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Seven Sci Fi Questions

Here I’ve collected some of my recent answers for science fiction and future-oriented questions I was asked over on Quora. You can follow more of the in-depth discussions and multiple viewpoints on the Quora site.

Where should I begin with hard Sci Fi books?

rendezvous-ramaArthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama is an excellent start. Sample Poul Anderson at his best with Brain Wave and Tau Zero! Move on to Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement. Totally strong about some scientific matter, every single time, Clement writes entertainingly as well. Some of the older hard SF authors must-reads include Robert Forward (Dragon’s Egg) and Charles Sheffield.

Definitely try the novels of Robert Sawyer (Quantum Night or Hominids) and Stephen Baxter (Manifold:Time or Raft). Greg Bear is particularly strong for biology! Try his novel Eon. Gregory Benford (Timescape or In The Ocean of Night) for solid physics and astrophysics. For sure, Larry Niven’s Ringworld. C.J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station. Carl Sagan’s Contact.

200px-VernorVinge_RainbowsEndVernor Vinge (Fire Upon the Deep or Rainbows End) writes far-seeing hard SF. The Red Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson should be on your list. Also The Forever War by Joe Haldeman; Spin by Robert Charles Wilson; Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress. Other authors you might try include Alastair Reynolds, Greg Egan, Allen Steele and Peter Watts.

My own Heart of the Comet takes you on a wild adventure filled with science and romance, tragedy, disaster, heroism, redemption and a triumphant humanity, bound in new directions they never imagined. My novel Earth takes a look at our planet fifty years in the future.

See also my extensive list of titles: Recommended Science Fiction and Fantasy novels.

Which Science fiction ideas could come to life?

61m1amovnylStart with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein… the creation of life, by human hands. It has already happened, by some interpretations and we’ll go the rest of the way, shortly. Or George Orwell’s 1984 —can anyone deny that Big Brother looms? Robert Heinlein predicted religious dictatorship in the United States (see Revolt in 2100). Unfortunately, nuclear apocalypse tales (like my own The Postman) could come true.

In Earth I predicted average citizens would all be equipped with video cameras in easy reach and this would change power, on our streets.

What are some Sci Fi novels that really make you think?

Almost anything by Banks, Egan, Bear, Stephenson, Tiptree and Liu Cixin will make you go “huh, I never thought of that.” Likewise LeGuin and Kim Stanley Robinson… though you have to wade through some preachiness.

Of course, Philip K. Dick or Arthur C. Clarke. Charles Stross. Asaro knows her stuff, as do Sloncziewski and Landis. Ted Chiang. Bacigalupi. Michael Chabon. Pro or con, Joanna Russ will make your neurons buzz. Varley. Oh, and Nancy Kress!

What are some interesting depictions of the world after the Technological Singularity?

KurzweilSingularityCoverFor a general overview of the concept of the Technological Singularity, delve into Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity in Near: When Humans Transcend Biology as a good starting point. Other books include The Rapture of the Nerds: A tale of the singularity, post-humanity, and awkward social situations, and James Barrat’s Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era.

In fiction, Singularities are hard to portray, which is why Vernor Vinge depicts only the beginnings of takeoff in Rainbows End and a vague Aftermath in Marooned in Real Time. Generally it’s hard to write stories about effectively becoming gods… though I’ve taken up the challenge several times. e.g. in the stories “Stones of Significance” and “Reality Check” (both contained in my collection, Insistence of Vision.) One of these shows an optimistic scenario, reasoning out why AIs would want to be part of ‘humans”. The other explores the biggest curse of gods…

…which is likely to be ennui.

accelerandoOther examples of Singularity and post-Singularity fiction include Charles Stross’s Accelerando, William Hertling’s A.I. Apocalypse, John C. Wright’s The Golden Age, Daniel Suarez’s Daemon, Ramez Naam’s Nexus.

In fact though, very few SF authors have attempted to portray positive singularities. Lots of AI or transcendence-driven apocalypses, since those drive dramatic plots. But positive ones are hard to figure while still having room for human scale tension.

Iain Banks portrays one daring scenario… in which the AI are gods, all right but they care about us and give regular humans a pretty good life… and give challenges to those regular humans who seem capable of something more. I hint at something similar in Earth, where the planet becomes godlike but humanity is allowed to maintain vibrant individualism because that is healthier.

See the reason why there are so many damn dystopias and dire apocalyptic scenarios.

Do you believe we’ve already reached the Singularity?

The apparent steep decline in IQ of the American and other electorates would appear to indicate that intelligence has already moved to artificial matrices.

What made Morpheus from The Matrix such a compelling character?

campbell-heroMorpheus was a standard Campbellian Mentor Figure who summons the hero on a quest. (See Joseph Cambell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.) A few of the stages of the Hero’s Journey were skipped. For example the Refusal to the Call was very very brief, as Neo almost gets out of the limo. So brief it hardly counts.

Morpheus is more of a Gandalf than an Obiwan, but both of them wield swords. All three were played by classic, uber-actors. All were smug mystics… if you find that sort of thing “compelling.”

Are there any science fiction stories where humans are morally ambiguous?

Poul Anderson showed aliens’ perspectives and complaints about humans, very well. I’m finishing one in which humans have chosen to be like Trek’s “Romulans”… bitterly opposed to a brash young race that is vigorous, sexy, lucky — every trait we thought would be ours.

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Channeling Shakespeare? Poesy from a groundling!

Presumptuous, as always, I accepted an irresistible invitation from the Shakespeare Society to participate in their annual “Celebrity Sonnet Reading” at San Diego’s Olde Globe Theatre — a fun tribute to the Bard, with no one there to claim that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare!

Some youth troupes performed dance interpretations of sonnets and choral extrapolations.  Comic writer-actor Mike Nelson (from Mystery Science Theater 3000) regaled us with the visual stunts he’d love to see performed behind him while performing his reading… if only the (nonexistent) special effects budget allowed for sequences directed by Michael Bay…

…and then there was the local sci fi guy.  My sole embellishment was to place an old globe atop a stool next to me. And thereupon to recite an introductory sonnet of my own, written as a tribute to the Bard of Stratford.

Slim in brain, heart or inspiration, it honors Shakespeare’s poetry by offering stark contrast! The hilariously inadequate efforts of a groundling, a Bottom with the mien of an ass, braying just before a banquet of sublimity.

==  First: A Poor-Pathetic Prelude ==

Oh muse, pervade this arched and noble hall,

Where life, though short, partakes in art so long;

Where sinners, reprobates and octions all,

Gather here to share pretentious song.

Look thou with favor on our eager works,

We who – ecstatic – recite poesy past;

For though we borrow, that don’t make us jerks,

These tributes merely show that great stuff lasts!

So, Willy, spin not! Nor disturb thy bones,

Anonymous we aren’t! And so, anon…

Planetary detritus and stones,

Carry our message on and on and on.

So muse, inspire! Help me sing an ode,

To stars and galaxies… and THIS old globe.

***

And now, from the ridiculous to the sublime… a sonnet that Woody Allen might have titled “Love and Death… and Soul…” but which comes down through history to us as simply…

Sonnet Number 146:

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,

These rebel powers that thee array;

Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,

Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?

Why so large cost, having so short a lease,

Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?

Shall worms, inheritors of this excess

Eat up thy charge? is this thy body’s end?

Then soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,

And let that pine to aggravate thy store;

Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;

Within be fed, without be rich no more:

So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,

And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.

***
Huh… well, that sure put me in my proper place.  Some ambitions are beyond even ego to demand. But well, one can envision in literary valhalla that briefly-as-my-own-candle,,, Willy smiled.

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