Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

A 50th anniversary docu-drama on Doctor Who

November 23, 2013

Once upon a time I was a regular watcher of the Doctor Who TV program.  I was never a hard-core fan and I lost interest after the Tom Baker era.  But I was interested in this trailer for a BBC docu-drama about the show’s 1963 origins.

Click on BBC Two – An Adventure in Space and Time – Clips for more.

Hat tip to Avedon’s Sideshow.

Two types of totalitarianism

October 14, 2013

orwell.huxley.fatpita (1952)

Maybe both of them were right.  An authoritarian state and a trivial mass culture are not mutually exclusive.  They are mutually reinforcing.

Hat tip to We are respectable negroes.

General Keith Alexander’s star-flights of fancy

September 16, 2013

sbiblahGeneral Keith Alexander, who heads the U.S. Cyber-Command and the National Security Agency, commissioned an Information Dominance Center patterned on the bridge of Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s Starship Enterprise.  Architect’s drawings are shown above.

Foreign Policy magazine reported:

When he was running the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command, Alexander brought many of his future allies down to Fort Belvoir for a tour of his base of operations, a facility known as the Information Dominance Center.

It had been designed by a Hollywood set designer to mimic the bridge of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek, complete with chrome panels, computer stations, a huge TV monitor on the forward wall, and doors that made a “whoosh” sound when they slid open and closed.  Lawmakers and other important officials took turns sitting in a leather “captain’s chair” in the center of the room and watched as Alexander, a lover of science-fiction movies, showed off his data tools on the big screen.

“Everybody wanted to sit in the chair at least once to pretend he was Jean-Luc Picard,” says a retired officer in charge of VIP visits.

via Foreign Policy.

I wouldn’t trust anyone, myself included, with the power to monitor the electronic communications of any American, including the public officials who vote his budget, and no accountability as to how this information is used.

But I especially would not trust anyone who uses public money to act out personal fantasies.  There is something to be said for getting in touch with your inner weirdness, but not in mixing it with public policy and national security.


The great SF writer Frederik Pohl is dead

September 6, 2013

Frederick Pohl, the great science fiction writer, died earlier this month at the age of 93.  He was politically aware, scientifically literate and a fine storyteller.  His stories are imbued with a hopeful cynicism—a knowingness about how the world actually works and the possibility it can be made better.

I have read and admired Pohl’s work for 60 years, since as a teenager in 1952, I read “Gravy Planet,” a serialized novel in Galaxy magazine by Pohl and his friend Cyril M. Kornbluth about a future United States ruled by advertising agencies and corporations.  Pohl’s imagined future society has no tolerance for subversives known as the “Consies”—conservationists, or what we’d now call environmentalists, who oppose unlimited consumption.  One of the characters says that these fears were unfounded.  When the world’s oil and gas was used up, “science invented the pedi-cab.”

waythefuturewasThe serial was published the following year in book form as The Space Merchants, which critics consider to be one of Pohl’s two greatest novels, along with Gateway, published in 1977.  If you have any liking for grown-up science-fiction—as distinguished from science fiction as wish-fulfillment fantasy [1]—I’d recommend one of these two novels or Slave Ship, The Age of the Pussyfoot, Man Plus, Jem or The World at the End of Time.

Pohl  also was a fine short-story writer.  Some of his best were “The Midas Plague,” “The Gold at Starbow’s End,” “The Merchants of Venus” and “The Tunnel Under the World”—the latter a Philip K. Dick-type story written before Philip K. Dick was ever heard of.

He was a Unitarian-Universalist, like me, and UUs will be amused by the Unitarian minister protagonist in The Cool War and the Unitarian exorcism performed in A Plague of Pythons.  

While nothing Pohl wrote was completely without interest, some of his works—especially sequels to his most popular works—were not as good as his best.  If you’re curious about Pohl and not familiar with his work, I’d recommend you keep your eye open for the titles I mentioned the next time you’re in a used-book store or the stacks of your public library.  They’re better than 99 percent of what you’ll see in the SF section of Barnes & Noble.


Would I take a spaceship to Anarres?

May 31, 2013


I read Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, a science fiction novel set in an anarchist utopia on the fictional planet of Anarres, which has no government, corporations, private property, money, buying and selling, police, criminal law or prisons.

I have questions about whether such a society is feasible, but the more interesting and important question for me is whether I would want to live in such a society.  I was undecided when I reviewed the book in an earlier post.

anarres1The moral atmosphere of Ursula Le Guin’s Anarres is like the church and volunteer groups to which I belong.  Everybody picks the job they like the best or feel best suited for, the work nobody wants to do is divided up, most people do their share and a vital few do much more than their share, without any reward except respect.  The work gets done, maybe not in the most efficient way, but without anybody being bossed around or made miserable and frustrated.

