Sunday, February 03, 2013

Science Fiction and Our Duty to the Past

Does science fiction owe a "duty" to the past? I've long pondered: might the field better have been named Speculative History?  First: SF authors read more history than science (only a few of us know very much about the latter).  Second, almost everything we do is about extending, or extrapolating, or pondering alterations in the grand, sweeping epic of humanity.  

Even when zooming down to the private angst of one narrow life, we in this genre remain keenly aware of the context - our shared drama and the poignancy of change.  I'll talk some more about this below... and in my next posting...

...only let's start this session with some sf'nally related news and links.

Watch a riveting interview with master science fiction author (and my bro) Kim Stanley Robinson, probably the most thoughtful author in our field, with the deepest perspective on this brave genre of human literature.

Alas, few try as hard to break cliches. My classic essay: "The Idiot Plot" - showing why civilization is treated with contempt by almost all novels and films - has finally been published online. It dissects the basic need of modern drama - to keep your heroes in jeopardy! But how that need as evolved into a wretched cheat: the blanket assumption that society is wholly corrupt and all your fellow citizens are sheep. A poison-meme that harms us all, that has its origins not in truth... or in malevolence... but in sloth.

Dolphins in space? The always fun io9 site lists the 10 most-epic science fictional uses of dolphins.

Speaking of which...  This short video showing a real-life bottlenose dolphin seeking help from a diver is both a moving moment... and almost exactly like a scene in my novel EXISTENCE.

aficionadoRead it in "Aficionado" - an excerpt from EXISTENCE that stands well alone, available for free download.

Orbit has just released EXILES - the 2nd Uplift Omnibus containing the complete Second Uplift Trilogy. Nice cover! Good (epic) story too. ;-) FInd out what happened to the dolphin-crewed Streaker!

In further SF news: Extreme Planets is a science fiction anthology of stories set on alien worlds that push the limits of what we once believed possible in a planetary environment. Visit the bizarre moons, dwarf planets and asteroids of our own Solar Systems, and in the deeper reaches of space encounter super-Earths with extreme gravity fields, carbon planets featuring mountain ranges of pure diamond, and ocean worlds shrouded by seas hundreds of kilometres thick. The challenges these environments present to the humans that explore and colonise them are many, and are the subject matter of these tales. The anthology features 15 tales from leading science fiction authors and rising stars in the genre. With both repreints and new stories by Gregory Benford, David Brin, Peter Watts, G. David Nordley, Jay Caselberg and many more.

I have earlier recommended the best work of FanFiction out there - Eliezer Yudkowsky's marvelous alternate take on magic - "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality" - exploring JK Rowling's world with far greater intensity and curiosity than the original.  There's a pretty strong fan base, as illustrated by the portrayal (below) of one of Eliezer's best scenes.  He writes at master level and explores not only the boundaries between science and magic, but one of the most interesting and infuriating boy-geniuses since Huckleberry Finn.  Still... it seems bizarre putting that much talent and time into something he'll never make a cent at!


Oh, speaking of never getting paid... and paying homage to the past... Amateur Star Trek productions keep getting better. Still a bit amateurish... especially in matters of plot... but improving steadily.  This one: "Of Gods and Men," stars Walter Koenig and Nichelle Nichols, among others.  Hey, why not?

== SF in the East - how do we repay the past? ==

I was in China way back in 2007, at a conference on science fiction, which is gradually gaining traction in that mighty and ancient nation. Gradually, I came to realize the underlying  reason why its been so gradual in a land where its attitudes of gumption and change are much-needed and so apropos. Oh, I can understand why the government had one of its intermittent (mild, this time) squelchings of SF.  It is, after all, inherently somewhat subversive of too-rigid authority, by virtue of imagining things different than they are. Sorry, but change will happen -- and much better if it is explored first with our minds!

