Sunday, April 21, 2013

Science-Fictional News -- some dark and some hopeful

Shall we start with something positive?  In a world of media flattened by cowardly sameness and copycat repetition, the Syfy Channel  apparently intends to keep the faith and offer us some challenging material, next year. Two 
ringworldminiseries will join the previously-announced adaptation of Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle"-- Larry Niven's "Ringworld" and Arthur C. Clarke's "Childhood's End."  Some other projects sound above-average, as well.  Will a renaissance of creative boldness arise out of …SyFy?

I'll give this to SyFy. They produce a lot of schlock but they also have guts! One result is a ratio of good (and sometimes great) stuff compared to fails that is way above Sturgeon's law.

But our field has also suffered blows, of late. Awful news: the plight and fight of my colleague, the brilliant science fiction author Iain Banks against cancer.  This, piled onto the similar battle of Jay Lake, reminds me of how I felt when we lost -- so prematurely -- Charles Sheffield… and Octavia Butler and Robert Forward and others who have passed beyond our view in this strange, transitional age, when possibilities can seem so bright but the grinding fate of our cave ancestors still rules our path.

== Sci fi miscellany ==

Book People - Austin's best book store - tallied their top ten list for this year's Hugos. Ah well. Late, but flattering. Thanks!  "In his usual fashion David Brin has written an understated masterpiece that is a truly amazing complex piece of literature.  Brin is a fantastic writer who has gone back to the well and delivered an absolute gem..."  Ah well, it is a year crowded with wonders!  Nominees for the 2013 Hugo Award for best in science fiction include novels by John Scalzi, Kim Stanley Robinson, Mira Grant, Lois McMaster Bujold and Saladin Ahmed -- to be awarded at the World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio in August.

Back to indie media… "New" looks like it could be a terrific short sci fi film with tons of heart. Indie screenwriter and producer John Harden is trying to finance it kickstarter style and has created a really sweet intro-preview-pitch you may enjoy.  This is the path that may take us to a realm of bold new (even sometimes optimistic) stories that aren't tired rehashes.

StandOnZanzibarA terrific retrospective review of John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1969) re-introduces that epochal and stunning science fiction novel to new clades of younger sf readers.  Without question, it is one of the great literary achievements of our field and possibly of any and all genres.  I deliberately modeled both EARTH and EXISTENCE after Brunner's masterpiece, emulating his vividly broad-canvas approach and his ethos, while avoiding a few small mistakes… (and inventing my own, I am sure.) Lately, similar credit was acknowledged by Kim Stanley Robinson. If you haven't read Stand on Zanzibar, do so.  Put aside any other recreational reading.  You will thank me.

The conspiracy theory behind the destruction of the Death Star. Was it an inside job? Watch a hilarious (and incredibly on-target) satire of conspiracy theory videos in general… that also skewers the childish illogic of the Lucas universe, with its chain of self-indulgent coincidences.  Of course, every point in the video is lifted from one of my riffs in STAR WARS ON TRIAL. (Which is even more on-target and funny, Brin assures you, with a perfectly straight face.)

Confused by the state of publishing, with the last major national bookstore chain in decline and e-books rapidly taking over?  Have a look at a fascinating article about our new world by the bright young SF author (and my sometime collaborator) Jeff Carlson.  Insights galore.

empireAnother bright young SF writer, Adrian Tchaikovsky has a series of quasi-fantasy novels set in a world containing a huge diversity of  societies, both insect and human. His essay about this diversity of social experiments (on the Tor site) is fascinating.  He also addresses the perennial question: why do so many fantasy tales obsess on inherited oligarchy and kingdoms as a model of governance, which history shows to have been an extremely dumb and unsuccessful pattern, ruining freedom and hopes for most of our ancestors, most of the time. Till we wised up. Very interesting.  Give Adrian a try!  

