Saturday, July 14, 2012

Writing Suspenseful Fiction: My Favorite "Bit"

First a flash: Salon Magazine just featured my article, How will The World End?... incorporating excerpts from my latest novel, Existence: Does the universe hate us? How many pitfalls lie ahead, waiting to shred our conceited molecule-clusters back into unthinking dust? Shall we count them? Today, our means of self-destruction seem myriad — though we at Pandora’s Cornucopia will try to list them all!  So adjust your AI-ware, your im-VR-sive wraparounds, your omnivision eyeptics and dive right in.

My colleague Mary Robinette Kowal - an excellent writer and a leader in the Science Fiction Writers of America - has started on her site a series "My Favorite Bit" in which  of authors are invited to talk about some particular moment of scene in their latest work that made them especially happy.

At Mary's request, I threw together a short essay.  But it is less about my own work than one of the core aims of good fiction writing.  How to torment your readers just right, so that your story "hurts so good!"

With Mary's permission, I'll reprint it here:

Before I tell you about my "favorite bit" from the new novel EXISTENCE (June 2012),   I'd like to offer an aside -- one piece of advice that I often give students of writing.

No matter what genre or style they want to create for a living, I recommend that new authors make their first major project a murder mystery.

The reason is simple.  All other genres let the author get away with flaws in plotting and suspense, by distracting the reader with genre-specific  razzle-dazzle, e.g. romantic tears or dying dragons or scifi tech-speak. But in a murder mystery, just one question is paramount; did the dramatic, whodunit revelation pay off?  Was it simultaneously both well foreshadowed and surprising?

Does the reader experience a pleasurable moment of shock and self-loathing? "It was all there and I just missed figuring it out! I'm sooooo stoooopid!" If that's how your reader feels, at the crucial moment of whodunit disclosure, then she or he will buy your next book. That's the wonderful, ironic fact.

Having done a murder mystery as my first novel (albeit one wherein the first victim gets dumped into the Sun), I always try to have one or more suspense arcs in every book -- sometimes half a dozen, running in parallel. I also circulate my manuscripts-in-progress through up to fifty harsh pre-readers, as quality control, before ever letting the publisher's editors see it.  And achieving that special "aha!" moment is the one thing I fret over, above all else.

Which brings us to my "favorite bit" from EXISTENCE. In fact, there are several such moments and all have been fine-tuned to wreak maximum sadistic tension and release from the customer. But one of them stands out.

It occurs when a diverse team of investigators have been interrogating an "alien artifact" in order to determine whether its passengers -- virtual beings who claim to carry a message for Earth -- are for real, or an elaborate hoax.  And, if they are truly alien, how much of their message to believe. This process of peeling away layer after layer of deception and truth makes up one major theme.

My favorite moment... and that of more than a dozen pre-readers... comes when a Russian member of the commission has a sudden epiphany. "My God, I don't believe it.!  It's a..."

And no.  I will not finish that sentence here.  Nor did I give it away in the fancy-schmancy lavish premier-trailer that renowned web artist Patrick Farley made for EXISTENCE.  A gorgeous 3-minute taste of the book that doesn't give away any major spoilers, nor will I do so here.

But I've explained WHY it is my favorite bit. And why I always tell myself -- even plunging into the heart of the sun or a distant galaxy -- to write a mystery whodunit! And to make the surprised reader shout:

"Dammit, I shoulda seen that coming, suddenly it's soooo obvious!"

And a few items for lagniappe....

And what if we are genetically “programmed”? One of the most common of these epigenetic changes involves a methyl group -- one carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms—binding to a nucleotide, usually cytosine. In general, this binding, called methylation, turns off the gene in question. The linked study found a significantly higher amount of cytosine methylation in the newborn than in the centenarian: 80.5% of all cytosine nucleotides, compared with 73%. To look at an intermediate case, the team also performed WGBS on the DNA of a 26-year-old male subject; the methylation level was also intermediate, about 78%.  Moreover, in the centenarian: The team identified nearly 18,000 so-called differentially methylated regions (DMRs) of the genome, covering many types of genes. More than a third of the DMRs occurred in genes that have already been linked with cancer risk. In contrast, the small number of genes in the centenarian that had greater methylation levels were often those that needed to be kept turned on to protect against cancer.