Nevertheless, at the conference, I witnessed something else -- the discomfort that SF causes even in its friends in the Central Kingdom.  It was a very friendly room... and yet, a young man rose to ask me: "How can we talk about a better future or improvable humanity?  Does that not insult our ancestors?"

I had to blink in wonderment... while others all around the room nodded in agreement with his worried question.  Clearly this was one of those moments that distilled something deep and strangely different between two cultures, trying hard to understand each other. Before responding, I thought carefully, then asked:

"Do you want your own children to be less than you?  Shall they repeat all of your mistakes? Should what was assumed for past generations always be assumed, in a context of forever-changeless truth?"

bigname(1)It flashed through my mind when I had posed this question last: to a gathering of that most-eastern clade back home -- professors of English Literature -- most of whom clutch to fixed notions of "eternal verity."

"Or else..." I asked the audience in Chengdu. "Do you hope your children will rise up and excel and accomplish what you cannot accomplish in this life?  Shall they learn from your mistakes and thus perhaps evade them? All your efforts on their behalf - do you want those efforts to pay off?  For those kids to be better than you?"

His turn to ponder... then the young man nodded vigorously. Yes to all of the above.

"And don't you think your ancestors felt that way about their children? And your parents about you?"

He nodded again.  This time, a few in the audience, despite awkward translation, seemed to get where I was going - a light of understanding in their eyes.

"Then why do you call it betrayal of those ancestors - insulting them - to proclaim that they succeeded?  That their fondest wish came true?  If you say that we're no better than them, aren't you the one who is insulting earlier generations, by proclaiming that they failed?

"Science fiction is our tool for exploring how the future might become better... or worse.  And by exploring the worst, we help make the better more likely! 

"We stand upon the shoulders of our ancestors, doing the very task that they assigned to us, the task of rising higher than them. They made possible the wonder that is us! And we repay them by providing good footing for our children to plant their own feet on our shoulders. And I will gladly bear that burden, both in life an in whatever comes after death.  Forever.

"I know that you will do the same."

That got smiles and a hearty round of applause. And I realized something then, about one of the difficulties faced by the forward-facing literature and far-looking frame of mind. It has always been a hard sell. Indeed, a culture - like a person - sometimes needs a metaphorical bridge.

In this case, SF must offer a way out for Asian fans who, nevertheless, were raised in deepseated traditions of past-veneration, that flow far below where communism ever touched.  When we write about the effects of possible change -- good, bad or scary or inspiring -- we must also offer grounding -- a footing -- in the Shelter of Tradition.


Eneasz Brodski said...

re: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality - If an idea is important enough to you, spreading it to others is worth more than getting paid for it. :)

Lyle McClelland said...

The full video of the dolphin seeking help is on the camera women's web site ... we happened to snorkel that site less than a week later, and she was explaining the attention that the rescue had received.

Very moving ...

madtom said...

Thanks for that lovely answer for people who overvalue traditions, ancestors, and the past! It seems very generalizable.

We should all respect and value the achievements of our predecessors, and the traditions they left us. But like any attitude, that can be carried to a harmful extreme (and often is). You showed a way to communicate that while using all positive emotions, which is by far the most effective tactic.

Tony Fisk said...

I suppose respect for ancestors would come from assuming that it was their intention to improve the lot of their descendants also. (the 'good ancestor' philosophy)

David Brin said...

MadTom, as I said: the greatest compliment to our ancestors is "Look at what marvels YOU made!"

Unknown said...

Well, even Harlan Ellison IIRC preferred the term Speculative Fiction — but that's not the same thing as Speculative History. I think it's a mistake to conflate the sub-genre of alternate history SF with science fiction in its most general sense.

Extrapolation, as a part of exploring e.g. how a particular piece of technology will affect society, is informed by a knowledge of history. I'm not sure that all SF authors are the history junkies you're making them out to be, though.

"First: SF authors read more history than science (only a few of us know very much about the latter)."

