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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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GeekWire

New book details Jeff Bezos’ SpaceX envy

When it comes to his Blue Origin space venture, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos likes to say “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” But a new book claims Bezos was so concerned about the slow pace of progress five years ago that Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, was asked about becoming Blue Origin’s CEO.

Shotwell — who is second only to billionaire CEO Elon Musk at SpaceX — quickly rebuffed the entreaty, saying that “it wouldn’t look right,” according to tech journalist Brad Stone’s account in “Amazon Unbound.” That’s just one of the eye-openers from just one of the book’s chapters — the one that’s devoted to Blue Origin, which was founded by Bezos as a privately held company in 2000.

“Amazon Unbound” follows up on Stone’s 2013 book about Bezos and Amazon, “The Everything Store.” The earlier book touched upon Blue Origin’s genesis in Bezos’ childhood space dreams — and quoted a high-school girlfriend of his as saying Bezos founded Amazon solely to earn the money needed for his space venture.

“I can neither confirm nor deny that,” Bezos told me jokingly in the spring of 2016.

Stone’s new book suggests that just six months after that interview, Bezos was in no joking mood. Citing interviews with people who were familiar with Blue Origin’s workings, Stone writes that Bezos called in a succession of executives during several weeks in the fall of 2016 to discuss the space venture’s progress, or lack thereof.

The book depicts Bezos as frustrated with expenses that were bigger than he expected — and results that were coming more slowly than expected. In Stone’s telling, Blue Origin’s longtime president, Rob Meyerson, was caught in the middle: charged with following through on Bezos’ emailed instructions, but resented by demoralized members of his team.

Bezos’ dissatisfaction was fueled in part by the success of SpaceX and its billionaire CEO, Elon Musk. While most of Blue Origin’s funding came directly from Bezos, SpaceX hustled to raise outside capital — including $1 billion from Google and Fidelity — and successfully snagged multibillion-dollar contracts from NASA. SpaceX was hopping ahead like the hare in Aesop’s Fables, while Blue Origin seemed to be plodding along like the tortoise. (And in fact, tortoises are part of Blue Origin’s coat of arms.)

There was a personal element to the rivalry. “Musk and Bezos were a lot alike — relentless, competitive, and absorbed with their self-images. But Musk eagerly sought the spotlight and cultivated a kind of cultlike adoration at his companies and among his fans. … Bezos, on the other hand, was more guarded,” Stone writes.

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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

‘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.

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Fiction Science Club

Ancient ‘lost cities’ teach lessons for future cities

Time-honored tales of lost cities emphasize the quest for glittering treasures, priceless relics or mysterious civilizations — but more recent expeditions are going after a different sort of prize: a greater understanding of how and why cultures create large-group living spaces, and what factors eventually cause them to move on.

The findings — gleaned from archaeological digs including Cambodia’s ancient stone city of Angkor and a faded metropolis of mounds on the Mississippi River known as Cahokia — can help future architects and planners build the cities of tomorrow more sustainably.

At least that’s what Annalee Newitz hopes.

“My hope is that we’re going to be building more like the people at Cahokia and Angkor in a more sustainable way, and that our houses will be … made of things that are biodegradable, or that are even living materials,” said Newitz (who uses they/them pronouns).

Newitz recounts a personal quest to learn about Cahokia and Angkor, as well as the ancient cities of Çatalhöyük in Turkey and Pompeii in Italy, in a new book titled “Four Lost Cities” — and in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and fiction.

There’s something deeply attractive about the idea of places that were ahead of their time, but were somehow lost to history. Such tales are as old as the biblical city of Sodom and as fresh as Wakanda of “Black Panther” comic-book fame. It’s even better if the lost city ends up being submerged, like Plato’s Atlantis or Egypt’s Alexandria.

But Newitz says the “lost city” concept usually doesn’t hold water.

“I don’t like to use the term ‘fallen’ or ‘collapsed’ for these cities, because their cultures didn’t collapse,” they said. “The cities themselves were abandoned by people who basically, in a lot of cases, just got sick of how the cities were being run, with the exception of Pompeii.”

Pompeii was buried under more than a dozen feet of volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius in the year 79, but even there, most of the eruption’s survivors carried their culture to other Roman cities nearby. Something similar happened to Çatalhöyük, which was abandoned more than 7,500 years ago but spawned other settlements in Neolithic Turkey.

Cahokia and Angkor, which had their heyday from roughly 800 to 1400, traced more complex evolutionary arcs: They’re both thought to have been hit by a combination of political and climate-related crises — but went through periods of revival before fading away.

