Stuff worth reading

Paul Raven @ 03-12-2010

So, did you read Lori Ann White’s “World In Progress” yet? Well, you should do; not only is it Futurismic‘s last bit of fiction for the foreseeable future, but it’s also very excellent. Sure, I’m a little biased in that opinion… but indulge me, here, why don’t you? When have I steered you wrong before*? Personal redemption in a weird but all-too-believable near-future… try telling me you don’t need some of that in your life right now. Go on.

And once you’re done reading Lori’s story (no, no, carry on – it’s OK, I’ll wait), here’s another recommended read: Paolo Bacigalupi’s multi-award-winning The Windup Girl. I meant to write a review of this excellent novel back in late spring, but never quite got around to it… so in lieu of said review (and in light of many others), just take my word for it that if you’re interested in the sort of future-thinking we do here at Futurismic, you really should read this book. And those canny beggars at Orbit have just released a paperback version into the UK market in time for The Winter Festival Which Shall Remain Unnamed… so British readers, you have no excuse. Buy it for a friend, buy it for yourself… but just buy it, OK?

OK.

[ * Actually, don’t answer that. Just read the story; make a publisher happy, and make an author’s day. ]


The hopeful monsters: blimp freighters

Paul Raven @ 02-07-2010

Another trope from the future of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is knocking on the door of tomorrow, as the UK government’s former chief science advisor suggests that blimps could take up the role of air freighters. Boeing and Lockheed Martin are apparently already on the case of modernising this old technology. But why stop at freight? Bring back the passenger blimps, I say! The steamtrains of the skies!

Interestingly, this suggests that progress along the Gartner Hype Cycle may run at extremely different speeds for different technologies, and possibly even be cyclic. Perhaps zeppelins have been languishing in the trough of disillusionment for decades (the Hindenburg probably didn’t help, I’m guessing), and is now getting a nudge up onto the slope of enlightenment courtesy of the (arguably shark-jumping) verdigris glamour of steampunk…

More interesting thoughts about the Hype Cycle (and “hopeful monsters”) at the BERG blog [via Bruce Sterling].


Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl looking alarmingly predictive

Paul Raven @ 27-05-2010

Some of the ideas in Paolo Bacigalupi’s excellent Nebula-winning debut novel The Windup Girl are already alarmingly close to reality. In a future world where all the oil is long gone, all energy has to come from food as processed by animals, human or otherwise; when your food crops start dying, it’s a race against time to cook up new genetic variants that can resist the rapid mutations of virulent viruses and parasites… which means big money for whoever has a patent on the right genetic sequences, and perpetual debt (or intellectual property piracy) for everyone else.

A speculative future, certainly, and one that I’m pretty sure isn’t meant to be taken quite as literally as some reviewers and critics have done thus far… but there’s a definite undercurrent of classic science fictional “if this goes on…” in The Windup Girl, and things are going on. Just the other week we mentioned that poppy blight in Afghanistan. Now, via Paul McAuley, we hear that South Africa has been invaded by a new wheat fungus which could easily spread into south Asia and the Middle East, and from there onwards

“Eventually it will reach North America and Europe,” says Ronnie Coffman, a plant-breeding scientist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He warns that in the next few years, farmers across the world will need to replace up to 90% of the current wheat varieties with new, resistant varieties to ensure crops are protected against the fungus.

That sound you can hear? Monsanto’s board of directors rubbing their fat hands together in delight.

I’m of the opinion that the “Frankenstein foods” panic about GM crops is reactionary foolishness, and that we badly need engineered crops to support the world’s population… but I have serious concerns about incumbent intellectual property laws, not to mention the sort of genetic tampering (e.g. neutered seedstock – it’ll grow, but you can’t grow more without paying up for more viable seeds) that could turn that urgent need into a captive-market profit margin that’ll make the fossil fuel multinationals look like corner-store philanthropists.

That’s very much a worst-case scenario, of course, but forewarned is fore-armed… and Bacigalupi’s novel (which I really must get round to writing a full review of when my schedule allows) is a timely allegory, as well as a very gripping read. Go buy a copy.