Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

The price of anything and the value of everything

November 23, 2019

Another piece of on-line fiction that I like.

The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairy Tale of Economics by Daniel Abraham for Lightspeed magazine

Abraham is co-holder of the pen name James S.A. Corey and co-author of The Expanse science fiction series,

Who, if anybody, has a vision for the future?

November 8, 2019

Political debate in the United States is based on nostalgia—a desire to return to a former era.

Donald Trump’s motto is “Make American great again!”  He doesn’t specify when America was great.  My guess is that his favorite era would be the 1920s, when the country was prosperous, big business was respected and the U.S. was free of entangling alliances.

The Clinton-Biden wing of the Democratic Party simply wants to turn the clock back to 2015.  Bernie Sanders wants to complete the unfinished business of the New Deal of the 1930s.  Elizabeth Warren wants to go back to a time when capitalism worked the way it should—perhaps under Eisenhower.

The closest thing we have to a positive vision of the future is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal.  Her idea is to meet the challenge of global warming and resource exhaustion in ways that avoid or minimize hardship on working people.

Her key idea is full employment through a 1930s-type public works program that builds a green infrastructure and meets the country’s other long-deferred needs.  This is the only way the coming bad years can be made bearable.  I don’t blame her for not thinking out all the details in advance.

The government of China, in contrast, has a definite, feasible plan to make China a powerful and prosperous nation.  It includes an industrial policy to make China a technological leader and a foreign investment program to bring about the economic integration of Eurasia.

For the past 15 years, Pepe Escobar has been writing about the overreach and coming collapse of American empire and how China, along with Russia, will pick up the pieces.  I think that is highly possible, although my view of China is not as uncritical as his.

I think the socialist vision of a utopian centrally-planned economy has been discredited, both in theory and practice. All the uprisings going on all over the world seem to have a vision of radical democracy, which I think is hopeful, but I don’t claim to understand them well.

Science fiction offers visions of the future.  There is a lot of excellent, dystopian, near-future science fiction – Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife; Ken McLeod’s Intrusion; and Cory Cotorow’s Radicalized.

For a positive SF vision of the future, I recommend Kim Stanley Robinson’s work.  Cory Doctorow’s novels are said to be good, but I haven’t read them.

The trouble with extrapolating present trends into the future is that there are foreseeable crises that are likely to change everything in unpredictable ways;

  • a climate and renewable resources crisis, as global warming becomes unbearable and fossil fuels and certain raw materials become unobtainable;
  • an economic and financial crisis, as the system of global finance and fragile global supply chains breaks down; and
  • an international crisis, as the world turns against the United States and the dominance of the dollar.

I don’t know whether the change will be for the better or the worse.

If the future is unpredictable, what is the point of even thinking about it?  It is because your vision of the future gives you a compass point for the present.

If you had your life to live over…

August 19, 2019

Sometimes I like awake in bed going over the many times in my life when I’ve been foolish, weak or blindly selfish, and rewriting the script so that I behaved as I wish had I behaved.

What would it be like to actually have the chance to live your life over?  Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is about a women who had that chance, not just once, but many times.

Her heroine, Ursula Todd, dies or is killed at least 15 times, including once in childbirth in 1910, four times in the influenza epidemic of 1918 and three times in the London Blitz in 1940.  On each new iteration of her life, she has a dim memory of having lived before.

She learns to survive the ‘flu epidemic by pushing a family servant girl, Bridget, down a flight of stairs and making her break her arm the night before she would have gone into town and gotten inflected.

In later lives, she achieves the same result by telling Bridget lies that cause her to break up with her boyfriend, thus depriving her of the reason to go into town.

But no matter how many times she lives, she can never realize all possibilities.

During one iteration of her life during the Blitz, a man sitting next to her on the Tube (subway) notices she is good at working crossword puzzles, gives her his business card and says he is recruiting “clever girls.”  She decides to follow up on this, but loses the card.

We the readers know, as she does not, that she has lost a chance to be a codebreaker at Bletchley Park.  That chance does not come again.

The Blitz is the “dark beating heart” of the book, Atkinson wrote in an afterword.  She was born in 1951.  “During the war we were weighed in the balance and not found wanting.  The more I read about the war, the more I think that … we really were at our best then, and I would have liked to have known that.”

