Sunday, July 14, 2019

Science fictional news and musings

First, science fictiony musings about our next creative step, in the guise of science: All sorts of famous folks - and then also me - give 13 quotes about the future of AI. And yes, mine was the only one that offered - instead of a pablum warning or reassurance - an actionable recommendation that could make a difference. (Alas, could have done without the exclamation points!)

== So much new in science fiction, starting with.... ==

A new anthology: Alternative Theologies: Parables for a Modern WorldI have an essay in this one, along with David Gerrold and Jim Wright. And there are cool stories by Resnick, Yolen and others, having fun with... well... impudent re-examinings of age old assumptions.

A wide-ranging interview recorded during our recent appearance at BayCon, the wonderful SF Bay-area science fiction convention (which broke all attendance records) - Fanboy Planet Podcast Episode 550. Many topics were covered: like the role of prediction in science fiction and how its methods are spreading through society. And how the greatest social invention of the last 70 years - the NGO - lets a middle class person like you amplify power on a plane with governments and elites! And novels and stories and more fun.

I am weirdly on two lists. Top Ten End of the World novels, from Ballard's The Drowned World to Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. And my own EARTH makes the compilation… though it’s overall optimistic about averting the End. (The Guardian.) 

Zoe Saylor’s list of seven science fiction tales that offer a little hope includes another of mine that is post-apocalyptic! Guess whichone. Yes, I see their point, in each case! And I choose to interpret it to mean I am … not preachy but nuanced!

By the way, this handsome, signed Easton Press edition of The Postman is really gorgeous and a good deal… and it’s almost sold out. (I’m signing pages now for a whole fresh printing.) 

Question, is anyone interested in a hardcover of my one novel that never had one, Sundiver? We'll be re-releasing the ebook of Sundiver soon. 

== Science fiction, new and bold ==

Battlefront, the fourth and final volume of Jeff Carlson’s Europa Series has been published. It is available now on Amazon as an eBook and the paperback version, as well. Jeff’s manuscript for Battlefront was nearly complete at the time of his death in July 2017, and the final editing and assembly was done by his father, Gus Carlson. 

At the time of Jeff's terrible passing, I was just finishing my polish of our shared project: NEW MOJAVE, the sequel to my YA novel SKY HORIZON, both of them part of the COLONY HIGH series. And how I regret Jeff didn't get a chance to see it. I will persevere until it gets published.

Meanwhile, Get Jeff Carlson's EUROPA Series! Such adventure.

Innovative and highly with-it, The Black Box by Jennifer Egan consists of a series of twitter-length observational statements that nevertheless convey setting, character, action, dialogue and perception extremely well. The kind of sparseness and efficiency of conveyance that I teach my students can be seen in these two ways, early in the story: 
“If your Designated Mate is widely feared, the beauties at the house party where you’ve gone undercover to meet him will be especially kind." 
“Kindness feels good, even when it’s based on a false notion of your identity and purpose.”

 It is also a way-cool and tense spy story, with terrific science fictional elements, plus a stirring view of citizen resilience that may slip by most readers, but not those of you who hang around here. It’s in a ‘tense’ that I can only call second-person-mentor, straddling present and future, delivering vivid action amid advice-observations for an amateur secret agent. Heinlein showed us how to do this, establishing point of view through a character’s observations and especially what she/he takes for granted. But this efficiency is even better.

== More items... ==

An excellent BBC article about one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time – John Brunner’s 1968 Stand on Zanzibar. Often lauded for its agile, content-rich, multi point-of-view style (I modeled EARTH after it) and for its long list of eerily on-target predictions, I am in fact most impressed with the novel’s masterful mixture of pertinent worry and tentative optimism, a rare gift in this era of simplistically dolorous-discouraging dystopias and finger-wagging moralizings. This writer cites many of Brunner’s accurate foretellings, leaving out the one so many remark upon… that he featured an African “President Obomi” (cue Twilight Zone theme.)

Fun stuff! Some fans  worked with physicists and engineers on this infographic scaling a range of sci fi weapons!
Though this list left out the absurd super-ooper-dooper death star of "The Force Wakens," Which shot a beam across the whole galaxy in an instant destroying the entire Republic (a million worlds) in one plot simplifying cheat-minute! Then there's the Gravity Lasers in my novel EARTH, which use coherent beams from the core and mantle to lift ships and an island or two.

