Tag Archives: science fiction

News about Space and Science Fiction

First a series of important announcements for the month of May:

I’ll be on the show “STAR TREK: SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE” on Wednesday at 10pm PT on the History Channel.  A fun romp through the range of speculative sci & tech that help propel the fabulous Trek franchise to realms of vast imagining and hopeful possibility.

starshipcentury-300x297Then — May 21 and 22 — the “Starship Century Symposium” at the new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UCSD will be devoted to an ongoing exploration of the development of a real starship in the next 100 years. You can watch live streaming of the event — speakers include Freeman Dyson, Paul Davies, Robert Zubrin, Neal Stephenson, Joe Haldeman, Larry Niven, Gregory Benford and David Brin.

And rounding out a busy month:  Where are we heading next in space? Register to attend the Global Collaboration in 21st century Space Conference — or International Space Development Conference — May 23 to 27 in San Diego. Speakers include: Buzz Aldrin, Mae Jemison, Robert Zubrin, Vernor Vinge, David Brin, Chris Lewicki, Natasha Vita-More….   Just after UCSD’s Starship Century Symposium earlier in the week.

== Existence is on the ballot ==

CampbellNomineesExistence is on the short list for the John W. Campbell Award for best science fiction novel of 2012.  Have a look at the competition!

It was – in fact – an exceptionally fine year, with excellent works by Iain Banks, Kim Stanley Robinson, Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, M. John Harrison, Ken MacLeod, China Miéville, Hannu Rajaniemi, G. Willow Wilson, Terry Bisson, Alastair Reynolds, Adam Roberts and John Varley.  Wow. The field is alive… alive!

== Is there hope for the future? ==

I’ve reported before about the group in Oxford studying Existential Risk of human extinction… cheery blokes.  Here is another interesting article about them.  Of course the Lifeboat Foundation (I am a fellow) discusses many of the same things… a myriad potential threats to our… existence. Alas, for too many citizens and authors, doom scenarios are not interesting topics for exploration and prevention, but rather opportunities for endless, voluptuous relish and hand-rubbing over our inevitable human failure.

There is push back!  Neal Stephenson has joined Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg Bear, Vernor Vinge, Catherine Asaro and me — along with several others — in urging the renewal of a science fiction that talks about hope. (While of course(!) delivering great action, peril and adventure.) Read about Neal’s positive-thinking and uplifting Project Hieroglyph

…and my own reasons why readers and viewers should turn away the sheer laziness of those who cannot think of any way to propel a lively plot, except by calling humanity and civilization worthless.

BerleantSome people are active trying to chart a path forward.  The best thought experiments are (of course) in top science fiction!  But occasional nonfiction has a stab at it.  Arising out of our discussions at the Lifeboat Foundation, there is a new book about the future that may be worth discussion.  The Human Race to the Future: What Could Happen – and What to Do, by Daniel Berleant. Who doesn’t wonder about the future… what things will be like some day, how long it might take, and what we can do about it?  I’d welcome comments and reviews from some of you, and do comment also on Amazon.

== Our SFnal World! ==

Our sci fi future may be visible in Korea, where all of the Miss Korea finalists appear to be converging on the same face… almost literally.

Dark Eden, the story of an alien planet where the incestuous offspring of two stranded astronauts struggle to survive, has won the UK’s top science fiction prize, the Arthur C Clarke award. Author Chris Beckett, a part-time lecturer in social work, beat some of science fiction’s best-known writers, including Kim Stanley Robinson and Ken MacLeod, to take the prize.

Why would aliens come all this way just to invade earth? Charlie Jane Anders explores some of the parameters on ion (io9).

Cracked.com links you to  “5 Badass New (mini) Sci-Fi Movies You Can Watch on Your Lunch Break.” The tech is moving along and there are fine artistic sensibilities in this vividly visual small flicks.  Alas, there are so many stories that could be told with these methods.  Cool and ORIGINAL short stories instead of old, old, old tropes, but these fellows apparently consider that to be their very last priority.  Still. They are visually stunning and worth a watch.

While we’re exploring sci-fi ish shorts… This is an amazing music video! A live-action film of a first person shooter game. Nicole says: “Actually, this is just a regular day in Bad-Ass Russia!”

As if the homogenization of Hollywood scripts hasn’t already gone too far, now there are services that computer-scan scripts to make them conform to what has statistically made money from audiences in the past. Well, it is a useful service, one supposes. Moreover, there’s my charismatic and talented niece, right there in the cover photo.

== Brin in media ==

TechnologicalSingularityTwo panels from the latest LosCon that I participated in have been uploaded. One with David Gerrold and others, on “A Quiet Place to Write,” plus one with Vernor Vinge, Phil Osborn and Mitch Wagner on “The Technological Singularity.”

Tam Hunt did a well-organized and cogently-done interview with me in The Santa Barbara Independent.

James Moushon interviewed me about how a novelist uses social media, book trailers, etc and how I allocate time, in a well-put-together profile and interview : HBS Author’s Spotlight.

==  More Space and Sci Fi -related news ==

EuropaReportEuropa Report.  A sci fi film for grownups? Is this for real?

Old Spock vs new Spock in a cute commercial.

Amazing elevators from around the world.

A terrific (if incomplete) flowchart of time travel in movies.

== A sub-continent awakens to SF ==

India will be important to the world and Science Fiction will be important to any forward looking civilization, especially in fast-rising India.  Here are some links provided by the fine SF writer Professor Vandana Singh that may enlighten folks about that rise… And news of a new Indian SF magazine, recently launched.

== More serious ==

Proposed legislation for compulsory science fiction in West Virginia schools?

Republican state delegate Ray Canterbury says this move would inspire pupils to use practical knowledge and imagination in the real world.  An article in the Guardian probed this possible education reform, spiced with commentary by legendary sci fi author and educator James Gunn… and by yours truly.  A fascinating move that could help reverse our current slide toward timid thinking.

“As long ago as Future Shock, author and visionary Alvin Toffler called for exposing young people to science fiction as ‘a sovereign prophylactic’ against ‘the premature arrival of the future’. Today in an even more rapidly changing world, it is even more important for Toffler’s purpose but also for “making the kinds of informed decisions about present issues that will lead to better futures,” said Gunn, who is founder of the Centre for the Study of Science Fiction at Kansas University.

ExpansionHOrizonsContrast this with recent proposals and measures in the outrageously and dogmatically anti-science House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology.  This truly is a war — though not between all democrats and all republicans (note that W. VA delegate Canterbury is Republican).  Rather, it is a battle for survival between future-oriented and curiosity-drive progress…and a bitter habit of hateful nostalgia. A vile habit that certainly does fester on the far leftQ Almost as destructively as it spews damage from Fox-central.

Heck, while we’re being serious, here are some unique takes on the philosophical aspects of my novel Existence, from the Center for Human Consciousness.

Oh but let’s end with a swing toward joy.  Jerry Goldsmith’s Sci Fi and Horror Music.  Need I say more?


