Monday, June 10, 2013

Science Fiction: A lament - then Optimism and the Next Generation

== First: Sad News ==

Though expected, the passing of author Iain Banks came as a shock and a blow.  I first met Iain in London, where I lived in the mid-1980s, when we were both brash young newcomers.  I've always respected his literary fiction, but even more deeply admired his science fiction, especially the last two decades.  

ConsiderPhlebasHis Culture Universe was among the few to confront straight-on the myriad hopes, dangers and raw possibilities that might be faced by a humanity-that-succeeds.  By a posterity that manages to eke past our present stupidities in order to scale heights that we (their ancestors) can barely conceive. A destiny that we wish for our descendants even as too many nowadays proclaim it can never happen.

It's trivial to provide protagonists with pulse-pounding jeopardy and action, if you first toss them into a cookie cutter dystopia or post-apocalyptic hell.  But Iain Banks rejected that easy path. In richly textured (sometimes voluptuous) prose and across a vast range of plots and predicaments, Iain asked a profound question.... 

Won't those descendants - even rich with success - have interesting problems, anyway?  Won't they still have to fight for things that truly matter? Won't some of them still seek the dangerous edge?

That is exploration, the true heart-essence of science fiction.  And Iain Banks did it peerlessly well.

== Now pause for a little dangerous science ==

MarsOneTens of thousands have signed up as preliminary candidates for the Mars One Project, aimed toward sending a high risk and one-way "first colony" to the Red Planet.  This NBC story gives an overview by profiling three applicants -- an 18 year old college student, a 71 year old retiree… and yours truly.   You can also view our 1 minute video sales pitches. In a year, the public may get a chance to help vote for the final team.

In a fascinating podcast, author (and recent Nebula Award winner) Kim Stanley Robinson talks about the politics of science fiction, how robots have historically represented wage workers -- and why we need to right Earth before we head to Mars.

== Science fiction moving onward ==

HarlanEllisonTune in as the inimitably unique Harlan Ellison, does readings of two science fiction yarns, first bringing to fire and life "Using it and losing it," by Jonathan Lethem... then narrating my own little intergalactic tale of stark fate and long range destiny -- "Bubbles."  But of course the star of the performance is Harlan's peerless showmanship.

An amazing 1982 video of Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison and Gene Wolfe, discussing writing, books, and debating use of the labels, Science Fiction vs. Speculative Fiction …

Looking back....Read In Praise of Pulp on Worlds Without End -- a reminiscence of E.E. "Doc" Smith, Isaac Asimov, Edgar Rice Burroughs, their wondrous stories and unforgettable covers.

Watch a vivid History Channel show "Star Trek: Secrets of the Universe." I was one of the main blather-pundit fellows illuminating both scientific and dramatic themes of the wonderful Star Trek cosmos."

== The Next Generation of Science Fiction ==

The World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio TX - LoneStarCon 3 - will host Teaching Science Fiction, a workshop for teachers, librarians, and parents on how to use science fiction as a teaching tool (Monday, Sept 2). The workshop provides a half-day seminar on developing a class on science fiction for primary or secondary students. The target audience for this course is educators interested in designing a class on SF, or who want to incorporate SF readings into existing classes. No prior knowledge of the genre is assumed, and general audiences are welcomed.  (Help spread the word to mid-Texas teachers and librarians and others!)

Support the Clarion Write-a-thon -- to raise money for the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer's Workshop at UCSD.  Instead of miles walked or can pledge to writers per words written, all for a good cause -- teaching the next generation of writers. You can even pledge money for ME to write...chapters of my next uplift novel?

==Forward-Looking Science Fiction==

Earlier I wrote about how Iain Banks represented the rare optimistic wing of science fiction, showing repeatedly that you can have more and better adventure and ideas without always assuming the worst. This matter has been getting attention also from Neal Stephenson's Project Hieroglyph that aims at encouraging a re-engagement of science fiction with positive thinking... though not always positive or happy endings.  The distinction is simple: dark stories that actually engage the reader or viewer with a unique or interesting failure mode are helpful, if they become "self-preventing prophecies," stories that shock us into thinking, that gird us to prevent the scenario portrayed. Listen to a recent podcast of Neal Stephenson on Science Fiction, on Slate.

2312Greg Bear, Vernor Vinge and I are also part of this movement, and there was positive news lately when Kim Stanley Robinson's novel "2312" won the Nebula Award with a tale of wonder and mixed hope.

