WHERE HAVE ALL THE E.T.'S GONE?

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It’s strange that, living on a planet that teems with millions of different species, humans wonder if we’re “alone in the universe”.

The question usually refers to conscious, thinking beings like ourselves, not just any form of life. But the first step to knowing if there are other sentient beings in the cosmos is to find out if there is any kind of life beyond Earth at all. That’s not an easy search.

For one thing, it’s only in the past few decades that we could say for certain there are planets orbiting stars other than our own sun. It didn’t make sense that our sun would be one-of-a-kind, but it took modern astronomical equipment and detection methods to confirm the existence of extrasolar planets. Now astronomers speculate that most stars probably have planets, and most likely have one or two planets in the so-called habitable zone, which we define as habitable because their orbits should provide surface temperatures that allow for liquid water. It bears saying that the liquid water temperature range is what we humans and similar life forms require for survival, but even here on Earth we’ve discovered life forms that exist in hellishly extreme conditions, like deep-sea volcanic vents and under Antarctic ice. Plus we can imagine life based on elements like silicon instead of the carbon molecules that construct Earth organisms, increasing the number of planets that might be inhabitable by some kind of life. Given that there are hundreds of billions of stars in a galaxy and hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe, the number of possibly-habitable planets is… really, really high! And let’s not forget that uninhabitable planets, like gas giants, might have habitable moons. (Jupiter’s moon Europa is a strong possibility for hosting life.) That multiplies the numbers yet again.

All of this should give a boost to science fiction writers because, in all the vastness of the universe, every one of our stories about strange alien species and civilizations could be reasonably plausible.

The skeptic will ask, “So where is everybody?” (known as Fermi’s Paradox.)

Which brings me to my second point, that signs of life are really hard to identify as such because they could have other causes. For example, living species are known to have provided Earth’s atmosphere with oxygen, but it can be produced by other chemical processes, too—oxygen markers in the spectral analysis of a planet’s atmosphere are no guarantee of life. So when it comes to basic life in general, we can identify places that have conditions we believe would support life, but we can’t know it’s actually there until we go and take samples. Look how challenging that’s been on Mars, and it’s the planet next door!

It should be easier to find signs of advanced alien life-forms because we expect civilizations to give off indications of high energy use, or even radiate electromagnetic transmissions like the TV and radio signals we’ve been shooting off into the void for decades. Except we have no reason to expect that an alien species would have senses comparable to our vision and hearing—they might not even be able to detect our TV and radio signals, much less interpret them, and we might not be able to detect their forms of communication. There could be lots of civilizations relatively near to us, yet communicating and using energy in ways so different from our own that we don’t recognize what we’re looking at. Or we’re not using the right instruments to distinguish them at all.

The difficulty is made many times worse by the vastness of the universe. In a recent study published in The Astronomical Review, the researchers wondered how much of the local galactic neighbourhood had actually been searched by SETI efforts (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), listening for potentially alien radio signatures. They picked a zone of space roughly 33,000 light years across, comprising a good portion of our galaxy’s densest part plus nearby globular clusters, and they determined that, proportionally, the area that had been effectively searched was the equivalent of a bathtub of water compared to all of Earth’s oceans. I guess there’s a chance we could have missed something!

SETI was relegated to a back burner for a few years, but has now been welcomed back into the astrobiology fold, and there’s no doubt we will continue to expand the areas of space that we’re searching and improve our search methods.

Technology can be great. But will we put as much effort into the implications of all this? There are lots of big questions to be answered. How will our society cope with the knowledge that life exists elsewhere, especially if it’s an advanced species? How will we, as a race, behave when we encounter such life?

I’ll get into those things a little more in my next post. So keep your fingers crossed that ET doesn’t show up before then!

HITCH A RIDE TO THE MOON?

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You’ve just opened an invitation: it says you’ve got an exclusive seat reserved on a spacecraft that will soar to the Moon and back. But you have to give an answer in five minutes. GO!

Would you do it?

