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Tuesday
Sep232014

FUTURE BUILDING 101

Science fiction authors are expected to have a crystal ball. Not with the precision focus of a fortune teller’s, thank goodness, but able to see the broad strokes of the future, mainly from observing social and technological trends. Because, we humans now have the power to shape our bodies, our minds, even our planet, for good or bad. We’re building our future world.

Personally, I’d like a Star Trek future (the optimistic Gene Roddenberry vision) as opposed to, say, a Neuromancer future, or a Blade Runner future, or a MaddAddam future. But if we don’t truly understand what we want, how will we know what to build?

This blog is as good a place as any to look at the future we want and the things we’ll have to do to make it. So I’ll be doing that in coming weeks. Just don’t hold me to any predictions. And don’t ask me for a personal reading.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to know that one of the most critical needs for our future is clean energy. Coal and oil burning pollute the air and do scary things to the climate. Nuclear fission produces waste that’s radioactive for thousands of years, and its accidents could give us all cancer. Solar and wind energy sources are becoming more efficient, but may never meet all of our needs. So the best bet looks to be (drum roll please)…nuclear fusion.

Wow, I just broke some news that’s been around for a hundred years.

OK, so just because it isn’t new doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Nuclear fusion reactors use fuel that’s in great abundance (usually hydrogen isotopes made using seawater and lithium), produce waste that loses its radioactivity within a few hundred years, not thousands, require few safety measures because the reaction can’t sustain itself, won’t poison the environment with long-lived radio-isotopes in the event of a leak, and produce a lot of energy. Fantastic, right?

Unfortunately the pin that bursts the nuclear fusion bubble is that so far we haven’t been able to produce a sustained fusion reaction that doesn’t use as much energy to keep it going as the amount of energy it produces. Not such a profitable equation. However, many scientists believe the problem is just a question of scale: build a reactor big enough and the thing will work without needing large amounts of energy to keep the flame lit. Based on that theory, a huge facility in Cadarache, France called the ITER Project is being built by a partnership of the European Union (as hosts), the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, India, and South Korea. It is a mega-project, after all. Mega as in: an original budget of about 5 billion euros but now projected to reach 16 billion. And that’s just for an experimental reactor that isn’t intended to generate electricity, but simply prove that the concept is viable!

If you get heart palpitations thinking about all of the other worthwhile things 16 billion euros could pay for, remember that if fusion can be made to work on a commercial scale, it could solve nearly every problem related to energy production that we face today, and then, thanks to cheap and abundant energy, go on to solve many other problems (running plants to turn seawater into fresh water, for example).

Fusion energy is the future we want. So the monetary investment is what we need to do to get it.

That’s the way this future-building thing works.

Tuesday
Sep162014

CREATIVITY UNDER SEIGE? FIND YOUR SOLITUDE

I thought of most of this post while on a power walk for exercise. Alone.

Quiet. Solitude. Time to think.

I had my iPhone with me, but since I give the number out to very few and have almost all notifications turned off, it gave nary a bleep the whole time, and I didn’t expect it to. There is no question that most of my creative ideas come to me when I’m alone: going for a walk in a quiet forest, sitting by the shore of a lake, or settling in for a nap. I depend on it. Heaven forbid that my phone interrupt moments like that. Especially the nap.

A CBC Radio program called Spark touched on this subject recently. Research psychologist Dr. Larry Rosen found that people admit to checking in with their phones every fifteen minutes. I suspect they’re understating their actual use. When we’re instantly notified of every single email, Facebook post, tweet, or IM message sent our way, we can’t resist the urge to check—we get anxious that we might have missed something important. It’s a wonder we can ever complete an original thought. The same Spark episode also featured author Michael Harris whose book The End of Absence is about the loss of silence and solitude, daydreaming, and the opportunities to just be alone with our thoughts. From such moments come the great leaps of intuition that advance science, the arts, literature, and so much more. How would Newton have discovered gravity if, just as the apple was falling toward his head, he’d leaned to the side to read a tweet?