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A potpourri of ironies for the weekend

Baseball fans, here’s a unique (true?) tale of how – just after World War II – a baseball team consisting of Stratford-on-Avon actors and ex-POWs would dress in Elizabethan blouses and crush teams from nearby US air bases. “A dream team “with Paul Robeson (Othello) on first base, Sam Wanamaker (Iago) on second, Laurence Olivier (Coriolanus) on third and Peter O’Toole (Shylock) at shortstop. Albert Finney (a utility player) used to catch for me while Charles Laughton (King Lear) was the plate umpire. When Laughton said, ‘Strike three, you’re out!’ nobody argued.”  How I hope some time traveler secretly recorded their baseline trash talk and banter.  What a cute moment for a short story setting. Read: The Strangest Baseball Team in History.

And while we’re on the Bard… Ah, consistency. Here is a hilarious moment of aha! realization… something we always knew, but without ever putting the pieces together. You will slap your forehead and cry “d’oh!”

== Inspirational ==

JohnCleaseJohn Cleese has a very large brain! This speech about “how creativity works” is incisive and brilliant!

Watch Richard Turure on TED: An inspiring young fellow.

One public servant I very much admire… retired Defense Secretary Robert Gates… talking about another who I deemed (elsewhere) to have been the “Man of the 20th Century,” George C Marshall. There are grownups in this world. Amid all the preening and posturing, take solace in that fact.

Okay, name for me another species that can do this sort of stuff.  All right, I can’t do any of it either… still…

InternetWarningBritish humor site The Poke presents an optimistic vision of the future in which humankind has managed (by 2068) to break free from the shackles of YouTube, Flash plug-in crashes, and even, somehow,  cat videos.

Best rope-jumper in the world!

== And disturbing ==

Great big conspiracy flow chart.  It covers almost 15% of the crazy space!

Fascinating how gender imbalance and the one-child policy are affecting weddings and the “bride price” in China.

== And scientific ==

DNAAn auspicious anniversary? On 25 April, 1953, Nature published “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” by J.D.Watson and F.H.C.Crick, setting out the double helix structure of the molecule of heredity. This year is DNA@60.   Now watch the estimable Roger Bingham interview James Watson in an enlightening Science Channel Show.

Here’s an excerpt. Or read Watson’s The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA.

As the world’s first building powered by algae, the 15-unit Bio Intelligent Quotient (BIQ) House generates biomass and heat with the assistance of 129 integrated glass bioreactor panels (read: micro-algae harvesters). The algae flourish and multiply in a regular cycle until they can be harvested. They are then separated from the rest of the algae and transferred as a thick pulp to the technical room of the BIQ. The little plants are then fermented in an external biogas plant, so that they can be used again to generate biogas.

A stunt, you say?  I know the folks at Heliae, who have announced the launch of their patent pending microalgae production platform, using sunlight and waste carbon to produce high-value products from algae.

The “Grasshopper” reusable rocket prototype shattered its own record, reaching a height of 820 feet. That’s more than triple its previous record.  Oh, and ain’t this the way a rocket ship s’pzed ta be?

== Sci fi items ==

DanielWilsonDaniel H. Wilson, the young scientist author of novels like Amped and Robopocalypse gives a talk at Carnegie-Mellon about robotics in science fiction and how it relates to both real technology and our visions of the future.  Bright and funny.  Also,  he reminds me SO much of myself at that hot new author phase… including the hat!

Star Wars on Trial is available on Kindle, and only 99 cents!

…and miscellaneous…

Seven billion people on one browser page (one mile long). Don’t send this to your printer…

View inside a Redbox Kiosk.

TheGiftAnd finally, compiled by Cracked.com: Five excellent Sci Fi short films worth watching.

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Questions I am frequently asked about… (Part III) Brin Books, The Postman etc.

Continuing this compilation (from Part 1 and Part 2) of questions that I’m frequently asked by interviewers. This time about…


 –Which of your own novels is your personal favorite? 

DBBooksMontageThat’s like asking: Which of your children do you like best? Glory Season is my brave, indomitable daughter. The Postman is my courageous, civilization-saving son. Earth is the child who combined science and nature to become a planet. The Uplift War…well, I never had a better character than Fiben the earthy-intellectual chimp!

 –Were you happy with the Kevin Costner adaptation of your post-apocalyptic novel The Postman? 

PostmanPBThe Postman was written as an answer to all those post-apocalypse books and films that seem to revel in the idea of civilization’s fall. It’s a story about how much we take for granted – and how desperately we would miss the little, gracious things that connect us today. It is a story about the last idealist in a fallen America. One who cannot let go of a dream we all once shared. Who sparks restored faith that we can recover, and perhaps even become better than we were. 

The-Postman-1997-movie-posterWas The Postman film faithful to this? Well, despite several scenes that can only be called self-indulgent, or even goofy… plus the fact that I was never consulted, even once… I nevertheless came away more pleased than unhappy with what Costner created. Though flawed, it’s a pretty good flick – if you let yourself get into it. One that deals (a bit simplistically) with important issues and is more faithful to the book’s inner heart than I expected at any point during the long decade before it was released.

Costner’s postman is a man of decency, a calloused idealist, not particularly courageous, who has to learn the hard way about responsibility and what it means to be a hero. The movie is filled with scenes that convey how deeply we would miss the little things… and big ones like freedom and justice. In fact, it includes some clever or touching moments that I wish I’d thought of, when writing the book. 

Visually and musically, it’s as beautiful as Dances with Wolves. Kevin Costner is foremost a cinematographer, I will gladly grant him that. Rent and watch it on a wide screen.

VideoPostmanBrin Would I have done things differently? You bet! In a million ways. But I didn’t have the 80 million dollars to make it, and in keeping true to the heart of the book, he earned some leeway when it came to brains. Anyway, life is filled with compromises. I’d rather look for reasons to be happy. 

I have posted my full response, discussing the book and the movie, on my website: http://www.davidbrin.com/postmanmovie.html 

–Are you planning on returning to the Uplift Universe? 

Yes.  Soon, even!  Next big thing.  Have a look at the Uplift Universe Web Site.


–Can you reveal some of the inspirations behind the Uplift Saga? How did you come up with the idea? 

If we don’t find intelligent life in the galaxy, humanity will create it. We might contrive new entities through artificial intelligence. It could happen the American way – by encouraging more and more of us to diversify in new directions, with new interests and passions and quirky viewpoints. And of course, diversity spreads whenever we add new intelligent life forms called our children. 

Then there is the idea of creating other kinds of beings to talk to through some change in the animal species that already exist around us. 

0345447980.02.LZZZZZZZOther authors have poked at this idea before. Cordwainer Smith and Pierre Boulle and H.G. Wells. Boulle’s Planet of the Apes and Wells’s The Food of the Gods or The Island of Dr. Moreau, and all other attempts to deal with this topic did stick to just one perspective, however.  Just one dire warning. They all  portray the power to bestow speech being executed in secret by mad scientists, then horribly abused by turning these new intelligent life forms into slaves. 

FoodI believe that – partly because of these cautionary tales – that’s not what we will do. Because of those self-preventing prophecies, I wanted to show something else instead. What if we try to uplift other creatures with good intentions? With the aim of making them fellow citizens, interesting people, accepting that in some ways they might be better than us? Certainly that’s worth a thought experiment too? Adding to the diversity and perspective and wisdom of an ever-widening Earth culture? 

 Wouldn’t those creatures still have interesting problems? Of course they would!  More complex and interesting than mere slavery.  At least, that is what I hoped to explore. 

