Saturday, January 04, 2014

Science Fiction and the Future

In honor of Isaac Asimov's birthday a few days back -- and National Science Fiction Day (see below) -- let's have our first sci fi roundup of the year.
Century-Begin-2014First.  My New Years gift to you all is a little scary story  What if the 21st Century Actually Begins in 2014? about the real meaning of the "Fourteenth Year."  That each of the last few centuries appeared to have had its "true start" at that point in time. Especially 1814 and 1914… and if this pattern holds, we may be in for a very very interesting stretch of road, ahead.  This piece is syndicated on the Bloomberg Network!

"History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." -- Mark Twain.
Second, I was interviewed by New York's NPR station WNYC for broadcast in January, about the influence Science Fiction has had on society and creativity: You're Living in a Science Fiction Story. 
Third, catch this great anthology!  Twelve Tomorrows. Inspired by the real-life breakthroughs covered in the pages of MIT Technology Review, renowned writers Brian W. Aldiss, David Brin, Nancy Kress, Allen Steele, and Greg Egan join the hottest emerging authors from around the world to envision the future of the Internet, biotechnology, computing, and more. This collection features 12 all-new stories, an exclusive interview with science fiction legend Neal Stephenson, and a full-color gallery of artwork by Science Fiction Hall of Famer Richard Powers. (Now available on Kindle.)
Fourth… as mentioned above… January 2 is National Science Fiction Day….also Isaac Asimov's birthday. Spread the word!  Agitate!  And let's discuss in October how to make this the huge deal that it ought to be!
Oh here are articles on Isaac Asimov's 50 year predictions of the world of 2014: Visit to the World's Fair of 2014, writing in the New York Times, after having attended the World's Fair of 1964. For a contrary view, see: Asimov's 50 Year-old Prediction for 2014 is Viraland all wrong.
== Has sci fi provided the "great political writer" of our time? ==
Shaman-RobinsonTim Kreider gives a lovely paean to my bro and colleague Kim Stanley Robinson, calling him one of the greatest political and social writers of our era… before going on to give lavish praise in a review of Robinson's new book: "Shaman: A Novel of the Ice Age."  Kreider at times seems a bit unctuous in his admiration, but makes a credible case for Robinson's importance.
My politics are just enough separated from Stan's that I can enjoy occasional, fraternal digs at his utopiansim, which involves a wee bit more deliberate planning than I consider likely or plausible. In my opinion, humans are too ornery and delusional to reach consensus on the logical-seeming redesigns that Robinson demands, and which - by the way - will inevitably contain more unexpected drawbacks than any Grand Designer has ever been willing to admit.
Still, many of the good things that he calls for (and that I desire too!), like a much longer and broader set of Consequence and Inclusion Horizons -- will come about. Partly from a mix of utopian finger-waggings by brilliant thinkers… but also via the trick-and-tool that has worked for us, so far… the reciprocal accountability that comes from a truly open, flat and transparent exchange of ideas and criticism, in a society that is always open to pragmatic and far-seeing endeavors..
It is that flatness and openness and transparency -- plus the need to perpetually believe we can aspire and become better -- where our overlap is complete, and where I am proud that our civilization gives full voice to Kim Stanley Robinson.
== More Cool SF'nal items ==
An interesting run-down by Charlie Jane Anders of iO9 on her personal list of recommended books for 2013.
Lee Barnett (aka 'budgie') is embarking on a challenge to write twelve 200 word stories using a title and a word provided by 12 writers. First off is Jamais Cascio, who suggested 'The Misanthropic Principle' with 'shenanigans', and got a take on the Big Question. Drop in on the Budgie site and follow this cool/fun exercise.
SixWordStoryThese "drabbles" -- or super short fictions with very harsh rules -- can be way-fun. One of my best short-shorts is "Toujours Voir" or "Always to see"… an answer to Deja Vu. Though the best one I ever saw was the very first story ever penned by Robert Sawyer. 