The book is “about being English,” she wrote.  “Not just the reality of being English, but also what we are in our own imagination,” she wrote.   Yet Ursula lives one of her lives in Germany and dies in Berlin in 1945.

Ursula decides to change history by assassinating Hitler.  In the following life, she learns German and marksmanship, makes the acquaintance of Eva Braun in 1930 and is introduced to Hitler.  She pulls a gun out of her handbag and gets off one shot, because being shot down by his bodyguards.

This is the end of the book. It is where I, as a long-time reader of science fiction, would expect the novel to begin.

What does she do next?  Will she do the same thing in all her subsequent lives—devote herself to preparing to kill Hitler, dying in a hail of bullets at the age of 20, and never knowing for sure what effect her sacrifice had? Or perhaps, in repeated lives, perfect her technique so that she can kill Hitler and get away with it?

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A novel set in Renaissance Florence and Hell

June 29, 2019

Jo Walton’s LENT (2019) is a historical fantasy novel set partly in Renaissance Florence and party in Hell.

The protagonist is the Dominican monk, Girolamo Savonarola, who attempted a moral and spiritual revolution in Florence in the 1490s, but was burned at the stake for heresy.

Walton’s novel is partly an attempt to rehabilitate Savonarola’s reputation.  He is remembered as a religious fanatic who organized a Bonfire of the Vanities, in which the population of Florence consigned everything to the flames that was frivolous and distracted them from God.

But she shows him as a Renaissance humanist, a close friend of Pico della Mirandola, and a sincere religious  reformer, although not, as sometimes depicted, a forerunner of Protestantism.

The novel begins in 1492 with Savonarola exorcising demons, which in the novel are all too real, and then visiting Lorenzo the Magnificent on his deathbed, where he is given a mysterious talisman.  It follows his life to 1498, when he is tortured and killed, and learns that he is a damned soul in Hell, condemned to eternally repeat his life.

He returns to 1492 again and again, trying to make his life turn out better for himself and for Florence.  The novel reminds me of the movie “Groundhog Day” and of Ken Grimwood’s SF novel Replay.

The novel is based on an original and interesting premise, which is well-executed.  I’m not sure why I don’t like it better than I do.  Maybe it’s because the cruelty and terror of Hell and the Inquisition are so much in the foreground that they detract from the glories of the Renaissance.

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Neal Stephenson’s vision of a secular afterlife

June 19, 2019

The idea of uploading a copy of your brain into a computer and living forever is well-established in science fiction.  Some Silicon Valley scientists and entrepreneurs are coming to think they can do it in reality.

Neal Stephenson’s new novel. FALL, or, Dodge in Hell is the closest thing I expect to see of a plausible thought experiment as to what such immortality would be like and what it would take to make it real.

Although I don’t think this is Stephenson’s intention, it reinforces my belief that I wouldn’t want to live in such a world, even in the highly unlikely event that this were possible.

The novel begins with the unexpected death of Richard “Dodge” Forthrast, the billionaire founder and CEO of a fantasy role-playing game empire.  Due to a provision of his will that he probably forgot about, his brain is scanned and the data stored or later uploading.

Over the next 17 years, the Forthrast family joins forces with El (for Elmo) Shepherd, the developer of the scanning technology, to create the world’s largest data base to be a matrix for Dodge’s consciousness.

Dodge is activated as a disembodied consciousness with no memory of his previous life and no awareness of anything beyond “I think, therefore I am.”

Gradually, he evolves.  Through mental activity alone, he, like a god, is able to impose order on chaos.  The first thing he creates is the image of an autumn leaf, one of the last things he thought about before his death.

Slowly he forms a whole world with an “up” and a “down,” with a ground surface at the bottom and a sky above.  As he becomes aware of other entities entering his world, he gives himself a physical form, something like a bat-winged demon, with a skin to separate himself from the rest of his environment.

He is aided by a second entity in his world named Spring.  She does not embody herself, but gives the trees, the birds and the bees and Dodge’s other creations the attributes of living beings, rather than mere scenery.

The earliest immigrants into Bitworld are members of the Forthrast family and their hangers-on.  They also have special powers.  They are called the Pantheon.  Later ones are the product of full-body scans, not just brain scans, and are limited to the human form and human powers.

The Bitworld population has no memory of a previous existence, which is a good thing, because their memory of the wondrous actual world would make them unhappy.