For more on Uplift: See Intelligence, Uplift and our place in a big cosmos

=====     =====     =====

==Return to Part 1: Questions about Writing and Science Fiction

or Part 2: Questions about Science Fiction and Fantasy


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Existence…in Review

Forgive a break from science and politics and transparency and such… to do a little horn tooting.  But the reviews have been coming in. And here are some epic testimonials for you folks who have been fence-siting about whether it’s worth  $16 — the best per-hour entertainment value around — to plunk for a hardcover copy of Existence.

“I would consider Existence to be a triumphant, epic Science Fiction novel on many levels. It stayed with me after I set it aside for the day, continues to simmer in my mind now that I’ve finished reading it, and has opened up a gateway to Brin’s novels I’d wanted to enter for a while.  Brin achieved an excellent gestalt of character, big ideas, and narrative energy. Existence is my top SF novel of 2012 and I recommend it without hesitation.”  a review from SFF.net.

“Science fiction is as much a literature of the moment as it is of the future. This book, then, is both a warning and an encouragement: a novel that engages with the world we’re building and tries to show us a way to become a mature civilisation rather than a raggle-taggle band of individuals. Technology has libertarian roots, but in the end we build the tools that construct a civil society. In Existence Brin shows us the world our technology is building, and then poses one of the biggest questions: what is it all for?

“What we’re left with in Existence is one of those rare SF novels that needs to be on every technologist’s desk, alongside John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider, Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, Charles Stross’s Rule 34, and Brin’s own Earth. We may not be able to see our future, but in Existence we get a picture of a possible — even a plausible — tomorrow.” —  Simon Bisson on ZDNet.


“Existence is a book that makes you think deeply about both the future and life’s most important issues.  I found it fascinating and I could not put it down.”  –  Temple Grandin, author of Thinking in Pictures.


This is a book which managed to far exceed my already high expectations. It’s smart, it’s fun, and I’m afraid it’s also terribly important.” — Howard Tayler (Schlock Mercenary).

“(Existence is) all about the chaos and passion of adolescence — the designs we make for our lives when we’re young, before unforeseeable events send us spinning into strange new orbits…. It also proposes that the best way to confront these answers is deeply human: to be creative, diverse, compromising, curious. That to reach Heaven — or something like it — requires that we look beyond ourselves, beyond humanity (all six species of it), and into the universe beyond.” –George Dvorsky in io9

“Is there such a thing as “The Great American Science Fiction Novel”? … (It) would be an ambitious, panoramic, macroscopic, and microscopic portrait concerning a speculative future that was near enough to the date of composition to allow for an assessment of its probability and extrapolative verisimilitude… the Great SF Novel remained an elusive beast, with some doubts even as to its desirability.

“But admirers of this type of novel — and I’m one — can take renewed hope with the appearance of David Brin’s Existence. It’s an overt claimant to the Zanzibar throne, and a worthy one, Version 2.0 of his similar performance in 1990’s Earth.” 

“Brin deliberately fudges the exact date of his novel’s action, as if to preserve it from becoming outdated. Let’s just call it mid-twenty-first-century. But that’s the only nebulous part of this immaculately conceived and rendered book, massive and dense but somehow light-footed as well.” — Paul De Filippo, for The Speculator (BarnesAndNoble.com).

“Brin tackles a plethora of cutting-edge concepts — such as the Fermi paradox, the ascent of artificial intelligence, and the evolution of technologically enhanced humanity — with the skill of a visionary futurologist, and while his extended cast of characters is set up to articulate ideas, they come to life as distinct individuals. If he does resort to long info-dumps, it’s necessary in order to convey the depth and breadth of his startling future. Existence is Brin’s first novel in 10 years, and it’s been well worth the wait.”The Guardian.


“Featuring memorable characters and masterly storytelling, Brin’s latest novel provides food for thought and entertainment. Fans of Vernor Vinge and Arthur C. Clarke, as well as Brin’s own sizable fan base, will enjoy this multidimensional story.”Library Journal starred review.


“It’s not just the near future that is in focus here but the whole timeline of existence, its image refracted through the lens of human civilization.” —online review.


“Brin’s thoughtful, multilayered story explores a first contact scenario where every twist reveals greater peril. His longtime fans will especially appreciate that this story could be read as a prequel to 1983’s Startide Rising, while those not familiar with his work will find it an impressive introduction to one of SF’s major talents.”Publisher’s Weekly starred Pick of the Week.

“Whodunits are a sure thing in publishing — just about everyone loves a good mystery — but Brin’s multifaceted novel proves that another question resonates just as powerfully with most people: Are we alone in the universe?”  — The Los Angeles Times.

Finally, watch the vivid trailer by Patrick Farley, sample the excerpts on my website, or listen to the audio version.

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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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Space-Launch Mass Drivers and von Neumann machines: Science meets Science Fiction

The notion of gun-propelled launch goes back to Jules Verne. Such Mass Drivers have been envisioned in numerous Sci Fi tales, including Earthlight, by Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Heart of the Comet by Benford & Brin. We’ve also seen them portrayed in Buck Rogers, Babylon 5 and Halo. Now, two researchers propose that a space-capable mass driver may be feasible. Startram would act as an electromagnetic catapult, using maglev technology, to accelerate and launch spacecraft into orbit, without using rockets or propellant. James Powell and George Maise take a highly optimistic view, claiming that a system capable of launching payload into orbit for less than $40/kg could be built using existing technology—if we were to gather substantial international support.

Sloping a launcher along the western face of Mt. Chimborazo in Ecuador or Mt. Kenya would allow a very profitable/cheap launch system for cargo. But see the concept for a 1200 km long version (to spread out the g-load) for passengers! And yes, we studied stuff like this long ago, back when I worked at CalSpace.

A slanted mass drive along Chimborazo (and yes it needs to be near the equator) would need “super-capacitor” surge capability, far exceeding the ability of nuclear plants to deliver in real time. But here’s how you do it:

You have several nuclear power plants–but their main job is to raise/pump water to several big/high artificial lakes. When you fire, you DRAIN those lakes through many-many-many rapid tubes to standard hydro-power turbines. The nukes are just for steady replenishment of the lakes.

This is highly do-able with existing tech. Especially if you have whirling tether grabbers awaiting in low earth orbit. These could snag the cargoes and give them circularization momentum… or else act as electrodynamic tugs from there.  (To learn the principles involved, see my short story Tank Farm Dynamo.)

Hence, the cargoes might not even have to take along the fuel to circularize and the tethers themselves use solar power to replenish the donated momentum. Again, there’s nothing to research… just develop. We could be doing it within 5-10 years.

==Autofacs and von Neumann Machines==

Philip K. Dick’s 1955 post-apocalyptic story, Autofac, short for Automatic Factories, was one of the earliest fictional portrayals of nanotechnology and self-replicating machines – an example of von Neumann probes, which he called “Universal Assemblers.” Carl Sagan and Freeman Dyson both argued that the reason we have observed no self-reproducing probes in the universe is because the probes would spread like a cancer; building such probes would be suicidal to their creators and destructive to any species they encounter.

