word “game”? How about this:

“I am a misunderstood, undiscovered demigod/chosen-one who is being hemmed-in by authority figures who demand that I crush my uniqueness into their square-peg system, and BOY are they gonna be sorry when I find my true (rebel) friends and discover my hidden/latent talents!”

Does that about sum up the core message of just about every teen exploitation film? The irony is so rich that almost no one ever actually groks or discusses it. That preaching romantic versions of Suspicion of Authority does not make free thinkers. It does not produce independent-minded citizens, capable of using the good parts of society while fixing or deconstructing the bad. What it tends to produce is bitter, indignant people who will march to whatever drummer feeds their resentment and attack whichever “elite” they are propagandized into blaming for their own limitations — while thus serving the purposes of whatever elite is pulling the strings on their own side.

YA-novels-message-Chosen-OneOh, noteworthy: this trait encompasses both left AND right.

Is there anyone in mass media, anymore, creating lessons that preach: “Buck up! Stop whimpering. And stop expecting super-powers. You are merely above-average and if you want to change people, you’re gonna need help from a lot of other above-average folks.

“Go Change what’s bad. And start by admitting some folks already did some of that, before you. And there are aspects of the society you live in — including some of your institutions and neighbors — that might be smart enough to discuss and negotiate solutions with you. They might even lend a hand, when you find yourself battling evil.”

Do you know anyone saying that?

Nah. See this satirized beautifully here: It’s a bunch of years after the war and everything is different. And my own rumination (The Idiot Plot) on why these tedious cliches hang around with such tenacity.

== Sometimes, there are better stories… ==

Three-spartaJust out, a graphic novel called “THREE” that takes a harsh look at the realm of Sparta, the city state that Frank Miller glorified in “300,” without ever mentioning the wretchedly gruesome nature of the Spartan regime, or the blinding hypocrisy of crying “freedom!” while running one of the worst slave states in human history.

In “THREE,” Kieron Gillen and Ryan Kelly follow a trio of helot slaves who get fed-up, rebel, and are chased across Greece by an army of three hundred brutal pursuers.

I haven’t acquired the book, yet, but the sample illustrations are excellent and the rebuttal to Miller’s outrageously sick “classic” is long past-due. (See my own dissection of the relentless lies and turpitude of “300” here.)

And speaking of questioning cliches… Now available online in English translation, at last, is “The Last Ringbearer,” a novel set during and after the end of the War of the Ring (from “The Lord of the Rings”) and told from the point of view of the losers. The novel was written by Kirill Yeskov, a Russian paleontologist, and published to acclaim in his homeland in 1999. It dives into some of the questions that I explored in my infamous Salon article on Salon: “J.R.R. Tolkien vs the Modern Age” in which I merely explore (with some respect) the conflicted relationship between Tolkien and the modern world, and speculate entertainingly about what might have been. Yeskov takes this idea farther!

Forever-Watch-ramirezAnd while we’re touting better stories… the SyFy channel will turn “James S.A. Corey’s” Expanse space opera novels (Leviathan Wakes, Abbaddon’s Gate) into a “Game of Thrones in space.” Forgiving that bit of salesmanship bluster… I can’t wait.

Want good things to read? The Forever Watch by David Ramirez is a vivid and imaginative and solidly crafted novel about crime and danger and deep, deep secrets aboard a generation ship carrying the last of humanity to a distant star. Recommended.

And yes… you… want… to… read…

 

== “Nonfiction Sci Fi” ==

HUman-Big-data-smolinRick Smolan sent me two wonderful volumes.  Truly amazing and beautiful coffee table books. The Human Face of Big Data and From Alice to Ocean: Alone across the outback. Spectacular photography accompanies very insightful explorations of two very different topics. Fabulous gifts for those you actually like, who have birthdays coming.

Just plain musical fun: Salut Salon “Wettstreit zu viert.”