Bitworld is much like the world of a fantasy role-playing game, with overlays of Greek and Norse mythology.  Dodge is a Zeus, complete with a warehouse full of thunderbolts, with god-like powers but lacking god-like wisdom.

The saving grace is that the souls in Bitworld have the possibility of a second and final death.  They are not condemned to having to do the same things over and over for all eternity.

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Alternate history and ancient science

June 14, 2019

Alternate history is one of the most popular types of science fiction.  It is based on speculation as to what would have happened if history had been different from what it was – if the Axis had won World War II, or if the South had won the U.S. Civil War.

CELESTIAL MATTERS by Richard Garfinkle (1996) is a work of both alternate history and alternate science.  I read it with great pleasure when it first came out, and reread it with pleasure recently.

The alternate history is what would have happened if the ancient Greek culture had not self-destructed during the Peloponnesian Wars.  

The alternate science is what the world would be like if ancient Greek science were correct—if matter consisted of the four elements of earth, air, fire and water, if the sun, moon and planets revolved around the earth, if medical theories of the “humors” were true, if life could be created through spontaneous generation.

In the novel, the Delian League, the alliance of the Greek city-states formed after the defeat of the Persian invasion, did not become a vehicle for Athenian domination, but was an equal alliance of Athenian thought and Spartan valor that endured for a thousand years.

Alexander of Macedon, influenced by his wise tutor Aristotle, did not attempt to conquer Greece, but joined the Delian League.  He did not cut the Gordian Knot, but allowed Aristotle to gently untie it.  He conquered not only Persia but India, lived to a ripe old age and set up an enduring stable government.

The Delian League’s only rival was the Middle Kingdom, whose technology was based on Taoist principles of Yin and Yang and “xi” force.

The novel’s protagonist, Aias of Tyre, is a scientific officer on an expedition to the Sun to obtain solar fire to use as a high-tech weapon against the Taoists.  The principles of space flight in the novel, of course, have nothing to do with gravity or Newton’s laws of motion.

Alas has to contend with Taoist attacks, sabotage by a secret traitor, personality conflicts in the high command and his doubts about the possible blasphemy against the divine Apollo—not to mention his growing attraction to the female Spartan officer appointed as his bodyguard.

The Greek gods exist and speak to him and other characters, but as voices and images in their minds.  Each of the gods represents a separate aspect of life and of the good.

This is not a novel for everyone, but if this is the kind of novel you enjoy, you will enjoy Celestial Matters a lot.

Lessons from the fate of ancient Athens

June 14, 2019

The alternate history novel Celestial Matters describes a world in which the Delian league of Greek city-states endured a thousand years.  This of course did not happen in reality, and the reasons it didn’t have a moral for us Americans.

The Delian League was an alliance of Athens and other Greek city-states against the Persian Empire, which had invaded Greece and was defeated by the Spartan army and Athenian navy.

Allies of Athens were supposed to contribute money to a treasury located on the island of Delos to be used to construct ships to wage war against Persia.

In time, the treasury was shifted from Delos to Athens.  In time, Athens gave up the pretense that the contribution was anything more than tribute exacted by Athens.  Delian League money went to help pay for construction of the Parthenon.

Allies revoted against Athens, and were put down ruthlessly.  All this was before the outbreak of war between allies of Athens and members of the Spartan-led Peloponnesian League.  Athens lost the war, but it was devastating to both sides.  Greece was successfully invaded by Macedonia and later by Rome.

What would have happened if the Athenians had maintained the Delian League as a true alliance rather than making it into an empire?  They might have been more powerful rather than less, because they wouldn’t have to expend blood and treasure in suppressing rebellions against their empire.  Their aggression might not have been feared as much by the Spartans.  These things aren’t knowable.

I see a parallel between Athens after the Persian Wars and the United States after the Second World War.  The United States was the trusted leader of the Western world.  

It sponsored the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union, the United Nations as a means of implementing international law and the Bretton Woods agreement as a means of stabilizing the world financial system.

I think that if the U.S. had been faithful to the purposes of the international organizations it created, and had been willing to submit to the laws that it demanded other nations obey, our nation still would be a respected world leader.

But over time the Western alliance and U.S.-created institutions such as the International Monetary Fund have become a vehicle for American empire.  The administration of Donald Trump does not try to hide this.