Indeed, Dick’s Autofac is set after war has devastated much of Earth; robotic autofacs scavenge and monopolize the planet’s remaining resources (“We mere people come second.”), to build devices that humans no longer need. Humans have lost the ability to communicate with or control the autofacs, as they continue their relentless autonomous activity: “Maybe some of them are geared to escape velocity. That would be neat – autofac networks throughout the universe.” Would it really? My next novel, Existence, will offer a new take on some of these probes…

==Terminator Goggles==

Augmented Reality is soon to arrive: Google Goggles are smart glasses with heads-up display that will stream in real time to a screen in your field of view, providing GPS, facial recognition, web info, entertainment (and ads)—operated by voice control and/or head motions. Image recognition tech will overlay names of colleagues or buildings, background on historic landmarks or artwork, restaurant or movie reviews. Will all this expand soon (as I portray in a coming novel) to plaster everyone on the street with nametags? Perhaps credibility ratings … or the opinions and “reviews” of past dates or spouses?

==And more Science Fiction==

An article about our ongoing efforts to use science fiction as a tool for teaching and stimulating bright minds — Reading for the Future — has been published in the December 2011 issue of VOYA (the magazine for young adult librarians).  It’s a worthy effort that will continue at this year’s World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago, next August. Read about how Sci Fi can help save the next generation and civilization! Tell teachers and librarians. And consider helping. Also see a collection of resources for using Science Fiction in the classroom.

Isaac Asimov identified three basic types of science fiction scenarios: What if, If only and If this goes on…. Paul Di Filippo has written – in a cover piece for Salon – a fascinating review of two recent sci fi novels exploring Big Ideas of the ‘What if’ category. In Arctic Rising, Tobias Buckell spins a massive geoengineering project to counter climate change. Meanwhile Matt Ruff’s The Mirage is an alternate history in which America is a backward, fundamentalist nation, breeding terrorists responsible for destroying the World Trade Towers of Baghdad…Well worth a look.

And now Elon Musk, of SpaceX, claims that within ten years, he will be able to send passengers to Mars (and back!) for $500,000. Science or science fiction?  Only a fool would bet against Elon.  So I might as well sign on!

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Filed under science, science fiction, society

Disturbing Trends in the News

Worrisome. The War on Cameras in Reason details police threats, phone confiscations, detentions, felony charges and convictions of citizens for the ‘crime’ of recording officers on duty. Yet, laws are vague and vary greatly from state to state. The central issue revolves around whether taping police without their consent is a violation of wiretapping statues, and whether police have a reasonable expectation of privacy in public encounters with citizens—or if they are to be held accountable for their actions on the job.

We’ve discussed this here before.  Yes, a recent Supreme Court case appears to have settled this matter, in principle. The imbalance of power between individual and state is so huge that the citizen must — must — retain the one thing that equalizes the playing field somewhat.  The truth. In practice, this will still be a hard fight.  I tend to worry much less about restricting what the government and other elites can see (how you gonna stop em?) than about preserving our right to look back!

But can we look?  Really?  We have the illusion of choice…but six media giants now control a staggering 90% of what we read, watch or listen to. These companies are: CBS, Viacom, Disney, GE, NewsCorp (which includes Fox and the Wall Street Journal) and Time Warner (which includes CNN, HBO, Time and Warner Bros). The largest owner of radio stations in the U.S., Clear Channel, operates 1,200 stations, airing shows by the likes of Limbaugh and Hannity, with programs syndicated to more than 5,000 stations. And who owns Clear Channel? Bain Capital purchased Clear Channel shortly before Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential bid  One clear reason why conservative talk show hosts support Mitt? And weren’t we supposed to be more independent and broad in in our access to information, by now?

Well, at least now we know who to blame for what’s happened to the History Channel.

A horrifying brain drain. “At some Ivy League schools last year, up to half of the graduates went into finance or consulting, a move that could have a profound effect on the economy in the years to come.”  Crum, any civilization that does this to itself deserves what will happen next. The very brightest, who do NOT fall for this trap will simply leave the country. A genuine “brain drain.” Leaving the finance twits in charge of a society that explores nothing, invents nothing, produces nothing except paper short-term-parasitic profits. Ever hear of the Golgafrinchan B-Ark? Think about it.

Self censorship? Social media giant Twitter announced they would block messages on a country by country basis, to “to withhold content from users in a specific country while making it available to the rest of the world.” This policy will allow Twitter to grow internationally into countries with “different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression”, but won’t affect China or Iran where Twitter is already completely blocked.

An unprecedented loss of Arctic sea ice over the last few decades suggests we may soon see an ice-free Arctic summer. But then, as I have linked many times before, the US Navy has long known this and is making major plans. So are the Russians. Maybe THAT will get through to your crazy uncle.

Digital thievery is rampant! Have a look at the precautions that US corporate officers, scientists and government officials have started taking, before getting on a plane to China.  “If a company has significant intellectual property that the Chinese and Russians are interested in, and you go over there with mobile devices, your devices will get penetrated,” said Joel F. Brenner, former counterintelligence specialist. We’re not enemies!  But things are passing through a phase where it just makes sense to be careful.  You’ll actually get more respect when they know you’re smart enough to protect yourself and your endeavors. Seriously, read the description of what a cautious businessman does to stay digitally clean and no bring home spyware.

The media does seem to have a polarizing effect…Would ANY new data make you change your opinions on hot button issues such as the death penalty, abortion, same sex marriage, legalization of marijuana? Or God? Or the fact that US taxes are near a 100 year low? Any data at all? Read about opinions beyond the reach of data.

Cadmium, a carcinogen and neurotoxin, may be as hazardous to children as lead. Current regulations are based on threats to adults; recent studies show possible links with learning disabilities and retardation in children.

== Better Accountability through Visualizing our World==

Shining a light into the darkness: I knew I liked the guy, despite resenting the soul-sold handsomeness… The Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP), begun by George Clooney, is an attempt to use technology to deter civil war and atrocities against citizens in Sudan. SSP combines satellite images and field reports with Google Maps to track movements of troops and displaced people, bombed villages, mass graves and other evidence of large-scale violence, providing public access to updated information on these long-suffering areas.

An ever-reddening glow: NASA video depicts global temperature data over 130 years

Speaking of heating… this map shows hot spots for terrorist attacks within the U.S.–a third of attacks occur in urban areas.

How is water used worldwide? Researchers map a global water footprint detailing water usage. 92% goes to growing food, 40% toward the export of products.

Satellite data reveal the extent of China’s air pollution problem–finding dangerous levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5, less than 2.5  microns).

Accountability on a local basis: the energy usage of New York’s buildings, visualized.

When 30,000 square feet isn’t enough…aerial views of mega-mansions. Even as the size of the average American house shrinks after peaking during the boom, several of the wealthy are building gigantic homes of 20,000 square feet and more.

==On the Technology Front==

 Virtual devices will read your hand motions and gestures and provide what you want—meaning technology will appear even more like…magic. If you hold up your hand, a map or keypad will appear, for you to retrieve or send data. Sensors on the ceiling will monitor your gestures, and respond.  I portray this in Existence…

CleanSpace One, an $11 million “Janitor Satellite” under development in Switzerland, would be the first of a series of craft launched to clear orbital debris, grabbing items with its robotic arm.  Read a better method in chapter one of my next novel.

Patrick Tucker suggests that Artificial Intelligence will be America’s next Big Thing, directing traffic, managing electrical grids and resources, aiding doctors, lawyers and police, analyzing satellite data, optimizing manufacturing and design, developing new medicines and cures, leading to a third Industrial Revolution. Yet, the roboticization of the factory floor will have human costs, as well. See Making it in America in The Atlantic.

