Sunday, April 04, 2021

The Evolution of Science Fiction

With the popularity of The Queen’s Gambit, the Post points out that its author, Walter Tevis, was hardly a one-hit wonder. Tevis wrote science fiction greats like “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and the overlooked classic “Mockingbird,” as well as “The Hustler,” later turned into a movie with Paul Newman.

Way back in the 20th Century, science fiction couldn’t get no respect. Jack Williamson barely escaped being committed for the lunacy of writing tales about possible tomorrows. Aside anomalous best sellers like When Worlds Collide, it took Heinlein to get anything like real books distributed beyond the drug store pulp rack. Later best-sellers like Vonnegut, Atwood and Le Guin kept waffling whether to spurn or embrace their roots in a genre that had fostered them. Academics sneered and while many universities had to run a science fiction class - (a lit course ‘for the nerds’) - that SF instructor almost never got tenure.  And every five years or so there appeared a hit piece in The Atlantic, or Harpers, or The New Yorker, slagging the entire field as “febrile fantasies.” 

My how things have changed! Last month a postage stamp was issued honoring Ursula Le Guin (my former teacher.) Science fiction research programs sprout up at many universities. And those same elite magazines now run reviews of - or sober reflections upon - SF in its many forms. True, much of this new status comes packaged in vehement liberation-rhetoric, some of it unfairly ungrateful to earlier SF generations who were generally progressive and friendlier toward inclusion than their times. But no one can sanely object to the overall trend, discovering and developing appreciation for exploratory literature and film created by members of many nations, races, genders and mythic systems! Setting aside the occasional, spate of undeserved and self-defeating hostility toward allies, this is a trend that science fiction can justifiably be proud of.

(Much of this is discussed in my own recently released academic tome Vivid Tomorrows: Science Fiction and Hollywood.)

Exemplifying this trend is a series of fine reviews that has been appearing on the website of National Public Radio (NPR), including...

…this review of Sarah Geiley’s novel -- The Echo WifeCooked right, science fiction and murder mysteries taste great together…” 

(I agree! In fact, I always tell my writing students that they should do a murder mystery first - as I did, with Sundiver - in order to truly understand story and character arcs and plotting!)

… this rumination by Ramtin Arablouei on my dear friend and colleague, the late Octavia E. Butler.  After whom the Perseverance Mars probe landing site was recently named!

… And NPR reviews Everina Maxwell’s recently released novel --a romantic space opera,  Winter's Orbit.

 … and for some non-fiction that has that good old sci fi apocalypse feeling to it, take a look at Elizabeth Kolbert’s Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. This volume covers in a reporter’s thorough detail some of the dire topics of humanity's impacts on ecological change I conveyed in novel form, in Earth.

Kazuo Ishiguro has long been recognized as one of the greatest writers in the English language, exploring fretful, endangered lives, as in Never Let Me Go, and clashes with modernity and ethics and constrained personality, in The Remains of the Day. 

Now, Nobel laureate Ishiguro returns to science fiction with a novel in the point-of-view of a robot companion, seeking to understand the humans it is confusedly trying to serve - with his newly released, Klara and the Sun

== The adventure Sci Fi series you've been seeking? ==  

Suppose your descendants – people of the future – reach back in time to ask for your help.  Would you go? 

24th Century humanity has created a Utopia. No more War. Disease. Prejudice. Crime. But no heroes! And suddenly they need heroes, fast. So they reach out across time… for you. 

Would you go?

And what if only teens can survive the trip?

In the first Out of Time novel, Nebula Award winning author Nancy Kress takes you on an adventure, with a 10th Century Viking girl, a New Jersey high school basketball star and a young thief from Shakespeare’s London who are yanked into a future of both promise and peril and asked achieve what adults of that time cannot… rescue a lost star-colony. But even if they succeed, will they ever make it back home? 

Your adventure starts if you click 'Buy Now' or 'Read for Free' and get sucked into this riveting tale of time travel in David Brin's Out Of Time Series!

And then more such adventures from the mighty Sheila Finch(!) and Roger McBride Allen... and soon a new wave of new novels resumes with one from Bram Stoker Award winner Patrick Freivald... and more in queue!


Mitchell Wyle said...

Thanks, David. Keep these awesome reminders to recommend and give our children more great sci-fi coming!

Robert said...

That's two YA series!