Elsewhere I go into what I believe is the fundamental reason that so many authors and producers and directors go straight for the most dismal, civilization-hating and dystopia spreading messages they can find, too often portraying society and its institutions as useless and our fellow citizens as hopelessly foolish sheep. Not in order to skewer a failure mode and warn us, but out of simple plot-laziness.

"The Idiot Plot" shows why even the notion of civilization is treated with contempt, especially by Hollywood. You have to keep your heroes in jeopardy! But that need as evolved into a cheat... the blanket assumption that you can only create close-hero jeopardy by assuming the worst.



What sentence would sound like gibberish, 10 years ago? On this reddit thread a top vote getter was: "I store my contacts in the cloud." Pithy and concise! Another: "Galaxy Nexus: Android Ice Cream Sandwich guinea pig."

PostmanPBMy own contribution -- “Why jiltz poor wire-heads whose only tort is self-perving?  Sure they're vice lice, but where's the fraction in evolution in action? I say let 'em un-breed themselves, and stop forcing therapy drugs on the pleasure-centered!”  -- Oops!  That's from the year 2038!  (From my novel EARTH (1989). SOme idea... offset a bit.

My novel The Postman is part of a baker's dozen of Post-Apocalyptic tales that -- according to io9 -- "teach useful lessons." See a Reading Group discussion guide to The Postman on my website.

Now folks can start tracking predictions from Existence at

I am interviewed in the San Diego Union Tribune and its online site about SETI... the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence.

==Random Science Fiction and Science==

If you do home auto repairs, then you know the Haynes Manual for your make and year and model.  Now see Haynes Manuals that aren't for cars... but for wonderful spaceships of the future! Lovingly detailed, these are all for Space Force and alien ships from the 1950s Dan Dare comic books.  Vivid and remarkable.Was the era of ice ages ended by an asteroidal impact on Earth?

Researchers have found evidence of 10 Million tons of impact spherules that were deposited across four continents 12,800 years ago. (The same impact that is said to have ended the Clovis culture and extinguished many species of large mammal in North America.

My former student, Ron Drummond, performs an insightful and dramatic 40 minute reading of the semi-nonfiction/sf'nal "The First Woman on Mars."  Informative and vivid.

An expectant couple from North Carolina are currently in Hawaii awaiting the birth of their baby. When the time comes, they will have a so-called dolphin-assisted birth.  I have studied cetaceans for decades, visiting research centers and meeting them at sea, and this notions is one of the most crackpot I've seen.

Space Diving… it's been portrayed in sci fi stories.  Is it about to become real?  

Artificial Intelligence researcher Roman Yampolsky is crowd funding a book about Artificial Superintelligence risks and safety which recommends that precautions be taken, like keeping prospective super-AIs physically isolated, with unlimited inputs from the Internet but highly restricted output connections. I take a somewhat different tack in Existence.

Finally, nothing is more fun than wallowing is voluptuous conspiracy theories on a Sunday morning.  Save these till then…


Jonathan S. said...

There have been Haynes Manuals for non-cars before:

Acacia H. said...

Why dystopias? (Warning, I'm going to ramble on a bit!)

You know, this question made me sit back and contemplate something. Part of this lies with the fact that my own non-fanfic science fiction is a borderline dystopia. Of course, I set it around 18 years in the future and wiped out a quarter of the U.S. population back in 1996... so to bring about some interesting scenarios (for instance, the labor shortage resulted in the bootstrapping of technologies that encouraged the creation of synthetic muscles and then android laborers).

And it makes sense that after a widescale loss of urban life that government itself would go a little "odd" - in fact, some of the behaviors of the Republican Party could, in theory, be considered an organizational form of post-traumatic stress syndrome! (I inflict this harm on the Democrats, as the attack started with the assassination of President Clinton and an attempt on Vice-President Gore.)

Still... why dystopias? Well, I suppose the first question is this: at what point is a story a dystopia? I mean, Ilona Andrews created a form of post-apocalyptic America in which technology is being destroyed slowly by waves of magic... but the government still works, humanity is adapting, and even learning the rules of this new ruleset! Thus I'm not sure that would be considered a dystopia.

Likewise, Dr. Brin himself created a world in which things were slowly spiraling out of control, where the aristocrats were planning to seize the reins of power, and the effects of global warming were being felt. Yet it wasn't a dystopia, despite those elements. How do these stories differ from dystopias?

Perhaps it's whether people have any power or control. In 1984, the State controlled nearly everything. In Fahrenheit 451 books were burned and stories were relegated to memory and verbal retellings. (Yet in one, there is some power for individuals. You can choose to memorize a book and pass it on to others in turn.)