Then ponder news about Chinese Science Fiction: The Political Schism between Chinese Science Fiction and Fantasy. It's important, get used to it.  Especially, get ready for the debut, next year, of "The Three Body Problem," a huge science fiction hit in China, by the towering new talent over there, Liu Cixin. I am reading the English translation by our own Ken Liu and enjoying it immensely. No... I mean seriously-immensely. I consider Liu Cixin to be much more than the top science fiction author in China.  When you read him, you'll agree he's one of the best in the world.

smith-people-fell3Meanwhile, is SF finally getting respect in its heartland?  Astonishing. this is the second time in a year that Atlantic has published an essay that is at  least somewhat favorably inclined toward science fiction.  For decades they ran a vendetta against SF, commissioning execrable hit pieces like clockwork.  But this article about the great stylist Cordwainer Smith -- one of my favorite short story writers -- is insightful and should lead many curious minds to our field.  

An added note: Smith (aka Paul Linebarger) was among those who - along with Pierre Boulle and H.G. Wells) pioneered tales about what I have called the "uplift" of higher animals, bestowing upon them the mixed-promethean-mephistofelian gifts of speech and logical thought. My main innovation was not to portray humanity doing this stupidly and cruelly. But I stand on giant shoulders.

== And more sci fi miscellany ==

Language derivation, the tracing of linguistic roots, has finally entered the 21st Century. Computer program finds root words of modern languages.

According to newflashes popping up around the web, the Washington Academy of Sciences has created a seal of approval for the scientific accuracy of novels. Alas, as my colleague - the sharp Nancy Fulda - points out, there is less here than meets the eye. Kinda disappointing execution of what I (naturally) took to be a very good idea.

Despite being harried by fans of the Most Interesting Man in the World -- (Hey guys, I am the BALD interesting guy) -- I really love that ad campaign.  Now it turns out that the actor who plays the MIMITW - Jonathan Goldsmith - played a red shirt in the original Star Trek series… and lived!  You can imagine the lines.  Or read them on iO9.  My favorite? The Borg want to be assimilated by HIM.

BraveNewWorldThe 1950s radio dramatization of BRAVE NEW WORLD, introduced by Aldous Huxley, is available online.

The High Frontier, Human Colonies in Space, by Gerald K. O'Neill, now free on Kindle.

Choose your next author based on the genre and how he or she looks?  I wish they chose a better picture of me!  The URL seems to say Find...MEAN... author!

How to porpoise like a dolphin...  Water-jet booties that solve all the jet-pack problems. What a great idea... and like the best - obvious in retrospect.

Eric S. Raymond is a personality of some note in the hacker community. His essay on the political movements in science fiction -- while incomplete and two-dimensional - nevertheless is well-balanced and thoughtful.  I went "huh!" a couple of times.

Finally, Bruce Sterling talks a lot about how new media and methods kill older ones: e.g. the death of both bookstores and the personal computer, and he makes some interesting metaphor-parallels with the cliff dwellers in the eleventh century American southwest.  He does this sort of thing very well and I'm glad he is in the world.  I agree with most of it and find the rest interesting, and can shrug aside the preening.  In the end, however, after a very long Chautauqua meal, I think back upon what I had read and ask: what do I know now that I did not know before reading Bruce's speech? That Sergey Brin is brilliant and useful?

I knew that already.

==Looking to the Future==

starshipcentury-300x297Want to spent a few days contemplating the our future in space? Attend the StarShip Century Symposium May 21 and 22 at UCSD. Speakers include Gregory Benford, Neal Stephenson, Freeman Dyson, Vernor Vinge, David Brin, Geoffrey Landis, Allen Steele, Paul Davies, John Cramer, Jill Tarter, Robert Zubrin, Joe Haldeman, and others, as part of the opening ceremonies for the new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination. Be sure to register to attend.

The ideas of a 100 year program to create a starship will be explored – from the development of an interplanetary economic infrastructure, to the structural requirements, the human factors and speculations on what we might find.

Come, contribute...and find inspiration!


Hank Roberts said...

> Eric Raymond ... two-dimensional

His 'Ask Questions the Smart Way' is great.

See also:

Anonymous said...

I'm a little bit confused about the availability of English translations of Liu Cixin's works. Are they already available somewhere?