This is highly appealing.  I have been retired for nearly 15 years, and spent a fair amount of time in retirement doing church work, volunteer work and helping people out.  What I do has no monetary value, but I think what I do has some usefulness to society.  I expect to continue as long as I can.

But I would hate to go back to doing paid work, even though I have been much luckier in my work life than most people.   I’ve been able to do work that I wanted to do, and get paid for it.  As a newspaper reporter, I had much greater freedom than most wage earners to act on my own initiative and use my own judgment, although this diminished in the last few years before I retired.   If I had a guaranteed income and were young, I think I would work as a journalist without pay, and I think I would do as good a job as if I were dependent on an employer for my income.

leguin-the-dispossessedThe other aspect of life on Anarres, no private property and no laws, has less appeal for me.  I like owning my own house, free and clear, from which nobody has the power to turn me out.  I like thinking that I am free to speak and act as I wish, so long as I stay within the bounds of statutory law.   If my sense of security is an illusion, it is an illusion to which I cling.

If there is no private property and no Bill of Rights, then the freedom and security of the individual depends on public opinion.  I do not want my well-being and freedom to depend on public opinion.  As Adlai Stevenson once said, “A free society is a society in which it is safe to be unpopular.”  On Anarres,  I would be an “individualist” and a “propertarian,” both unpopular things to be.   On the other hand it is not exactly safe to be unpopular in the contemporary USA.

Now it is true that I am highly fortunate, even by American standards, and this shapes my judgment.  My new anarchist acquaintances point out that my thinking reflects the assumptions of the capitalist society in which I was born and grew up.  This is true.  The value of a book like The Dispossessed is that it helped me to re-examine my assumptions and think of new possibilities.

Click on Ursula Le Guin’s anarchist utopia for my original post.

Click on The Dispossessed for the full text of the novel in The Anarchist Library.

Click on Planets of the Hainish Cycle for a Wikipedia guide to Ursula Le Guin’s fictional universe.

Click on Takver’s Anarres – Comments on Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed and Anarchism for an admirer’s thoughts.

Click on Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: Anarres as Description of the Communist Future for a thoughtful review from a Marxist perspective by Karlo Mikhail Mongaya.

perspective (more…)

Starships: a musical SF fanvid mashup

May 18, 2013

Good fun!

I didn’t even know there was a genre called “fanvid” until I came across this a couple of days ago on Obsidian Wings.

Click on bironic for details and background information.

Why I like science fiction so much

May 16, 2013

Science fiction is a great medium for conducting thought experiments.  What makes it so great is that nothing is at stake.  Science fiction is just a harmless form of entertainment, so you can let your imagination have free rein without worrying about the consequences.

2578-planets-science-fiction-photomanipulations-fresh-new-hd-wallpaper-bestI’ve read science fiction for 60 years, and I’m struck by how many times I am reminded of old science fiction stories when I read speculative articles about politics or metaphysics.

Of course science fiction is also a form of escape literature.  It creates a virtual reality that people enjoy imagining they live in.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  As C.S. Lewis once remarked, the only category of people hostile to the concept of “escape” are jailers.

Currently my favorite science fiction is Ken MacLeod, a Scot whose novels are published in the United Kingdom, but not always in the United States.  I order every book he writes without waiting to see if it will be published in the USA.

Click on The Early Days of a Better Nation for Ken MacLeod’s web log.  I don’t include it on my BlogRoll because he doesn’t post very much.

Click on Science fiction novels for economists for a list.

Click on Science Fiction (Bookshelf) for links to science fiction stories available on-line through Project Gutenberg.

Ursula Le Guin’s anarchist utopia

May 16, 2013

THE DISPOSSESSED: An Ambiguous Utopia by Ursula LeGuin  is a thought experiment on how an anarchist society would work.  I read this science fiction novel when it first came out in 1974 and I re-read it a few weeks ago because of a new-found interest in anarchism.

dispossessed2The novel begins with the journey of the physicist Shevek from the hardscrabble planet Anarres, which was settled by anarchists a century and a half previously, to the lush planet Urras, a caricature of our own world in the 1970s.

In alternating chapters, it tells the story of Shevek’s life on Annares and its discontents, leading up to his decision to leave, and his adventures on Urras and how grotesque a society based on power and profit seems in his eyes.

The Dispossessed is worth reading as a novel, but in addition it gives an idea of how a possible anarchist society could function and, more importantly, the moral foundations of such a society.  Anarres is flawed and falls short of its ideals of individual freedom, mutual aid and voluntary cooperation, but is still infinitely preferable to the money-hungry, power-hungry nations of Urras.