And my colleague George Dvorsky’s new course — Introduction to Transhumanism — introduces the philosophy and socio-cultural movement that is transhumanism. “We will survey its core ideas, history, technological requirements, potential manifestations, and ethical implications. Topics to be discussed will include the various ways humans have tried to enhance themselves throughout history, the political and social aspects of transhumanism, the technologies required to enhance humans (including cybernetics, pharmaceuticals, genetics, and nanotechnology), and the various ways humans may choose to use these technologies to modify and augment their capacities (including radical life extension, intelligence augmentation, and mind uploading). Along the way we will discuss social and ethical problems that might be posed by human enhancement.”  Visit George’s column on iO9.
== Brinstuff ==

Here are details re my two separate trips to Santa Clara, this month:

May 9 –  4pm speech about transparency, sousveillance and Internet transformations – at the  2nd Cyber Surveillance Conference (The Internet Society), at Mayer Theater, Santa Clara University.  Open to the public.

May 21 –  4pm speech at the Uptime Institute:  The Near Future: Big Data and the next 40 years. I believe membership is required.

Did I mention I have a story in that Poul Anderson anthology?

TEDxSanDiego-Brin What’s Next? The Horizons of Our Dreams: My talk at TEDx San Diego-2013 is now posted for viewing by all.  It was very popular, but challenging for the smart audience, as I took them on a rapid tour of human history, society, evolution… and our galactic destiny… all in  12 minutes!

And I speak at TedX UCSD on May 10.

Want to read an interview with one of your favorite science fiction authors… in Chinese? What did I say! No seriously… someone tell me what I said?

See also an impressive job of interview-by-paraphrasing — I have seldom seen better. The responses and opinions that Catherine Book describes me having actually overlap with the ones that I hold!  Impressive.  It is a skill we all desperately need.  Only when you can paraphrase your opponent so accurately that he or she has to grudgingly admit “that’s what I believe” are you then in a fair position to debate them and demolish their arguments.  The Paraphrase Challenge is the very core of human maturity.

Go thou forth. Read good tales.  Critique the crud.  Be citizens.

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Science Fiction Media and Films — Some hidden gems

interstellar-movieWhile we’re all holding our breath for the release of films Interstellar and Transcendence… let’s skim a fewer lesser-known nuggets. But first a few announcements:

1) The Smithsonian Magazine in collaboration with the UC San Diego Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, Nerd Nite, Smithsonian Grand Challenges Consortia, and the Smithsonian Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation PRESENTS

   THE FUTURE IS HERE: Science meets Science Fiction
Imagination, Inspiration and Invention
MAY 16-18, 2014 WASHINGTON DC

Presenters include: Patrick Stewart, David Brin, Kim Stanley Robinson, Brian Greene, Adam Steltzner, George Takei, Stewart Brand, Sara Seager, and The Mythbusters! For more information…. TICKETS ARE GOING FAST!

Smithsonian-future-is-here-2014

Culminating the first day, I’ll have an onstage discussion with the mighty string theorist and science popularizer/author Brian Greene .

2) Issues in Science and Technology —  a respected quarterly journal that explores the intersections of science, technology, society, and policy — announces a science fiction contest! Winners will receive $1500. Throughout 2015, starting with the Winter volume, IST will publish one SF story per issue, on topics of broad societal interest. Published stories may be accompanied by a brief commentary or response written by a member of the National Academies. Co-sponsored by Arizona State University.

== Greene/(Green) Days ==

greene-hidden-realitySpeaking of the brilliant Brian Greene, author of The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos as well as The Elegant Universe… watch this trailer for a magnificent dramatization of his children’s book “Icarus at the edge of Time,” narrated by John Lithgow with music by Philip Glass.

Further… when does a story about science become science fiction? On this episode of ScienceFriday, Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss and theoretical physicist Brian Greene discuss how to spin a yarn about string theory or the Big Bang, without hyping or distorting the science. And novelist Ian McEwan, whose books touch on neurosurgery and quantum field theory, talks about what science offers to fiction.

Speaking of the verdant color, lately, at the LA Times Festival of Books, I was able to wrangle for Cheryl a seat to watch an interview with John Green. the effervescent impresario of Crash Course online tutorials, as well as a legendary series of entertaining pro-sense-and-science v-log rants, and New York Times best-selling author of novels including The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska.

== Media and Movies! ==

UnknownKeep an eye open for John Harden’s latest short film “NEW” which will soon be hitting the festival circuit, thanks to the generosity of online supporters like you. Moreover, get ready for a story that is poignant, stirring, but not stuck in the hackneyed rut of apocalyptic dystopias. “Cautionary tales have their place, of course, and I love those movies,” says Harden, “but I think dystopian views of the future are just a trendy stock solution. It’s not a good trend, because an unvaried diet of dystopias doesn’t warn us, it just points us toward despair.” Harden believes we need the utopias, too.

