The third installment of the Predator Space Chronicles is up.
Amir Tarkos is one of the only humans in the Predator Corp, the most feared and respected military force in the Galaxy. With his partner Bria, a bear-like carnivore, Tarkos is on a dangerous and difficult mission to fight the Ulltrians, a race that once extinguished much of the life in the Galaxy.
War has begun, but Bria has been accused of murder and treason and Tarkos is suspected to be an accomplice. Only they can save the Alliance, but first they must escape from prison, raise an army of artificial intelligences, and seize control of the most dangerous weapon the Alliance ever created.
So we all missed this one. Science fiction writers have for decades been imagining different ways in which a technological society can turn on science. Standard tropes are that fundamentalist religion takes over the state, and bans science; another standard trope is that some catastrophe happens, and people blame science and scientists (Interstellar had a few lines devoted to this trope, to cite a very contemporary example).
This morning, I read the text of the bill that passed the House last week: HR1442. This bill would determine who can advise the E.P.A. It includes (I cut for readibility some clauses):
(2) Each member of the Board shall be qualified by education, training, and experience to evaluate scientific and technical information on matters referred to the Board under this section. The Administrator shall ensure that–
“(C) persons with substantial and relevant expertise are not excluded from the Board due to affiliation with or representation of entities that may have a potential interest in the Board’s advisory activities, so long as that interest is fully disclosed to the Administrator and the public and appointment to the Board complies with section 208 of title 18, United States Code;
“(E) Board members may not participate in advisory activities that directly or indirectly involve review or evaluation of their own work;
So (C) above would open the advisory board to include corporate representatives; these people are specifically redefined as acceptable as long as we know that they work for industry.
But (E) above means that a scientist whose has published on global warming, for example, cannot be part of the board if they are discussing global warming, because of course then her work would be evaluated as part of the discussion of global warming.
In other words, working for a corporation that would be directly affected by the regulation does not cause a conflict of interest, but the scientific method and peer review do cause a conflict of interest.
No dystopian fancy ever encompassed a world in which “I am paid to say P” is treated as no serious conflict of interest with respect to P, but the person who publishes peer-reviewed scientific papers on P has a conflict of interest because… I just don’t know why because.
We are laggards, we science fiction writers. The world is leaving us behind.
Always eloquence and wisdom incarnate.
After many years, I reread Solaris.
It’s hard to say what makes Lem so good. The prose, at least in translation, is good, but not stunning. The idea of Solaris–a planet covering, perhaps intelligent ocean–is not completely novel to SF. But somehow the final effect is that here is science fiction at its very best. Science fiction as we writers should all envy and long to write it.
Lem of course does not predict the future with compelling accuracy. For example, on the Solaris station there are paper books but no recordings–the idea that the dead could reappear and you have to type a report about it, and not just film it all, every second of it, from a hundred angles–is quaint. But there is something so mature, so human and also so… scientific in Lem’s vision, that it truly is in the end not only compelling and authentic, but also beautiful and moving.
There are notable differences with mainstream SF. In the trade, we call it an “info dump” when someone explains a phenomenon. The term is (obviously) disparaging. By this standard, a good quarter of Solaris is info dumps. But the term shows a deep problem with contemporary SF, one that Lem diagnosed and scoffed at. For him, science fiction is about the human being in a world transformed and understood by science. In Solaris, the discussions of the scientific literature on the mysterious ocean are not info dumps, they are the very fabric of attempted scientific understanding. Lem is fearless in this: he portrays not a world of space opera adventure. He portrays a world of human beings trying to understand themselves, and the absurdity of existence, and, yes, a huge thinking ocean, via science and also via their own culture and purposes.
All this, and I haven’t even mentioned his brilliant, unique explorations of form–his book of introductions to non-existent books, his book written by an AI, the inexhaustible joy and brilliance of The Cyberiad. He out-Calvinos Calvino, he makes Borgesian leaps over Borges.
It is a great failure of the Nobel Committee, to have passed him over. But what do we care? We can read him, and spread the word. Long live Lem!
I assiduously avoid anything having to do with celebrities. But, all the news that I consume is treating it like a major story, right up there with Putin’s imperialism and ISIS and the endless growth in wealth inequality, so I can’t help but repeatedly hear, or encounter headlines, about the phone photos hack of some celebrities. Which makes me suddenly think of Arthur Clark and Stephen Baxter. (I know, I know, you had the same reaction, right?)