Stefan Jones said...

The Atlantic article was most welcome. But it repeats the loopy idea that Linebarger might have been the patient in "The Jet Propelled Couch."

OK, sure, it might be possible. But I think it is a real stretch, and it isn't necessary.

That is, the theory presumes that there was something unique about Smith's ability to create a fabulously detailed imaginary universe. Maybe that was a surprise to mainstream readers in the 1950s, but SF readers would know better. (And the details of "Kirk Allen's" universe are more Doc Smith than Cordwainer Smith.)

And as for escaping into one's fiction (or someone else's) people do that all the time.

Go look up the wonderful, crazy, documentary "Marwencol" on Netflix!

Acacia H. said...

Going off Science Fiction and over to Science Fact, Orbital Sciences successfully test-launched their rocket. A little competition is always a good thing. And even better, it's a bee in the bonnet of the private space industry gurus. Especially considering the only "launch" of the Ares I ended up with several errors that were glossed over.

And I say this as someone who used to believe only NASA could send us into space. Thank you, Dr. Brin, for revealing my own delusions in this.

Rob H.

Unknown said...

I am very glad Orbital Sciences got the Antares launched okay. Still, it is far less ambitious than SpaceX. It uses a limited supply of warehoused rocket motors from the old Russian N-1... and the capsule is not designed to return intact. Still... it is part of the new age.

Nebris said...

Given recent research that indicates that dolphins kill for fun and engage in week long gang rapes, I'd say we might want to seriously reconsider the entire concept of Uplifting.

Paul451 said...

Violence against a sophont gets you red carded, losing your breeding rights.

Acacia H. said...

Except of course for the military Uplift experiments in which case violence against Superior Officers or that violates an order results in that. But violence in general is accepted and probably encouraged. After all, what's the point of a military pacifist dolphin? ;)

Rob H.

Acacia H. said...

Here's an interesting article: Alan Alda is teaching new scientists on how to speak plainly and how this will benefit science. In short: if congressfolk and the general public have no idea of what you are talking about, why would they want to fund you? :)

Rob H.

matthew said...

But if everyone understands what scientists are saying how will we ever feel superior at cocktail parties :-P

Mel Baker said...

I'm both excited and horrified that SyFy is going to do Ringworld. It could be somewhat okay or truly horrible and kill off the chance of a better production for a decade to come. Their Riverworld adaption was terrible and don't get me started on Earthsea!

Duncan Cairncross said...

Is Star Wars on Trial still not available as a Kindle???

Unknown said...

Star Wars on Trial is available, and only 99 cents on Kindle:

99 cents????? no excuses now!

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi David,

When I follow that link I get
"This title is not currently available for purchase"

Is it because I am in NZ?
I had to wait ages to buy Existence

Ian said...

A rebuttal of Allan Savory's TED talk on intensive grazing.

I should point out that a modified version of intensive grazing seems to work in parts of northern Australia.

Ian said...

Not to quibble about Cordwainer Smith's pessimistic view of Uplift, but the liberation of the underpeople - and the human acceptance of them - is at the core of the Instrumentality stories.

Paul451 said...

Thanks for the link. I don't know if I'm reading too much into it, but there does seem to be something ideological, and frankly a little shrill, about the criticism. (Plus it doesn't address Savory's point about the long term failure of grazing reduction to restore degraded land. Which surely should demand the field try new things, variations of new things, variation of variations, not closing ranks against "outsiders".)

Robert said...

If the author of the Cordwainer Smith article wrote about you, he'd probably say that you suffered from the delusion that you were a dolphin - on the days you didn't think you were a chimp.

Bob Pfeiffer.

Dave X said...

Next up in anti-transparency news:

Unknown said...

Duncan, so sorry. Don't worry. Very soon NZ will be the center of human civilization.

re Schneier. In this case I agree with all he said.

Duncan Cairncross said...

"Very soon NZ will be the center of human civilization"

I really do like NZ and I chose it as the country to live and bring my family up over Europe, the UK, the USA and Oz.

