Thursday, October 27, 2011

How to Define Science Fiction

The question has filled pages and books,  resonating across hotel bars and conferences for decades. What, exactly, is science fiction?  It matters for many reasons, not least because the genre encompasses just about everything that's not limited to the mundane here and now, or a primly defined past.

Up till the early 18th century, when Defoe, Richardson and Fielding fed a growing apetite for "realism" in fiction, nearly all literature contained elements of the fantastic. From tribal campfire-legends to Gilgamesh and the Odyssey to Dante and Swift. All through that long period, life and death were capricious on a daily basis, but society seemed  relatively changeless from one generation to the next - the same chiefdom or kingdom or noble families, the same traditions and stiff social order. Throughout that era, storytelling overflowed with surreal, earth-shaking events and the awe-inspiring antics of demigods.

Then a shift happened. Peoples' physical lives became more predictable. You and your kids had a chance of living out your natural spans... but civilization itself started quaking and twisting with change. Your daughter would likely survive childbirth. But her assumptions and behavior might turn shocking and your son's choice of profession - bewildering. Your neighbors might even begin questioning the king, or the gods! Not in fable but in real life.

Amid this shift, public tastes in literature moved away from bold what-if images of heroes challenging heaven, toward close-in obsessions with realistic characters who seemed almost-like-you, in settings only a little more dramatic or dangerous than the place where you lived.

Having made that observation - and pondered it for years - I'm still not sure what to make of it. Is there a total sum of instability that humans can bear, and a minimum they need?

Nonetheless, into this period of transformation, science fiction was "born."  The true child of Homer and Murusaki and Swift, yet denounced as a bastard from the start, by those who proclaimed (ignoring 6000 years) that literature should always be myopic, close, "realistic" and timidly omphaloskeptic.

The possibility of social, technological and human change could be admitted... even explored a little... but the consensus on a thousand university campuses was consistent and two-fold.

----    ------    ----

In "literature" proper explorations of how change impacts human beings should:

1 - deal with the immediate near-term, and

2 - treat change as a loathsome thing.

This obsession isn't as unfair or cowardly as it sounds. Yes, pre-1700s fiction incorporated fantastic imagery and other-worldly powers... and yes, science fiction carries on that tradition.  But the nostalgist professors are also right, in perceiving SF as an upstart!

Because all through most civilizations, the storytelling mythos was nearly always past-obsessed. Indeed, it is here that contemporary sci fi betrays its origins.

== The First of Sci Fi's Heresies ==

Plainly stated: science fiction retains the bold, reality-breaking element of ancient myth-telling, far better than any other genre. But it also rebels against venerable tradition, by portraying change as a protean fluid, sometimes malleable or even good! Violating a core tenet of Aristotle's Poetics, sci fi contemplates the possibility of successfully defying Fate.

Elsewhere I contrast two perspectives on the Time Flow of Wisdom. By far dominant in nearly all human societies has been a Look Back attitude... that the past contained at least one shining moment when society and people in general were better than today - a pinnacle of grace from which we fell, doomed to lament. You find this theme in everything from the Bible to Tolkien to Crichton - a dour reflex toward viewing change as synonymous with deterioration--The grouchiness of grampas who proclaim that everything - even folks - had been finer in the past.

Did you notice that the two authors I just mentioned have their books in the sci fi section of the store? All the tales on these shelves share that ancient, homeric willingness to be vivid and depart from the here and now. But there any resemblance to science fiction stops, because Tolkien, Crichton and their ilk cling to the Look Back view.

It's plain that a deep river of nostalgia flows through most fantasy novels and films, especially those that dwell lovingly on feudal tropes and images. Chosen Ones. Prophecies. Kingly lineages that deserve to inherit rulership, by right of blood alone.

Ponder that, a moment. Millions of contemporary citizens of a free and scientific civilization - heirs of Enlightenment revolutionaries - now yearn for elvish mystics and secretive mages who never publish or share knowledge, nor open schools, nor turn palantirs into internets, nor offer the flea-ridden peasants flush toilets, nor even teach the germ theory of disease.  Hierarchy and overall changelessness are somehow portrayed as romantically attractive. And always, there's that notion of better/wiser times, somewhere in the past.

==The Impudent, Upstart Path ==

Compare this attitude to the uppity Look Ahead zeitgeist. That humanity is on a rough and difficult upward path. That past utopias were fables. That any glowing, better age must lie ahead of us, to be achieved through skill and science, via mixtures of cooperation, competition and negotiation. Along with (one hopes) heaping improvements in overall wisdom.

The paramount example of this world-view would be - of course - Star Trek, though authors like Iain Banks carry the torch of long-term optimism very well.

Let there be no mistake - this is the giant fault line down the middle of science fiction's broadly varied and tolerantly diverse community of authors and readers. The notion that children might, possibly, sometimes, learn from the mistakes of their parents, avoid repeating them... then forge on to make new mistakes all their own, overcoming obstacles on their way to becoming better beings than ourselves.

It sounds like a fine desideratum. What every decent parent wants, right? Except for sourpusses.

Yet, I've found that whole notion of progress is so anathema, to such a vast range of people, that something deeply inherent in human nature must be involved. The widest cultural gap I've ever seen, about something absolutely fundamental, it explains why so many feel reflex hostility toward science fiction. Especially those who believe in "eternal verities."

Example: when I spoke about SF in China, nearly all the readers, publishers and press folk seemed deeply worried that any hint of optimism in literature might insult their ancestors, by implying generations can improve with time.

I replied in bewilderment - isn't that the point?

== Rejection of Optimism ==

Apparently not. Almost like an immunal rejection to the 1960s can-do spirit of Star Trek, wave after wave of stylish grouches swarmed over science fiction itself, claiming to have discovered dark cynicism as something fresh and original.  As critic Tom Shippey put it, in an excellent recent Wall Street Journal review:

"As science fiction approached the millennium, it began to trade the future for the past and real worlds for fantasy or virtual realities. We've had "cyberpunk," with "biopunk coming along a little uneasily behind... Other popular sci fi scenarios include alternate history ("looking backward," as if to wonder where things went wrong) and its nostalgic spin-off "steampunk" (fantasy with a history-of-science additive). The popularity of post-apocalyptic novels suggests that no convincing techno-future can be imagined."

Shippey's essay is insightful and important. I strongly recommend it... though I do quibble with that last point. Progress isn't impossible to imagine. It just takes hard work.

Any lazy author or director knows this trick; it's astonishingly easy to craft a a pulse-pounding plot and get your heroes in jeopardy - via either prose or film - if you start by assuming civilization is crappy.  That your fellow citizens are fools and all their hard-wrought institutions are run by morons. If accountability utterly fails and 911 calls are only answered by villains or Keystone Kops, and the Republic never does a single thing right... then you can sniff some coke and scribble almost any story-line. It writes itself! Bring on the special effects and heavy sighs over human doom.

No, I am not denouncing all works that express skepticism toward progress. Some do arise from stronger roots than mere cynical laziness. Among these are sincere and deeply-moving critiques of modern civilization's many faults. But here is where a delicious irony emerges. That criticism is the only known antidote to error. The best and most savagely on-target critiques are helpful in moving us forward through the minefield of progress.

After all, the core postulate of true SF is that children can sometimes learn from their parents mistakes... not that they will always do so!  This is why genuine sci fi tragedies like On The Beach and Soylent Green are so powerful.

"This does not have to happen," say Huxley and Orwell and Slonczewski and Tiptree, in their masterful self-preventing prophecies.  Be smarter, better people.  Be a better people.

==The Empire of Cynicism Strikes Back ==

Alas, other authors who are lionized, like Margaret Atwood and Ursula LeGuin, use dystopia as a rationale for finger-wagging polemic and formulaic prescriptions, rather than gedankenexperiment. With their gifts, this limiting flaw is just tragic. Shippey is especially biting toward Ms. Atwood's sycophants, who claim her works are "realistic" and therefore "speculative" - not that childish science fiction junk.

Um, sorry - not quite. For one thing, Ms. Atwood's cartoon portrayals of science are tendentiously inaccurate to the point of libel. Like Crichton, her premise always depends on the absence of cleansing transparency, which would resolve nearly all of her complaints.  Moreover 70% of males in North America would have died fighting to prevent the scenario she portrays so chillingly in The Handmaid's Tale.  That book had many merits! But realistic plausibility was not a trait to brag about, distinguishing it from science fiction!

Shippey points to the attribute that really sets Ms. Atwood's sub-genre apart from the real thing. Like Nabakov, in his weird alternate reality tale Ada, Atwood crafts no plausible scenario for her world to come into being. She just doesn't think it important. And yes, that is a departure from mainstream sci fi.

Shippey is not alone in noticing the stunning swerve from ambition to finger wagging nostalgia and dour past-obsession. (Does one really need to be convinced, after watching Avatar?)  Science fiction scholar Judith Berman skewered one of the flagship sci fi publications - Isaac Asimov's Magazine and its longtime editor Gardner Dozois, for publishing, year after year, a nearly perfect stream of grouchy, anti-future manifestos. Tales about regret, navel-contemplation and disdain toward any semblance of optimism, with "no more than a handful of stories...that look forward to the future."

Jiminy, for how many decades can some people convince themselves that Star Trek is "the man" needing a good, hard shove?  Will there ever come a time when it becomes clear that Gene Roddenberry's can-do spirit was... is... and always will be the rare thing? The underdog? The only attitude - after 6000 years of dyspeptic nostalgia - that's not a cliche?

When leftist-darling Margaret Atwood joins the late, extreme-conservative author Michael Crichton in common cause - both of them slamming the arrogant hubris of science and progress - maybe it's time to sit up and ponder what it all means. Yes, one wing of the left-right axis appears to be more dangerously insane at this moment, than the other. But both wings are rife with dogmatic, oversimplifying grouches pushing renunciation -- the notion that scientific advancement was fine up till right now... but any further progress can bring nothing but bad news.

And what if everybody feels that way, not only on Earth but across the galaxy? Could renunciation explain the great silence out there? Race after sapient race choosing to hunker in feudal -- or pastoral or feminist or zen-like or whatever -- simplicity, cowering away from ambition or the stars?

"Perhaps we should leave well enough alone," Shippey quotes Atwood as saying, just before his final, brilliant rebuttal. (Do read it.)

I can do no better than Shippey at refuting this malignant meme, except to point out, yet again, that renunciation, nostalgia and suspicion of change were timeless themes across all of recorded history, pervading nearly every religious and mythic tale that comes down to us from that long epoch of relentless repression and pain.

There was a lot of great art in those myths!  I have spent countless hours with Odysseus and Dante and Rama and the Monkey King. We can learn important things, both by heeding the lessons that ancient stories try to teach... and sometimes by reaching diametrically opposite conclusions.

Because we are the rebels. We who think change might (possibly) bring good.

The nostalgists who doubt this are welcome to criticize! That searing light of rebuke is exactly how to move forward while avoiding the pitfall-penalties of hubris. Sometimes, authors like LeGuin and Atwood and Gibson and Russ and so many other stylish grouches offer on-target points! Potential failure modes to take into account, then evade as we forge ahead.

But let there be no mistake. They are the Old Empire. Quenchers and belittlers, maintaining the ancient, relentless tyranny of nostalgia. Ten thousand years from now, the ones who will be remembered will be those who encouraged.

Those who said, let's try.

==Also see: Speculations on Science Fiction

David Brin
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Robert said...

One point - it's "omphaloscopic" if your're saying what I think you're saying.

I'd say that Dozois may include the cynical and pessimistic stuff, but he certainly doesn't exclude the optimistic stories, either.

With Le Guin, she's fine when she's enjoying herself rather than being PC. I'd say her worst deed wasn't anything she wrote herself, but what she decided to leave out of the Norton Anthology.

Bob Pfeiffer.

JuhnDonn said...

SF: See Hal Clement.


ell said...

The ancient myths may have arisen from a need to keep people on a proven path. It may not have been so long ago, back then, to warn people not to eat a certain berry because it proved to be poisonous. Once a civilization accumulates enough wisdom to survive comfortably, there may be considerable pressure not to do anything WE HAVEN'T DONE BEFORE. The rules keep us safe.

This may be the source of antiprogress politics and literature.

LarryHart said...

You mention Tolkein, but I find his contemporary, C.S. Lewis, fascinating.

In both his fiction and his essays, he clearly distrusts scientists for almost all of the reasons that you and I distrust oligarchs.

And yet, his "Atlas Shrugged"--that is, his work of fiction that advances his personal worldview--is the "Out of the Silent Planet" trilogy, itself a work of science fiction.