This state of affairs worries me because I only see us becoming more connected as time goes on. Before many more years have passed, our brains will interface directly with computerized augments, whether implanted or attached, which will give us non-stop internet access so completely integrated with our thought processes that we’ll find it difficult (and unnecessary) to distinguish between a search of our own memories and the World Wide Web. I’m in the polishing stage of a novel about that prediction, although it’s set in the early days of that revolution and doesn’t deal with the long term implications all that much.

Imagine full-time brain-to-internet connectivity. How will it be possible to experience solitude then? How will we even cope with all of the distractions? I’m afraid that sparks of genius could be extinguished beneath a flood of constant input. True progress could sputter to a halt.

Fortunately, I think there will always be those who cherish the company of their own thoughts and will reject, at least sometimes, the constant connection to informational stimulus. They’ll embrace occasional solitude and refill the well of ideas that keeps our species moving forward. There could even be a whole new market idea for wilderness resorts: the Internet-free Creativity Zone.

I’m tempted to try this with my waterfront cottage property, and charge big rent to the next Einsteins and Darwins—for the benefit of us all, you understand.

Tuesday
Sep092014

MAKE YOUR OWN ALTERNATE UNIVERSE

Even if you’re not a science nerd or a science fiction reader you’ve probably heard of the “many worlds” theory, “alternate universe” theory, the “multiverse” or one of its many other names. The idea is that there might exist a very large, or even infinite number of universes very like this one but slightly different because something happened there that didn’t happen here. It’s a part of quantum theory, which can get very weird, but it’s not fantasy. The theory has been around since the late 1950’s, credited to American physicist Hugh Everett. The simplest explanation is that, if a particle in motion is able to go left or right it actually does both. Of course, it can’t be in two places at the same time in one universe, so a second universe is split off. In one of them the particle went left, in the other it went right. The two universes had identical histories up to that point, but are never quite the same afterward. Taking a left turn instead of a right might make a big difference, and the differences will grow greater as time goes on. Since these splits could be happening all the time, you can imagine that the number of possible universes is vast.

If a tiny micro-particle has the ability to do that, imagine what a human being could do? We’re not only a lot bigger, and able to exert a lot more influence over things, but we do it consciously: we make choices.

Imagine creating a new universe with every decision you make? Do you feel the godlike power?

Better than role-playing games. Even better than being an author. Because these universes are real! And I’d like to think that all of us (with the possible exception of psychopaths) would choose to create a universe that’s better than this one, even if only by a little bit. That would just mean choosing to take an action that would make the universe a better place.

Although the many worlds theory has terrific fiction potential, and I’ve used it a few times in stories (including my first published story “No Walls”)…I don’t actually believe it. Sorry. Just too complicated and unlikely from my point of view.

However, I know it’s possible to change this universe, creating an alternate future from the one that would have happened. It’s what we do every day. We go to work in appropriate clothes and on time, thereby preventing the alternate future where we’re out of work and on the street. Every decision we make affects the future, which means that our every choice can make the universe a better place or a worse place. Maybe we’re not gods who create a new universe every time we make up our minds, but with every action we do steer the universe we’re in.

News came this week that the level of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere increased at a record rate over the past year. This, when we’re supposed to be taking action globally to stop the greenhouse effect. Sunday September 21, 2014 people all around the world will be marching to draw attention to climate change, hoping that world leaders will actually do something meaningful about it before it’s too late. A simple web search will provide details about the event nearest you. Why not take part? Sign a petition? You’re a universe-changer with godlike power, remember? Or even if you don’t march you can make a choice to walk to the convenience store next time, turn the furnace down or the air conditioner off.

Make the right choices. Create the universe you want.

Tuesday
Sep022014

HANG ONTO YOUR LIBRARY CARD

As quick as some people are to dismiss the printed book as obsolete, I hate to ask their opinion about the future of libraries. I admit that I haven’t included any scenes set in libraries in any of my future fiction (bookstores, yes, libraries, no). I don’t personally spend a lot of time in libraries now, mainly because once I have a book in my hand I hate to give it back! Still, a new article at Wired got me thinking.