What bugs me about the discovery described above is what appears (in my reading) to be a very non-random trend. A steady decline in the protections against cancer... in BOTH methylation directions.  Almost as if it were not the result of damage, but rather, systematic programming.


hmmmm then, swinging toward the ridiculous -- but on a wry, cynical and raunchy note -- Stuff that must have happened: L.Ron Hubbard and Ayn Rand... how they started.

Here’s one of a dozen reasons why I didn’t buy - and don’t intend to buy - Facebook stock.  Can anyone say Yahoooooo?


Rob said...

I've gotten a chuckle so far out of the "Benford, Benford, and Benford" trio, as well as a chill at the point where a character says, "You think we're heading for another one of those speedups?"

Good Art, David.

Alex Tolley said...

Re: gene methylation patterns

Humans typically did not live long enough to get cancer, nor probably, diabetes until relatively recently. It therefore seems unlikely that this relationship in age related methylation is about evolved programming.

What is interesting that the pattern does confirm the links between various forms of cancer and diabetes.

There has been speculation about the link between sugar metabolism and longevity. Researching the mechanism of the linkage might have very interesting therapeutic value.

Tony Fisk said...

So, who killed BASIC? ;-D

Ian Gould said...

The comments about methylation groups reminds me of our earlier discussions about life extension in humans and in particular David's argument that most of the simple genetic "switches" for life extension have already been flipped in humans.

Here's a counter-example: a genetic variant that appears to protect against Alzheimer's.,0,5925845.story

"A team led by Dr. Kari Stefansson of deCode Genetics in Reykjavik, Iceland, deciphered the whole genome of 1,795 Icelanders looking for rare variants associated with Alzheimer's and found the new mutation, which is present in about 0.45% of the population there. Unpublished data show that it is even rarer in the United States, found in only about 1 in every 10,000 people. That suggests the mutation arose relatively recently in Northern Europe, Stefansson said."

Ian Gould said...

I have to confess I saw the "Oh my God..." revelation coming.

But then I've had the great pleasure and privilege of discussing related issues with The Good Doctor here so I had an advantage over the average reader.

I'm currently at about the 60% mark in Existence and I can't help thinking that (trying to avoid spoilers here) the further revelation about the Fermi Paradox that flows from that moment may represent an example of self-selection bias.

(I hope I'm not being too obscure here.)

Tim H. said...

Ever wonder how much genetic difference is actually methylation?
BTW, thanks for "Stuff that must have happened", very amusing.

David Brin said...

Ian is too smart for his own good! That oughta been a pleasant surprise!

In fact, the "we flipped all the easy switches" explanation for humans Methuselah lifepans is not just ours alone. There are other mammals - e.g. the naked mole rat - who apparently have done it too. I would wager we're not the first and choosing to become a methuselah species is something that any mammalian species can do, if stressed down certain paths.

If so, then the balance viz cancer has been encountered many times since mammals appeared.

David Brin said...

Okay... you guys will hear about it in the rumor mill.

At comicon the afternoon there was the token SciFi Novelists panel... and I am grateful to Comicon for running it! As a San Diegan, I am so proud to be part of our local extravaganza.

Anyway, there were terrific young writers there like the marvelous Charles Yu (How to survive in a Science Fictional Universe) and Phil Hornshaw (see the hilarious So You Created a Wormhole) plus great writers like Peter Hamilton And Greg Bear. But the fireworks were between me and Orson Scott Card.

Jeez, how is it that we share a fan base? I am told often "You and Orson Scott Card are my favorite authors!"

I will NOT go into details here, except to ask this of you guys. Please keep and eye peeled and ear out for anything that Scott might say about me.

Minor snarks down in a comments section (like this) don't count. But if he does a full frontal blog or such that mentions me, will someone please drop me a line?

Now I am frightened. If I ever do a pod-person reversal of everything I ever stood for... like george Lucas and certain other people ... sound the alarm!

Paper bag machine said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rob said...

