Follow Scott Online:

    RSS

    Mailing List

Find Your Favourite Content

Latest News

Thursday
Jul302015

SCIENCE FICTION FOR FUN OR ENLIGHTENMENT?

Childhood's End coming to the SyFy channel in December 2015.

 

What do you look for in science fiction? Pure fun? Escape? New knowledge?

My impression these days is that a lot of the SF being published is pure space opera, or quasi-paranormal scifi-fantasy, alternate history just for the steampunk gadgetry, or TV and movie series spinoffs. There’s nothing wrong with reading that’s just for fun—I choose it sometimes too, although I don’t feel inclined to write it.

Ideally, though, the escape SF provides is fun even when it’s dealing with something serious. It should be entertaining even as it compels us to learn something about ourselves. The SF novels with staying power do this well—they raise the genre to the level of provocative literature while still giving the inner child in us a big kick.

Classic SF from the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven often explored the “big crazy artefact”: Clarke’s mega-spaceship Rama or Niven’s Ringworld, Greg Bear’s Eon series asteroid and, more recently, the Bowl Of Heaven from Niven and Benford. They set up a mind-boggling concept and then explored all of its dramatic possibilities while finding ways to reflect our human foibles and challenges. As if Newtonian and Einsteinian physics were a muse.

Then there were the sociological treatises of Isaac Asimov (the Foundation series) and Ursula K. Le Guin (The Dispossessed). Thought provoking, but still absorbing stories. And, of course, the outright cautionary novels like 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451 which forced us to examine the implications of political and technological developments. These days, a good number of post-apocalyptic stories, like Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy follow the same path (as did Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). I could add Hugh Howey’s Wool series to the list.

Since the earliest days of the computer revolution, and especially the coming of the internet, there’s been a big trend from William Gibson, Charles Stross and others to examine technological saturation in society to extreme degrees, as well as the politics of surveillance and the death of privacy. In these books we face quandaries that we’ll have to face in real life very soon.

It’s interesting that Philip K. Dick’s stories, most featuring some form of altered reality, have inspired more movie treatments than any other SF author I can think of. Movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Johnny Mnemonic, and The Adjustment Bureau haven’t always been that faithful to Dick’s original material, but they’ve provided food for thought along with the special effects and other movie magic.

Military SF from Robert Heinlein and others reflected and commented on military conflicts of their day. Modern examples include the Forever War series from Joe Haldeman and Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. Even stories about aliens like Stranger In A Strange Land and Clarke’s Childhood’s End ( now becoming a TV event) are mostly about humans. Educational, you could say, but math class never held my attention so well.

Then there are the “what if” novels that writers like Robert J. Sawyer do so well, tackling issues that are just on the horizon: what if rejuvenation treatments worked for one person but not their spouse? What if everyone in the world could get a glimpse of their future? What if the World Wide Web became self-aware? We can learn something about ourselves, our society, our priorities and morals from all of these, but they are so much more than intellectual exercises.

By all means enjoy a good romp in space, a clever time travel tale, or a Nazis-won-the-war alternate history. But don’t be afraid to order a richer fictional meal that’s brain food as well as comfort food. You might find it even more satisfying.

Tuesday
Jul212015

CLIMATE AND SCIENCE FICTION

Photo from Architecture 2030

Climatologist James Hansen of Columbia University has sounded the alarm: the rate of melting of Antarctic ice as recently measured means that, if rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide aren’t soon reversed, large coastal areas of the planet could be flooded within as little as fifty years due to increases in sea level as much as nine meters.

It’s not science fiction. If you live in a coastal city, you should be concerned, along with millions upon millions of the world’s citizens.

This is far faster and much more drastic than earlier predictions of sea level rise, and it’s based on a global average temperature increase of just 2 Celsius degrees. That figure could go much higher if something isn’t done soon to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere. Yet when it comes to supporting solutions to the problem, governments lumber like dinosaurs in a tar pit (one of the sources of planet-heating fossil fuels perhaps?)

There are a number of web resources that show reputable assessments of how coastal population centres will suffer as sea levels rise. The NOAA has a good one here, and there’s a more complicated one here. National Geographic has a page to show what the world would be like if all of the ice melted, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon (and even that won’t make you think you’re in a certain Kevin Costner movie). All of these will give you a chill, or possibly a thrill in a disaster-movie kind of way. Looking at them reminded me of all of the science fiction that has dealt with climate over the years.

One of the first to make an impact on me was J.G. Ballard’s The Wind From Nowhere, a 1961 novel that painted the terrible effects on human civilization of a non-stop hurricane force wind. It was probably one of the first books to get me hooked on apocalyptic scenarios. But it was far from alone. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction offers a pretty good overview of the SF written on the subject of climate disasters, and you can find other pop culture references here. Maybe we’re fascinated with the topic of weather disasters just because we’re obsessed with the weather. We talk about it every time we have nothing else urgent to say, and much of the rest of the time too. It’s so prevalent in fiction that “man vs. nature” is one of the four main types of conflict taught in every literature class. (In case you’ve forgotten, the others are man vs. man, man vs. society, and man vs. himself.)

