Saturday, January 28, 2012

Existence, a Confident Internet, Smarter People... and Dolphins!

loyalWant a glimpse of my new novel EXISTENCE? In a manner similar to EARTH, I offer many brief glimpses into the world of 2050, between chapters of a fast-paced adventure and the strangest alien first contact ever. Now the  Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. has posted a sample - a couple of those between chapter glimpse interludes, focusing on one question... how can we be sure to make our new AI offspring both sane and loyal to humanity, as a whole?

The same site has republished a more colorful version of my essay on “Who Wants Immortality?

While we’re on the subject. Do you know a fair-sized group that might want me to speak for them when I go on a book tour for EXISTENCE in June?  Cities included for sure will be Seattle, Portland OR, the SF Bay Area, and LA.  Other possibilities - New York, Boston etc, if there’s enough interest, plus points in between. Have a look at a list of the public talks I’ve given over the last few years (and go to the bottom for the happy testimonials!)

Osiame Molefe a young columnist at South Africa's Daily Maverick, wrote passionately about the need for moderate grownups within the ruling African National Congress to stand up for good government against radical leaders setting up "feudal fiefdoms." In making his case, Mr. Molefe cites and quotes extensively from my novel The Postman, suggesting that, in the long run, the only thing that matters is normal men and women standing up, as citizens, and taking responsibility.

== Toward a Confident, Scientific Civilization ==

A report titled the "The Competitiveness and Innovative Capacity of the United States," warns in stark terms that "some elements of the U.S. economy are losing their competitive edge."  A restored emphasis on science and technology is a major part of any solution.

Meanwhile, a compilation of public opinion polls commissioned by Research!America, demonstrates increasing public support for research and innovation to improve health, create jobs and boost the economy.

How best to nurture positive attitudes?  Rob Sawyer delivers a
starwarsontrialwonderful online appraisal of the importance of science fiction, especially in mass media, as a way to experiment with ideas and comment on social dilemmas. In the course of this amazingly cogent performance, Rob reaches at a conclusion very similar to mine... that much of this transformative power has been frittered and ruined by the pablum mentality toward science fiction that was engendered by Star Wars.  His critique is a bit different, yet related to my own in Star Wars on Trial - and my earlier Salon Magazine article - about how George Lucas’s cycle wound up betraying the world’s most daring and exciting and progressive storytelling genre. And undermining a civilization that’s been very very good to all of us. Including George Lucas.

== And Up With Science Fiction! ==

Also joining the fight for the good stuff... famed author and literary lion Ursula K. LeGuin stood up for her home genre of science fiction with a roar: “To define science fiction as a purely commercial category of fiction, inherently trashy, having nothing to do with literature, is a tall order. It involves both denying that any work of science fiction can have literary merit, and maintaining that any book of literary merit that uses the tropes of science fiction (such as Brave New World, or 1984, or The Handmaid’s Tale, or most of the works of J.G. Ballard) is not science fiction. This definition-by-negation leads to remarkable mental gymnastics.” Good for her.

And the British Library is holding an exquisite exhibition on the history of Science Fiction Literature, through September.  I would love to attend.  Look at this excellent video about the event, featuring the erudite China Miéville.

See an "exam" for would-be fantasy novelists. If you answer "yes" to even one of the 69 cliches, then sorry. You're great epic isn't original and groundbreaking.  It is derivative copycatting hackwork.  I think #4 is a little unfair and too broad... but it does serve up a warning to do it in a new way. On the one hand, many of the cliches fit Joseph Campbell's storytelling prescription.  On the other hand, Campbell sucks. While reading (and chuckling) note how many of these howlers are core elements of Star Wars!

A thought-provoking essay by Brad Torgerson about why fantasy has taken off while science fiction book sales may have languished.  On the other hand, many publishers report that this trend may have stalled at last.  Now, if only a top author of great sci fi would come back in out of the cold with a huge-hit, best-selling book-o- wonder!

== Is Internet Freedom Endangered? ==

The short answer? Always.

More specifically, I’ve been asked my opinion, as “Mr. Transparency,” about the Stop Online Piracy Act or SOPA.  Naturally, I opposed this absurd over-reach that portended to strangle internet freedom by putting unsupportable burdens on carriers and linkers to information.  And yet, my stance is not relexive but reflective and I hope that you, too, will ponder the complexity we must navigate.