At the same site see my entries in WIRED's contest for SciFi stories containing just SIX words.  The story of mine that they chose for cover treatment -- Vacuum collision. Orbits diverge. Farewell, love. -- is the only one with actual events and a plot, in three separate scenes! All in just six words. 

I only just realized… it is precisely the story arc of -- GRAVITY. The space drama, starring Sandra Bullock, was directed, co-written, co-produced and co-edited by Alfonso CuarĂ³n, who earned from all of us the greatest respect. Still, in Hollywood-law they judge the spectrum of coincidence-homage-'borrow' by a standard of percentages, of fractional point-by-point overlap. So, can you see even a single point of my story that does not overlap with GRAVITY?

Hey... (to use the phrase much in vogue among my kids)… I'm just sayin'…

==Dream Worlds==

Indistinguishable from magic: A fun essay by Jason Snell in MacWorld looks at comparing technology forward and back in time… via science fiction!
MyDream is a nascent gaming world and system that purports to offer individual players of group games the ability to craft and set up  realms that follow rules and patterns of the player's choosing.  They've come a fair distance but are asking for crowdfunding support.  Seems worth a look.
In fact, there would seem to be some partial overlaps or potential synergies with the Exorarium Project that I partly developed with Sheldon Brown of the UCSD Arthur Clarke Center for Human Imagination.  A cool potential system that would achieve what SPORE promised, but better and with fantastic educational potential, as well.
A lovely little essay about a parent who reads to her daughter and occasionally switches character genders.  Cute… and still helpfully necessary.
== Is TED Sci Fi? ==
TEDx San Diego has released the first four videos of a dozen interesting talks from last month, including my colleague Benjamin Bratton's controversial indictment of TED itself!  Watch his tak … or see Ben Bratton's written essay, We Need to Talk About TED, calling into question the whole TED/Chattauqua approach.
What one piece of science do you wish everyone knew? Make a short film about your favorite bit of scientific knowledge and you could win the GuardianWitness Science award – and an iPad Air. A Guardian contest.
== Movies of 2014 ==
SInce we're on the topic of movies: I'd love to watch this Russian film, if possible! The Irony of Fate.
Edge-tomorrowSee Tom Cruise in the preview of his future sci fi combat/shooter flick Edge of Tomorrow.  Apparently they took "All You Need Is Kill" -- a Japanese military science fiction light novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka that was up for a Seiun Award… and slapped onto it the title of a story+nonfiction book by Isaac Asimov. (I hope Janet and Robin were paid!)
The plot involves re-living the same failed invasion over and over again… thing "Groundhog D-Day."  And hey, I am happy to see something actually made from an actual book and not a tedious remake!  Looks like fun.
But of course, the Big Deals will be twin attempts at serious and non-cliche films either directed or produced by Christopher Nolan.  Interstellar bodes to be exactly what we need in the transition year of 2014… a call for us to shrug off the pessimistic funk and get back to being human. Which means bold explorers.
transcendence-movie-trailer-poster Transcendence deals with the emergence of AI amid a singularity.  The first teasers suggested it might be another damned cliche-downer.  But I should have had more faith in Nolan's team and community. This trailer may be a bit of a spoiler. But it suggests we aren't in for a dumb-ass dystopic yawner, after all.  Oh, sure there will be warnings.  But as I squint, I foresee tomething that moves through that downer-space and into… well… maybe something truly interesting, like Brainstorm.
Jiminy… at least we can hope.


Tim H. said...

2014 may not be so much the beginning of the new century, more like it takes us that long to notice we're someplace else. On a brighter note, the ingredients for a more positive century are available, if only the correct choices are made.

Alex Tolley said...

What if the 21st Century Actually Begins in 2014?

Even if we allow some slippage and use the better date of 1815 for the conclusion of the Treaty of Vienna and the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, there are no similar major events in 1614 or 1714. I conclude that this therefore is just a coincidence.

I liked this more reflective piece a lot better: Isaac Asimov's 50-Year-Old Prediction for 2014 Is Viral and All Wrong.

