Saturday, December 15, 2018

Science fiction for the holidays - and beyond

With the holidays near, it's no surprise I'll recommend books - as the gifts that keep on giving! I've previously posted my own list of what I consider the greatest science fiction & fantasy novels. Also a list of my personal favorite science fiction and fantasy tales for young adults – with lots of exploration and sense-o-wonder. Many are classics I grew up with .... along with some marvelous recent additions. But for today...

I wrote the introduction to this beautifully illustrated volume. Aliens: Past, Present, Future: The Complete History of Extraterrestrials form Ancient Times to Ridley Scott, by Ron Miller, provides an extensively detailed look at the possibilities of alien life, as seen through the varied lenses of history and science, philosophy and religion, fiction and popular culture.

Meanwhile, James Cameron has released the companion volume to his six-part television series – James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction. This volume focuses on the talented directors and filmmakers who have brought SF with much success – and impact - to the big screen, including in-depth interviews and discussions with George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro – and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This lovely hardcover - The Astounding Illustrated History of Science Fiction – by Dave Golder and Jess Nevins provides a thoroughly illustrated and well researched, but entertaining dive into the roots of science fiction, from Frankenstein to Lovecraft, Bradbury, Clarke and beyond, with timelines and posters that illuminate the branching evolution of speculative fiction through the pulp magazines to novels, cinema and gaming – and its pervasive influence on science and technology. Its companion volume explores the Illustrated History of Fantasy and Horror, from myths and fairy tales to cinema.

Long before science fiction, our ancient ancestors dreamed of artificial life forms - moving statues or even mechanical beings that spoke, walked and served. In the recently released Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines and Ancient dreams of Technology, Adrienne Mayor explores references to artificial life in tales from ancient Greek, Roman, Indian and Chinese mythology - ranging from the classic tale of Pygmalion to the bronze giant figure of Talos - built by Hephaestus, Greek god of invention. 

Diverse mythic tales of automata can be found in classical stories of Medea, Daedalus, Prometheus, Jason and the Argonauts.  Read an excerpt from Gods and Robots here.

== And fictional suggestions ==

Celebrating a wave of innovative forward-looking fiction coming from Asia, a new anthology The Reincarnated Giant: An Anthology of Twenty-First Century Chinese Science Fiction offers imaginative stories from Chen Quifan, Han Song, as well as Hugo winner Liu Cixin, exploring the realms of robotics, computers, AI and the ever-changing fortunes of humanity.

And among the most welcome trends is the recent rise of Afro-Futurism! Brilliantly well-timed with our joy in Wakanda, here's a web survey of nine recent or classic innovations and explorations that will stretch you and make you proud to be human. (I so miss Octavia.) Specially noted below is the haunting imagery in Rivers Solomon's A Haunting of Ghosts.

Among my own recent editions, try Chasing Shadows: Visions of Our Coming Transparent World, with selections that explore the more positive implications of a future of  openness. Tales by Bruce Sterling, Cat Rambo, Jack McDevitt, Gregory Benford, Robert Silverberg, Scott Sigler, Robert J. Sawyer - and so many more!

And of course my best - and most recent - short story collection Insistence of Vision, which includes The Logs, The Tumbledowns of Cleopatra Abyss (in best-of collections), Stones of Significance, Transition Generation, and more. 

Horror fans, Dell has collected some choice recent tales, including my own chiller “Chrysalis,” in the recently-released anthology Terror at the Crossroads: Tales of Horror, Delusion, and the Unknown

There are vivid and eerie tales by authors including Chris Beckett, Kit Reed, Will McIntosh, Louis Bayard, Tara Laskowski and others - which explore the margins of the dark and sinister, the scary and the mysterious.  The ebook is available on Kindle and Nook and other sellers.  

And try these recent science fiction and fantasy - marvels by rising stars in the field:

Medusa Uploaded, by Emily Devenport offers a beautifully written and thrilling tale of revenge and insurgency on an inter-generation starship, with vivid multi-layered world-building. 

