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Fiction Science Club

‘The Peripheral’ brings sci-fi prophet’s vision up to date

The future may not be evenly distributed, but there’s a dystopia-inducing concentration of it in “The Peripheral,” a science-fiction novel by cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson.

Now the novel has been turned into a streaming-video series distributed on Amazon Prime Video, and it turns out that Gibson’s future is more like the present than it was when the book was published in 2014.

“We initiated our writers’ room three weeks before the pandemic hit and the country shut down,” series producer/writer Scott B. Smith recalls. “There’s something called ‘the Jackpot’ in the story, which involves a kind of multi-vector apocalypse. And we felt like we were watching that happening in real time.”

Smith discusses how his team created the screen version of “The Peripheral” — and how Gibson’s world of the future squares with the challenges of the present — in the latest episode of Fiction Science, a podcast that focuses on the intersection of science and technology with fiction and popular culture.

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Fiction Science Club

What octopus intelligence teaches us about AI and aliens

Are intelligent aliens living among us? A newly published novel just might lead you to think so — and in this case, the aliens aren’t visitors from another planet.

Instead, they’re octopuses, the eight-legged denizens of the deep that are celebrated in movies (including the Oscar-winning documentary “My Octopus Teacher”) and on the ice rink (thanks to the Kraken, the Seattle hockey team that’s getting set for its second NHL season.)

Ray Nayler, who wrote the novel titled “The Mountain in the Sea,” says he chose the octopus to serve as the designated alien for his science-fiction plot in part because it’s “a creature that has a structure totally different from ours, but in whom we recognize curiosity, which is what I think we find often most human in ourselves.”

Nayler doesn’t stop there: The promises and perils of artificial intelligence also figure prominently in the plot — in a way that sparks musings about how we’ll deal with AI, with kindred species on our planet, and perhaps eventually with extraterrestrial intelligence as well.

Dominic Sivitilli, a neuroscientist and astrobiologist at the University of Washington, says such musings are what led him to focus his studies on octopuses. “I suddenly had this model for what intelligence might look like, had it had a completely different evolutionary origin … possibly on another world, in another solar system,” he says. “And so they became a bit of a model to me for what extraterrestrial intelligence might end up looking like.”

Nayler and Sivitilli discuss animal intelligence, artificial intelligence and the prospects for cross-species communication in the latest episode of Fiction Science, a podcast that focuses on the intersection of science, technology, fiction and culture.

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Fiction Science Club

Zeva’s flying saucer concept ascends to the next level

Eight months ago, Zeva Aero conducted a milestone flight test for an electric-powered flying saucer that would warm the heart of any sci-fi fan. Now the Tacoma, Wash.-based startup has changed the design ⁠— and although Zeva’s Z2 will look less like a UFO, it will look more real.

“It’s not just science fiction,” Zeva CEO Stephen Tibbitts says.

Tibbitts explains what’s changed since January, and why, in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and fiction.

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Fiction Science Club

True-life spy story gets an alien twist in sci-fi tale

What if one of the CIA’s most secretive and expensive Cold War operations was actually a cover story for an even more secretive, even more expensive operation … involving aliens?

That’s the question explored by science-fiction author Harry Turtledove in a new novel, “Three Miles Down.” The plot is only moderately wilder than the $800 million CIA operation on which it’s based: Project Azorian, which involved trying to raise a sunken Soviet sub from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

And as if a tale of aliens and the CIA isn’t wild enough, Turtledove works in references to the Watergate scandal and President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, which was happening at the same time as Project Azorian. Turtledove says he couldn’t resist drawing parallels between the tumult of those times and today’s political tensions.

“There are enough parallels that it sort of leaps out at you, and you aren’t really being honest with yourself or your readers if you don’t,” he says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and fiction. “The only real difference is, what’s going on now is so much worse.”

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Fiction Science Club

Star Trek keeps up to date with science — and society

Over the course of five decades, advances in space science and exploration have changed the Star Trek saga — but it’s obvious that the sci-fi TV show has changed the course of space exploration as well.

You need look no further than Amazon’s billionaire founder Jeff Bezos, who took inspiration from Star Trek to green-light talking computers and his very own Blue Origin space effort. The same goes for SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who’s mentioned in the same breath as the Wright Brothers in a “Star Trek: Discovery” episode.

“I can’t imagine a version of the world where Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos exist, for better or worse, however you feel about them, without Star Trek,” says Ryan Britt, the author of “Phasers on Stun,” a new book chronicling the history of the Star Trek sci-fi franchise.

“I’m not saying that those guys embody all of Star Trek’s ideals, because they may not,” Britt says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “But there is an audacity to space travel, whether it is from a government like NASA or another nation’s government that’s putting people in space, or if it’s from the private sector.”

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Fiction Science Club

‘Maurice on Mars’ brings black comedy to the Red Planet

The world’s richest human wants to build a city on Mars: Fifty years ago, Elon Musk’s vision of our future on the Red Planet might have sounded like science fiction — but today, Musk is actually serious about the idea of using billions of dollars from ventures like SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network to finance the move to Mars.

“In looking in the long term, and saying what’s needed to create a city on Mars, well, one thing’s for sure: a lot of money,” Musk said back in 2015. “So we need things that will generate a lot of money.”