In my opinion, humans are too ornery and delusional to reach consensus on the logical-seeming redesigns that Robinson demands, and which - by the way - will inevitably contain more unexpected drawbacks than any Grand Designer has ever been willing to admit.

Granted. However, he makes the point in his intro to "Pacific Edge" that most writers create "pocket utopias" where there is no path to reach it. Even SciFi stories of the type "if this goes on" fail on grounds of simple extrapolation. I credit Robinson as doing better than that when he tries.

Benjamin Bratton's critique of TED was quite good. It has been puffed up to the extent that it is now just middle brow entertainment. What else does one expect from Anderson's Wired magazine sensibilities?

Crossing my fingers that Nolan's "Interstellar" proves as serious as "Inception". The trailers don't do it for me, but it is way too early to get a better feel of the movie.

Tony Fisk said...

That six word story is a fairly concise summary of the plot for 'Gravity'. (did they pay *you*? ;-)

David Brin said...

Yipe! I never thought of that!

Get my lawyer!

Xactiphyn said...

I'm going to guess someone wrote a story about an orbital space disaster before. Probably several stories.

100% originality is almost impossible. I know I personally have invented computer hashing and twice baked potatoes. Needless to say, I wasn't the first.

David Brin said...

It's not just date but percentage overlap. And you don't get better than 100%!

Alex Tolley said...

Pick random events (N) in the first half of any given century (assumes the century change is in the first half), what is the probability that the year of the event in the C19th and C20th are the same?

ProbSameYear = 1- 50!/((50^N)(50-N)!

Just 9 random stabs (N=9) gives you a greater 50% chance of finding a pair of events with the same year. 15 gives you a 90%+ probability, and 20 gives you 99%.

In fact it is even more likely as each year has a multiple number of recorded events, some very important. The probability of finding 2 important events in any given year, or giving them importance in some context, therefore improves the date coincidence.

As an example, here are the wikipedia entries for 1805 and 1905 ('05 was randomly picked). Can you pick a world changing event in each of these 2 entries? I'd say that it is quite easy. So perhaps the century really changes in '05? Or would that be '00 or '01 or '02 or (...)?

David Brin said...

Alex Tolley I have tried your exercise. Though my grandfather fought in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 there is no way it compares to 1914. Were you seriously being serious? You'd have to go to the MIDDLE of the century to find events of the significance of 1914, and then the whole "theme of the century" thing isn't about starts and finishes but CENTERS…

… as 1944 was the center-nadir of a concave 20th.

David Brin said...

One of you a while back asked for examples of when Paul Krugman was wrong. It's pretty darn easy. Take the is 20th century quote of his, from about 1995:

"The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in "Metcalfe's law" – which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants – becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet's impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine's…. As the rate of technological change in computing slows, the number of jobs for IT specialists will decelerate, then actually turn down; ten years from now, the phrase information economy will sound silly."

Talk about silly!

For reasons like this, I call him at-bets 70% right… which is still genius level in economics and vastly better than Supply SIde's 0%

Duncan Cairncross said...

Re Krugman - internet

I would not say that that prediction was "silly" - wrong yes but not silly!

One of the things I like about Krugman is that he publishes his reasoning along with his conclusion and he is willing to admit it when he does screw up

Mark Crosby said...

Here's a 6-word story / plot for the 2013 movie I preferred to GRAVITY: Technical challenges. Alien encounters. Life continues. As in EUROPA REPORT?

Alex Tolley said...


1. You don't get to pick 2 events in 2 centuries and then proclaim a universal. What are your picks for 1614, 1714 to buttress your argument?

2. Using the start of the CoV and WWI is dubious. Why not the end of each - 1815, 1918? After all, the changes that impacted the rest of these centuries were a result of the outcomes of those events. But those dates don't work.

3. So far, the big change in the C21st was the event of 2001 that unfolded to the state we are today. Maybe we will see something significant happen in 2014, but it will have to be in a very different sphere of geopolitics to be considered as a major turning point, and it will have to be even larger in scope and impact, like a war with China. What if that event happens in 2015 or 2016 or....?