A wonderful analysis and trip down memory lane! Charlie Jane Anders surveys one of the great SF universes, the Hainish series by my former teacher, Ursula LeGuin, truly a visionary pioneer who was recognized early by our wonderfully expansive field... as was Charlie Jane Anders! Treasures.

A terrific and empathic story about an uplifted chimp detective by Rich Larson, an up-and-coming SF star - author of Annex, The Violet Wars.

== Final Brin bits ==

Our fine/fun panel discussing Blade Runner - hosted by the UCSD library - was lively with insights and inside poop. It is now online via UCSD TV

And I was final judge for a fiction writing contest run by the DoD “Mad Scientist Lab” – the entries portrayed ground warfare in the future, some of them thoughtfully and with some nuance, as well as technological vision. This page also includes several items of “advice to rising writers of SF.” Like how to establish point of view and how to make that first paragraph work for you.


scidata said...

Oh good, an Ursula LeGuin acquaintance. A question.

I do a lot of computer cluster automation (mainly for astronomy, biology and my own computational psychohistory sandbox). I use a tool called 'Ansible' (from Red Hat). It allows vast computational resources to be controlled and fed from one console.
I am totally unappreciated in my time! We can run the whole park from this room, with minimal staff, for up to three days. You think that kind of automation is easy? Or cheap? You know anybody who can network eight Connection Machines and de-bug two million lines of code for what I bid this job? Because I'd sure as hell like to see them try!
- Dennis, "Jurassic Park"

Anyway, I get a lot of guff from "Ender's Game" fans who insist that the name 'Ansible' was coined by Orson Scott Card. It is basically a sub-space transceiver. I believe it was indeed Ms. LeGuin in her debut novel, "Rocannon's World". Please help to settle this. Did she ever mention the Ansible to you Dr. Brin?

Ursula K. Le Guin also had ties to anthropology going back to Franz Boas. Any stories would be great. I have anthropologists in my own family. Strange but wonderful people.

Re: Hardcover
I'm assembling a Brin collection but strictly e-books. I have no space (condo). The one hardcover volume I cannot part with is my gold-leaved, rock-solid "Foundation" trilogy. It's my bible.

Larry Hart said...


I'd re-think that "strictly e-books" thing. By coincidence or synchronicity, this article appeared in today's Chicago Tribune. The gist is that anyone's e-books can be removed from your device at any time--legally.

...You, me, them, everybody, own exactly zero of these books.

The reality of this was recently highlighted by the impending demise of the Microsoft Store books section, which stopped new sales in early April and will soon start removing the books from devices, never to be seen again.

Microsoft will be offering a refund for books purchased and an extra $25 if the copies were annotated or marked up, but this would be cold comfort to a scholar who went digital and planned on using those marked-up texts in a research project or course.

Writing at Wired, Brian Barrett calls it a Microsoft e-book “apocalypse” which may sound extreme, but isn’t wrong. The reason the story isn’t dominating news cycles is because it doesn’t seem as though very many people were buying books through Microsoft.

But imagine if something similar were happening with Amazon’s e-books, the retailer of choice for the vast majority of digital texts.


Amazon is seemingly unlikely to stop selling e-books — they make money on it, after all — but what if they get into an intractable dispute over pricing with a particular publisher, and as an act of leverage, not only stop selling the publisher’s wares in the store (as has happened temporarily in the past), but delete previously purchased copies from individual devices?


The reason is something called digital rights management, or DRM, which was the approach settled on to combat piracy (remember Napster?) but has now become a way for companies to wall you into their particular garden. It’s the reason why a Kindle book cannot be read on a Nook, and vice versa.

Under DRM, you are not buying a copy but a license, a license subject to whatever restrictions the company empowered to issue that license would like to set. I exaggerated a bit up the page: It’s possible you do own some of the digital books you’ve previously bought because some titles are sold without DRM protections, but my hunch is you have no idea which ones those are and probably didn’t pay any attention one way or another at the time of purchase.

Disappearing content has become normalized in the age of streaming content, a la Netflix or Spotify. We understand that what is present one day may not be there the next.

But are we prepared to accept the same conditions for books?


Bob Neinast said...

I wonder if you could manage to keep your e-books if you kept your device in a Faraday cage library room?

Larry Hart said...

@Bob Neinast,

I suppose it depends on whether the entire book is on your local device, or if you only get to read the thing by continually polling a site on the internet.

I'm thinking you could keep a book if you screenshot each page as you're reading it and save the screenshots. That's a bit of work, but in extremis (such as the article's reference to books whose owners inserted research annotations), it could be done.