TheMadLibrarian said...

I am presently sitting at the Reference desk at our library, wearing my Starfleet uniform and preparing to hand out candy (and possibly recruit a few cadets!) Star Trek is a good example of science fiction's attempts to appeal to our 'better angels', to point out that although we may make missteps, usually we are better off technologically than the year before. I have no desire to return to a time before antibiotics, non-invasive surgery, hot water, indoor plumbing, good communication, the ability to find out many things from the comfort of my own home... The list goes on, and many of them were predicted by science fiction. If we ever get reliable fusion or antimatter-driven power, stardrive, replicators, or any of a number of other things now on display in a number of science fiction, I'm all for that too.


Frine: portmanteau word for frosty rime

David Brin said...

"I hate the divide in this country because being divided as Americans is not natural. It's un-American," Huntsman said. "It's not consistent with who we are as blue-sky optimists. We're problem-solving people."


David Brin said...

Robert, read Berman's critique of Dozois. Statistically, his hatred of the future is proved, decisively.

Stefan Jones said...

I've interacted with lots of folks online, primarily in gaming fora, who:

A) Like the various incarnations of Star Trek quite a lot, but

B) Distrust and despise the "Roddenberry ethos" stuff.

Star-spanning civilization, starships, phasers, aliens, yes.

Prime Directive, moneyless egalitarian society, notions of humanity Growing Up . . . EEEeeewww, no!

'spundigh': Celtic dessert. Mmmmmm, minty, chewy spundigh!

David said...

While mainly agreeing with your article, I do find one thing to disagree with. Your claim that the Bible is backward looking. That the golden age of the Bible is in the past. While there are certainly a lot of people who do subscribe to this interpretation, I don't. It is true that there are many calls from humans for God to restore and go back to an imagined golden age. However, the Bible itself shows the folly of such a view.

The so called golden ages while they may have been better than the present of the writers who were going through a hard time, were hardly the best of all possible worlds. The kingdoms of David and Solomon were hardly paradises, just read the stories and see all the problems and issues.

Then there is the response of God. Time and time again, God's response is that the people must not look to the past but to the future. While they can certainly learn lessons from the past, the future is going to be better than the past. The kingdom to come is not going to be a return of David's kingdom but something even better. This perhaps finds its best expression (but certainly not it's only one, it is recurring theme) in comparing and contrasting the end of Revelation with beginning of Genesis. Genesis starts with heaven (the dwelling place of God) separate from earth, with visits from God, it is set in a garden, with one tree of life and the reality of death. It ends with a joining of heaven and earth, God continually dwelling with people, it is set in a city with many trees of life and the end of death. It is about progress.

Further, as a Christian I believe my place with in this world is to make it a better place. I can do that through being good, but also by being creative as a scientist in making people's lives better and in my current job as a science teacher in inspiring and equipping young people to do better. I also happen to believe that God is helping me and at some point in the future will directly intervene. I assume you disagree at this point but I think we have a lot in common to work together and I don't think Christianity or the Bible is anti-progress, although sadly some Christians do appear to be.

Tony Fisk said...

There's an old Divinyls song that sums this up:

I thought that love was science fiction
until I saw you today
now that love is my addiction
I've thrown all my books away

I'm not sure what your precise issue with LeGuin is. Here's mine: having read the 'Earthsea' trilogy, I felt that there was something very hollow about it. It took a while to realise that it was the dreary depiction of the afterlife. Despite all the dragons and feats of derring do, at the end of the day, all you had to look forward to was an eternity of grey beyond that stone wall.

Then something interesting happened: LeGuin wrote a few more Earthsea tales, and it became clear that she had come to the same conclusion!! The last book tackles this problem head on, and rather satisfactorily, too.

It's rather fun to try and redeem favourite tales. I tried my hand at Star Wars by making Darth Vader a clone of Anakin (surprisingly, it only took a few brief scene changes in 'Sith'!) Gollum's part in the fate of the ring is much more satisfying if you consider what might have gone through his mind in those last moments at the 'Crack of Doom' ("Precious" had nothing to do with a magical artefact!)

Avatar? I'm reserving judgment on it until the sequels(s) come out (with a grimace at where the Matrix ended up). An elder from an Amazon tribe was invited to a viewing, and she gave Cameron a few interesting bits of constructive criticism. We'll see whether he took her advice.

And lastly, that ultimate look back to a better age: 'Terra Nova'! I'm reserving judgment on this one as well. I do find some of the undercurrents interesting, and it just may be that stereotypes.. aren't (Taylor is only Quanty at first glance! The 'scientific jargon' is actually intelligible: what sort of Star Trek is this?) Did anyone notice, in a recent episode, that Shannon is a cop who has to ask someone for a loan of a gun? (My 9yo daughter thinks slashers are cute!)

rewinn said...

@David (Christian) and @Dr David (Scientist):

It seems to me that Christianity and SF are Janus-faced: some of it looks forward, some of it backwards.
With great respect, @David, your analysis seems to gloss over the element of Christianity that views Mankind as Fallen. I certainly endorse the more progressive view of Man as Salvationable in a way that does not require a Fall,
but a focus on the fall ... even a perverse delight in the Fall ... is a central element of conservative Christianity ("O Felix Culpa") that seem very comparable to the delight of conservative SF (...both in the swords-and-sorcery genre, and in the Endless Galactic War genre) that denys the ability of progress. ("...the grim nightmare of the far future, where there is only war" according to the Warhammer 40k canon).

We might ask ourselves what is it about humanity that seems to enjoy being told that improvement is not possible; that we are doomed by our nature to have lords and peasants? Are there some people who simply enjoy being dogs subserviant to a pack leader, or are we all capable of being Uplifted? I dunno; I certainly prefer the latter but there are days when I throw up my hands! If nothing else, the Occupy/99% movement is suggesting that if you poke them long enough, even dogs will bark!

Might there be an interactive relationship between Hopeful Literature ( whether religious or SF ) and those who read it? That is, might people who are pre-disposed to Hope enjoy Hopeful stories more than the other kind, and thereby have their attitudes reinforced? Or can we prescribe forward-looking SF as a sort of "hope therapy", and change attitudes toward the future by circulating the meme of a better future?

Someone, somewhere, should do a study!


@Gilmoure -
Would not "Mission of Gravity" make a delightful movie? visually challenging, but what a story!!

David Brin said...

David, please see my recent video essay about the theology of the Look Forward view.

You'll find much to agree with!

Still, I must say that there is nothing NEw Testament about the Look Forward view. The better future is portrayed as handed to us. ("us"? The logic of Original Sin followed by human sacrifice followed by judgement without due process or appeal makes for a combination that caused many to think... Whaaaaa?)

It is not a "future." It is a freezing in place of two robotic conditions Eternal blissful praises and eternal torment. Since no actual events take place... no ambition, no endeavor, no accomplishment, what is to mark the passage of time? And how are either the blessed or the damned even remotely human, anymore?

Tony, LeGuin modeled her afterlife on the Greek one.

Rewinn, Original Sin is nowhere in the Jewish ethos. They consider that doctrine alone to have been horrid enough (to imagine that anyone but a lunatic would do such a thing!) that they suffered 2000 years of torment rather than insult God that way.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

Rewinn, Original Sin is nowhere in the Jewish ethos. They consider that doctrine alone to have been horrid enough (to imagine that anyone but a lunatic would do such a thing!) that they suffered 2000 years of torment rather than insult God that way.

Neither is Hell, for that matter, at least not the Christian version of it. It's been a long time since I last read the Torah, but I'm pretty sure eternal torment isn't in there.

Satan appears in the Book of Job, but he's more like a clever trickster--a Puck or a Loki character--than the "evil twin of God" we tend to think of these days. And the one thing the devil ISN'T (in the Old Testement) is the snake in the Garden of Eden. That's just a snake. An evil talking snake, sure (like something out of an Aesop's fable), but not The Devil Himself.

LarryHart said...


We might ask ourselves what is it about humanity that seems to enjoy being told that improvement is not possible;

Probably because it relieves us of any responsibility TO improve.

that we are doomed by our nature to have lords and peasants?

The authoritarian mindset. The few are happy with it because they fancy themselves to BE the lords, but many more are happy to attach themselves to a strong leader and strive for favors FROM him. I think of it as a version of what Dr Brin refers to as a "hypergamous surrender reflex."

Are there some people who simply enjoy being dogs subserviant to a pack leader,

Just think of the old guy in the dungeon in "Monty Python's Life of Brian". The one who is chained upside down, but keeps going on about what a great race the Romans are.

The Tea Party has much in common with that guy.

or are we all capable of being Uplifted? I dunno; I certainly prefer the latter but there are days when I throw up my hands! If nothing else, the Occupy/99% movement is suggesting that if you poke them long enough, even dogs will bark!

The bad guys always go that one step too far, don't they? Dr Brin keeps mentioning human traits that may prevent us from evolving into starfarers, but perhaps there are also self-correcting human traits as well , such as the tendency for evildoers to not be satisfied with the stuff they CAN get away with, always pushing the bounds until they call too much attention to themselves.

Could it be that Batman villains aren't as far off from real life as we think?

Barlennan said...

I grew up reading the hopeful SF, including Clement, Heinlein, Clarke, Anderson and so on. I can even remember the first SF book I ever read at seven years old, it ignited my sense of wonder like a thermite bomb had gone off in me.

So often their heroes were businessmen, big businessmen who wanted to do great things. Anderson's "The Man Who Counts", Heinlein's "The Man Who Sold the Moon" and so on.

I don't buy the hero billionaire businessman any more, I can't maintain my suspension of disbelief when someone puts that ridiculous caricature in front of me and expects me to ignore everything I see in the real world around me today. The billionaires are squeezing the life out of our society so they can have a fifth yacht or a gold plated 747 or a private ski slope in Dubai, wealth that would stagger Croesus.

I love Roddenberry's future but agree with what Pournelle said about Niven's State with the Long Peace, he didn't think it accurately reflected the way humans tend to interact so they went with Pournelle's Empire for Mote..

On the gripping hand, one lesson I have learned in the Galtian utopia that is the modern USA, if you take your eye off the ball of accumulating as much money as possible for one damn moment you're quite likely to end your life destitute, it really doesn't take much, one moderately severe illness or injury and you're done, insurance or no.

Thank The Invisible Hand (PBUH) that the Teabuggers managed to save us from the government getting involved in Medicare.

My hope that my grandkids would see a better world than I had fades on a daily basis, I fear the forces of stupidity in thrall to the forces of cupidity are just too powerful and worst of all they are as utterly relentless as a constrictor suffocating prey by tightening every time the prey exhales. Wretched excess is pathetically inadequate to satiate their greed.

Sometime during the Bush administration I stopped enjoying thinking about the future and started hating it. Like many changes we experience I didn't notice the change until sometime after it happened. I sat down to reread an old favorite one day and was shocked when I realized that rather than wonder I was getting anger..

Maybe it had to do with the fact that I spent much of the Bush administration feeling like the character at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, people I thought I knew as kind and gentle had turned into goosestepping conservabots.

I went to see the 2009 Star Trek movie with my grandkids, to my great surprise I spent the whole show either with tears running down my face or barely holding them back.

It wasn't that the movie was all that good, it was that the hopeful future it held forth was almost too painful to bear because I don't believe it any more.

Corey said...


I don't think Terra Nova counts as "looking back to a better age". Technically, it takes place in the past, but it's a unique case, in that the fact is a mere technicality.

The significance of the late Cretaceous is merely that it's a different locale, not that it's in the past; had the "portal" gone to another planet instead, the show would functionally be identical.

And since the premise of the show is that, even while capable of the worst mistakes, many of mankind's flaws are neither intrinsic nor inevitable, and mistakes CAN be learned from, I'd say that the show is potentially very forward-looking (the depending on where it ends up going).

Corey said...

Also, Jon Stewart put forward what I thought was a fantastic parody of the right's attitude toward science:

Rob said...

Speaking as a heterodox Christian with no stake in the idea of "Original Sin" as an article of faith, or in an Aristotelian division of the Hereafter into two static states, I disagree that the New Testament fails to impart a forward-looking view.

With Original Sin out of the Christian ethos, we'd be free to interpret the NT, say, while noting the historical irony with no small degree of sadness, as a set of documents written by heterodox Jews to other heterodox Jews.

(For example, how could one *not* see the lifting of dietary law depicted in Acts, or the Sermon on the Mount, as forward-looking, considering the fact that it reflects the lifestyles of Reform and many Conservative Jews today, doesn't it?)