The Internet carries a lot of illicit copyrighted information. My books appear on several pirate sites and, for the record, I ask that they stop; I got kids in college.) Yet -- Julian Sanchez argues the overall economic impact of online piracy has been wildly inflated – the most pirated movies also tend to be top at both box office & DVD sales. The most impacted industries (music, movies, books) have outperformed the overall U.S. economy lately. So should we yawn? It's complex. Without IP, the US could never afford to lift the world by buying goods. (Hence overseas IP thieves are cutting their own throats.) And IP was an innovation to foster openness.  Want a return to rampant trade secrecy? OTOH - SOPA would have strangled internet freedom. We need to be thoughtful, not reflexive.

== Fascinating Miscellany ==

See an amazing list of predictions made 100 years ago by a very savvy writer, amazingly on-target. Especially since the heady optimism of 1911 hit a hard wall in 1914. Still, call out the predictions registry!  Oh... There is one last peculiarity to Watkins’ article. Every one of his predictions involved an improvement in the lives of Americans. He saw only positive change in the new century.  Note this as an artifact of 1911... before the Titanic and before the calamities of 1914 smashed optimism like a bug.  Will we ever get it back?

Have a look at this Kickstarter project... to create a “sousveillance App” for android smartphones called Help! Turn it on and you transmit a live audio and video stream to a safe place till you shut it off.  If the feed is interrupted by damage or power failure or interference, an email goes to your contact person offering the stored feed up till the moment it was lost.  Use it for alibis, in cases of danger or just to record that encounter with authority.  (If you sign up, say I sent you!)

Amazing! A couple of very beautiful astronomical perspectives. The Known Universe and Hubble Ultra Deep Field 3D.

Kanzi, a fun-loving male bonobo, has figured out how to cook his food with fire and even to light fires with matches.  All right, that’s halfway uplifted.  Shall we finish the job?  Ah Fiben Bolger was my best character ever!

“War Correspondent”  or “WarCo” is a first-person-shooter game in development in which the player holds a camera instead of a weapon, gaining points not only for surviving and filming the most dramatic and dangerous moments, but also for followup interviews and report editing.  An altogether amazingly cool notion.  It leverages against ideas that resonate with my own The Transparent Society ... and with Peter Gabriel’s Project Witness. And, like PORTAL, it's just plain more moral and wholesome for kids & others, even though it is set amid adrenaline-pumping, gun-blazing combat. I can’t wait to offer it to my son and to try it myself.  And to offer my support.

Catch a fascinating/fun artistic recapitulation of the rise of human civilization... and then (in the eyes of this comet expert) the highlight of a worrisome encounter with a comet!  Deep-down - all the way to the symbolism of human “seeds” crossing the cosmos - it is a love-ode to human ingenuity and unquenchable zest to survive and persevere.

See a cogent, well-written and unabashedly transhumanist article by Valkyrie Ice about the future of graphene computing (that may accelerate Moore’s Law), the home-fab revolution, and... sexbots. Published on Accelor8or

Brazil has undergone a demographic shift so dramatic that it has astonished social scientists. Over the past 50 years, the fertility rate has tumbled from six children per woman on average to fewer than two — and is now lower than in the United States. This may be of cosmic importance.  Yes, cosmic. Because Malthus may be more correct on other planets than he has been for us. A fluke in human nature has meant that everywhere women get health, freedom, prosperity and hope, the vast majority choose small families. This seems counter -darwinian! It may also save us all, giving us time to repair and save the world and cross the danger gap into star-traveling levels of wisdom. Might most other races get trapped into overpopulation busts, as portrayed in 1960s sci-fi and gloom books? Might this explain the Fermi Paradox of missing starfarers? In fact, it may not last more than a couple generations, so let's use this breather well.

Dolphins have been using iPads, so it’s really about time our primate cousins adopted the technology: Orangutans use iPads to video chat with Friends in other zoos! Now the big questions.  Will this help to reduce ennui at the zoo? Or to nail down simian and cetacean intelligence? Will this help to sell scientists and the public on Uplift? Will the orangs use Face Time to organize their own Simian Spring?  And does this qualify as one for the Predictions Registry?

We seem to be getting amazingly close to the $100 laptop (or pad) per child.

100 Skills Every Man Should Know: The Instructions (With Videos!) - from Popular Mechanics

== SCIENCE BLIPS! ==

Americans think science will save the economy!

Technology addiction: evolution or enslavement?

9 amazing exoplanets

UCSD researchers have been developing fascinating devices that can self-propel, even though they are microns in size. The latest use tiny self-propelled rocket motors that can zip around an acidic environment, like the human stomach, without the need for any external fuel.  I’ve met these guys.  Amazing stuff.

