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Eight Science Fiction Questions from Quora

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

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

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

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

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

What are some science fiction novels with a memorable protagonist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are warp drives science fiction or future reality?

Very unlikely for 3 reasons:

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

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

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

What is the best science fictional story involving parallel universes?

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

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

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

What are the best books by Isaac Asimov?

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

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

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Reconsidering Copyright

“Current copyright law does not merely distort some markets — rather it destroys entire markets.” So reads the final line of a report released by the Republican Study Committee of the House of Representatives that is highly critical of current copyright law.

== Are Patents and copyrights Inherently Evil? ==

Intellectual-PropertyThe report points accurately to many of the flaws that have crept into modern copyright.  Including the absolutely false notion that Intellectual Property is — or ever  was — about what the content creators “deserve” or are “entitled to” by virtue of their creation. Or that the purpose of copyright is to benefit the creator. Rather, the purpose of copyright is to benefit the public: to  “promote the progress of science and useful arts.”

Ars Technica heaps further praise: “The memo, titled ‘Three Myths about Copyright Law and Where to Start to Fix it,’ is a direct assault on the relentlessly pro-copyright worldview dominating Washington for decades.” It is certainly worthwhile to go visit these two linked articles and see what the fuss is about…

… before pausing, taking a step back, and lamenting that even the Good Guys in this controversy proudly display shallow thinking while smugly proclaiming themselves to be wise.

To be clear, I pay college bills for my kids out of my copyrights and patents.  Nevertheless, I am philosophically willing to posit that people should not and cannot inherently “own” ideas or knowledge in any fundamental way, even if they created it in the first place. They have interests, some rights. But those are more constrained.

intellectual-property-lawMoreover, let me further avow that IP law has become a warped thing, twisted by lobbyists to serve the interests of mighty corporations and not the public or progress. All of the complaints cited in the articles have valid points that should be addressed. And yes, the chief villains are those who would use “ownership” to make “intellectual property” serve lawyers and oligarchs, rather than creative people.

Still, I am unsympathetic to those who righteously demand the very opposite, tearing down all copyrights and patents, under the proclaimed theory that we would then automatically enter some sort of Open Source Nirvana.  An Age of Aquarius and infinite sharing and endless voluntary creativity.

Yipe!  I lived through that sort of talk in the 1960s.  And what species do these fellows think they are part of? Elsewhere I have repeatedly proved that I am a friend to the Maker and Open Source movements! But please, don’t make it religious dogma. We are practical men and women, with practical problems to solve.

300px-NAMA_Machine_d'Anticythère_1I come close to despair over how proudly ignorant all the righteous people are (right or left, techie or troglodyte) about actual human history. For example, have you ever heard of the Antikythera Device?  The Baghdad Battery?  The fabulous piston steam engines of Hero of Alexandria?  Our ancestors were creative people! Yet, all of those technological advances and a myriad others were lost!  Why?

Until you can answer that question clearly, you will never grasp why patents and copyrights were invented in the first place.  And you should always understand the thing that you want to replace.

Put yourself into the shoes of an inventor or innovator in 99% of human cultures. Unless you found a patron in the king, you had only one way to benefit from your innovation — by keeping it secret! By scribbling your designs in cryptic verse and murky code, in just one carefully guarded grimoire, in a hidden attic.  Under a floorboard. Only then could you keep customers flocking to you… till the clever blacksmith in the next town reverse engineered your improvement and started competing with you.

And when you and your son died in a plague or fire? Or when the town was pillaged… what happened then to your invention? Do you get the picture?  Secrecy slows things down, and very often means that advances are simply lost. And yes, this resonates with The Transparent Society – should you be surprised?

human-progresss-secrecySelf-interested secrecy was the failure mode that ruined human progress for at least ten thousand years, keeping the process clogged and slow.

A way had to be found that would lure inventors out into the open, eager to announce, avow and declare their innovations!  While pondering how to fix the flaws in Intellectual Property, we are fools if we don’t consider how much better things got, when it was invented.

Go.  Read history. Hold conversations with Ben Franklin in your mind. Maybe even read The Transparent Society. Understand the actual problem. Then, instead of railing at us quasi-religious incantations like “information wants to be free” come up with another way to keep creative people shouting “look what I just came up with!”  Instead of slumping back into the old ways that stifled innovation for 10,000 years.

patent-copyright-futureThen we can talk about a replacement solution, admitting that it is time for patents and copyrights to give way, gradually, to another innovation.

Another invention.