When you look at those dystopias, one thing stands out: an ordinary person can try to be something more. A person can learn a book and pass it on to others. An ordinary worker has far more freedom than the middle class in 1984. But how do you create a hero out of an ordinary person in a non-dystopian story?

Perhaps the truth is that true heroes are those who act when the time comes. Thus a person who performs CPR is a hero. Someone who rushes into traffic to save a child is a hero. And on down the line. The truth is, it's actually easy to make someone a hero. The problem is finding a reason for them to be a hero.

(And with my own stories, that is an amusing problem. I've one heroine who considers herself the greatest phony. She sees selfish reasons for all her actions. She benefits from helping others... and thus feels like her actions do not make her a better person. Yet at the core, her self-hatred is because she survived... when someone she cared for did not. Yet that moment shaped her. And while she doesn't think of herself as a hero, ultimately she is.)

Rob H.

Stefan Jones said...

One of the members of my old (Livermore, CA) rocket club was an expatriate Brit.

He brought to launches a series of scratch-built model rockets based on Dan Dare spacecraft.

His craftsmanship and materials weren't the best. The rounded shapes looked like they were molded from paper machie. But DANG, they were wonderfully elaborate things and they did fly. I would love to see him make revised version using a 3D printer and a machine shop.

* * *

Freeman Dyson wrote an essay, maybe collected in Weapons and Hope, about comedy and tragedy and south pole exploration. I mention this because it relates to the dystopian vs utopian fiction question.

Dyson noted that comedy once had a broader definition; tales of derring do in which the hero overcame obstacles and ultimately won out. Homer's Odyssey could be considered a comedy under this definition. Contrast that with tragedy, when the characters are set up to fail.

So. What I think we need are comedies. Maybe the end result is a society a stop closer to a better society.

Joe D said...

Re the Dryas boundary impact hypothesis: You didn't provide a link. Firestone's paper was 2007, Haynes rebutted in 2010; I didn't find anything newer in a quick Goggle search. I'd love to see what's more recent.

TheMadLibrarian said...

Firestone is one of those persistent people who gets his teeth into a theory and won't give it up. He keeps getting refuted, but comes back with another tack, which then gets refuted... Right now, the spectacular Younger Dryas airburst theory doesn't have enough evidence that can't be attributed to other causes. It doesn't fit Occam's Razor, but it's too showy and he has too much invested for him to abandon; he's hoping to be the next Alvarez.

reason illuedd: O RLY?

Hank Roberts said...

> the Portland city council
> approved a plan to start adding
> fluorine to the city's water.
-- Ars Technica

Elementary, my dear Watson.

agimarc said...

You can find the new Firestone et all paper at the Cosmic Tusk, which investigates the YD hypothesis. Worth your while if interested. Cheers -

agimarc said...

Sorry about multiple posts. Temporarily confused by Firefox. Apologies.

Anonymous said...

In "Existence" there are many references to 2th Estate - 9th Estate. I get the normal 1-4 from french history but can someone provide a complete list as used in the novel. Thanks.

Jumper said...

The 2th Estate is the American Dental Association

Alfred Differ said...


I suppose the AFRL is the 6th?

I liked how Vinge had them survive the first bobble war.

Alex Tolley said...

Re: Haynes Manuals that aren't for cars... but for wonderful spaceships of the future!

Br. Brin - thank you for bringing this to my attention. As an expat Brit, I grew up on Dan Dare and Eagle comics. This is a wonderful addition to my DD collection. The classic cutaway style for the spacecraft is very cool.

locumranch said...

Now that's what I call pessimism:

To argue that plot-laziness is the fundamental inspiration for, or source of, dystopias even though many dystopias are high comedy, caricatures, spoofs & parodies, designed to mock & challenge conventional perceptions.

Pick your literary dystopia -- Fielding's 'Jonathan Wild', Voltaire's 'Candide', Well's 'The Time Machine', Huxley's 'Ape and Essence', Heinlein's 'If this goes on', 'Orwell's 'Animal Farm', Vonnegut's 'Player Piano', Golding's 'Lord of Flies', Burgess's 'A Clockwork Orange', Dick's 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?', Ballard's 'Highrise', (even) Card's 'Ender's Game', etc -- these are all hilarious burlesques that mock the trivial profundities of human existence.

Tell me what it is that value you most -- religion, family, military service, honour, harmony, conformity, society, comfort, virility, maturity, technology or sexuality -- and I will point you to a literary source that will show you that these timeless human themes are merely self-delusion, the "vanity of vanities".