One review reads: “I think that’s one reason that NEW got [an] endorsement from sci-fi author and futurist David Brin, back when we were launching our first online fundraiser,” says Harden. “He and I are simpatico on that point—which is why my movie shows a lush green future of rolling hills and puffy white clouds.” Plus some sadness… and some hope. Spread some yourselves.

And yipe… this trailer for Scarlet Johansson’s coming film LUCY is amazing. How interesting that the human enhancement theme is on a roll. This one makes it a dive into psychic stuff, but I am willing to be entertained. Still, I enjoyed the intelligent film LIMITLESS (2011) as one of the few SF films “for grownups” ever made.

BBC-real-history-sfBBC America has just announced the 10 PM April 19th debut of a four-part mini-series titled The Real History of Science Fiction, which will feature films from Star Wars to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Jurassic Park to Doctor Who, each program is packed with contributors behind these creations. There are even (gasp) a couple of authors.

Some details about Andy and Lana Wachowski’s super secretive new Netflix series Sense8 have finally surfaced. And this new series, created in collaboration with Babylon 5’s J. Michael Straczynski, sounds kind of incredible. It apparently concerns some topics that have been raised here before (and in certain novels): the cultural expansion of empathy horizons, from family to tribe to clan to nation to globe; as well as how technology is used to both unite us and divide us. Interesting themes, a promise of a show in conception already more sophisticated that most of the SF we get in media usually.

Black-MirrorAnyone know about BLACK MIRROR? It seems the top sci fi anthology show around and …well… my ulterior motive is to get them a copy of OTHERNESS. Lots of people think I have a dozen tales perfect for that kind of Twilight Zone treatment. Hint. Hint. (Some of my best haven’t been collected yet!)

Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe is threatening to draw me in. Argh, like I needed more time sinks.

Episode one of REDSHIRTS: The Animated Series!

Terry Gilliam may be out of his mind — and this trailer for his new quasi-sci-fi film, Zero Theorem, seems to indicate it’s so — but no one can deny he is the bravest film maker alive.

 

== Weird but a good effort ==

lem-futurological-congressIn his 1960s novel The Futurological Congress, the great science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem foresaw a worldwide chemical dictatorship run by the leading pharmaceutical companies, whose complete control of our emotions range from love to jealousy to fear. Director Ari Folman’s new film adaptation — The Congress — of Lem’s novel introduces the current cinematic technologies of 3-D and motion capture, which are then extrapolated to a future when actors — in this case Robin Wright — sell their personnas to become permanent studio franchises, completely created by AI.

The film, which won a number of festival awards, has no theatrical release scheduled in the U.S., alas.  My wife and I got to see it as guests of the San Diego Jewish Film Festival… for the price that I had to join a panel afterwards, with local luminaries and animation experts, to discuss the movie. (I was the token sci fi author.)

congress-movie-folmanWe had mixed reactions.  I felt the middle third dragged and the animation was too repetitious — too many lush, avatar-like flowering plants.  On the other hand, Robin Wright was terrific, playing an alternate version of herself.  And the poignant ending was very well-handled. I thought that Folman dealt with the “what is reality?” issues at least as well as any of the directors who have rendered Philip K. Dick tales.  All told, I recommend renting the DVD when you get a chance.

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Rewriting History and Revisiting 300

300RiseOfAnEmpireAll right, so the sequel is out… and doing well.  The stylish combat film “300: Rise of an Empire” topped the box office last weekend with  $45.1 million, seven years after the original Miller-Snyder flick “300” became an international hit.  I haven’t seen the new one yet, but two thoughts occur to me:

(1) This sequel covers precisely the parts of the story that I have pushed for, ever since the first “300” came out.

That original film, based on a comic book by Frank Miller, told egregious historical lies, cramming into the mouth of the Spartan general- Leonidas — things that he would never have said.  For example dripping contempt for the Athenian shopkeepers and potters and fishermen who had destroyed an entire Persian army, just ten years before, at Marathon.

Spartans still stung with shame over having stayed out of that fight.  But to have Leonidas rant… while ignoring what was in plain view from his cliff-edge… an Athenian-led navy holding the vast Persian fleet at bay, guarding his flank… that omission in “300” slandered Leonidas and betrayed the audience.