I’m not talking science fiction this time. Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket-building company intends to send their Big Falcon Rocket (say it with a slight slur and yes, the name’s an intentional joke, but it’s also real) out around the Moon carrying nine passengers as early as 2023. The passengers will be Japanese e-commerce billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and perhaps eight artists of various disciplines. Maezawa has booked the flight at a price tag rumoured to cover most of the project’s five-billion-dollar cost, but he hasn’t said who he has in mind to invite along. Maybe just artists. But maybe not. What if he changes his mind? What if he decides to hold a lottery?

One time, many years ago, in my radio career, I was doing the commentary at an air show. A parachutist approached and asked if anyone wanted to join him on a tandem jump—right then. If I’d said yes, I’d have been in the air ten minutes later ready to fall out of a plane and plummet toward the Earth, trusting my life to a stranger and a big sheet of fabric. I wanted to go—I’d always said I’d like to try sky-diving. But I didn’t. For one thing, the air show commentary was my responsibility and finding someone to fill in on such short notice wouldn’t be easy, or considerate to the organizers. For another, my young son was with me, and would be watching if I went splat. So I passed.

I have to admit that if I had the same offer today, I’d probably just plain chicken out, no excuse required.

But would I like to ride a rocket and pay a close-up visit to the Moon? I’m a science fiction writer—of course I would!

In theory.

The reality is that travel by rocket is still really risky. Rockets do still explode on the pad or during launch, sometimes destroying satellites and probes worth many millions of dollars (SpaceX itself has seen a half-dozen of its rockets explode, though a number were while attempting to land on their tails—a technique that has more recently become consistently successful). Lives aren’t usually lost because human flights are a very small percentage of rocket launches, but it has happened and could happen again. You could beat the odds to get a seat on the flight, only to beat the odds in a much more unfortunate way. And the launch is not the only dangerous part by any means. Maezawa and his companions will be flung out on a round trip of nearly 800,000 kilometres—four days on their own, far beyond any hope of help should they get into trouble. The FBR is big, designed to eventually ferry up to one hundred commercial passengers at a time, but on this first jaunt the surplus space will be used to carry extra fuel and food supplies in case something goes wrong.

What could go wrong? Anything. Everything. Failures that would be meaningless on Earth might be critical in the freezing vacuum of space hundreds of thousands of kilometres from home.

Hang on…is science fiction writer Scott Overton hinting that he might turn down a chance to travel to the Moon?

I don’t think I’m a coward. I’ve happily flown in all kinds of different aircraft of various sizes and vintages, and would once have ridden shotgun with Canada’s Snowbirds aerobatic team if the weather had cooperated. At some point, commercial flights to the Moon will have a track record of safety, and there will be an established infrastructure for rescue missions. That sounds worth waiting for, doesn’t it? The Maezawa junket won’t land either—it won’t even go into Moon orbit, but just swing around once and head back to Earth. If I ever go that far, I’ll darn well want to land and walk around! Otherwise, although I’m sure the view will be mind-boggling, there just might be an element like when I visited the Grand Canyon and didn’t go down into it. After taking in the “breathtaking vistas” I realized that it looked just like all of the pictures I’d seen of it. It was too big. Untouchable. So the experience was ultimately lacking.

But isn’t there something irresistible about being among the first private citizens to go to the Moon? Well, we all remember Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and maybe Michael Collins (who stayed in the Apollo 11 command module and didn’t land), but 21 other men went to the Moon. How many of the others can you name? Maybe some of the artists who accompany Maezawa will be remembered if the art they produce is of lasting value, otherwise they’ll just be “also along for the ride”. And before you judge me too harshly, Maezawa has invited Elon Musk himself along, and Musk has indicated he might go. Only might. This from the guy whose company actually builds the rockets. In his words, “When you’re pushing the frontier, it’s not a sure thing.”

If all this sounds like sour grapes because I’m not likely to be aboard the FBR for its epic journey, I’m not saying I would turn down an invitation, just that it might not be the automatic Yes that my chosen vocation would seem to dictate. If I’m honest.

Still, Yusaku Maezawa, if you’re reading this…it never hurts to talk, right?

A DOUBLE-FEATURE EBOOK SALE

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If you’ve visited this page and become curious about my fiction writing, there’s an exceptional opportunity to get a taste of it this week with not one, but two sales promotions from the ebook platform Kobo.

