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Fiction Science Club

Space opera features a starship with a mind of its own

The starship is alive, and sometimes you can almost hear it purr.

Science-fiction writer Cat Rambo‘s new novel, “You Sexy Thing,” isn’t the first tale to give a personality to its characters’ interstellar conveyance. There’s the Heart of Gold from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” which had a sunny disposition as it used its Infinite Improbability Drive. There are the Vorlon starships of “Babylon 5,” which grieved when their pilots died. And there are the starships in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series that give themselves whimsical names.

But how many sentient spacecraft are inspired in part by a cat?

Rambo, who goes by they/them pronouns, had their pet cat Raven in mind while creating the character of the bioship that literally sets the plot of “You Sexy Thing” in motion.

“It’s a cross between Raven and a cousin of mine who is the not the swiftest person in the world, but is very good-hearted,” Rambo told me and my co-host for the Fiction Science podcast, science-fiction writer Dominica Phetteplace. During our chat, we delved into Rambo’s plan for a grand space opera that could eventually span 10 novels.

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Fiction Science Club

Sci-fi icon dives into climate crisis — and the metaverse

This whole metaverse thing hasn’t turned out exactly the way Seattle novelist Neal Stephenson thought it would when he came up with the idea 30 years ago.

Back then, Stephenson was getting ready to write his breakout science-fiction novel, “Snow Crash.” He was musing about how expensive it was to buy the equipment for a computer art project he was working on, as opposed to how inexpensive it was to buy a television set and watch state-of-the-art programming.

What would it take to make computer equipment as cheap as a TV set? “The answer, of course, is that lots of people watch TV,” Stephenson told me in an interview for the Fiction Science podcast that also touched on his new science-fiction thriller about climate change, “Termination Shock.”

During our chat, Stephenson noted that TV sets were once expensive lab curiosities, but became cheaper when programs like “I Love Lucy” created a huge market. Could that happen for computer graphics? Remember, this was at a time when the World Wide Web wasn’t much more than a glint in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye.

Thus was the metaverse born, as a plot device for “Snow Crash” in 1992. Stephenson’s characters could turn to an entire world created from 3-D computer graphics, offering programming as popular as 1990s-era television.

Fast forward to today, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella are touting the metaverse as the next frontier for online interaction through computer-generated avatars.

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Scientist takes a trip to the frontiers of consciousness

Could magic mushrooms hold the key that unlocks the secrets of consciousness?

Well, maybe not the only key. But Allen Institute neuroscientist Christof Koch says that hallucinogenic drugs such as psilocybin, the active ingredient found in special types of mushrooms, can contribute to clinical research into the roots of depression, ecstasy and what lies beneath our sense of self.

“What they can teach us about consciousness is that the self is just one aspect of consciousness,” Koch says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “You’re still highly conscious, and very often this is associated with states of ecstasy, or states of fear or terror, or a combination of ecstasy and terror. … What’s remarkable is that in all of these states, the self is gone, and very often the external world is gone, yet you’re highly conscious.”

The quest to understand consciousness through detailed analysis of the brain’s structure and function, scientific studies of religious and traditional practices — and yes, research into the effects of psychedelic drugs — is the focus of a 102-minute documentary film titled “Aware: Glimpses of Consciousness.”

“Aware” has been on the film-festival circuit for weeks, and an online showing will be the centerpiece of a live-streaming event set for Nov. 10. The documentary will also air on PBS stations next April as part of public TV’s Independent Lens series.

Koch, who’s the chief scientist of the Seattle-based Allen Institute’s MindScope brain-mapping program, is one of the stars of the show.

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Fiction Science Club

Science fiction gets real in the billionaire space race

The state of commercial space travel is changing so quickly that even science-fiction authors are struggling to keep up.

That’s what Time magazine’s editor at large, Jeffrey Kluger, found out when he was finishing up his newly published novel, “Holdout,” half of which is set on the International Space Station.

