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Science Fiction, Cool War and Civil War

Science fiction – or more accurately, speculative fiction –  has a rich tradition of exploring What if... scenarios, exploring alternative paths of important historical events, asking questions such as, “What if the South had won the Civil War?” or “What if America had lost World War II?”

Just a few of the multitude of novels diving into divergent paths for the American Civil War include Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South, Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain, and Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee. The recent, best-selling Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters posits that the Civil War never happened and slavery persists in regions of America. Even politician Newt Gingrich has written in this genre: his novel Gettysburg, co-written with William R. Forstchen, explores how history might have unfolded if the Confederacy had won this crucial battle. In a more outlandish speculation, William Forstchen’s Lost Regiment series, beginning with Rally Cry, envisions a Civil War era Union regiment transported through time and space to an alien world.

But science fiction more often projects into the future. Something deeply human keeps us both fascinated and worried about tomorrow’s dangers. Several recent novels have foreshadowed a possible – and plausible – hot phase of the recurring American Civil War. I’ve written extensively about what I view as ongoing Phases of our American Civil War; luckily most segments of this persistent animosity have been tepid or cool, though the 1860s fever was near devastating. Indeed, I fear, with current tensions, the possibility that something could go volcanic. This was portrayed – in retrospect – by my post-apocalyptic novel The Postman, which has been receiving a surge of attention lately, for its depiction of “holnists” whose rationalizations sound very much like those of Steve Bannon.

One novel I’ve touted lately is Tears of Abraham, by Sean T Smith, which chillingly takes you toward a disturbingly hot second Civil War, a deadly struggle of countryman against countryman. What would happen if the U.S. split apart into warring states — set off by a far-reaching conspiracy? A president who declares martial law as states take steps toward secession. This page turner offers vivid, believable action and characters, along with sober, thoughtful insights into what it may mean — when the chips are down — to be an American. What divides us… and what unites us?

This seems particularly relevant considering the deep divides across America during the election cycle of 2016, where Red States and Blue States were more bifurcated than ever, seemingly unable to fully comprehend the opinions and problems of their own neighbors.

220px-TheCoolWarAnother science fiction vision that came to mind, given evidence of recent efforts by foreign powers to sabotage our democracy and economy, is The Cool War, published by science fiction master Frederik Pohl back in 1981. This tale portrays ongoing slow-simmering international tensions, a series of shadow wars where rival countries seek to sabotage the economy and markets of their enemies — and allies. In fact, I deem no novel to be of more immediate pertinence to any member of our defense and intelligence communities.

Wars, cool, cold or hot? David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Affairs, distinguishes them, commenting, “The purpose of the Cold War was to gain an advantage come the next hot war or, possibly, to forestall it. The purpose of Cool War is to be able to strike out constantly without triggering hot war, while making hot wars less desirable (much as did nuclear technology during the Cold War days) or even necessary.”

51YXFeqOcQL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In a similar vein, the near-future thriller Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War by P.W. Singer and August Cole envisions a revived Cold War, with rising tensions between the United States, China and Russia. An all-too believable war played out not just on land and sea, but also in space and cyberspace.

Returning to parallel universes, Philip K. Dick’s alternate history of World War II,  The Man in the High Castle — follows a scenario where the Nazis have won the war; it has been vividly adapted in the recent television series of the same name by Amazon. I’ve also explored that dark aftermath where the Nazis won World War II in my graphic novel, The Life Eaters. Connie Willis has revisited World War II in her novel, Blackout. Three time travelers find themselves stranded in London during the Blitz, facing air raids and bombing raids.

Another book just hitting the shelves –  American War by Omar El Akkad – is a dystopian novel about a Second American Civil War breaking out in 2074. The United States has been largely undone by devastating ecological collapse, a presidential assassination, the onset of a virulent plague arising from a weaponized virus, and a militantly divided North and South. The novel vividly portrays a doomed country wracked by vicious guerrilla raids, refugee camps interning displaced citizens, accompanied by relentless violence and death.