What kind of city would Musk want to see on Mars? His vision calls for a place that offers “everything from iron foundries to pizza joints to nightclubs” while getting rid of “special interests and coercion of politicians.” But what if cities on Mars turn out like cities on Earth, complete with wealth disparity, racism — and ambitious billionaires?

That’s the premise for “Maurice on Mars,” a darkly funny series of animated shorts created and written by comedian and TV writer Tim Barnes for Comedy Central’s Animated YouTube channel.

“I truly think that people often jump to that aspirational part of living on Mars,” Barnes says in the latest episode of Fiction Science, a podcast focusing on the intersection of science and fiction. “But the practical thing is that you’re going to need people to build stuff once you get there. So the working class, the underclass, I believe will be the first people on Mars to actually build the White House there.”

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Fiction Science Club

‘Email From the Future’ imagines a world without greed

Visions of Utopia go back to the year 1516, when Thomas More literally wrote the book on the subject — but is it an outdated idea to envision a world where today’s biggest problems are solved?

Michael Rogers, who styles himself as a “Practical Futurist,” doesn’t think so. His day job is to lay out visions of the future for audiences ranging from startups to Boeing, Microsoft and other Fortune 500 companies. In a new book called “Email From the Future,” he describes a future world of 2084 where ideas that may seem impractical today end up taking care of climate change, wealth inequality, culture wars and other ills that afflict today’s society.

“Going toward the future is a little like sailing upwind,” Rogers says in the latest episode of Fiction Science, a podcast that focuses on the intersection of science and fiction. “You have to tack back and forth around the obstacles, but every once in a while you have to raise up your head and look, and make sure you’re still going in approximately the right direction.”

If Rogers’ vision comes to pass, we’re in for a big course correction: His tale incorporates moves to limit executive pay, institute a tax on robots (first suggested by Bill Gates in 2017), cut carbon emissions to zero by 2040 and create a climate reparations fund. Along the way, ultra-rich tech titans become as extinct as the titanosaurs.

“In my book, there is a realization specifically around climate change and the fact that it’s going to cost trillions of dollars to fix the planet,” Rogers told me. “So there’s again a big social shift in which the ultra-rich no longer look like heroes. They actually look like people who are withholding resources that could be saving lives.”

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Fiction Science Club

Why believing in the multiverse isn’t madness

What is the multiverse? The idea that the universe we inhabit is just one of many parallel universes gets a superhero shout-out in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” the latest movie based on Marvel comic-book characters.

And in the opinion of Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist at Columbia University, giving some screen time to the multiverse isn’t such a bad thing — even if the plot has some horror-movie twists.

“I think it’s really good if some of these ideas are brought out in a variety of different ways,” Greene says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the realm where science and technology intersect with fiction and popular culture.

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Fiction Science Club

Sci-fi author blends magical myths and raw reality

The near-future world created by Bangladeshi science-fiction writer Saad Z. Hossain turns up the dial on trends we’re seeing in the now-present world — the snowballing effects of climate change and urbanization, the rise of artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, and the potential for the metaverse that everyone’s talking about to turn into an opiate for the masses.

And then there are the djinns — that is, supernatural beings who turn up in Arabian mythology, and have served as the inspiration for genies like the wisecracking character in Disney’s “Aladdin” movies.

“They are the big mythical creatures of our culture, as fairies are to Europe, or dwarves and giants to Norse mythology,” Hossain explains in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “So, yeah, it’s something we should use.”

But there’s a facet of South Asian culture that’s even more central to Hossain’s literary universe: the sharp division between the moguls who hold all the wealth and the power (including the power of technology), and the “zeroes” who are just trying to get by.

That’s no sci-fi fantasy, Hossain told us over a Zoom connection from his home in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

“All over the world, and especially in Dhaka, actually you have these pockets of palatial places that are ultra-luxurious and absolutely beautiful to live in. … And then, of course, there are large parts which are in comparison completely unlivable,” he said.

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Fiction Science Club

Get a way-out reality check on dreams of leaving Earth

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wants to have millions of people living and working in space — that’s why he founded his Blue Origin space venture more than two decades ago. But what if living in space turns out to be like holing up in an Amazon warehouse?

“The reality of going to another planet in our current environment, I think … the best analogy is an Amazon fulfillment center,” Taylor Genovese, an anthropologist at Arizona State University, says in “Last Exit: Space,” a new documentary about space settlement narrated by famed filmmaker Werner Herzog.

“You won’t be able to actually see where you are,” Genovese explains. “You’re going to be inside of a factory, and you’re not going to experience what you think you’re going to be experiencing — that is, the kind of awe of being on another planet and experiencing being off Earth. No, you’re going to be working inside of a cubicle.”

That’s a perspective you won’t often hear in the wave of space documentaries flowing through streaming-video outlets, including “Countdown” and “Return to Space” on Netflix, and “Secrets of the Universe” on Curiosity Stream.

But Rudolph Herzog — Werner’s son and the director of “Last Exit: Space,” now playing on Discovery+ — wasn’t that interested in doing a conventional documentary about the final frontier.

“I just like the edgy, quirky stories,” the younger Herzog, who’s built up his own portfolio of film projects, explains in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “I think everybody knows about Elon Musk, and everybody knows what Jeff Bezos is up to. … I just wanted to show the incredible lengths people will go to, to live this dream of going to space.”