Saturday, August 27, 2022

Science fiction - Reaching for the future

As the World Science Fiction Convention is about to stage and rage in Chicago, let's pause to glance at the genre of wonder, the literature that deals with the one 'eternal verity'... change.

First ... a look at how far science fiction has come in achieving respect at its high end. From The New Yorker: “Can Science Fiction Wake Us Up to Our Climate Reality?Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels envision the dire problems of the future—but also their solutions,” as in his latest release - The Ministry for the Future.

Harlan Ellison distilled the essential question. "Our duty is to make a world that's even just barely good enough that our kids do better. And theirs and theirs. Till super generations come who look back at us as monsters. Monsters who somehow rose above both their natures and their times....

“…even if barely enough."  Or as Roman Kznaric put it, more succinctly in his non-fiction book: The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking, our duty and task is... to be Good Ancestors.

Those of you reading my Out of Time series, about teens from varied eras yanked into a future utopia-in-peril, in order to save it with their ‘grit,’ know I borrowed the term from that movie, of course. But so did these neuroscience researchers: "Uncovering links between grit and cognitive function". Unless one of them is a fan who borrowed it from me!  

== Good Quick Reads ==

A series of quick-read hard-SF novellas by Laurence E. Dahners is worth a look. Lively  fun is the "Stasis" series where a young physicist makes a way to freeze time. Book 1: A Pause in Space Time

Sarina Dahlan's novel RESET offers a pretty unique take on how we might flush away the grudges that so often poison our lives.

Speaking of time... The “Out of Time” (or “Yanked!”) series: Only teens can teleport through time and space! Dollops of fun, adventure & optimism for young adults. Five Out of Time novels offer free first chapters… and five more are in the pipeline!

== YouTubes and Lists beyond the beyond ==

Tune in! Isaac Arthur has among the best sci-future podcasts - Science & Futurism - that explores in amazing detail the implications and ramifications of every permutation of the ‘alien’ you can think of… while poking as zones where we can’t! 

This episode cogently discusses what might happen if we head out there into the galaxy and find one or more less technologically advanced alien races. 

Are we behooved to act according to a Trekkian Prime Directive not to interfere? Can that even be enforced on all individuals who might disagree?  All of his riffs are detailed, logical and interesting… though this one features my books at 27 minutes in, offering big discounts for purchasing audio versions from Audible!

Just in case you never knew about this side of me... Eight outstanding David Brin books sci-fi fans need to read,” from The Portalist.

From Mental Floss: “Twelve novels that won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards,” with a mention of Startide Rising..

And from The Washington Post: Let's talk about the beasts of Sci Fi and Horror: a look at fictional animals, from Clifford Simak's City to Stephen King's Cujo.

== SF & Hollywood ==

Caltech physicist Spiros Michalakis and Hollywood writer/producer Ed Solomon (co-creator of Bill & Ted) speak with Caltech science writer (and sci-fi fan) Whitney Clavin in this video about how they collaborate to make science shine in film 

My original Salon article denouncing Star Wars was not my most hate mail-producing piece! It did lead later to a book: Star Wars on Trial. I was the 'prosecutor' and one of Lucas's novelizers the defense attorney. We called witnesses, cross-examined... huge fun! 

My later, upgraded case is one of the chapters in my recently released collection of essays on SF movies - Vivid Tomorrows: Science Fiction and Hollywood.

And this article preceded the later proof that Yoda is (by sheer death count) decisively the most-evil character in the history of all human stories and mythologies, combined. So there.

See the trailer for the Tom Swift spin-off.  And Neil Gaiman discusses the trailer for The Sandman series, based on his Sandman graphic novels. The series has been released on Netflix.

== Dark visions ==

As the Ukrainian literary magazine Chytomo recently covered in a disturbing article, “Since 2009, Russia has been actively publishing books on war between Russia and Ukraine in the fantasy genre, as well as historical and nonfiction literature about the collapse of the Ukraine project and mocking the independence of the non-existent Ukrainian people and artificial Ukrainian language.”

This article discusses a rather scary sub-genre of sci-fi, based upon an earlier wave of “Spetznaz fantasies” featuring Russian super soldiers shooting down especially Americans like mown grass. To be clear, our own nutter right has relished similar masturbatory fiction-fetishes, all the way from the marginally mainstream Red Dawn to the outright treasonous/fascist Turner Diaries.  And it is a common trope in war-inciting propaganda going back all the way to the Iliad and Roman epics vilifying Carthage. Today, as we speak, there is a major genre of “wolf warrior” tales and movies promoted by a certain Rising Power in the east.