Assisted by a secretive AI that haunts the dark, winding tunnels of the ship, Oichi (saved from imminent death by airlock) is a chilling character who will stop at nothing to uncover the dark secrets and rectify the wrongs that have been done to her family and fellow crewmembers:

"Behaviorists say that killers aren't born in a vacuum. But I was born on a generation ship. Our journey is between the stars, and as massive as those gravity wells be, the space in between them is vacuum. And I'm not the only killer on this ship."

Nuomenon, a debut novel by Marina J. Lostetter also portrays a deep space starship, this one crewed with clones who are genetically selected and replicated repeatedly across the centuries of interstellar voyage - the older clones training their younger replacements over the generations. Their destination: an anomalous star which appears to show distinct signs of extraterrestrial life, presenting mysteries that the crew may be unable to solve. Meanwhile, the mission is threatened as the worst of human nature takes root, revealing enduring divisions and deep animosity among the crew, as they find themselves more and more alienated from their origins. "We were aliens now. Nomads in uncharted territory."

"Stories are where we find ourselves, where we find the others who are like us. Gather enough stories and soon you're not alone; you are an army." Blackfish City, by Sam J. Miller depicts a dystopian future impacted by severe climate change and severely hierarchical social levels. Qanaaq, an engineered floating city in the Arctic Circle, is run by machine intelligence; a city bursting with refugees, rival gangs and political corruption, with threats of a spreading infection. This fragile alliance is disrupted with the arrival of a fierce but mysterious woman who is nanobonded, mentally linked with an orca (and accompanied by a polar bear) who will stop at nothing to achieve justice for past wrongs. 

Starting to see a common thread? Womblike, isolated, 'protective' environments like starships that instead cloy and cramp and oppress?

Certainly that's the general theme of An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon which uses the classic scifi domain of a generation starship to replicate and amplify the horrors of a racial/plantation slave society. Every morality-tale of The Handmaid's Tale and even more hauntingly written. In this sub-genre, plausibility (e.g. high-tech slaves have options never available to Nat Turner) is not the issue. The aim is to freeze and shatter the soul and help you rebuild it. Solomon does it well.

I've been enjoying Mur Lafferty's murder mystery Six Wakes - also set on a starship where the six crewmembers awake missing 25 years of memories. A very different take than the show Dark Matter and more deeply psychological. And a Hugo and Nebula Award nominee. 

Of course the notion of a generation ship was thoroughly and scientifically... if a bit tendentiously... explored by Kim Stanley Robinson's fairly recent novel Aurora. That one won't cheer you either, though the thought experiment is fascinating.

== Want something a bit more enlivening? ==

Change Agent, a page-turning near future thriller by Daniel Suarez (following up his bestselling novels Daemon and Freedom) explores how we will deal with the complex issues arising from surveillance, ubiquitous CRISPR gene editing, customized 3D drug printers and designer babies. Agent Kenneth Durand is tasked with hunting down black market labs performing illegal genetic modifications, when he is attacked and injected with a 'change agent' - upon awaking from a coma, he is transformed into a doppelgänger of the very crime lord he was pursuing. 

The highly productive and vivid Suarez will be at the plate again soon with a terrific tome on asteroid mining! Keep your eyes open for Delta-V, set for release in April. 

And yes, the truest heart of SF goes one step beyond chindings or dire warnings. It is about stirring the reader to imagine solutions.

Following up on his dystopian future scenario of a drowned NYC - New York 2140 - Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest - Red Moon - offers a near future, thirty year projection, where humanity has established a colony on the surface of the moon. However, ongoing political and economic struggles between the U.S. and China – as well as rising personal animosity - fuel unrest and ignite a rebellion in the lunar colony, setting the stage for a thrilling tale of revolution amid the dusty landscape of the moon base.

And no, it's not that dusty plain where our future will be made.

