Science fiction and science, part I: you’re doing it wrong

Paul Raven @ 10-01-2013

*blows dust off microphone*

I’ve been absent from here for a while because I’ve been working on other things, but those things are very much related to Futurismic as a project, both in terms of what it has been, and what it will be.

More on that later, though. I want to get things back in motion by talking about one of the growing number of places where science fiction meets science. This is something I’m finding myself talking about a fair bit of late, being an sf writer and critic who now works as a researcher in an engineering department, and I have a paper under review with a futurism journal which is essentially an exploration of ways science fictional narratives can inform future research and/or strategic planning. “Are they any use at all, then?” is naturally something I get asked a lot. My answer is a qualified and cautious “yes”, but there’s a raft of caveats which I’m going to start working through here in the months to come.

But this post is all about the sort of alliance between science fiction and science that I’m having to push back against. Futurism has a pretty bad name in many places, and not without justification; there are a whole lot of hucksters and dime-store prophets wearing that hat. Why, look — here comes one now!

I got a LinkedIn message this morning; here are the opening ‘graphs.

I have recently become involved in helping a fascinating crowd-funding project called Dragon Empire which is now on Kickstarter during January. Dragon Empire is a science fiction novel by Dr Adam Weigold about a future world war between China and the US.

REDPERILREDPERILPEDPERILREDPERIL

What is really fascinating about this project is that it is helping to fund a laser physics experiment aimed at developing a revolutionary new “non-lethal” directed energy technology for missile defense applications (Laser Powered EMP technology which is described in the novel). This is in fact the first military R&D project crowd-funded on Kickstarter. The technology is non-lethal with potential for defensive applications only, and promises to render guided missile attacks from terrorists obsolete. Laser Powered EMP could ultimately make all forms of air travel safer.

Loving the scare-quotes around non-lethal; saved me the effort of putting them in myself. Laser-powered EMP, unless I’m very much mistaken, could be just as effective against aircraft as against missiles, what with both of them having a whole lot of electronics inside them. But I guess it’ll be fine so long as it’s only the White Hats that have it, AMIRITEZ? (See also: drones, nukes, pretty much anything else.)

Kickstarter plugs for skiffy novels by the justifiably unpublished are hardly rare (though I’ve been seeing a lot more for short film projects in my inbox of late), but there’s a definite novelty with this one: using the (probably very hawkish) novel to promote and fund the development of a proposed weapon system? Top marks for ambition… though given that military budgets are one of the few places that there’s still masses of cash sloshing around, and further given that the Pentagon is rarely shy of throwing wads of said cash at some of the most spurious blue-sky bullshit around, I found myself wondering why Dr Weigold decided to jump — somewhat late — onto the Kickstarter bandwagon. Because, let’s be honest, the book is a trojan horse; this is all about the PEWPEWPEW.

So, here’s the website for LightningGun.com, Weigold’s company — which appears to be Weigold and his father. (They’ve certainly stayed frugal on the webdev side of things.)

From the ‘Our Future’ section of said website:

Lightning Gun is now developing ways to generate funding to establish the research infrastructure required for large scale LGPE experiments. [...] the estimated cost of large scale experiments will increase by a factor of 20 to more than US$5 million over 2-3 years. We intend to raise this funding via a combination of (a) Crowdfunding Projects, (b) Sales of Science Fiction Publications and (c) US Government Research Grants. At Lightning Gun Inc. we want to turn science fiction into reality using an organic business model with no reliance on bankers or venture capitalists. In short, we want to do it our way!

Weapons research with minimal oversight from investors? That’s sure to be well-intended! Though some market research might have been helpful; ain’t no money in selling science fiction novels these days. I suspect the real prize is in those gub’mint grants, and options a) and b) are about scaring up enough cash to hustle for said grants.

This is all conjecture, of course; I can’t claim to know the motivations of people I’ve never met. But in the absence of solid knowledge, one must judge an animal by the spoor it leaves behind… and so, for your elucidation, here’s a post by Dr Weigold at BigScaryIdeas.com entitled “Can pollution save the planet?”. To give him the benefit of the doubt, you should maybe read the whole thing, but here’s my own precis:

Carbon dioxide causes global warming but we can’t stop it now and we’re past the tipping point and anyway we all breathe out carbon dioxide so what do you want to do, brick up our mouths or something, you MONSTER? Anyway, if we’d just kept burning the dirtiest carbon-based fuels, all that lovely smoke would have lowered the planetary albedo and helped cool things down a bit, so the obvious solution to global warming is to burn more dirty carbon-based fuels. But that’s an unacceptable suggestion because [massive liberal sandal-wearing science conspiracy]! JUS’ SPEAKIN’ TRUTH TO POWER, YO.