But I don't think it is likely to become "the center of human civilization"

I just hope that Amazon will decide that it is worth taking some money from us - Is that such a hard decision?

Unknown said...

Duncan, I adore NZ. But it becoming the center of human civilization is a metaphorical reference to the rest of us wiping ourselves out!

Paul451 said...

Our friends the HST algos are at it again. A single hacked/prank tweet on the AP account, that the White House had been bombed and Obama injured, sent the market into an instant freefall for three minutes. "That goes to show you how algorithms read headlines and create these automatic orders – you don't even have time to react as a human being."

And a contrary view on Boston, asks if the US had addicted itself to the imagery of tragedy. "Has catastrophe become a kind of emotional catnip for us? You know, the kind of stuff we love to hate?"

Tony Fisk said...

See also Poul Anderson's Maurai tales. (featuring sail powered outrigger aircraft carriers!!)

locumranch said...

Bruce Sterling is prescient when he waxes poetic about an obsolescening society & the new killing the old, but when others do it they are party-pooping pessimists.

This is the main reason Homo sapians can't share a beer with Australopithecus, also why most "Uplift" stories like Shelley's 'Frankenstein', Well's "Island of Dr. Moreau", Simak's "Time and Again", Smith's 'Norstrilia', Brunner's 'Stand on Zanzibar' and Bear's "Darwin" series tend to be cautionary tales ... not because humans can't trust their competitors or creations, but because humans can't trust themselves.

Humans can't trust their own competitive instincts, possessing and being possessed by the overwhelming need to dominate or crush all real or imagined opposition, exterminating all potential adversaries with extreme prejudice, turning lush wilderness into sterile parking lots on the off chance that something deadly could be lurking in the underbrush.

This is the ironic takeaway message from most Uplift tales: The monster is not who we think it is. We are hard-wired to quake and cower at the thought of "Stranger-Danger" even though, statistically speaking, we have much more to fear from our immediate families or our closest associates. Or, as Pogo once quipped, "We have met the Enemy and he is Us".

We have met the Enemy and he is Us.


Acacia H. said...

Ironic you use that phrase. It was originally coined in an anthropomorphic newspaper comic called Pogo. In short, the enemy mentioned in that phrase? Are intelligent animals. So using it in regards to humanity itself as a means of handwaving our ever uplifting something and not having it bite us is quite possibly ironic.

Rob H.

locumranch said...

Pardon me: "obsolescing"

Anonymous said...

Since no one is taking it up, I'll repeat my question. Can someone tell me about the English version availability of Liu Cixin's works in translation? I'm not coming up with anything on my own.

Jumper said...

I am working, but try Hong Kong U.

Unknown said...

You guys are great this morning. Jumper thanks for the Cixin link. I am finishing reading the draft of Cixin's "The Three Body Problem" and you guys are gonna love it.

Paul451 I will crib expand your bit about HFT algoirithms, thanks.

Locumranch, your bit (above) was cogent and well-written and moving. And correct at one level… and utterly wrongheaded at another.

Once again, you fail to look at yourself during your process of cynical criticism, and incorporating the fact THAT guys like you are engaged in self-crit toward humanity's flaws… as did all the authors whom you cite.

Given that it is one of the major themes of this site and its host, I think you might want to study and grasp the concept that our enlightenment experiment overcomes many age-old human failings through reciprocal accountability. Imperfectly! And you are welcome to criticize that assertion I just made, from an informed perspective!

But to ignore that process WHILE engaged in it strikes me as, well, ironic.


sociotard said...

A drunk knows he is a drunk. He drunkenly sits in a bar and ponders his alcoholism, and all that it has cost him and those he loves. He ponders long and hard and laments his own nature. Then in his pain, he picks up a glass and drinks some more. He is an alcoholic. It is his nature.

We criticize ourselves. We gaze deep into the philisophical mirror and see that we are tribal, that we are cruel and ruthless with any person or group that we can other. We are ashamed. And then we will do something tribal and cruel.

