Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

‘We will need writers who remember freedom’

December 30, 2014

Via Ursula Le Guin’s Viral Video.

Does humanity’s future rest on Mars?

November 10, 2014

The Earth has existed for billions of years, and life arose only once.  We know that because the DNA of all living creatures, from humans to yeast, is related. For all we know, Earth is the only abode of life in the universe.

Life has existed for hundreds of millions of years, and intelligence life appeared only once.  Vision came into existence by means of several different evolutionary paths, but intelligence exists only in creatures with brains.  Even if some kind of life exists elsewhere in the universe, Earth may be host to the only intelligent life.

The whole saga of human life may be a brief and unimportant episode in the history of the universe, and human civilization a minor and short-lived part of that.

marsPIA02653-fullBut that’s not the only possibility.  It is possible that the history of human life and civilization on Earth may be the prelude to the spread of life through the universe, a story that would continue for billions of years.

Recent discoveries show hundreds of planets around stars within observation distance.  We don’t know how to get to those planets, but we do know how to get to planets within our Solar System, which would be a first step.

The billionaire American entrepreneur Elon Musk, the lesser known Dutch promoter Bas Lansdorp and others have announced their intentions of establishing a human colony on Mars.  They want to be real-life versions of science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein’s David Delos Harriman character in The Man Who Sold the Moon.  Like Harriman, they seek profits only as a means of sending humanity to the planets and stars.

vikinglander1-1I am torn between the grandeur of this enterprise and the seemingly hard practical facts.  Establishing a permanent human colony on Mars would be infinitely more difficult than, for example, establishing a self-sustaining colony in Antarctica or the Gobi Desert or a domed city at the bottom of the ocean.

Would people go?  Many say they would.  Could they sustain themselves in an environment so much more unforgiving than anything on Earth?  Would there be an economic payback?  Would people on Earth commit to supporting them indefinitely?

I don’t know enough to answer these questions, but my gut feeling is “no”.  But then again, I agree with Arthur C. Clarke, another science fiction writer, who said that the only way to know the limits of the possible is to venture a little bit into the impossible.

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Rare movie footage of the war of the worlds

October 11, 2014

Source: The Great Martian War

Hat tip to Boing Boing.

The Great Martian War is a documentary-style made-for-TV movie that conflates World War One with H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds.  I find this trailer (the full movie isn’t available in the USA) to be weirdly fascinating.

The actual World War One was just as fearsome, and just as much of a break with everyday life, as the events in H.G. Wells’ story.  But while the actual World War was tragic and unnecessary,  a war against extraterrestrial invaders would have been meaningful and glorious.

David Graeber on the lack of flying cars

September 21, 2014

David Graeber, the brilliant anarchist-anthropologist, wrote about possible reasons why technological progress seems to be slowing down, and why the science fictional dreams of his boyhood did not come true like the dreams of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

David Graeber

David Graeber

One is that American institutions are reshaping themselves on the model of the for-profit corporation, where everything has to be justified on its potential for short-term profit.  If you have to show in advance what you intend to invent, and its guaranteed cash value, you’re not going to invent anything very new.

Another is that the government and corporate elite is not interested in radical new technologies that will disrupt the power structure.  So research is focused on high-tech automated weapons, on surveillance technology, on psychiatric drugs to keep us calmed down, and on special effects, virtual reality and electronic gadgets to keep us distracted.

Yet another is that the payoff from technology, in terms of profits, is reaching a point of diminishing returns, which, by the way, is something Karl Marx predicted.

I strongly recommend reading the whole thing.  Click on Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit to read it.

Rise of the machines: Links & comments 8/19/14

August 19, 2014

The Internet’s Original Sin by Ethan Zuckerman for The Atlantic.

The basic problem with the commercial Internet, according to this writer, is the use of advertising to finance Internet services.

Because an individual advertisement on the Internet has little impact, the value of advertising is based on the ability of the firm to target individuals who are interested in this particular product.  And the only way to do this is to gather data and use it to profile individuals.

Invasion of privacy is not a bug.  It is a necessary feature.  The reason it is necessary is that most people would rather give up their privacy than pay for Internet services.