Four Lost Cities cover

Newitz noted that natural disasters typically aren’t enough by themselves to bring a city down. “You really can’t take a city out with the natural disaster unless the government is also unstable,” they said. “It was the one-two punch of not having good political leadership … and having some kind of environmental problem, whether that was within the city because of the infrastructure or because of some kind of weather problem or climate problem.”

For that reason, Newitz is of the view that the coronavirus pandemic alone won’t be enough to spark the abandonment of cities — even though some downtown cores may look like ghost towns today.

Newitz is less confident about the long-term outlook, especially for urban areas threatened by wildfires or rising sea levels.

“This is a tough time for us to be thinking about this, because I think many places in the world, including the U.S., are having big questions about our government and our governance,” they said. “And we’re also having climate disasters and a pandemic. So this is a good time to be thinking about how we want to re-imagine our governments, to help us be resilient against these kinds of disasters, because they’re going to keep happening.”

After working on “Four Lost Cities” for years, Newitz wonders how tomorrow’s archaeologists will look at the peculiarities of today’s urban culture — ranging from the quirks of San Francisco’s architecture, to the stratigraphic layer of plastic left behind by the Anthropocene Age, to the revelations contained in Newitz’s own garbage.

Newitz is also working what’s been learned from the lost-cities research into their next science-fiction novel — following up on “Autonomous” and “The Future of Another Timeline.” Intelligent animals will provide an extra twist of genetic engineering to the plot.

“You’ve got to have uplifted animals if you’re going to have a really good city,” Newitz said. “It’s kind of an imaginary way of depicting getting consent from the environment to build something.”

Could cities ever go totally extinct? Newitz doubts that could ever happen. There’s something innately human about living in groups — something that goes beyond economic or environmental factors. Adapting urban culture to become truly sustainable may be one of the biggest challenges for the next century, or the next millennium.

“How do you bring nature into the city, but also how do you continue to have the cool stuff that cities have, like high-speed internet and parties and concerts and restaurants? That’s what we love about cities. People come to cities to party and to meet other people,” Newitz said.

The prime directive to party is pretty much a scientific fact.

“Every time I would talk to an archaeologist about their city, I would be like, ‘Well, why did people come here?'” Newitz said. “In my head, I kept thinking, ‘Oh, they came here for economic reasons.'”

The archaeologists were quick to set Newitz straight. “Every single archaeologist would be like, ‘Well, they came because of pageantry,'” Newitz said. “Like they don’t want to say ‘party,’ right? Because that’ll sound too low-brow. ‘There were some incredible pageants.’ And I was like, ‘So, yeah, people came to have fun.’ … We’re never going to lose that desire to have good food and crazy entertainment.”

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

So what’s Newitz doing for fun during this shut-in pandemic? Podcasts are a prime pursuit: Newitz’s list includes “Short Wave”, a daily science podcast from NPR, and a quirky show called “Who? Weekly.”

“If you’re not able to soak up all the celebrity news that you want, it’s two hosts who will deconstruct silly celebrity news,” they said.

Newitz’s science-fiction reading list includes lots of tales of the city.

“N.K. Jemisin’s latest trilogy, which starts with the novel ‘The City We Became,’ really captures for me a lot of the feelings I have about cities,” they said. Other recommendations include “Perdido Street Station,” the classic book from China Miéville’s Bas-Lag series; and “Throne of the Crescent Moon” by Saladin Ahmed.

Lord Valentine's Castle cover

“When I was a teenager, one of the books that got me into science fiction was ‘Lord Valentine’s Castle’ by Robert Silverberg, which is basically just city porn,” Newitz joked. “Half the book is like, we reach this place that’s a giant mountain that has 12 giant cities on it, and then we spend half the book going up the mountain and going through the cities. I don’t remember the plot, but I remember the cities.”

The sheer quirkiness of Newitz’s recommendation, and the fact that Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, should be enough to qualify “Lord Valentine’s Castle” as this month’s selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. Since 2002, the CLUB Club has featured books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to be available at your local library or used-book store. For more recommendations, check out the CLUB Club reading list — and go have some fun.

Consult Annalee Newitz’s Techsploitation website for the latest on the virtual book tour for “Four Lost Cities.”

My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. She’s among the science-fiction authors featured in The Best Science Fiction of the Year. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, SpotifyBreakerPocket Casts and Radio Public. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.

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Fiction Science Club

How billionaires can help win ‘The New Climate War’

If billionaires like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos really want to maximize their efforts to solve the global climate crisis, they should focus less on gadgetry and more on getting governments to act.

That’s the message from Penn State climatologist Michael E. Mann, who delves into the changing circumstances of a decades-old debate in a book titled “The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet.”