Researchers make iron invisible to X-rays, using quantum interference.

==Miscellaneous Fiction/Film==

I’m quoted in this article on Prophets of Science Fiction–and the interplay between science and Sci Fi.

A few sci-fi-ish films from this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Eeeek!  A “re-imagining” remake of the worst sci fi pile of drivel ever made… Space 1999!

Fascinating perspectives from Jonathan Dotse – an IT student, blogger, and science fiction writer based in Accra, Ghana. He discusses the future of African science fiction.

How does Science Fiction influence Public perception of science topics such as Genetic engineering, cloning, nanotechnology? See an article in Biology in Science Fiction.

Glimpse this new Nigerian sci fi film! Kajola.

Seriously? Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. In this movie, that axe isn’t just for chopping down trees… and it looks as if it just might (unbelievably) be worth checking out!

Russian speakers, see a translation of my essay about The Uplift War.

Enough of a coolstuff dump for ya?  Well… the year has just begun…

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Filed under media, space, technology

More on the Difference Between Fantasy and Science Fiction

First and foremost.  The biggest news in online art and visual media is the resurrection of Patrick Farley’s Electric Sheep Comix site.  This brilliant… and cosmically under-rated … visual artist and innovative storyteller is back!  You can view the dramatic and politically cogent “Spiders” saga, which I cite regularly for its implications about citizen-centered civilization… or view the psychedelic future in the sci fi “Don’t Look Back“… finally grasp the full implications of the terrifyingly bizarre fixation called the Book of Revelation, in “Apocamon“…

Or scroll through the stunningly beautiful, thought-provoking… and sexy… newest Farley work… “First Word.” And I may have a very special Farley-related announcement  soon!

==More on Fantasy and SF==

I enjoyed the guest essay, A Far Green Country, that fantasy Author Catheryn Valente contributed to Charlie Stross’s blog.  I found many of her insights and metaphors fascinating and fun, such as why magic realism as a sub-genre seems to crop up especially in countries ruled by brutal despotisms.

Nor is magical thinking solely the province of non-technological minds.  I agree that the nerdy-techno “singularity” is – at root – just a modern manifestation of magical-transcendentalism.  Indeed, our 21st Century America is awash in mystics!  The technological illiterates among them either wallow in the Book of Revelations or lefty-Gaian nostalgism or else solipsistic AynRandianism,  Those who are tech-empowered shift their transcendentalism to what’s been called the “rapture of the nerds.”  Same stuff though, when you dig deep to the level of personality, and thousands of years old.

I found the anecdote about Cotton Mather and obsession with the Rapture erudite, hilarious, persuasive and rather moving!

Still, in the end, I found Cat’s missive troubling.  We all know there IS a difference and distinction between Fantasy and SF. Simply pointing the finger at some sci fi and saying “that’s also magical thinking!” is not a truly helpful step toward understanding.  Cat knows very well that there is a lot of science fiction that explores the processes of change in human civilization, thought and nature without pleading a transcendent dispensation or rapture.

No, the root element is right there in that word “change.” Science fiction borrows many elements from the mother genre – fantasy — elements of boldness and the fantastic that date back to Homer & Gilgamesh. But sci fi then rebels against all literary foundations by embracing change.  Even when it warns against BAD change it is relishing, exulting, expanding upon what Einstein called the “gedankenexperiment” or thought experiment.

When SciFi goes “whatif” it takes the sacred word seriously.

 Fantasy is almost perfectly encapsulated by the presumption of changelessness.  Oh, kingly rulers my topple and shift, but the abiding assumptions and social castes generally do not. This is why, despite her dragons and bards and medieval crafts, Anne McCaffrey proclaimed loudly that “I am a science fiction writer!”  Because her characters know that change is coming.  Some resist, many are eager to bring it on as fast as they can.  And the future on Pern will have both dragons and flush toilets.  Songs and tapestries and universities and hyperdrive ships.

Terry Pratchett writes science fiction because his discworld (borne through space by a mythical turtle) has something called progress.  People are waking, rising up. George Martin’s depressing Game of Thrones saga has very little magic in it, but it consigns the peasants to endless, endless, endless misery and feudal oppression, with absolutely no hope of progress.  It is part of the longer/older tradition stretching back to Homer. It is fantasy.

I go into this elsewhere in my essay,  The Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy.

But other than that…terrific article.  Thanks Cat, I learned a lot.  I must look up your books.

== And Miscellaneous Cool Stuff! ==

Watch this segment of Neil deGrasse Tyson about America’s decline amid the changing landscape of modern science. I mean it.  Watch this and make your uncles and cousins watch it. Half of our economic growth since WWII came from science and technology. This last decade was the first in 60 years in which the US did not stun the world with some terrific “new thing” that let us get rich enough to then buy megatons of crap from foreign factory workers and uplift a new world middle class. The Fox War on Science is nothing less than pure, unadulterated treason.

No more Virtual reality headsets or helmets: DARPA is developing megapixel augmented reality contact lenses that will allow users to focus on both faraway objects and images placed very close to the eye. I portray this in EXISTENCE.

Too pretty for words. Gorgeous planets in drops of water.

Comedian — Dara O’Briain — opines on science and quackery. Brilliant, utterly brilliant: “The difference is that science knows it doesn’t know everything. If it thought it knew everything it would stop.”

Some of us, including fellow author John Shirley, used to muse about the possibility of using a plasma blaster to turn trash into component atoms–a trash DISINTEGRATOR. It’s apparently energy efficient and could solve many environmental problems.

What exactly are your online rights? What protections are offered under the First Amendment and intellectual property laws? Chilling Effects offers an extensive database of info about copyright and trademark infringement, fan fiction, cease and desist notices, issues of anonymity and freedom of expression. A joint project of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Law Schools at Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and the George Washington School of Law, Chilling Effects is a first stop to determine your legal rights in the on hot issues in the ever-evolving online world. I’ve been known to differ over matters of emphasis with my friends at EFF.  I am far less worried about what governments and the mighty “see” about me — and history shows little hope of stopping them — while I am more vexed and angry over government and the mighty hiding from citizen supervision.  Still this is a good and important move and I am glad these folks are doing things like this!

== And Snippets From the Political Year ==

Former PA Senator and Presidential candidate Rick Santorum is at least no hypocrite. He is up-front about the anti-intellectualism that has become a central theme in the Republican Party. Watch this clip of Santorum telling people to stop donating to colleges because college indoctrinates kids against religion. (Don’t most Ivy league schools have a seminary?) Well, in fact, a college education doesn’t eliminate faith. It does, however, tend to decrease confidence that the Earth is 6000 years old. And the percent who watch Fox does steeply decline.

If you think wealth is concentrated in the United States, just wait till you look at the data on campaign spending. In the 2010 election cycle, 26,783 individuals (or slightly less than one in ten thousand Americans) each contributed more than $10,000 to federal political campaigns. Combined, these donors spent $774 million. That’s 24.3% of the total from individuals to politicians, parties, PACs, and independent expenditure groups. Together, they would fill only two-thirds of the 41,222 seats at Nationals Park the baseball field two miles from the U.S. Capitol. When it comes to politics, they are The One Percent of the One Percent.

A Sunlight Foundation examination of data from the Federal Election Commission  reveals a growing dependence of candidates and political parties on the One Percent of the One Percent, resulting in a political system that could be disproportionately influenced by donors in a handful of wealthy enclaves. (And remember, this is just the up-top data and does not include Super Pacs!)