Niblings are gonna be happy :-)

DP said...

“Cooked right, science fiction and murder mysteries taste great together…”

Then she would love KSR's "2312" with the intrepid Inspector Jean Genette of the Interplanetary Police on the case.

Best plot innovation being the introduction of "Smalls" humans genetically engineered for short stature (and probably a few naturals) as a key component of mankind's population in space. The idea being that with a crew of reduced stature you don’t have to build such big spacecraft, and they can still function during high-g acceleration while Talls are laid out flat on their backs.

So humans less than 1 meter tall inherit the planets and stars.

Inspector Genette is a Small, and should of course be played by Peter Dinklage in the TV-series version.

DP said...

"Blade Runner" is more of a police procedural than a murder mystery.

"I, Robot" is a courtroom drama.

Maybe we can one day have "Law and Order: Androids" or "CSI: Robots".

Larry Hart said...

Dr Brin under the previous comments:

And yes, humans can believe ten impossible things before breakfast. Especially if they watch only Fox News.

I just recently read something which posited that believers in conspiratorial rumors seem to be more likely than others to hold contradictory ideas. So, for instance, those who believe that Osama Bin Laden was already dead before Seal Team Six went after him are also likely to believe that he's still alive.

Tim H. said...

An amusing Ursula LaGuin for younger readers "Catwings".

Jon S. said...

“Cooked right, science fiction and murder mysteries taste great together…”

Heck, Larry Niven did an entire series centered around a former asteroid miner turned cop, with a telekinetic arm (created by his mind when his meat arm had been severed in a mining mishap). Most of his cases involved organleggers, black-market dealers in stolen human organs, and sometimes exotic murder methods (my favorite being the method employed in the third story, ARM).

TCB said...

Remember that time I posted a lyric about space colonization? Well, I found the tapes, thought to have been lost. Dandelion Seeds, circa 1996. Back when I still thought people were persuadable.

And here's a much newer one about global warming. Dry, circa 2017. This one would have been appropriate to the apocalyptic music post of a few days ago. An older, sadder, but no wiser mariner. You play Judas, I play Job.

Unknown said...

David: Tell us more about Jack Williamson!

madtom said...

Thanks for responding to my too-late post back there, Dr. Brin! It's been so long I'd forgotten how these go. But I *did* think the notes below the post still said I automatically had "madtom" as my identity(despite really being Tom Parsons), the name I got in some computer memories when I used it in joining Howard Rheingold's "Brainstorms" about 25 years ago.

Anyway, I'm fascinated to hear that you came up with the plot of "Dr. Pak's Preschool" without being familiar with Boris Sidis and his views. This could be another data point indicating paths of knowledge acquisition that remain controversial (but which I'm increasingly suspicious are quite real).

Partially, I'm sure I'm influenced by a lifetime exposure to scifi. I now have my father's Astounding collection going back to November 1946, which I continued until about 2002. And I still have many shelves full of scifi. But moving to New Zealand made such things harder to get, especially being quite a bit farther away from the great Powell's bookstore in Portland.

But as far as knowledge acquisition is concerned, I confess to turning increasingly in the direction of the thinking I used to think of as for-weirdos-only. This despite being a lifelong science-fan and student.

This because of an analogy that struck me as I read more detail about Euglenas and thought more about evolution and where we fit in. First of all, I've long felt that it was purely foolish pride that has us placing ourselves a the top of the hierarchy. Now that we begin to be able to count the stars and know how long this universe has been doing its thing, it could only be egotism that makes us think we're the top of the evolutionary ladder.

Those little single-cell Euglenas have what might be called eyes. At least they're photosensitive devices that control their flagella so they swim toward the light, the better to photosynthesize. But compare that with our numerous and wonderfully color-sensitive neurons in the retina at the rear of the eye, with its nice automatically focusing lens with its brightness-adjusting iris at the front, and the mass of neural info that reaches the brain and gets stored so well.

But why couldn't we have evolved a similar bit of crude sensing for another level of information acquisition? Like a Euglena has for the visible spectrum? Maybe a few more millennia will turn what we have into more useful esp instead of just an occasional hunch or mysterious communique sent or received -- why not?

So anyway, I'm really interested in all the scifi history that might come out and get discussed here!

madtom said...