The European Southern Observatory's plan to begin construction of the world's largest telescope — the European Extremely Large Telescope — will take a big step forward; its primary mirror will be a staggering 138 feet (42 meters) wide. For comparison, the Keck Observatory in Hawaii has a mirror that measures 33 feet (10 meters) wide. But don’t count out the yanks, -- Caltech (my alma mater) leads a consortium to put an almost equally prodigious 30 meter device on Maua Kea in Hawaii.

ResearchGate is a new social network for scientists.  One grasps what they intended the name to mean.  But that secondary implied meaning does sound worrisome!

Visit your travel agent to book a flight to space!

What mystifies Dr. Hawking? Women are a mystery, he says.

Check out a lovely little epiphany... an optimistic (super!) look at the next 40 years, written by someone who hasn't had the joyful spirit of ambition snuffed by grouches of right and left.

Meteor in Titan’s atmosphere?

From fussilli to quadrefiori: The complex mathematics and geometry of pasta

One of many interesting series podcasts about science developments may be the Sentient Developments site of my friend George Dvorsky.  Give it a listen!

==Can We Get Smarter? ==

I won’t be the first... but... transcranial direct current stimulation or TDCS, can be used to improve language and maths abilities, memory, problem solving, attention, even movement.  “"You require effort and hard work to learn. It is just that you get more out of your effort. And because it is cheap, low tech, easily affordable, it could be widely available. This addresses the objection that it will introduce inequality and unfairness. It could be available and should be available to all, if it is safe and effective."

Another possibility? Optimum intervals  to pulse serotonin to maximize a protein that seems to be involved in memory? The optimal protocol, it turned out, was not the usual, even-spaced one, but an irregular series of two serotonin pulses emitted 10 minutes apart, then one five minutes later, with a final spritz 30 minutes afterward. With this regimen, interaction between the two enzymes rose by 50 percent—an indication that the learning process was operating more efficiently. Very preliminary, but suggests steady but irregular learning may be better than cramming! Read the article in Scientific American.

Well, we’ll see.  Humanity could sure use a “brain wave” style boost, across the board! Still, wait a bit.

Yes... well... watch out for things that sound too good!  The web site “ Sci- ənce! ” offers “red flags of quackery” ... related to many familiar “logical fallacies.”

Oh but this one is obvious! Chewing gum before a test - does it increase brain function?  Too bad it makes you LOOK stupider.

== Dolphins Triumphant! ==

Speaking of smarter-than human.... Many species interact in the wild, most often as predator and prey. But recent encounters between humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins reveal a playful side to interspecies interaction. In two different locations in Hawaii, scientists watched as dolphins “rode” the heads of whales: the whales lifted the dolphins up and out of the water, and then the dolphins slid back down.

But this is even better. Quick! To the Predictions Registry! Dolphins are skilled at imitating sounds they hear. But they occasionally store away sounds to practice much later, at night when they are alone... possibly while sleeping and dreaming. French water park workers included whale songs in the music background of a show. Then... at night... when the dolphins were half-brain sleeping... they seemed to drift into recapitulations of the themes in the whale song --

-- very much like I portrayed Captain Creideiki doing, in Startide Rising!  Someone log that as a “hit”?

Ah, but do they already know about this sonar-sighted object under the Baltic, the size of a jumbo ject... isn’t it shaped like the Millennium Falcon? Could it... could it...  could it be....

... a great big practical joke?  Oooooh those dolphins!

Friday, January 20, 2012

David Brin's List of "Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy Tales"

Many folks have created tallies of favorite Science Fiction novels.  I've already weighed in with my Top SF for Young Adults and my Top Ten list. For more insight into Science Fiction, see also these essays: A Comparison of Science Fiction vs. Fantasy and How to Define Science Fiction.

But now let's try something much more ambitious -- a bigger, broader reading compilation.  This is still just a sampler - for something comprehensive, see the Science Fiction Encyclopedia or the user-friendly Worlds Without End. But any person who has read all the books and stories and authors noted here (and I admit they are heavy on "classics") can come away with bragging rights to say: "I know something about science fiction."

For this list I divide the novels authors and stories in my own quirky manner, according to categories...

* DIRE WARNINGS AND SELF PREVENTING PROPHECIES:

These novels and shorter works have drawn millions to ponder many different kinds of danger that may lurk down the road ahead. Among our possible tomorrows, so many might be dreadful-but-avoidable - from tyranny to ecological deterioration to some tragic failure of citizenship.  A few of these books even attained the most powerful status any work of fiction can achieve ... changing the future, by alerting millions, who then girded themselves, discussing the problem with neighbors, becoming active, vowing to help ensure the bad thing never happens.