But we are now witnessing the kind of calamity that can happen in the real world, when such agitprop seizes the imaginations of resentful (often incel) males.

== And more... ==

Do you miss old-fashioned, “classic” sci fi? Startling Stories is aiming for a revival of the pulp magazine (of the same name) which ran from 1939 to 1955. The title kinda says it all!

With Forkpoints, Nebula Award winner Sheila Finch (Reading the Bones) delivers an impressive, career-spanning collection!  Stories like the wistful “The Old Man and C,” which imagines a world where Albert Einstein followed his talent for violin instead of physics. Fans of Finch’s Xenolinguist stories will enjoy encountering the author at her lyrical best in “Sequoia Dreams,” about alien visitors who have a profound ecological message to convey, and “Czerny at Midnight,” in which a marine biologist’s autistic son communicates with an octopus through music. 

In her new anthology, The Memory Librarian and Other Stories of Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe presents a collection (inspired by her album Dirty Computer) of vivid dystopian stories of the near future, of humanity and society adapting to changing technology.

Finally... Chicon, the 80th World Science Fiction Convention will be held from September 1 to 5 at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, with Author Guests of Honor (and our dear friends) Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due. (Have fun!) And see their new graphic novel collaboration, The Keeper.

Awards will be announced for this year's Hugo Awards for best in SF&F (nominations listed here).

Saturday, August 20, 2022

From the Moon to Mars and METI

I am infamously critical of the "Artemis Mission," re-doing glory that America achieved more than fifty years ago. Worse, a cabal of corrupt senators insisted that billions get poured into a make-work program of obsolete rockets that have no future. Oh, humanity will be going to Luna in droves, as nations, billionaires and other entities scurry to have their flag-waving, footprint-planting, tourist rites-of-passage. Those Apollo wannabes should have their ''bar moonzvahs' without elder bro churlishly shaming them by scurrying to beat them there. (We already did, by five decades.) 

Do not try the 'vast lunar resources' argument here. Blah blah. Except for a little water ice cached in deep, sunless craters at the poles, there are no such 'resources' there accessible by near future technologies. Nor compared to the spectacular riches that await us in the Near Earth Asteroids (NEOs). And as for that polar ice (first predicted by my doctoral adviser), our best steps forward are robotic.

Still, we are committed, I suppose, at least to the SLS-propeled 'stunt' part of Artemis. (Always remember who committed us to this moondoggle.) Moreover, I do hope and expect that skilled folks at NASA and ESA will strive to make this more than just an Apollo reboot, planting useless-symbolic footprints on a plain of poison dust. Science please.

Toward that end, very smart folks are trying to turn a lemon into lemonade, by selecting potential landing sites many of which are within reach of those ice deposits... and other interesting items like hollow lava tubes, which might offer best possible locations for lunar habitats. (We have a project to look at one of the 'skylight' openings, at NASA's Innovative & Advanced Concepts program - (NIAC).)

In fact, I was impressed by how Jim Bridenstine, one of Trump's only first-rate appointments, protected NASA's other portfolios from cannibalism by Artemis. With some budget increases, this sabotage attempt won't sabotage at all!

It's too late to sway this decision. It's made. So I will root for the team... 

== More Space, More Space! ==

More spectacular images from the James Webb Space Telescope: exciting new discoveries about galaxies, exoplanets and nebulae.

Meanwhile, we've received stunning new high-resolution photos of the Valles Marineris canyon region on Mars - from the High Resolution Stereo Camera on ESA's Mars Express exploring the surface of the Red Planet.

== Rockets ==

DIY rocket system being built by Danish amateurs and crowdfunded may carry suborbital passengers in some years. Interesting project, reminiscent of the amateur self-launch hobbyists in my novel Existence.  

Meanwhile the U.S. Space Force plans "responsive" launch in 2023. As part of the fiscal year 2022 defense budget, Congress added $50 million for the US Department of Defense to better use commercial launch services during a conflict; this would help the government replace damaged satellites or deploy new ones quickly.  Space Force said it plans to conduct a 2023 “responsive space” demonstration where private launch companies will be challenged to deploy satellites on short notice, Space News reports.

