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.

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Dark Futures from Science Fiction

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

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

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

Brief looks at books, old and new…

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

deaths-end

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Did fake news on social media sway the election?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sousveillance is the answer to surveillance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Science Fiction: The realm of the possible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Cop Cams and Transparency

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

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A defense of liberalism

 

Lest the media’s obsession with bad news suggest that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, Harvard Professor of Psychology  Steven Pinker argues in an interview that things have actually gone a lot better over recent centuries, and at an accelerating pace:

“A shift in the summum bonum, or the highest good, towards loose humanism, where life is better than death, education better than ignorance, health better than sickness,” he says, “is what I believe we are seeing currently.”

Pinker’s historic and statistical analysis that violence is on a continuing downward trend is expanded upon in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, where he discusses factors such as globalization, a shift in value systems, the increased quality of life, particularly for women and children, as well as the profound driving force of the rational ideas of the Enlightenment.

And yet, Pinker notes, “Since we are tribal creatures, there is always the temptation to backslide.” A temptation we must resist.

Progress-happensProgress has happened and continues to happen… in our attitudes toward the environment, toward racial discrimination, toward equal rights for women, toward greater awareness of LGBTQ issues… and gradually toward leveling economic inequality.

Yet so many wallow in nostalgia. Often nostalgia for a past that never was. America was built by men and women who dreamed and built, who believed – and believe – in something called progress, in negotiating positive solutions for a better future. For all.

Why do more highly educated people veer toward liberalism? The Pew Research Center recently released a study showing that nearly a third of those who went to graduate or professional school maintain liberal views on social, economic and environmental matters, whereas this is true for just one in 10 Americans generally. “An additional quarter of postgrads have mostly liberal views. These numbers reflect drastic change: While professionals have been in the Democratic column for a while, in 1994 only 7 percent of postgrads held consistently liberal political opinions,” reports Neil Gross in The New York Times.

This might have been interesting as the introduction to an article about the topic. But the article failed to explore this thread in more depth. Though one thing is clear — highly educated people are more cognizant of time horizons that encompass a recognition of change.

altruistic-horizonsWhen the ambient fear level is high, as in civil war riven Syria, loyalties are kept close to home. Me against my brother. My brother and me against my cousins. We and our cousins against the world. Alliances merge and are broken quickly, along a sliding scale that appears to be remarkably consistent.

The general trend seems to be this: the lower the ambient fear level declines, the more broadly a human being appears willing to define those tribal boundaries, and the more generous he or she is willing to be toward a stranger. See this explored in my earlier article: Altruistic Horizons: Our tribal natures, the ‘fear effect,’ and the end of ideologies.

Michael Shermer has expanded in more detail upon the profound influence of rising levels of rationality and reasoning on our morality in his book, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. Shermer, the founder and director of The Skeptics Society, argues powerfully that we are living in the most moral and just period of our entire history, largely as a result of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Reason and their impact on human society. The expansion of this moral sphere has led to widespread democracy, civil rights, and greater justice for more of humanity. (As well as rising standards of living and improved health and sanitation.)

change-nostalgia-1The world was different in the past. That is not just a reason for nostalgia but also for recognition that change will continue. That change must continue. (The kind  of disruptive change that makes science fiction by far the most pertinent literature of our era.)

Liberalism is an attempt to harness and steer change. Hence it is not leftist per se… Marx thought that steering history was futile!  It is this belief that we can refashion ourselves and society using tools of discourse and/or science that makes the educated liberal.

Well… yes… compassion and empathy, too. But it is no accident that free enterprise, markets, entrepreneurship – all desiderata that supposedly the right cares about – do far better when liberals are managing the state.

Sorry, it is a blatant and overwhelming fact, Jack.

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New bill makes it harder to sell autographed memorabilia in California

 

I often hold up California as the dynamic leader in U.S. governance… e.g having the best election laws in the country, that have reduced radical partisanship, encouraging pragmatism and negotiation and yes, with the minority of moderate Republicans. It helps that Gov. Jerry Brown – while liberal and dynamic and busy, is also skeptical of meddlesome over-reach for its own sake. He vetoes fairly often.

All told, California is an utter refutation of the Foxite song that “divided government that does nothing is best.” Idiots. And yet… here’s a bill that Jerry shoulda trashed.

ab1570California’s new Assembly Bill 1570, ‘Sale of Autographed Memorabilia‘ law requires a Certificate of Authenticity (COA) for any signed item worth more than $5. Failure to issue the COA could make the seller liable for ten times the value in damages.