Zuckerman thinks this is the reason that NSA surveillance is no big deal for most Americans.  We’re already accustomed to giving up our privacy.

He doesn’t have a good answer as to what to do about all this, and neither do I.

How We Imprison the Poor for Crimes That Haven’t Happened Yet by Hamilton Nolan for Gawker.

The science-fiction movie Minority Report imagined a world in which it was possible to predict when people would commit crimes and to arrest them before the crime occurred.  A predictive science of human behavior does not exist, but that does not stop people in authority from acting as if it did.

American courts are increasingly using what’s called “evidence-based sentencing” on which the severity of the sentence is based on a computer algorithm’s determination of the likelihood that the person will commit another crime.

In practice, what this means that that poor youth who grew up in a family without a father will get a worse sentence than a middle-class youth with access to psychiatrists and good job opportunities.

This is contrary to the basic principle of equal justice under law.   If you commit a crime, you should be punished for what you did, not for what somebody thinks you may do.

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Science fiction’s dreams and yesterday’s future

July 1, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson, a science educator whom I admire, laments the loss of interest in the space program, which he equates to a loss of hope in the future.   I can understand that.  There was a time when I thought that the human future depended on the space program.

My thinking was shaped by reading science fiction in the 1940s and 1950s, and, in particular, Astounding Science Fiction magazine, edited by the visionary John W. Campbell Jr., and the young adult (then called “juvenile”) and Future History novels of Robert A. Heinlein.

ASF_0241While science fiction in those days was varied and imaginative, there was a kind of consensus future which constituted a kind of default setting and shared background for many (not all) SF writers of that day.

The common assumption was that the next stage of human history was the Age of Space, which would be for the Planet Earth as a whole what the Age of Discovery was for Europe.   It was to begin with the construction of space stations and expeditions to the Moon, Mars and Venus, which would soon by followed by colonization of these worlds.

The default idea of Mars was a desert planet with frozen canals and an ancient extraterrestrial race with occult powers and secret wisdom.   The default idea of Venus was a jungle planet, something like Congo or Amazon basins and something like Earth in the age of the dinosaurs.   Mars was an old planet and Venus was a young planet.  Other worlds of the Solar System also were thought to be habitable and ripe of human colonization.

Poul AndersonThe next step was to be discovery of a faster-than-life drive and the spread of humanity through our galaxy.   Human beings would the leaders in the formation of a Galactic Federation, much like the Federation in Star Trek.   This was to be followed by a Galactic Empire, much like the Empire in Star Wars.   The empire would decline and fall, like the Roman Empire, and be followed by an age of chaos and the creation of a new and more advanced civilization.

Humans, not extraterrestrial beings, were to be the leaders and guides.   Campbell was a humanity chauvinist; he had a rule that he would not publish a story in which aliens got the better of human beings.

I didn’t exactly believe all of this, but I did anticipate the Age of Space with great hope and curiosity.  I thought this age was about to begin with the moon landings in 1969.   I did not realize, as I do now, that the moon landings were a stunt, carried out for prestige, to prove that the USA was more advanced than the USSR.

I’ll say this:  I felt proud to be a citizen of a nation with the sense of purpose and the capability to decide to do something so difficult, and to carry it out.   But the moon landings didn’t lead to anything.  What I thought of as a beginning was the high point.

Now hopefulness about the future has migrated to other nations, and we Americans, to the extent that we thing about the future at all, are very rightly concerned about averting catastrophe—economic decline, political collapse, environmental catastrophe, exhaustion of fossil fuels, mutant diseases, global climate change, et very much cetera.

Maybe there will be an Age of Space someday, whether or not the United States is the nation that leads the way.   My heart is with Neil deGrasse Tyson.   I don’t want to terminate the space program, either.  But the younger generation doesn’t see the future in terms of Heinlein’s Space Cadet.   Their vision of the future is Hunger Games.

Brainwashing and mind control are possible

June 4, 2014

Elizabeth Loftus, the psychologist and memory researcher, has documented a disquieting success in implanting false memories by simply suggesting to a subject that he has experienced a fictitious event.

Such pseudo-events, invented by psychologists, may vary from mildly upsetting or comic incidents that, for example, as a child, one was lost in a mall to more serious incidents that one was the victim of a serious animal attack, or a serious assault by another child.