Until Sept. 23, 2018 my e-anthology BEYOND: The Stars is free through Kobo. It features three space-themed stories (and if you like it you should also take a look at my other e-collections BEYOND: Time and BEYOND: Technology, or the print compilation BEYOND: Time, Technology, and the Stars which features fifteen stories).

Before I turned exclusively to science fiction and fantasy, my mystery/thriller novel Dead Air was published and nominated for a Northern Lit Award in my home province of Ontario, Canada. It not only has an insightful story mixed with lots of action and suspense, it’s also a rare insider’s view of the radio business (I was a broadcaster for more than thirty years). This weekend, until Monday Sept. 24, 2018, Dead Air is a page-turning bargain at half-price—just $2.49 from Kobo.

Normally I’d send you to my own web Bookstore, but I like Kobo a lot, and I’m grateful for it’s global reach. This week I’ve picked up new readers in at least sixteen countries (and it isn’t over yet!)

Join the fun.

MORE STORIES BEHIND THE STORIES

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In my last blog post I announced the publication of BEYOND: Stories Beyond Time, Technology, and the Stars, a print collection of fifteen of my science fiction and fantasy stories, some of which had been previously published in magazines and anthologies across North America, and some not. For extra interest (because I enjoy that kind of thing myself) I also wrote a bit about the first five stories’ origins, intent, and publishing history. So here’s a little about the rest of the collection.

“Tartarus Rising”: I’m a huge fan of disaster stories and apocalyptic fiction, so I was delighted when this story was chosen for an anthology called Doomology in 2011. Such high-stakes stories provide an opportunity to show the best and worst of humanity as nothing else can. Alien invasions are a dime a dozen, but what if there was a race of beings sharing the planet with us, yet clever enough to remain hidden all these centuries even from our scientific instruments? I’m pretty sure the idea for “Tartarus Rising” came from a traumatic childhood event of mine involving a mysterious stranger who suddenly appeared at a window of our house on a dark night when my parents were away. If you have a frightening memory that haunts you, write a story about it!

“Marathon of the Devil”: I’d read an article about the famous Marathon des Sables in Morocco, a grueling race that makes you question the sanity of the participants! Naturally, being an SF writer, I imagined such a thing on an alien planet. But why put yourself through something like that? Because of a deep desire to be somebody special? Just for fun, I decided to have things work out right by going all wrong.

“Body Of Opinion”: We think of memory as being a function of the brain exclusively, but there has been lots of research into genetic memory, especially lessons and behaviours learned by one generation and passed on to the next through genes. What if other memories are encoded into our DNA? Combine that thought with ever-improving organ transplantation techniques and you end up with this story about a man who discovers that his new body he thought was cloned was actually “previously owned” and harbours a dark secret. A premise like that cried out for a noir fiction approach, which was a lot of fun to do.

“Democracy”: Our current political systems are so badly broken that we end up getting terrible leaders elected by much less than half of the people who voted. Yet we live in an era unlike any other in history, when virtually every citizen of developed nations has some access to the internet. If we wanted to, we could have true democracy, in which everyone could vote on every important issue of government. That’s what I’ve created in the fictional country of Devis Varta, although with tongue in cheek. Because, humans being humans, our lofty dreams almost never turn out the way they should.

“Saviour”: It’s easy for me to see the influences on this one. The movies Deep Impact and Armageddon both came out in 1998 as the world worried about asteroid strikes that could devastate the planet. But by the time I felt the urge to write my own story about saving the world from a giant killer rock, I’d seen the 2006 movie Sharkwater about how humankind is decimating the shark population and endangering the entire ocean ecosystem. Humans are a threat to pretty much every form of life on Earth these days. So a real hero might not do the expected.

“Node Of Thought”: I’ve done a lot of research into the mind…consciousness…the nature of thought—it’s been at the centre of a number of my novel plots. There’s no one who really knows what thought is, what consciousness is. There are only people who think they do. One day, embroiled in thought (as they say) I asked myself: what if thought has a physical form we know nothing about? Could we trail it behind us like hairs and dandruff? Could it be gathered like cosmic dust by some powerful source of energy? What would happen if you encountered something like that in deep space in a spaceship that responds to thought commands? Nothing good!