Besides brick and mortar stores, note that this bill applies also to “any dealer engaged in mail-order, telephone-order, or online business for the sale of collectibles in or from this state.”

Though I imagine that this bill was targeted primarily at sports memorabilia and movie schlock, where forgery is a real problem and ‘autograph mills’ pump out massive numbers of celebrity collectibles, it will be particularly hard on small booksellers and comic book sellers.

Specifically, California booksellers worry that it will make it more difficult to hold author signings or sell author-signed collectible books. In addition, bookstores may already be in possession of inventories of hundreds or thousands of autographed books.

Note that the seller can not just toss in a standard boilerplate form. Consider the rather onerous bookkeeping details required by this bill, set to go into effect January 1, 2017:

The Certificate of Authority must, “in at least 10-point boldface type” (1) Describe the collectible and specify the name of the personality who autographed it. (2) Either specify the purchase price and date of sale or be accompanied by a separate invoice setting forth that information. (3) Contain an express warranty, which shall be conclusively presumed to be part of the bargain, of the authenticity of the collectible… (4) Specify whether the collectible is offered as one of a limited edition… (5) Indicate whether the dealer is surety bonded… (6) Indicate the last four digits of the dealer’s resale certificate number… (7) Indicate whether the item was autographed in the presence of the dealer and specify the date and location of, and the name of a witness to, the autograph signing. (8) Indicate whether the item was obtained or purchased from a third party. If so, indicate the name and address of this third party. (9) Include an identifying serial number that corresponds to an identifying number printed on the collectible item, if any….

brin024Furthermore, “the dealer shall retain a copy of the certificate of authenticity for not less than seven years.” That’s a lot of paperwork, particularly for small independent booksellers.

As an author, I often sign all the remaining inventory at a bookstore after personalizing books for fans. I now need a witness to my signing?

This bill also affects the individual consumer, who may wish to resell an item they purchased earlier. How many people will have obtained, or held on to the appropriate paperwork?

The law is dumb and troglodytic. The first obvious change is to increase the minimum value. It’s an absurd amount of bookkeeping for items valued at just over $5. And books should be excluded. At a time when small bookstores are already struggling, let’s not act in any way to discourage reading and literacy and love of books.

If provenance is a problem, a piece of paper won’t solve it. Most are not worth the paper they’re printed on. Of course, certificates can be forged as easily as collectibles. If you must verify, take a picture each time you sign an item and file the jpeg using a correlation app that will find that specific item by the shape of the signature – different each time! Much easier to do and to comply with the law and it can actually work! Correlating and verifying. Best of all it is not a stone-age 20th century “solution.”

When passing a new bill, one must always consider: Who’s going to enforce this bill… and at what cost?

== Politics of the situation ==

Fortunately, this is California. The law will be amended next year. Then amended again till the public and stakeholders care too little to make much noise. It is called real, functioning democracy. If you object to aspects of this law, contact your state legislator.

What this kind of bill demonstrates is that the Democratic-Republican divide is not left-vs-right… Democrats often de-regulate much more than GOPpers do. No, it is manic-vs-depressive. The Democratic-run California legislature rushes about in a frenzy, adapting the state’s laws to 21st Century conditions (it’s their job!), then modifying the modifications under comment/complaint from citizens and companies… then getting more feedback in public hearings and modifying again… Busy, busy, busy. And sometimes drawing vetoes from the liberal-but-pragmatic chief executive. But for the most part, it’s good or neutral stuff.)

Sure, manic is vexing, sometimes, like this silly autograph bill. But we move forward. Unlike the U.S. Congress, which has become utterly dysfunctional, unable to pass even a basic budget. Unable to hold hearings about pressing matters or even issue subpoenas… except In pathetically partisan-nonsensical witch hunts. The laziest Congresses in U.S. history. Except for trillions of gushing tax gifts to the rich, and awful wars, can you name any accomplishments?

 

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Science Fiction Speculations

In contemplating the future, few authors attempt such a long-range view as the great Olaf Stapledon:

51pqceovipl-_sx322_bo1204203200_“To romance of the future may seem to be indulgence in ungoverned speculation for the sake of the marvelous. Yet controlled imagination in this sphere can be a very valuable exercise for minds bewildered about the present and its potentialities. Today we should welcome and even study, every serious attempt to envisage the future of our race; not merely in order to grasp the very diverse and often tragic possibilities that confront us, but also that we may familiarize ourselves with the more developed minds. To romance of the far future, then, is to attempt to see the human race in its cosmic setting, and to mould our hearts to entertain new values.” — so wrote Olaf Stapledon in 1930, in his classic novel, Last and First Men, an extensive reflection on the distant destiny of mankind.  Stapledon’s extrapolation extends over billions of years, charting the ups and downs, the highs and lows of civilization.