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* After-note for authors! If you sold rights to your copyrighted works after 1978, you should be aware that based on Section 203 of the 1978 Copyright Act,  authors may cut away any contract after 35 years. It happens that my own very first book contract (Sundiver) was signed in the year… 1978… and is coming due for such a release or renewal right about… now.) It is still a world where you’re well-advised to keep informed. Now go and be creative.

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GeekWire asks David Brin about the World of Tomorrow…

Journalist-author and entrepreneur Frank Catalano took advantage of my book tour for Existence, in order to pin me down with questions about everything from sci fi to human destiny, in this interview that first appeared on Geekwire.

Frank Catalano (FC): What is right with Science Fiction Today?

David Brin (DB):  Science Fiction has so flooded into popular culture and beyond that it’s becoming a staple of discussion in politics and philosophy and daily life.  The New Yorker just ran a “science fiction issue” featuring works by some of our literary lights… a few of whom spent decades denying they ever wrote SF. People appear to have realized, at last, that we’re in the 21st Century.  Time to buy that silvery spandex outfit, I guess.

Another good thing, the sheer number of brilliant young writers coming down the pike. Michael Chabon, Charles Yu, Paolo Bacigalupi, Mary Kowal, Daniel Wilson, Kay Kenyon…. and dozens more. They can turn a phrase with the best in any genre, any era, and there are so many of them!  Liberated by new technology to explore innovative storytelling methods, like novels with embedded media or animated storyboards… zowee!

FC: What is wrong with science fiction today?

DB: Too many authors and film-makers buy into the playground notion that cynicism is somehow chic and knowing.  So many 50 or 80 year-old cliches are rampant — e.g. “hey look, I invented suspicion of authority!” — while nostalgia pushes aside what used to be our genre’s golden notion. That we in this civilization might find ways to improve, to solve problems, to become better than we were.  A difficult project, fraught with many pitfalls. But too many portray it now as hopeless.

How pathetic! That beneficiaries of relentless progress should repay that debt by casting doubt on the very possibility?  And lest you mistake this for political, I see the habit spewing from both ends of the hoary, lobotomizing so-called “left-right axis.” My late, lamented friend Ray Bradbury called this fetish the very lowest form of ingratitude.

Not that all SF has to be pollyanna sunny or tech-praising-pulp!  Ray plumbed the darkest depths of the human soul, in tales that could freeze your heart.  So?  He considered fantasy chills and terrifying sci fi what-ifs to be part of the process, exploring our dark corners and failure modes, always aiming to achieve effective warnings.  Self-preventing prophecies.

Some of us are rebelling. Neal Stephenson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg Bear and others have been laying down a challenge to our peers. If you think we have problems, expose them!  But spare a little effort to suggesting solutions. Or stoking others with belief that we can.

FC: Does the ascendence — and some would say replacement — of literary science fiction by multi-sensory media worry you? Editor H.L. Gold, as I recall, once famously said, “the Golden Age of science fiction is 14.” Is this still true in an age of 3D movies, realistic CGI even on TV shows, and immersive video games with science fiction storylines and settings?

DB: Good question.  Certainly when it comes to mass media, I can grumble about the immaturity, the cliches, the shallow idea space and the relentless cowardice of sequel-remake-reboot-itis. Whenever I see a new film I deliberately tune down several “dials” in my mind — critical faculties associated with logic, plotting, science… — just so I can retain some ability to enjoy a flick in the spirit it’s offered.  (Anyway, that helps to keep both my wife and daughter from strangling me, during the show!) And yes, sometimes I get the dials tuned right, though I do resent having to do it.

But we’re at the dawn of a new era.  In today’s Hollywood, writers are the lowest form of life.  But that will change when a small team – writer-led — can create a rough, animated storyboard of a film, fully 90 minutes long with spoken dialogue and music, that can gain a web following long before any studio sees it. This new, intermediate art form will change everything and shift the center of power over to story.

FC: What will literary science fiction — paper or digital — do best compared to other media forms of science fiction?

DB: Look, it may surprise you that I, the Hard SF Guy, believe there’s magic.  But let’s define it as the use of incantations to create vivid subjective realities in other peoples’ heads.  That’s what most magic has always been. The shaman might not really be able to make it rain.  But if his schtick was good, he would get fed!

By that light, we authors, especially in science fiction, are the greatest and most consistent, industrial-grade magicians. We concoct long incantations — chains of spaces and black squiggles (a million of them in Existence) — and skilled recipients of the spell (well-educated readers) proceed to scan those squiggles with their eyes, decrypting them swiftly into clever dialogue, deep emotions and insight,  unexpected ideas or star-spanning explosions. This partnership of spell-weaver and incantation-user is stunning, and remains far more effective for the full, rich texture of book-rooted invented worlds – where the recipient of the spell has to invest some energy and imagination – than any competing medium.