After initial skepticism “I was never lost in a shopping mall”, and then uncertainty, the subject may move to a conviction so profound that he will continue to insist on the truth of the implanted memory, even after the experimenter confesses that it never happened in the first place.

via Oliver Sacks | The New York Review of Books.

It is possible to remember things that never happened.   It is possible for a skilled psychiatric professional to implant false memories in people.

And now research with rats indicates that it is possible to work on the brain so as to delete—and restore—memories by physical means (but so far only in rats).

As an old guy who is starting to suffer from loss of memory, and whose greatest fear is dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, I think research on memory is a good thing, not a bad thing.

But a world in which memory deletion, memory activation and memory falsification were understood is a science-fiction dystopia.  It means that it is technically possible for a future government to exercise totalitarian control over the individual to an extent that Hitler, Stalin and Mao only dreamed of doing.

These far outweigh the possible benefits of these techniques, such as in treating post-traumatic stress syndrome.  And even there, I expect that, just as with psychiatric drugs, many therapists would use memory deletion techniques without fully understanding their limitations and wider effects.

LINKS

How to erase a memory—and restore it: Researchers activate memories in rats in Science Daily.  Hat tip to naked capitalism.

Speak, Memory by Oliver Sacks in the New York Review of Books.  A report on false memories.

How Memory Speaks by Jerome Groopman in the New York Review of Books.  A review of research on the neurological basis of memory.

Johnny Mnemonic by William Gibson.  Science fiction.

Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy

April 22, 2014

Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people”:

Jerry Pournelle

Jerry Pournelle

  • First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisers in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.
  • Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself.  Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization .

via Report Template.

This rule of thumb applies equally to government bureaucracies, corporations and other private organizations.  I saw a good example of this during the 24 years I worked as a reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y.   Many of us reporters were (or thought we were) dedicated to the profession of journalism, and to the professional goals of good writing, accurate reporting and fearless investigation of wrongdoing.  Many people in the business departments of the newspaper resented our indifference to the goals of increasing the newspaper’s circulation and advertising revenue.

This is not a case that we in the newspaper department were righteous and the people in the circulation and advertising departments were not.   If people didn’t buy the newspaper, and businesses didn’t advertise in it, we reporters and editors would not have had a means to do our work.  You need a balance between both — those devoted to professional excellence and those devoted to making the organization flourish.

Click on Saving Labor From Itself for another example.

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Jerry Pournelle is, among other things, a best-selling science-fiction writer.

Click on Chaos Manor for his home page and web log.

Did China bungle its age of discovery?

April 21, 2014

Voyages_of_Zheng_He_1405-33

More than 50 years before Columbus, the great Chinese admiral Zheng He (aks Cheng Ho) voyaged throughout the Indian Ocean, and down the coast of east Africa.  Some historians think he may have reached the Cape of Good Hope.  But he had no successors.   His voyages were merely a stunt, for the sake of prestige, like the U.S. moon landings.

Some historians have speculated that if the rulers of the Ming dynasty had followed up, there might have been a Chinese age of exploration and discovery, to rival the great European explorers.  Zheng He’s fleet was larger, both in numbers and in the size of the individual ships, than anything the European explorers sent out.

I’m not so sure.  As James C. Scott wrote in The Art of Not Being Governed, Chinese rulers historically have sought to control large numbers of people, not large areas of territory.  I have read a smattering of Chinese philosophy in translation, and it is all about a ruler who is wise and just can increase his wealth and power by encouraging people to migrate to his realm.

In the light of history, this might not have been a bad choice..   The English, French, Spanish and Portuguese spread all over the world, and they have millions of descendents in North and South America and other parts of the world, but this no longer adds to the power of the English, French, Spanish and Portuguese nations.

Today China, which did not seek to rule an overseas empire, is much more powerful than any of these countries.  That is not to deny that China is an empire.  Just ask the Uighurs (in what used to be called Chinese Turkestan) or the Tibetans.   It is that China is a more unified and enduring empire.

China never needed a merchant fleet or overseas outposts to participate in the world economy.   Since the days of the Roman Empire, merchants traveled the Silk Road across central Asia to buy Chinese silk, porcelains and other manufactured products.