One percent of one percent… that is about the ratio of nobility in feudal societies.  welcome back to the human normal.  The Enlightenment was cool while it lasted, hm?


Filed under politics, science fiction

Science Fiction for Young Adults: A Recommended List

What books can we give our teens that don’t mire them in a swamp of  vampires, domineering wizards or nostalgia for feudalism? These are a few of my personal science fiction favorites for young adults, weighted more toward SF and a little common sense mixed with lots of sense-o-wonder. Many are classics that I grew up with…along with some marvelous recent additions.

Adams, Douglass: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Seconds before Earth is destroyed to make way for a galactic freeway, Arthur Dent is saved…for a hilarious journey across space and time.

Anderson, M.T.: Feed A rather dark tale of a futuristic consumer-mad world where news and advertisements are fed continuously to the brain–till a hacker disrupts the flow during a teen trip to the moon…

Anderson, Poul: The High Crusade Nominated for a Hugo Award. An alien spaceship from the Wersgorix Empire lands in 14th century England during the Hundred Year’s War. Adaptability plus stubbornness tilt the odds! (Any book by this author will please a bright teen.)

Asimov, Isaac: The Caves of Steel A murder mystery, set in a far future, when vast domed cities house an over-populated Earth. Detective Elijah Bayley teams with a humanoid robot to solve the crime.

  • Foundation Trilogy Gibbon’s Decline of the Roman Empire with an interstellar twist. The Galactic Empire is going to fall, but Hari Seldon has a plan. Vast in scope. (Later concluded by us Killer B’s).
  • I, Robot Selected stories about humanity’s future love/hate relationship with our artificial friends.

51G8vz8lVnLBacigalupi, Paolo: Shipbreaker presents a gritty near-future world  where young people work long hazardous jobs scavenging beached oil tankers among the drowned cities of the Gulf Coast. Nailer makes an unexpected find which will change his future…

  •       The Drowned Cities is the companion book, telling the story of refugees trying to survive in an America suffering from the effects of climate change and flooded cities.

Barnes, John: Orbital Resonance Through our 13-year old protagonist, Melpomene Murray, Barnes presents a riveting portrayal of life in space aboard the Flying Dutchman, an asteroid colony  which supplies the overpopulated home planet Earth.

Baxter, Stephen: The H-bomb Girl An alternate history look at the Cuban Missile Crisis through the perspective of a teen girl living in a gritty Liverpool in 1962.

Bear, Greg: Dinosaur Summer In a world where Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World actually happened, only one dinosaur circus remains on Earth. Fifteen year old Peter Belzoni sets off on an expedition to return the creatures to the wild.

Benford, Gregory: Against Infinity A coming of age story of a young man on the icy surface of Ganymede, searching for a dangerous alien artifact that haunts the dreams of humans.

  • The Jupiter Project A teenage boy has spent his entire life on The Can, a scientific station orbiting Jupiter–looking for signs of alien life.

Bester, Alfred: The Stars My Destination A classic of Science fiction, this is a story of revenge. Gulliver Foyle, left stranded in space, is determined to track down those responsible.

  • The Demolished Man Winner of the first Hugo Award in 1953. Ben Reich intends to commit murder in a world where crime is virtually unheard of, due to Espers, telepaths who can probe the inner reaches of the mind.

Bradbury, Ray: The Martian Chronicles A short story collection about the colonization of Mars, as terrestrial expeditions set off to explore the planet, often with devastatingly poignant consequences for the native inhabitants.

  • Fahrenheit 451 A chilling future dystopian world where “firemen” ransack houses, looking for forbidden books to burn. Often assigned reading in many classrooms.

Brin, David: Glory Season Genetic engineering has largely reduced the role of males on planet Stratos–ruled by clans of cloned females. Young variant twins, Leie and Maia set off to earn their fortunes in a world where they don’t quite belong, uncovering their world’s role in a wider human cosmos.

The Postman After much of America has been devastated by war, a wanderer comes across an abandoned mail truck and finds long abandoned letters…and delivers hope to isolated towns. (Okay, that’s a self-plug. Lots of kids prefer the lighter tone in The Practice Effect!

Card, Orson Scott: Ender’s Game The Hugo and Nebula Award winning story of boy genius, Ender Wiggin, who trains to save the world from alien Buggers. A blatant “chosen one” fantasy that appeals to the Harry Potter reflex.

Cherryh, C.J. : The Chanur Saga These novels tell the story of the alien races that make up The Compact, a spacefaring civilization and their first contact with a human. (Any book by this author will please a bright teen.)

Christopher, John: Tripods Trilogy  Humanity has been conquered and enslaved by aliens who travel in giant three-legged machines–and control the minds of humans.

Clarke, Arthur C.: Childhood’s End Just as Earthlings are about to launch their first spaceship, alien invaders, the Overlords appear, imposing peace and a golden age. And yet…

Clement, Hal: Mission of Gravity An adventure story told from the point of view of an alien living on the planet Mesklin, venturing from the extreme gravity of the poles to the low gravity of the equator–as they encounter human visitors seeking a lost probe.

Collins, Suzanne: The Hunger Games Sixteen year old Katniss is forced to represent her district, by competing in the televised Hunger Games–a fight to the death contest for survival.

Dick, Philip K.: The Man in the High Castle Hugo Award winning alternate history, that tells the story of life after World War II if the Axis powers had won, occupying America. For that history buff!

  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? A post-apocalyptic story of the near future. Bounty hunter Rick Deckard tracks down and kills escaped androids. Served as the basis of the film, Bladerunner.

Doctorow, Cory: Little Brother After a terrorist attack on San Francisco, a group of teens are taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security. After his release, 17 year old Marcus Dallow uses his computer expertise to take down the DHS.

Farmer, Nancy: The House of the Scorpion In the land of Orpium, an opium-producing estate between Mexico and the United States, a drug lord enslaves illegal immigrants, through chips planted in their brains. Our protagonist, Matt, has been raised as a clone for organ replacement.

Gaiman, Neil: The Graveyard Book To escape the clutches of Jack the man who killed his parents, Nobody Owens was raised in a graveyard–learning history from the ghosts among the headstones.

Harrison, Harry: The Stainless Steel Rat A great joyride fantasy for teens who like to think they’re smarter than civilization or the law. Take a master thief. Turn him into a supercop. Way fun!

Heinlein, Robert: Tunnel in the Sky Teens who want jobs in space must spend a week surviving an alien world, but what if they’re stranded? Heinlein’s answer to Lord of the Flies.

  • The Door into Summer Brilliant time travel tale. Great predictions about robots. Just a super yarn–one I read aloud to my kids.
  • Farmer in the Sky Teenager Bill Learner and his father leave over-crowded Earth to emigrate to the farming colony on Ganymede–in the process of being terraformed. The harsh reality is not quite as Bill imagined…
  • The Star Beast Heinlein’s mastery of point of view at its best. Lummox had been a family pet, growing increasingly cantankerous–until aliens arrive with a demand.
  • Red Planet Mars, Mars, Mars – done by the master.
  • Podkayne of Mars Podkayne Fries, a bright young woman, dreams of becoming a starship pilot. She and her genius brother travel from their home on Mars to Earth. Some female readers cringe, but others say Heinlein nailed it. You decide.