Thus far there is nothing on Hatrack River's forums, which along with his weekly review column are the only places lately (last five years) where I've seen him make public comments.

If he's going to depict the event, it will be in his review column, and not likely anywhere else.

The last *verifiable* thing I saw where Card had anything to say was over six years ago when we were discussing ID on your blog. I dropped a link on Hatrack and he shot precisely one zinger. Since then, nothing.

Kieran O'Neill said...

Re: methylation in the centenarian:
You have to bear in mind that the individual in question is something of a rarity -- most humans don't reach 100. So the methylation could have been somewhat random, but with this individual just being the lucky one with the right combination of methylation to not get cancer.

It seems more likely (to me) to be natural selection than programming.

Aric said...

If the methylation is programmed, it is probably not 'Nature wants to you die now so here is some cancer for you.' It is more likely the case that those genes offer some benefit but also cancer risk. As one gets older the risk of cancer is less important, so the benefits from those genes begins to outweigh the drawbacks. Maybe the benefits are also something age-specific.

David Brin said...

Is cancer less of a noisy decay-and-error failure mode and more of a process that's quasi programmed to happen, when our DNA methylization drops - as it does in the elderly - below a certain level? The correlations are starting to look far too strong to be coincidental.

In his novel Protector, Larry Niven took a number of the traits we see in old people and imagined... what if you took them to extremes and imagined a fourth stage of human life, beyond child, adolescent and breeder? What if we are simply failing to launch into that fourth phase, but clues to its nature are still within us, trying to emerge?

What I am pondering is the notion of unused legacy processes that still hang around. For example, its now known that mammals have a limb and organ regeneration system that very few mammals ever really use. Medicos are learning how to slip in the "missing gears" and make you grow - say - a new esophagus from a cartilage scaffold.

Mammals may have abandoned much of this capacity 100M years ago! But it still lurks. And hence, I wonder. If cancer is showing signs of being something much more programmed and systematic than simply random error, might it represent some lurking residual, too?

Aw heck... I think I'll make it a whole blog posting...

sociotard said...

Dr. Brin, you're going to have to step up your science fiction. The politics are edging onto your turf. (to be fair, you've danced on theirs plenty)

appointed ‘Republic’ Senator instead
3:29 PM, Jul 13, 2012 | by Jason Noble |
Categories: Iowa Politics Insider


The Republican candidate for a state Senate seat in eastern Iowa has ended her campaign and instead declared herself a U.S. Senator for the state of Iowa.

In a letter dated July 4, the candidate, Randi Shannon of Coralville, argued that the legitimate federal government of the United States was replaced by illegitimate “corporate” government in 1871 and has been operating since then in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

She learned this fact just recently, she said, and has come to believe it after months of research.

Dropping her bid for state office was a rejection of that illegitimate government. Now, she said she has been appointed to serve as a U.S. senator in the recently revived and constitutionally legitimate Republic of the United States of America. She was placed in the office, she said, by Iowa’s four U.S. House members in the “Republic” government.

Tim H. said...

Every so often, there's an interesting cancer related post at Cancer seems to be s spectrum of conditions with the common aspect of the failure of the immune system to eradicate the condition early. I don't believe they will get a really effective cancer treatment without also gaining leverage on every other immune related condition, which would have the amusing side effect of forcing bigots to help AIDS victims to get the cancer therapy. Enough work there that a lot of smart kids could get their "Piled Higher and Deeper".

Tony Fisk said...

Iowa's four Housemen of the Apocalypse?

Haven't got to the 'Oh my God!' revelation, but I *have* just finished Lacey's.. um, 'polyphonic' conversation.

The ending to that scene, and the ominous pronouncement of 'IT'S....!' has me very worried (bells are ringing)!

Acacia H. said...

Going off on a tangent here, I noticed something interesting about a picture depicting the elimination of a section of planetary disc around a star that happened within a few years. Right after that image I suddenly had the thought of "planets clear their planetary region" of asteroids and the like.

What if that region was "vacuumed" by a gas giant that formed and is spiraling away from its star, clearing out that region as it spins outward? And we're not picking up the planet at the moment because it's not eclipsing the star but is still between us and the star, meaning we don't pick up extra light from it?