The alcoholic may think more about his failings than another drunk in the bar, who thinks about little more than his next cup. At the end of the day, both are drunk. We ponder our own tribalism, perhaps (a small perhaps) more than many other civilizations, but we are still tribal apes.

Nebris said...

...and some get Sober.

Alex Tolley said...

re: Eric Raymond's "A Political History of SF"

What a US centric view. All genuflect to Saint Heinlein!

The idea that SF's ideas are only enjoyable to readers with a world view compatible with a libertarian streak does not make sense when viewed from the perspective of global SF readers.

The reference to Postrel's "The Future and its Enemies" is instructive of Raymond's ideology, but to conflate SF with libertarian ideas (notwithstanding our hosts beliefs) does not bear scrutiny.

Ian said...

I'm at a loss as to how you could describe Norstilia as a cautionary tale, except, maybe, if you're Australian.

("Norstrilia" is a contraction of "Old north Australia" and the planet of that name s a parody of rural Australia circa 1960.)

Anonymous said...

Relating to the AP twitter hack, was it a prank or an act to make a profit?

Algorithmic trading turns the stock market from a way to raise capital into a lottery, with the odds stacked in favour of the 'house' (ie. the big players who can afford light speed links and supercomputers).

Tony Fisk said...

btw. Cascio firmly tweeted that the AP tweet wasn't him!!

In other interesting developments, the Wikileaks v Visa case has been decided in Wikileaks' favour. Visa to lift blockade, or face damages of $200,000... per month. Wikileaks expresses interest as to whether or not Visa will choose/be ordered to continue.

Tony Fisk said...

That tales of uplift have been historically dour and cautionary is more a product of the writers than their public, who appear to enjoy Brin at least as much as they enjoy Wells or Stapledon.

("We want Credeiki!")

Interesting to see this 'Otherness' trope coming out in the trailer for that quintessential American Superhero "Man of Steel"

locumranch said...

I should be appropriately chastised, subdued and ashamed of my cynicism, but I'm not because I have taken a long hard satirical look at myself only to find myself wanting like everyone else.

Panglossian terms like "reciprocal accountability" have no place in intelligent conversation because they presuppose a mutuality or "reciprocity" which would then make the concept of "accountability" both unnecessary and redundant.

Responsibility is "unmutual" by definition. It must be shouldered willingly. It is intensely personal in the sense that it cannot be "forced" on to another. And, while you can hold someone "accountable" by force without their consent, you can never force them to be "responsible" without their consent or participation.

On a side note, I've noticed some nice parallels between Linebarger's 'Norstrilia' (set in Norstrilia) and Voltaire's 'Candide' (set in Westphalia):

Both are bleakly comedic in nature; both feature cloistered privileged bastards who are forced travel and confront irrationality & injustice; both seek love but find it fleeting; both discard naive philosophies as a result of their experience; and both retreat to agrarian sanctuaries.

So much for "l'Optimisme". Hold it dear or worship it if you must. Just let me cultivate my garden.


Alfred Differ said...


Your analysis of 'reciprocal accountability' suggests to me you miss the point. There is nothing redundant in it, though I agree that one must consent to being responsible.

Without getting too deep into the linguistics, accountability implies an expectation of a behavior that can be symmetric or asymmetric. The 'reciprocal' qualifier is a game theory hint that negotiation is expected between game iterations and that punishments/rewards are influential at each step. If the results of a game step ever fail to be relevant later on, it is quite possible the players will fail to shoulder the required burdens. The same is true if the game's symmetry changes. 'Reciprocal Accountability' hints at all of that.

The games we play can be complex, but many of them are reducible to simple ones if one doesn't mind some loss of precision and accuracy. The Prisoner's Dilemma game is the first many of us learn and it shows very clearly how much negotiation between iterations matter and how much more negotiated punishments/rewards matter.

Acacia H. said...

And now for a brief moment of science.

Here's an absolutely awesome article on NASA engineers taking apart the F-1 rocket engine used on the Saturn V rocket... to learn how it ticks. These engines may very well be used in the Heavy Lift rocket NASA is building. Even if they're not... I could see SpaceX or some other private company licensing the technology for their own rockets.

