Tag Archives: sci fi

Heinlein and Beyond This Horizon

Robert A. Heinlein was a question-asker.

heinlein-beyond-horizonI consider Robert Heinlein’s most fascinating novel to be his prescriptive utopia Beyond This Horizon. (A prescriptive utopia is where an author “prescribes” what he or she believes a better civilization would look like.) While Heinlein did opine, extensively, about society in many books, from Starship Troopers to Glory Road, it is in Beyond This Horizon that you’ll find him clearly stating This Is The Way Things Ought To Be.

And it turns out to be a fascinating, surprisingly nuanced view of our potential future.

Like most Heinlein novels, Beyond This Horizon divides pretty evenly into two parts and it is only the second half that I hold in high regard. Heinlein wrote the first half at behest of the famed editor of Astounding Magazine, John W. Campbell, who was then holding forth on one of his favorite themes . . . that “an armed society is a polite society.”

anecdotes-historyIn pushing this strange notion, Campbell was behaving very much like his arch-nemesis, Karl Marx. A few anecdotes and a good just-so story outweigh a hundred historical counter-examples. But no matter. Heinlein did as good a job of conveying Campbell’s idea in fiction as anybody could. So much so that the first half of Beyond This Horizon has been cited by state legislators in both Texas and Florida, proposing that all citizens go around armed! Naturally, this leads (paradoxically) to a wild shoot-em-up, in the first half of Beyond This Horizon… which RAH suddenly veers away from at the midway point.

heinlein-star-beastThis division between halves is typical of Heinlein novels and it makes reading them an interesting, multi-phase experience. Generally, RAH was a master at starting his tales–in fact, I recommend that all neo writers study carefully the first few pages of any Heinlein tale, for his spectacularly effective scene-setting and establishment of point-of-view. (The opening scene of The Star Beast is the best example of show-don’t-tell that anyone can find.) Alas, most of his novels reach a vigorous climax, concluding part one… and then peter out disappointingly in the last half, amid a morass of garrulous talk.

But this is where Beyond This Horizon reverses all expectations. Sure, part one is action and part two is talk, as usual… only in this case, the action is silly and the talk is terrific! In fact, this is where Robert Heinlein displays how broad his intellectual reach can take us.

heinlein-libertarianHere we see the clearest ever expression of his political philosophy, which is demonstrably neither “fascist” nor anywhere near as conservative as some simple-minded critics might have us think.

Indeed, his famed libertarianism had limits, moderated and enriched by compassion, pragmatism and a profound faith that human beings can improve themselves, gradually, by their own diligence and goodwill.

heinlein-solutionI was amazed by many other aspects of this wonderful book-within-a-book, especially by Heinlein’s startlingly simple suggestion for how to deal with the moral quandaries of genetic engineering — what’s now called the “Heinlein Solution” — to allow couples to select which sperm and ova they want to combine into a child, but to forbid actually altering the natural human genome.

Thus, the resulting child, while “best” in many ways (free of any disease genes, etc), will still be one that the couple might have had naturally. Gradual human improvement, without any of the outrageously hubristic meddling that wise people rightfully fear. It is a proposal so insightful that biologists 40 years later are only now starting to discuss what may turn out to be Heinlein’s principal source of fame, centuries from now.

heinlein-biographyhWhen it comes to politics, his future society is, naturally, a descendant of the America Heinlein loved. But it has evolved in two directions at once. Anything having to do with human creativity, ambition or enterprise is wildly competitive and nearly unregulated. But where it comes to human needs, the situation is wholly socialistic. One character even says, in a shocked tone of voice: “Naturally food is free! What kind of people do you take us for?”

None of this fits into the dogma of Ayn Rand, whose followers have taken over the libertarian movement. If Robert Heinlein was a libertarian, it was clearly of a more subtle kind, less historically or anthropologically naive, more compassionate… and more interesting.

But here’s the crux. For the most part, with Robert Heinlein, you felt he wasn’t so much lecturing or preaching as offering to argue with you! His books let you fume and mutter and debate with this bright, cantankerous, truly American soul, long after his body expired.

writer-science-fictionAnd this joy in argument – in posing and chewing over thought experiments – is the very soul of what it means to be a writer or reader of science fiction.

Finally, for more about Heinlein, see the extensive new two-volume biography by William H. Patterson, Jr.:

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Vol. 1 (1907 – 1948): Learning Curve., followed by volume two:

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Vol. 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 1948 to 1988.