And this seems like an overly broad generalization. It seems to me the hard SF authors I'm familiar with (Vinge, Haldeman, etc.) spend more time thinking about the science and the social impact and less about historical patterns. (After all, if some invention or event is truly outside the realm of current human experience, we shouldn't expect human beings to react to it exactly the way they may have reacted to something remotely similar in the past. In fact, something alien enough might engender a reaction that is entirely dissimilar from any of which history would teach us.)

Alfred Differ said...

Maybe. I suspect we have a good match, though, between our behavior to something alien and something 'other than us'. Our ancestors had plenty of experience dealing with foreign languages, bizarre customs, and strange (possibly dangerous) appearances. Some of them reacted with xenophobia. Some reacted with a cautious desire to trade. Some were entranced by the exotic.

History is one of the social studies. Perhaps the correct term is 'speculative social study', but I think 'history' works well enough. Stories ARE a somewhat linear telling of a possible history, after all.

duncan cairncross said...

An interesting viewpoint

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the United States sent its military off to war and fretted about post-traumatic stress disorder — but paid little attention to the fact that America itself was traumatized. Americans became angry and withdrawn. We are fearful and paranoid because after a strike on our nation we chose to focus on defense rather than the resilience and vitality that made America great. In our defensive mind-set, we bristle at every change in a world undergoing an epochal transformation.

The Physicist said...

What about what happened in the rest of the galaxies during the war? We only see a small bit of what is going on since most of the second trilogy takes place in isolation.

How about what happens much later (time skip like after sundiver)? There was a pretty big event right at the end, but we never really see how those events affect the universe.

I guess what I am trying to say is: Please give us some more uplift novels, both from jijo and from everywhere else. It is my favorite series.

Robert said...

I'm surprised that the dolphin 10 best lest didn't include A Deeper Sea, by Alexander Jablokov, which I would tie for first with Startide Rising.

Great "Bridge to the Past" speech. I completely agree that the best way to respect our ancestors is to make the world better than theirs.

The worst example in history of trashing one's ancestors, as you certainly know, took place right in China - the Cultural Revolution. And that total a break with the past, as well as common sense and human nature, will do nothing for the future. Another case of a mid-Twentieth Century totalitarian adventure repeating all the vices of the old lords and none of their (admittedly few, but real) virtues.

And isn't it interesting how much respect for ancient Islamic culture the Al-Qaeda thugs really have. I hope their rampage in Timbuctoo finishes their reputation in the Moslem world.

Bob Pfeiffer.

Ian said...


1. There is no such thing as "Islamic culture" any more than there i such a thing as "Christian culture" or "Buddhist culture". In the Sahel, there's a lash of cultures that well and truly predates Islam between pastoral nomads and the settled people to the north and the south. Both sides have dominated the other for various periods.

Timbuktu represents the dominance of the coastal people so, of course, the nomads are goin to trash it.

Part of this cultural conflict is expressed in religious terms. The Tuareg favor a minimalist version of Islam and regard the adoration of Saints as heretical.

2. There's really no such organization as "Al Qaida" anymore but the various organizations claiming to act under the Al Qaida brand are already despised in most of the Islamic world.

sociotard said...

I thought Dr. Brin would have fun with this:

Geneticist Theo Sanderson has written a simple text editor that allows a writer to use only words from a list of the 1000 ("ten hundred" since "thousand" isn't on the list) most commonly used words in the English language, to describe things. He calls it the Up-Goer Five Text Editor, in honor of a comic created by xkcd, to describe a Saturn V rocket, using only the most common 1000 words in the English language. Sanderson has made the editor available online for free, which intrigued bloggers, Chris Rowan and Anne Jefferson to the extent that they've set up a Tumblr blogger page called "Ten Hundred Words of Science," where they display the results of a challenge they've issued to scientists to describe what they do for a living using Sanderson's text editor. The results are thought provoking, interesting and quite often humorous.

