Everyone should read science fiction

Paul Raven @ 23-09-2010

I tend to avoid linking to self-congratulatory essays from within the genre about how awesome and important the genre is – I guess going to public school put me off anything the resembles a circle-jerk.

But when someone from outside the ghetto recommends people pay it a visit, well, that’s (somehow*) something different entirely…

The biggest single task facing the United States today is the unleashing of our social imagination.  We are locked into twentieth century institutions and twentieth century habits of mind.  Science fiction is the literary genre (OK, true, sometimes a subliterary genre) where the social imagination is being cultivated and developed. Young people should read this genre to help open their minds to the extraordinary possibilities that lie before us; we geezers should read it for the same reason.  The job of our times is to build a radically new world; speculative fiction helps point the way.

Goes just as well for non-Yanks, too. This isn’t about promoting a genre, it’s about promoting a way of looking at the world that a genre just happens to embody. [via io9, and others]

[ * Consistency, much? ]

Science fiction as a civilisational survival tool

Paul Raven @ 25-01-2010

Wow – it seems like everyone and their dog is talking about science fiction and its purposes beyond pure entertainment at the moment..

Via SlashDot comes a post at the Netflow Developments blog, where one Ryan Wiancko (who seems to be coming from more of a media/movies angle) stumbles across the term “speculative fiction” for the first time, and hypothesises that stories designed to make the reader (or viewer) think more deeply about some social or civilisational issue have the potential to save us from wandering into metaphorical minefields of our own making.

Speculative fiction however, if widely adopted makes it almost instinctive that we think about these situations and possible outcomes before they even arise.  It puts our brains into a future simulator of sorts where we are running through countless of possible outcomes for our society every week, culminating to subconscious database of sorts of ‘what if’ scenarios that we carry around with us.  Without this database in our heads we blindly charge forward through the jungle of our progress without any regard of potential cliffs that lay ahead until it is too late.  With a mind that is constantly being challenged with deep thought-provoking what if scenarios we will hopefully be able to recognize some of the signs of these impending cliffs before we are spinning our tires in mid air about to drop 1000 meters to our doom.

Something about Wiancko’s post seems charmingly naive to me, and it’s not just the lumpy grammar… it’s because I went through a similar revelation myself, followed by a brief period of militancy wherein I attempted to spread the idea around (only to find that many other fans and writers had already reached the same conclusion, often decades before I had, much to my chagrine).

While I’m long past the point of believing that some sort of crusade is needed to assert sf’s potential power as prophetic thought-experiment and sociopolitical early-warning system, I’m still supportive of the idea (which is why I consider myself a fellow-traveller with the Mundanes and the Optimistics), and I’m impressed by the regularity with which it surfaces in the opinions of readers and viewers outside of what I would call “core fandom” (for want of a better, less pretentious and more rigidly definitive term).

But where does that notion come from – is it a meme that evolves inevitably from science fiction’s aesthetic, or is it a deeper human need that gets projected onto an artform that happens to embody some of the same forward-looking attitudes? A bit of a chicken-and-egg question, I’ll grant you, but hey – it’s Monday morning, and my mind is wandering. At the moment, I’m siding with science fiction being an outgrowth of the urge to speculate, but I’d be interested to hear defences of either opinion.

Potential outcomes of pervasive surveillance

Paul Raven @ 17-12-2009

CCTV camerasSometimes it really feels like science-fictional thinking is becoming a much more mainstream thing to do. Following on from yesterday’s mention of CCTV control software that can learn to recognise suspicious behaviour (as defined by operator feedback, natch), out-bound BoingBoing guest blogger Paul Spinrad decided to think out loud about what might happen in a society where you were always under surveillance in public. Granted, BoingBoing isn’t exactly aloof from the sf-nal mindset, but even so…

Teenage girls become statistically less fearful about body image, and anorexia rates drop. Rifts develop between groups with different attitudes towards concealment. A tipping point is reached, and in the Prisoner’s Dilemma of female modesty, power is taken back by the unionized-sisterhood strength of concealment over the winner-take-all competition of the freer playing field. Male attitudes toward women change as a result.

Meanwhile, law enforcement and the intelligence community don’t want faces covered, with all their face-recognition and tracking software. So anti-concealment laws are put in place. The cool rebel kids (along with true criminals) also push in the direction of concealment. A mini industry springs up of wearable concealing devices, analogous to radar jammers and license plate concealers, with a similar “arms race” between laws and the innovations designed to circumvent them. Welcome to the see-easy; check your headcover at the door.

The comment thread quickly knocks down the female modesty theory, but I think we can see the beginnings of that cold-war-ish escalation of technological advancement from the second paragraph happening right now… certainly in my RSS feeds, anyway.

I’m reminded again of David Brin’s Transparent Society, and remain convinced that sousveillance would be of great social benefit in the longer run. Private and gubernatorial surveillance, on the other hand, is terrifying me more and more as the months go by; the only upside I can see is that I’ll get my naive teenaged wish of living in a Gibsonian cyberpunk dystopia… [image by Caveman 92223]

Excavating Worlds

Tim Maly @ 27-11-2009

Can you keep a secret? Despite being a total nerd, I somehow managed to grow up without playing a single full D&D adventure. It wasn’t because I was too cool for it or anything, I just didn’t have the right friends. But I wanted to, let me tell you. Desperately.

So I bought sourcebooks. Continue reading “Excavating Worlds”

Rudy Rucker’s biosynthetic future

Paul Raven @ 19-10-2009

digital rendering of DNARudy Rucker has been ruminating on synthetic biology in the wake of a September essay in The New Yorker entitled “A Life Of Its Own”, which is well worth the half hour or so it’ll take to read. [image by ynse]

In response, Rucker has reposted a piece he wrote for Newsweek on the same subject back in 2007… and if you love Rucker’s ability to flip-flop from hard science to way-out West-Coast weirdness within the space of a few paragraphs (as I do), it’s a must-read. For example, here are Rucker’s thoughts about the biotech “grey goo”scenario:

What’s to stop a particularly virulent synthetic organism from eating everything on earth? My guess is that this could never happen. Every existing plant, animal, fungus and protozoan already aspires to world domination. There’s nothing more ruthless than viruses and bacteria—and they’ve been practicing for a very long time.

The fact that the synthetic organisms are likely to have simplified Tinkertoy DNA doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be faster and better. It’s more likely that they’ll be dumber and less adaptable. I have a mental image of germ-size MIT nerds putting on gangsta clothes and venturing into alleys to try some rough stuff. And then they meet up with the homies who’ve been keeping it real for a billion years or so.

And if that’s a bit too serious for you, hands up who’d love to live in this future:

Of course, people will want to start tweaking their own bodies. Initially we’ll go for enhanced health, strength and mental stability, perhaps accelerating the pace of evolution in a benign way.

But, feckless creatures that we are, we may cast caution to the winds. Why would starlets settle for breast implants when they can grow supplementary mammaries? Hipsters will install living tattoo colonies of algae under their skin. Punk rockers can get a shocking dog-collar effect by grafting on a spiky necklace of extra fingers with colored nails. Or what about giving one of your fingers a treelike architecture? Work ten two-way branchings into each tapering fingerlet of this special finger, and you’ll have a thousand or so fingertips, with the fine touch of a sea anemone.

Ah… just me, then? 🙂

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