300-MILLERAcross six years, I’ve occasionally written about the travesty that the original “300” perpetrates, not only against factual history but against the very notion of democracy and citizenship and the power of volunteers defending their people, homes and nation. I suggested, that any sequel focus on Themistocles and the Athenian fleet – and on the notions of volunteer citizenship that enabled them to keep succeeding where Startans failed — with flashbacks to Marathon and then moving forward to the glorious victory at Salamis, that saved western civilization…

… which is apparently what this new flick does!  Though with lots of Millerian sneering cartoon-villains, when the real thing was dramatic enough.  Ah well.

(2) I’ll go see it.  What the heck?  In hopes that, maybe, Mr. Snyder has decided to love the civilization that’s been good to him, ignoring the incredible hatred of democracy and enlightenment that pervades nearly all of Frank Miller’s works.

 == The Blackjack Generation? ==

Next-America-boomersTuesday evening on The Daily Show, author Paul Taylor discussed the millennial generation and his book The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown.  In discussion with Jon Stewart, Prof. Taylor said that the clade following the millennials… encompassing those born after 2000… does not yet have a name.  Um, well… may I weigh in?

Way back in 1989, in my novel EARTH, I portrayed folks in the 2030s referring to this generation as “blackjacks”… because they were the first ones born in Century Twenty-One.

Blackjack? Twenty-one? Get it?  Cool, eh?  Oh… never mind…

== News flash:  The Justice Department is now conducting two inquiries: 1) looking into whether the CIA illegally snooped on congressional investigators and 2) another looking into whether those same congressional investigators broke the law by sneaking documents out of CIA HQ to protect them from erasure. The accusations include lying to Congress and to the Justice Department, and spying on congressional investigators to hide what the CIA was doing.

== Continuing panic over terror?  ==

So many misconceptions!  During the Obama Administration, the U.S. has suffered its fewest number of terror-related attacks per year of any substance, going back to the 1960s, yet somehow we manage to stay stoked in panic.  In fact, according to a briefing I got last week at the Pentagon, the curves are extremely clear.  International terrorism attacks peaked across the Reagan and Bush administrations at roughly 400 to 500 incidents per year. They plummeted starting around 1992 through a nadir in 2001, the very year of the 9/11 attacks. (Coincidentally, this steep decline encompassed the Clinton years, though the aging out of European radicals probably also played a role.) There was a bit of a rise under GW Bush, though not to pre-Clinton levels.  The decline continued under Obama…

….though the US figure does not apply to the whole world.  The missing jet from Malaysia is deeply worrisome, for example. There are Chechen-related events in Russia and so on.  This is not a call for complacency! Still, it is yet one more reason to choose to shake off our dismal funk and the pessimism foisted on us by cable news.  We still have time to start the “real 21st Century” in a mood of rising confidence.

Wish I could share the chart.  It’s amazing.

== Some folks get-it ==

SURVEILLANCE-COVEILLANCE A WIRED article by Kevin Kelly promotes sousveillance and reciprocal accountability by translating/combining them into the word “coveillance”… a term that may confuse the chemists out there… but that captures the heart of by two-decade argument — that we can negotiate in our own best interests if we can see.

 “A transparent coveillance where everyone sees each other — a sense of entitlement can emerge: Every person has a human right to access, and benefit from, the data about themselves. The commercial giants running the networks have to spread the economic benefits of tracing people’s behavior to the people themselves, simply to keep going.”

And… “Amplified coveillance will shift society to become even more social; more importantly it will change how we define ourselves as humans.”  Interesting!

(Ah, but Kevin… do cite others along the way.)

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Recent Sci Fi and other Cinema… Can there be drama without villains?

The world keeps becoming SF’nal in interesting ways.  Yesterday, I gave a talk at Google for Vinton Cerf’s Interplanetary Internet Group, aiming to extend out cyber networks across the solar system… (you may recognize Vint not only as one of the “fathers of the Internet but also portrayed as the “Architect” in The Matrix series.) Pictures forthcoming.

Meanwhile, I stand amazed as obstinacy at last starts to fail and Americans finally declare they’ve had enough of major parts of the insane Drug War… which reminds me of what Winston Churchill used to say about us Yanks, that we could be “relied upon to do the right thing — after trying everything else.”