== METI yet again! ==

Apparently, a radio signal designed to bring Earth's climate crisis to the attention of alien life will be beamed to the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system in October. As many of you know, I am a member of a loose array of professionals with long experience in this field, who resigned from most SETI commissions in protest, when the Second SETI Protocol was eviscerated, opening the door wider for reckless and insipid stunts like this one, rashly gambling our children and posterity based on highly dubious assumptions.

Here's the latest stunt, planned by the folks using a taxpayer built facility at Goonhilly Station in the UK, aiming to perform diplomacy with foreign powers bypassing the professionals we hire for such things…. 

…and a fairly balanced-if-cursory overview, mentioning also that it seems China may be about to join in this absurd spectacle, despite being clearly warned about potential drawbacks by the mighty Liu Cixin (in his great trilogy “The Three Body Problem.") I was not aware that China had added transmission equipment to their giant new radio telescope. But I cannot say that I’m surprised.

NBC online just ran a tendentious article by SETI Institute chief scientist Seth Shostak. I have known Seth for decades. Alas, he has lately tipped into polemic that is deeply flawed. This 'article' is rife with the usual hoary canards, long ago refuted. You are welcome to read his piece, then dive into the actual meat of this controversy here:

Shouting At the Cosmos” – about METI “messaging” to aliens. 

But the crux is that Seth Shostak says nothing whatsoever about "why scientists are divided on this issue," preferring instead to deal out absurd, insulting and refuted clichés, avoiding all adversarial accountability by science and fact.

1. Like his claim that the dozens of scientists who express skepticism toward METI (or ‘active SETI’), many of them with decades of experience in SETI, are primarily spurred by fear of alien invasion. An absurd canard. Most of us are motivated far more by the rude and unscientific behavior of a very small coterie, dismissing even cursory discussion of basic concerns, like those routinely examined by NASA's Office of Planetary Protection.

2. He also says: “Homo sapiens might (might!) be around for a long time, and insisting that we never, ever point a powerful radio transmitter skyward could prove to be a weighty albatross burdening our descendants.”

Seth keeps accusing us of trying to 'stifle' humanity forever, when in fact, we have asked for open debate, exposing a wide variety of considerations and facts - not clichés - for examination by our scientific peers and by a fascinated public. The 'never, ever' thing is a grotesque lie. 

3. “They already know about us, so why not beam messages?” This is the worst cliché of them all. We deal with its absurd illogic in the linked missive. Not only do our TV shows fade into static very soon beyond Pluto, but if aliens already know of us, why are these cultists trying to amplify their shouts skyward by many millions-fold?

To be clear, many of us retain our fascination with the 'alien.' In particular, I am fairly famous for it! But we are also scientists. Alas, this 'active SETI' cult no longer uses scientific method or thinking and needs to be seen for what it is. Moreover, NBC exhibited shallowness and may have done real harm, by not seeking to understand the cult-like nature of Seth's movement.

Again, I gave a link to our long list of complaints, not one of which - alas - this cult has ever answered.

== Artemis redux ==

Again, my objections to a U.S. Footprint Stunt on the moon do not extend to robotic parts of the program!  NASA should very much strive for a leading role in robotic lunar exploration and actual, actual science.  For example: “Over the course of 10 Earth days (one lunar day), Lunar-VISE will explore the summit of one of the Gruithuisen Domes. These domes are suspected to have been formed by a sticky magma rich in silica, similar in composition to granite. On Earth, formations like these need oceans of liquid water and plate tectonics to form, but without these key ingredients on the Moon, lunar scientists have been left to wonder how these domes formed and evolved over time.”

Robotic exploration of lunar polar ice fields? That too!  And suspected lava tubes. 

What we do not need to do is humiliate other nations eager to send their astro/cosmo/taikonauts for symbolism-drenched national rites of passage. Let them have their ‘bar moonzvahs.’ We have other business farther out, worthy of grownups.

Onward to... the asteroid belt, location of vast wealth for planet Earth.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

The C-Word is not ‘capitalism’ or ‘conservatism’… or ‘cancer’…

elsewhere speak of both Adam Smith and Karl Marx, who are often portrayed as opposites. Only, the latter deeply respected the former, writing of Smith’s vital role in ‘bourgeois revolution’ - a necessary intermediate stage on the road from feudalism and monarchic despotism to final-stage worker paradise. 

Mind you, it’s a pity 99% of moderns know next to nothing about these two thinkers, beyond inaccurate clichés. (See: Adam Smith – Liberals must reclaim him.) Smith was brilliant, helping set in motion many of the positive sum processes I’ll speak of below.