And Larry Hart quoting your response that

"And yes, humans can believe ten impossible things before breakfast. Especially if they watch only Fox News."

and then talking about "believers in conspiratorial rumors", is a nice reminder of the way that such claims are being thrown around about anyone whose opinions are held in contempt by the speaker. Or by actual conspirators.

Seriously, how much of actual history is NOT the result of, or at least heavily involved with, conspiracies of one sort or another? Anyone who doesn't seriously consider the likelihood of actual conspiracies and secret motivations is performing self-blinding.

Just remember Nixon's "War on [some] Drugs" and the not-too surprising confession by his right-hand man (I'd have to look up the name) that this was in fact a way of winning an election by trashing both the public opinion and the legal and voting rights of hippies and blacks. Meanwhile looking like a straightforward law-enforcer.

Consider how many American citizens have subsequently endured roadside strip searches or had their doors broken down at all hours by armed police, only sometimes with a legitimate search warrant, but never with any warning or explanation, all on the basis of the argument that otherwise the "suspect" could be flushing the evidence down the drain. Is that really a defensible cause for these decades of home invasions and shooting of innocents (all too often at a wrong address and sometimes even a little kid)? Surely a serious supplier would have far too much illegal inventory to flush that fast.

In fact I saw two deaths of innocents whom I knew, which resulted from excessive drug law enforcement, when I was a town Councillor in the otherwise pleasant place where I was a science teacher. One was actually another Councilman, who was formally charged with "possession of a schedule 1 substance for supply" on the basis of 4.1 g of weed, some of which was offered to an undercover female cop who had been sent to our town for just such events (the Councilman was single, and met her in a bar he was known to frequent).

Which helped sensitize me to how far America had left its Constitution behind. As a result of various conspiracies designed to evade the promises made in the Constitution. Or just to get elected.

Tim H. said...

Something new:

Wouldn't it be nice if this opened up an unexpectedly useful loophole in physics?

Larry Hart said...


Just remember Nixon's "War on [some] Drugs" and the not-too surprising confession by his right-hand man (I'd have to look up the name) that this was in fact a way of winning an election by trashing both the public opinion and the legal and voting rights of hippies and blacks. Meanwhile looking like a straightforward law-enforcer.

In a similar vein, you know how the conservatives for years have insisted that their judges be "Constitutionalist", "textualist", and "originalist", which they claimed to mean that their rulings rely only on the actual words and their unchanged meanings, as opposed to "activist" liberal judges who interpret words however they feel like? Well, is it any surprise that they're now admitting that "originalism" was merely a political tactic which is no longer useful, and now conservative judges should rule as they wish, regardless of what the Constitution says?

It was a rhetorical question. :)

But many on the right have grown weary of originalist doctrine. As the reactionary Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule wrote in The Atlantic last year, originalism “has now outlived its utility.” In a legal world dominated by liberalism, he wrote, originalism was a “useful rhetorical and political expedient,” but the conservative takeover of the judiciary has proceeded far enough that it can be dispensed with.

Instead, he endorsed what he called “common-good constitutionalism,” an understanding of constitutional law that, among other things, “does not suffer from a horror of political domination and hierarchy, because it sees that law is parental, a wise teacher and an inculcator of good habits.”

Douthat is hesitant about the 14th Amendment strategy because he believes that ending abortion in America — his goal — requires winning over the American people. He knows that supporters of abortion rights insist that legal abortion is a precondition for women’s well-being and equality. The anti-abortion movement, Douthat wrote, “needs to prove the pro-choice premise wrong.”

But the anti-abortion movement can’t do that, because, as the experience of every country that has ever banned or severely restricted abortion shows, the pro-choice premise is correct. In this sense, the people pushing for a Supreme Court declaration of constitutional personhood have a point. If your aim is a near-total abortion ban in a rapidly secularizing country with a younger generation that largely despises the right, democracy isn’t your friend.

Finnis acknowledges that if the Supreme Court does what he wants, it would “meet unimaginable resistance,” but he doesn’t seem to find this relevant. After all, that’s the point: People shouldn’t have a choice. said...

Enjoyed your post especially your references to Walter Tevis, who was my first English professor at Ohio University and responsible for introducing me to William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Scott Fitzgerald. At that time, smoking was permitted in class and Walter did like a chimney. Unfortunately he died not long after release of Queen's Gambit from lung cancer.

Tim H. said...