“The Cleansing”: Disaster again, inspired by the worrisome population cycles we’ve witnessed recently among creatures like frogs, bats, and especially bees, on whom we depend for so many of our food crops. Rouging (now more often called roguing) is a process of removing plants from crop fields when they’ve produced unwanted mutations. In coming years I believe we’ll be able to engineer crops to cull themselves to maintain their genetic purity. But what if, by pure bad luck, all of the crops were to enter such a “die-out” phase at the same time?

“The Rift”: Although I consider myself a spiritual person, this is my only story that really reflects that in a big way. And, because I’m a science junkie, I struggle to reconcile theory and experimental evidence with belief. Not surprisingly, that takes my mind in strange directions. One editor rejected this story because he thought it was too much like a Star Trek episode. I take that as a compliment!

“Hurricane”: I’m all in favour of renewable energy—solar, wind, tidal—and if we could harness the energy of hurricanes we’d hit the mother lode. Perhaps as much as the total worldwide generating capacity of humanity, in one storm! Writing a story about that, you just have to place your protagonist right in the thick of things, especially if he hates to fly, which gave me an excuse to research the amazing crews who willingly enter such hellish conditions in Hurricane Hunter aircraft. Plus, as I speculated about what would happen, I realized that I had the answer to one of the greatest occult mysteries of them all!

“Once Upon A Midnight”: Some years ago my good friend, prolific author/editor and all-around-nice-guy Mark Leslie Lefebvre issued a call for SF stories inspired by works of literature. I came up with one, and Mark liked it, but that anthology project didn’t come to pass. That was OK because some months later it was accepted for an anthology called In Poe’s Shadow (2011). Fast forward a few years, and Mark was invited to edit an edition of the well-respected Tesseracts series of anthologies and chose to resurrect his literary-inspiration idea. He also still wanted my story. So “Once Upon A Midnight” got a second life in one of Canada’s most successful SF franchises (Tesseracts 16: Parnassus Unbound) and I was thrilled. Deliberately over-the-top, it’s black humour with a dark warning at its core.

Once again, you can buy BEYOND: Stories Beyond Time, Technology, and the Stars through Amazon or Barnes & Noble in the US, or in Canada through Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.ca, or via many online outlets worldwide. Or if you're devoted to your favourite independent bookstore, ask them to order it through the book distributor Ingram. Have a great read!

BEYOND STORIES NOW IN PAPERBACK!

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Over the past couple of years I’ve made fifteen of my science fiction and fantasy short stories available in affordable e-book form (the e-anthologies Disastrous!, Body Of Opinion and other stories plus the series Beyond: The Stars, Beyond: Time, and Beyond: Technology, can all be purchased through my bookstore). But I know that a lot of readers are still devoted to physical books. So I decided to gather all of those 15 stories into one tasty paperback.

BEYOND: Stories Beyond Time, Technology, and the Stars is now available to buy through Amazon and other online retailers. Your favourite independent bookstore can also order it through the book distributor Ingram. It’s 362 pages of thoughtful and imaginative fiction that I think any SFF fan will love, but one thing I didn’t include (and maybe that was a mistake) was an Afterword explaining how each story came about. Lots of readers enjoy those—I do too.

So here, for what it’s worth, is a brief look at the stories and my reflections on them.

“No Walls”: This wasn’t my first story sold but it was the first one to make it into publication, in the Canadian magazine Neo-opsis Issue #18, so it will always have a special place in my heart. I even named my publishing company after it (lots of wider meaning, after all). As a fan of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, I hit on the variation of a man who suddenly gains the ability to walk through walls. But what real benefit could such a gift provide, except to a criminal? Or a secret operative. The story was rejected by editors a few times, and I realized that it needed to be darker, grittier. So if you’re squeamish, I apologize for the torture scenes, but without high stakes there’s no high drama!

“Shakedown”: My first science fiction novel manuscript is an SF thriller called The Primus Labyrinth, inspired by the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage about a submersible and crew shrunk to microscopic size to travel through the bloodstream of a scientist and save his life. I don’t think shrink rays will ever be possible, so I wanted a more realistic way such an adventure could take place. My novel is very different from the movie, and my literary agent is currently gauging interest among publishers. But I originally considered self-publishing it, and thought that getting a prequel story published would help promote the novel. “Shakedown” is that prequel, about my prototype nanoscopic submersible and its first pilot, and the question: could a human mind ever cope with reality at a microscopic level? It was published in the anthology Canadian Tales of the Fantastic (2011).