Just some random food for thought. The rapid pace could in theory occur if the region of the sun would allow for an orbital period of only a year or two... or even less.

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews

Tony Fisk said...

Methylation (or epigenetics in general) seems to allow genes to be 'stored' when they're not being actively used all the time. They may start expressing in times of stress, allowing species to (re-) adapt to conditions faster than might be expected.

Apart from cancer, it appears that people who underwent severe food shortages (eg Chinese Cultural Revolutions) produce children who are more inclined to be fat: the hypothesis being that dormant food processing genes have their methylation removed, and that this de-methylated state is passed on.

'sytember 10' I wonder what genes have activated since that time?

David Brin said...

Robert, planets are discovered either by their tug effects on the star - making it wobble toward-us-or-away (doppler detected) or left-right (proper motion)...

...or else by eclipse occultation. These must have an ecliptic lined up with ours.

In any event, the giant planet you imagine must have a very steep ellipticity in order to sweep such a volume and hence we'd have to ask ....why it did not do this before! Yes, it might have changed its orbit but that's a LOT of change!

Tony glad UR enjoying!
Iowa, the Bipolar state. If you are sane there, you are very nice and very sane...

...and if you are crazy you are so so so qw-w-w-w-a-a-a-zeeee

Tom Craver said...

Brin: "BTW... I systematically demolished TomC's political logic in holding to the "FDR was Satan" religion of the right. See the bottom of the comments section before this one."

Seriously, Brin? Bragging like a 16 year old over your supposedly brilliant arguments, after your tawdry display of ad hominen, appeal to authority, and strawman slaying? All in defense of your original bald assertion of a logical fallacy, insisting that because A led to B, B could only have come from A?

Oh - and did anyone notice that he never once went back and directly addressed my core argument - that we had plenty of evidence from prior great technological developments not initiated or driven by government, so that his assertion was disproven by prior evidence? Brilliant tactic, indeed, to throw a dozen red herring out to lead away my actual positions.

Apologies to those who posted reasonable responses that I didn't get a chance to respond to.

Rewinn - you are correct, Kennedy did mistakenly run on the "missile gap" issue. But note that the government was already deep into rocket development by then.

Still, since military missiles are so directly bound to a properly granted function of the federal government, I don't have a problem conceding that it was a proper use of government.

Honestly, I wasn't even trying to make that point in my original post - that was just another of Brin's strawmen. My aim was more an attempt to provide some balance to Brin's infatuation with government R&D. (I suppose Brin will deny that possibility - using his usual psychic insight into my motivations...)

I would still maintain that we would have eventually gotten rockets, if government had no need for them, or had only been an eager customer. Perhaps delayed - but by now, nearly a century after Goddard's work, yeah, I think we'd probably have rockets and satellites.

Regarding your specific question about elections and consent of the governed: My point was that government, even by politicians elected after campaigning explicitly to do something not allowed by the Constitution, still does not truly count as consent by the agreed upon terms of our explicit social contract with government, i.e. the Constitution. There are good reasons why common elections require only getting a majority (or even just the largest share) of votes, while Constitutional amendments are held to a higher standard.

David Brin said...

I grow fatigued with Tom Craver coming here and whining and cavorting and pissing about other people pissing. I have seldom seen such a crybaby.

"hat we had plenty of evidence from prior great technological developments not initiated or driven by government,"

Whaaaaaaa? a typical case of "disproving" what not a single person here contended, at any level, top to bottom, in any way, shape or form.

He will be welcome back here when he completes ONE of his assignments. To come up with ONE counterexample to the generalizations that I did make - that he never ever answered.

To be clear: proof by failure of counterexample is the powerful technique that we must all use with the mad right. Because it devastatingly quashes their usual tactic of fighting statistical facts with anecdotes.

This method says FIND ONE ANECDOTE!

-- One unambiguous statistical metric of national health that directly and unambiguously improved as a result of GOP rule. (Sorry Tacitus, you never did.)

-- One caste of intellect and knowledge in American life that is not under attack by Fox News and the new Oligarchs. (You guys can cheat and tell Tom the two exceptions that we figured out. It won't help, because those two are devastating to the right.)