I don’t want to lean too heavily on historical analogies, but I believe that, unless the U.S. changes direction, we will meet the fate of Athens.

The Athenians were not hypocrites.  They did not violate any of their professed ideals.  Athenian democracy was based on the citizens’ right to govern themselves collectively and their duty to govern themselves individually.

They lacked any idea of humanitarianism, universal human rights or the rule of law, which are part of the American ideal of democracy.  It is we, not they, who will be judged by history by failing to live by our own principles.  

Tales of a dystopian near-future

May 20, 2019

It’s often said that science fiction is not so much a forecast of the future as a mirror of concerns about the times in which it is written.  That is most certainly true of Cory Doctorow’s new book, RADICALIZED: Four tales of our present moment.

The title story is the most powerful and disturbing of the four.  It is about an on-line community of men who’ve been denied, or whose loved-ones have been denied, insurance coverage for treatable cancer, and who, one by one, decide to take revenge.

The first engages in a suicide bombing at a Blue Cross / Blue Shield office to avenge the death of his six-year-old daughter.  The second is a widower who kills a Senator who ran in a platform of health care for all, then voted against Medicare expansion.

The third is the elderly moderator of the forum, who has been subtly encouraging the bombings and killings.  He wheels his wheelchair into the middle of a health insurance conference at a Sheraton before setting off a home-made bomb that blows away himself and a sizable percentage of the guests.

Their objective is not just revenge, but health care reform.  They think that the power of fear may be enough to overcome the power of money.

Joe, the protagonist, joined the on-line forum when he was in despair about his wife not being able to get an “experimental” treatment that would cure her breast cancer.  She turns out to be a lucky one who has a spontaneous remission, but he stays on the forum, arguing against suicide and violence on private lines

He realizes that he is guilty of a crime simply by being aware that crimes are being planned and not reporting it to the police.  But he can’t bring himself to do this.

“Health care terrorism” spreads.  There’s more security at HMO and insurance company offices than at airports.  People who are denied insurance claims are put on terrorist watch lists.  But bombings and killings continue.  And Joe realizes it’s only a matter of time before Homeland Security catches up with him.

The conclusion is that a lot of people, including bystanders, have been killed, but Congress has enacted something called Americare.  Joe’s wife, visiting him in prison, remarks, “Who says violence doesn’t solve anything?

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The next ten billion years.

May 17, 2019

The only thing certain about the future is that this, too, shall pass away.  To get an idea of what that may mean, click on The Next Ten Billion Years by John Michael Greer on The Archdruid Report.  It’s not that his specific predictions are sure to come true, although there’s no specific reason why they couldn’t.  It’s that almost everything we think is important is just a blip in the cosmic scheme of things.

A true history of SF’s golden age

February 2, 2019

I just got finished reading ASTOUNDING: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee (2018)

This book is the story of how John W. Campbell Jr., the editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, and three writers most closely associated with him, shaped the American mind.  It provides a detailed and objective account of the personalities, relationships and accomplishments of these four figures, both for good and ill.

In 1937, when Campbell became editor of the magazine at the age if 27, popular science fiction was a minor subset of the action-adventure genre.  

His ambition was to make science fiction not only a source of entertainment, but a way of thinking about science and the future.

He was an outstanding editor, full of ideas, able to prod and provoke writers into doing better work than they thought they could.  

He was a second-rate intellect who was outside the literary mainstream, but he punched above his intellectual weight. 

Albert Einstein subscribed to Astounding.  Werner von Braun, in wartime Germany, reportedly took the trouble to obtain copies of the Swedish edition. 

Carl Sagan, Gene Roddenberry, Stephen King, Paul Krugman, Elon Musk, Newt Gingrich and George R.R. Martin all acknowledge Campbell’s influence.

When I visit my local Barnes & Noble bookstore, the space given to science fiction exceeds all other genres combined.

Without Campbell, there still would be adventure stories set against a science fiction background, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars stories, and there still would be literary writers, like H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapleton, who use science fiction themes, but It’s highly unlikely that science fiction would pervade the culture of the English-speaking world as it does today.

The other factor in the growth of science fiction, mentioned only in passing in this book, is science fiction fandom, a distinctive and maybe unique community in which writers and readers can interact and discuss the genre.