“The Long Commute”: Most time travel stories focus on going back to a single momentous event and putting all of history at risk. But what if time has a kind of inertia instead, and it takes many small changes to have an impact on the timestream? Would there be people whose job was to do that every day? I was intrigued by the possibilities of  mixing a mind-bending concept with a daily routine. I also borrowed a character’s name from the family of a US president at the time, but then decided that a more overt link would be too corny.

“Lockdown”: It’s a huge expenditure of resources to support criminals in prisons, but the public must be protected. The answer? A device that temporarily paralyzes a parolee if he or she even thinks of committing another crime. Mind you, that would put the criminal at the mercy of passersby, and I have a feeling that could get ugly (as the story shows). That was the focus when I first wrote “Lockdown” but, as with “No Walls”, there needed to be more drama. So I threw in a dash of revenge for seasoning.

“A Taste Of Time”: This one could not be more different from “Lockdown”. It’s a contemporary fantasy story about an old woman with sad memories and a cheerful young girl with an insatiable craving for wild blueberries. I’ve spent many happy hours picking wild blueberries myself and, knowing that the bushes can pick up flavours from the soil and surroundings (as wine grapes do), I speculated about what other things such berries might impart. The story was not only published by On Spec magazine (#88 vol 24 no 1 June 2012) accompanied by a feature author interview, but, to my delight, was also chosen for On Spec’s 25th Anniversary anthology Casserole Diplomacy and Other Stories. Talk about being in great company!

There are ten more stories in the collection and I'll write about them in a few days. In the meantime, go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or in Canada to Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.ca. Or if you're devoted to an indy bookstore, ask them to order it through the book distributor Ingram. Enjoy!

 

ARE FOREST FIRES OUR DEFAULT FUTURE?

 Image Courtesy: NASA Worldview, Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS)

Image Courtesy: NASA Worldview, Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS)

In my part of the world (Ontario, Canada) we’ve had a summer of devastating forest fires, but we were far from alone in that. The Canadian province of British Columbia has been hit even harder, and the US state of California has been on fire all summer. Siberia has been ravaged, Greece endured a fire that killed 83 people, and Berlin firefighters are now battling a blaze that includes the threat of unexploded WWII ammunition. NASA’s Worldview imagery appears to show “A World On Fire”. Surely this extraordinary heat and drought is the result of human-caused climate change, some will say. But others in my province will refute that, pointing out that this past winter persisted for a month longer than usual (True).

These seeming contradictions are why scientists now use the term “climate change” rather than “global warming”. It’s most likely that the addition of extra heat energy to Earth’s atmosphere is behind these weather extremes, but it doesn’t (yet) mean that we’ll have warmer days all year long. It does mean that weather patterns in the coming decades will be a whole lot different from those of the past century and more.

Earlier this month, William Gibson (@GreatDismal)—author of SF classics like Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive, and the recent The Peripheral—tweeted this:

All imagined futures lacking recognition of anthropogenic climate-change will increasingly seem absurdly shortsighted. Virtually the entire genre will be seen to have utterly missed the single most important thing we were doing with technology.

It’s hard to argue with that, unless you’re a stalwart climate change denier. Humans have done some big things: inventing the wheel, crop cultivation, electricity, space travel. But we’ve never done anything as momentous as changing the weather systems of the whole planet long-term. To set a story in the future and ignore climate change seems lazy, at best, and irresponsible at worst. A case might be made that to ignore climate change is to deny climate change, and science fiction writers like to think of ourselves as devoted supporters of rationality. The world desperately needs voices of reason, not flat-Earth types. (I speak from some experience: Canadians elected a climate-change-denying prime minister for two terms, and the newest premier of my province has just muzzled all of his government ministries on the subject. Hard to believe.)