–David Brin




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Science Fiction Wonders

First (bear with me) a slug of Brin-news….

David-Brin-2050A series of interviews with thought leaders at the European Union’s recent ICT conference in Vilius are now available for viewing, including half a dozen short, topical segments with yours truly on topics like the future of information technology, challenges for privacy, how to prevent bad futures and how to strive for good ones.  Others offered views on the “future of the Cloud,” Big Data,  Peace and conflict, and the search for aliens!

The new incarnation of Amazing Stories — the latest version of the oldest and greatest name in science fiction — is now online as a free social-sharing-fiction site.  I gave an extensive interview to the two bright fellows who are performing this resurrection.  (Typically, I do go on, at-length, in I-hope interesting ways.)  Have a look at this bold endeavor.

Shadows-New-SunThis long review offers you a glimpse at a terrific holiday gift, the tribute anthology Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe, containing stirring tales by Gaiman, Swanwick, Resnick, Haldeman, Kress, Dietz and others, dedicated to honoring the science fiction grand master Gene Wolfe.  The reviewer lingers over my own contribution to this (otherwise excellent) volume, filled with darkly-inspiring explorations of possibilities at the edge of wonder. Click here to order!

The Uplift Universe is number three on this list: 12 Book Series that are the Equivalent of A Game of Thrones.

Best of all… The latest edition of Starship-Sofa features a wonderful reading-podcast of my creepy and chilling short story “Mars Opposition.” Truly, it is a great audio version and perfect for that commute…

… oh!  It has cameo appearances by great authors and scientists like Joe Haldeman and Bruce Murray… and… you’ll see why it’s resonant with my earlier post (and reiteration below) urging you all to put your names on the New Horizon mission to Pluto.

Be brave.

== Phew… now on to important news ==

New-Horizons-initiative-lombergHere’s a terrific interview with the great space artist Jon Lomberg about his recent talk here at UCSD, about the New Horizons Message Project, in which a million Earthlings might upload their names to the New Horizons spacecraft after is flashes past Pluto in 2015.  Want YOUR name aboard our fifth interstellar probe?  Learn more! 

In collaboration with the Society for Science & the Public, ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination and the Intel Foundation, The Tomorrow Project has announced an innovative fiction competition geared at 13- to 25-year-olds worldwide, asking them to contribute science fiction stories, essays, comics and videos to explore the kinds of futures we want to work toward together. Deadline is Dec 31, 2013. Short stories or essays have a 3000 word limit maximum.

And related news from those busy folk at ASU. The Hieroglyph site for optimism in science fiction visions of a human-made tomorrow keep getting better.

Sometimes nepotism proves itself utterly justified! (Hey, I would do it, too: though satiably.)  You really need to watch this terrific example,  Jonas Cuarón, son of “Gravity” director Alfonso Cuarón and co-writer of the feature’s script, wrote and directed a six-and-a-half minute companion short, “Aningaaq,” which reveals the other half of the conversation that Sandra Bullock’s character has with a man down on Earth, gaining comfort from the sounds made by his dogs. Beautiful and moving.

Warp your kid’s mind with some gray Sci-Fi this holiday season: here’s a delightful Christmas guide to favorite sci fi books for children, by NPR reporter Jason Sheehan. (Or see my own list of Favorite Science Fiction Novels for Young Adults.)

make-it-so_175x263In the visions of future shown by Sci Fi movies, the future is blue… or at least the screens or technology interfaces shown in 99% of movies. This is one of the observations from a recent book: Make it So: Interaction Designs from Science Fiction, by Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel.

One more tech breakthrough making animation cheaper and easier. Soon, writer-centered teams will be able to storyboard-mockup an entire 90 minute movie, including music and voices… and such small teams will then present studios with a rough cut vastly more advanced than today’s screenplays. The mockups will themselves be works of entertainment-art, with media attention and awards. And fans will vote by their interest as to which ought to be made into live-action versions.