As for myself, I never participated in fandom, Astounding Science Fiction magazine and books by Astounding writers were my main source of intellectual stimulation when I was a young teenager.  I have continued to read science fiction all my life, and while I pass over the bulk of it, I find the best science fiction a source of great pleasure and food for thought.

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A choice of superpowers

December 29, 2018

I enjoyed the following on-line story, and maybe you will, too.

And I Show You How Deep the Rabbit Hole Goes by Scott Alexander on Slate Star Codex.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon

November 16, 2018

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my three or four favorite science fiction writers.  Red Moon, which just came out, is not his best, but I like it. 

The action takes place in 2047 in China and on China’s future colony on the moon. The main viewpoint character is a young American named Fred Fredericks, who seems to be on the autism spectrum.  

He goes to the moon to deliver a secure two-way communication device based on quantum entanglement, and is framed for murder by mysterious Chinese political conspirators.

He becomes involved with a pregnant young Chinese woman, Chan Qi, who is both the spoiled, proud daughter of a powerful member of the Politburo and the figurehead leader of a vast Chinese protest movement.

They escape capture, flee, are captured again, escape again and flee again back down in China and up on the moon again. 

The growing relationship of these two characters, so very different in personality and cultural background, is the emotional core of the novel.

The second most important viewpoint character is Ta Shu, an elderly poet and celebrity Chinese poet, who takes a liking to Fred and tries to befriend him.  He engages in conversations with various old friends that provide the reader with background information on Chinese history, culture and current and future problems.

Ta Shu sees Chinese history and culture as continuous. and the Communist regime as the latest Chinese ruling dynasty, not as a revolutionary break with the past.

Then there is a rogue agent within the Chinese Great Firewall surveillance network, who is trying to track Qi and Fred while trying to teach an artificial intelligence program, nicknamed Little Eyeball, to think autonomously.

Robinson’s future China has benefitted from Xi Jinping’s reforms, of which the most important he sees not as  the Belt and Road Initiative (aka the New Silk Road), but landscape renewal and restoration.  The benefit is not only repair of the environmental damage created by China’s rapid industrialization, but in reduction in the amount of poverty and improvement in public health.

China in 2047 is the world’s foremost economic and technological power, and has used its new wealth and knowledge to colonize the southern hemisphere of the Moon, leaving the northern hemisphere to late-comers—the USA, the European Union, Brazil and other great powers.

But many problems remain.  First and foremost among these problems is a vast underclass, comparable to unauthorized immigrants in the USA, consisting of 500 million poor peasants who have left their villages without authorization to seek a better life in the cities, but who are mercilessly exploited because they are outside the protection of the law.

The goals of the protest movement are to abolish the hukuo system, which forbids Chinese to change residences without permission, to restore the “iron rice bowl” (guaranteed job security) and to establish the rule of law.  None of the characters wants to overthrow Communism, only to make the Party live up to its ideals.

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Is Arthur C. Clarke’s Babylon our destiny?

August 1, 2018

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote a story, published in 1960, about how a Communist dropped by his home in Ceylon to thank him for us idea of television broadcasting from earth satellites positioned over fixed points of the earth’s surface.

He said the Chinese planned to use this idea to saturate the United States with pornography and turn Americans into a nation of brainwashed pornography addicts.

They would start with broadcasts of images of erotic art on Hindu temples, but then produced specialized programming aimed at every sexual taste identified in the Kinsey Report.  They would also have a sideline of sadistic violence, starting with bullfights and working up to every torture and atrocity documented in the Nazi archives.

All this was fiction, of course.

My old friend Steve, who called my attention to this story, said that we Americans are now doing to ourselves what Clarke envisioned our enemies doing to us.  As conservative Christian journalist Rod Dreher writes:

We are conducting a radical experiment that has never before in history been tried, because it has never been possible. What happens to individuals and societies when images — moving images — of the most bizarre and violent sex acts imaginable can be instantly accessed by anyone, anywhere, at any time? What does that do to our brains, our minds, and our hearts? What does it to do us as a people?

Source: The American Conservative

The American Psychological Association is undecided whether to call excessive porn watching an addiction, a compulsion or just a bad habit, but, in layman’s terms and for all practical purposes, it is an addiction.

Of course, some people enjoy pornography with no obvious ill effects.  I have a friend who has read every issue of Playboy since it began its publication in 1953, and he scoffs at my concern.