I think LeGuin was realistic in putting her anarchist society on a separate planet. Utopian societies, anarchist and otherwise, have sometimes flourished in the United States, but they have all been pulled apart by the gravitational pull of the larger society around them.  By this SF device, she was able to show the normal functioning of a hypothetic anarchist society rather than its battles with external enemies.

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin

Anarres is a society without government, laws, police, courts, corporations, money, salaries, profit, organized religion or private property, except for a few hand-carried personal possessions.  Its people speak an artificial language, a kind of benign Orwellian Newspeak which lacks words for concepts such as “debt” or “winner.”

The society is organized to forestall any possibility of hereditary privilege.  There are no family names.  Everybody has a unique two-syllable, four- or five-letter name assigned by computer.  Couples may stay together or not, as the choose.  Some are bonded for life, but there are no laws pertaining to marriage or divorce.  Children may be raised by both parents, either one or public nurseries.  People live in dormitory rooms.  Nobody lives in an free-standing house.

Productive work on Anarres is done by syndicates of workers, who produce what is needed and receive what they need without monetary payment.  Every local community strives to be self-sufficient in food and energy, but there is some exchange and specialization among the communities.

Although there is no government, there is a coordinating agency called the PDC.  It is guided by policy debates and consensus developed in public meetings in which anyone can take part.  Advanced computer technology substitutes for central planning or the working of the law of supply and demand.  The PDC advises the syndicates on what is needed, and keeps postings of jobs that need to be done.  People volunteer for difficult and dangerous jobs, mostly when young, because of the challenge and because their work is honored.

dispossessed.quoteIn the individual syndicates, unpleasant work is done in rotation.   People who shirk their duties are subject to social pressure, then to public reprimand and possibly summary justice with fists and then, in extreme cases, to expulsion.  There are no police and no courts, but there are mental institutions.

By locating her society on a world where living is difficult, Le Guin avoided the easy path of saying that people in the new utopian society would live a life of ease simply because of the absence of exploitation and unnecessary work.

In the course of the novel, there is a near-famine on Anarres which strains the social fabric.  Shevek in one chapter is on a food train which is raided by hungry villagers when it stops.   But the ethic of mutual aid is strong enough to keep things from falling apart.

leguin.anarchist.quoteThe people of Anarres possess the full range of human impulses and desires, but as in any society, they suppress some impulses and foster others.  Children are taught to share and not to compete.  They are taught to not be “egoists,” but also not to be altruists.  Nobody, in theory, is asked to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.  Instead they are asked to cooperate with others for their mutual benefit.

In the novel, it is hard to maintain the ideal of the free and equal society.  Power-seeking, privilege and envy creep in, and conformity to the group becomes oppressive.

I might have thought that she was depicting her anarchist society as a failure if it were not for the contrast with Urras, with its wars, power structures,  privileged rich and oppressed poor.  Conformity on Urras is enforced not by social pressure, but by helicopter gunships firing on rioting mobs.

perspectiveI confess that I don’t completely understand how Le Guin’s hypothetical society would work.  For example, Shevek and his wife Takvar decide Anarres has become too conformist and they form a Syndicate of Initiative which, among other things, publishes works that can’t otherwise find a printer.

My question is:  Who supplies the Syndicate of Initiative with paper?  There is no money, so they can’t buy paper.  They can ask the paper syndicate to allocate paper, but since they are unpopular and paper is scarce, they would be unlikely to get an allocation.  There are no laws that would give them a right to claim a share of paper, or of anything else.

The great merit of the novel, aside from being a good story and a good science fiction story, is that it shows a set of moral values in action that are different from the values that guided the United States of 1974 or of today.  The challenge to the reader is whether the reader would want to live according to those values.

For some people, a society without competition, private property or structures of authority might be the opposite of a utopia.   For myself, I’m not sure.  I rewrote this last paragraph several times, and may rewrite it again.

Click on The Dispossessed for the full text of the novel in The Anarchist Library.

Click on The Dispossessed Quotes for 61 quotations that give the essence of Ursula Le Guin’s novel.

Click on Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: Anarres as Description of the Communist Future for a thoughtful review from a Marxist perspective by Karlo Mikhail Mongaya.  [Added 5/27/13]

Click on Takver’s Anarres – Comments on Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed and Anarchism for thoughtful comment from an admirer.  [Added 5/31/13]

 Click on And Then There Were None for Eric Frank Russell’s classic 1951 anarchist SF satire.