David Brin said...

Alex, nonsense on all counts, top to bottom.

First, show me your counrer exempts that are close enough to the 00 year to represent just a phase difference. I haven't seen you ante up.

Second I made clear that I claimed nothing mystical. But 1715 is a very good candidate since the end of the War of Spanish Succession commenced the "French Century" that only ended with the CoV.

1615 began the Thirty Years War which ravaged Europe stem to stern.

But the biggest malarkey is the utter drivel that 9/11 was of mighty historical significance. It was miles for all it was worth by a pack of scoundrels who used it to establish a surveillance state and plunge the US into draining/calamitous wars… and none of that achieved the desired end of laying us low. Big Brother isn't really any closer, the military is recovering. The middle east is very little changed. We are slightly less vulnerable to islamist terror and more to tech-nihilist terror.


David Brin said...

I hate auto-correct! "it was MILKED for all it was worth." And The US suffered far more loss during any random month of WWII. What are we, wimps?

Dig it, RED America panicked over 9/11 and terror, when they weren't even in the cross-hairs! Their president did us VASTLY more harm than Osama could ever have done us in 10,000 years… by falling for Osama's lure.

Folks in New York stood atop the rubble and sneered: "Is That all you got?"

sociotard said...

As defining moments for the 20th go, I would argue that 1945 was more relevant. I don't see that big a difference between WWI / most of WWII and the big wars of the 19th century. The weapons changed drastically, of course (air planes and chemical weapons, etc), but it was still a case of great powers fighting nasty sloggy wars of attrition.

But Trinity changed geopolitics in a way that 1914 didn't nearly. Suddenly, the great powers couldn't simply challenge each other directly.

I can't think of a similar case for 1845, but then I think that history can't be shoehorned into neat 100 year cycles. (I agree that history does rhyme, but it has a weird irregular stanza structure)

David Brin said...

Sociotard. 1945 is way in the middle of the calendrical century and its hell was the nadir that we sank to from 1914 and climbed our way OUT of till….? Hence it cannot be viewed as the START of anything but rather as the deepest part of a cycle whose theme was the 20th century.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Re - 911

I agree that the event itself while horrible was not really significant

However the US reaction to the event was seismic - with ripples felt all around the world

Not quite the shot that echoed around the world - but still major changes in;
Politics - Bush..
Economics - would Dems have permitted the 2009 fall??
Civil rights - Patriot act

Each of these US aberrations shifted the playing fields all around the world

Would the UK have Cameron without the disaster of Iraq??

Unknown said...

"The Irony of Fate" is available for download at the usual pirate sites (with English subs) or indeed purchasable at Amazon for a very reasonable amount of cash.

Very funny, just make sure you watch the first one and not the update II.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

Although it has nothing to do directly with the subject of 1814/1914 as inflection points in time, the experience of 1945 is likely to have much more relevance to those of us in the 21st century.

Margaret Mead famously described those alive in 1945 as "immigrants in time." Although they may have stayed in the same place, they were transported into an entirely different world.

This is a more likely experience than what is generally described as the Singularity. There are likely to be one or more years in this century when we stay in the same place, pursuing basically the same endeavors; but we will look back on the year realizing that we have been transported into an entirely different world.

This is what happened to people who lived through 1945, and it is likely to happen in more profound ways during certain (as yet unknown) years in this century.

LarryHart said...

@Alex Tolley

Just FYI, I replied to you on the previous thread.

LarryHart said...


I know I personally have invented computer hashing and twice baked potatoes. Needless to say, I wasn't the first.

I know I invented the term "giving an Underdog" for when you push someone on a swing by running completely underneath the swing. And somehow, all kids know to call it that, even if they've never heard of me.


LarryHart said...

Dr Brin on 9/11:

Dig it, RED America panicked over 9/11 and terror, when they weren't even in the cross-hairs! Their president did us VASTLY more harm than Osama could ever have done us in 10,000 years… by falling for Osama's lure.