The lesson to me is to think of an e-book as a library book rather than as a book that you own on your own shelf. If you want to possess, re-read, and/or refer back to the thing (comics collectors have come to call the actual books "artifacts"), then you'd better have it as an actual book.

David Brin said...

Scidata, Ursula indeed had an ansible in her first novel and Scott Card freely admits borrowing the term, which any of the EG fanatics could learn just by asking him. One of Scott’s many virtues is his accessibility to fans.

Of course it is one of his many faults that I write about most often re:” OSC. His absolute hatred of democracy, as expressed in EMPIRE, wherein he channels the chief villain - Patrick Lloyd - from the fine Netflix series “Designated Survivor.” Scott Card is this generation’s top promoter of the “ubermensch” mythos… the ancient and ongoing (and in his case religiously compulsory) notion that power should only be wielded by Nietzschean supermen, a belief pushed in most oldtimey (“Campbellian”) mythologies and in SF via Doc Smith, A.E. Van Vogt and George Lucas.

No institution can ever function. Voters and their elected delegates are all fools. Markets and accountability and science are all futile. And the only choice we can make is between which demigod to follow, pretty/soulful ones like Luke and Ender, or ugly/evil ones like Emperor Palpatine and the genocidal institutions of EG.

Oh, Scott is the most skillful propagandist of our generation. By making Ender soulful and regretful and guilt-ridden, he gets millions to actually believe that a demigod deserves all power… and that lesson is preached to every 7th grade student in America, assigned Ender’s Game in Jr High. And there’s nothing we can do about it except hope they also read about Ben Franklin, and the new way that Ben and his boys pointed to, leading out of millennia of wretched rule by delusional lords.

scidata said...

Thank you sir.

David Ivory said...

The UCTV link to the futurist's discussion of Bladerunner: -

Blade Runner 2019: Did Life Imitate Art? - 47 minutes

duncan cairncross said...


I'm sure that term pre-dates Ursula - Isn't it a "Golden Age" term? - I'm sure it features in some books from the 40's

I remember one series where the "squawk" as you switched on your receiver was actually composed of all messages that had been or would be sent - and it was forbidden to mention the death of an agent on the "ansible"

scidata said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
scidata said...

duncan cairncross: Isn't it [Ansible] a "Golden Age" term?

I would be fine with that. I wasn't trying to pay tribute to LeGuin (fascinating writer, but she once dissed Asimov) as much as to throw shade on "Ender's Game". It's compulsory reading in school up here in Canada too. I really did NOT like it (I read it with my youngest son). EG fans are an irritatingly strident lot.

Good Blade Runner talk.
"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe ... All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain."

scidata said...

An adapted excerpt from upcoming social physics book "Do Dice Play God?", discussing statistics, censuses, and Asimovian psychohistory.

Larry Hart said...

Apologies for the injection of politics, but this is too funny not to note:

@realDonaldTrump tweets:

So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly......

To which @HillaryClinton responds:

They're from America, and you're right about one thing: Currently their government is a complete and total catastrophe.

Darrell E said...

duncan cairncross said...

"I'm sure that term pre-dates Ursula - Isn't it a "Golden Age" term? - I'm sure it features in some books from the 40's

I remember one series where the "squawk" as you switched on your receiver was actually composed of all messages that had been or would be sent - and it was forbidden to mention the death of an agent on the "ansible""

I think that may have been from the Agent of Vega universe? Damn, can't quite remember.

A.F. Rey said...

Since the subject is SF works, I have a small question about your work, Dr. Brin. (Feel free to ignore me if you want.)

When you were starting out, about what percentage of the stories you wrote did you sell? And about what percentage do you sell now?

Just curious about how often ideas and stories pan out, even for a professional author.

Bob Neinast said...

I tried using Google's Ngram Viewer to find when "ansible" appeared. The only ones I found before Rocannan's World were OCR errors on "expansible" (or something similar).

A.F. Rey said...

For what it's worth, Wikipedia agrees that Ursula Le Guin coined the phrase "ansible."

The article also lists ten other authors that used the term.

David Brin said...

AFR, my first submission was my first novel SUNDIVER, which was picked up by the first publisher it went to.

Did I get later rejections? Of course! Still have a pretty good ratio, though. ;-)

Daniel Duffy said...