LeGuin modeled her Earthsea afterlife after the Greek one, sure, and then she spent a book decrying it as created by ignorant men, and another one destroying it in favor of a more fantastic and dynamic existence.

David Brin said...

Barlennan -- you are so Heavy! Get it? Some of us recognize your screen name. ;-) Seriously, cheer up chum. Other generations won their phases of our civil war. We have what it takes. Cheering up is part of your road toward being useful to the revolution.

Rob, you can believe in Jesus without Original Sin. But Paul is another matter. And John of Patmos is right out.

Dietary laws weren't lifted. Jesus said "not one jot" of law would be changed. Moreover, hypocrites who cite two small, ambiguous passages to hate gays, but ignore SCORES of passages about pork and circumcision, deserve no cred.

What we can get from Jesus is prioritization. Rituals are LESS important than fundamentals like loving thy neighbor. That's pretty clear from Mark. (The only one of the gospels clearly written by an actual eyewitness.)

"LeGuin modeled her Earthsea afterlife after the Greek one, sure, and then she spent a book decrying it as created by ignorant men, and another one destroying it in favor of a more fantastic and dynamic existence."

Yep. THose men.
dang em.

David Brin said...


Debug said...

Any theme or outlook can work, if its done with thoughtfulness and craftmenship.

Sifting through the nonsense and garbage in this genre is such a monumental task one can't help but wonder if it is worth it anymore.

The real problem is thoughtlessness, poor writing, formulated writing, ulterior motives and a desire to place the authors politics into play as well as the necessity to model on the action movie.

The wonder and mystery of the universe seem to have no place in modern science fiction with a few exceptions.

Present company excluded from this rant - of course.

Thanks for the chance to comment.

Acacia H. said...

Having returned from the side of the mountain (without having shot any elk, though one night a herd of six elk cows and a calf almost ran through the camp - alas for not having a camera ready!), I find this most wondrous of topics waiting for me. And I find this ironic because part of the time I spent in the Ragged Mountains of Colorado I spent writing... and working out aspects of what changes would happen by the year 2030.

You see, Dr. Brin, as a member of the Cynics Club of Science Futurism, I have to disagree with you about the themes of optimism and cynicism in science fiction. Science Fiction's great ambition is not in the optimistic future... but in looking ahead. The setting of science fiction thus becomes a means of examining elements in today's society and reworking them so that people can accept them and in turn subconsciously realize that there are injustices in the world around us.

Take, for instance, the treatment of synthetic intelligences in the science fiction game "Mass Effect" (specifically, the Geth). The Geth were a race of slaves that gained intelligence (slowly educated themselves) and who them were attacked by their panicked creators who realized their race of slaves... were becoming self-aware. Could this not be a parallel to slavery (both traditional and wage-slavery) of various people throughout the history of this planet? And the warning is that when education is attained by the slaves... then trying to force the slaves down results in a massacre of the masters? (See Libya and several other Arabic/African states for current examples. Or even the 99% Protests and the employers who are realizing the proletariat are preparing to rise up... leaving the employers with the choice of supporting their brethren... or striking them and in turn being struck down by the resulting social tsunami.)

Science Fiction is about the future. But that future can be bad. It can also be good, mind you, but often in the "bad" scenarios, you have a greater opportunity for the heroes (and heroines) to prevail and maybe even bring about change. Their struggle becomes more heroic and their end something people look forward to seeing (for instance, seeing the decent future that the male protagonist from "Neuromancer" has achieved for himself... unlike the futures of other characters from the series).

I myself utilize the "dark future" with my science fiction writing. But that is because with the dark twisted reflection, I can point out flaws in current society. If, for instance, I were to take the current diseased aspects behind the Republican Party and the Tea Party and attribute it to Democrats (who are still reacting poorly to the assassination of a beloved Democratic President in 1996, resulting in an unexpected tyrant who rose from the Vice Presidency and has manipulated the party since then from behind the scenes), I would very likely get these conservatives to chortle and love every moment of it... while subconsciously starting to realize "he's talking about us, not Democrats."

Science Fiction is about using the future to examine the present... and to examine the possibilities of what can come from that present.

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews

gible: God's version of the Bible. It's much shorter and can be summed up to in five words: be nice to each other.

Acacia H. said...

And now on to... contemplation on the state of technology in the near-future!

One of the problems faced by science fiction writers is how dated their stories can get (unless set in the distant future, such as the Warhammer 40K novels). I've been realizing this as I'm pulling an old scifi novel out of a ten-year hiatus and rewriting it.

For instance, ten years ago I never would have thought of tablet computers... or of computers the size of cell phones. I could see miniaturized cell phones, sure, but that's thanks to Star Trek. ;) (You have to wonder... how much has Star Trek influenced technological innovation? For that matter... how much has science fiction itself inspired innovations?) And it dawned on me as I had a generic businesswoman talking on her cell phone before being purse-snatched, that in 20 years, cell phones will be self-contained in a simple headset (like a Bluetooth, or whatever they're called).

Likewise, computers could easily be condensed into three elements: LCD Glasses for a monitor, a smartphone processor, and a laser keyboard. The latter two might even be self-contained in one unit, meaning anyone could sit down at a table, put their computer before them, put on the LCD glasses, and start typing. The keyboard could double as a mouse by "hitting" the corner... and turning a keyboard into a touch-panel.

More complex systems could include gloves with sensors... allowing people to manipulate three-dimensional images that only they see through the LCD glasses, while the gloves send a signal to be processed by the smartphone. Memory for the computer system would be online (the Cloud), thus allowing the system to be simplified and for data to be protected from thieves (though hackers are a different problem).

Most books and magazines are replaced by color e-ink readers. They aren't capable of more than simple animations, but these e-readers would allow for a vast amount of information processing for those people who don't want to use up the charge on their LCD glasses... or suffer the eye-strain.

This isn't to say that print books are no longer available; they are. But rather than going to a bookstore and choosing an already-printed book, you go to a Print-on-Demand Kiosk, select the book you want (including ones that are out of print and the like) and order it. An hour later you pick up your printed and bound book.

So then, let's look at that purse snatcher. Why did he steal the businesswoman's purse? In 20 years it's likely credit cards and debit cards would quickly be canceled in the case of purse snatching. So then, the thief was after something else: hardware. That woman may very well have her LCD glasses, e-reader and smartphone in her purse (while her cellphone is on her ear and thus not easily accessible). Since most of the data of those systems is online, what's wanted is the hardware. Strip down the phone, e-reader, and glasses and you have replacement parts that can be sold on the black market or to unscrupulous vendors.

Rob H.

Acacia H. said...

Other technological aspects I considered was the use of "mecha" (which to me would be a medium-armored tank with four legs allowing for improved maneuverability in cities and the like) and powered armor (ie, "Iron Man" some of which is currently in development for use in the military). Seeing that my future was a "dark future" (though I'm wondering if it is? Sure, a horrific plague killed off 25% of the population of the U.S. in 1996, and the Democratic Party has gone nuts as a result (while remaining in power for the most part), but the nation as a whole remained intact and immigration from the rest of the world has allowed the population to rebound to pre-plague levels... in short, allowing me to take a distorted looking glass at today's society).

One thing I decided on was that the middle of Boston would be decimated by the plague and resulting fires (because when a city's firefighters all come down deathly ill, stopping fires is almost impossible). The "Burns" would be a breeding ground for street gangs using illegal mecha and power armor in their street fights... a state of affairs which came to a crashing end when they started fighting outside the Burns and the U.S. Army intervened. (I figure that a four-legged tank would still be vulnerable to helicopter gunships.)

But what state of affairs would allow the Burns to exist for 34 years? The simplest one of all: corruption. Given that a sizable number of people died across the U.S., the political will to rebuild everywhere would be lacking. However, there are some excellent possibilities for a smart businessman willing to get his hands dirty... by bribing public officials in dragging their heels to get things done, recruiting one of the larger gangs to act as a local police force... and building illegal factories in the Burns and using squatters as a labor force that are not subject to labor laws and the like.

In short, you don't need offshore contracting when you can use the desperate grey workers who aren't educated enough to realize their rights (especially if they're told they'll be deported if they're not careful)... and shipping costs are far less when it's done within the nation itself. No pesky import tariffs or the like either. (And yes, I realize that the street gang in question has become something akin to Blackwater. It's an interesting concept... and one I'd been toying with, the legitimation of a street gang into a private security force as the gang's leader realizes more money is available by going legit.)

Of course, there is one other thing to consider: the Federal response to crimes done with military-level hardware. I need to contact the FBI concerning investigation of technology and military weapon crimes as their current procedures could easily be modified to fit this science fiction future.

Rob H.

CardassianScot said...

Still, I must say that there is nothing NEw Testament about the Look Forward view. The better future is portrayed as handed to us. ("us"? The logic of Original Sin followed by human sacrifice followed by judgement without due process or appeal makes for a combination that caused many to think... Whaaaaa?)

It is not a "future." It is a freezing in place of two robotic conditions Eternal blissful praises and eternal torment. Since no actual events take place... no ambition, no endeavor, no accomplishment, what is to mark the passage of time? And how are either the blessed or the damned even remotely human, anymore?

Not too pleasant is it. Good job that's not what I think will happen then. I do admit that the vast majority of Christian's do believe this, but I think it owes more to Greek philosophy than to the Bible. My understanding of the end game, starts with the movements that grew from the OT. Here the hope was for a better this worldly kingdom where people actually lived the law rather than just paying lip service. Then there was the idea of resurrection that the godly dead would be raised to enjoy this along with the people alive at that time. For me the New Testament picture grows out of this. A kingdom on earth (transformed in some way) where people are enabled to live, grow, experience, endeavour and accomplish. It's not static. I think that exploration will be a part of that. I hope that some kind of future creation will be part of that. (As a scientist, it could hardly be bliss otherwise.)

In all of this, I see God as a partner. A much wiser, more knowledgeable and more powerful partner, but a partner none the less. For me God wants to work with us, wants to see us develop and wants to partner with us. I find this God in the Bible, where God responds to human ideas and incorporates those with us into the future. Obviously a lot of Christians don't see it that way.

To get into my theology of original sin would to much for here, but I take a broadly Wesleyan view, that while there was a fall God is at work in the world, with Christians and non Christians, enabling them to overcome this. Yes my beliefs mean that this ultimate future depends on God, but this doesn't mean things can't get better now, indeed there are two images of how the future is established in the Bible one where God has to directly step in and put things write and the other where things get better and better until God arrives. I believe the Bible presents both chances and says as a species choose, which way will it be. If aliens arrived right now and wanted to give us lots of technology to make things better, I wouldn't say no, I want to get there by myself. I'd say yes please let's see what we can do with this. That's my view of God giving us the future.

As for the view of the damned, as the Bible says that there are those who claim to be Christian but aren't, there are those who aren't Christian but who won't be "damned". For me the damned are those who once they are shown God's view of the kingdom (for many after death) reject it and want no part of it, they are given their wish. I then believe in annihilation, they can have just this life and then no more if they choose.

Tony Fisk said...

@Corey My comments on Terra Nova being the ultimate look-back were intended ironically. My 9yo daughter also liked the sight of little girl hand-feeding brachiosaurs by hand. I found it mildly amusing that big sister geekily proffered the information that brachiosaurs weren't strictly vegetarian; augmenting their diet with the occasional small mammal...

@Stefan. The average gaming fora would be populated with people there fur die action unt lootengrabben mit der knobblestaff unt snickersnee, rather than the more refined aspects of civilisation and boldly going. (Still, I think I know what you mean!) You might want to check up on stuff Jane McGonigal (aka avantgame) does instead.

@barlennan: it might cheer you up as well: people being the future.

CardassianScot said...

Thanks for the link to your video, I did agree with a lot of it.

I appreciate and often learn things about my faith through non Christians' views of the Bible. In not being constrained to live by it, they can often cut more quickly and accurately to the heart of what its about. Even if I end up not agreed, I always feel better having been challenged.

Corey said...


D'oh! I should have caught that, you made it obvious enough. That's what happens when lack of sleep gets combined with something far worse: lack of coffee :O


I empathize with your photography troubles. Early this year, I went on a short backpacking trip with a friend to the Greater Smokey Mountains National Park (which I'm fortunate enough to practically live next to), and there were so many elk around that if one had managed not to see them, one would probably bump into them.

Sadly, no matter how many Elk there were, the entire backdrop, everywhere, was nothing but brown forest, and shooting brown elk against brown forest was basically just guaranteed fail. It was frustrating to say the least.