Henderson: Zena The Ingathering Henderson’s classic “The People” novels–about alien refugees stranded and hiding on Earth–is a bit languid by modern tastes, but deeply moving and thoughtful. Personal and character-driven portrayals. 

Herbert, Frank: Dune A Hugo and Nebula Award winner: the story of the desert planet Arrakis and its complex ecology and struggles between the House Atreides and the dreaded Harkonnen. Demanding but detailed, for bright kids.

Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World A dystopia fast becoming more likely than 1984. Also more fun, but creepy. Thought provoking and on college reading lists.

Laumer, Keith: Earthblood and Reteif’s War and The Great Time Machine Hoax are all great fun.

Le Guin, Ursula: The Earthsea Trilogy If you must have imperious secretive wizards, at least make them self-consistent and well-intentioned. Le Guin’s fantasy world of Earthsea.

  • The Lathe of Heaven A young man  has effective dreams that change the world when he wakes. A doctor schemes to manipulate dreams for his own purposes.
  • The Dispossessed Le Guin’s exploration of a non-Marxist Anarch-Socialist society, with all its pros and cons. Her best book.

Matheson, Richard: The Incredible Shrinking Man The basis for the movie of the same title, Scott Carey mysteriously begins shrinking to encounter ever-larger dangers looming in the world.

McCaffrey, Ann: The Ship who Sang A second life opens for a crippled woman, to live as a starship. But first she must choose a human partner. (Any book by this author will please a bright teen who likes a very personal-feminine style.)

  • Dragonsong Not fantasy! Dragons, lords, arts and crafts… all the fantasy “furniture…  but genuine sci-fi about a human colony knocked flat but determined to rise up again. They want science back…while riding dragons!

McDevitt, Jack: The Engines of God Two archeologists struggle to preserve the alien artifacts on planet Quraqua before terraforming destroys all traces of the alien civilization–which may hold essential clues to humanity’s survival!

Miéville, China: Railsea A fully imagined take on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick – melded with the stark landscape of Dune. Hunters ride the railways, seeking whale-sized moldywarpes, or giant moles — in particular the great white!

Miller, Walter: Canticle for Leibowitz Must civilization fall? Brilliant stories about the few who maintain candles in the darkness after nuclear war.

Niven, Larry: Ringworld The Hugo and Nebula Award winning story of a vast habitat larger than a million earths! Stunning ideas!

Nix, Garth: Shade’s Children Evil overlords rule the Earth, and no child is allowed to live past their fourteenth birthday. Gold-Eye escapes his fate, meeting up with other refugees. Will they be able to destroy the Overlords?

Norton, Andre: The Stars are Ours No one wrote escapist adolescent adventure in space better than Andre Norton. Her Young Adult novels were legend, and SFWA’s YA award is named after her.

(Any book by this author will please a bright teen.)

O’Brien, Robert: Z for Zachariah Sixteen year old Ann Burden has been left completely alone after a nuclear war, until a stranger enters her remote valley…

Palmer, David: Emergence A bionuclear war has killed over 99% of earth’s population. Candida, an eleven year old girl is among the few who remain–who soon discover they are the next phase of human evolution.

Panshin, Alexei: Rite of Passage A multi-generation colony ship tests its youth by casting them out to survive for a month of Trial upon the hostile colony worlds. Truly the classic YA science fiction novel and a pioneer at the young-female point of view.

Pangborn, Edgar: Davy A post-apocalyptic novel, which follows the adventures of Davy, as he escapes life as an indentured servant in a church-based society that suppresses technology.

Piper, H. Beam: Little Fuzzy Nominated for a Hugo Award, this classic by H. Beam Piper explores the discovery of a sapient race on planet Zarathustra–previously believed devoid of intelligent life. Oh… features the cutest lil’ aliens you ever met.

  • Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen Korean War veteran Calvin Morrison is caught up in a passing Paratime Patrol time machine, and sent to a parallel time track, the feudal kingdom of Hostigos, where he becomes Lord Kalvan, “inventor” of gunpowder and champion of freedom against the Cult of Styphon. (Any book by this author will please a bright teen who likes action adventure in space.)

Pratchett, Terry: The Color of Magic The first of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels offers a light-hearted spoof of fantasy. (Any book by this author will please a bright teen who likes groaner humor.)

Sargeant, Pamela: Earthseed To save the remnants of humanity, Ship was launched, containing the DNA of Earth’s flora and fauna, as well as children created from the genes of the starship’s builders. To prepare for colonization, these teenagers are sent to a final test, a competition within the Ship’s hollow–which pits friends against friends.

Scalzi, John: Zoe’s Tale A first person narrative, told from the point of view of teenager Zoe Boutin, who travels with her adoptive parents to establish a new colony on Roanoke, struggling against hostile aliens.

Sheckley, Robert: Store of the Worlds Sheckley’s stories are classic, and great to read aloud to your kids.

Sleator, William: The Last Universe  A story inspired by the uncertainties of quantum mechanics. Susan and her invalid brother, Gary, discover an ever-changing garden which allows them to access parallel universes.

  • Interstellar Pig Barney is sucked into an addictive role-playing game called Interstellar Pig–when he begins to wonder if it is a game after all..

Smith, E.E. “Doc”: The Skylark of Space A classic from the pre-Golden era of 1930’s Sci-Fi. Terran genius Dick Seaton and his violinist girlfriend shake up the galaxy.

  • The Lensman Series Humanity rocks! We’re the great hope for goodness across the galaxy. Our uber-sheriffs take on the ancient baddies from Boskone!

Stewart, George: Earth Abides In this post-apocalyptic story, most of humanity has been wiped out by pandemic. Ish Wiliams emerges from his solitary cabin to find the land deserted… almost. A gentle, thoughtful book, easy to read but very literary.

Sturgeon, Theodore: More than Human This Science Fiction classic tells the stories of six outcasts with special gifts. When they ‘blesh’  or blend their abilities, they can obtain superhuman powers.

Tevis, Walter: The Man Who Fell to Earth Alien Thomas Newton arrives on Earth, hoping to construct a spaceship to rescue the rest of his civilization and transport them to earth. He is discovered, setting off waves of paranoia and distrust.

Tolkein, J.R.R.: The Hobbit Classic fantasy…the tale of Bilbo Baggins and his quest. Prequel to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series.

Varley, John: Red Thunder China and the United States are in a space race to reach Mars. Teenager Manny Garcia and friends meet a brilliant inventor who has developed a ‘squeezer’ that can power a spaceship. They set off to win the race to Mars.

Verne, Jules: Verne wrote brief, captivating “go there” adventure tales that still read well. Choose a direction: up, down or into the sea and Verne’s intrepid adventurers head that way! But his Captain Nemo, in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, was a character with tragic depth.

Weber, David: Mission of Honor The Honor Harrington series typifies the Space War Sci Fi genre. Other authors along this vein include Dave Duncan and Lois MacMaster Bujold.

Wells, H. G.: The Time Machine One of the earliest works of science fiction, this classic tale by H.G. Wells tells of the Time Traveller, who journeys into the far future to meet the placid Eloi who live on the surface and the oppressive Morlocks who live underground.

  • The Invisible Man A dark tale of a scientist who discovers a potion to render one invisible. He tries it on himself; at first he feels invincible, but the consequences eventually drive him mad.