The article is totally awesome. :)

Rob H.

Hank Roberts said...

For the dark side list:

Hank Roberts said...

want science fiction? How about real history:
-- around the 1-hour mark:
Graf Zeppelin, leaving Japan while crossing the Pacific, unable to turn back, battered in a typhoon, blown off course, lost, comes down in an island lagoon for the crew to do repairs -- and makes its way to Point Sur eventually.

Unknown said...

locum: "Panglossian terms like "reciprocal accountability" have no place in intelligent conversation because they presuppose a mutuality or "reciprocity" which would then make the concept of "accountability" both unnecessary and redundant."

What a grand declaration! Of course, it flies in the face of everything we have learned in 200 years about the difficult, imperfect task of running democracy or markets or science…

…especially science, where it works spectacularly well. But it's already established that locum knows nothing about the processes of science.

Indeed, we are all delusional, but can often notice each OTHERS' delusions, in which we are not emotionally vested. Given that we try to evade criticism and accountability from others, I find it hard to grasp what you find so hard to understand about enlightenment systems that make it DIFFICULT for the deluded to writhe away from accountability.

But I haven't time to try hard, in this case.

rewinn said...

Cordwainer Smith:
Reading his shorts as a teenager, I didn't really follow what Smith was getting at, but I took away a great many memorable scenes. I think it was in "The Ballad of the Lost C'Mell" where lovers receive their fortunes from a predictor who is never wrong:
She: "He will love you for the rest of your life".
He: "You will love her for the next eight minutes".

The point of the story was (I think...) something else entirely, but wasn't that detail masterful?

Stand On Zanzibar:
1. The very last of the many, many pleasures of the book is figuring out its last line. In an "ordinary" novel, the last line would be (from memory, probably not quite right) "What an imagination I have!" but considering the work as a whole, the actual last line of the book would be on the next page ... something like "This book was typed on a Smith-Corolla and typeset in Times New Roman." It's a puzzle that has amused me for decades.

2. What an awesome, Blade-Runner style Mini-series SOZ might make!

3. @Dr. Brin what would you characterize as its flaws?

Acacia H. said...

You're confusing the last line of the book with the last line of the story. There is a difference. ;)

Rob H.

rewinn said...

Yes Rob, you're formally correct; but (especially in light of Shalmaneezer's final line), the question is who is confusing those things: me? the author? the person reading this story we are in?

There's *so* much in that book; I have no idea whether Brunner did it on purpose, or whether it's just that when you mix enough chemicals together you get an explosion.

locumranch said...

The point I was trying to make about the term "reciprocal accountability" is that the conjugation of the word "reciprocal" with "accountability" is relatively meaningless because many words (including the word "reciprocal") mean more than you think they mean.

In addition to "mutual", the word "reciprocal" is also used to express the concepts of "corresponding, matching, equivalent, proportional, complementary, inversely related and opposite".

Of course, if this is what you really mean when you say "reciprocal accountability", then I'm ready to trade irresponsibilities with you in a Sharia-like fashion: An eye for an eye, an ill for an ill, a rape for a rape, an ill for a good, a hand for a theft or maybe even a good for a good when it tickles my fancy. Just don't cut me off in traffic or you may find out what the term "accountable" really means.

The cynical and "unenlightened" views expressed in some of my posts are not necessarily my own. Many are the product of Voltaire, one of the greatest thinkers of 'The Enlightenment', author of "Candide, ou l'Optimisme", so please feel free to call him "unenlightened" if it floats you boat.

@Randy: What was Chad Mulligan's final statement in 'Stand on Zanzibar' and how does it reflect certain Enlightenment ideals?


Hank Roberts said...

So -- replicators at work eating a dust cloud?

Mike Winter said...

Yes, language is tricky. But, are you really suggesting that you, or most readers dont understand (or arent likely to understand) what Dr Brin means by "reciprocal accountability"? Really?