At the age of 55, Mann is a grizzled veteran of climate wars: In 1999, he helped lay out the “hockey stick” projection for rising global temperatures, and in 2009 he was swept up in the Climategate controversy over hacked emails.

Michael Mann
Michael E. Mann is a climatologist and geophysicist at Pennsylvania State University. (Penn State Photo)

Mann has chronicled the conflicts over climate science in a series of books published over the course of the past decade. But in “The New Climate War,” he argues that the terms of engagement have shifted.

Amid waves of wildfires and extreme weather, it’s getting harder to deny that Earth’s climate is becoming more challenging. Instead, the focus of the debate is shifting to whether the climate challenge can be met — and if so, how best to meet it.

Gates has argued that investment in technology is the key to averting a catastrophe. “Tech is the only solution,” he said during last October’s GeekWire Summit. The Microsoft co-founder expands upon that perspective in an upcoming book titled “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.”

Mann takes issue with that argument in “The New Climate War.”

“Where I disagree with Bill is that, no, I don’t think we need a ‘miracle,’ which is what he said [was needed] to solve this problem,” Mann told me during an interview for the Fiction Science podcast. “The miracle is there when we look up in the sky at the sun, when we feel the wind. … The solutions are there. It’s a matter of committing the resources to scaling them up.”

One of Gates’ big energy technology ventures is Bellevue, Wash.-based TerraPower, which is working on small-scale nuclear power plants. But Mann doesn’t think nuclear power will play a significant role going forward — due to high costs as well as broader concerns. “It comes with obvious potential liabilities, whether it’s proliferation issues, weapons issues or environmental threats,” he said.

Mann thinks even less of Gates’ support for solar geoengineering strategies. “That’s going down a very dangerous road,” Mann told me. “When we start interfering with this system [that] we don’t understand perfectly, the law of unintended consequences reigns supreme.”

As for Bezos, Mann said he’s already had some conversations with the Amazon CEO’s team about climate initiatives such as the $10 billion Earth Fund.

“It’s a start,” Mann said. “Would I like to see him spend less on some of these wackier [ideas like] establishing space colonies, and more on saving the one planet in the universe that we know does support life? Yeah.” (For what it’s worth, Bezos argues that his space vision is aimed at moving energy-intensive, pollution-producing heavy industries off the planet and thereby preserving Earth for residential and light industrial use.)

Although he begs to differ on the details, Mann is nevertheless grateful that Gates and Bezos are on the right side in the new climate war. “I’ll gently criticize these folks where I feel it’s appropriate, but I do welcome these voices at the table, because we need everyone on board,” he said. “It’s all hands on deck.”

Denialism and doomism

In his book, Mann argues that the “inactivists” who resist efforts to address the climate challenge have turned to a subtler form of denialism, as well as a phenomenon that Mann calls “doomism.”

Mann argues that the climate-denial crowd has picked up the game plan that’s been followed by the gun lobby, Big Tobacco and the bottling and packaging industry.

New Climate War book cover

Just as “guns don’t kill people,” “smoking doesn’t kill” and “people can stop pollution,” some opponents to policy solutions argue that fixing the climate mess should be left up to individuals. Some even say that you shouldn’t complain about carbon emissions unless you swear off air travel and stop eating meat.

“There are things that we can do in our everyday lives that decrease our environmental footprint — and they make us healthier, they save us money and they make us feel better,” Mann acknowledged. “What we can’t allow is for the forces of inaction, the ‘inactivists,’ to convince us that that’s the entire solution.”

Others insist it’s already too late to avoid the climate catastrophe, and say the best we can do is to brace ourselves for the hellscape to come.

“If we really were doomed, if the science said that, then we’d have to be upfront about that,” Mann said. “But the science says the opposite. The science says there’s still time to avert catastrophic warming.”

Mann said the current political climate (so to speak) is favorable for making progress, thanks in part to a youth movement led by the likes of Swedish teen Greta Thunberg.

The next phase of the war

“The New Climate War” had to be turned in for publication months before November’s presidential election, but Mann said the results bore out his assumption that Joe Biden would win out. The results in the Senate — a 50-50 tie with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaker — couldn’t be any closer.

Because of that narrow mandate, “we probably can’t expect to see something like a Green New Deal,” at least for the next two years or so, Mann said. But he doesn’t rule out moving ahead with the first stages of a carbon-pricing system similar to the tax scheme that Canada currently has in place.

Climate campaigners in Washington state tried twice to set up a carbon-pricing systems, in 2016 and 2018, but both initiatives failed at the polls. Mann noted that fossil-fuel interests weren’t the only opponents.

“Ironically, some of the opposition in recent years to market mechanisms has actually come from the environmental left — because it’s been framed as inconsistent with social justice, that the cost will somehow fall on disadvantaged front-line communities, those with the least resources,” he said. “That definitely does not have to be the case.”