But compared to what’s out there today, looking at Playboy’s centerfolds is more like looking at the lingerie ads in the old Sears Roebuck catalogs than it is like looking at the porn of today.

And he started at age 18, not age 13.  The effect of pornography on young children is different.

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Science fiction the way it used to be

July 27, 2018

SF writer Neal Stephenson, speaking at a conference in 2011, lamented the decline of the U.S. space program and of big engineering projects generally.

Another panelist, Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, said this is partly the fault of science fiction writers themselves.

He said science fiction is culturally important in creating hieroglyphs—symbolic goals such as Robert A. Heinlein’s space rockets, Isaac Asimov’s robots or, in a later era, William Gibson’s cyberspace.

Science fiction writers, he said, need to abandon their dystopian preoccupations and revive the spirit of techno-optimism of the 1940s and 1950s.

In response to this challenge, Arizona State University commissioned an anthology entitled HIEROGLYPH: Stories & Visions for a Better Future.  Containing stories by 17 writers, it was published in 2014.  I came across it a few weeks ago in a Little Free Library.

Project Hieroglyph asked them to write about ideas that could be realized within one professional lifetime and implement technologies that exist today or will exist in the near future.  Writers were encouraged to consult with ASU scientists, and each story is followed by Internet links discussing feasibility.

I found the resulting stories interesting and I read the anthology to the end.  Somebody with a stronger background in science and technology than mine probably would find them more interesting.

Calls for “techno-optimism” is are calls for optimism not just about the possibilities of technology, but also about the possibilities of American capitalism.

In the same way, Soviet science fiction writers in the 1970s and Chinese science fiction writers today were supposed to encourage technological innovation, but not political innovation.

Science fiction writers should not be limited to suggesting incremental improvements and improving public morale.

∞∞∞

Science fiction and the loss of the future

When I was a boy and young man in the 1940s and 1950s, I looked forward to the future.   I had more opportunities before me than my parents had, and I saw no reason why this would not continue for future generations.  I devoured Robert A. Heinlein’s SF boys’ books and thought his positive vision was reflected in the world around me.

I no longer feel this way.  Succeeding generations have fewer opportunities than I did.  My main reason for hope is the knowledge that the future is unknowable.

Few young people today read Heinlein or Neal Stephenson, whom I consider Heinlein’s literary successor.   They read the dystopian Hunger Games trilogy because it is an extrapolation of their lives.

In my youth, the world’s best thinkers thought about how to make the world a better place.  Now they think about how to avoid catastrophe.

Neal Stephenson, in his “Innovation Starvation” article, says science fiction writers are too pessimistic and this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But there are many science fiction writers who are very hopeful about human possibility.  I’m thinking of Kim Stanley Robinson, Ken MacLeod and the late Ursula Le Guin; if I followed the field more closely, I’m sure I could think of others.

These are not considered techno-optimists, even though Robinson and MacLeod are very sophisticated about technology, because their hopefulness is based on the possibility of fundamental change.

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Why I like this Harry Potter fan fiction novel

June 9, 2018

I never read the original Harry Potter novels, but I have been completely engrossed in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a fan fiction novel by Eliezer Yudkowsky published on-line, chapter by chapter as it was written, from 2010 to 2015.

The premise is that Harry Potter’s foster-father was not the vile Vernon Dursley, as in the original novels, but Michael Verres-Evans, an intelligent and kindly Oxford biochemistry professor, who encouraged Harry to read science and science fiction.

Consequently young Harry is a committed rationalist, who regards the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft not as a refuge from an unkind Muggle world, but as a puzzle to be solved and a challenge to be overcome.

He also is a genius, with the intellect of a Richard Feynman and the ambition of a Napoleon Bonaparte, along with the emotional maturity of an 11-year-old boy.

His plan is to use the methods of science to unlock the secrets of magic, then to combine the powers of both to “optimize” the world on rational principles  As a character remarks, this is not far from wanting to become a Dark Lord.

Young Harry escapes the control of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore and Professor Minerva McGonagall and allows himself to be mentored by the cynical Professor Quirinus Quirrell, while trying to wean fellow student Draco Malfoy from unthinking malice and Hermione Granger from unthinking goodness.