Lobotomizing, yet fun. I imagine Einstein doing this.

David Brin said...

To The Physicist... thanks! I am re-reading Heaven's Reach... which certainly has the epic vistas and big panoramas and manic action to those who got to Book III of the trilogy.

Hoping to finally get the Skiff off that planet!

Robert said...


I agree with you about what's actually going on. On point 2, today Al Qaeda is much more of a brand than an organization - as you've indicated.

While the Tuareg themselves were certainly capable of trashing the town and slaughtering the inhabitants (they've done it before), the zeroing in on the shrines and library sounds more like the work of foreign - or propagandized local - fanatics.

What I think we do agree on is that this is certainly not the "Clash of Civilizations" that Islamophobes like to talk about.

I also agree that the reputation of Al Qaeda and similar groups among most Moslem was already terrible. I think of the vandalism in Timbuktu as the nail in the coffin.

Bob Pfeiffer.

Stefan Jones said...

I kind of burned out on the Uplift setting after the effort of writing and editing the last role playing game adaptation. But once in a while I indulge in fanfic-like imaginings of what the "Longboat" crew might have gotten into. And a possible explanation for what the Precusors might have been doing in globular clusters.

David Brin said...

The next three years will feature truly astounding announcements regarding human spaceflight: half a dozen new commercial and potentially human-crewed space vehicles.

David Brin said...

Stefan I am interested!

Ian said...

To return to our old our friend Enrico and his Paradox: is it possible that purely by coincidence the most efficient EM frequencies for interstellar communications are absorbed by oru atmosphere?

Bobert said...

I think one awesome tribute to our ancestors is how dominant a force Science Fiction is in our storytelling and folklore nowadays (whether through books, movies, television, or video and computer games).

Once upon a time, most storytelling lived in the past -- how such-and-such graphically disemboweled whats-his-name in order to become the distant ancestor of our noble king (of course, pay no attention to the fits of rage, constant drooling, and uncontrollable flatulence our noble king demostrates in spades as a result of the inbreeding).

Nowadays, so much of our storytelling bodly gazes forward, trying to peek over that horizon, instead of cowering from that future and looking backwards to a "golden age" where our noble king wasn't troubled by madness, drooling, and flatulence (oh dear God the flatulence!). And that I believe is thanks to our ancestors doing what they could to make the place just a little bit better for the next generation, and maybe make their future a little less scary than the one earlier generations had to face in the bargain.

Hopefully that made sense -- it's 3:30 in the morning for me. So, I'm not too coherent.

David Brin said...

Ian. Very coherent & cool...

The "water hole" most studied by SETI the 21 centemeter frequency swept clean by h20 molecules, has long been thought the best for noise free radio across the galaxy.

Dig this North Korean YouTube they posted... officially!!!!

Acacia H. said...

I wish that were true, Bobert. Sadly, the vast amount of fantasy fiction that overwhelms the small amounts of science fiction in the Science Fiction/Fantasy sections of bookstores belies that belief. Science Fiction is still very much a minority literature.

Hell, look at one of the "popular" television shows out there: Game of Thrones, which is about societies that are devouring themselves and the people within them... and the lack of a television show like Star Trek. (And no, zombie apoc TV shows are not SciFi in my opinion. Or at least not the type of scifi that shows a better tomorrow.)

Rob H.

Tony Fisk said...

Popular TV shows are ones that resonate with current society. Thus, the BSG remake took off because it tapped the (terrorist) invaders in our midst theme prevalent after 9/11. In the wake of the Iraqi invasion, I also remember Treebeard saying of Saruman (Mordor's puppet), while watching his armies march on Rohan, that his had become a mind of gears and metal.

We do need a show that focusses on more positive aspects of society.

Alfred Differ said...

I'm not so sure we need a show like that. I view the usual drivel as part of an escape valve. We WANT to do certain things and have our societies designed better along lines we understand, but it ain't gonna happen... thus the need for escape.