-- or demonstrate that more than 1% of past human societies had their freedom or opportunity quashed by civil servants, bureaucrats or anybody other than feudal owner-lords.

Above all, show us any reason to believe that our parents in the Greatest Generation were fools, for creating a mixed society that accomplished plenty in the greatest entrepreneurial society ever seen WHILE also using the greatest government to do ten thousand things that no society ever did across all of time.

Tom likes all the goodies he has derived from living in that society, that our parents built while voting overwhelmingly for Franklin Roosevelt... then turns and drips contempt at all the tools that they used, to create the greatest middle class in history and more prosperity and freedom than any society ever saw.

Eliminate the tool that ADAM SMITH RECOMMENDED to use to counter the cheating of owner lords! Eliminate it and we'd do even better!

Bah... I am done talking to this guy, till he tries to answer even one of these challenges. Watch carefully guys, as he twists and turns and weasels.

duncan cairncross said...

I could use some help
There are a number of books that I would like to purchase
They are "not available in your region"
I can buy an audiobook or a paperback - but I don't want one I want a simple Ebook!

Now you use Amazon as your agent - (and they are the bounders who are depriving us antipodeans)
can you find out - WHY???


Ian Gould said...

Tom Craver: two of your examples of prior "great technological developments not initiated or driven by government" were aircraft and trains.

While the Wright Brothers received no government funds, they did draw heavily on government-funded designs such as those of Alberto Santos-Dumont. (Santos-Dumont made his first flight two years after the Wright Brothers and had a practicable mass-produced aircraft well before they did.)

The Wright Brothers claims to have flown in 1904 were generally not accepted in Europe until 1906 when they visited the continent and displayed the 1905 version of the Flyer. Santos-Dumont was largely ignorant of the Wrights' work and would probably have continued in exactly the same way if they had never flown.

The Wright Brothers for their part spent the bulk of their time between 1904 and 1908 seeking government funding - which they received in 1908 via the US army.

Aircraft development was then driven in large part by government contracts (the US Postal Service early on issued contracts for air mail delivery across the US) and military contracts.

While the early (1820's) steam locomotives were a largely private innovation, the development and expansion of the rail system was heavily subsidized by government especially in the US.

The most famous example of that is the prize awarded for the first transcontinental railway but there were numerous other examples.

You might want to research the term "American system".

Tony Fisk: Dutch children born in the "famine winter" or 1945 reportedly grew up to be abnormally thin and short (on average) and are also reported to have transmitted these characteristics to their own children.

This too has been attributed to changes in methylation.

So either childhood food restriction can have completely opposite effects or one or both groups of researchers are likely to be incorrect.

Ian Gould said...

"Regarding your specific question about elections and consent of the governed: My point was that government, even by politicians elected after campaigning explicitly to do something not allowed by the Constitution, still does not truly count as consent by the agreed upon terms of our explicit social contract with government, i.e. the Constitution. There are good reasons why common elections require only getting a majority (or even just the largest share) of votes, while Constitutional amendments are held to a higher standard."

Unfortunately for you, Tom, in the US constitutionality is not determined by partisan ideologues or internet pundits.

It's determined by the Supreme Court.

The vast bulk of activities claimed by Republicans to be unconstitutional have in fact been upheld by the Supreme Court.

So your claims to be upholding and defending the constitution actually amount to a direct attack on one of the key elements of your constitutional system of government.

Tacitus said...

"-- One unambiguous statistical metric of national health that directly and unambiguously improved as a result of GOP rule. (Sorry Tacitus, you never did.)"

Well of course not. You unfairly set yourself as the Arbiter of what is a metric, what is unambiguous, and what is direct. I may take another swipe at it one day. I, and perhaps you, need the exercise.

Regards tech evolving sans governmental support, I generally believe in this being possible. But rocketry is not an ideal example. Heck, North Korea is still trying to launch multistage versions of Von Braun's V2! The level of spending by Germany on this project was huge, and as it turns out militarily a waste.