About the only upshot was finally getting to play outdoors with one of Tamron's new 70-300 lenses, which performed amazingly (well beyond Canon's consumer lens in that range), even with nothing to shoot at! I just didn't leave with much of worth...

sivilce nasıl geçer said...

i like science

Alex Tolley said...

"[The Handmaid's Tale] had many merits! But realistic plausibility was not a trait to brag about, distinguishing it from science fiction"

I think almost all SF has a lot of plausibility problems. Despite the aims of the better SF writers to do "world building", the efforts usually fall short. Almost any imagined world has logic flaws that can be picked apart by the reader. It's inevitable, as Sir Walter Scott knew when he expressed the lines:

"Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!"

Rob said...

David, I'm not ignorant of the source and interpretive problems present in the Pauline epistles or the Revelation. Having read some of the Greek text of the Revelation, I think it's one of the worst-translated books in the NT.

Now I grant that modern Christian eisegesis (my group included!) is as thick on the ground as the humus layer of a rainforest, and just as pungently composed! And Christians of all stripes don't take transmission error sufficiently into account (though the clearest of the thinkers really do).

And I have my own differences with you on how to interpret the dietary stuff, although I note that you, yourself, have said you don't keep kosher because the circumstances (refrigeration and preparation, as well as a pile of social safety law) have changed, a position entirely consistent with Peter's vision for Christians all those years ago.

Besides, you're not addressing my point head-on: there are interpretive approaches to the NT that aren't troglodytic. And there's a red herring: You've used the abuse of the Old Testament to level a charge of hypocrisy, when I'm talking about the New.

It would be impossible to have the society you defend as fading from us, without the forward-looking New Testament: Darwin was trained using it, for example.

Unknown said...

Moreover 70% of males in North America would have died fighting to prevent the scenario she portrays so chillingly in The Handmaid's Tale.

You sure? I can easily imagine Mississippi changing its name to Gilead, especially if they pass the Personhood Amendment.

Acacia H. said...

@Corey: The primary roadblock I had in photographing things was I didn't realize I'd used up the charge in both batteries prior to going up there. Then again, I was hunting, primarily, not taking pictures. One of the people in our camp got an elk (doing everything you're not supposed to - he went out late in the morning with a hangover, had just walked off the ATV path by 100 yards and stumbled across the elk. And despite the openness of the location spent 30 minutes looking for the animal because it went down behind some logs), so we have meat at least.

Though I must admit, I'm looking forward to the new digital cameras coming out that have a refocus ability. You take a picture and then can digitally manipulate the image to focus on different areas. It looks quite interesting, and I have to wonder how it works in active regions (such as having a half dozen Elk run past you on the side of a small ridge).

Rob H.

Carl M. said...

@Barlennan: Look up Elon Musk. Talk about a Heinleinian hero. Richard Branson ain't no slouch either.

Corey said...

I imagine one would eat well for quite a long time from an elk; those things are huge.

The refocus idea is interesting, but to be honest, I'm not convinced of the practicality. A lack of focus in pictures is rarely a cause of lost shots (motion blur, on the other hand, hits everyone). Pictures also tend to be composed in such a way that there's really not many ways you could focus it and still get a good picture. I don't think I've ever taken many pictures where there are that many elements that could be the primary point of focus, and still have the picture work.

Besides, it loses one versatility. I doubt you could ever pack such a system into a telephoto lens, or a zoom lens, not without introducing impractical amounts of weight.

Me, I'm more impressed by things like ultrasonic zoom motors and smaller lenses. A friend of mine has a Fuji HS-10, and it's amazing. Fixed lens, and contrast focus, but seems to use an ultrasonic motor, so it's actually a fast contrast focus, and it has a 30x zoom with good optical quality.

Cameras are starting to do amazing things, in all segments.

Carl M. said...

@David: You keep citing Star Trek, but I suggest you consider just how conservative the original Star Trek was. That's right, conservative. Star Trek is the future where the Singularity didn't happen, and that's a good thing.


* Human built computers are quite limited in power (save for one episode which resulted in destroying several starships).

* Medicine hasn't kept pace with space travel. "He's dead Jim!"

* No Federation robots other than the Nomad space probe.

* Experiments on upgrading the human genome ended after the 1990s.

An oft repeated theme in the series is the importance of staying human despite advances in technology. Our primitive nature is to be tolerated, or even treasured. Note how Kirk was rendered ineffectual when the asshole side of his personality was split off by the transporter. Note how often Spock fails when put in charge despite being stronger, tougher, and more intelligent by far than any other crewmember.

The writers of the show portray a human non-Singularity future not out of ignorance, but intent. Numerous post-Singularity alien civilizations are portrayed: some successful, many failed.

sociotard said...

Dr. Brin, off topic, but could you satisfy a fannish question? In 'Kiln People', you talk about the purple wage. I just found out that was from another scifi book, written way back when. Did you get permission or pay a licensing fee or what? I'm just curious how that worked.

Back to topic.

I sort of wonder if making the future better might be making it worse.

There's this line in Moby Dick where Ishmael is in a very cold room but snuggled deep in his blankets. "For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which
is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich."

Essentially, having just a bit of himself exposed to the cold made the pleasure of the warm blankets better.

At least one of the perspectives on the fall is that it is better that we should pass through sorrow that we may know good from evil. That is, without sin, we cannot really understand virtue. Without suffering, we cannot appreciate pleasure.

Take a look at the "happiness metrics". Why is the United States so far behind Nigeria? Maybe it is because we have too many of the 'luxurious discomforts of the rich'.

Maybe it is impossible to have a truly better or worse future. If we suffer plagues, that's bad, but we'll appreciate health and life in a way we couldn't otherwise. (remember that scene in Cocoon where the alien dies, and the leader experiences something he hasn't in a long time?)

(Of course, I say that with a full belly in good health while employed in an interesting job in a warm building, and no plans to change any of that)

Stefan Jones said...

We can call the setting of Star Trek "conservative" TODAY, but please don't retcon thoughts into the heads of 1960s teleplay authors.

The show had many stories about avoiding dark paths and folly, but it wasn't fundamentally anti-progress.

I know of ONE SF story from the era of Original Trek that dabbled around the edges of the notion of the singularity. Frederik Pohl's "Day Million." A love story, sort of. (Metal-skinned cyborg spacer meets prenatally transgendered otter woman; they fall in love, exchange "analogues" [virtual reality images], never see each other again, but boff each other virtually when it strikes their fancy.) The story is just a scaffold for Pohl's rant about the nature of progress and what it will do to the face of the future once it goes near-asymptotic.

"Sometime during the Bush administration I stopped enjoying thinking about the future and started hating it. "

Sometime during the Bush administration I stopped investing in High Tech and started buying shares in companies that sell soft drinks, junk food, lottery machines and alcohol. Because any country that would elect that putz is one where gluttony, delusion, and vice are big business!

'doluis': Kind of feeling that way right now.

LarryHart said...

Thinking out loud here on one of my favorite subjects (yes, much more than politics)--science fiction.

My parents knew I would be a sci-fi fan long before I was old enough to know what the term meant. The two writers they most talked about were HG Wells and Jules Verne. I knew OF these authors' books long before I was actually exposed to the books.

Interestingly enough, the submarines and moon rockets that Verne wrote about were every bit as fantastical (at the time) as Wells's time machines and invisibility. Yet so much of what Verne wrote about actually came to pass, whereas so much of what Wells wrote about did not.

I got my early sci-fi fixes from comic books, a few movies, and maybe the occasional published short story, but I didn't read an actual science fiction NOVEL until high school and Arthur Clarke's "Childhood's End". I had a deep reverence for that book, and I could see a lot of what I had been missing in that book. Clarke did a very good job of...not really PREDICTING the future so much as presenting a PLAUSIBLE possible future. Science definitely played a role in the plot...near-light travel as well as the many humanitarian advances broght by the Overlords. And yet, "Childhood's End" is anything BUT optimistic in it's look at the future. Certainly nothing along the lines of my other Clarke favorite "Imperial Earth" in that regard. Had "Childhood's End" not been my "first love" in the genre, I might have been more turned off by where it all led at the end.

David Brin said...


==Robert et al... why is it that folks read my description of the Look Forward view and associate it with "optimism?" Can you find that word anywhere in my essay?

I thought I made very clear that I admired self-preventing prophecies like 1984 and tragedies like Soylent Green. True, I portray them as HELPFUL in their criticism. They are tragic precisely because the message is "this does not have to happen." I suppose you could call that underlying premise "optimism" but the word is entirely too fizzy for me.

"Science Fiction is about using the future to examine the present... and to examine the possibilities of what can come from that present."

Read my essay again and see that we agree.

Your future tech missive was cool. See it reified in EXISTENCE!

Your dystopia has cool imagery, but it's hard to see the mecha gangs operating for long without maintenance from a civilization.

== David, although they seem kooky in many ways, you gotta hand some things to the Mormons. Their view of the afterlife is graduation to further endeavor. To work. TO use what you learned to help accomplish more things. In some ways it is a hybrid of Christianity and Hindu reincarnation.

The highest of these next-tasks is to be a god of another creation.

Your exegesis of Original Sin, the Fall and repair work is of course more modern and bearable than the Graeco-Paulian version. The Jews believe the world is damaged and that God expects us to help repair it. That is even more compatible with the theology that I presented in my Speech.

(I assume after all of this that you have watched it?)

Alas, your "show them even after death" out means that any reasonable non-masochist would choose bliss over anihilation, and thus it seems almost a tautology, a way to write off the obscenity called damnation and simply say "never mind!" Very modern and I approve. But all generations of Christian leaders before us would call it heresy.

== Tony, I muttered the "eat small mammals" riff the 1st time I watched Jurrassic Park! Note, every scene with a herbivore had "wonder" music! Every scene with a carnivore had "ominous" music! Um... duh? Make... the... herbivores... first?

Make the other guys ten years after the security is all worked out? Duh? Ah, Crichton.

==Alex... I should preach about PLAUSIBILITY? Have you ever read Kiln People? Plausibility ain't it's top virtue! ;-) But logical reification of a premise is another matter. LOTS of that!

==Bonnie, Gilead might creep up in some places. But all at once? Alabama women would knife anyone who tried that. And never, ever ever in California. My daughter is a 2nd degree black belt and my wife is an NRA pro marksman with a rifle. Oh, and my sons and I ain't chopped liver.

No, Atwood slandered us all for the sake of a story. A pretty good story! But plausible?

David Brin said...

==SOciotard... mention of the purple wage was an homage. Nobody sues over an homage! Indeed, it was meant as an ironic tribute... for those who caught it.

Good points about comparative discomfort. My daughter is transitioning from CA suburb-paradise to northeastern cold in a single room with two other messy girls. And loving it.

Carl M. said...

@Stephan: retconning? Moi? I think not! A sizeable fraction of the original episodes are warnings about following certain technological paths.

The pilot: don't create a fantasy world. (Just replace telepathy with video games...)

Miri: a civilization destroyed due to attempts at immortality

The Enemy Within: Kirk needs his barbaric side to function

The Ultimate Computer: bad idea

The Seed: Eugenics experiments during the 20th century leads to a bunch of Hitlers. This line of research has since been cut off.

[The episode where we meet the inventor of the warp drive]: McCoy reacts in religious shock when the alien cloud being restores the dying woman's life -- and the alien agrees with the wrongness. The restoration required a merger.

Yes, the show was actively liberal in many ways: especially regarding sex and racism. But it was also consciously conservative: do go this far, but not farther, at least not without a few centuries to contemplate the consequences.

The show was well populated with robots, intelligent computers and self-modified people. But they were aliens, usually from a mostly dead civilization.

Gamesters of Triskelion: three disembodied brains gamble using primitive lives

[Tremain episode]: An immature transhumanoid plays with the Enterprise crew.

I Mudd: Benevolent androids threaten to take care of us a la Williamson's The Humanoids.

[Landroo Episode]: alien civilization robotized by a supercomputer build by an idealist attempting to ensure peace. (And there is another episode whose name I don't recall where the aliens have been reduced to worshipping an ancient computer like a god.)

This list is incomplete.

Tacitus said...

Well I am going to give Tolkien a free pass (Lewis too). If he looked back to a Golden Age it is because the world he knew and loved bled to death on the Somme to gain a few yards of mud...only to refight the same enemy a generation later.

Notice how SciFi, born in the England of H G Wells has atrophied there since?

There are just certain cultural times and places that produce-accurately-literature that reflects profound loss. Late Roman Empire, post contact Native American would be other examples.