A short list of the accurate predictions from "Stand On Zanzibar"

(1) Random acts of violence by crazy individuals, often taking place at schools, plague society in Stand on Zanzibar.

(2) The other major source of instability and violence comes from terrorists, who are now a major threat to U.S. interests, and even manage to attack buildings within the United States.

(3) Prices have increased sixfold between 1960 and 2010 because of inflation. (The actual increase in U.S. prices during that period was sevenfold, but Brunner was close.)

(4) The most powerful U.S. rival is no longer the Soviet Union, but China. However, much of the competition between the U.S. and Asia is played out in economics, trade, and technology instead of overt warfare.

(5) Europeans have formed a union of nations to improve their economic prospects and influence on world affairs. In international issues, Britain tends to side with the U.S., but other countries in Europe are often critical of U.S. initiatives.

(6) Africa still trails far behind the rest of the world in economic development, and Israel remains the epicenter of tensions in the Middle East.

(7) Although some people still get married, many in the younger generation now prefer short-term hookups without long-term commitment.

(8) Gay and bisexual lifestyles have gone mainstream, and pharmaceuticals to improve sexual performance are widely used (and even advertised in the media).

(9) Many decades of affirmative action have brought blacks into positions of power, but racial tensions still simmer throughout society.

(10) Motor vehicles increasingly run on electric fuel cells. Honda (primarily known as a motorcycle manufacturers when Brunner wrote his book) is a major supplier, along with General Motors.

(11) Yet Detroit has not prospered, and is almost a ghost town because of all the shuttered factories. However. a new kind of music — with an uncanny resemblance to the actual Detroit techno movement of the 1990s — has sprung up in the city.

(12) TV news channels have now gone global via satellite.

matthew said...

I would gladly buy a hard cover of Sundiver. I like physical copies of the things I collect.

Alfred Differ said...

I'd buy a hard-cover Sundiver too... assuming the cover art was any good. 8)
…now that I've said that... and meant that...

(spill over from last thread)

The thing about ‘catallaxy’ isn’t that there are no shared goals. It would be more accurate to say the participants don’t share goals. Some goals might be shared. Some might not be.

If you and I belong to the same small community and we produce a small excess each year, the question becomes what to do with it. Do we send your kids to college or invest in an upgrade to the local mill? Once the ‘community’ is bigger than a band, it becomes less and less likely that we will agree on these decisions absent coercion. If goals aren’t shared, there is no economization because there is no well-defined fitness function. What I would use for such a function wouldn’t match what you would use, hence the need to recognize the difference between the environments in which planners are trying to solve the resource planning problem.

This isn’t just an economics thing. The distinction is one I use when reading fiction and non-fiction about people. If the writer says ‘society chose to do X’, I ask myself how many (what fraction) could reasonably be expected to share the goal that requires X? If the fraction isn’t large, would coercion have been necessary? For example, in Sundiver you had some explaining to do to make the case that some humans wouldn’t be interacting with any aliens. Some wouldn’t be breeding either. I didn’t know Hayek’s distinction at the time, but that’s how I think about plausibility today. Would humans have been willing to self-limit their interactions with aliens? Some, but probably not enough. Would coercion have been required? Yup. Would it have been supported by a large enough fraction of the civilization to have worked? Probably. The threat of being demoted to client status would have motivated many. So… plausible? I thought so at the time and still agree. Coherent support of shared goals would still be difficult to achieve… likely impossible… but an agreement to tolerate coercion among most of us would reduce the risks.

When an author loses me on the issue of plausibility, I’ll shift to labeling the work as ‘fantasy’ and might still enjoy it.

David Brin said...

DD... Brunner also showed environmental degradation and introduced us to "President Obomi." Though some reviewers innaccurately claim he was a US president instead of a small African nation.

Oh, and he said: "If we weren't spending so much on weapons, every home in America might have a SHalmannesar level computer." Who else in 1968 forecast home compuers? other than Fred Pohl. And "A Logic Called Joe."

Warner Belanger said...

For questions about science fiction terms (and anything else sci-fi), it's always a good idea to check the Enyclopedia of Science Fiction first: ansible. Le Guin first used it in a short story in 1964.

David Smelser said...


If I understand you correctly, your argument is that the problem isn't solvable because the problem isn't well defined and use the fact that people can't agree agree on a fitness function as evidence. I'm not convinced you need an agreed upon fitnes function. Why not just sum up the values from every's individual fitness functions?