I find myself with a hypothesis as to why Dr Weigold has moved from Australia to the United States; the former is slightly (but only slightly) less a haven for Big Fossil shills than the latter, after all. Note the crafty rhetorical positioning: he’s not a Denialist (sorry, sorry, “Skeptic“), but nor is he a Believer! Plus, climate change is basically just a question of how the atmosphere works (O RLY?), and apparently the only real authorities on climate change are the atmospheric physicists. (Pack up and go home, meteorologists; you’re just wasting your time, and your kids probably haven’t seen you in weeks.) It’s been interesting watching the rhetoric of denial shift over the last few years, rather like that slow motion video of a man dropping a cat; outright attacks on climate science have started to be counterproductive, so cherrypicking is the new (old) game in town.

Of course, Dr Weigold is entitled to his opinions, and perhaps he’s right; maybe pollution is the solution!

"No, no, dig UP, stupid!"

Anyway, enough of my snark; I’ll end by pointing out that the Dragon Empire Kickstarter fund drive is currently at $531 out of $20,000 with 24 days left to go. I realise that I may be supplying the oxygen of publicity to the tentative new flame of crowdfunded technopork, but I’m working on the assumption that anyone daft enough to cough up cash for a book and a baseball cap because [terrorism] probably has more money than they need.

Science fiction and science can do interesting and valuable things together.

This is not one of them.


Kickstart my art

Paul Raven @ 20-07-2011

The first of today’s set of posts with allusions to song titles in the header. This is offered largely without comment, except to note that – regrettably – there’s no data here for the number of failed Kickstarter projects per category. Found via This isn’t Happiness.

Successful Kickstarter projects by category


Justin Pickard’s Project Cascadia: a bi(bli)ography

Paul Raven @ 10-06-2011

Futurismic veterans will probably remember the name of Justin Pickard, who became a friend back in the halcyon days of the Friday Flash Fiction crew, and has been a source of challenging new ideas and frameworks ever since (not to mention a good buddy who’ll listen to me waffle my elliptical way to my own standpoints on a variety of seemingly disparate topics). Shorter version: he’s mad smart, and interested in almost all the topics that crop up on this here blog.

Why bring this up? Because Pickard has a plan: Project Cascadia, a trip to the Pacific Northwest which will turn into a book of speculative gonzo travel journalism and ethnography. He’s hustling for the the up-front funds using Ulule, which is basically a Kickstarter analog; if you’re interested in smart folk thinking orthogonal thoughts and setting them down using interesting juxtapositions of words, you might think about promising the dude a bit of cash in return for a copy (be it digital, dead-tree or both) of the end result. I’ve stumped up £25, because I’m confident that the end result will be the sort of book I’d pay similar money to buy. Go take a look at his pitch, if nothing else; the sight of his slightly manic disembodied face superimposed on a mountain range will haunt you for the rest of the day.

As a supplement to that pitch, Justin has blogged a “bi(bli)ography”: a best-of list of the texts that he’s used to baste his brain-meat over the last half-decade. I’ve read maybe a third of it myself, and know of another third by repute; I expect a lot of you will be in a similar boat. So what might be useful for Justin (and certainly for me) would be for y’all to look through this list and shout out in the comments with any articles, books or other media that you think need adding to it. If it helps, you can think of it as a crowdsourced curriculum for a self-taught pseudoMasters in a discipline yet to be named… or alternatively as “a list of interesting stuff”.

So, the list:

#

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983)

Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (1996)

Spectral housing and urban cleansing: notes on millennial Mumbai‘, Public Culture 12:3 (2000)

Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1992)

J. G. Ballard, Vermillion Sands (1971)

My Dream of Flying to Wake Island‘ (Guardian podcast)

Richard Barbrook, Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village (2007)

Nigel Barley, The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes From a Mud Hut (1983)

Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991)

America (1986)

Lauren Beukes, Zoo City (2010)

Moxyland (2008)

Hakim Bey, The Temporary Autonomous Zone (1991)

Gray Brechin, Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin (2006)

John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar (1968)

Jamais Cascio, ‘Legacy Futures, Open the Future (2008)

Three Possible Economic Models‘, Fast Company (2009)

Three Possible Economic Models, Part 2‘, Fast Company (2009)

Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston (1975)

Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends (2008)

Jean and John Comaroff, ‘Alien-Nation: Zombies, Immigrants and Millennial Capitalism’, South Atlantic Quarterly 101:4 (2002)

Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming‘, Public Culture 12:2 (2000)

‘Occult economies and the violence of abstraction: notes from the South African postcolony’, American Ethnologist 26:2 (1999)

Douglas Coupland, ‘A radical pessimist’s guide to the next 10 years‘, Globe and Mail (2010)

Generation A (2009)

JPod (2006)

Erik Davis, TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information (2004)

Mike Davis, City of Quartz (1990)

Cory Doctorow, Makers (2009)

Keller Easterling, Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and Its Political Masquerades (2005)

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010)

Warren Ellis, Shivering Sands (2009)

Matthew Gandy, ‘Cyborg Urbanization: Complexity and Monstrosity in the Contemporary City‘, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 29:1 (2005)

Bradley L. Garrett, ‘Urban explorers: quests for myth, mystery and meaning’, Geography Compass (2010) [video]

Place Hacking (2008-present)