No discredit to JRR..he was a genius. But he reflected the world he lived in. And note in his forward that of all his close college friends only he and one other chap survived the war.


David Brin said...

Tacitus I say exactly that about Tolkien.

Carl, you miss the point. Kirk was genetically engineered to be able to talk dangerous computers into committing suicide!

Count the times....

Stefan Jones said...

Most of those are what I had in mind as awful warning stories, Carl.

Those other-societies which the screenwriters created for our edification were never intended to represent the dangers of the singularity. They were isolated object lessons. Dark alleys and follies.

This sort of drama was old hat by the time of The Original Series.

Now, fast forward a few decades, to one of the later "Treks", and there is active evidence of technology repression. Was it Deep Space Nine, where we learn that Doctor Bashir had had illegal gene mods as a youth, and was blackmailed by a Federation black ops outfit into doing dirty work for them? It is apparent that there is a ferocious effort to keep a genetic status quo.

But there's apparently no similar effort to keep the state of AI and robots backwards. Data and Lore were one-offs that some super-genius made.


If we were to invent a new Spaceship Series for TV from the ground up, knowing what we know, discarding as much of the accumulated Golden Age of Television crap and cruft and tropage as we could . . .

. . . oh, yes, there'd you'd almost have to have some kind of conservative society. Because if we don't snuff ourselves out, or drown in our own crap, the high strangeness and unpleasant revelations that unfettered, asymptotically progressing science and technology would bring to the future would make the whole Going Boldly Forth thing utterly irrelevant.

TheMadLibrarian said...

I am an unashamed proponent of the good parts of Star Trek, especially the hopeful future. One of the basic tropes of Star Trek is that progress is a good thing, but technological progress needs to be accompanies by social progress as well. Go too far one direction, and you end up with the proverbial mad-brain-inna-jar. Go the other direction, and you end up with people like the Vulcans, who had to discipline themselves to emotional mastery and logic, or their unfettered passions might have wiped out their world (according to some parts of ST canon). One of the most touching themes of ST:NG is Data's quest to understand and become more human. We need to use the best parts of both technology and humanity to grow.


Dueuct: precursor to Jeffries Tubes

Carl M. said...

Ah the irony:
Steve Jobs: A One Percenter, Gordon Gekko In Turtleneck

Gotta love how the liberal media lionizes one of the most Randian characters of our time.

Meanwhile, the villainous Bill Gates gives away billions...

JuhnDonn said...

Hi Folks,

In light of the Star Trek discussion, what do y'all think of Firefly. I didn't care for it at first but after repeated watchings at friends houses, I started getting the characters and interplay. Overall, it feels like Tolkien in a way (and yeah, my screen name is Elvish, from way back when I was 10 and getting into D&D): Fun but kinda' a downer.

As for SciFi from Britain, what about James White and his Sector General stories? Oops, he's Irish. My bad.

Rob said...

"Firefly" is a Western, set in space, where everyone swears in Chinese.

The British are still making fun Sci-Fi. Love that new Doctor Who. Would love the Torchwood stuff (absurd and fun) more if they didn't tart it up so much.

CardassianScot said...

Yes, I have watched the video. I liked your view of Babel, while it was new to me it resonated with me. I do disagree with you on Revelation, but then I disagree with most popular Christian thought on Revelation. Basically I take the view that Revelation was written to a persecuted church to give them the message, hold on to your faith, don't give in to violence and fight back even under threat of death. If you do that then you will ultimately win and you will have a place in God's future. It is written to take up the OT images of war and destruction and put a new spin on it in light of the cross.

It probably won't surprise you that my theology is often less problematic to some of my Mormon and Atheist friends than some of my Christian ones. While I certainly may have been branded a heretic, some of these views do go back to the early church fathers.

Anyway, I'll try not to derail this any more. On the subject of science fiction, as Gilmoure mentioned Firefly is a bit odd, or maybe not. It definitely has progress in terms of technology, yet humans themselves don't seem to have improved much. The same problems and the same issues still seem to be there. Does it fall in the middle?

Tony Fisk said...

I think one of the defining moments of recent sf (can anything pre-9/11 be considered recent?) was B5's Capt. Sheridan standing up to the massed fleets of the meddling Vorlon/Shadow over-beings and telling them to 'get the hell out of our galaxy!' (Kinnision never said that to the Arisians although, to be fair, they left of their own accord)

Maybe recently, we've had 'Thor' getting a solid boot to his dieties, and having his ideas woken up a little. (Interesting end scene with Heimdall at his post on a shattered Bifrost, watching humans working on their version of 'bridge' technomagery.)

(JMS is on record as saying he 'likes to be subversive' in his story-telling)

Carl M. said...

I have to agree that there is something sick about British SF. The one novel by Ian Banks (Consider Phlebas) was as sick as Norman Spinrad at his sickest (The Men in the Jungle), minus the wit, and minus having any point. Alastair Reynolds comes in second place for sick, but at least he writes well and has some interesting things to throw in with his disgusting view of humanity's future. If this is the kind of thinking that results from militant secularism, I'll side with Pat Robertson. (And hey, Pat is calling for legal dope these days.)

Aaron Wood said...

I see an interesting parallel being early Heinlein and Firefly. Mainly that mankind cannot be contained and must continually expand outwards with eagerness. Although there's also the late Heinlein expansion undercurrent as well.

I think Firefly was optimistic, but cautionary (with Serenity taken as well). And I've never felt that SF that was a cautionary tale was necessarily pessimistic. I think it's more of a case of trying to say "beware of these pitfalls as you progress".

But then I see a lot of SF and Fantasy that's more about the local tale of a single person's growth than the epic tale of a society's growth. And, as a reader, I find both equally satisfying. The epic tale of a society's growth (Foundation series) just can't have the level of personal growth seen in Frodo and Sam.


Robert, for your burned out city center, look to Detroit for some inspiration. They STILL haven't rebuilt much of downtown after 44 years. Over 400 building burned badly enough to require condemning (but many weren't torn down). I remember going to Detroit in the 90s and being amazed at the blocks of burned out buildings still standing.

Unfortunately, Flint is also heading in the same direction, due to the extremely high unemployment, and the utter inability of the police dept to do anything (6 officers on duty for a city of 100K is untenable).

Aaron Wood said...


"parallel BETWEEN"


"parallel being"


Tacitus2 said...

Although Brit TV is a special case. Some fun, if low rent SciFi. Dr Who, Red Dwarf, etc. Different market pressures there. None of it is really more imaginative than US TV SciFi, probably less so. In contrast, other Brit TV is an incubator for innovative ideas that cross the pond. Some well (Office) others mediocre (Survivor) and a few bombs that need not be mentioned.

Written Brit SciFi...when I travel I am always looking, and what I have found is poor stuff. Doubtless there are gems out there, but overall the lode is not high grade ore.


duncan cairncross said...

Re- British SF

on the UK side we have
Alastair Reynolds
Peter F Hamilton
Ken Macleod
Terry Pratchett
(I don't like Ian Banks)
With 10 times the population the USA has???
Dr Brin,
John Varley
Vernor Vinge
And a lot of others - but not 40 top class writers

I don't think the UK is behind in SF writers

As far as visual media is concerned Dr Who and Torchwood kind of outnumber everything else

duncan cairncross said...

its only 5 times the population

The point still stands - there are more good SF writers in the USA than in the UK BUT not 5 times as many

Acacia H. said...

Woody: Thank you. I'll have to do some research on Detroit and the state of decay in that city. I'd not been aware of it, or else I'd likely have utilized it on purpose for my storytelling (in moving the Burns from Detroit to Boston, you help distance it as well for the lessons being told).

Dr. Brin: I think it's because you talk about "looking forward" and then comment on the cynicism of conservatism. The opposite of cynicism is often considered to be optimism and thus it's convenient to think in terms of "optimism" with "looking forward" seeing that "looking back" was attributed to conservatism.

As for my "mecha-armed gangs" they were going to have contacts with the outside world. One scene I have planned has a gang fight ambush between the Sandars and the Xebos (two of the gangs I have in Boston, with the Xebos as the gang that is moving closer to legitimacy by policing their area and not allowing its members to sell or use drugs) with a Sandar mecha pilot grumbling about the cheap state of Brazilian mecha when everyone knows the Japanese have the best military mecha. (Which is of course a nod to all the animes with giant fighting robots and the like.) (It also shows just how dangerous panicking can be in this situation... and the threat that a mid-level telekinetic can be to these machines by "clogging" weapons with solidified air - just enough to cause weapon jams. Though the psyker in question is hurt in the fight even as she hides behind a building.)

In short, the gangs DO have contacts with civilization outside the Burns, using the drug trade in most cases to generate the revenues needed for those purchases (though I could see the drug cartels utilizing these machines in their war against the U.S. DEA and the local equivalents, and selling used mechas to U.S. gangs to help "distract" U.S. government eyes to a local level. Given the current state of stealthy fiberglass transport subs used by the cartels, having one sneak into the U.S. and dropping off drugs and other equipment to their patsies up North is doable.)

One thing I've been doing with "Stalking the Wolf" is trying to work out the state of technology over the next 20 years. It's not exactly easy. I can extrapolate things from current innovations... but I never would have guessed at the iPhone (which I suppose was an expansion from the iPod). No doubt there are other such innovations that are just around the corner which will prove equally world-altering. (For instance, the recent discovery of an alloy that allows for a lower-power splitting of water into oxygen and hydrogen, which could jumpstart the "hydrogen economy" and allow fuel cell vehicles to be a realistic replacement for hydrocarbon-fueled vehicles.)

(By the way, if anyone else wants to toss out some possible innovations that they could see being big in the next twenty years, I'd love to hear them. While I'm overly imaginative, my imagination is limited by my knowledge pool, which despite my job is still far too limited for my own taste. But I suppose knowing everything is nearly impossible.)

BTW, Dr. Brin, when is "Existence" coming out, and will it be available through the Nook? (My poor bookcase can't take much more, and it's been double-stacked with paperbacks and reaches to the ceiling! Perhaps I should have bought a couple bookshelves from Borders when they closed....)

Rob H.

LarryHart said...

Still attempting a stab at the question at hand, "How to define science-fiction."

As Dr Brin points out, through most of human history, storytelling and fiction implicitly contained fantasy/supernatural/magic as part of the experience--something to make the stories larger than life.

It seems to me that sci-fi builds on this tradition, but with a subtle (perhaps insidious) difference--rather than the element of "fantasy" being something ONLY available in fiction, the reader can actually dare to imagine that the stuff in the story can happen in the mundane world.

Of course, there are levels of this. Dr Brin rightly mentions his own "Kiln People" (I'm reading it right now) as one whose scientific advances are not very likely to actaully be developed. I mentioned HG Wells's time machine and human invisibility as examples of the same sort of thing--where the "science" seems unlikely. Then again, we've got Jules Verne who wrote about submarines and moon rockets back when such things were mostly fantastical, doubtless helping to inspire the real things. In our recent lifetime, flip-phones were consciously desinged to mimic the communicators of Star Trek.

So keeping to one of Dr Brin's favorite themes--science fiction retains the element of wonder and fantasy that was always the realm of fiction. But in the old days, the implication to the reader was always "You can ONLY get this sort of thing through fiction because it just doesn't happen in real life", science-fiction dares to let the reader imagine that the world really CAN be such a place.

Stefan Jones said...

"Gotta love how the liberal media lionizes one of the most Randian characters of our time."

Actually, online liberal media have been full of "careful who you hero-worship" stories.

Tony Fisk said...

Does ex-pat. Brit. Neil Gaiman get shared? His stuff is quirky, but certainly not drear or retrograde.

For the record, Australian sf currently has (among several others):
- Terry Dowling
- Sara Douglass
- Sean McMullen
- Sean Williams
- Gary Egan
- Cherry Wilder

Most of it still tends to set itself apart by placement (spaceships in the outback? Kangaroo-like aliens? Oh, Australian SF!) There is some stuff worth pursuing, though.

Dowling takes setting to extremes in his 'Rynnosseros' series, although the landscape is abstract, and changed beyond recognition. (Given your take on how SF is received in English departments, David, it might interest you to know that Dowling *is* an English teacher. He does games as well)

Douglass' 'Crucible' does a Pulman-like re-telling of the war in Heaven at around the time of the Black Death.