The following examples of self-preventing prophecy stand out. All of them help us focus on something that we may desperately miss, if it were ever gone

Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell.
The Sheep Look Up, by John Brunner
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Make Room! Make Room!  by Harry Harrison (basis for the film Soylent Green)
Brave New World,  by Aldous Huxley
"Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
On The Beach, by Nevil Shute
We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin
The Cool War, by Frederik Pohl
The Disappearance, by Philip Wylie
Flood, by Stephen Baxter
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Unincorporated Man, by Dani Kollin & Eytan Kollin

... plus almost anything by Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree Jr.), or Nancy Kress or Octavia Butler... I leave it to others to decide whether my own apocalyptic warning novel, The Postman. belongs on this list.

* HARBINGERS OF HOPE:

These tales offer something almost as important as warnings... a tantalyzing glimpse at (guardedly and tentatively) better tomorrows. It's actually much harder to do than issuing dire warnings! (That may be why there's so little optimism in print. Most authors and directors are simply too lazy.)

Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner
Beyond This Horizon, by Robert A. Heinlein*
Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge
Consider Phlebas,  by Iain Banks (and his Culture Series)
The Golden Age, by John C. Wright
Island, by Aldous Huxley
Pacific Edge, by Kim Stanley Robinson

... plus the entire sub-genre known as Star Trek, among the few places where you come away feeling envious of our grandkids - the way things ought to be....

* HUH! I NEVER REALIZED!

Some tales simply rock readers back with wondrous stories that also broaden their perspective... from strange cultures to alternate social systems to unusual ways of thinking.

Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny
Dune, by Frank Herbert
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
Courtship Rite, by Donald Kingsbury
The Years of Rice and Salt,  by Kim Stanley Robinson
A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

...plus the "Nine Worlds" series of John Varley and the brain-twistings of  Samuel Delaney...

* THE HARD STUFF:

Take me someplace new.  Boggle me with possibilities grounded in this strange-real universe of science! Almost anything by these authors will give you tons of the real meat of SF.

Timescape, by Gregory Benford
Eon, by Greg Bear
The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov
FlashForward, by Robert Sawyer
Tau Zero, by Poul Anderson
Ringworld, by Larry Niven
Diaspora or Quarantine, by Greg Egan
To Crush the Moon, by Wil McCarthy
Vast, by Linda Nagata
Anti-Ice, by Stephen Baxter
The Web Between the Worlds by Charles Sheffield
Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson

... plus many works by Joe Haldeman, John Varley, Elizabeth Bear, Charles Gannon, Jack McDevitt....

* FANTASY - WITH BRAINS:

Just because there's magic and wizards and kings and such...  doesn't mean it has to be lobotomizing.  There really are exceptions!

The Drawing of the Dark, by Tim Powers
The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien (yes, there are Elfs. But JRRT was exceptionally smart and honest about the attractions and  drawbacks of nostalgia)
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, by Eliezer Yudkowsky (only available for free, online)
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
The City and The City, by China Mieville
Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

... plus "urban" fantasies by Emma Bull, Nalo Hopkinson, Geoff Ryman...

*GEDANKENEXPERIMENTS: 

Or... what if things were different?

The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
Dying Inside, by Robert Silverberg
Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke
Brain Wave, by Poul Anderson
The Yiddish Policeman's Union, by Michael Chabon
BlindSight, by Peter Watts

*RIP-SNORTING GOOD STORYTELLING:
 

Explains itself. Just go along for the ride.

The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
Gateway, by Frederick Pohl
The Mote in God's Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Old Man's War, by John Scalzi
The Great Time Machine Hoax or Earthblood, by Keith Laumer
The Princess Bride, by William Goldman

... plus anything at all by Poul Anderson.  I mean it.

*ALTERNATIVE HISTORY/PARALLEL WORLDS:


Extra points if it seems plausible that this might-have-been really might have been. And even more points if the reader goes, "That world seems likelier than this one I'm living in!"

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
1632, by Eric Flint
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
The Great War (series)   by Harry Turtledove
Bring the Jubilee, Ward W. Moore
Lest Darkness Fall, by L. Sprague deCamp


*TIME TRAVEL:

Here the biggest test is whether you can offer a new or surprising logical twist. Bring on them paradoxes!