Our entertainment does have some of the more uplifting stories and it is cool when new ones arrive, but we are our own uplifting story too. Just tell it.

Stefan Jones said...

That DPRK "dream" video is so pathetic.

Not just the production values. The fact that an official video production posits that a good dream should consist of a city burning.

Tony Fisk said...

North Korea is what happens when you start believing your own propaganda.

madtom said...

David - while I also dislike the "idiot plot", and I would go farther than an accusation of laziness and say there's actually real-world damage done by helping spread the meme that all authority is evil/stupid, this brings up a question about realism in plots.

It seems unavoidable that the protagonist has some special power or advantage, whether simply a good mind, stubbornly good character, special training, a great invention or even superpowers verging on the magical. (As an old scifi fan I could supply a thesis-worth of examples of these and many similar, starting in the 1940s)

Likewise, the protagonist must face some hard-to-beat baddies with little help, or have a hard time contacting what help there is (like Streaker's crew!).

But realism is a problem. Especially in today's world.

Back in 1985 I asked Damon Knight (an early popularizer of the term "idiot plot") if his "The People Maker" (1959) had any relationship to the older story about a matter duplicator in George O. Smith's Venus Equilateral (ca. 1945). He told me fairly emphatically that it sure did; that he had written it in response to Smith's excessively rosy view of the actual results of such an invention. He wanted to show the way that real humanity would actually use it.

Do you have any suggestions for that classic plot situation in 2013? Say that Our Hero has made a discovery/invention that yields so much power/money that he knows he dare not reveal it to anyone, even by applying for a patent (the US government actually does officially maintain that it has the right to seize and keep secret any such application on the usual grounds of national security).

Is there any agency, any power that is both sufficiently powerful and sufficiently trustworthy to share such a secret with?

Perhaps publicizing it on YouTube is the best way to give humanity the benefit and to remain safe from those who would and could keep it secret and monopolize it for their own ends.

But publishing on YouTube might support only a pretty short novel!

Do you have any ideas you care to share?

madtom said...

My apologies, David! I see that you *did* go farther than just expressing distaste for the idiot plot, making very much the same objection that I did, and claimed to be 'going farther'. I must have spent too long reading other comments and planning my own, and let that part of your post slip out of awareness.

Ian Gould said...

@Madtom: have you seen the TV show Dollhouse?

Spoiler warning:

The nominal villain of the piece eventually explains his motivation. He was the first person to develop the technology for recording and implanting memories opening the door not only to the titular programmed human "Dolls" but to stuff like effective mortality by transferring a dead person's memories into a new body.

The only problem is: he's not alone in this field of research nor is he uniquely gifted. He realizes that several of his colleagues around the world are only months away from the same breakthrough.

Then he realizes that while maybe he can trust some of them not to abuse the technology he can't trust all of them or the governments he works for. Next he realizes that just as he knows the state of his research, they know the state of his. He'll be a prime target for assassination or "implanting".

So, in what he sees as a purely defensive strategy, he sets out to neutralize all his potential rivals and to use the Dollhouse technology to acquire as much power as he can - so that he can eventually go public with the technology without being in personal danger and without worrying that the technology will be abused.

Ian said...

China says it will effectively cap its coal use within the next three years - if for no other reason than because its massively overbuilt in energy-intensive industries like steel leading to overcapacity.

The recent pollution crisis is probably a reason too.

Acacia H. said...

Score one for electronic privacy.

A team have come up with an encryption that is near impossible to break and "auto-destructs" so that authorities can't just seize the person sending data. The creators admit the possible subversive uses of the technology but hope the Feds will realize the benefits outweigh the risks.

I'm not sure if this counts as transparency or not... but it can help increase transparency. Sometime when I've more time I'll regale you of my cousin filming on a U.S. aircraft carrier where this would have been handy....

Rob H.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Riya said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Devayani Ahuja said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.