Another classic book that looked at the long term fate of humanity:

51prgnm2ool-_sx323_bo1204203200_“Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods.” Walter Tevis vividly explored issues of privacy and literacy in his classic 1980 novel, Mockingbird. With the memorable android, Spofforth, who has lived for centuries and longs to end his life… an act his programming will not allow. In this dire future, our human descendants live in a drugged state; they have lost the ability to read or think critically and the race is slowly dying. One man rediscovers the capacity to read… and works to regain a different future for mankind. Mockingbird is a profound reflection on the importance of reading to maintaining a civilized, thinking society.

Of course, no one dealt with the scale of human destiny better than Isaac Asimov, in his wondrous Foundation series.

I have written elsewhere that Science Fiction is the branch of literature that contemplates the possibility of defying Fate… a fate that is not predetermined, but negotiable.

== Brief looks at recent Sci Fi novels ==

516n0gjbul-_sx328_bo1204203200_Death’s End: Cixin Liu’s latest novel wraps up his excellent Three Body trilogy, which began with the Hugo Award winning The Three Body Problem (translated by Ken Liu). This bold novel expands into realms of physics and philosophy, picking up the tale of human destiny half a century after the epic Doomsday Battle with the Trisolaran alien invaders. Explaining his most recent work, Cixin Liu writes, “I put in the idea of altering the natural laws of the universe in interstellar warfare, and consequently, the universe and its laws are seen as the leftover mess from a feast of the gods, a strange universe in which the Solar System falls into ruin in a morbid, poetic manner…”  To sample Death’s End, read a selection on Tor’s website. 

dark-matter-blake-crouch Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. This New York Times bestseller offers a tense, tightly wound thriller that explores the Many Worlds theory of quantum physics. Jason Dessen abandoned a high-profile research career to take up a quiet life with his wife and son, working as a physics professor at a small college. Mugged while out on an evening walk, he wakes up in a new thread of reality and sees where his life might have gone, the paths not taken. For in this world, he is an award-winning quantum physicist at a secret research facility, where he has discovered a way to superimpose quantum states … and he wants desperately to return to his old life. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one…

blue-remembered-earth-reynolds Blue Remembered Earth, by Alastair Reynolds, offers a near-utopia set in a post-catastrophe future where Africa has become the reigning economic, political and technological superpower. Humans have established thriving colonies from the moon to Mars and Titan. An omnipresent surveillance system, the Mechanism, maintains peace throughout the system. The story follows the descendants of Eunice Akinya, who established a sprawling family mining empire that stretches to the asteroid and Kuiper belts. After her death, a historic artifact discovered on Luna sets Eunice’s grandchildren off on a journey through the solar system in search of answers that could affect the destiny of humanity. Reynolds, former scientist at the ESA, presents a believable vision for a future forged in space.

51iof9vkbpl-_sx328_bo1204203200_Winner of the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature, Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, offers a vivid long-scale look at human destiny. The crew of the starship Brin 2, led by scientist Avrana Kern set off on a terraforming expedition to a distant planet, to establish a future home for humanity. But… the act of a saboteur destroys the ship. Kern escapes in a cryosleep pod after launching planetward a pod of monkeys and an ‘uplift’ nanovirus – which inadvertently finds a home among the invertebrates of Kern’s World, increasing their intelligence (and complexity of their social web) generation by generation. Meanwhile, centuries of war and plague have rendered homeworld Earth uninhabitable, and the last survivors follow ancient celestial maps to reach worlds terraformed by their distant ancestors. They arrive to find that their anticipated new home is not quite what they had anticipated… A compelling read!

51hxpmxb3gl-_sx322_bo1204203200_How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu This book is a few years old, but imaginative, witty and great fun. Time travel is not only possible, but fairly mundane in Minor Universe 31. Things do go wrong, and that’s where social misfit and time machine repairman Charles Yu steps in, to resolve paradoxes and save people who decide to change the past, perhaps by trying to murder their own grandfather. While seeking to find his own father, who is lost somewhere in time, Yu enters a perennial time loop. To exit, he must seek clues by reading (while also writing) a book his future self wrote, titled, How to live safely in a science fictional universe.