Maybe it is harder now to tinker up some swell innovation on your own. Not sure. But the great Age of Inventors is not so far behind us. Last month I was chatting with a delightful elderly woman who told me that she had once gotten a piggyback ride from Thomas Edison!

We are still, barely, in living memory of great men.


Ian Gould said...

Tacitus, I'm rather surprised you'd cite Tom Edison as a solitary tinkerer when most of his major inventiona were made possibly by his development of the modern research lab.

As a sole tinkerer Tom's greatest invention was the Quadropole Telegraph which was a big deal in its day but hardly in the same league as the phonogram, the electric light or movies.

Darrell E said...

Took the kids to see Ice Age yesterday, and there was a new Simpson's short that was pretty funny. For adults anyway. It was about the Simpson's baby spending the day at "The Ayn Rand" daycare center. Never really watched the Simpsons before but this short was funny and effective at ridiculing the ridiculous cult of Ayn Rand.

Acacia H. said...

Tacitus didn't state he was a solitary tinkerer but rather one of the great men of the age of invention. And he was. Sure, many of his inventions were created by other people, but those people worked for him and were in an environment conducive for invention. He also invented a number of things himself, including the industrial research lab which was funded by the sale of Edison's quadruplex telegraph.

While Edison had (later on) a team working with him... he still invented a number of things himself and was not just some corporate leech devouring other people's ideas. And he wasn't someone with a silver spoon in his mouth - he started out near the bottom and build his wealth.

Rob H.

David Brin said...

Duncan, I simply do not know why Amazon has its weird policy in Australasia. It may have to do with the Commonwealth and having to go thru Tony, can you help Duncan>

Tacitus, I honestly admit that it is possible that I treated your counter-example unfairly in the past. Frankly, all I remember is THAT I did not find that it met the criteria and you complained about my bias... hence I look fwd to when you do dredge it back up so we can chew on it more carefully, now that book release frenzy is over.

Let me be plain that I NEVER said all R&D comes from government! That is Tom's strawman and ultimate silliness. As a top acolyte of Adam Smith I am a deep believer in competitive creativity and as a Smithian libertarian I feel it is absolutely possible for us to rely excessively on Govt!

Indeed, let me simply top-of-head mention genius breakthroughs that govt played very little role in: Halide corp creating Xerox. Edwin Land creating Polaroid. ALL of the auto companies (though with roads all govt built), Fairchild and Intel created the integrated circuit economy with partial govt subsidy-by-contracts. But clearly they would have got there and we would have some clanking 6502/8088-level computers on our desk by now, even without govt involvement.

All of which supports my point that our parents made a rational, calm, balanced society based on pragmatically mixing an array of problem solving tools...

... attempting to get the best and most out of entrepreneurial markets, individual initiative and consensus-politics-driven joint efforts through a much maligned but generally effective system called "government."

Acacia H. said...

I remember Dr. Brin was looking for free music for his trailer video and found a website dedicated to it reviewed in "Information Today" - in case anyone needs some music for their blogs or the like, here you go:

Tony Fisk said...

Duncan, I went through Amazon UK for a hard copy of 'Existence' (mainly to get the 3D version.) I ended up *slightly* ahead of the Dymocks store price (and a week or two behind!), but I was not impressed to find the shipping cost exceeded the book price.
(This is one of the reasons why I've been flying the idea of 'bespoke' publishing booths lately)

If you're after audio products, then you're probably running into all those self-serving regional restrictions placed on digital media (you know the sort: that only inconveniences legitimate customers?)

David Brin said...

onward to next blog

Ian Gould said...

I just finished chapter 77 of Existence.

Very funny, Mr. Wise guy.

Oh and I had an amusing thought about two hot topics in SF: SETI and cryogenics.

There's a common question asked by SF writers: what makes the cryogenically-preserved worth reviving? (I vaguely recall one answer being that since they're legally dead it's okay to hunt them for sport.)

Well consider the lengths we'd go to if we found an alien cryogenically preserved.

Seriously, if you're going to invest millions on a slim chance of rebirth, why not invest a few million more and have your preserved head shot off into space?

Tim H. said...

And could we nominate whose head should be sent to oblivion, ur, space?

Tony Fisk said...