More - recent SFF selections, many of them mentioned in earlier postings: 

Terra Nullius, by Claire Coleman
Semiosis by Sue Burke
Summerland, by Hannu Rajaniemi
Embers of War, by Gareth Powell
Rosewater, by Tade Thompson
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway
Before Mars, by Emma Newman
Bandwidth, by Eliot Peper
Empire of Silence, by Christopher Ruocchio
The Book of M, by Peng Shepherd
The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Oracle Year by Charles Soule
The Rig, by Roger Levy
One Way, by S. J. Morden

Something for the kids?  A SpaceX engineer’s Epic Space Adventure trilogy takes a spacefaring giraffe on a tour across the solar system from Mars to Europa. A delight that leaves kids delighted to know stuff.  

And set for release in May of 2019:
Children of Ruin, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, the sequel to his vivid Children of Time.

Final note! The comments section below this blog is one of the oldest and best on the web! Under this posting you will find bright folks chiming in with more wonderful suggestions of books you can give, to enliven someone's universe, and maybe derive strength from this implication -- there will be a tomorrow!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Human origins & other bio wonders

It's world Get Interested in Biology Day!  Wait. I just made that up. But it is on Contrary Brin.

 == Re-evaluating our origins ==

Truly amazing. Years ago, the human family tree was shaken by the discovery of a single pinkie bone in Denisova, Siberia, revealing the existence of a vast sub-species just as important and widespread as Neanderthals… the Denisovans. From that one bone, we now know that some modern humans have as much as 5% Denisovan lineage, while others are as much as 5% Neanderthal.  Now comes another stunning find – another small fragment from the same cave, of a female from 90,000 years ago, who apparently had a pure Denisovan mother and a Neanderthal father. Really. Seriously. What are the odds, in an event that was undoubtedly very rare? Oh, what times we live in.
Only now… a hint that there might have been a fourth sapient hominin sub-species! “Hints of an unidentified, extinct human species have been found in the DNA of modern Melanesians. According to new genetic modeling, the species is unlikely to be Neanderthal or Denisovan… but could represent a third, unknown human relative that has so far eluded archaeologists.” (Controversially, I might add.)

The newly released: Now You're Talking: Human Conversation from the Neanderthals to Artificial Intelligence, by Trevor Cox - delves into what most makes us human, charting the evolution of communication over the millennia, and projecting forward as we gain the ability to replicate and manipulate speech with AI.
Scientists have found that Europeans and Chinese people carry a similar amount of Neanderthal DNA: about (an average of) 2.8 percent. "Europeans have no hint of Denisovan ancestry, and people in China have a tiny amount - 0.1 percent…. But 2.74 percent of the DNA in people in Papua New Guinea comes from Neanderthals.” It’s the iffy amount of Denisovan… or someone else… in Melanesians that is the latest wonderful puzzle. 

The only pure "humans," in the sense of lacking the other sub-species, are today's Africans. (BTW I go into the ethical and other parameters of resurrecting Neanderthals, in Existence.

== Braiiiiins! ==

Apparently mild pulses of electricity -stimulation of the lateral orbitofrontal cortex - can relieve depression. Alas, it is preliminary and deep brain stimulation or DBS isn't approved for this purpose by the Food and Drug Administration.

The more equal women and men are, the less they want the same things, study finds. Hm, well, we should probably best be doing most of the stuff women want.

Well  it’s come. A team at the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen (I spoke there in May) has been recruiting couples in an effort to create the first gene-edited babies. They planned to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in order to render the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera. Next? Enhancements, designer babies, and a new form of eugenics.  This comes just as the world’s leading experts are jetting into Hong Kong for the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing. Alas, I doubt even a single speaker… or even attendee… will even mention the vast library of thought experiments in science fiction about this topic – including Heinlein’s brilliant proposal in Beyond This Horizon.

A minor hit, but still one for the Predictions Registry. The anti-onc creams used by Ra Boys in EARTH  to remove pre-cancerous sun-spot cells from their skin. Reports The New Scientist: "Creams remove skin sun spots with minimal pain and may prevent cancer."

Genetically modified pig organs could save the lives of nearly 20 Americans each day who die waiting for transplants.