Clark and Baxter’s book, The Light of Other Days, is a fine example of classical SF: a very clever idea with radical implications thought through to the limit of its potential. The idea is that wormhole technology is developed, but wormholes can only be microscopically large. At first this might seem useless, but it turns out one can see through such a hole. This becomes a consumer technology, and soon all of humanity is able to see any event anywhere. And the wormholes can be opened into the past by setting them up in distant space-time locations, so all the past is also visible.
Clark and Baxter work on the implications with brilliance. Society is transformed. For example, most crimes become such that it is impossible to escape justice (just follow the perpetrator home by moving a wormhole to the scene of the crime, watch what happened, and then move the wormhole along behind the villain till he or she is identified). We can sit in on politicians meeting with rich donors, and watch how legalized bribery shapes their activities. We can no longer foolishly romanticize a past where we can see the things our nation actually did. And so on. There are some costs to this radical transparency, but mostly the end result is strangely utopian.
But I wonder. Would enough people care about what votes the politician promised in his meeting with the Koch brothers? Politics is so complicated, and you could spend your wormhole time looking at celebrities in the shower.
In the economy of attention, transparency competes with all the other opportunities to see something new–or rather to see something titillating. Hence, a third of my evening news is about what one woman is doing with her cell phone, time that could and should be spent on something worthwhile, like the situation in Gaza or current economic data or–my god, just about anything else.
Furthermore, transparency is not going to make things easier to grasp. Transparency into a complex situation does not simplify, it merely gives you more data. Much scientific data is transparently available. It doesn’t seem to do anything to improve scientific literacy. We still we have a widespread and seemingly endless faux controversy over global warming.
Citizenship is work, and it requires preparation. (One should really know how basic statistics work, the branches of government, who your Representative is, what “socialism” really means, some history, and so on. What use is transparency when you can’t put the data in context, can’t tell whether the data is representative of the population in question, don’t know how your government makes use of data, don’t know how we got here, etc.?). That all requires a decent education. But we’re living though a time when schools and universities are constantly pressured to become more and more vocational.
But all that is no excuse for me not giving you a Jennifer Lawrence picture. I’m a terrible person. Here’s a unclothed book cover instead. I’m sorry, I know it’s so much less interesting, but it’s all I got.
I learned about this blog on NPR. It’s great! Looking through it, you really get a sense of how hard it is to predict the future. But more surprising is how many good ideas that we did not implement because of political failure. Worth some looking:
I enjoyed the entry about freeze-dried food being the trend of the future. I grew up with the Apollo missions, and as a small kid tried to make my own astronaut food by shaping leftovers into cylinders and freezing them in plastic bags. I don’t recall ever eating my astronaut food; I just admired its space age appearance and probably then left it on a counter to melt until my mother threw it away.
We choose to go to the moon… and do the other things….
I recently returned from Rome, and my friends there were talking of Paolo Sorrentino’s Le Grande Belleza (The Great Beauty), which received some attention by Italians before it won the Foreign Language Oscar and much attention after. It’s a beautiful film, and poignant, but it is also fatally nostalgic and anachronistic.
Its theme is the paralysis of wealthy Italians, a kind of Chekovian Fellini-ism. What makes this so wrong of our time is that we live when the wealthy are as much the opposite of paralyzed as one can describe. The wealthy are furiously active, growing their power at exponential rates. It is the rest of us that are paralyzed.
The much truer work for our time is Neuromancer. I know many were impatient with cyberpunk, mostly because of its tough guy noir. But even though it is 30 years old, Gibson’s novel captured some of the social dimensions of the then future very well: corporations grown to immense power, vast mercenary armies (like Blackwater) killing with impunity, governments intentionally weakened until most people live in an arena of vicious social darwinism, and a ruling class of highly isolated wealthy elites bereft of social conscience or social interest.
The book closes on two high points. Nebula Award–winning author Katherine Sparrow’s “Why Lily Left” is a melancholy, horrifying glimpse into an anti-civilization mindset. “Amateur Night at the Global Mart,” Craig DeLancey’s technobabble-laden entry (“genemod symbiot lichen” being a prime example), is activist-oriented speculative fiction as strong as anything Cory Doctorow has produced.
Of course I appreciate the praise and the comparison to the very talented Cory Doctorow, but the thing that amuses me is, I thought “genemod symbiot lichen” sounded like clear, workaday speech! Is that a sign of SF-induced conceptual corruption?