Alas, though the younger Marx offered cogent insights into economics and historiography, he was an utter failure at predicting future events. Eventually, he became a quasi-religious figure, a tool of neo-feudal lords, who made him the iconic saint of a state religion, excusing murderous tyranny

But his biggest mistake was assuming that human beings are too stupid to read Karl Marx! And thereupon draw lessons, taking actions that render his scenarios obsolete.

That's exactly what FDR and others of the 30s thru 50s did, performing reforms that Marx never imagined possible, sharing significant power with the working classes and  luring them into a prosperous middle class. Indeed, for a while there, our Rooseveltean Reforms seemed to toss Old Karl into the dustbin… 

...till a new generation of oligarchist fools set to work obeying almost to the letter his predicted patterns of dimwitted, self-flattering greed, restoring vast disparities to French Revolution levels. Thus they have resurrected Marx, his books now fizzing again across all the world’s campuses and ghettos.

Elsewhere I talk about the worst of these would-be lords and their sycophant lackeys, the so-called neo-monarchists, who now openly call for a return to rule by ‘unitary executive” kings, claiming that “freedom and democracy are incompatible.”  

At all levels and in all ways, they are the very best friends the Marxists ever had.

But here I want to talk about the vast majority of those on the right. Not the neo-monarchist extrema, but a far larger number whose core hypocrisy – continuing to claim fealty to free-enterprise – is easily exposed as two-faced pretense.

== What is the ‘C-Word’? ==

What chafes me about 'capitalism' ravings from all sides - from far right to far left - is how almost no one ever defines the term or shows even a clue of understanding its meaning or implications. 

Worse, almost no one nowadays mentions the other c-word... competition. Even though – unlike ‘capitalism’ -- we can actually agree (a bit) what competition means!

For one thing, it’s blatantly obvious from both evolution and history that humans are deeply competitive creatures. 

We are at our most creative and productive when most of us have the freedom, confidence, fairness and wherewithal to compete in areas we choose, on a relatively even playing field. 

(Those of you who denounce me for saying this; aren't you thereby vigorously competing with me?)

All of that might make me sound like a right winger... 

...though the truth is diametric opposite! 

Across the last 50 years, every measure or action that has lessened effective competition in the U.S. has been perpetrated by hypocrites of a sellout Republican Party -- a cabal devoted to replacing flat-fair-open-creative competition with privileged oligarchy and monopoly.

In contrast, the Rooseveltean social contract - which Republicans strive to demolish - enhanced creative competition, including entrepreneurship, small business startups, inventiveness and the most vigorous era of new products and services, ever. 

(I invite cash wagers on all of those assertions, which are overwhelmingly proved.)

Liberals did all that (if imperfectly) by:

- Using regulations to limit the power of mighty corporations and oligarchs to quash upstart competitors.

- Using tax policies to keep wealth disparities low enough so that - while getting-rich remained an incentive-allure for creative enterprise - the rich could not tower outrageously above us all, like lords. Or gods. 

(Example: there was a time when you’d see a rich or famous person flying First Class, now and then. They mostly rode the same airplanes, sipping mimosas in seats only 2x as large as ours. Alas, no longer. And note that all modes of transportation decline when the rich abandon them.)

- Using tax laws to encourage R&D, productive capital and hiring workers, rather than Supply Side parasitism.

- Encouraging unions (who were vigorously anti-Leninist) so that the working class joined the middle class, a feat Karl Marx never expected and that tossed all his predictions into history's dustbin. For a while.

- Creating a vast ecosystem of community colleges and universities that allowed many children of field hands and factory workers to transform into professionals and entrepreneurs.

- Liberal social programs and justice reforms that reduced the nasty, unjustified, though all-too human practice of prejudice. And thus (only partially, so far) achieving Adam Smith's top recommendation to stop wasting talent! ...

...Because, as Friedrich Hayek said (before the mad right perverted his memory), any competitive system will function best when it involves the largest number of knowledgeable, empowered, confident and eager competitors, unencumbered by insipid bigotries.

All of those endeavors – which define liberalism at its core - had great effects at many levels: fighting injustice, improving lives, preserving freedom - but with an added benefit that (alas) no democratic politician or liberal philosopher has had the savvy to explain... 

…that all of those endeavors also enhanced flat-fair-creative competition! And hence our creative inventiveness. 