Interesting new research indicates - that a supernovae (or more than one) may have killed off large ocean animals at the dawn of the Pleistocene

== Making peace with our neighbors! ==

We can start by moving incrementally toward stopping killing them. I know I am a born carnivore and my increments have been slow. Still, I rejoice at good news. Like the rise of meat-substitutesOne of many truly world-saving, game-changing technologies that might also reduce our karmic burden and finally convince aliens we're worth talking to. I tasted a Beyond Burger in Hong Kong and it was great, satisfying both my higher-responsible soul and my slathering-cro-magnon meat-loving id. Give it a try.

While we're at it... Chinese medical journals have detailed findings suggesting the rejuvenating effect of cockroach potion.  You saw that right. And a high tech facility in Xichang is raising 6 Billion at a time.

Eats! Creating a Sustainable Food Future is a major report sponsored by the UN, World Bank etc, offering a menu of solutions to more efficiently and sustainably feed a burgeoning global population that may reach 10 billion by 2050 - dealing with food inequality while reducing emissions from agriculture.

An interesting rumination on elephant intelligence and possibly syntactical communications suggests not only a range of scientific investigations that might shed light on these at-least very bright animals, but possibly offer ways to help them. At the end, the author suggests a kind of “uplift.” Not through genetic meddling but by offering herd matriarchs simple ways to record their wisdom, and thus begin an early version of our own revolution that began with oral storytelling and then accelerated through literacy.  By the way, in some recent stories (See INSISTENCE OF VISION) I portray uplifted “elepents” who are also the most likely candidates for Earth creatures adaptable to live in space.

On a similar notion, the Zoolingua project aims to develop methods to foster communications between humans and varied animal species… with a starting emphasis on dogs.  (I am peripherally involved.)

Scientists created spiral-shaped robots small enough to pass through the dense jelly known as the vitreous humor that makes up most of the eyeball. The researchers added a slippery coating and magnetic materials so they could propel the microbots through the eye using a magnetic field.  Imaging showed the swarm successfully reached the retina in less than 30 minutes, about 10 times faster than letting similar-size particles diffuse through the eye.

==And other marvels ==

bionic lens that could lead to better than 20-20 vision - over a range of distances.

Heavy-duty lifeguard drones are now helping to rescue swimmers and others in danger at beaches and at sea.  

Saturday, December 08, 2018

We can't own information

A cogent and interesting article from Forbes - Privacy is Not a Property Right in Personal Information - examines the well-intentioned “privacy reforms” implemented to some degree in Europe and pushed in the U.S., that would grant individuals “ownership of their own data,” plus the right of portability, to choose where it is to be stored and used.

As the author – Mark McCarthy - shows, this is a well-motivated… and utterly stupid approach to addressing a very real problem. The age-old problem of asymmetry of informational power, with elites like the rich or corporations almost-inevitably absorbing every bit and byte and fact about us, to use as they wish.

Look, I absolutely share that fear! It is why I wrote TheTransparent Society, because there are potential solutions, using the very same technique that has already worked increasingly well for 200 years. In contrast, the “data ownership” proponents cannot point to a single time in the history of our species when the citizens of a commonwealth commanded their elites “don’t look-at or know about me!” with even a scintilla of success. Again, that never happened. Because it cannot possibly work.

I’ve been dealing with this “don’t look!” fetish for 25 years, and they never learn. Ten years ago there were howls to banish and make illegal face recognition systems! And if that sounds quaint, well, talk of that vague “reform” is back, alas: It’s time to regulate facial recognition and affect recognition,” says Kate Crawford, a researcher at Microsoft. And yes, every worry should be considered. Yet, talk of curbing such technologies never forces the tide to go back out. Nor will any restrictions hamper elites, in the slightest. 

There is an alternative approach, the one responsible for all our freedom and progress. And it is always considered last.

In The Transparent Society I point out that all our great, positive-sum “arenas” - like markets, democracy, science and justice - thrive amid openness and light, but wither when shadows prevail. Forbidding others to know things is inherently aggressive and threatening, especially when they might view you as one of the dangerous elites they worry about.

And sure, I avow that yes, letting the mighty simply vacuum up everything about us, while they get to do mysterious things with our information, benefiting or even conspiring… heck, that’s a sure-fire path to Big Brother. So what's to be done?