Perhaps there’s a special poignancy in vicariously witnessing a human being’s struggle against something awesomely powerful for which he or she is not to blame. Ah, except this time there’s plenty of evidence that, collectively, we are to blame. The climate change James Hansen warns about isn’t caused by solar flares, or a black alien cloud that blocks the sun, or an asteroid strike. We’re doing it to ourselves, and to others. Each of us could do something to stop it, but we have to make that choice. Which means that the current climate scenario incorporates all four of the classic forms of conflict mentioned above.

That makes for a heck of a story, but it’s one I’d rather read than live, thanks very much.

Tuesday
Jul142015

WHY ALL THE FUSS ABOUT NEW HORIZON?

NASA photograph--The last taken before the New Horizon spacecraft flew past Pluto.

 

On July 14, 2015 one science news story dominated all others: the NASA New Horizon spacecraft’s flyby of Pluto. Considering that the last time Pluto got so much attention was when it was demoted from full planet status to the demeaning designation of “dwarf planet”, you might easily wonder why there was so much excitement about New Horizon. Commentators have even sometimes neglected to stress the dwarf planet thing, almost as if the former ninth planet had regained its status. It hasn’t. But it is a star in terms of fame.

New Horizons was launched in January 2006 (ironically, the same year as Pluto’s demotion) and after traveling nearly five billion kilometres finally raced past Pluto at a speed of more than forty-five-thousand km/h, so there wasn’t a lot of time for sightseeing. Much like your last budget bus tour of Paris. It couldn’t even send pictures “live”—NASA was forced to wait a while for them (remember dropping off the film of your bus tour at the drug store for processing?) In fact, New Horizons is gathering so much data that it will require sixteen months to send it all back to Earth. That’s what you call shutter happy.

Why so much interest? If you ask me, most of us still think of Pluto as the ninth planet, and it was the only one left that hadn’t received the up-close-and-personal paparazzi treatment. Even in the Hubble telescope, Pluto was little more than a blurry white ball. Now we’ve seen its cracks and craters, wrinkles and blemishes, in high resolution, finally completing our solar system postcard collection. But Pluto has had a special allure because it was the most distant of the planets and so the most mysterious. It also has an orbit very different from the rest of the family, leading to speculation that it’s an adopted child born somewhere else and then captured by our sun. If so, learning as much as we can about Pluto will also help us to learn about things much farther away.

Pluto is part of the outer fringe of the solar system, known as the Kuiper Belt. If we ever hope to travel to other stars we should know as much as we can about that stretch of space and the more distant Oort Cloud. Our spacecraft will have to travel through them. Maybe we’ll want to use Kuiper Belt objects as fuel depots or rest stops, or maybe we’ll just want to know how to avoid all of them, but knowledge is the key. It could be that Pluto and other dwarf planets like Eris (almost twice as far away) will actually become launch stations from which freshly-fuelled interstellar spaceships will begin their long voyages.

Pluto might seem too far away to consider it as a candidate for industrial mining, but then we don’t know what’s there. It might turn out to be rich with resources. If it really did come to our system out of interstellar space, it might have significant quantities of elements that are otherwise rare in our neighbourhood. Exploratory missions like New Horizons will help to provide those answers.

So let’s give Pluto its time in the spotlight. The poor demoted planet deserves a break.

Thursday
Jun252015

DNA AS A COMMODITY

Years ago I read a 1990 SF novel named Memories by Mike McQuay. It featured one of the most interesting time travel concepts I’ve ever come across: a drug is developed that lets a person “mind-travel” through their ancestral line and inhabit the body of any of their genetic ancestors. The plot of “Memories” involves the main character going back to the Napoleonic era to stop another traveller from messing up history. The process involves DNA and RNA (strongly linked to memory). It’s an excellent read that’s stayed with me, and I couldn’t help but think of it this week when I encountered an interesting science news story.

Researchers at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta have found that some information can be passed down from generation to generation in mice through chemical changes in DNA. The researchers trained some mice to experience fear when they smelled the fragrance of a cherry blossom (a cruel choice, if you ask me) and found that subsequent generations also exhibited fear when encountering that smell. Needless to say, there’s a lot more research to be done in the field, but it’s an interesting result. We’ve often heard talk about “racial memory” that might provide similar inherited behaviours. We certainly know that many species have instinctive responses to environmental dangers that aren’t taught to them by parents.