51xprzsviol-_sx326_bo1204203200_A fun book for Young Adult readers: Mad Science Institute, by Sechin Tower offers up a teenage girl genius who loves inventing robots and electronic devices. But Sophia “Soap” Lazarcheck’s science projects have a way of going awry, setting off frequent explosions and the occasional fire. When she is admitted into the secretive Mechanical Science Institute (founded by Nikola Tesla), she uncovers a conspiracy of evildoers who want to use the institute’s science for nefarious purposes. Sophia teams up with her older cousin, Dean, to unravel these mysteries and prevent an imminent doomsday.

Finally…

Science fiction’s job is not to predict, but to explore possible tomorrows. But here’s an infographic showing 25 plausible future techs that will change daily life and that were predicted by science fiction.  And see seven ways Science fiction predicted the future.  A short list and some are better than others. But he does list John Brunner’s 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar which forecast in 2010 a “President Obomi.”

 

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Is there room for compromise?

Our political landscape has been deliberately polarized so that the mere concept of “negotiation” toward possible positive-sum — or win-win — solutions is simply inconceivable in the minds of average Americans. I’ll put aside whom I blame — it’s not equal, though both sides contribute. And the fact that complex issues have automatic “sides” is part of the problem.

Gun control is an archetype for how desperately stupid the situation has become. On the face of it, we have facts:

  1. Almost no one is calling for removal of personal weapons from American life – an absurd prospect that would be impossible and any attempt would likely cause revolution.
  2. After years in which white males deemed gun ownership to be their (romantically envisioned) recourse to some day use insurrection against any future-hypothetical government oppression, they now see non-whites taking up precisely that recourse… arming themselves and using weapons in insurrection against what they perceive as current and palpable government oppression.
  3. Moderates have long pointed to the great American success story, putting potentially lethal devices filled with explosive chemicals and potential to do harm into the hands of millions, even teenagers, who then use these devices with stunning care, diligence and statistical safety. Motor vehicles. Sure, they kill approximately the same number of Americans each year as firearms. But they are used – in close proximity to other people – roughly 100,000 times as frequently as firearms. Per capita-hours.

The proposal that has been long on the table is to treat firearms exactly like motor vehicles. In fact, if you look at the vehicle codes in most states, you could squint and imagine just doing a global from “cars” to “firearms” and you’d almost be there. Licensing, registration and – above all – insurance have worked with autos… with higher levels required for commercial vehicles, trucks etc. … and why not the same thing for assault rifles?

There is one and only one response from NRA types and that is the Slippery Slope Argument (SSA). Once the government has a list of licensees and registrations, ‘the government” could then go to every address and demand personal weapons be handed over.

It may surprise you to know that I have some sympathy for this argument! Certainly such things have happened in the past. As a science fiction author, I am willing to ponder far-out scenarios, especially those that have some historical precedent. And while it seems 99% likely that any such program of confiscation would spark the very revolution it was meant to prevent… and most of those assigned to carry it out would refuse… nevertheless, this is where we get to the place where our divide is partly the fault of the left.

JeffersonRifeHow ironic that liberals seem unable to discuss with their neighbors the notion of a Jeffersonian Insurrectionary Recourse… the notion that the citizenship should retain the right and ability to rebel against tyranny. During the outrageous Bushite years, I know many who simmered, and some who started arming themselves. Yet the party line meant they could not say it, out loud.

Is the Insurrectionary Recourse merely romantic twaddle, in an age of drones and smart bombs and nukes? Is it likely that a city filled with angry rebels could stand up against the US Army? In fact, the answer is yes, because the Army is made up of citizens who would likely rebel if ordered to carpet bomb American cities… which is ironic because they’d also refuse to go around collecting guns. Sorry NRA fellahs, you can’t have it both ways.

I go into this in much more detail here: Brin Classics: “The Jefferson Rifle”

… including my suggestion for how to get out of this mess. Because the NRA guys are ignoring one, final major flaw in their position. One major fact:

  1. The Second Amendment is stunningly weak. It is by far the weakest amendment. And just yelling that it’s strong will not make it strong.

“A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Sure, the gun guys proclaim that we can ignore the entire first half of that wording. And maybe courts today will agree with them. But a day will come when a frightened public and/or a new court will turn to those first 13 words, especially the first four, and let the state “regulate” away. Stop yammering that it can’t happen. It not only can. It will. And you know it.

In my other paper I offer up a win-win. A way that the insurrectionary recourse might be retained and bolstered by a better amendment! 

How about… Setting aside one kind of weapon from all future registration or awareness by anyone… in exchange for treating all the others exactly like cars. It is sensible. It gives all sides what they need.

What’re the chances, you suppose?

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