Folks in New York stood atop the rubble and sneered: "Is That all you got?"

Which was exactly what I was arguing for back on 9/12. I used to say that the best thing Americans could do would be to dust ourselves off, bury our dead, get back to the business of life as usual, and at the same time, causally slap al-Quaeda out of Afghanistan without batting an eyelash.

I thought conservatives would say the same thing! No, from them, I got lectures on how fearful we should be and how much of our American character and treasure we must sacrifice in order to treat terrorists as comic-book supervillains.

That was the period when I (for maybe the first time) stopped thinking of myself as a coward and started realizing how cowardly the Chickenhawks really were.

Jonathan S. said...

I agree, LarryHart. Heck, I was plumping for a proper 9/11 memorial building - build the Twin Towers back exactly where they were, only five stories taller. Because that's what we do here, when somebody tries to scare us - or at least what we used to do.

"But Jon," acquaintances replied, "nobody's going to want to rent space in those buildings! The associations with terrorist attacks would frighten them!"

Bull. This is office space in Manhattan. It could be built on top of an ancient Indian burial ground, and the space would still be desirable, because it's in Manhattan. The Towers weren't built originally just because they were pretty, after all.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin often pushes the need for transparency around ownership (the notion of declare it or lose it / limits to nested corporate ownership). In many ways we have less transparency around the ownership of wealth now than we did 100 years ago. Here's an interesting story (and speculation on motive) that's somewhat related:


Anonymous said...

Is Gravity a science fiction movie or is it just a disaster movie in space? What science or technology is involved that does not actually exist?

locumranch said...

1914 WW1 begins, 1918 Influenza epidemic, WW2 begins 1938, 1939 or 1941, 1945 FDR dies, selection of 911 as emergency number in 1972, 1993 World Trade Center bombing, 1998 WTC prediction, 9/11 WTC 2001:

These numbers only possess 'abracadabra' predictive value if you are an adherent of numerology.

On a side note, stumbled across this review of 'Transparent Society' at Econlib:


Alex Tolley said...

@LarryHart - I replied to you in the previous thread.

@DB - I need to make no counterclaim. The '14 claim is yours and you therefore need to defend it. All I need to show is that it is not likely significant. You want to find a reputable historian who thinks history runs the way you claim? 1715 and 1615 are not 1714 and 1614. All you have done is extend the dates to find what you think of as important events. Nor have you justified why beginning events, rather than conclusions.

Just to show that a narrative can be affixed to another pair - '05 - here it is:

1805. The Battle of Trafalgar. This was more than a historic win for Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. It finally broke the only major competition for global dominance via the navy. This paved the way for Britain's C19th hegemony and the Pax Brittanica.

1905. Bit weaker, but we have the Russian Revolution, which while failing, results in the October Revolution of 1917 with global consequences by the end of WWII. We also have a series of theoretical papers by Einstein that transformed physics and influenced the development of the atomic bomb and the global importance of the Cold War.

If all you can riposte is "mine is bigger than yours", good luck with that. Argue with a historian. I doubt you would even make an appetizer. Oh, and get your dates right. Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) Not even close to 1614, or even 1615.

David Brin said...

A mid-20th century newsreel featuring amazingly accurate predictions of the year 2000.

All right, okay, it's sarcastic. Very very very very sarcastic.

LarryHart said...

Alex Tolley:

If all you can riposte is "mine is bigger than yours", good luck with that. Argue with a historian. I doubt you would even make an appetizer.

IMHO, you are taking Dr Brin's claim way too literally. He's having fun with it. Can't you do likewise? (Or maybe you are, in which case, "Never mind!")

David Brin said...

onward…. !

science fiction book club said...

Wow. A very interesting look at some of this years highlights. Cheers David!

Mike Galos said...

FYI: It's spelled Chautauqua, the base location that inspired the traveling Chautauquas still exists and is continuing its mission to educate adults every summer. More information is available at