There are some approaches that might work! Say, if hundreds of thousands of citizens were to pool their data rights in ways that could exert group efficiencies and group market power. This is simply an extrapolation of the greatest social innovation of the 2nd half of the 20th Century, the NGO. So we already know something like it could work.

Even more cogent is the suggestion by Jaron Lanier that we should not so much own our information -- creating a mythical and preposterous notion that you can exclude others from ever touching it -- as retain strong interests in it. A right to get feedback data on how it is being used, by whom, and to get paid micro-royalties if some corporation or elite entity benefits from using it.

But the fundamental remains the same. We are not made safe by hiding from power! It never worked and it won’t work in the future.

What gave us this window of freedom was not preventing surveillance, but insisting on sousveillance… looking back at power. Stripping the mighty naked, so we can supervise. Because it matters much less what they can know about you than what they can do to you!

And – as we have learned on the streets with our cell-cameras -- the only and best way to control what others – even the police – do to you is to let them know that even the watchmen are being watched.

== The Crux ==

How do you "own" something that -- when it (inevitably!) leaks -- can be infinitely duplicated at zero cost?

Is the word "ownership" even remotely applicable?

Even "control"?

Well, Tim Berners-Lee has some credibility... and he claims that a new online realm called "Solid" will resonate with the global community of developers, hackers, and internet activists who bristle over corporate and government control of the web. “On Solid, all the information is under (the user's) control. Every bit of data he creates or adds on Solid exists within a Solid pod–which is an acronym for personal online data store. These pods are what give Solid users control over their applications and information on the web. Anyone using the platform will get a Solid identity and Solid pod. This is how people, Berners-Lee says, will take back the power of the web from corporations.”

Um, while I’d love to be proved wrong, I remain boggled that folks believe there aren’t ten thousand ways for our information to leak through every such promise, if not through spychips in your Alexa or Charlie… or keyboard... or copy-plus-interpolation of every datum entering or leaving Solid. Go ahead and make that world! I’m concerned about the Olympian realms that elites are making for themselves. And dig it, they are likely to make much better use of secrecy protection methods than you ever will.

== News from the Transparency Front ==

Microsoft intends to develop two blockchain products designed to give consumers greater control of their personal data. One is an encrypted personal data store, or "identity hub," a combination of a user's personal devices and cloud storage; their permission would be required for third parties to access it. Also a "wallet-like app" that people could use, among other purposes, to manage these permissions to their data, including the ability to revoke them when desired. Decentralized identifiers (DIDs) do not require a central authority because they are registered on a distributed ledger. IBM, Accenture and RSA are working on similar concepts.

Fine. Go ahead and try. There may come a first time - in the history of our species - when a general approach to equalizing power via concealment will work.

Microsoft also aims at a system to allow a high volume of low-value payments, perhaps like the micropayments systems I have been pushing for almost a decade, which would then have the potential to smooth our commerce, save journalism empower creatives and finally end the era of domination of the Internet by advertising. Here's a good goal.

In a related development San Diego startup LunaDNA, which aims to create a community-owned database of donated genetic/health information for medical research, has filed with securities regulators to issue shares to people who provide their data, building  a credit union like co-op around an anonymous genomic and health database. People who donate their DNA/health data would get shares based on the value of the data, which LunaDNA calculates based on current market value. For example, a full human genome nets 300 shares.Three weeks of fitness/nutrition data gets two shares. "If LunaDNA ever makes money from fees charged to researchers who tap into the database or drug discovery royalties, shareholders would get dividends."

Another such venture is “” whose app would let peoplespecify how their medical data can and cannot be used. Pharmaceutical companies could potentially pay each user $10 a month for access to their data, Etwaru says. The drug companies would also pay for access.

Combine these developments and we move toward a world predicted slightly in Neal Stephenson's SNOWCRASH but more significantly in Web philosopher Jaron Lanier's notion about personal data. To date, there have been three notions about our information future. 

== Three Notions ==

Here are the three most common mythologies:

(1) We are spinning into a dystopian age when the mighty elites will know everything about us and the little gal and guy will be helpless pawns. Naturally, this is the future we see depicted in a lot of sci fi films and novels because dystopia makes drama trivially easy. Besides, this is clearly where a world mafia-oligarchy wants us to go, so some paranoia is justified!