And in that spirit…

== pocket film reviews — drama without villains! ==

EuropaReportLast week we enjoyed the modest and sweet SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN, which was quite lovely and – for a refreshing change – portrayed no male vileness among any major characters.  Just the ups and downs of love while solving a somewhat zenlike scientific-technical problem.

Interestingly, I might say much the same about EUROPA REPORT, which also completely lacked any villains, just brave astronauts trying to survive and get their jobs done amid accidents, (some plot-convenient blunders), and monumental discoveries…

…which also kind of describes the magnificent Cuaron film GRAVITY, again with no villains, other than nature and the harshness of space.  How interesting to spot this theme among a small number of recent films.  That you do not need red-glowing eyes or gloating-evil bad guys, or even men-behaving-badly to – on occasion – make interesting cinema.

drama-without-villains

Oh, there are other Sci Fi movies with no villain, pitting protagonists against nature or simple error: Apollo 13ArmageddonDeep ImpactHoney I Shrunk the KidsMarooned, and 2010.

See my musing, Name that Villain: Bad Guys and Aliens in Sci Fi Movies. And of course, my explanation of the “idiot plot” laziness that has propelled so many recent dystopias and silly scenarios that seem nearly-always to portray civilization as hopeless and all our neighbors as sheep.

Contionuing in this vein, I stumbled upon a late-night TCM viewing of THE BEGINNING OR THE END.  No, not the trashy 1957 Peter Graves sci fi flick that I loved as a kid — that replaced “or” with “of” in the title — about giant locusts eating Chicago. Rather, this is a 1947 docudrama about the making of the Atomic Bomb, starring Hume Cronyn as Ropert Oppenheimer and featuring actors playing Albert Einstein, Erico Fermi, Leo Szilard, Vannevar Bush and so on.  Some scenes were altered/exaggerated or shifted for drama.  Still, it takes you through  history – much of it scientifically accurate – from 1933 through 1945 – and had some rather moving segments!  Including a placard at the end — a message to “viewers in the 25th century” hoping we handled these new powers well.

Buck-rogersOh, have a look at the original Buster Crabbe – Flash Gordon movie! (The beginning of a serial series of cliffhangers.) It actually starts out not-too hokey! Pretty sci fi’ish, in fact. It even includes climate change!

The short film “Danger: Humans” by Tom Scott is a terrifying look at our species from the perspective of extraterrestrials. I contributed a number of its elements in the preceding, informal blog event that inspired Scott. Like the bits about capseisin, walk-hunting and our weird sonic-vibration sense!

Do you miss Firefly? Okay then, here’s some good clean fun.  A collection of the best curses in Mandarin Chinese from that wondrous show.

Finally, aw heck, I can’t help it. Some time ago I linked to WIRED’s super-short sci fi story contest that featured one of mine (the only one with a plot, three scenes, conversation, action and drama)… and a perceptive reader just pointed to striking similarity with a recent, smash-hit motion picture!  Judge for yourself:

Vacuum collision

Orbits diverge

Farewell love.

Ain’t it obvious which recent film we are discussing?  Look, Alfonso Cuarón, earned from all of us the greatest respect.  Still, in Hollywood-law they judge the spectrum of coincidence – from homage to ‘borrow’ – by a standard of percentages — of fractional point-by-point overlap.  So… can you see even a single point of my story that does not overlap with GRAVITY?

Is it worth at least a beer or two, hm?  Hey… (to use the phrase much in vogue among my kids)… I’m just sayin’.

UPLOAD-SELF-COMPUTER== sci fi news ==

George Dvorsky at iO9 explores Why you should upload yourself to a supercomputer… some of the pros and cons and possibilities.  A fun -light rundown.

Taking those ideas more seriously… in Economic Consequences of AI and Whole Brian Emulation, GMU economist Robin Hanson has been exploring what would be the motives, capabilities and incentives of software beings, living and working in virtual or cyber realms.  While there would be inherent differences, it is surprising how Malthus (the law of limited resources) will rear his head even in a domain of variable clock speeds and the power to copy one’s self.

Astounding-world-future,jpgGo see this mid-20th century newsreel featuring amazingly accurate predictions of the year 2000.  All right, okay, it’s sarcastic.  Very very very very sarcastic.