LH, Contemporary conservatives have issues with "Vox populi, Vox Dei" and can't quite understand that a society optimized for "Mammonites" does not represent happy fun times for most people. The right thing to do would be to attempt a world with hope and tolerance... but that might be caving to the libs, so they're fighting it. Sigh.

Larry Hart said...

The 14th Amendment begins thusly (emphasis mine) :

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

David Brin said...

Sorry I was neglectful. Especially MadTom. Interesting points. Of course abortion is the towering example. Never was a conservative wedge issue till suddenly it was. The reason? Simple. They needed an "on-off switch" issue to declare "Jesus would be on our side about baby-killing, even if that beaded hippie loathed every other thing that we believe."

Now "republicans rediscover deficits."
Do not let them even start. Demand cash wagers whether Democrats are almost ALWAYS more fiscally responsible than Republicans across the last 40 years. That is virtually always! WHY do demo-pols always cede this ground to Republicans? Pursue this but do it right. If you simply point out that pure fact, MAGAs and others will simply shrug and rant on. But demand a cash wager and watch their faces as they start to absorb the possibility (the absolute reality) that one of their key positions is an all-out, opposite to fact lie.
If they have any honor or guts to bet, you will own their house. If they run (they always do) USE it to demolish their macho, the only trait they value.

DP said...

madtom, it was HR Haldeman:

One of Richard Nixon’s top advisers and a key figure in the Watergate scandal said the war on drugs was created as a political tool to fight blacks and hippies, according to a 22-year-old interview recently published in Harper’s Magazine.

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told Harper’s writer Dan Baum for the April cover story published Tuesday.

“You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Ehrlichman’s comment is the first time the war on drugs has been plainly characterized as a political assault designed to help Nixon win, and keep, the White House.

It’s a stark departure from Nixon’s public explanation for his first piece of legislation in the war on drugs, delivered in message to Congress in July 1969, which framed it as a response to an increase in heroin addiction and the rising use of marijuana and hallucinogens by students.

However, Nixon’s political focus on white voters, the “Silent Majority,” is well-known. And Nixon’s derision for minorities in private is well-known from his White House recordings.

Tim H. said...

More evidence that contemporary Republicans are committed to "The road to Dystopia":

For a legislator to say in public that they know better than the people they represent seems high risk.

Larry Hart said...

Tim H:

For a legislator to say in public that they know better than the people they represent seems high risk.

Unless, of course, the will of the people no longer affects the outcome of elections.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks, Daniel Duffy, for the details of that Haldeman confession! Aside from the general (even worldwide) disaster that Nixon & Co. were, I feel that my personal life was badly damaged by this particular political ploy.

Not only did they artificially inflame inter-group dislike among Americans, which is still a major tactic among those in power, they reached into our personal lives in a way that I now believe damaged America itself - and still is. I had just begun to experience the wonderful depths that psychedelics could open up to our minds, when they became so illegal that I had to protect my goal of a teaching career (getting out of being a research chemist in crooked pharma) by ensuring no legal difficulties and giving up on the LSD that had been opening my mind's eyes.

Even after that, and his Vietnam escalations and the ploys used to finance all that murder, Nixon again overreached his power by nullifying our freshly negotiated and signed teachers' contract as a typical Republican hit on labor unions. The contract had included a new pay schedule to deal with the inflation resulting from his expenditure on that unConstitutional un-declared Vietnam war, so we were stuck back on the old pay schedule while prices continued to soar. And I never heard any way that his action was legal: nullifying a locally agreed deal between us teachers and our local school board, all under Washington State authority.

At least now, just 50 years later, America is finally beginning to recognize the value of certain psychedelics, which in no way ever represented the threat to society that the crooked Big Pharmas have grown into. Psychedelics' real "threat" is that they could help people recognize some truths that would help democracy survive the present attack by megacorps.

Robert said...

For a legislator to say in public that they know better than the people they represent seems high risk.

Why? It's apparently been working for Republicans for years. If opposing policies voters supported was a problem, wouldn't America have some form of publicly funded medical care by now?

Robert said...

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

Problem being you have a significant chunk of population who doesn't see "person" the same way you do.

Larry Hart said...


"All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."

Problem being you have a significant chunk of population who doesn't see "person" the same way you do.

Was it not clear that I was attempting to make a point against full citizenship for zygotes? Having been neither born nor naturalized, they simply don't meet the Constitutional requirements.

Tim H. said...