 All decent folks who want to preserve freedom and individual opportunity rightly oppose this death mode for the Enlightenment. But in opposition, we've seen some pretty simplistic notions.

2) A wild west future of all information floating free and thus empowering the masses. Yes, at a very simplistic - and hence dumb - level, this conveys the notion of generalized accountability that I tout in The Transparent Society. Sure, I'd rather err on the side of everyone seeing! Because all our great enlightenment systems -- markets, democracy, science, justice courts and sports - all of them wither and die in fog or darkness. But the arguments in favor of transparency are more subtle than this. And yes, humans want some privacy and control. And any decent civilization will include those things.

3) Paternalistic walls. Alas, the vast majority of smart, sincere paladins fighting for freedom and rights and against the dystopian age almost all reflexively turn to demanding laws that restrict information flows. Supposedly empowering citizens to declare "you cannot know this about me!" Enshrining "ownership of my own information." 

It all sounds so positive and freedom-y, that no one -- certainly in Europe -- ever dares to respond: "Not only can that not possibly work, at any level, but it is exactly what elites and oligarchs want most -- walls, guarded by law and the state, within which they can connive and reach out to control." 

Alas, every last error that I just described can be found in well-meaning initiatives like this proposed "Internet Bill of Rights," which would have none of the intended benefits and a whirling myriad of horrific, unintended consequences. 

I mentioned Jaron Lanier's notion that merits repetition. It was not that we should own all information about ourselves, but that we should have strong interest in our data, and get to benefit from anyone who uses it... much in the way that patent laws weren't originally meant to prevent use of inventions, but to ensure the inventors got paid a fair share, so that sharing would make sense to them.

Which brings us back around to the stunningly foolish assertion that any kind of political agitation - or even law - can possibly thwart the arrival of easy-cheap face recognition. Again, the fear of sliding into an Orwellian surveillance/control state is genuine and terrifying! Alas, it is trivialized and lobotomized by those who think they can stymie the "surveillance" part, by howling at the mighty "don't look at us!" 

It is the "control" part that can still be prevented, via the method we used with increasing effectiveness for 200 years -- answering surveillance with sousveillance. 

== An Addendum... and Alert... on "war with Iran" ==

John Bolton and Mike Pompeo have long sought war with Iran. Now, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has repeated an earlier threat to block ships from leaving the Persian Gulf if the U.S. government continues to seek to block Iranian oil exports. Rouhani’s comments came a day after the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf on Monday, ending the longest period the U.S. had gone without an carrier in the Gulf over the past two decades.

Examine the pieces. The US Navy has been trying to ramp down tensions in the gulf, and especially to keep its most valuable assets out of a friction zone and potential death trap. ALso especially since the Persian Gulf is a lot less important to us, now that the U.S. has achieved effective energy independence. We shouldn't tuirn our backs on the region. On the other hand, it is an opportunity to stop being in reflex-reactive mode, no longer letting that crazy realm control what we do.

Ah, but our professionals have (alas) insane bosses. By clamping on the Iranian economy and ordering the USS Stennis into the gulf, Pompeo, Bolton and the Bannonites are setting a stage for what the Saudis and Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu all desperately need, an international distraction from their own mounting troubles. 

A “Tonkin/Reichstag/Gleiwitz/Sarajevo/Remember-the-Maine” “Incident” (look them all up!) is something that our professionals in the military/intel/diplomatic corps have skillfully forestalled, till now. But for how much longer? 

Especially when even the Iranian mullahs would benefit from a brief, colorful, pippety-poppety “tomahawk war” that does no major harm, but gives them an excuse to clamp down on their own millions of young liberals? 

Of course, the top winner of such a dog-wag is blatantly obvious. Only one man can possibly rake in all the marbles… when V. Putin steps up to spread the Russian umbrella and “protect our neighbor.” At which point Russia gets the Persian satrapy it has sought for 300 years. Thanks to Vlad’s agents in the White House.