Invasive-speciesJust released: Joseph Wallace’s Invasive Species is an apocalyptic thriller wrought from plausible science, medicine, and natural history, that takes a world perched on a technological precipice and shows what happens when a single explosively spreading organism exploits human society’s every vulnerability. “A novel that gets under your skin with an ‘it could happen here’ kind of chilling grace.”– Caroline Leavitt.  Learn more about this chillingly plausible story at http://www.josephwallace.com/

== Testing Scientific Claims ==

A Dutch teenager has floated an idea that has many scientists, oceanographers and environmental activists swimming.  Set up active buoy-based collectors to rid the ocean of much of our plastic garbage. He envisions “an anchored system of floating barriers and platforms that can be dispatched to some of the most notorious waterborne garbage patches, where plastics tend to accumulate in massive currents known as gyres. After being arranged so that they transect one of these gyres, the floating barriers can then be angled in such a way as to create a funneling effect—gradually directing debris toward the platforms, where it can then be stored before being transported to land-based recycling facilities.”  How wonderful. If we did this, then maybe the secret alien observers would let us into the Club of Sapients, at last.

Does the idea sound great? Ah but alas, it may sound better than it is. Cool ideas need to be scrutinized and this one may come apart under light.  See some critiques here.

Indeed, here are Twenty tips for reinterpreting scientific claims, including: Extrapolating beyond the data is risky, Dependencies change the risk, Extreme measurements may mislead…and more.

==And More Science==

Surgical 3D printing: Handheld BioPen writes in bone, nerve and muscle.

Cyborg cockroach biobots could swarm over disaster sites — to aid in search and rescue missions.

Top-Fifty-innovationsJames Fallows offers an interesting rumination on “The top 50 inventions of all time.”

New research finds that stimulating a specific part of the brain can increase appreciation of certain types of art.

A novel method to rapidly and cheaply 3D-print electrical circuits has been developed by researchers from Georgia Tech, the University of Tokyo, and Microsoft Research. For about $300 in equipment costs, anyone can produce working electrical circuits in 60 seconds.

Another miracle material?  Calculations suggest that a single layer of tin would be a topological insulator (100% efficient) at and above room temperature. Adding some fluorine atoms the mix might extend its 100 percent efficiency operating range to at least 100 degrees Celsius.

what-should-we-be-worriedWhat Should We Be Worried About? Real Scenarios that Keep Scientists Up at Night, a new anthology edited by John Brockman, with dire scenarios imagined by scientists including Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, George Dyson, Lisa Randall  and others.

And finally… thanks to the fine folks at io9 for this lovely way to skip a meal and lose a pound.  Ick… an exploding whale….

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Sci Fi Blasts from the Past…and Future

The biggest Sci Fi news is – of course – the release of the movie version of Orson Scott Card’s ENDER’S GAME. As you might guess, I have plenty to say about Card’s works, even without seeing how Hollywood has improved upon his archetype work.  But I will leave that for another time and venue. For now let me say that I hope Scott’s movie does better than mine did!  I expect it will. It presses the EndersGameright sequence of audience-flattering (“you are a demigod!”) buttons.  Anyway, after a year of SF film flops, the genre could use a boost.

Still, I am leaning toward waiting for the DVD and holding a viewing party at our home, inviting friends who have also said they’ll wait for DVD…. followed by lively discussion over copious drinks. Hey, DVD rentals are fair n’ square. But decide for yourself. I’m just a patient guy.

Oh, by the way… On PolicyMic they recommend five sci fi series that ought to please folks who like Ender’s Game.  I have mixed feelings, having written all the books in one of the recommended series and part of another….

Here Card addresses the controversy… and other voices weigh in. Here’s Laura Miller on Salon. See a more nuanced opinion from Jonathan Rauch in The Atlantic.

== Brin Media ==

FiveBurningQuestionsNot exactly a big movie release… but I was in Tempe, Arizona to deliver the annual Shoemaker Lecture for Paul Davies’s wonderful Beyond Center at Arizona State University, when some media folk associated with the new ASU Center for Science and the Imagination asked me to step outside (under the Phoenix Airport landing path) and answer “Five Burning Questions” on-camera.  The heavily edited sequence is not linear… but still holds together pretty well as I answer questions about the future, resilience and imagination.

Sometimes, one of my works inspires followup discussion that’s worth a closer look. Steve Outing – on Media Distruptus – interrogates the vision of future journalism that I presented in Existence, with professional reporters empowered by vivid augmented reality (AR) but also by active links in real-time to thousands of stringers, volunteers, aficionados and witnesses, all over the planet, occasionally coalescing those networks into actively assertive “smart mobs.”

Outing appraises the plausibility of the methods used by one of my characters – Tor Povlov – as she plunges through the world of 2045 in search of fast-breaking… and possibly world-shattering … stories.  An interesting analysis.