Now if your argument is that you can't have a global fitness function because individuals don't know their own fitness function, I could agree to that. I've certainly experience the anticipated joy in getting something not matching the actual joy once I've acquired it.

Larry Hart said...

David Smelser:

I've certainly experience the anticipated joy in getting something not matching the actual joy once I've acquired it.

That could be the story of my life. :)

Dave Sim put it thusly, "Sometimes, you can get what you want and still not be very happy about it."

scidata said...

"After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but is often true"
- Spock (TOS "Amok Time")

A.F. Rey said...

Reminds me of an old joke from college...

A psychology professor enters the huge lecture hall for his Intro to Psych class with an important announcement. "I have come up with a brilliant new theory. Sex makes people happy!"

"And I will prove it in this very class. Everyone who has sex at least three times a week, stand up."

A group of students stand up. They are a jovial bunch: laughing, smiling, joking with their friends, wearing bright colors and the latest fashions.

"All right. Now everyone who has sex once a week, stand up."

Another group of students stand up. They are a more subdued group: serious, thoughtful, with concerned faces, wearing conservative clothing.

"Perfect. Now, those who have sex only once a month, stand up!"

Another group stands. They are a miserable-looking bunch: scowling, angry, wearing protest shirts and MAGA hats. They look like they'd like to see the world up and die, and take them with it.

"Yes!" said the professor. "And now, all of you who have sex only once a year, stand up!"

Only one guy in the back of the lecture hall stands. He is the happiest-looking person in the room: smiling, bouncing, laughing. The students around him are smiling just because he is near them. He radiates joy.

The professor leans over the lecture and glares at the student. "You realize, of course, that you have just ruined a perfectly good theory. WHY ARE YOU SO FREAKING HAPPY!"

The student somehow smiles even bigger than before.

"Tonight's the night."

(My apologies to everyone with a modicum of taste on this board. :) )

Alfred Differ said...

David Smelser,

Your paraphrasing is spot on. You even recognize the two ways we can fail to have a well-defined fitness function. There is the issue of not knowing what you want and there is the agreement problem. You are skeptical of the second piece, so I will address that.

If our contributions to a personal fitness function were strictly personal (affecting only the one person), I would agree that a sum of those functions would work globally in an environment where we know what we want. My fitness function is not localized to me, though. Yours is not either. We certainly have personal goals, but we also have social ones. In fact, we have goals at various spots on the range between personal and social. Mine cover my family, community, and employer before they reach the larger national, cultural, and civilization goals. Yours probably do too. Think on it a bit and you will see it is very easy for us to be in conflict somewhere along that continuum. I am a classical liberal and inclined to side with Libertarians. How much conflict over social goals am I in with Progressives represented just on this site? My wife leans strongly progressive, so there is some conflict at home too. Different, but it is real.

The lack of knowing of wants actually comes in two parts. There is the error component associated with buyer’s remorse. We have all experienced that. Some will argue this should not affect a good fitness function since all it really does is demonstrate explicit time dependence in the RPP being solved. I recognize the point made, but the problem solution involves humans. We have a tendency to argue that a solution is not a solution because the solver misunderstood the requirements when it is obvious to everyone else the misunderstanding was with the first person stating them. Since that first person can become a revolutionary and pick up a gun, it does not help to point out the academic error. 8)

There are also unknown unknowns that make it difficult to guess at how many dimensions are in the fitness function let alone the RPP. These unknowns mean the linear algebra problem is not defined. A simple kinematics problem involving a pendulum attached to a pulley can be solved if we know the pulley is allowed to vary the length of the pendulum, but if there are hidden effects like vibrations on the pulley’s axis we won’t account for them in the solution because we won’t know they are there… until after.

Study the RPP associated with most economic problems and you will see we need more than perfect knowledge of the present. We need perfect knowledge of the future delivered to the present. Since that will not happen absent Divine Intervention, we reduce to approximations. The shift we make from economy to cattalaxy IS one of those approximations. I do not need to know all your goals let alone share them IF we can agree on price. It sounds cold, but I do not have to care about your children as much as you do nor you mine. I can care in the abstract and then let markets work things out. I can shift my caring to a justice market instead, watch for cheaters in the first market, and agree with you on regulation goals. Abstractions like these are wonderfully powerful tools in a real world absent perfect knowledge.

scidata said...

Of course 'economy', 'cattalaxy', and 'psychohistory' are closely related terms. @Alfred Differ
Thanks for you previous thoughts on population as a driving force (in our discussion of robot ships). It has opened up several useful avenues for me.