We’ll almost certainly see more summers like this one, and worse. Journalist Ed Struzik, author of Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future describes the combination of factors that have seen the number, intensity, and size of forest fires steadily escalate and the cost of fighting them soar. More and more people are visiting and building communities within the boreal forest. Plus our very act of suppressing fires produces forests full of tinder-dry debris just waiting for a match or a bolt of lightning. In May of 2016 88,000 people were evacuated from the Canadian city of Fort McMurray when a raging wildfire destroyed more than 2000 homes and buildings, and continued to burn for three months. Experts predict more fires like that will happen. Especially in hot, dry climates such as California’s—that state has been home to seven of the ten costliest wildfires of the US in the past twenty years. Struzik also points out that subarctic and arctic areas of Sweden, Siberia, and even Greenland are suffering huge fires that not only produce lots of smoke and carbon monoxide, but also thaw swaths of permafrost, releasing vast amounts of trapped carbon dioxide, boosting the “greenhouse effect” and raising global temperatures still further. So we should expect a future with even more fires.

But does it have to be that way? And should SF writers be manacled by that outlook when we write about the future? William Gibson seems to suggest that such scenarios are the default future of the planet Earth. But SF writer and futurist Karl Schroeder wrote an insightful blog post for Tor.com recently called “Escaping The Default Future When Writing Science Fiction”. His main point (like a recent post of mine about having kids) is that economic, political, technological, and (yes) climate-related factors will all push the human population downward. And lower population will reduce the relentless pressure toward some kind of human-created apocalypse. We might not ruin the planet after all!

Schroeder doesn’t dwell on climate change per se, but his hopeful outlook includes the kind of post-scarcity society that Star Trek is known for. And, just maybe, the lower demand for fossil fuels and industrial processes that stimulate global warming will come in time to give human efforts to mitigate climate change a chance to work.

I’m not optimistic enough to say that we’ll escape a century or so of very difficult times caused by the way we’ve messed up the atmosphere, but at least it might not be permanent. We might not be forced to undergo an exodus into outer space—it’s still possible that the Earth of a few centuries from now will be a pleasant place to live.

So I hereby give myself permission to keep some hope in my SF.

RAISING KIDS IN THE COMING CENTURY

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In my last blog post I speculated about how kids would be born and raised in the centuries to come. Will children still be conceived and gestated within human bodies or in test tubes and vats? If we manage to extend the lifespan of existing people indefinitely, will we even want to bring any new human beings into the world?

What about for the rest of this century? How will child care evolve?

Much has been made of the idea that future kids could have robot caregivers. Certainly a lot of wealthy and upper-middle-class urban kids have nannies now, but as I mentioned last time, I think climate change and the shrinking number of jobs for humans will reverse the social pressure to have kids, so much fewer people will try to raise children while struggling to stay employed. I also don’t expect sophisticated robots to ever become an affordable consumer item for most people (sorry Jetsons fans). A truly effective robot nanny/tutor/bodyguard would need to have artificial intelligence of a high level, maybe conscious, maybe not, but with growing concerns about artificial intelligences we may be reluctant to entrust our children to them. Instead, we’ll see more and more tech to help parents look after their own kids. A new app called ChatterBaby uses algorithms formulated from more than 2000 audio samples of babies crying, to not only help parents know when their baby is crying (important for deaf couples) but also the likeliest reason for the cries, based on their sound. Sensing and analysis technology like this might not free parents to leave their kids alone, but could loosen the tether a little bit, and with 1 in 4 US children and just over 1 in 5 Canadian kids being raised by single parents, every bit of assistance is welcome. As to that statistic, technology that connects people is already fostering a trend toward communal parenting: support networks drawn, not from blood relations as in the past, but people with common interests and values. A number of apps already assist with “co-parenting”. The term “single parenting” might soon become irrelevant, and the definition of “family” will be even broader than it is today.

Robot teachers? More likely, immersive virtual reality environments will be used to provide teaching scenarios, using very realistic situations for instruction rather than a classroom lesson/lecture-type method.

So will you ever be able to pry your kid away from their video screens and get them to apply themselves to their homework again? Well, with every form of information available electronically, the days of cramming facts into kids’ heads simply have to come to an end—there’s no point. What will remain important is teaching kids how to connect information, draw impressions, solve problems, and apply what they learn to life and work. That certainly doesn’t have to involve electronic screens or their equivalent. In fact, just as today’s young adults have been opting more and more to spend their discretionary money on experiences instead of things, I predict our educational systems will slowly work in that direction too. They’re just incredibly ponderous institutions to change.