Spain and Portugal sent out explorers to find routes to China and India so that their merchants could bypass the Muslim countries in between.   The Spanish conquistadors were greedy for gold and silver because it was scarce.  China and India had favorable balances of trade for centuries and a large fraction of the world’s precious metals ended up in those countries.   The Spanish regularly sent out treasure galleons from Mexico to the Philippines to trade with China.

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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.

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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.

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Would I take a spaceship to Anarres?

May 31, 2013

dispossessed.quote

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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Double click to enlarge

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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Apocalypse then

February 11, 2013

A friend of mine recently lent me a novel about World War Three as imagined in 1954 by Philip Wylie, an author who is virtually forgotten now, but famous in his time for his iconoclasm about American political, social and sexual taboos.  Tomorrow! was enjoyable to read, and a reminder of a very real danger which we escaped.

tomorrowHe wrote Tomorrow! to advocate for a better U.S. civilian civil defense program.  The characters live in twin fictional Midwestern cities, resembling Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri.  One city has a functioning civil defense program; the other does not.

Wylie sketches his characters, and their struggles and hypocrisies, as in a Sinclair Lewis novel, and then the atomic bombs fall, and their reactions reveal their characters, as in a Hollywood disaster movie.   The characters who support and participate in civil defense are self-defined liberals.  The main opponent is a wealthy businesswoman who admires Senator Joe McCarthy and thinks the real Communist enemy is within.

The climax is that the surviving members of the U.S. government decide to unleash their secret Doomsday weapon against the Soviet Union—a superbomb in a nuclear submarine on a suicide mission in the Baltic Sea.

The rays, the temperatures, vaporized Finland’s Gulf in a split part of an instant.  The sea’s bottom was melted.  The Light reached out into the Universe.  Finland (!!) was not.  Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, they were not.  Kronstadt melted.  Leningrad.  …   On the wind currents … a thick dust that widened to a hundred miles and then five hundred, moving, spreading, descending, blanketing the land … The further it surged from the reshaped Finland Gulf, where the sea had come sparkling back, the longer men took to perish.  But they perished. … Men swallowed, ate, breathed, sickened and died in a day, a week, two weeks—men and women and children, dogs and cats and cattle and sheep, all of them. … There was no refuge from the death, it took them all, the birds of Arctic winter, the persistent insects who had survived geologic ages, the bacteria—all.

Everyone in the USSR dies except a remnant in its southern fringes.  Although this is a greater mass slaughter of human beings than carried out by Hitler, Stalin or Mao, it is regarded as a happy ending in the novel.

The last great obstacles to freedom had been removed from the human path.

We then see scenes of rebuilding, with Americans, instead of being condemned for having committed history’s greatest crime, receiving foreign aid from a grateful world.   Of course this was only fiction, but it is sobering to think about what was regarded as acceptable thinking back then, and how easy it is to accept enormities as normal.   I first read the novel back in the 1950s.  I don’t remember my exact reaction, but I was not as appalled as I should have been.

Theodore Sturgeon, another writer of that era, had a similar theme, but opposite conclusion in his 1947 short story Thunder and Roses.   I’ll write about this in my next post.

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Can Cloud Atlas be made into a movie?

September 9, 2012

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is an amazing novel.  It consists of six interlocking stories—the journal of an idealistic young American in the South Pacific in the 1850s, the letters of a penniless Englishman working his way into the household of a distinguished Belgian composer in 1931, a hard-boiled detective story about a woman investigator proving wrongdoing at a nuclear power plant in 1970s California, a comic account of an English publisher in the present trying to escape for a home for the elderly where he was confined by mistake, a dystopian science fiction story about a cloned worker in a future totalitarian corporate Korea, and an account of inhabitants of a more-distant future Hawaii who have relapsed into barbarism.

Each of the stories would be good as a stand-alone story.  But in the novel, each of them except the last breaks off in the middle and becomes an element in the next story.  So the novel as a whole is more than the sum of its parts.  It shows how the past shapes the present, and both past and present will shape the future.  The structure was more than a clever trick.   Mitchell made it work—at least for me.