FC: You’ve occasionally dipped your pen into non-fiction, including 1998’s The Transparent Society (winner of the American Library Association’s Freedom of Speech Award) which seems oddly prescient in  time of privacy leaks and, some would say, sloppy privacy boundries both on the part of companies (Facebook) and individuals. Back then, you effectively said that openness, or letting everyone see the cards each other are holding that could be played on the other — be they corporate, government or individual — was the best policy when it came to organization’s collecting and hoarding of private information. In the more than a dozen years that have passed, do you still maintain that? Or has your position, well, evolved in light of recent web social media events?

DB: Across at least 6000 years, nearly every civilization stuttered with barely perceptible progress and dismal statecraft.  The Enlightenment’s chief tool in changing all that has been a suite of “arenas” in which we can compete, make fresh alliances, buy, sell, argue or negotiate without blood on the floor.  These arenas are democracy, science, markets and justice courts.  And here’s the thing.  All four work best when most of the participants know most of what’s going on, most of the time, and make good decisions accordingly.  All four enlightenment arenas wither and sicken and die, when denied light.

Dig it, in The Transparent Society I am no radical! I accept that some secrecy is necessary and avow that human beings have an intrinsic need for some privacy.  But here’s the irony.  We’ll be far more likely to be able to defend some privacy if we all can see! (Thus catching the peeing toms and would-be Big Brothers.) The term is “sousveillance.” Look it up!

Oh, while we’re at it. Also look up the concept of the “positive sum game.”

FC: Many in technology used to say they were heavily influenced by science fiction — both the literature and, famously, the first television series to treat literate science fiction seriously, Star Trek. Lately, though, tech startups seem to cite their primary influence as other technologists, such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Does this show a lack of imagination? Or a lack of good science fiction? Or something else?

DB: Well, once some kids started making billions while turning sf’nal ideas real, who do you think will be the role models?  I just hope those billionaires remember to re-prime the well. There are scores of ways to do it.

FC: Plug time. Since we’re talking around Hollywood, if you had to give a high-concept pitch for Existence in a phrase, what would it be?

DB: It’s 2050.  People have been smart and solved some problems… but there’s a minefield of threats and dangers ahead! At which point a message in a bottle washes on our shore, with an offer and a warning: JOIN US.

Of course, what I’d really do is refer producers to the vivid, three-minute preview/trailer for the book, with gorgeous hand-painted images by the great web artist Patrick Farley. (Yes, books now have trailers; I told you times are a-changing!) tinyurl.com/exist-trailer

FC: What is, or should, the role of science fiction be in inspiring students in STEM or other science-related disciplines, beyond entertainment?

DB: Not all SF or fantasy has to inspire new scientists and engineers. But it’s good to know that kids are still reading the challenging stuff.  The tales filled with adeventure and personal drama… but also lots and lots and ideas.

FC: What one thing excites you in science today that even most geeks may not be aware of?

DB: What? And give away my best new story notions before I can write ’em? I was jazzed to learn of Planetary Resources, the new company with deep pockets, aiming to mine asteroids and make us all so rich we can transform Earth into a park.

It turns out that Europa and Enceledus may not be the only ice-covered moons with buried seas. The solar system may contain dozens!

And did you know that mammals have an inherent ability to regrow body parts and limbs? We appear to have abandoned it many many millions of years ago, but docs are learning how to insert the missing gears and crank that old machinery, wow.

Do you doubt I could go on and on? I can.  And  can you imagine that there are those who aren’t excited by the possibilities? Or determined to stay alert to dangers, and eager to help progress? Can you believe you’re a member of the same species as…  but well, by now those folks aren’t reading this interview anymore.

FC: What one writer is writing in science fiction today, aside from you, that you consider a must-read for solid yet accessible scientific extrapolation?

DB: Well I already mentioned some of the young whipper snappers. A great hard SF guy? Vernor Vinge in Rainbow’s End. Though I find Stephen Baxter and Rob Sawyer to be right up there.  Geoff Landis gets the science right.  Three English majors, Nancy Kress, Kim Stanley Robinson and Greg Bear, have an uncanny knack, as do writers like…

But you asked for just one.  I’ll stop at seven, but attach some recommended reading list links.

Now let’s cross that minefield.

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