Libraries have done pretty well in keeping up with the times, with videos, e-books, and audiobooks available to borrow. I don’t foresee that all books will be available free to own anytime soon (hoping that readers will show some restraint when it comes to piracy), so some system of borrowing will probably continue. Whether that will take the form of bricks and mortar libraries is a tougher question, but the trend described in the Wired article offers some hope. Libraries in cities all over are creating what they call “makerspace”: areas of the library building where patrons have access to things like a 3D printer or a laser cutter to be able to actually make things of their own. The Edmonton, Alberta public library includes an Espresso Book Machine (to print books on the spot) plus a green screen and audio video gear to make your own videos. Look into your local library and found out what they offer. Services vary from place to place, but it’s not all high-tech. Things like knitting, sewing, and even weaving cloth are also offered at some locations, and who knows what else?

I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know about all this. I suppose I’ve been too heavily focused on books.

Libraries still offer them, too. But the makerspaces not only provide opportunities to create books, and many other things, you can also learn skills from other people in person. Maybe that’s the key to their rapid rise in popularity. Notwithstanding book clubs and such, reading is mostly an individual activity, and we live in a society that’s enabling us to become increasingly isolated in a physical sense. More and more of our contacts with others take place electronically, at greater and greater distance.

The human animal has strong social instincts, and even though YouTube can be a terrific resource, there’s nothing quite like being able to learn a skill one-on-one, in person, from somebody who’s been there and done that. That’s really the way we were meant to learn. And the act of creation is one of the most satisfying things we can experience.

So hats off to makerspaces, helping to keep libraries relevant into the future. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to check one out soon.

I need to make more bookshelves.

 

(The excellent logo is from the Greater Sudbury Public Library in Ontario.)

Tuesday
Aug262014

TO BE, OR NOT TO BE...LITERARY

In my last post I mused about the plight of SF magazine On Spec losing some significant grant money, and whether or not it was partly due to a seemingly eternal stigma borne by genre fiction as compared to literary fiction.

I’m a fan of both. I love literary fiction for its deep insight into Life and the evocative language of its prose. I love SF for its startling ideas and the breadth of its imagination. And I especially love it when I discover both “genres” displaying the qualities of the other. That’s happening more and more. There may have been a time when the prose of SF was a bit rough and tumble and the characters somewhat flatly sketched. Even now there’s a lot of space opera that’s basically action/adventure and doesn’t pretend to be anything more (though there exceptions to everything). There’s also a growing wealth of fiction that sets out to do everything literary fiction does, but with more flash.

In Canadian literary circles the immigrant experience has been very big for a few decades. Why not? There’s a lot to be learned about the human condition through the story of the outsider—it reveals the new, while shining fresh light onto the old. I can’t think of a genre that has more stories of the outsider than science fiction. Are the observations somehow less profound, the emotions less valid, the insight less sharp because the outsider is an extraterrestrial among humans, a human among aliens, or a man/woman out of his/her own time? Certainly not. In fact, I would argue that the revelations can be even more enriching, since they not only explore the vagaries of life as we know it can be, but also life as we can barely imagine it to be.

I’m blown away by the exquisitely well-chosen words and phrases of writers like David Mitchell and China Miéville. But recently reading Bowl Of Heaven and Shipstar by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven, I found many tasty passages there too. And they’re considered hard science fiction writers. While literary authors are praised for opening our eyes to both the sweeping vistas and the exquisite minutiae of our world, are such descriptions less magical because they involve objects that only exist in the mind’s eye? Are observations of human nature less poignant because the mirror being held up is a creature of scientific extrapolation or complete fantasy? I don’t see why.

Maybe bookstores will always need to restrict certain kinds of stories to specific shelves for the sake of efficient commerce. For book readers to allow their minds to remain forever bound by such artificial constraints would be a sad state of affairs indeed.

Let’s rejoice in the richness of all fiction, and leave the labelling behind!