Now Cloud Atlas is going to be made into a movie.  I don’t see how this is possible, but I’ll certainly go to see it.

Click on  David Mullan’s Cloud Atlas Review Part One and Part Two, David Mitchell on Writing Cloud Atlas and Reader Responses for a discussion of Cloud Atlas in The Guardian newspaper’s Guardian Book Club.

Click on The Wachowskis for a New Yorker feature article on the making of the Cloud Atlas movie.

A self-made man looks at how he made it

August 30, 2012

John Scalzi

The  popular science fiction writer John Scalzi wrote a post on his web log some months back about how he owed his success as a writer not only to his own efforts, but to public services and to people who helped him along the way.  He spoke of his birth at an Air Force hospital, his gratitude for public schools and public libraries, how his divorced mother at times had to rely on welfare and food stamps, and his scholarships to an elite private school and then to the University of Chicago.  He named and thanked teachers who encouraged him and editors who gave him opportunities as a writer.

None of this would have availed him anything if he had not had the talent and the determination to become a good writer.  But it would have been a lot harder, and maybe impossible, to develop as a writer and to find a public without the help of others.  It is not an either/or proposition.

Scalzi concluded as follows.

I have helped others too. I am financially successful now; I pay a lot of taxes.  I don’t mind because I know how taxes helped me to get to the fortunate position I am in today.  I hope the taxes I pay will help some military wife give birth, a mother who needs help feed her child, help another child learn and fall in love with the written word, and help still another get through college.  Likewise, I am in a socially advantageous position now, where I can help promote the work of others here and in other places.  I do it because I can, because I think I should and because I remember those who helped me.  It honors them and it sets the example for those I help to help those who follow them.

I know what I have been given and what I have taken.  I know to whom I owe.  I know that what work I have done and what I have achieved doesn’t exist in a vacuum or outside of a larger context, or without the work and investment of other people, both within the immediate scope of my life and outside of it.  I like the idea that I pay it forward, both with the people I can help personally and with those who will never know that some small portion of their own hopefully good fortune is made possible by me.

So much of how their lives will be depends on them, of course, just as so much of how my life is has depended on my own actions.  We all have to be the primary actors in our own lives.  But so much of their lives will depend on others, too, people near and far.  We all have to ask ourselves what role we play in the lives of others — in the lives of loved ones, in the lives of our community, in the life of our nation and in the life of our world.  I know my own answer for this.  It echoes the answer of those before me, who helped to get me where I am.

via Whatever.

My professional achievements are less than John Scalzi’s, but my sentiments are the same.

Through my life, many people helped me along the way.  In my old age, I enjoy helping others in my turn, not in a self-sacrificial way but as a source of pleasure and satisfaction.  I benefited and still benefit from public services, from education in public schools and a state university to the benefits of Social Security and Medicare.  I feel shame that the next generation is not going to be able to have what I have.

There is more to life than (1) accumulating stuff and (2) resisting pressure to share my stuff.

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A prophetic SF story of a U.S. cyber-police state

August 1, 2012

Poul Anderson’s short story “Sam Hall,” published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1953, foresaw a 21st century U.S. police state which dominated the world, through use of advanced computer and surveillance technology.

Citizen Blank Blank, Anytown, Somewhere, U.S.A., approaches the hotel desk.  “Single with bath.” … …

Citizen Blank takes out his wallet, extracts his card, gives it to the registry machine, an automatic set of gestures.  Aluminum jaws close on it, copper teeth feel for the magnetic encodings, electronic tongue tastes the life of Citizen Blank.

Place and date of birth.  Parents.  Race.  Religion.  Educational, military and civilian service records.  Marital status.  Children,  Occupations, from the beginning to the present.  Affiliations.  Physical measurements, fingerprints, retinals, blood type.  Basic psychotype.  Loyalty rating.  Loyalty index as a function of time to moment of last test given.  Click, click.  Bzzz.

“Why are you here, sir?”

“Salesman.  I expect to be in Cincinnati tomorrow night.”

The clerk (32 yrs., married, two children; NB, confidential, Jewish.  To be kept out of key occupations) pushes buttons.