What about parental monitoring of kids 24/7? Some already use apps that track their kids’ phones by GPS, others are scandalized by it. (For apps and devices now available, check out this article and this one.) Sorry, but such things are here to stay and will only get more intrusive. Whether or not the world really has become a more dangerous place for kids, that perception has become much too deeply ingrained into our collective psyche. It’s not going to go away. So as technology increasingly allows Mom and Dad to monitor their child’s location, activity, companions, and indeed every interaction, it will be used and will become virtually universal. Privacy for kids will cease to exist, yes, but then a huge percentage of the current adult population willingly gives up their privacy every day, thanks to social media, corporate reward programs, and numerous other temptations. So resistance (to ever-more invasive technology) is futile!

What kind of people will all of these changes produce? That I can’t predict. I don’t think it’s going far out on a limb to say that fewer children being born to those not fully committed to parenthood should result in fewer maladjusted adults. Revamped educational systems should produce more engaged learners who embrace the lifelong learning process that will be required of them. But as with any major shift in process and technology, there will be bumps along the road. So psychiatrists, social workers, and cops won’t find themselves out of work anytime soon.

THE FUTURE OF KIDS--WILL WE EVEN HAVE THEM?

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When I sat down to write about parenting in the future, it suddenly hit me: Wait! In all of the science fiction I read, kids are hardly ever mentioned. Will we even have kids in centuries to come? Sure, survival of the species by reproduction is a top priority of every living creature, but there is a chance that, as we extend the human lifespan indefinitely, there won’t be room for any new people, and no biological need for them. That is, if we stay on Earth, of course.

For now, let’s assume we’re still making babies and enduring the trials of trying to mould them into viable adults. What delights does the future of parenting hold?

In the 1930’s in Brave New World Aldous Huxley described a wholly impersonal system that involved human eggs fertilized and grown in laboratory conditions into embryos that were eventually “decanted” at the proper age, after which the new babies were conditioned according to their planned status in society. To create lots of low class, low intelligence workers, a certain number of fertilized eggs were even cloned to produce many identical copies. Though not an attractive scenario, the lab-grown baby process has been used in a lot of science fiction since then (I included it in a recent manuscript myself), probably because most writers expect that, as reproductive technology continues to improve, it will eventually take over entirely from the old fashioned method, which is, let’s face it, rather hit and miss. (Fun in the beginning, but oooh the inconvenience and pain of pregnancy and delivery!)

Fully artificial reproduction and impersonal child rearing is one way things could go, but it’s based on assumptions that may not turn out to be as relevant as we think. One of those is that lots of human workers will still be needed—natural reproduction interferes too much with worker productivity, and isn’t efficient. Another is that society’s trend toward extreme self-centredness will make personal baby-making and rearing undesirable to everyone.

If we were colonizing another planet, we’d want to increase the population as quickly as conditions could support, and we’d need every worker to be maximally productive and consistently available. Here on Earth, though, as climate change shrinks our habitable coastlines and wreaks havoc on food crops, there’ll be rising pressure to reduce population. Also, as automation continues to grow, the work done by humans will be the work that has to be done by humans, increasingly service work of varying complexity. Workers will have to retrain numerous times in their lives to stay productive. Social pressure to have children will continue to subside and fewer people will have them. The ones who do will be the ones who really want to, and extended maternity/paternity leaves will be welcome as a way to spread the available work around. Far from “cranking out” babies in laboratories, we’ll probably be quite content to have much smaller numbers born to parents who really want them.

One of my sons recently elected to stay out of the workforce to be a stay-at-home dad. His wife also took a one-year maternity leave. So for the whole first year of their daughter’s life, both Mom and Dad were there to cater to her every need and whim. Only a half-century ago, there was a common opinion that you could spoil a child by rushing to its side at every whimper, that it might actually do a child good to have to wait for relief or satisfaction sometimes. According to a video I saw this week, the new opinion is that not responding right away to a child’s cries will not only result in greater aggressiveness and possibly violent tendencies when the child is older, but might also impair the development of its communication skills, since crying and smiling are pretty much a baby’s only means to communicate (and it has to know that they work). So will constant attention be a good thing or a bad thing? Time will tell. But I believe there’s a very good chance that this natural, hands-on and highly attentive method of child bearing and rearing will be the approach that becomes the norm, rather than the scary laboratory/baby farm method. That’s not to say that reproductive technology won’t figure in, but it will be to help couples who need it, not replace them.