William Gibson, ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, Burning Chrome (1986)

Zero History (2010)

Spook Country (2007)

Pattern Recognition (2003)

David Graeber, Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire (2007)

Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (2004)

Adam Greenfield, ‘Thoughts for an eleventh September: Alvin Toffler, Hirohito, Sarah Palin‘, Speedbird (2008)

Richard Grusin, Premediation: Affect and Mediality After 9/11 (2010)

Charlie Hailey, Camps: A Guide to 21st-Century Space (2009)

Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (2007)

Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©Meets_OncoMouse™ (1997)

Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1990)

Stefan Helmreich, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (2009)

Dan Hill, ‘The Street as Platform‘, City of Sound (2008)

Drew Jacob, ‘How to be ExPoMod‘, Most Interesting People in the Room

Sarah Kember, ‘Media, Mars and Metamorphosis‘, Culture Machine (2010)

Naomi Klein, Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate (2002)

Alan Klima, ‘Spirits of ‘Dark Finance’: A Local Hazard for the International Moral Fund’, Cultural Dynamics (2006)

Thai Love Thai: Financing Emotion in Post-crash Thailand‘, Ethnos (2004)

Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (1991)

Ursula Le Guin, Changing Planes (2003)

The Disposessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974)

Charles MacKay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841)

Geoff Manaugh, The BLDGBLOG Book (2009)

Ian McDonald, The Dervish House (2010)

Brasyl (2007)

River of Gods (2004)

Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (2004)

China Mieville, The City & the City (2009)

Covehithe‘, The Guardian (2011)

M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire – Weird; Hauntological: Versus and/or and and/or or?‘, Collapse IV (2008)

Floating Utopias‘, In These Times (2007)

Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (2002)

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

Keith Roberts, Pavane (1968)

Jim Rossignol, This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities (2008)

Geoff Ryman, Air (2005)

Stephen Shaviro, Post-Cinematic Affect (2010)

Gary Shtenyngart, Super Sad True Love Story (2010)

Francis Spufford, Red Plenty (2010)

Bruce Sterling, The Caryatids (2009)

Designer Futurescape‘, Make 18 (2009)

Dispatches from the Hyperlocal Future‘, Wired (2007)

Holy Fire (1996)

Islands in the Net (1988)

State of the World, 20––‘, The Well (2001-present)

Michael Taussig, What Color is the Sacred? (2009)

Zoology, Magic, and Surrealism in the War on Terror‘, Critical Inquiry 34:S2 (2008)

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)

#

So, what ya got?


Crowd Power

Brenda Cooper @ 09-03-2011

Last month I wrote about good design. Some of my research for developing world designs took me to a crowdfunding site called “The Unreasonable Institute” where I found One Earth Designs and Cal Sol Agua. That intrigued me. In the manner of synchronous events, I saw a tweet from Neil Gaiman that day about a project on the crowdfunded art site Kickstarter. Which is how I started down the path of the changing (and growing) power of the crowd for this month’s column. Continue reading “Crowd Power”


Chronoslexia: new British indie sf movie in the works. Also: Nazis on the Moon are go!

Paul Raven @ 07-07-2010

Chronoslexia movie posterIn the Futurismic post-bag this week comes news of a new independent science fiction movie called Chronoslexia. It’s being made here in the UK by an outfit with the very Marxist moniker Opiate Of The People Films, and its plot is summed up as follows:

What if in your everyday life you experienced glimpses of your future, and for moments relived your past? Talking about a childhood pet could send you back to the times you had with it – meeting a potential partner could throw you forward to your eventual breakup. How do you live a life knowing what’s around the corner? This condition is called Chronoslexia – and our movie seeks to ask those questions.

Sarah suffers from Chronoslexia, and when offered a cure, she jumps at the chance to take it.  The solution may very well be worse than the condition itself – but what if the future doesn’t have to play out like she experiences? What if fate doesn’t have to be inevitable?

It’s an interesting if well-worn premise; one can only hope that the independent nature of the project means they haven’t felt the need to cave in to the crap Hollywood clichés that tend to hobble or maim high-concept science fiction films (“Wow – it turns out that this is how God wanted it to happen all along!”).

But decide for yourself – you can go here to watch the trailer (which I can’t seem to find a way to embed – a situation that makes the 20-second ad preceding the trailer that much more annoying. C’mon guys, use YouTube, Vimeo, whatever… d’you want people to watch this thing or not?)

Speaking of independent movies, Iron Sky – the Nazis-on-the-Moon project from the people who put together the low-budget Trek spoof Star Wreck – has rustled up 90% of its US$8.5 million budget through various participatory offerings and crowdfunding methods [via TechDirt]. With a premise that good (I mean, come on, Nazis on the friggin’ Moon – even a cinema cynic like me would struggle to resist that hook), it’ll be a shame if it ends up sucking, but even if it does, it’ll have served a higher purpose: namely to have demonstrated that crowdfunding can work for big projects like making a movie. If the film’s any good, I’ll consider it a bonus.