Having said, that, I'm still preoccupied with individual empathy, 'syntonicity', mirror neurons, and the temporoparietal junction (TPJ). Any model that ignores this fundamentally human psychology is doomed to failure IMHO.

Due to the limitations you list above, there is little hope for deterministic (mathematical) models. Agent-based (computational) models are the way forward. "Reduce to approximations" is a profound philosophical concept. BTW, I see the UK is planning to put Alan Turing on the £50 banknote. Perhaps the Brits aren't completely de-evolving.

Alfred Differ said...


Psychohistory certainly enters the mix. It is the old dream of ‘scientific’ theory of history. Prediction should be possible, right? We do it all the time! We just need more computing power to get better initial information and process it, right? Pfft. Turns out not to be true and the economists proved it decades ago with respect to the economically equivalent dream. Look up the ‘socialist calculation debate’ and you will see how hard-core socialism was defeated academically. Modern socialists tend to recognize the need for price signals, but some idealists are still stuck unaware that Marxist academics actually gave up the point… and admitted it.

There might be a way to solve non-reduced RPP’s, but I am sure they would involve reduced humans. Peasants and serfs were kept in place through the forces of coercion by the Prince and domestication by the Priest. Reduce our liberty and RPP’s should be easier to solve. That is effectively what we do in extended families and small clans when a leader decides for everyone else. Your grandmother and her daughters might not make you a serf, but your ‘Don Corleone’ grandfather might. Well… maybe something closer to lower szlachta or Russia’s old ‘sevice nobility’ ensuring you do not feel like you are at the very bottom.

I would not say there is no hope of solution. Over the ages, we have been domesticating ourselves somewhat. With each abstraction enabling a market and meta-market over it, we are reducing ourselves a bit. Look at the historical trend from polytheism to monotheism. That is a reduction enabling the members of those clades to agree on a larger set of goals. The power this brings to them should be apparent even if the reduction they accept is not… to them. 8)

There is a nice little math problem that shows the issue. Draw a square and extend it to a cube. Most people will get the extension even though the drawing does not show the edges as perpendicular. Extend it again to a hypercube and it is hard to visualize, but not impossible to imagine. Extend it again into a million dimension or N were N is very large. Hard to imagine, but not impossible. Explain what ‘volume’ means in N dimensions and many people will accept the formula V=a^N. Now go back and inscribe a circle in the square and a sphere in the cube. Extend that to the N-cube with an N-ball inside and ask about the ratio of the volume of the ball to the volume of the cube. We would expect the ratio to be less than one (obviously), but how much less depends on how much the ‘corners’ dominate the ball. The ratio tends to zero as N gets larger and that is not intuitive for most of us. The corners dominate. Why would this matter to RPP’s? How do we approximate relationships? How do we interpolate between known functional values? How close do we have to be in a solution guess to believe a local optimization algorithm will get us the rest of the way? Most of us make assumptions about these tricks that work in spaces of low dimensions and fail utterly in spaces with a huge number of dimensions. The simple volume ratio shows how our intuition can be fundamentally in error. If that is the case, how sensible is it to make public policy using that intuition?

This gets to the core issue I have with Duncan’s ‘economy as an engine’ analogy. It isn’t. There are too many dimensions involved and I am not willing to be reduced involuntarily.

This also gets to the core of my beef with Dune's portrayal of human societies. They were well described... as reductions I cannot accept. I would do a bit of planning myself involving pine boxes and six foot holes in the ground for those who tried to reduce me that way. 8)

Daniel Duffy said...

Dr Brin,

The environmental degradation is in "The Sheep Look Up".

Sheep predates climate change as a causal force in environmental decline. Brunner instead draws on a complex variety of causes and their interactions – long-range air pollution, pesticides, famine, unrest, state violence, terrorist attacks, biological invasions, water pollution, treatment-resistant diseases – in the depiction of this decline. As an example of pre-apocalyptic fiction, it is the very opposite of a stable transition towards global sustainability. It resonates with a political context of economic decline, political corruption, war and terrorism, and dismantled environmental protections – but with additional twists. It depicts a society whose social and ecological resilience has been fatally undermined, an uncontrollable spiraling out of control.