Kluger’s plot depends on the Russians being the only ones capable of bringing an astronaut back from the space station — but that no longer holds true, now that SpaceX is flying crews to and from orbit.

“At the very end of the editing process, SpaceX started to fly … so I had to quickly account for that,” he explains in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and technology with fiction and popular culture.

Kluger filled that plot hole by writing in a quick reference to a couple of fictional companies — CelestiX and Arcadia — and saying they were both grounded, due to a launch-pad accident and a labor strike.

It’s been even harder to keep up in the past few weeks, due to the high-profile suborbital spaceflights that have been taken by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. Each of them flew aboard their own company’s rocket ship: Blue Origin’s New Shepard for Bezos, and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane for Branson.

Kluger told me those billionaire space trips are at the same time less significant and more significant than they might seem at first glance.

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Fiction Science Club

Prophetic sci-fi tale retold in a not so comic book

Climate catastrophes? Gang violence? Political divisions? A president whose slogan is “Make America Great Again”? In the 1990s, that was the stuff of science fiction for Black author Octavia E. Butler.

“Just really hard-to-believe fictional stuff,” cartoonist/writer/teacher Damian Duffy says. “I keep doing that joke, and it’s not funny at all.”

Today, the outlines of the apocalyptic world that Butler described in her Earthseed novels — “Parable of the Sower” and “Parable of the Talents” — are all too close to reality. And it’s up to Duffy as well as his longtime collaborator, illustrator/professor John Jennings, to adapt those works to the graphic-novel format for 21st-century readers.

Although graphic novels are often thought of as comic books for grown-ups, there’s nothing funny about the late novelist’s books, or the adaptations created by Duffy and Jennings. Duffy even acknowledges that working on “Parable of the Sower” — which has just come out in paperback — added to the “depression stew” he’s been dealing with.

But in the end, he thinks it’s worth it.

“You feel a little bit stronger for having survived it,” he says. “I think that’s true as a reader, and I think it’s also true as adapters.”

Duffy and Jennings discuss the process of creating graphic novels, and their work with Butler’s novels in particular, in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. Fiction Science, co-hosted by science-fiction writer Dominica Phetteplace and yours truly, focuses on the intersection of science and fiction.

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Fiction Science Club

The meaning of life, death … and black holes

Why are black holes so alluring?

You could cite plenty of reasons: They’re matter-gobbling monsters, making them the perfect plot device for a Disney movie. They warp spacetime, demonstrating the weirdest implications of general relativity. They’re so massive that inside a boundary known as the event horizon, nothing — not even light — can escape its gravitational grip.

But perhaps the most intriguing feature of black holes is their sheer mystery. Because of the rules of relativity, no one can report what happens inside the boundaries of a black hole.

“We could experience all the crazy stuff that’s going on inside a black hole, but we’d never be able to tell anybody,” radio astronomer Heino Falcke told me. “We want to know what’s going on there, but we can’t.”

Falcke and his colleagues in the international Event Horizon Telescope project lifted the veil just a bit two years ago when they released the first picture ever taken of a supermassive black hole’s shadow. But the enduring mystery is a major theme in Falcke’s new book about the EHT quest, “Light in the Darkness: Black Holes, the Universe, and Us” — and in the latest installment of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of fact and science fiction.

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Why ‘Voyagers’ puts space travelers in a rat maze

Space may be vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big, as humorist Douglas Adams wrote in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” But during a long journey,  a spaceship’s confined quarters can feel mind-bogglingly small — potentially messing with a space traveler’s mind.

Depression, isolation and brain fog are among the health hazards traditionally associated with months-long space missions.  And back in 1999, a 110-day simulated space mission in Russia reportedly sparked even more serious flare-ups, including a sexual harassment case and a bloody fistfight between crew members.

So what might happen if space travelers go on a decades-long odyssey to a far-off, habitable star system — a mission so long that the children who begin the trip have little hope of seeing its end?