(I exclude mutant-liberalism - the so-called far-left - whose arrogant demands to equalize outcomes, rather than opportunities is almost as jibbering loony as the entire-right's devotion to restored feudalism.)

And that’s my capsule argument about the C-Word that is no longer spoken aloud by ‘conservative’ writers or pundits. 

== C-Words ... all words... merit scrutiny! ==

Alas, no liberal pundit or politician ever points to this hypocrisy, or that the Founders and the original Tea Party rebelled primarily against cheater oligarchy. 

Moreover, anyone who actually reads Adam Smith knows that - were he alive today – Smith would be a flaming Democrat.

That hypocrisy – betraying and almost never even mentioning the most important c-word – competition - spans the entirety of today’s conservatism, with that one exception that I describe elsewhere... 

...those neo-monarchists who thus have one virture... evading hypocrisy. They are totally open about their hatred of fair competition! They openly espouse completing the antipodal migration of conservatism, from once-upon-a-time extolling competition all the way to openly justifying its utter suppression. 

 From Adam Smith to Louis XIV.

Again, unlike every other kind of contemporary conservative, at least members of that extremum – while nauseatingly evil imbeciles – are no longer hypocrites! I'll grant them that.


 See my posting: The Return of Neomonarchy.

Friday, August 05, 2022

Alas, the passing of greats...

An unfortunate roundup of passings.... 

I note the passing of a science fiction legend. My friend and colleague Eric Flint left us, after a long illness. Best known for his his innovative and way-fun slipstream SF novel 1632, Eric then used the enthusiasm of that readership to spawn the most successful and extensive exploration of a shared universe, ever, using it to mentor many rising talents, along the way, particularly through his publishing house, the Ring of Fire Press.

In fact, when it came to raw storytelling – utter devotion to character, consistency and gripping narrative - he was among the best since Poul Anderson. (I had the honor to supply a canonical novella for this vast and wonderful 1632 gedanken cosmos.)

Eric will be deeply missed.

- Alas, trailblazing actress Nichelle Nichols, who was unforgettable in portraying communications officer Lieutenant Uhura in the original Star Trek series and its sequels, has died at age 89. In later years she was active in recruiting women and minorities to NASA. She will be remembered...

-  In addition, scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock, who proposed the Gaia hypothesis that all living organisms on the planet are inter-connected, died recently at 103 years old. I drew upon the Gaia concept in creating my novel, Earth. Lovelock remained active, publishing his latest book: Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyper-Intelligence a couple of years ago. 

- RIP also Vangelis, best known for his film scores, e.g. the haunting score of Bladerunner. But also brilliant music that I’ve oft cited. For example, I touted this early work by him that recites visible traits of our planet.... including the last one that we are changing fast. He warned us.... so beautifully.

My favorite of his works... it gives me chills... is “The State of Independence.” The classic version by Vangelis himself offers incredible instrumentals including a spine tingling saxophone. 

But then there’s the wonderful version covered by Donna Summer with elements of both disco and gospel. A dose of optimism you may be needing, right about now. In this video.


Oh, here’s one with slightly better sound plus a glimpse of the recording session when the backup group – including a very young (and still black) Michael Jackson shows some early sign of his moves.  

And one more...

Amid all the kvelling on James Caan as Sonny in The Godfather. Meh, it was a solid role done very well. But many of us will always remember the beautiful, understated and poignant portrayal he gave – of a confused but soulful hero-athlete – in Rollerball, one of the most under-appreciated of all SF films and with a plausible warning!

Though he was great in the film Misery, with Kathy Bates. And let us not forget Alien Nation, which became a really rich social science fiction franchise, the first expressing real faith in our unusual civilization bent on flawed but improving tolerance.

On a more positive note…

To help motivate us...I happen (personal quirk) to be an absolute sucker for feminist anthems. Other than political/social motives, I confess I am simply jazzed by the pure sass and gumption of songs like “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and “I am woman, hear me roar,” all the way across the spectrum to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun!” ….  But my favorite is “Sisters are doing it for themselves!” - this version in which the great Aretha Franklin joins the Eurythmics simply kicks ass!  How can you watch this and not tap your feet… and sing along and (if you’re male) say “yes ma’am! Tell me what you need done and I’ll help you get it done.” 

And yes Helen Reddy:

Reba McIntyre:

Loretta Lynn:

And more… and more… and more…

Finally... A fascinating riff on how not just sci fi but children’s literature in Soviet times satirized how a people can kowtow to power.