There’s more.

Another son and daughter-in-law have smart watches with apps that can be used like a personal trainer, tracking all physical activity during the day and analyzing it according to effectiveness, calories burned, etc., plus offering rewards for consistent exercise. I think that such technology will be adopted very quickly for tomorrow’s kids. While numerous SF stories have predicted a future society of grossly overweight, utterly sedentary citizens parked in front of screens or amid holographic displays all day, I like to believe that, at least in the near term, we’ll see ultra-sophisticated wearable (or implantable) technology monitoring people from birth to death and urging them toward a more healthy lifestyle. Imagine a display in your child’s forearm that not only monitors everything from their physical activity to the nutrition of the food they eat, but also rewards them for sticking to healthy habits.

Pie in the sky? Maybe. But my hope is that the mind-set of preventative health care will finally gain more and more traction as technology enables it. It’s almost inevitable that brain-computer interfaces of some kind will eventually be implanted right into our heads, and such a thing implies the potential to apply electric current directly to the brain’s pleasure centres. Powerful reward motivation indeed.

So much for the basics, but what about raising kids in a world increasingly shaped by technology? Robot nannies? Communal parenting? I’ll take a look at those things in the next post, but for now let me just say, if it’s been a while since you raised your own kids, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the future is arriving!

THE THIRD COLLECTION IN THE BEYOND SERIES

Good news! You can now buy BEYOND: Technology the third ebook in my BEYOND series in my Bookstore and at all popular ebook online outlets (or within a day or two, if the staff is in summer mode). Once again I offer three SFF short stories on a theme. This time, as the name suggests, it's trouble with technology.

When a worker at a bio-weapons lab becomes distracted by her relationship problems the fate of the human race hangs in the balance.

A small island nation claims to have true democracy with every citizen voting on all major issues. But when a reporter investigates, the truth is stranger than she could have imagined.

An expert gamer seems like the perfect pilot for a microscopic prototype submersible controlled through virtual reality. Until the connection becomes too real for the human mind to handle.

Two of the stories have been published previously in other anthologies (one of them twice), so you don't have to take my word for it that they're good reads. And a great bargain, too. Some inexpensive summer reading to give you an excuse to laze around on the beach--what's not to like? Or why not get nine great stories by picking up all three e-collections BEYOND: The Stars, BEYOND: Time, and BEYOND: Technology?

By the way, I do still plan to collect all of these nine stories, plus the six from my two other e-anthologies, into one big juicy print book in mid-August or so. I'll let you know when it's ready, so keep checking the web page.

BEYOND: TIME NOW AVAILABLE

The charge to publish continues!

The second of my short story collection series BEYOND: Time is now available as an ebook in my Bookstore for direct download. It's been distributed to all of the major ebook online retailers and you might even find it cheaper there, depending on your country's currency (currency conversions being what they are!)

BEYOND: Time offers three thrilling tales that transcend time:

The Long Commute

Shon Howard and others like him go to work every day to reverse the ravages of climate change, pollution, and other evils. His daughter’s life depends on it. Because in Shon’s world, mistakes of past centuries can be corrected by visiting key moments in time. As long as he doesn’t get caught.

A Taste Of Time

Gabby Dufour hates the blueberries that grow over the site of her home town, destroyed in a fire decades ago. Then young berry-loving Amanda comes to visit, with inexplicable knowledge about the town, and Gabby is forced to wonder if there’s more to blueberries than meets the tongue. (First published in On Spec #88 vol 24 no 1, August 2014.) ** This story's kind of different, but good enough to be chosen for On Spec's 25th anniversary anthology Casserole Diplomacy.

Hurricane

The crew of a Hurricane Hunter aircraft is assigned to monitor an experiment designed to collect the awesome energy of a powerful storm. When the project succeeds too well, nowhere is beyond its destructive reach.

However you choose to buy it, I hope you'll love these stories. Volume Three BEYOND: Technology  will be published soon, and then a print-on-demand anthology including all of these stories and more.