Westerfield, Scott: Uglies A future dystopian world where everyone undergoes extreme cosmetic surgery at age sixteen to render them beautiful. But our protagonist, Tally Youngblood rebels against this imposed conformity…

  • Leviathan This steampunk novel presents an alternate history of World War I, pitting the Central Powers and their steam-powered war machines, against the British Darwinists, who have genetically modified animals for fighting. Our protagonist, the son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand rides into battle on the Leviathan, an enormous biological dirigible.

Wilhelm, Kate: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang A Hugo Award winner. This post-apocalyptic novel centers on a surviving community. Finding themselves infertile, they turn to cloning, which leads to a stagnant society. Until a teenager, Mark seeks another way….

Wylie, Philip: The Disappearance This book follows two worlds that split from ours. In one, women learn to get along without men (it’s difficult in the 1950s, but do-able).  In the other, men start out better but find it harder to make it alone!

  • When World’s Collide (written with Edwin Balmer) This was huge in the 1960s. Two planets enter the solar system. One will smack Earth. The other might replace it. Can teams build space arks to cross over in time?

Wyndham, John: The Day of the Triffids A post-apocalyptic novel. Bill Masen awakes in the hospital to find he is the one of the few who can see, while most of the population has been blinded by a meteor storm. He must survive giant walking, stinging plants, Triffids, who wage war upon a collapsing civilization.

  • The Chrysalids (Re-Birth) In the aftermath of a devastating nuclear war, a rigid religious civilization has arisen which persecutes anyone with genetic deformities. Our protagonist, David Strorm, discovers he has unusual telepathic abilities, and escapes with others to the Fringes, where he contacts a more advanced society.

LordLightZelazny, Roger: Lord of Light Set on a Hindi-settled world, this book introduced us in the 1960s to many eastern concepts, amid a great (if philosophical) action-packed adventure. Zelazny’s “Amber” series rollicked with sword fights across countless parallel worlds.

Books for Younger Readers

Cooper, Susan: The Dark is Rising

Coville, Bruce: My Teacher is an Alien

Dickinson, Peter: Eva

Duane, Diane: So You Want to be a Wizard

DuPrau, Jeanne: The City of Ember

Gaiman, Neil: Coraline

Haddix, Margaret: Running out of Time

L’Engle, Madeleine: A Wrinkle in Time

Lowry, Lois: The Giver

Pfeffer, Susan Beth: Life As We Knew It

Pinkwater, Daniel: Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars

Pratchett, Terry: Only You can Save Mankind

Pullman, Philip: The Golden Compass

Schusterman, Neal: The Dark Side of Nowhere


More Lists of Recommendations for Young Adults:

The Golden Duck Awards

Young adult: Speculative fiction

Science fiction & fantasy: Books for teens

io9: List of young adult science fiction

Worlds of Wonder: Science fiction for teens

Plymouth Library: Young adult list

From Jeffrey Carver: Recommended science fiction & fantasy

Hoagie’s Gifted Education: Science fiction & fantasy favorites

From Tamara Pierce: Young adult science fiction & fantasy

From Tor books:  A young adult reading guide 


David Brin


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The Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy

imagesWhy are Science Fiction and Fantasy so often grouped together? Obviously, because they share readership and so are well placed together in book stores. And… heck… some of us write both! Still, there are very real differences.

Look, fantasy is the mother genre — e.g. Gilgamesh, the Illad, Odyssey and most religions. Science Fiction is the brash offshoot. All literature has deep roots in fantasy, which in turn emerges from the font of our dreams.

Having said that, what is my definition of the separation? I think it is very basic, revolving around the notion of human improvability.

“Do you believe it is possible for children to learn from the mistakes of their parents?”

For all the courage and heroism shown by fantasy characters across 4000 years of great, compelling dramas — NOTHING EVER CHANGES!

Aragorn may be a better king than Sauron would have been. Hurray. Fine. But he’s still a freaking king. And the palantir on his desk that lets him see faraway places and converse with viceroys across the realm is still reserved for the super elite. No way are we going to see mass-produced palantirs appearing on every peasant’s tabletop from Rohan to the Shire. (The way our civilization plopped such a miracle on YOUR tabletop.) It never even occurs to Aragorn or Gandalf to give the poor the godlike powers they themselves get to wield… let alone provide them with libraries, running water, printing presses or the germ theory of disease. Only little Peregrin Took seems to get a glimmer of an idea in that direction. The only character who briefly ponders possibilities, and he’s soon bullied out of it.

The trend toward feudal-romantic fantasy may seem harmless. But dreaming wistfully about kings and lords and secretive, domineering wizards is simply betrayal. Pure and simple. Those bastards were the enemy for 6,000 years. Some kings and wizards were less bad than others. But they were all “dark lords.” We are the heirs of the greatest heroes who ever lived. Pericles, Franklin, Faraday, Lincoln, Einstein. Any one of whom was worth every elf and dragon and fairy ever imagined.Fantasy has its attractions. Something about feudalism resonates, deep inside us. We fantacize about being the king or wizard. Heck it’s in our genes. We are all descended from the harems of the guys who succeeded at that goal. The core thing about fantasy tales is that, after the adventure is done and the bad guys are defeated… the social order stays the same.

Fantasy may be the natural genre… but should we be proud of that?

==The Possibility of Change==

Science fiction, in sharp contrast, considers the possibility of learning and change.

changelessnessNot that children always choose to learn from their parent’s mistakes! When they don’t, when they are obstinately stupid and miss opportunities, you can get a sci fi tragedy… far more horrible than anything “tragic” in Aristotle’s POETICS. Aristotle says tragedy is Oedepus writhing futilely against fate. A sci fi tragedy portrays people suffering, same as in older tragedies… but with this crucial difference — things did not have to be this way. It wasn’t “fate.” We – or the characters – could’ve done better. There was, at some point, a chance to change our own destiny.

One type of tragedy makes you weep – hey, Oedepus is powerful stuff. But for millennia the deep moral lesson – the thing taught in all “campbellian myths” – is that resistance is futile. The overall situation, the rule of fate, remains the same.

The other type of tragedy – the new kind – is a cautionary tale that may change your decisions. It may alter destiny.

You can see why the absurd old farts who inhabit most lit departments hate science fiction. SF considers it possible that the eternal “verities” and relentless stupidities praised by Henry James might someday be obsolete! If we make kids who are better than us (our goal, duh?) then their Startrekkian heirs will still have problems. Why insist that our descendants have to fret over the same ones? Can’t they assume the solutions we find, take them for granted, and move on to new, interesting issues of their own?

Isn’t that what we did?

The implicit assumption in most fantasy is that the form of governance that ruled most human societies since the discovery of grain must always govern us. Oh, kingly rulers my topple and shift, but the abiding assumptions and social castes generally do not. And when a fellow like Tim Powers resists that assumption, he is writing science fiction, whether or not there are pirates, or wizards or demons.


Anne McCaffrey says “Never call me a fantasy author! I write science fiction!” Indeed. Despite the dragons and lords and medieval craft and renaissance fair stuff… her characters have heard of flush toilets and universities and democracy…

…AND THEY WANT THOSE THINGS BACK! They want starships. And Anne is going to let them earn those things. They will get them back, and move on. And she is a science fiction author.

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ChangeIsSee more Speculations on Science Fiction and Fantasy

David Brin


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