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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.”

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Fiction Science Club

The realities behind the ridiculousness of ‘Moonfall’

Even geophysicist Mika McKinnon, one of the science consultants for a $140 million disaster movie called “Moonfall,” admits that the moon-crashing tale is ridiculously exuberant.

So what’s wrong with that?

“A movie is supposed to be fun, and science is allowed to be fun,” McKinnon says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and fiction. “You don’t need to nitpick at it, or rip it all apart.”

Science-minded spoilsports would probably find it about as easy to rip apart the plot of “Moonfall” as it was for giant tidal waves to rip apart the space shuttle launch pad at California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base in the movie. (One of the plot twists involves taking the shuttle Endeavour off its L.A. museum perch and blasting off from Vandenberg, which was once set up as a shuttle launch site.)

The movie is based on a premise that’s even harder to imagine than resurrecting a space shuttle for a lunar mission: A conspiracy theorist (portrayed by portly John Bradley of “Game of Thrones” fame) discovers that the moon is spiraling out of orbit toward Earth, and eventually persuades NASA to go into world-saving mode (with Halle Berry and Patrick Wilson playing leading roles).

“Moonfall” riffs on the recent scientific speculation over alien megastructures, throws in a villainous swarm of nanobots, and adds a dash of Apollo moon-hoax hokum. It’s the kind of ripped-from-the-tabloid-headlines approach that’s worked in the past for the film’s director, Roland Emmerich, in movies like “Independence Day,” “2012” and “The Day After Tomorrow.”

“There are some who believe that the moon is not a natural object,” Emmerich says in the “Moonfall” production notes. “I thought that was an intriguing idea for a movie. What happens if this object falls down to Earth?”

McKinnon and the movie’s other science consultants were tasked with providing plausible answers to that implausible question.

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Fiction Science Club

This sci-fi thriller will make you fear the fungus

If you’re going to write a novel about an alien fungus threatening the planet, there are few places more suited for the setting than the damp, dark forests surrounding Seattle.

At least that’s how Benjamin Percy sized up the situation when he started writing “The Unfamiliar Garden,” the second book in his Comet Cycle sci-fi series.

“If I was going to write a story about alien plant life, why not go to one of the wettest corners of the country?” Percy says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “You know, that moist quality of Seattle, right? You feel like sometimes you can just punch your hand through concrete and pull out a bunch of squirming earthworms.”

Steve Trudell, one of Seattle’s top mushroom mavens, says Percy made the right choice. “The Pacific Northwest is an excellent area, mushroom-wise — a big reason why I live here,” he said in an email.

A fictional University of Washington mycologist — that is, a scientist who specializes in the study of mushrooms and other fungi — is one of the main characters in “The Unfamiliar Garden.” And that’s not the only parallel between Percy’s plot and matter-of-fact mycology. Although the invasive fungus in his story is totally made up, the way it behaves plays off some of the freakier foibles of real-world fungi.

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Fiction Science Club

‘Don’t Look Up’ aims a satirical spotlight at a cosmic threat

The science adviser for “Don’t Look Up,” a star-studded comedy about a killer comet, has some serious advice for dodging a threat from the skies: Take the title of the movie, and do the exact opposite.

“The sensible thing to do about this particular problem is … just go look up and see if it’s out there,” said Amy Mainzer, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. “And do a thorough enough job of it that we have a reasonable chance of spotting something that’s large enough to cause appreciable damage, well before it could make its way here.”

The roughly 5-mile-wide comet that’s heading for Earth in “Don’t Look Up,” with only about six and a half months of advance warning, is totally fictional. Nevertheless, the movie is a teachable moment for the science surrounding asteroids, comets and planetary defense. And Mainzer said the stars of the show, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, were unusually eager students.

“These actors wanted to know everything,” she said. “I would say they’re approaching some pretty solid knowledge of just how do we find asteroids and comets, and what do we do about them.”

Mainzer discusses what’s going on with the search for potentially threatening near-Earth objects, as well as her experience as a science adviser for “Don’t Look Up,” in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, coming to you from the place where science and technology intersect with fiction and popular culture. You can listen to the episode via your favorite podcast channel — or right here:

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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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Fiction Science Club

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.