I always felt that the words to Pink Floyd's 'Terminal Frost' were appropriate to the internal ruminations of an interstellar hea.. er, probe:

I... have always been here,
I... have always looked out, from behind these eyes.
...seems like more than a lifetime
...seems like more than a lifetime
...seems like more than a lifetime

Sometimes I get tired of the waiting,
Sometimes I get tired of being in here.
...It's only a moment (don't worry)
...Nobody lives forever.
...Nobody lives forever.

Terry Bollinger said...

Hi folks,

The laser profiling from David Brin mentioned was originally devised by a tiny little outfit called DSC Technologies. I loved that design, it was so cool and so unexpected! If someone had asked me if it was possible before I saw how they made very clever use of lasers, I would have said no, the physics for doing something like that doesn't really exist. But wow, was I wrong on that one!

(I also used to say there is no physical mechanism by which a Star Wars type hologram could be created. Well, until I found out about two-photon quantum transitions, which neurologists love for use in testing individual rat neurons, or bug neurons, or whatever. Of course you would still fry your observers...)

Hmm, I’ve digressed before I’ve even started!

So: Where should I formally begin my first posting here? Let's see... I'm brand new, so I could start out by being quiet and respectful and all that. Or, I could just say what I really think about some of what I've just read? Hey, that sounds like a lot more fun!

For example, I’ve always been fascinated by folks who basically want to discard the amazing and very much for-real democracy we lucked onto in this country, the one with all sorts of messy and mixed-up and fractious and ugly splendor, and replace it with Something Better... which remarkably, amazingly, unexpectedly, always somehow winds up being them, generally minus the irksome process (convincing people you don’t like of your merit) that we like to make people go through to get there.

There can of course be no dispute that current American democracy is the freest and most remarkable example of large-scale democratic processes in the history of the world. What, you don't believe that? So how many other societies do you know of that freely elected a descendent of their recent slave class? That’s not a terribly common historical occurrence, I’d guesstimate.

Is it really any wonder that such an event would absolutely terrify anyone who doesn’t really believe in democratic rule by anyone except themselves? Isn’t it interesting that one of the very first people to line up in horror, disgust, and utter opposition to the outcome of 2008 was a fellow named Putin?

Incidentally, I have a quibble: Why is everyone calling the folks who are trying hard to undermine real democracy "Republicans?" My sister once worked for a real Republican, Senator Danforth, and I assure you there's not much resemblance between a sincere Republican such as Senator Danforth, or Secretary Gates (an amazing man indeed), and that cynical sack of self-centered silliness that is rapidly eating out the heart and soul of what was once a great political party. It’s a party that is still very much needed, and friend that seems to be dying. (Oh New York City, can you say it ain't true?)

So, to end on a note that is a bit more closely related to David Brin's remarkable new book: Could someone please tell me what exactly the functional difference is between an old Soviet communist style of government and a full-fledged oligarchy?

I mean, in both cases no average person owns anything anymore, and a few guys at the top have all the power and make all the major economic decisions. Plus in both cases those decisions are going to be equally bone-head stupid and damaging, since no singular human intellect or intellects can compete with raw processing capacity -- or with the collective IQ that exhibits itself as an invisible hand and mind -- of a true Adam Smith style economy. That’s especially true for an economy that has been energized by the zero incremental costs both of replicating and globally transporting machines that can be built out of pure information. Shades of Coase: There’s not much need for the limiting inefficiencies of Corporations in a free market that is that amazingly free! Smith would have been delighted indeed.

Terry Bollinger

Kevin Brinck said...

Existence is a wonderful Science Fiction novel, but your favorite bit was pre-spoiled for anyone who'd read "Shoresteading" where the content was pre-published on Baen's Universe. I enjoyed reading the backstory (actual frontstory) of the Havana Artifact from "The Smartest Mob", also from Baen's Universe.

I enjoy fiction where story lines are left unresolved and solutions are ambiguous -- upon which you have re-doubled by not explicitly describing Seeker's mission from Lungfish revisited in Existence.

Seeker's objective is obvious to me -- but others might think otherwise. Makes for good, chewy fiction.