It also predates “cli-fi,” science fiction that deals with the impacts of climate change on human civilization, and it has none of the earnestness that characterizes some of that genre. Brunner’s work, and its anger is representative of other works of that time: in this case, anger not against humans per se but the structures they live in, and corporate/political power that, along with individual neglect and corner-cutting, pushes the planet towards doom.

The novel has no real heroes (and an impotent savior). It also has no super-villains, or even, really, anyone intentionally evil. Instead, it follows twenty or so characters over the course of a year, none of whom have control over their own or others’ destiny. It is an insightful and compelling case study for anyone exploring the linkages between speculative fiction, imagination and environmental politics, especially as the world it depicts is so well realized, and not a million miles from our own.

This article reflects on the themes and topics of the novel that resonate for social science theorists and teachers in the environmental social sciences, including global environmental politics. First, it provides a type of counterfactual analysis. It opens a window into how the world might have been without, for example, in the absence of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), both established around or just after the book’s publication. Second, it provides a warning: how the world might be if we do not act. Third, it provides a model of a disastrous transition from a bad situation to an apocalyptic one, where social resilience has been worn down, and one disaster leads to others, with a snowballing (or explosive) effect.

Daniel Duffy said...

We need someone to do a mini series of Sheep with the same quality of HBO Chernobyl

David Brin said...

Sheep was more about poison-pollution. But yeah. Fantastic.

scidata said...

Alfred Differ: We just need more computing power to get better initial information and process it, right? Pfft.

Throwing massive computer power at vast sets of big data was, and still is, at the core of most psychohistory models. Pfft indeed. That's like learning how and why to drive a car by chemically analyzing tons of asphalt concrete samples.

A proper (agent-based) computational psychohistory model will probably not arrive in our lifetime but it's still fun to think about. I spend much more time on a greatly simplified 'toy' model which uses zebrafish as agents instead of human minds. I chose these critters because they're really well-studied (biology, behaviour, DNA), allowing a reasonably accurate agent to be programmed. Also I liked keeping them in aquariums as a kid (they were cheap and hearty).

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Alfred

You don't understand "Engines" and neither do I!

But in any system you can change a parameter and watch what it does -

Which is my analogy

If you are NOT willing to make ANY changes then you may as well be an oyster!

Society is our "Engine" and it's up to us to try and keep it going

David Brin said...

Wholly Mackeral. Dig this new book: Chimera Research - Methods and Protocols. “This volume addresses challenging new questions surrounding stem cell-based chimera research. This book is organized into three parts: Part One provides readers with a summary of different human donor cell types. The chapters in this section discuss ways to evaluate new types of pluripotent stem cells; the derivation of na├»ve and primed pluripotent stem cells from mouse preimplantation embryos; and the ethical and regulatory complexities of informed consent for the procurement of somatic cells. Part Two discusses methods for generating chimeras. The chapters here look at chick models and human-chick organizer grafts; generating human-pig interspecies chimeras; and techniques for transplanting mouse neural stem cells into a mouse disease model for stroke. Part Three concludes the book with a look at ongoing ethical controversies and new scientific directions. Chapters in this part cover the ethics of crossing the xenobarrier; animal welfare; experimentation with spermatogonial stem cells; and cautious approaches to human-monkey chimera studies to further understand complex human brain disorders. Written in the highly successful Methods in Molecular Biology series format, chapters include introductions to their respective topics, lists of the necessary materials and reagents, step-by-step, readily reproducible laboratory protocols, and tips on troubleshooting and avoiding known pitfalls.”

Taking this even farther into Outer Limits territory: “the idea of biologically humanizing large portions of a monkey’s brain is seriously unnerving.” In April, Chinese researchers announced they had inserted  a human brain gene into monkey embryos, a gene critical for human brain development. “It’s one thing to “humanize” an animal for, say, a pancreas, it’s another thing when you are talking about the brain…”

Only remember all this is aimed at a better understanding of Alzheimers, by far the worst modern disease in the developed world without any at all effective treatment.

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Dr Brin

One of the things you have remarked about is the bad effects of "School Bussing" - unintended consequences

Kevin Drum has some comments about it's effectiveness

David Brin said...

There were cases and places where there may have been some positive effects. So why are libs no longer pushing it? Because we were headed toward violent civil war. At minimum huge white flight frompublic schools followed by tax revolts. And no other issue so propelled Reaganism and the collapse of the FDR coalition. It was tupid, stupid stupid... with frosting of patronizing bullying.

I say this as a fellow who"self-bussed" walking miles to from 3 years at a nearly all-black high school.

Alfred Differ said...