What if we find out that learned skills can be passed through human DNA? If the DNA responsible could be isolated and transferred to other humans, it would become a very hot commodity. Take a few DNA shots and become a concert pianist. Or a pro-level golfer. Or a master carpenter. You might be able to skip instruction booklets and just buy an injection of home builder DNA when you buy your lumber (or even better: a DNA shot to assemble Ikea furniture!) Although there’s no indication that specific knowledge would be shareable that way, physical abilities that are practiced so often they become like a reflex action might be good candidates for this. Olympic champion swimmers might be able to retire and live off the proceeds of selling small amounts of their blood or tissues. But so might expert chefs and trained sharpshooters.

Even if it’s found that such DNA information transfers only work on embryos, not adults, there would still be a huge market for genetic material from geniuses of all stripes, from the Einsteins to the Warren Buffets. It could revolutionize the education system, especially specialized training. Most encouraging of all, if it could be made readily available, it might go farther than any initiative has yet done to provide universal education to all children, regardless of geography or social status. But again, so far, it’s impossible to know what level of detail can be included in the information transferred.

I don’t think it’s likely we’ll ever time travel via DNA and RNA as in McQuay’s book, but what if we could extrapolate the knowledge and experiences of our predecessors from the DNA of current descendants? We might finally get to know what it was like to be Napoleon Bonaparte, or Henry VIII, or almost any historical figure who had offspring and descendants who are alive today. The animal kingdom would be ripe for exploration, too. Perhaps we couldn’t clone dinosaurs, but we might have more precise and certain information about their instinctive behaviours by analyzing the DNA of modern-day birds.

As with any genetic research, there are ways that knowledge like this could be abused. But the potential is very exciting.

Being a science fiction writer, I’m putting in a bid for Larry Niven DNA. Or Robert J. Sawyer. Or…of course…if you could get your hands on some DNA from the late Michael Crichton? Ironic, indeed.

Wednesday
Jun172015

SCIENCE FICTION VS. FANTASY

 

I spent some time with multiple-award-winning Canadian SF writer Robert J. Sawyer recently. Rob was leading a couple of workshops, and we got to share some meal time too. As often happens when science fiction fans and writers get together, the conversation came around to the definitions of science fiction versus fantasy.

When I scout the publishing deals announced by Publishers Marketplace, there are more fantasy manuscripts being sold than science fiction, but even the ones that sound like they should be science fiction—they feature alien planets and space ships—often use the tropes of fantasy. They may include magic, quasi-medieval social structures, swords and swashbuckling. Is that really science fiction?

Star Wars is a classic movie, and a lot of fun. Science fiction, right? Nope. Not really.

Yes, it has spaceships, alien species, energy weapons and more, but it also has magic (the Force), knights, swordplay. There’s no actual science involved (and what little science is mentioned, like parsecs and the jump to light speed is best ignored to save everyone embarrassment). The story is a piece of mythology common to many cultures: a young man aided by a wizard to achieve his special destiny. Star Wars is fantasy, not science fiction. But that isn’t a criticism of it any more than it would be to say that Lord of the Rings is not a science fiction story. It wasn’t meant to be. It doesn’t have to be.

The thorny problem is that everyone loved Star Wars and came to base their expectations of science fiction on it. Adventure plots. Spaceships and blasters. Fun, but nothing to take too seriously. Thus George Lucas unintentionally did science fiction a great disservice, from which it still hasn’t recovered. Some of the most deeply insightful and prophetic works of fiction, by masters like H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, and so many others were branded as escapism by association. And current SF writers struggle to find a market.

So what is science fiction? Is it monster stories that happen to be set on a spaceship? Hmmmm. Romances that depend on some unexplained method of time travel? Not so much. Murder mysteries on another planet? Maybe. But that would depend on whether or not the mystery hinges on the otherworldly setting (as in Rob’s Red Planet Blues).

I expect that Rob Sawyer shares his concept of science fiction with Analog magazine. Analog’s requirements for authors state that they will only accept “stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse”. That’s the key: the science element has to be integral to the story. But, having said that, science fiction is also a literature of allegory. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is really about present day warfare and politics, not something that might happen to us some day. Classics like Fahrenheit 451 (about censorship and intolerance) and Planet of the Apes (about racism and nuclear Armageddon) have minimal science, but use a futuristic setting to offer commentary on our own society. The same is true about movies like Avatar (environmental destruction and marginalizing of indigenous people) and District 9 (apartheid), whereas Interstellar is definitely science-based.

What science fiction is not includes anything that simply isn’t possible according to the physical laws of the universe. If you can’t get there from here, no matter how much time passes or how technology changes, it isn’t science fiction.

There’s nothing wrong with fantasy. Many of my published short stories are fantasy. But I have high hopes that the big screen version of Andy Weir’s The Martian and the coming TV adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End will be faithful to the source material and awaken people to the treasure trove of real science fiction out there.

It’s great stuff. It deserves to find its audience again.