There are many adventures, in which young Harry seemingly triumphs by applying his intelligence and the rational method.  He becomes impatient with Hogwarts’ witches and wizards for failing to understand cognitive bias, Bayes’s Theorem, game theory, effective altruism and the other principles of rationality.

Then, in the end, he discovers that he has completely misunderstood his situation and brought himself, Hogwarts and Magical Britain to the brink of doom.  But he thinks his way out of his plight at the very last minute and saves the day, although not without cost.

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A parable of the lesser evil

December 1, 2017

An alien monster beamed Joe and Jim up to its spaceship, and offered them a choice—be put down on a planet with a surface temperature of 1,000 degrees or a planet with a surface temperature of 10,000 degrees.

Joe said, “Given those alternatives, I have no option but to choose the 1,000-degree planet.”

Jim said, “That’s no choice at all!  I refuse to consent to either alternative!”

Enraged, the alien monster sent them both to the 10,000-degree planet.

In the micro-seconds before he expired, Joe turned to Jim and said, “This is all your fault.”

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An SF writer’s diagnosis and cure for capitalism

April 27, 2017

In the opening of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new SF novel, New York 2140, two unemployed financial software engineers known as Mutt and Jeff—unemployed because they refuse to design a possibly illegal program for high-speed trading—contemplate a flooded lower Manhattan from atop the former Metropolitan Life building.

One of them says he has figured out what’s wrong with capitalism.

The basic problem with capitalism, he says, is that the forces of the market forces producers to sell products below cost.

How can you sell below cost and survive?  By offloading your costs onto someone else—onto customers, onto neighbors, onto taxpayers, onto the wider community and onto future generations.

This enables an individual enterprise to survive (sometimes), but, in the long run, leads human society into bankruptcy.

In the novel, global warming has taken place, sea levels have risen and lower Manhattan is under water.  Skyscrapers such as the Met Life building are still survive amid a kind of new Venice.  Uptown Manhattan is 50 feet higher in elevation, and is dry.  In the middle is a tidal zone, where the poor and homeless congregate.

Some environmental problems have been solved, or at least are being coped with.  Gasoline, jet fuel and other fossil fuels no longer exist.  Air travel is by dirigible, ocean travel is by sailing ship and land vehicles are electric.   But the financial structure and distribution of income are more or less like they are now.

New skyscrapers—”superscrapers”—in uptown are owned by the world’s wealthy elite, as investments or as one of multiple homes, and are often vacant.

A hurricane late in the novel leaves many homeless.  They try to storm the vacant uptown towers, and are turned back by private security forces, who outgun the New York Police Department.

Rather than attempt a violent revolutionary overthrow, the common people attempt a political and economic jujitsu.

They join in a nationwide debt strike.  On a given day, they stop paying their mortgages, student loans and credit card balances.  The financial system is go highly leveraged with debt upon debt that it comes crashing down, just as in 2008.   So the financiers go to Washington for another bailout, just as they did then.

But this time, the President and Federal Reserve Chairman, who are in on the plan, act differently.  They tell the banks and investment companies that they would be bailed out only on one condition—that the government be given stock of equal value to the bailout, as was done in the bailout of General Motors.   Those who refuse this deal are allowed to fail.

Now the federal government has the authority to force the banks to act as public utilities.  And the huge profits that once flowed to the financial elite now flow to Washington, which makes it possible to adequately fund public education, infrastructure improvement, scientific research and all the other things the country needs.

And so the American people live happily—not ever after and not completely, but for a while.

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The guaranteed incomes of the top 0.1 percent

January 14, 2017

notwork11

Hat tip to occasional links and commentary.

Radicals propose a universal guaranteed income for all, regardless of whether you are gainfully employed or not.   But as Matt Breunig pointed out, it already exists in the top 1 percent and 0.1 percent income bracket.   They receive income from their financial assets regardless of whether they work or not.

There is a strong argument for a guaranteed.  It is that the reason that the national wealth today is greater than in the past is largely due to the inventiveness and effort of our ancestors, not to anyone living today, and that therefore all of us are equally entitled to the fruits of their effort.

This was the philosophy of the social credit reform movement, which provided the background for Robert A. Heinlein’s great utopian science fiction novel, Beyond This Horizon.

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What if the Axis had won the Second World War?

December 26, 2016

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Philip K. Dick is not my favorite science fiction writer, but many of my favorite science fiction movies—Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, Next and The Adjustment Bureau—were based on his ideas.