For California folks... if you want to try to get in on redistricting... the application window is open.

Alfred Differ said...


The problem is I don't think you CAN change one parameter in a big economy. You might think you are when you tweak something that looks like one parameter, but I sincerely doubt such things exist. That thread you pull is multi-fibered and you don't know how many dimensions in the problem are changing. (None of us do.)

I'm willing to make changes, but with a little more humility. Your analogy encourages hubris even if you yourself don't participate in that.

jim said...

I hope to see the young congress women start to refer to Trump as:
a rapey, creepy, old pervert
and say it with tone of total disgust.

Pussy grabbing perv is another good one.

and when republicans get their panties in a twist, repeat it over and over.
And talk about how you would never let your daughters, teen aged or otherwise, to be alone with or near that rapey, creepy old man.

I am pretty sure Trump thinks of himself as a charmer and ladies man so having lots of attractive women refer to him as a rapey, creepy old pervert hits him at the core of his self conception.

Maybe get a movement of actresses /singers / models to twitter post promises that if that rapey, creepy old pervert tries to grab her pussy she will break his little fingers.

Larry Hart said...


Unfortunately, it's just as likely that we'll get columns by Women For Trump insisting that they'd be perfectly open to his raping or creeping them.

jim said...

That is the kind of reaction I want!!!
First of all it reinforces that Trump is rapey and creepy and an old pervert.
Second it makes republican women who say things like that seem to be nut jobs.

win - win

A.F. Rey said...

The Chimera book reminds me of my favorite story from NPR's Radio Lab.

A woman contracted a serious disease (leukemia or something) and needed a transplant from a close relative. Naturally they tested her two children. But that didn't work, because the genetic tests showed that they were not related to her.

The kids were related to her husband; he was their father. But the tests showed that she wasn't their mother. Which she found confusing, since she had been there when they were born. :)

Turns out she was a natural chimera. The DNA in her blood was different from the DNA for other parts of her body. And it was this other DNA that her kids came from. Once they tested that DNA, they got a match.

I've always wondered, for those anti-abortionists who believe that DNA defines a unique person, if this women deserves two votes in every election. :)

David Brin said...

See ol' Two Scoops cavorting with Jeffrey 'like em young' Epstein (in this case 2002): "I've known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy. He's a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it – Jeffrey enjoys his social life." ... Now? How many times across just the last year has DT proclaimed about some scandal-exposed official or pal: "I barely know the guy!"

Supposedly "moral" redders fall back on the "Cyrus Excuse." Cyrus was a pagan, but God's chosen instrument. Trump is the diametric opposite of Jesus in every conceivable way, but he gets an endless hall pass for one reason only. He enrages the same folks who confederates hate, and have always hated. Smarty-pants folks who know a lot. Oh and minorities and 'libbers' and furrin allies. Them too.

The same is true of KGB-trained Kremlin agent Putin and all the Lenin-raised Russian oligarch mafiosi. And GOP casino moguls, North Korean communist tyrants, Saudi murder-princes, Wall Street parasites and inheritance brats. And the ever-lengthening list of Republican child-molesters. All of them great guys! Why? Simple. Because they make you and me (smartypants types) frown in disapproval.

That's what makes them the elect and chosen ones of the Almighty.

Claiming moral superiority, Red America scores worse in every moral category from teen sex/pregnancy/STD/abortions to domestic violence, alcoholism etc... plus an endless Drug War and ever-more supply side never-right voodoo theft...

And *you* lot are at fault, for not reading your Bible and learning how to talk to those neighbors of ours. You can start with this simple line from the Man himself.

"By his fruits you shall know him."

David Brin said...



Larry Hart said...

A.F. Rey:

I've always wondered, for those anti-abortionists who believe that DNA defines a unique person,...

I doubt those anti-abortionists care a whit for newfangled book-learning concepts like DNA.


That is the kind of reaction I want!!!
First of all it reinforces that Trump is rapey and creepy and an old pervert.
Second it makes republican women who say things like that seem to be nut jobs.

In any other candidate or president, Trump's sexual proclivities would have Republican voters racing each other to denounce him. Somehow, in him, it evokes a kind of vicarious envy instead. They love the guy precisely because they wish they had the balls to act as he does.

It's one reason I suspect he actually uses Mule powers to inspire loyalty in his supporters and despair in his opponents. Like any good story, it explains a lot.

Larry Hart said...

And...I just missed the "onward"