Click, click.  The machine returns the card.  Citizen Blank puts it back in his wallet. … …

The machine talks to itself.  Click, click.  A bulb winks at its neighbor as if they shared a private joke.  The total signal goes out over the wires.

Accompanied by a thousand others, it shoots down the last cable and into the sorter unit of Central Records.  Click, click.  Bzzz.  Whrrr.  Wink and glow.  The distorted molecules in a particular spool show the pattern of Citizen Blank, and this is sent back.  It enters the comparison unit, to which the signal corresponding to him has also been shunted.  The two are perfectly in phase; nothing wrong.  Citizen Blank is staying in that town  where, last night, he said he would, so he has not had to file a correction.

The new information is added to the record of Citizen Blank.  The whole of his life returns to the memory bank.  It is wiped from the scanner and comparison units, that these may be free for the next arrival.

The machine has swallowed and digested another day.  It is content.

The surveillance technology that Poul Anderson envisioned in 1953 is today’s reality.  Every telephone call, every credit card transaction, every Google search is on record and available to Homeland Security.  The fascist government in Poul Anderson’s story does not exist, but we’re closer to it that we were in 1953, and the legal, institutional and technological infrastructure needed to implement such a police state is in place.

One of Anderson’s characters reflected on how this came to be.

A recollection touched him, booklegged stuff from the forties and fifties of the last century which he had read: French, German, British, Italian.  The intellectuals had been fretful about the Americanization of Europe, the crumbling of old culture before the mechanized barbarism of soft drinks, hard sells, enormous chrome-plated automobiles (dollar grins, the Danes had called them), chewing gum, plastics. … None of them had protested the simultaneous Europeanization of America: bloated government, unlimited armament, official nastiness, censors, secret police, chauvinism. … Well, for a while there had been objectors, but their own excesses and sillinesses discredited them, then later. …

It would be mean-spirited, small-minded and incorrect to blame Europeans for setting a bad example.  But if somebody had described our present Homeland Security state to me back in 1953, I would have thought the person was talking about some central European dictatorship.  I would have thought of our present reality as science fiction.

The NSA Is Building the World’s Largest Spy Center (Watch What You Say) for an article by James Bamford in Wired.  Hat tip for this to Hal Bauer.

Click on Assange ‘The World Tomorrow’ — Cypherpunks uncut version for an extended discussion of Internet surveillance, privacy and freedom.

Nickel and diming freedom of speech

April 2, 2012

The video above tells the story of a University of Wisconsin professor who stood up to administrators who demanded he take down a Firefly poster on the grounds that it contained violent language.

I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1956.   One of the things I was proud of was the university’s dedication to academic freedom, which is just another word for freedom of speech as practiced on the university level.   A plaque at the entrance to Bascom Hall, one of the main academic buildings,  quoted as follows from a Board of Regents declaration in 1894 defending the rights of a professor who was under attack by members of the state legislature for allegedly advocating socialism.

WHATEVER MAY BE THE LIMITATIONS WHICH TRAMMEL INQUIRY ELSEWHERE, WE BELIEVE THAT THE GREAT STATE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN SHOULD EVER ENCOURAGE THAT FEARLESS AND ENDLESS SIFTING AND WINNOWING BY WHICH ALONE THE TRUTH CAN BE FOUND.

When I attended the University of Wisconsin, the administration and faculty lived up to that declaration.   This was in the era of Joe McCarthy, and the university administration was under pressure to ban the Labor Youth League, a student organization which was on the Attorney-General’s list of subversive organizations.  The administration said that so long as the LYL observed the university’s rules, they had as much right to hold meetings and invite outside speakers as any other–which was what they should have done, but not everybody would have agreed with in those days.

More recently the University stood up for Prof. William Cronon, the distinguished geographer-historian, when he came under attack by members of the state legislature after revealing that legislation proposed by the Scott Walker administration was drafted by an organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council,  which is backed by the right-wing Koch brothers.[1]

But while defending itself against external threats to free speech, the University of Wisconsin’s internal policies subordinate free speech to other goals, such as “sensitivity.”  The University of Wisconsin was one of the universities which had speech codes in the 1990s prohibiting “demeaning verbal and other expressive behavior.”  While this code has been repealed, the attitude it reflects lives on, as depicted in the video above.   The video tells the story of Prof. James Miller, who was ordered to take down a Firefly poster on the grounds that it contained violent language, and then an anti-fascist poster on the same grounds.  He might have lost his job and suffered greatly in his career if the libertarian Foundation for Individual Freedom on Campus had not taken up his case.