== Is “Piecework” coming true? ==

PieceworkAccording to the august and erudite Colbert Report, as the wealthiest one percent prospers, a growing number of Americans resort to selling their body parts.  Watch this Colbert segment on the trend of Americans selling breastmilk, organs and the like. One reader recently wrote in to me about this report:

“I immediately thought of your delightfully unsettling short story “Piecework.” The whole time I was watching the segment I was thinking, “this is it, this is how it begins.”

“Piecework” truly is one of my creepiest stories and well worth 99 cents! (on Smashwords or Amazon)  Or try the even creepier and cooler (and somewhat similarly themed) “Dr. Pak’s Preschool!” Both are found in my collection, Otherness.

== Blasts from the Pasts! ==

I was asked to speculate on Ray Bradbury’s masterpiece, Fahrenheit 451, fifty years after publication: Well, it does seem quaint to imagine that knowledge of any kind could be burned away, now that electrons can be copied at a whim.  I have a device the size of my hand that contains all of Project Gutenberg and the text of Wikipedia. To eliminate all that would take a psychic tyranny. But Ray’s book is an allegory.  And it girded millions to defend literacy and free speech.  As a self-preventing prophecy it belongs to the ages.

GalaxysEdgeMike Resnick’s magazine (mostly online) GALAXY’S EDGE fills a long-needed slot in science fiction… all reprints of terrific “classic” stories that you may never have come across.  This issue — now available — contains a lot of truly outtasight tales from decades past, with stories by Larry Niven, Jack Dann, Catherine Asaro and Kevin Anderson … plus a modest contribution of my own. “Thor Meets Captain America” came in second for a Hugo and led to my graphic novel THE LIFE EATERS.

Have a look at Resnick’s  Galaxy’s Edge!

== Does Lit’ rah chah make you a better person? ==

soooo…. science proves that reading good literature helps to make you a better person.  All righty then, still I bet they left Sci Fi out of the study.  How about also expanding your horizons and learning great new things, experiencing new ideas….  And we do empathy, too!

A rebuttal — though not a refutation –– of that “study” showing that literary fiction increases empathy. Neither side, alas, is doing science. So let’s just keep reading.

== Good and Flawed Media ==

A lovely list of sci fi films from the 1950s that were superior and well worth watching.  Yes, more than just FORBIDDEN PLANET!

Ah but for something more tongue in cheek, see Tiny Changes That Would Have Saved Terrible Movies.  I loved the proposed change to Star Wars Episode 1.  And… oh, right. Nice to see The Postman listed first… I think… though that’s not the tiny change I would make. I’d have kept the actor, the screenwriter, even the director… for the first 2/3 of the film. But I’d have insisted the director actually talk – even once, over a beer – with the novel’s author.  Good things might have happened to the last 1/3. Well, one can dream.

Ah, but, for laughs, here are some overly realistic versions of the pitches for famous sci fi films. Follow @HardSciFiMovies on Twitter. Among the better ones:

    HardSciFiMovies A scientist accidentally releases a biological agent which causes animals to evolve rapidly, over a few thousand generations.

     A wealthy tycoon sponsors research into the cloning of extinct animals. Eventually a unique park is opened, populated by passenger pigeons.  Unexpected rampages occur that damage the paint of countless innocent cars.  (I added that last bit.)

     In the post-apocalyptic future, a lone US Postal Carrier continues his rounds. He is arrested for breaching furlough.  (!!)

     A talented computer hacker searching for truth is offered two pills by a mysterious character. It is a DEA sting operation.

     A man walks into a police call box. It is slightly smaller on the inside. He places a call.

     An archaeologist learns that Nazis are hunting a powerful religious relic. Content to let his enemies waste resources, he takes vacation.

     A boy and his sister discover a space alien and provide him refuge in their home closet. Their parents correctly identify it as a groundhog.

==Time Travel in SciFi==

TimeTravelStoriesFinally, in the latest issue of Nature, Andrew Jaffe takes a look at Time Travel in Science Fiction, from The Connecticut Yankee to Doctor Who — has been now time traveling in his TARDIS for fifty years, first appearing in 1963. Scan this list of Time Travel stories dating back to Samuel Madden’s 1733 Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, where a guardian angel travels to the 1700s carrying letters from the 1900s.

Just released: The Mammoth Book of Time Travel SF (edited by Mike Ashley) offers 25 tales of time travel from authors such as Gregory Benford, Robert Silverberg, Michael Swanwich, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, John Varley and others.

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