Still, think positive! Here’s an amazing look back at how far things have come. The two thousand home computer owners in the Bay Area get a chance to download (a 2 hour process) a pure text copy of the newspaper!

Oh my.  Canada’s former defense minister is a … believer: Aliens will give us tech if we quit wars!

On the other hand, we are definitely on an upward path when Dr. Who replaces Santa Claus! 

Ray Bradbury’s 1960s Prunes Commercial… hilarious!

== quickie shares ==

This optical illusion is so so SO worth your time.  

Japan’s huge magnetic net will trawl for space junk.  Compare to the first chapter of Existence!

Water-wheel-welloThis is a breakthrough: The WaterWheel helps those in the developing world transport water without carrying jugs. Women and children bear the primary responsibility for collecting water for domestic use.

Robots may replace one fourth of U.S. combat soldiers by 2030.

On the privatization of space.

The decline of the American book reader.

== When is homage something else? ==

Chris-voss-glenn-brown-sci-fi-paintingControversy rages over sci fi artist Glenn Brown, whose paintings sell for millions… and whose works are almost always direct copies of other artists.  Contemplating this bizarre story makes the mind reel, because Brown makes no effort to hide his sources of “inspiration” but rather cites well-known SF cover artists Anthony Roberts and Chris Foss and others in the very titles of his paintings, which repaint – without digital copying – the Roberts and Foss originals in meticulous detail, mostly altering color, shading etc.

It is easy to understand the outrage, but I’m not sure anyone has a legal leg to stand on, as painters have long copied other painters and sold their copies.  If a movie used any of the creative elements, Foss would likely be the copyright owner. Only his version can grace book covers or advertisements. Indeed, I’d be surprised (tho I’m just guessing here) if Brown can even get away with selling prints — and indeed, this legal quirk (that he can’t sell prints) might help to explain the prices folks pay for his originals… copies that they are!

Is all this outrageous? Sure. The absurd chutzpah has me ticked off and deeply irritated.  On the other hand, I always swivel and interrogate my own reactions. And so, the contrarian in me asks: has the resulting publicity harmed Foss and Roberts and Curtis? Oh, and that is just the beginning of head-scratching. See also a posting by Scott Edelman on this issue.

My wife posed it to me this way.  “What if someone sat down and read Startide Rising and used it as “inspiration” to type a new version, only much better, copying every scene in slightly-altered words? And though he could not publish it, he sold the typescript copy for a million bucks?”

OUCH!  Touché, woman.  Touché.

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GRAVITY – High praise plus a few quibbles

We watched Alfonso Cuarón’s new film Gravity yesterday and enjoyed it immensely. Fantastic to watch — especially in 3-D — tensely edited and that rare combination, a vivid action flick that is also an actor’s movie.  Sandra Bullock took us by the throat and gut and held on.

gravity-movie-posterI hope that Cuarón will become a supremely powerful voice in Hollywood, so long as he stays away from the cocaine that has fried 90% of the directors and producers, whose few remaining neurons actually believe that mindless remakes and poisonous dystopias constitute “creativity.” Gravity is the kind of inspiration that might start changing that.

While watching Gravity, I succeeded yet again at my mental trick of filing away quibbles for later while enjoying a film.  If you are  either a scientist or a professional storytelly (I’m both) you have to do that or you’ll never enjoy another flick — and you’ll be murdered by the person sitting next to you in the theater!  In this case the mental quarantine was easy.  Lots to enjoy and the quibbles were bearable.

Still, you came here for insights and details and scientific cavils, so I won’t scrimp. Time to reach into that bag where I stuffed the carps and quibbles. Let’s pull them out and see if there are any real scientific boners. I hear that Neil deGrasse Tyson has offered a series of critical tweets on this matter.  I have not read them yet, though I’ll look them over, after compiling the following list.

SPOILER AERT —

* The Hubble Telescope orbits WAY higher than the Space Station. Past repair missions could barely reach it.  Should have made it a different-future scope. The premise situation is scientifically broken… and I don’t care.

* Two stations would not remain orbiting close to each other, even if they started with identical parameters.  The orbits would precess apart.  In fact, Gravity (the movie) makes Low Earth Orbit (LEO) seem about the size of Los Angeles County… but it’s way, way bigger. No fix for this. Just grin & bear it.

gravity-2013-official-movie-trailer-1024x575*  The biggest flaw others have mentioned is that if both astronauts are at rest with respect to the ISS, one could not be pulling the other away from it.  There is a fix! Clooney should have said “the station was set rotating by a hit. We’re at the end of a swinging bola. Let me go or you’ll be torn loose.”  But to do that, the station should be shown slowly spinning.  That would’ve done it.