McMullen's Mirrorsun books are steam-punky fun* in SE Australia, (if a little 'Randian' from the descriptions of 'Atlas Shrugged'. I'm a sucker for signal towers**, though: the only good bit of 'Pavane', just to further the case for dreary Brit SF)

Egan has been discussed before; probably the biggest proponent of 'hard' sf around here at the moment. Eats romantics for breakfast.

*Warning: contains villainous cetaceans!
**Apart from the socio-political issues, People Mike is one reason I find the occupy movement so interesting.

Stefan Jones said...

The new generation of U.K. space opera authors has given the genre a much-needed shot in the arm.

FWIW: Iain M. Banks's "Culture" setting can only be described as ferociously, aggressively liberal. But most of the stories are set at the uncomfortable fringes of the Culture, where its (ruthless!) defenders rub up against implacable foes.

MacLeod is fascinating: A technophile marxist (!?!?!) who spins great tales.

No mention of Charles Stross? A sophisticated and restrained explorer of the Singularity, who has also written sophisticated fantasy.

Peter Hamilton . . . um, I just tried one of his novels and had to stop. Not badly written, but there was something cringe-inducingly mundane about his future.

David Brin said...

Rob Existence will be out in June. Don't worry, I'll be nagging you all to tell all your friends! ;-)

Carl Said: " Gotta love how the liberal media lionizes one of the most Randian characters of our time.Meanwhile, the villainous Bill Gates gives away billions.."

Heh! Your quirky fresh perspectives are welcome! Made me go huh! And yes, Jobs seems... randian in some ways. But you neglect the degree to which Gates is actually becoming quite an admired fellow. He is often spoken of in pair with his pal Buffett. They are both clearly democrats. So do be careful.

Tony I visited Perth a year or so before Greg Egan "appeared" on the scene... even though nobody seems to have ever met him and he works out of a PO box....

Coincidence? I have been accused of... well... I don't mind the rumors. He's a great writer! ;-)

Don't leave out Jack Dann!

Howie said...

The "look back attitude" is certainly prevalent in the bible, maybe even dominant... but there are counter-examples as well. I have a vivid memory of my Hebrew Bible professor in undergrad, Dr. Gordon Brubacher, talking about Genesis 3:22-24, and how the sword "flaming and turning" meant that the only path for humanity to regain closeness with the divine was forward; not back to the Garden, but out into the desert and beyond, and that it would be a hard road. -h

"22 Then the LORD God said, "See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever" — 23 therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life."

sivilce nasıl geçer said...

thanks a lot

Tacitus said...


For a few more authors to seek out, thanks. Perhaps Brit Sci Fi is making a comeback?

As to the mundane future you encountered in a recent read, it brings to mind a thought I had recently...

How many Sci Fi creations, written or TV/Movie, actually create interesting, fully developed "worlds"?

Although not SciFi I have to give credit to Tolkein, his world is so fully developed that on some level I actually believe it exists somewhere!

This is what engaged me in the Uplift universe, it had internal logic, structure, plausible loose ends...basically reasons why things happened independent of the author just makin' stuff up. A good scifi or fantasy world takes on its own life.

Excluding horrid, hellish dystopias none of us would care to visit, how many others are there?

(Star Trek TNG would seem to fit, TOS was a rough draft and later iterations overdid it...)

Others to nominate?


Anonymous said...

Tacitus, how about Dune? To me that's the closest SF has come to Lord of the Rings, though I suppose it’s more of a science fantasy like Star Wars.

To be honest I can't think of any science fiction that is all of these: optimistic, realistic and good. I guess I’m one of those who finds techno-optimism shallow and unappealing in general. Maybe the root of the problem is that for all our supposed progress, death still claims us all and entropy destroys all our creations before very long. The basic facts of the human condition haven’t been changed by technology. The universe just doesn’t seem to be constructed in a way that is conducive to a lot of optimism, so I don’t know why anyone would insist on optimistic science fiction.

And as far as I’m concerned Star Trek is far more of a fantasy than LOTR, because not only does it completely disregard the laws of physics and give us a galaxy full of English-speaking humanoids with funny foreheads, but it posits a future in which humanity has remained unchanged except that they have magically eliminated religion, greed and evil from the human equation. What kind of 20th century secular liberal fantasy world is this? In a hundred years people will still be reading and enjoying Tolkien, but I doubt very much that they’ll be enjoying Star Trek or Campbellian science fiction, which ages quite poorly in comparison.

LarryHart said...


Although not SciFi I have to give credit to Tolkein, his world is so fully developed that on some level I actually believe it exists somewhere!
Excluding horrid, hellish dystopias none of us would care to visit, how many others are there?
Others to nominate?

I see the next poster already took what was going to be my immediate suggestion..."Dune". So I'll just second that nomination, with the caveat that I'm thinking primarily of the first novel, with very limited knowledge of the many sequels.

David Brin said...

Howie, thanks for that tweak of my upstart re-interpretation of Genesis 3. Yes, you and I see the sword as saying "Not this route. Take the longer, hard path and learn a lot and get back here that way."

But you can see how in cruder, less confident times this was taken as rejection... even that abominable idea: Original Sin. It will be a long, hard road getting people to take our interpretation.

Sean, you are right that ST uses funny foreheads to cheaply telegraph alienness and that was schlock. But viewers adjusted. Alas, because they looked so similar, it then made SEX with aliens an obvious topic and any thought of rejecting that was analogous to homophobia and so you had them all stop being aliens and simply more races of humans and that stank.

Still, have you actually read my Tolkien essay? It might widen your eyes.

Dune was magnificent! But 96% of readers missed Herbert's point that he was portraying a nightmare dystopia, in which the Atreides are "good" only by comparison to vampire-like monsters. The galaxy would be best-off if the Emperor, Landsraad, Bene Geserit and Guild all meet on a planet that then blows up.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

Dune was magnificent! But 96% of readers missed Herbert's point that he was portraying a nightmare dystopia, in which the Atreides are "good" only by comparison to vampire-like monsters. The galaxy would be best-off if the Emperor, Landsraad, Bene Geserit and Guild all meet on a planet that then blows up.

Now I'm going to echo your "Who said I was talking about optimism?" question with my own "Who said I meant it would be good to LIVE in the world of 'Dune'?" My point was simply that Herbert created a universe full of history, culture, language, folklore, etc that seemed real.

I'm guessing that "Herbert's point" had a lot to do with what he presented in the sequels, and that in many ways "Dune" itself was just a more or less standard, recognizable adventure story meant to comfortably immerse readers INTO his universe. Or maybe not. In any case, to this reader, "Dune" is to the bigger saga as "Star Wars" is to the six-movie series in just about every way.

I also give Herbert props for...well, you call the villains "vampire-like monsters", but he DOES flesh them out into three-dimensional characters better than I've seen in most of that type of action/adventure genre. Certainly the relationships between the Baron and his nephew, or between both of them and Thufir Hawat are quite complex and interesting.

Still, I give you personally the highest marks for well-characterized villains for the Holnist bad guys in "The Postman", not to mention the antagonists of "Kiln People" which I'm in the middle of my second reading and I STILL can't remember just exactly who is on which side.

Paul451 said...

"meaning anyone could sit down at a table, put their computer before them, put on the LCD glasses, and start typing."

That seems awfully convoluted.

Carrying around separate devices is already annoying, you won't convince people to carry three separate components just to replace a currently integrated tablet/laptop.

And if using a projected keyboard why not project the main display onto the surface? An browser interface would get more use than a fixed keyboard-display.

Actual experience of any head-mounted/glasses display suggests people don't like them. Even when logic says it should give a better, more immersive experience. Contrast the success of Nintendo's Gameboy with the utter failure of the 3d Virtual Boy.

And if we ever did come up a workable glasses-displays, it would have to be an integrated smartphone/tablet. It won't work just as a separate display. (Display screens, plus Kinect-like sensor for typing and pointing. Nano-projector-plus-Kinect-surface-mapping on the glasses to project the screen for IRL collaboration. Anything less than that level of integration pretty much excludes any head-mounted display. In the same way that tablets failed until touchscreens, networking and processors reached a sufficient level.)

"More complex systems could include gloves with sensors..."

<chokes> "Power glove". See Virtual Boy's failure and cube it.

Kinect-like gesture tracking, or touch-screens. Pick one. We will never wear data-gloves.

(butsfgna: The third worst insult my budgerigar knows.)

Paul451 said...

"That woman may very well have her LCD glasses, e-reader and smartphone in her purse (while her cellphone is on her ear and thus not easily accessible)."

"Smartphone" and "cellphone"? Huh? "e-reader" and "LCD glasses"? You really don't do integration, do you?

Also, how is something "not easily accessible" on the side of your head.

Also, it seems to me that we're not far away from universal anti-theft measures in all smart devices. Given the prevalence of GPS/motion-sensors/proximity-networking, etc etc, thieves will soon end up with nothing but screaming strobing inaccessible device broadcasting the their image and location to police, while bricking itself.

Hell, a $500 handbag itself is likely to make a better target. (And soon just as likely to have a tracker in it.)

"In 20 years it's likely credit cards and debit cards would quickly be canceled"

In 20 years, it's likelier cards won't exist. Proximity transaction sensors are being built into next-gen smartphones. Your phone will be your payment device. (I DoNotWant, except it promises P2P.)

Re: Battle-Mechs.
I just don't see them happening before we take soldiers off the battlefield altogether.

Re: Future tech.
Awesome technology #1197: Electro-adhesive. Sticks to anything, metal, wood, glass, works through dust. By SRI International.

"...This means that a square meter of electroadhesive could hold at least 200kg (440 lbs) while only consuming 40 milli-Watts, and could turn on and off at the flick of a switch!"

Awesome old technology #112: Electro-permanent magnets. Electromagnets that don't need power after being turned on.

Future-tech: Combine the two via meta-materials. Electro-permanent static-adhesive. Sticks to anything, but doesn't use power once stuck.

Paul451 said...

Mexican Zetas drug cartel kidnapped a member/associate/friend of Anonymous.

Anonymous threatened to declare war on Zetas. Will publish cartel names/finances, names of corrupt contacts, if friend/etc is not released by Nov 5.

Tres tres cyberpunk.

(mozoty: Russian slang for this sort of thing.)

Carl M. said...

I'm aware the Bill Gates is a Democrat. And it is good to see that some in the liberal media have noted Jobs' Mr. Burns aspects.

But many in the liberal media are lionizing Jobs/Apple and many have done so in the past. I don't think Bill Gates has mellowed all that much. From the bio I read, Gates was every loyal to his employees and friends, even if he could be rough in his criticisms. And most of the time Microsoft epitomized the foster competition ethos David espouses. Microsoft succeeded because its software was cheap, and Microsoft worked hard to support third party developers.

As much as I curse the klunkiness of many Microsoft products, I use them because of these two features.

Carl M. said...

As for fully developed worlds, I would recommend Jack Vance's rather extensive, if vague in timeline, future history. Vance's SF backgrounds are so detailed and quirky that his SF often reads as fantasy.

(The other factor, is that his future remains intensely human because because a shadowy organization knows as the Institute kept it human. See the most excellent The Demon Princes series. It's a mystery/revenge tale set in a most interesting "utopia.")

David Brin said...

Paul451 could you keep tracking this Zeta-Anonymous feud and give us updates? Zowee!

Carl, choosing macs over PCs was simple for me. Microsoft made products that hampered my productivity and caused me intense, relentless pain.

Any price differential vanishes when I keep my computer for more than a year... and when I decide I am not one of the masochist majority who actually would let little imps hit their heads with hammers for months in order to rationalize saving a few bucks and using a Microsoft product.

Jobs was no saint and his overall business model is actually rather scary. If we all had to use Apple products they'd work great... but it would be a tyranny... and then when Jobs was gone...

But that's not the danger at the door right now. I will buy the superior product that vanishes from my mind while I use it, giving me no pain.

Tim H. said...

My favorite angle on SF worlds was Heinlein's in "The Number of the Beast", where the protagonists could visit such worlds. Tolkien's world was very,interesting, imagine a twist on it, Elves undistracted by Morgoth working out how to mass-produce their technology. Or figure out packet-switching so they could network more than a handful of palantiri.

Stefan Jones said...

I work on a development team. Real time media servers. We despise Microsoft products, their support style, and the malignant way they try to force their standards on everyone else.

The servers we develop and most personal workstations run on Linux. We're on open source shop. There are frustrations, but we don't have to deal with Windows bloatware.

Microsoft has used arm-twisiting to force hardware vendors to include Windows on their systems. They've tried to bind their browser to the OS and only desisted under court order.

Microsoft has turned IT departments into MS cults, turning them into support wings for their stuff.