We’re living in a bad science fiction story

April 11, 2013
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I have been worrying about giving the President of the United States unlimited power to order killing by means of flying killer robots, but the world is moving on.  Now we have to worry about giving computer algorithms power to order killing by means of autonomous flying killer robots.

Research is going forward on how to program flying killer drones so they can respond automatically without waiting for the command of a human operator.  This is a bad idea for many reasons, but the basic reason was well stated by P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.  The problem, Singer said, is that Moore’s Law [that computer processing power doubles every few years] is still in effect, but so is Murphy’s Law [that whatever can go wrong, will].

There already are many examples of the danger of abdicating decisions to computers.  In 1988, U.S. Navy crewmen shot down an Iranian airliner, killing all the passengers, because the ship’s computer told them it was a war plane, and they believed the computer instead of their lying eyes.  During the Cold War, there were incidents in both the United States and the Soviet Union, in which the warning systems indicated the nation was under attack, but the commanders had the good judgment and moral courage to wait before ordering a retaliatory attack.

Autonomous drones would likely be programmed for what are called “signature strikes”—more accurately “pattern of behavior strikes”.   This is the use of drones to kill men who are behaving in a way an enemy soldier might act.   Over time it is reasonable to think that the actual enemy soldiers learn to avoid suspicious behavior, and an increasing number of “signature strikes” will fall on innocent civilians.

What happens if a malfunctioning autonomous drone wipes out a village like My Lai?   Who is responsible?  The operator who didn’t override the drone’s decision?  The software programmer?  The longer the link of responsibility, the less responsible the decision will be.

What happens if an enemy hacker reprograms the autonomous killer drone to suddenly turn on its operators?

Technology has its own momentum, and the path of least resistance is to adopt policies that fit the technology rather than finding a technology to implement the best policy.   This is a technology that enables killing without human agency and human responsibility.

Click on The Terminator Scenario: Are We Giving Machines Too Much Power? for a good article in Popular Science magazine.

Click on It’s Come to This: Debating Death by Autopilot for Conor Friedersdorf’s thoughts.

Science fiction writers have been speculating about the consequences of autonomous killing systems for a long time.

Click on the following for good stories with food for thought.

WATCHBIRD by Robert Sheckley (1953)

SECOND VARIETY by Philip K. Dick (1953)

JIPI AND THE PARANOID CHIP by Neal Stephenson (1997)

An alternate apocalypse

February 11, 2013

My previous post was about Philip Wylie’s 1954 novel, Tomorrow!, about a nuclear attack on the United States, which ends with massive retaliation wiping out two-thirds of the population of the Soviet Union.  It reminded me of a 1947 short story, Thunder and Roses, by Theodore Sturgeon, a less renowned, but more gifted and original, writer, also about the United States in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

In Sturgeon’s story, the United States was wiped out in a first strike, and the remnants of the population are doomed to die by radiation poisoning.  The means of retaliation still exist, however, if someone can find them.  The result, however, would be to raise the total level of background radiation to such a level as to destroy all life on other.  A beautiful and beloved singer and movie star is traveling across what’s left of the USA to try to persuade the survivors to not retaliate.

She begins her performance with her signature song, which is a reminder of all the reasons that life is worth living.

When you gave me your heart, you gave me the world

You gave me the night and the day

thunder-and-rosesAnd thunder, and roses, and sweet green grass

The sea, and soft white clay

I drank the dawn from a golden cup

From a silver one, the dark

The steed I rode was the wild west wind

My song was the brook and the lark

With thunder, I smote the evil of earth

With roses, I won the right

With the sea, I washed and with clay I built

And the world was a place of light

She then makes her plea against taking justified revenge.

The spark of humanity can still live and grow on this planet.  It will be blown and drenched and shaken and all but extinguished, but it will live if that song is a true one.  It will live if we are human enough to discount the fact that the spark is in the custody of our temporary enemy.  Some—a few—of his children will live to merge with the new humanity that will gradually emerge from the jungle and the wilderness.

The protagonist then discovers the secret missile installation from which massive retaliation can be launched.  His best friend tries to  fire the missiles.  The protagonist (apparently) kills him to stop him, destroys the installation so that the missiles can never be launched and then sits down to die.

“You’ll have your chance,” he said into the far future.  “And, by Heaven, you’d better make good.”

A decade later the anti-war Russell-Einstein manifesto called upon the peoples of the world to “remember your humanity and forget the rest.”   Philip Wylie’s novel Tomorrow!, which describes a U.S. victory through nuclear genocide, is a reminder that the best of us can forget our humanity.  Theodore Sturgeon’s novel reminds us that it is always possible to remember your humanity.



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