Whew! One can only hope that dark visions from these nightmarish scenarios might serve as self-preventing prophecies — much as George Orwell’s prophetic 1984 girded many to fight against the rise of any possible Big Brother to their last breath. Can we resist the divisions that threaten our country?

Indeed, our civilization’s ultimate success may depend on our foresight — perceiving potential problems we are able to navigate, mistakes we manage to avoid. Science fiction has often served to shine a light to reveal possible — and catastrophic — pitfalls in our shared future.

Warnings we would be wise to heed… and wounds we would be wise to heal.

 

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Science Fiction and the Future

In honor of Isaac Asimov’s birthday a few days back — and National Science Fiction Day (see below) — let’s have our first sci fi roundup of the year.

Century-Begin-2014First.  My New Years gift to you all is a little scary story  What if the 21st Century Actually Begins in 2014? about the real meaning of the “Fourteenth Year.”  That each of the last few centuries appeared to have had its “true start” at that point in time. Especially 1814 and 1914… and if this pattern holds, w may be in for a very very interesting stretch of road, ahead.  This piece is syndicated on the Bloomberg Network!

Second, I was interviewed by New York’s NPR station WNYC for broadcast in January, about the influence Science Fiction has had on society and creativity.  Someone let us know when it plays!

Third, catch this great anthology!  Twelve Tomorrows. Inspired by the real-life breakthroughs covered in the pages of MIT Technology Review, renowned writers Brian W. Aldiss, David Brin, Nancy Kress, Allen Steele, and Greg Egan join the hottest emerging authors from around the world to envision the future of the Internet, biotechnology, computing, and more. This collection features 12 all-new stories, an exclusive interview with science fiction legend Neal Stephenson, and a full-color gallery of artwork by Science Fiction Hall of Famer Richard Powers. (Now available on Kindle.)

Fourth… as mentioned above… January 2 is National Science Fiction Day….also Isaac Asimov’s birthday. Spread the word!  Agitate!  And let’s discuss in October how to make this the huge deal that it ought to be!

Oh here are articles on Isaac Asimov’s 50 year predictions of the world of 2014: Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014, writes Asimov fifty years ago, writing in the New York Times, after having attended the World’s Fair of 1964.

== Has sci fi provided the “great political writer” of our time? ==

Shaman-RobinsonTim Kreider gives a lovely paean to my bro and colleague Kim Stanley Robinson, calling him one of the greatest political and social writers of our era… before going on to give lavish praise in a review of Robinson’s new book: “Shaman: A Novel of the Ice Age.”  Kreider at times seems a bit unctuous in his admiration, but makes a credible case for Robinson’s importance.

My politics are just enough separated from Stan’s that I can enjoy occasional, fraternal digs at his utopiansim, which involves a wee bit more deliberate planning than I consider likely or plausible. In my opinion, humans are too ornery and delusional to reach consensus on the logical-seeming redesigns that Robinson demands, and which – by the way – will inevitably contain more unexpected drawbacks than any Grand Designer has ever been willing to admit.

Still, many of the good things that he calls for (and that I desire too!), like a much longer and broader set of Consequence and Inclusion Horizons — will come about. Partly from a mix of utopian finger-waggings by brilliant thinkers… but also via the trick-and-tool that has worked for us, so far… the reciprocal accountability that comes from a truly open, flat and transparent exchange of ideas and criticism, in a society that is always open to pragmatic and far-seeing endeavors..

It is that flatness and openness and transparency — plus the need to perpetually believe we can aspire and become better — where our overlap is complete, and where I am proud that our civilization gives full voice to Kim Stanley Robinson.

== More Cool SF’nal items ==

An interesting run-down by Charlie Jane Anders of iO9 on her personal list of recommended books for 2013.