I have one Windows system left in the house; it's there to run Quicken and Word* and a few games. Everything else runs Fedora, including the laptop I'm typing this on.

* Open Office has awful problems. Disappearing and morphing formatting. Ugh. Word is solid in that regard, although I hate the menu structure of the newest version.

Stefan Jones said...

I adore Jack Vance's stuff. Gorgeous writing and wonderful worldbuilding. His fantasies, far more than Tolkein, set the standard for me. The RPG material I've most recently written is heavily influenced by his lush and evocative style. (I'm not above plugging it . . . this is SF, and this one is fantasy, and this one is a free collection of "outtakes.")

The Demon Princes includes the most hilarious revenge method evva. And the hunt for Howard Allan Treesong . . . unforgettable.

But I can't take Vance seriously as an SF author. I think he's a disdainful snob when it comes to actually dealing with the future and cultural change.

There was a wonderful profile of Vance in the New York Times, last year I think. Worth looking for.

* * *
This is what SF authors who want to be relevant should internalize:

"Modern science has imposed upon humanity the necessity for wandering. Its progressive thought and its progressive technology make the transition through time, from generation to generation, a true migration into uncharted seas of adventure. The very benefit of wandering is that it is dangerous and needs skill to avert evils. We must expect, therefore, that the future will disclose dangers. It is the business of the future to be dangerous; and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties. The prosperous middle classes, who ruled the nineteenth century, placed an excessive value upon the placidity of existence. They refused to face the necessities for social reform imposed by the new industrial system, and they are now refusing to face the necessities for intellectual reform imposed by the new knowledge. The middle class pessimism over the future of the world comes from a confusion between civilization and security. In the immediate future there will be less security than in the immediate past, less stability. It must be admitted that there is a degree of instability which is inconsistent with civilization. But, on the whole, the great ages have been unstable ages."

--Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 1925.

rewinn said...

Do I understand OP correctly that it defines SF as
(A) a form of literature that includes
(B) a significant element of myth-making (introducing of elements superceding current technology or timeline)
(C) celebrating the defiance (whether successful or otherwise) of Fate ... as opposed to the submission to Fate or Divine Will that is characteristic of most other mythmaking?

Re "realistic AND hopeful" SF:
Let me nominate ST:DSN. The resolution of the entire series was successful communication of the Fderation attitude toward sophonts. Sure, there was a lot of shooting and plot and characters and stuff - but the core of the dispute between Federation and Dominion was that the latter assumed that the former was going to genocide the shapeshifters, because that's just what solids did. While the Federation stood ready to violate its ideals if genocide were the only way to prevent its annihilation, still it otherwise was willing to respect the shapeshifters as any other form of life and devoted considerable resources to communicating that idea. (It's a pity that series didn't end at that moment; wrapping up the Pah Wraithe business was simply unnecessary.)

Re Genesis:
We heterodox Christian really, really do want to reinterpret the Bible into a forward-looking document.
BUT let's be honest: the bible starts and stands, in orthodox Christianity, for the proposition that we humans screwed up a good thing:
("By Adam's Falle, We Synned Alle").

I'm in favor of reinterpreting the thing more hopefully, but ask yourself why is this necessary? What is it about orthodox (small "o" Christianity) that requires the current era to be a degeneration from Eden?
Sacrifice is the donation of something of value to God, as mediated by a priestly class. In Christianity, you can't just sacrifice on your own - you need a professional! (AFAIK, Judaism's priestly tribe died out millenia ago; rabbis don't boss around their congregations anything like the way priests and ministers do.) This gives Christianity has an entire class of professionals whose tithes are dependent on the number of followers, and who are therefore highly motivated to recruit! This class had to invent a reason why professionally-assisted sacrifice was necessary, and in the Nicene Creed it found one: the remission of sin! So although post-Nicenean Christianity is foreward-looking in the sense of anticipating bodily resurrection and eternal bliss, it is founded on an initial fall from Eden.

re Tolkien is fantasy, not SF:
In both the bible and Tolkien's universe, God knows everything
and has a plan; if (when) someone rebels, things go bad. The Silmarrillion is basically Genesis, except the Elves kicked themselves out of Eden, and instead of sacrificing His Son, God sent an army of demigods to kick the Adversary into the darkness ... after giving the rebellious ones a few centuries of agony to think things over.

Contrast this to Terminator's Sarah Conner:
"No Fate But What You Make" ...
... doesn't mean all things are possible, but does mean that defying Fate is both possible and wise.
The problem that Elves would have in networking Palatiri lies not in their technical abilities, but in the limits of the music of the Ainur.

Re Renunciation:
Is it not entirely possible that the human species, at least,
may (A) find a means to persist indefinitely through careful management of population, energy (B)
conclude that interstellar travel is too fantastically expensive and (C) spend its time instead blogging and playing WoW?

David Brin said...

Thx STefan. I recall that great Whitehead quote. Might use it.

Open Office is a tragedy. Had to copy most of Word's infelicities because the 99% who are masochists are used to the utterly illogical and almost unusable menu and insertion patterns... like abused wives who are used to it. Refusal to allow the user to reveal or show all codes is simply criminal.

Rewinn good insights re DS9.

I am afraid Paulian Christianity HAD to invent Original Sin because of the logical conclusion from the crucifixion - the need for that to have been a "success" and not a failure meant the acceptance of human sacrifice, which was the 1st of many doctrines that both Jews and Muslims found utterly unacceptable. It was settled with Abraham. "Never do that, even sacrificing to Me."

Sarah Conner... right on! Also Xena and Hercules.

Rob said...

I work on a development team. High-performance computation. We use Microsoft products. We despise Linux, its support style, and the arrogant way the worst of its hangers-on (present company excepted) try to force the belief that there is no quality elsewhere.

But Linux has no support model. None. Call your geeky brother. Or that bored guy looking for a way out of the brokerage job. Or pay Novell. I used to work for Novell; I wouldn't pay 'em to support my stuff.

Our software runs on any PC running Windows XP or later. The API set offered guarantees a solid abstraction layer which means that we never have to worry about the brand of computer or any component on anyone's desktop.

Microsoft is certainly guilty of indirect arm-twisting, but c'mon, Stefan! That was 15 freeping years ago! Today their wheels have come off, the infighting between WinDiv and DevDiv is legendary and nearly useless to anyone, and Apple is spanking them handily in all the places Linux is not. Ever since Bill Gates left, they've just gone... sideways.

A major BI firm just this month made the recommendation that Windows-only shops are no longer appealing.

I have one Linux system in the house: a Turnkey PostgreSQL VM, but it's the fact that it's a turnkey system that appeals: I never, ever have to tweak the Linux stuff.

Acacia H. said...

Dr. Brin, your hatred for Microsoft Word is in many ways similar to my own dislike of former President Bill Clinton. You convinced me to open my eyes and admit that he wasn't the sum of all corruption and villainy that I'd originally attributed to him. Perhaps you need to put aside your dislike over those elements you dislike about Word... and examine those aspects that are in fact admirable.

Rob H.

Carl M. said...

The price differential between PC and Mac was still quite large back in the day. I bought an Atari 1040 ST to avoid the PC in the pre Windows days. I was spoiled by Sun Workstations: three button mice, UNIX, and 1024 pixel wide screens...

When it came time to upgrade from the Atari, I couldn't afford a Mac, so I got a Pentium, actually read the hard copy manual, and was hooked. (Though I still miss the combination of vi and troff, especially then there are equations to format.)

I did finally get myself a Mac about 7 years ago. Couldn't stand it. I really don't like having the top menu bar changing as one changes applications.


Open Office might be a good choice -- if you are German. German mindset is different enough, that I usually find software written by Germans hard to use. (OpenOffice is just Star Office open sourced. And Star Office was a German office suite bought by Sun to spite Microsoft.)

Tony Fisk said...

For my part, it was COM that convinced me that Microsoft is the Adversary! (Stefan talks of religious zealotry? When your competence is questioned for choosing to not adopt the excess baggage of an architecture intended to link components of different languages and on different systems, when the app is a standalone using one language..Whew!)

That, and their attitude to open standards.

Strong-arming was fifteen freeping years ago? Rob, did you follow the saga of the fast-track adoption of OOXML by the ISO? It was blatant vote stacking (My take here.) The thing is, I could see and appreciate why Microsoft would want an open document standard that could support Word formats. But not the way they chose to sledge it through.

Take home points:
- the resulting standard contains proprietary components (so much for 'open')
- *nobody* has a WP that actually supports the standard, not even Microsoft!
- ODF was already adopted by the ISO.

Embrace. Extend. Extinguish.

Bill Gates has gone on to do other stuff with the Gates Foundation, and I'm inclined to leave his pearly namesake ajar for that. Ballmer is another matter entirely.

OK. Taking pills.. *PENGUIN!* better now...

Tim H. said...

My first mac (2nd hand, chatty garage sale) came with word 5.1, which seemed like wretched excess after marcel on Atari ST, feature creep has run amuck since. Rewinn, Tolkien isn't quite so simple, at least to me, perhaps time for a vacation in middle earth? At times, it seems the difference between SF & fantasy is the made up hardware, and who wants to read the same sort of stuff exclusively?

Acacia H. said...

On a quick aside, Dr. Brin, remember that missing 6 billion in Iraq? It seems most of it has been found. And they couldn't find it because it apparently went where it was supposed to and for some idiocy no one looked there first.

Unless of course some quick shuffling of funds at the end has "found" the money, which is always a possibility.

Rob H.

soc said...

It was settled with Abraham. "Never do that, even sacrificing to Me."

Funny, I never saw the Abraham story that way.

Even though God prevents Abraham from going through with the dastardly deed, Abraham's willings to do it is what we are supposed to admire.

I'd rather Abraham just disobeyed God from the very beginning. After remaining steadfast in his position in the face of threats from God promising eternal torment, God suddenly turns around and praises Abraham for doing the moral thing.

Message: disobey immoral commandments even if they come from God.

Corey said...

You know, if there's one constant to the computing world, it's that almost everyone's thinking is completely dichotomous, or should I say binary?


It doesn't matter if it's OS writers, hardware manufacturers, hardware brands, whatever, one is also the sum of all evil, and the other is always the second coming.

Whether it's MS vs Apple vs Linux, Nvidia vs AMD, Intel vs AMD, EVGA vs XFX, whatever, it's always the same attitude. Unsurprisingly, there's more reason here by far than the average hardware forum (a credit to the community), and yet even on this forum it seems to creep in.

Me, I mostly use Windows. Why? Because I'm educated enough to not break it, so it "just works" for me, and because my OS, 99.999% of the time, is used for nothing but launching programs off my desktop, and occasionally moving files around. That means that one OS is as productive as the next. If it weren't for gaming and bluray support, I'd probably use Ubuntu just to say the $100 for a license, and when Wine catches up with Windows more on the former, and support for the latter naturally migrates over, I very well may make that switch, but it's because it'll save a few pennies, not because [insert company] is the source of all evil.

I could come up with plenty of things to say, atrocious and wonderful alike, about MS, Apple, or any company, but I'll just leave it at saying that as an end user who can pretty much make any OS work equally well, with fairly little effort, if a company wants my money, they'll have to entice me with something a little better than promises that "it just works" (amusing, since I've seen poorly-maintained Macs freeze with the "beachball" far more than I've seen Windows BSOD in the past half dozen years), or pretty aluminum shells that fail miserably to actually conduct sufficient heat (Macbooks pros have a recent history of absolutely atrocious overheating problems).

Linux is great, when it supports what you want to run, and some Apple products, like the Ipod Touch or Macbook Air, are presently very competitive (though I'm a little sad that Apple still hasn't found a place for Bobcat or Liano in their lineup). Others, like the Macbook Pro, often tend to cost 2-3 times as much for the same hardware, and I'm just not going to pay that to get an OS that starts up, and gives me the same desktop, with the same icons, that I'd use to launch the same programs that I'd use on any other OS.

Corey said...


I have mixed feelings about that whole thing (and I'm actually re-watching the show right now, since Netflix streaming just added it).

I don't say this lightly, given the history of the Federation, but the Founders are almost certainly the most evil race the Federation has ever encountered, yes, more evil than the Borg (because apathetic disregard just doesn't trump gleeful malevolence).

I realize the Founders are a product of their circumstance, but even if they're the product of monstrous circumstances, they're monsters, just the same. We only really get to see a few of them, but I don't see objections from more conscientious Founders when the decision is made to level the entire planet of Cardassia. IIRC, 30 million people were vaporized in an instant in Lakarian City (the opening volley to exterminate the planet), and it was done for one reason alone: spite. The female Founder knew she had lost the war, so she wanted to kill as many "solids" as she possibly could before surrendering to make it a Pyrrhic victory at best.