The Man Who Folded Himself, by David Gerrold
Up the Line, by Robert Silverberg
Run, Come See Jerusalem, by Richard Meredith
The Big Time, by Fritz Leiber
Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
The Technicolor Time Machine, by Harry Harrison
"All You Zombies" and "By His Bootstraps" by Robert A. Heinlein

* HUMOR:

The hardest thing of all to do well.   Someday I might dare to try this most-difficult type!

The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
Bored of the Rings, A Parody of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, by the Harvard Lampoon
Hoka! Hoka! Hoka! by Poul Anderson and Gordon Dickson
The Colour of Magic, by Terry Pratchett
"Blued Moon" in Fire Watch, by Connie Willis

... plus snorkers by Esther Freisner and groaners by Mike Resnick.
.
* SHEER BEAUTY:

Forget science, logic and other superficialities.  Just love it.  The words... the words...

The Martian Chronicles,  by Ray Bradbury
Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
Riddley Walker, by Russel Hoban
Hyperion, by Dan Simmons
The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolf
The Rediscovery of Men, by Cordwainer Smith
More than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon
"'Repent Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" by Harlan Ellison

...plus anything by Robert Sheckley (one of my all time favorite authors).


* QUIRKY CLASSICS: 

Going farther back ... hey it's a kind of time travel!


The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne
Last and First Men, by Olaf Stapledon
Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, by Aldous Huxley
The World, The Flesh, and the Devil by JD Bernal
When Worlds Collide, by Balmer & Wylie

...plus... well... you aren't truly steeped in the genre till you've wallowed in Doc Smith and Edgar Rice Burroughs.. and Conan!

* PREDICTIVE SUCCESS!

We SF authors often disclaim any intent to foretell the future.  We explore it, test possibilities, perform gedankenexperiments, even warn or entice.  But predict?  Well, at times we do try... and even keep score! My fans maintain a wiki tracking hits and misses from my most predictive near-term book to date - Earth. Here are some looks-ahead that have been impressively on-target.

Shockwave Rider, by John Brunner
Beyond This Horizon, by Robert A. Heinlein*
"The Brick Moon" by E. E. Hale (1865)
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
Age of the Pussyfoot, by Frederick Pohl

...plus at least half of the tales ever written by Jules Verne!

* BEST FOR YOUNG ADULTS AND KIDS:

Or for those young at heart. (See my separate list of Young Adult Recommendations.)

Rite of Passage, by Alexei Panshin
Little Fuzzy, by H. Beam Piper
The Door into Summer, by Robert A. Heinlein
The High Crusade, by Poul Anderson
A Spell for Chameleon, by Piers Anthony
Orbital Resonance, by John Barnes
The Chanur Saga, by C.J. Cherryh
The Ship Who Sang, by Anne McCaffrey
The Disappearance, by Philip Wylie
Pilgrimage, by Zenna Henderson
Emergence, by David Palmer
Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow
Leviathan, by Scott Westerfield

... plus anything by Andre Norton, H. Beam Piper...  and check out my Out of Time series!

*BRIGHT YOUNG AUTHORS:

Wool, by Hugh Howey
Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett

* OTHER WORTHY AUTHORS:  Try some on!

Accelerando_(book_cover)Charles Stross, Kay Kenyon, Syne Mitchell. Paul McAuley, Howard Hendrix, Charles Gannon,... but also explore on your own!

 *AND SF ISN'T JUST ANGLO-AMERICAN
International contributions to this genre are undeniable. Indeed, it would be churlishly socio-centric to ignore great titles like Roadside Picnic (Arkady and Boris Strugatsky), The Cyberiad (Stanislaw Lem), The Paper Spaceship (Tetsu Yano), The Three Body Problem (by Liu Cixin) and Japan Sinks (by my Worldcon co-GoH Sakyo Komatsu).  In fact, this is a whole 'nother category deserving a whole 'nother list! And your suggestions are welcome.
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ScienceFictionYoungAdultListOkay... that will have to do.  Eccentric and opinionated and far from comprehensive, this is hardly more than a sampling and a biased one too. Yes, there are a fair number of older classics, but also a sampling of marvelous works by new, upcoming authors.

(Note: surely there will be many suggested titles pushed in followup discussion!)

Still, I am confident that if you went thoroughly through this list, you'd at least have made a good start getting a taste of the boldness, the excitement, the intellectual verve and challenging ideas to be found in this, the most unabashed and courageous of all literary forms.

* Regarding Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon, it is in the thoughtful second half of the book that you get amazingly insightful ruminations about what a smarter human civilization might be like. This requires wading through a much more pedestrian and even silly "action" half. But it's worth the effort.


See more Speculations on Science Fiction


David Brin


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