Lee Barnett (aka ‘budgie’) is embarking on a challenge to write twelve 200 word stories using a title and a word provided by 12 writers. First off is Jamais Cascio, who suggested ‘The Misanthropic Principle’ with ‘shenanigans’, and got a take on the Big Question. Drop in on the Budgie site and follow this cool/fun exercise.

SixWordStoryThese “drabbles” — or super short fictions with very harsh rules — can be way-fun. One of my best short-shorts is “Toujours Voir” or “Always to see”… an answer to Deja Vu. Though the best one I ever saw was the very first story ever penned by Robert Sawyer. At the same site see my entries in WIRED’s contest for SciFi stories containing just SIX words.  The story of mine — Vacuum collision. Orbits diverge. Farewell, love. — is the only one with actual events and a plot, in three scenes!

I only just realized… it is precisely the story arc of — GRAVITY.

gravity-movie-posterThe space drama, starring Sandra Bullock, was directed, co-written, co-produced and co-edited by Alfonso Cuarón, who earned from all of us the greatest respect. Still, in Hollywood-law they judge the spectrum of coincidence-homage-‘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?

==Dream Worlds==

Indistinguishable from magic: A fun essay by Jason Snell in MacWorld looks at comparing technology forward and back in time… via science fiction!

MyDream is a nascent gaming world and system that purports to offer individual players of group games the ability to craft and set up  realms that follow rules and patterns of the player’s choosing.  They’ve come a fair distance but are asking for crowdfunding support.  Seems worth a look.

In fact, there would seem to be some partial overlaps or potential synergies with the Exorarium Project that I partly developed with Sheldon Brown of the UCSD Arthur Clarke Center for Human Imagination.  A cool potential system that would achieve what SPORE promised, but better and with fantastic educational potential, as well.

A lovely little essay about a parent who reads to her daughter and occasionally switches character genders.  Cute… and still helpfully necessary.

== Is TED Sci Fi? ==

TEDx San Diego has released the first four videos of a dozen interesting talks from last month, including my colleague Benjamin Bratton’s controversial indictment of TED itself!  Watch his tak … or see Ben Bratton’s written essay, We Need to Talk About TED, calling into question the whole TED/Chattauqua approach.

What one piece of science do you wish everyone knew? Make a short film about your favorite bit of scientific knowledge and you could win the GuardianWitness Science award – and an iPad Air. A Guardian contest.

== Movies of 2014 ==

SInce we’re on the topic of movies: I’d love to watch this Russian film, if possible! The Irony of Fate.

Edge-tomorrowSee Tom Cruise in the preview of his future sci fi combat/shooter flick Edge of Tomorrow.  Apparently they took “All You Need Is Kill” — a Japanese military science fiction light novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka that was up for a Seiun Award… and slapped onto it the title of a story+nonfiction book by Isaac Asimov. (I hope Janet and Robin were paid!)

The plot involves re-living the same failed invasion over and over again… thing “Groundhog D-Day.”  And hey, I am happy to see something actually made from an actual book and not a tedious remake!  Looks like fun.

But of course, the Big Deals will be twin attempts at serious and non-cliche films either directed or produced by Christopher Nolan.  Interstellar bodes to be exactly what we need in the transition year of 2014… a call for us to shrug off the pessimistic funk and get back to being human. Which means bold explorers.

transcendence-movie-trailer-poster Transcendence deals with the emergence of AI amid a singularity.  The first teasers suggested it might be another damned cliche-downer.  But I should have had more faith in Nolan’s team and community. This trailer may be a bit of a spoiler. But it suggests we aren’t in for a dumb-ass dystopic yawner, after all.  Oh, sure there will be warnings.  But as I squint, I foresee tomething that moves through that space and into… well… maybe something truly interesting, like Brainstorm.

Transcendence Official Trailer #1 (2014) – Johnny Depp Sci-Fi Movie HD

Jiminy… at least we can hope.

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