You might argue such a restriction doesn’t matter.  You can have a full and free discussion of almost any issue without using violent language.  Or using language that is demeaning to women, gays, racial minorities or people with handicaps.   Or denying that the Holocaust occurred.  Or disrespecting the American flag.  Or exhibiting dirty or anti-Christian works of art in Museums.  Or mocking Mohammad.   Or making overly harsh criticisms of the state of Israel.   Or advocating revolution.  Or praising terrorism.   Or publishing representations of the Nazi swastika.  Or flying the Confederate battle flag.  But all these things add up.  And each restriction is a justification for imposing another and bigger one.

I believe in the “broken windows” approach to freedom of speech.  Sociologists have found that a vacant building may stand intact for weeks or months, but as soon as one window is broken, pretty soon all the windows will be broken.  So it is with freedom of speech and other basic Constitutional rights.

Click on Cracking the Speech Code for a good article on the rise and fall of the University of Wisconsin’s speech code in Reason magazine.

Click on PC Never Died for a good article on campus free speech also from Reason magazine.   As the writer points out, freedom of speech is not a left vs. right issue.  Principled conservatives opposed Joe McCarthy back in the 1950s.  Principled liberals opposed the campus speech codes in the 1990s and today.

I personally am not the kind of person who boasts of being “politically incorrect.”  I make a conscious effort to avoid saying or doing things that are needlessly insulting, demeaning or cruel, and to avoid joining in when others do so.  To my mind, this is, among other things, good manners.   I don’t think much is gained by trying to enforce good manners by handing down rules and regulations.  The best way to promote civility is to try to set an example.

Click on FIRE for the home page of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

[1]  Prof. Cronon did not claim there is anything wrong in itself for a state legislature to use model legislation drafted by a private group.  He only said that the public has a right to know who is drafting their laws.

Hat tip for the video to Virginia Prostel.

Rocket science and free enterprise

March 19, 2012

When I was a boy, I read the Robert A. Heinlein books for boys — Space Cadet, Red Planet, Farmer in the Sky and all the rest — and then graduated to his Future History series — The Man Who Sold the Moon, The Green Hills of Earth and so on.   They depicted the human race going to the Moon and the planets, and living among the ancient canals of Mars and the teeming jungles of Venus, and then figuring out how to get around the faster-than-light limit which kept us from the stars.

It turned out that Mars and Venus aren’t like that, but I still was stirred by the thought of exploring and settling the Solar System.  The moon landings took place in 1969, six years ahead of Heinlein’s schedule, but it turned out that it was just a stunt, and didn’t lead to Heinlein’s Luna City or anything else.

With all the urgent problems that need to be solved on our home planet, I’m ready to give up on this boyhood fantasy.  But Jeff Greason, who is shown in the TED video above, is not.  He is one of an number of entrepreneurs who, like Heinlein’s fictional D.D. Harriman, think they can make space travel a paying proposition.

I think the odds are against him, but I hope he succeeds, and I think it is just barely possible that he might.  In any case, he and his competitors represent the free enterprise system as it ought to function.  They aren’t trying to cheat anybody out of anything.  They are striving to outdo each other on the basis of performance.  If they succeed, everybody benefits.  If they fail, nobody loses except themselves and maybe their creditors.

Years ago, as I recall, Newt Gingrich had the idea that the federal government should finance the space program by offering prizes.  Rather than having a government-operated program, the government could award cash to the first companies to each certain milestones.  I forget exactly what they were—the first to keep human beings alive on the Moon for more than a week, the first to send a human in orbit around Mars, the first to send a human to step for on Mars, something like that.

This is a concept that could have many applications.  For example, the federal government could offer prizes to pharmaceutical companies for being the first to develop certain kinds of life-saving drugs for which the potential market is small.  Then the government could take the rights to these drugs, and license them to be marketed at affordable prices.

Hat tip to Virginia Postrel.


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