Contemporary Republicans* have picked up a lot from the Dixiecrats, most likely including "They'd vote for a yellow dog if it was a Republican".

*I wish to distinguish between what they were and what they've become.

Zepp Jamieson said...

Phillip Pullman writes top-notch SF juveniles, not least of which is "His Dark Materials."
I'm so old I remember when Tom Swift and Dick Tracy were considered mainstream science fiction for kids. I've seen some of the older, more blatantly racist stuff the early Swifts had (and it is truly horrifying!) but luckily, I was a child of the 50s and had no interest in that old stuff written before there were rockets and Moon Maidens.
I still remember my first real "grown up" science fiction novel: Rocket Ship Galileo. I never looked back.

Slim Moldie said...

SF is less and less relegated to the kid’s table. I think current television streaming formats allowing for longer stories and more complicated character development will continue help the mainstream acculturate to the genera. Imagine how much more faithful to the source you could produce the Postman as a multi-season show? The “peace war” would make a great adapted series, too. My biggest gripe with SF is mediocre cover art. Much prefer some of the more abstract colors and geometric mystery of the sixties covers. I get royally pissed off seeing main characters or aliens on covers. Super annoying! It’s as if the publisher wants the prospective buyer to feel shame and doesn’t respect the reader’s imagination. Not my hill to die on, but for f-sake! Also for what it’s worth, last time I posted here I wasn’t able to get into “Hyperion” but I got over the hump. So good!

TCB said...

Never thought of this!

What if mitochondria are the answer to the Fermi Paradox?

Robert said...

Was it not clear that I was attempting to make a point against full citizenship for zygotes? Having been neither born nor naturalized, they simply don't meet the Constitutional requirements.

That totally flew by me. I thought you were referencing the originalist doctrine that not every homo sapiens was a person…

Because frankly, if you're going to claim that only the original framers of the constitution got it right, then you're OK with slavery and women not voting, right?

scidata said...

Re: Great Silence

An exceedingly improbable event meets a nearly infinite number of trials. Endosymbiotic Theory, Lynn Margulis, Carl Sagan, a fascinating trail that was on my mind as I wrote my 2011 article on computational psychohistory.

Terran life began almost as soon as it could have. Endosymbiosis happened. Dinosaurs happened. The Roman Empire happened. We know these things because we can look backward and sift bountiful evidence. However, we're on much shakier ground when pronouncing that we are alone in the cosmos. Supernovae are exceedingly rare, yet we stumble across them quite frequently, due to the power of our recently invented astronomical gazing tools. Should Victorian folk have been vexed by the 'Great Supernova Silence'?

Larry Hart said...


Because frankly, if you're going to claim that only the original framers of the constitution got it right, then you're OK with slavery and women not voting, right?

The framers of the original Constitution gave us the amendment process. It is absurd to argue that "originalism" means ignoring the amendments that were duly added later (though I'm not saying such arguments aren't made--just that they should be laughed out of court).

I presume "originalism" to mean that you have to interpret the words in the Constitution as meaning what they would have meant when written. You can't, for exmple, actually find any words in the Fourth or Fifth Amendments which provide an unfettered right to abortion. You also can't say that "whole number of persons" means only citizens or eligible voters. Since those very originalists are trying to argue that very thing, that was a bad example, but I use it to point out that they are hypocrites.

But I don't have to argue that they're hypocrites any more. They've admitted as much themselves in the article which I posted above in this very thread. I'm not going to re-post the excerpt, which you can search for above, but here's the link again:

duncan cairncross said...


Yep - over two billion years of a whole planet full of life throwing the dice to come up with ONE result

And that requires the correct amount of water on the planet
Less is obviously bad as it reduces the amount of life throwing the dice

More is less obviously bad - but life thrives in shallow water - and Earth seems to have a lot less water than equivalent sized bodies - the impact that caused the moon may have removed 90% of the earths water

With half the life would it take over 4 Billion years??

David Brin said...

Duncan the Water World hypothesis (the Earth is exceptionally dry with more continental land) is one of my top ten.

In fact I pondered a story -- dolphin diplomat goes down to negotiate with floating island minds – nearly all water worlds have aquatic top life forms because few had enough continents to make humantype fire users & starfarers. Island minds can’t see humans as conceivably sapient. Needless to say this is not my Uplift Universe.

Sorry guys. Time to move on.