I did greatly admire and enjoy his novel, The Man in the High Castle, which gives the Dickian imagination free rein but has a more coherent plot than many of his other stories and novels.

The setting of The Man in the High Castle is a 1962 USA which has lost World War Two and been partitioned between Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire, with the Rocky Mountains serving as an unoccupied neutral zone.

There are two plots.  One involves high-level Japanese and German officials conspiring to avoid a nuclear war between the two superpowers.  The other involves ordinary Americans trying to survive in Japanese-occupied San Francisco and one of them traveling to the neutral zone in search of “the man in the high castle,” author of a novel in which the Allies won the war.

Amazon Prime has started a series based on the novel, which incorporates most of the material in the novel, but which branches out to include Nazi-occupied New York and the Reich itself.

I subscribed to Amazon Prime mainly to watch this series, and Seasons One and Two have been well worth it.

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Philip K. Dick’s greatest hit

April 2, 2016

Philip K. Dick was a science fiction writer whose main theme was the fluid boundary between illusion and reality, and sanity and insanity.

Sadly his insights were partly due to his own drug use and mental illness.  This may have been the reason so many of his novels and stories lacked coherence.

It also may explain why movies based on Philip K. Dick novels and stories – The Adjustment Bureau, Blade Runner, Imposter, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly and Total Recall – were all better than the originals.  I say nothing about other Philip K. Dick movies because I haven’t seen them.

man-castleI recently saw the Amazon Prime series based on The Man in the High Castle, which was excellent, and I went back to the original out of curiosity.  Unlike the others I mentioned, the novel is better than the TV series, both as a novel and as a science fiction novel.

Both the TV series and the novel depict a world of 1962 in which the Axis has won the Second World War.  The Nazis occupy the United States east of the Rockies, and the Japanese occupy the U.S. Pacific Coast, with the Rockies a neutral buffer zone.

There are three plots in both.  One is an attempt by hardscrabble Americans in San Francisco to make and sell fake art objects to sell to rich Japanese antique collectors.  Another is an attempt to head off a conspiracy by a Nazi faction in Berlin to launch a nuclear first strike against Japan.

The third is a search for “the man in the high castle.”  In the novel, he is the author of a underground novel set in a world in which the Allies won, which, however, is different from the real world (I almost wrote “our” world).  In the Amazon Prime series, he has mysteriously obtained actual newsreels of the real world.

The novel is better because it is more realistic, and because the characters have more psychological depth.  The Amazon Prime series has an anti-Nazi Resistance movement, which is not in the novel, and characters undecided about their true allegiance, which wouldn’t be tolerated either by real Nazis or real anti-Nazi fighters.

The excellence of the novel and the TV series is in showing how living under Nazi and Japanese occupation could come to feel normal, and in developing realistic and memorable characters.

One is Mr. Tagomi, the humane Japanese bureaucrat whose life is guided by the I Ching.  Another is Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith, who appears in the TV series but not the novel.

I look forward to Amazon Prime’s second season in the series, which will take the characters beyond the scope of Dick’s novel.

Love and weirdness

February 14, 2016

valentines.day_weirdnessNSource: Zen Pencils.

A question about economic efficiency

November 16, 2015

The following is from Retrotopia, an on-line utopian science-fiction novel currently being serialized by John Michael Greer on his web log.

“Mr. Carr,” Melanie Berger said then, “Since the end of the embargo we’ve been approached four times by the World Bank and the IMF.  I’ve been involved in the discussions that followed.  Each time, their economists have made long speeches about how the way we do things is hopelessly inefficient, and how we’ve got to follow their advice and become more efficient.  Each time, I’ve asked them to answer a simple question: ‘more efficient for what output in terms of what input?’  Not one of them has ever been able, or willing, to give me a straight answer.”

Source: The Archdruid Report

Yesterday’s city of the future

September 23, 2015

harvey-corbett-city

This is the city of the future, as imagined by an architect named Harvey Wiley Corbett in the 1920s.

It was included in Gregory Benford‘s The Wonderful Future That Never Was, a collection of predictions from Popular Mechanics magazine.

I lifted it from a blog post by Dan Wang, who teaches economics and philosophy at the University of Rochester and whom I’ve never met.

‘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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