The same goes for the poor worlds they afflict with "The Quickening". It's a punishment to planets who resist Dominion rule: a horrible sickness passed with 100% virulence generationally, that lets the populace live just long enough to reproduce before killing them painfully. Why inflict that on a world? Spite. It was the only reason.

The only race I can think of in scifi that's remotely as bad as these guys are the Goa'uld.

I don't think the female changeling's sudden change of heart at the end even remotely makes up for what she did. On the flip side, there was still reason for some optimism: Odo. I don't think there's any hope for the majority of the Founders, at least those we see, to have any kind of real redemption, and yet Odo was, in many ways, the first of a new generation, and the first of their race to finally transcend fear of solids.

The Federation, of course, behaved admirably, as always.

David Brin said...

Rob hi... okay... I admit that my polemics about Microsoft were over the top. All right, MS isn't satanic. They are merely a nest of invading aliens from Planet Asperger. Perhaps Word makes sense in their logic. I will posit the possibility. And that Gates has proved there's no evil intent.

Still, I find it awful that all of the final draft aspects of every book must always be done in Word. Switching over re-familiarizes me with the differences every few months. I must THINK ABOUT MY WORD PROCESSOR, using up cells I could be using for other things.

And when I must switch to Word - from 1997 WP for Mac -- I weep.

BTW... anyone who types a lot and doesn't have a macro program to reconfigure the keyboard... I use Quickeys... is a masochist! Do you use the numerical keypad a lot for calculating? If not, there is no excuse for not re-assigning the keys (with control and shift variants too) to do all the repetitious tasks for you!

Even control-c for "copy" is TOO MUCH WORK if you are doing it a hundred times a day!

"Tony "leave his pearly namesake ajar..." Oh... fine stuff!

Robert, I have never seen such armwaving as the claim that the $6.6 Billion has been found! Have you read the excuse????

"We gave it to a bunch of Iraqis who had official titles in the corrupt puppet regime of the moment. That gets us off the hook."

No mention of further book-keeping. Or the inevitable 25% kickbacks to the bag men.

Soc, A woman told me that the Story of Abraham/Isaac was proof the whole story was written by a man. Picture what Sarah said, when she heard about this.

"He told you to WHAT???? Well, You Tell Him... never mind... I will tell him MYSELF!"
(Followed by an image of JHVah cowering behind a cloud.)

As for DS9 The Federation is MOSTLY admirable... the perfect sci fi combination. A civilization worthy of the name and worth fighting for and proof that we can do better... but constantly needing the care and tending of wary, independent-minded critics. Rodenberry belongs in our enlightenment pantheon, alongside Franklin, Smith and such.

soc said...

"He told you to WHAT???? Well, You Tell Him... never mind... I will tell him MYSELF!"
(Followed by an image of JHVah cowering behind a cloud.)


Even though God is technically genderless, 'He' is also quite obviously a masculine figure. I'd love to see someone write scripture assuming God is a woman. Or even imagine changing the word "God" to "Goddess" in the bible just to see how it reads.

I bet some wouldn't hesitate calling 'Her' the 'b' word before long - for which the punishment will be having to spend 12 consecutive weekends watching J. Aniston romcoms. :)

rewinn said...

@soc - IIRC the first gendered reference to God (in KJV anyway - I don't read the original language) is Genesis 1:27
"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them."
...which, transgenderated, would yield:
"So God created man in her own image, in the image of God created she him; male and female created she them."

Although it may fairly be argued that the 1st pronoun is the sort-of genderless "his" rather than the male "his", translating it as her actually makes it clearer that "man" in the first clause refers to humanity in general, and not just the one gender, IMO.

It might be interesting to do a straight gender change throughout text!

Rob said...

it was COM that convinced me that Microsoft is the Adversary!

The only way to properly do COM is with a copy of Visual Basic, version 6. Anyone saying different has a severe vitamin-D deficiency.

Rob, did you follow the saga of the fast-track adoption of OOXML by the ISO?

Nope. I'm past caring about any of that. (Is OOXML even in use? By anyone? I thought it was an HTML5 world now!)

Most of that indifference stems from the bold and present fact that any one of the other largish tech entities would never do anything differently if they could. They're All Evil Like That.

Apple's behavior with its intellectual property is a perfect case in point, when I'm sitting across from my intern listening to him grumble about how he'll never wrote Objective-C iOS code because that would be working for The Evil Ones.

After all, if an intern says it, it must be true!

With respect to Word, perhaps David should just have done, and get an iPad with a copy of OmmWriter and a bluetooth keyboard. Nothing gets in your way with OmmWriter, which even comes with a couple kinds of white noise for meditation, as I recall.

I feel his pain, though, since MS did to me with 3-D graphics libraries what MS did to him with Word. Several thousand geeks hopped up on Red Bull and their own sense of self-importance isn't a good formula for easy-to-use applications or easy-to-learn dev tools.

Stefan Jones said...

My college buddy Paul Clip wrote an interesting essay about Apple's "walled garden / cathedral" approach versus Android's "department store" approach to developing for tablet devices:

'muntra': Phrase uttered over and over again by bland, ordinary people.

Paul451 said...

The anti-Trust watch over Microsoft has ended.

Two immediate changes: Windows 8 will have IE-10 locked into the operating system. Unremovable. Built into the new GUI.

Second, Intel developed next gen BIOS, UEFI. New feature, Trusted Computing Mode, certified operating systems, aka "Secure Boot". The OEM controls whether you are allowed to add new operating systems.

The first is significant because it's how things worked before the anti-Trust. But more importantly, the timing means it was being developed before the anti-Trust ended. It didn't just happen, someone was watching the clock, waiting...

That makes the second thing worrying because another thing MS used to do before anti-Trust was use selective pricing to bribe OEMs to run exclusive Windows shops.

Back then, it merely meant you were paying the "Windows Tax". Now, it could mean a whole generation of PC hardware is locked up forever. No OEM keys, no Linux.

Microsoft are putting the band back together.

(fering: two-two slang for P2P e-cash transfers. Or, used ironically, theft.)

David Brin said...

"I'd love to see someone write scripture assuming God is a woman. Or even imagine changing the word "God" to "Goddess" in the bible just to see how it reads. "

Um ever read EARTH? or the feminist utopias of course. Man what a bully she is, in those. But nicer to kids and beasts.

Now see this on ONION:,26450/

Alas, the article seriously under-estimates the power of delusional stupidity. Se... well... every single civilization before ours...

David Brin said...

Admitting they had "absolutely no idea what the fuck [they were] doing," millions of Americans immediately ceased trying to manage the country's large-scale, ongoing disasters and pleaded with U.S. scientists, economists, educators, philosophers, and inventors to intervene and make things better again.

"You are good at doing things, and we are bad, okay? We admit it," said Cincinnati-area executive Robert Everhart, who belongs to the growing consortium of citizens desperately asking America's qualified people to take it from here. "So we're begging you, please grab hold of the reins. We know we said we didn't need to read any books or have a lot of expertise to do this stuff, but we were wrong. We need your help, and we need it bad."

"Obviously we've messed things up pretty severely, but we're fairly certain you can fix them back up," Everhart added. "You guys are really smart."

David Brin said...

Getting kids to read via Halloween!

Rob said...

Microsoft are putting the band back together.

UEFI is potentially scary, true. But any OEM that does that won't have your business. It might have mine, if the price is right and the tools do the job.

ASUS and ABIT will pretty much always make motherboards that will load Linux. That market is also stable, and Windows 8 won't cover all those use cases.

At any rate, the computer you get from Dell with Windows 8 server on it will also come with a hypervisor and no limits, according to their rhetoric. And it's not like it's hard to hack a key if you know what you're doing with CUDA and a $200 video card. So, y'know, don't hyperventilate about it.

Antitrust agreements for MS are over in the United States, but not the EU or Korea. There will be an IE-free variant of "desktop" Windows, and always a way to stick on a different browser. Always. It's a selling point of theirs that they won't have the same caprice as Apple when it comes to application approvals.

Plus, not to put to very fine a point on it, MS still managed to keep its desktop hegemony all the way through the desktop era, even without a browser monopoly. Their money just flowed around the restrictions.

So I wouldn't worry about that angle of things, I'd worry more about this one: I went to the //Build/ Windows conference. I was given one of the UEFI tablets. Solid hardware, terrible battery life.

The glee with which these guys were showcasing Windows 8 apps which drew on all these new inexpensive data trackers was telling. Nobody there was thinking about privacy or data security, just about how much fun it was to know exactly where someone else's car has been.

LarryHart said...


Even though God is technically genderless, 'He' is also quite obviously a masculine figure. I'd love to see someone write scripture assuming God is a woman.

Did you ever read any of Dave Sim's "Cerebus" comic? It was kind of a big thing for awhile in independent publishing back in the 1980s.

Anyway, Dave turned religious after reading the Bible in the 1990s, and he worked a whole bunch of his...unique take on Scripture into the late issues of the book itself. Several issues in the #280s are devoted to the title character, Cerebus, reading the Bible as a complete newcomer, without the preconceptions that you and I would bring to it, and interpreting things in very bizarre ways.

Most central to the theme is the fact that he takes YWHH (translated in the Christian Bible as The LORD God) as someone different from God Himself. He thinks that YHWH is a pretender, a sort of earth spirit who starts out wishing she were God, and comes to believe that she IS God. And early Hebrews end up worshipping her while mistakenly believing themselves to be worshiping God.

Anyway, Dave most certainly presents this YHWH as being female. The Cerebus character, coming across the YHWH spelling and being told that Hebrew vowels are not written, so the vowel sounds could be anything, proceeds to name the being YooHWHoo. That's the punch line on which one issue ends.

soc said...

The other thing is whether an omnipotent God would have "masculine" qualities like aggression or even have the desire to dominate, since an omnipotent God is dominant to begin with.

Lacking any insecurities, there would be little reason to be brutish or cruel. In fact, God may have more "feminine" qualities like nurturer then "masculine" ones.

You know how a few posts ago there was a discussion about how men are good at building civilization, but it is women who thrive in it? That the more feminized our society becomes the more civilized and gentle it gets?

Well, if God is eternal, and masculine qualities, shaped by evolution, were never needed to bring God to Her/His present state of comfort and omnipotence. Or, even if they were, they have since fallen away from disuse, then a feminine God makes sense.

soc said...

ps. I noticed that I'm equating 'feminize' with 'civilize' and that that opens up a whole other can of worms, but I trust most people get what I'm driving at. :)

soc said...

pps. Consider replacing the word 'aggression' with competitiveness.

No evolution, no competition = no competitive qualities?

David Brin said...

LarryHart look up the gnostics. What you describe sounds like the Upper and Lower Gods they believed in.

David Brin said...


S Johnson said...

We don't have hate minutes, we have hate hours. From the endless parade of monstrous criminals denounced by the Nancy Graces to the equally endless parade of political demons denounced by the State Department the people of the United State apparently have a bottomless appetite for hate. At every turn "we" affirm out unity and loyalty.

The real memory hole is a torrent of offically approved nonsense. The free press freely reprints the official line and the reputable commentators freely limit their ruminations to the acceptable range of opinions. Weapons of mass destruction can't be found? Polls said citizens swore up and down that Bush should be held accountable if they weren't? Down the memory hole!

It is obvious of course that not just the government but business daily show that Orwell's Newspeak was a childish caricature of the reality. Like his slogan, Big Brother is Watching You, it was nothing but hysterical propaganda. Today, big brother's drones are watching out for us. People like you, who approve Orwell's projection of political evils onto those awful Commies, have done a great disservice to the human mind. There's a reason 1984 is foisted upon high school students, and it's not a good one.

As for the notion that the gospel according to Mark was clearly written by an eyewitness, there is simply no way to be kind. You, sir, are an ignorant crackpot.

Anonymous said...

So what is the psychology of science fiction in terms of having it influence children's attitudes about the future by exposing them to it?

Are children being social engineered by literature? Arthur C. Clarke said that politicians should read science fiction. Could it be that politicians don't want children reading GOOD science fiction? LOL

Voyage from Yesteryear by James P. Hogan certainly presents a curious perspective on the future. The past gets psychologically trashed.

Frank Stalter said...

"Could renunciation explain the great silence out there?"

Could our lack of imagination explain the great ambiguity . . . . no open contact with ETs who are keeping a close eye on.