That’s the premise of “Voyagers,” a movie written and directed by Neil Burger. And it shouldn’t be any surprise that sex and violence are part of the formula, as they were during the simulated space trip in 1999.

In the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, production designer Scott Chambliss discusses how the stripped-down, closed-in environment he created for the movie’s multi-generational spaceship sets the scene for a space-based retelling of “Lord of the Flies.”

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Fiction Science Club

Could the God Theory be our ultimate salvation?

In retrospect, it seemed almost sacrilegious.

There we were — on Good Friday, the day that ushers in Christianity’s holiest weekend — talking with theoretical physicist Michio Kaku about the possibility that humanity’s salvation will come from a scientific gospel that’s yet to be written.

A gospel that Kaku calls the God Equation.

The way he sees it, our far-flung descendants will be able to take advantage of the God Equation to leave our tired old universe behind.

“One day, stars will blink out. It’ll get super cold. We’ll all freeze to death as it becomes near absolute zero. Well, that’s trillions of years from now. And I think at that point, we’re so advanced, we’ll harness the Planck energy — the energy at which universes can be created — and we’ll create a bubble of our own,” he explained.

“We’ll leave our universe and go to a younger universe where we can mess that universe up as well,” he said.

You could argue that’s the “new heaven and new earth” promised in the Book of Revelation. Is that sacrilegious? You’ll have to decide for yourselves after listening to the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, coming to you from the place where science and technology intersect with fiction and popular culture.

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Fiction Science Club

Why the natural world will never be the same

This is a bad time for Mother Nature — but it’s no use trying to turn the clock back. Instead, why not turn the clock forward?

That’s what Nathaniel Rich prescribes for what’s ailing the environment in “Second Nature: Scenes From a World Remade.” And he lays out the symptoms to support his diagnosis.

One set of symptoms is the global prevalence of pollutants, including a class of synthetic chemicals called PFAS. Nearly every American has been exposed to PFAS, which is used in nonstick cookware as well as water-repellant and stain-resistant products. An infamous case of PFAS water contamination and its health effects in West Virginia became the focus of a story that Rich wrote for The New York Times, and that story inspired a 2019 movie titled “Dark Waters.”

The opening chapter of “Second Nature” revisits the “Dark Waters” saga, but Rich goes on to document other ways in which human influences are reshaping nature, through pollution and climate change as well as genetic engineering and land development. The impacts can take the form of disappearing glaciers on Mount Rainier — or disintegrating sea stars in Pacific coastal waters, including Puget Sound.

“It’s not that intervention in the natural world is new,” Rich said. “We’ve been doing that from the get-go. What’s new is that we are, I think, finally coming to terms as a society and individually with the incredible depth and scope of the intervention, to the point that … there’s really nothing natural that can be found in the natural world, by any conventional definition of the term.”

Rich is due to discuss what ails the global environment, and the strategies that researchers and conservationists are developing to address those ailments, during a live-streamed Town Hall Seattle presentation next week. To set the stage, Rich explores the theme of “Second Nature” in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, coming to you from the intersection of science fact and fiction.

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Fiction Science Club

‘Machinehood’ casts humanhood in a new light

S.B. Divya has been thinking about the technologies of the future for so long, it’s hard for her to imagine living in the present.

Her debut novel, “Machinehood,” stars a super-soldier with body enhancements who packs it in to become a bodyguard for celebrities — but becomes enmeshed in an action-packed race to save the world.

Technologies ranging from human enhancement to do-it-yourself biohacking play supporting roles in Divya’s tale of 2095. And oh, if only some of those technologies were available in 2021…

“There are definitely days where I came out of the writing, and looked around and realized that I was back in the real world — and was occasionally sad about it, because there are really useful things in ‘Machinehood’ that I wish we had today,” Divya says in the latest episode of our Fiction Science podcast.