(Side note: Clooney might have done what one of my characters did once. Taken off the now useless jet pack and thrown it away from the station, possibly emparting enough momentum to send himself toward it. Still, his fading away reminded me of Talby’s departure with the Phoenix Asteroids, in Dark Star. The dream sequence was perfectly done.

* Had I been advising, I’d have added a couple of lines about how Bullock would aim the Soyuz capsule NOT at the station but away from it. “Up to drift back…” starts the nursery rhyme taught to all students of orbital dynamics.  If she had recited that, it would have looked and sounded cool to 99% and 1% would have nodded YESSSSSS!

sandra-bullocks-new-movie-gravity-is-an-extreme-4-d-thrill-ride* All right, the effects of debris were amplified maybe FOUR orders of magnitude.  No possible combination of mere satellite parts could have done all that… and I couldn’t care less. It was sooooo cool.

* Still, they would not see clouds of approaching supersonic debris. Again, poetic license, but if it’s slow enough to identify stuff, then it is too slow to smash a space shuttle to bits. (Still, Clooney’s astronaut’s crisis mode descriptive monologue is exactly what a test pilot or “right stuff” astronaut is supposed to do.  Well-portrayed.)

Nevertheless, let me editorialize: the debris problem in orbit is getting dire and it’s about time some attention was drawn to it.  I portray something being done about it in the first chapter of my recent novel EXISTENCE. (You can see an image here.)

* I did wonder why Clooney and Bullock didn’t try to replenish oxygen from the shuttle, which would have plenty of undamaged gear lying about. Like spare oxygen packs? Clooney could have said seven words about that being impossible now. Ah well.

I’ve got a dozen others but they all fall into the realm of acceptable things I’d have suggested in a meeting… then shrugged when refused.  What matters is that no kid learned something horribly dumb.  It put techies and scientists and science in superb light.

gravity-movieThose who say “but it made space look dangerous!” are dolts.  Of course it’s dangerous! That won’t deter the brave, it will attract them!  Um, ever heard of 10,000 years of soldiers? This terrific film shows the great allure of the Final Frontier. Its explorers must bear the same skill and courage and honor of war… without the evil deeds or vile consequences.

Turning away from our petty bickerings.  Looking outward. It’s exactly what we need.

== The quibbles of Neil deGrasse Tyson ==

All right, now I’ll look at Neil’s famous twitter jibes about the film.

No it should NOT have been named “Zero Gravity.”  There’s plenty of gravity in orbit.  It’s part of the problem.  Bad buzzer sound for Neil on that one.

I agree that Sandra Bullock’s character servicing a telescope from her background as a medical doctor is iffy.  Kind of like “Armageddon’s” rule: it is easier for oil drillers to learn to be astronauts than for astronauts to use a drill. Um, sure, right.  Still, shrug it aside.  Maybe she’s just an irreplaceable, polymath genius. That’s certainly consistent with the rest of the film, and more power to her.

Neil doesn’t glom onto my solution for why Clooney would be tugged away from ISS — because of rotation from an earlier hit.

Alas, his tweet about being unimpressed with zero-gee effects was just — well — kinda churlish. C’mon they were great!

Yes, Neil, all satcoms are not in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). But neither are they all at geosynchronous orbit (GEO).  TDRSS and GPS and most of those used by NASA for LEO comms are much lower down… but still likely immune to a LEO level debris blast.  True… folks would not “lose their Facebook.” Tyson got that buzzer-penalty right.  Yellow flag!  (But scaring folks about Facebook might get millions to agitate for space debris cleanup!)

Funny thing… I offered about twice as many real physics quibbles as Neil. (So there!)  Still we both agreed, it’s a terrific flick!  All of these little cavils only go to show what a large fraction of this hugely ambitious film Alfonso Cuarón and his team got right.

forwardlookingNow… if only we take the hint.  Stop the petty squabbling over picayune inanities that enemies of civilization want us to fight over.

Resume being a forward-looking people who take seriously our duty to future generations.  And who see the universe as beckoning us. Forward.

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