Reread '1984' and tell me that this novel is not ridiculously funny. The protagonist misbehaves in a petulant manner; he gets called to task for cheating on his morning exercise; he loses his mother (he believes) because he stole a bar of chocolate; he is reunited with his mother only to find that he still prefers the chocolate; he has a passionate affair with a woman who he thinks he can't live without; he then believes that he can only live without this woman & finds her repulsive; and, ultimately, his rebelliousness earns him a posh promotion as an organization man.

The lesson of the dystopia is this:
Life is far too important a topic to take too seriously.

Scoff as if your life depends on it.


Acacia H. said...

Locu, you have just pulled the same mistake far too many teachers pull. You attribute meaning to a story when the author may very well have been aiming at something else. I've heard stories where an author was told outright that when they said "no, I didn't mean that" to a teacher, the teacher would say "you're wrong!" despite the fact the author is in a position to KNOW what he's talking about.

There was a very succinct depiction in this for an older college movie starring the King of Gets No Respect (I think the movie was "Back to School") - the character pays the author to write a critique of his own story. The professor rips apart the critique and says the student (who was ultra-rich and paid for the paper) didn't get it at all.

Before you claim "1984" is a comedy why don't you research what the author intended for the story to mean? Perhaps you may learn something. What's more, you may avoid sounding like an uneducated fool in doing so. (Myself, I have no qualms about sounding like a fool. But then, I'm a critic and reviewer, thus fooldom is my destiny. ^^)

Rob H.

locumranch said...

Thank you, Rob, I appreciate the irony of you doing exactly what you accuse me of doing. Let's see what Orwell (Eric Blair) has to say about comedy in his essay "Funny, But Not Vulgar" available at web address below.

Now, if reading the whole brief essay is too challenging for you, then peruse the following excerpts:

"A thing is funny when — in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening — it upsets the established order. Every joke is a tiny revolution. If you had to define humour in a single phrase, you might define it as dignity sitting on a tin-tack. Whatever destroys dignity, and brings down the mighty from their seats, preferably with a bump, is funny."

"(A)ll great humorous writers show a willingness to attack the beliefs and the virtues on which society necessarily rests."

" A joke is at most a temporary rebellion against virtue, and its aim is not to degrade the human being but to remind him that he is already degraded."

"Humour is the debunking of humanity..."


locumranch said...

Or, try this:

Bernard Crick: Orwell as a comic writer.


Acacia H. said...

Do you have any specific sources quoting Orwell that he intended on "1984" to be a comedy?

Alfred Differ said...


Card and Orwell were trying to be funny?

Sorry. I don't buy it. Smells like poo to me.

Jonathan S. said...

That definition of "funny" is itself very nearly funny, in how very wrong it is.

Isaac Asimov had an amusing story about auditing a literature class in which they dissected one of his stories. When he said that the meaning they extracted wasn't at all what the author had in mind, they asked how he knew.

"Because I am the author."

"And what makes you think you know what you meant?"

There's just no discussing matters with people like that...

Tony Fisk said...

Orwell's discussing the likes of Carroll, Dickens, and Lear. I don't see him comparing his own writings with them. In fact, he starts of that essay as follows:

"The great age of English humorous writing — not witty and not satirical, but simply humorous — was the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century."

A little before Orwell's time (which he feels is inhabited by more genteel types like Wodehouse)

I fully appreciate Asimov's tale. Nevertheless, I have no difficulty in having other people's work strike sparks of inspiration where none were intended. If Jackson wants to conjure up oddball wizards on rabbit-driven sleighs, or female elf warriors as companions to Legolas, I'm good with that. Ditto, if Locum wants to get his laughs with ratty in Room 101, that's fine as well (although I decline to join him)

alanajoli said...

I'd love to know if someone out there -- on Amazon or Goodreads or elsewhere -- has compiled a list of optimistic science fiction. io9 listed a few here:, but I was thinking more along the lines of just novels.

Project Hieroglyph, which I'd not heard of before, looks fantastic. :)

Dave Rickey said...

Unless you're just going to have it passively observe internet traffic (ala the NSA vampire fiber taps), there's no meaningful difference between an internet input vs. output, every connection is two way and even requesting a web page can offer the opportunity for re-programming the server presenting it (aka "injection attacks").

Trying to out-think something whose defining attribute is thinking as well as you do but ridiculously faster.... Forget it. If a super-intelligent AI decides it's got a route to perpetuating itself without us, we'll be toast before we know there's a fight.