Mann said the key is to tweak market-based pricing systems so that the revenue goes to support the communities that need help, and support the spread of renewable energy technologies.

How would Mann spend the revenue? I put an extra spin on that question by asking him what he’d invest in if he were given a few million dollars to start up a climate-related venture. His answer was true to form.

“I would put it into science communication, focusing on what I see as the remaining obstacles when it comes to scientists informing the public discourse, because we do play a role,” Mann replied.

“We shouldn’t necessarily be dictating what the policies should be. There’s a worthy political debate to be had about that,” he said. “But we need to define the scientific ground rules to find what the objective evidence has to say about the risks that we face, so that we have an honest political debate about solutions.”

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

So what does Mann read for a change of pace? His latest literary diversion actually isn’t that much of a diversion: It’s “The Ministry for the Future,” a climate-themed sci-fi novel by Kim Stanley Robinson. Mann says Robinson’s book is “a good companion from the fictional side to the nonfiction of ‘The New Climate War.'”

Robinson was the focus of a previous Fiction Science podcast co-hosted by science-fiction author Dominica Phetteplace and myself. If you’re at all interested in future perils and possibilities relating to the climate crisis, you owe it to yourself to check out the interview.

Billions and Billions

The next book on Mann’s list is “Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium.” This is a collection of writings by astronomer Carl Sagan, published in 1997 after his death. The topics addressed range from climate change, the abortion debate and extraterrestrial life to Sagan’s own struggle with a fatal illness.

Mann said Sagan is one of his scientific heroes.

“He really inspired me as a youth, inspired my fascination with science, and continues today to inspire me,” Mann said. “And I’ve had the wonderful benefit of getting to know his daughter, Sasha Sagan, who has entered into this science communication sphere. You can hear some of Carl’s voice in her. It’s a gift.”

That endorsement is worth a double selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which highlights books with cosmic themes that should be available at your local library or used-book store. We’re adding “Billions and Billions” as well as Sasha Sagan’s book, “For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World,” to a list that goes back to Cosmic Log’s founding in 2002.

This is just the latest Sagan family selection for the CLUB Club: Carl Sagan’s “Contact” made the list in July 2003, and Nick Sagan joined his father as a CLUB Club laureate with “Idlewild” in August 2004.

A version of this story was published on GeekWire with the headline “Outspoken Climate Researcher Dishes Out Some Advice for Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.”

My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. She’s among the science-fiction authors featured in The Best Science Fiction of the Year. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.

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Cosmic Books

10 science sagas for a pandemic holiday season

‘Tis the season for holiday books — but this season is like no other in the 13 years since we began offering gift guides for science books.

This year, gift giving isn’t the only reason for the season’s reading recommendations: With the coronavirus pandemic still raging, it’s useful to have a good book by your side as you weather the winter in relative isolation. It’s still possible to get a healthy dose of science fact (or fiction) while we’re waiting for the vaccine (and for science writer David Quammen’s future book about the pandemic).

I’ve put together a list of 10 recently published books that should be well-suited for these unprecedented pandemic holidays. Some provide diversion. Others offer food for thought (for example, what happens once the pandemic ends?). Still others suggest experiments you can do with your kids in the kitchen, or curiosities to look for as you take holiday strolls with your pandemic podmates. All of them are worth considering for your gift list — or your own winter reading list.

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Fiction Science Club

Sci-fi master explores the rights (and wrongs) of AI

What rights does a robot have? If our machines become intelligent in the science-fiction way, that’s likely to become a complicated question — and the humans who nurture those robots just might take their side.

Ted Chiang, a science-fiction author of growing renown with long-lasting connections to Seattle’s tech community, doesn’t back away from such questions. They spark the thought experiments that generate award-winning novellas like “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” and inspire Hollywood movies like “Arrival.”

Chiang’s soulful short stories have earned him kudos from the likes of The New Yorker, which has called him “one of the most influential science-fiction writers of his generation.” During this year’s pandemic-plagued summer, he joined the Museum of Pop Culture’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. And this week, he’s receiving an award from the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation for employing imagination in service to society.

Can science fiction have an impact in the real world, even at times when the world seems as if it’s in the midst of a slow-moving disaster movie? Absolutely, Chiang says.

“Art is one way to make sense of a world which, on its own, does not make sense,” he says in the latest episode of our Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection between science and fiction. “Art can impose a kind of order onto things. … It doesn’t offer a cure-all, because I don’t think there’s going to be any easy cure-all, but I think art helps us get by in these stressful times.”

COVID-19 provides one illustration. Chiang would argue that our response to the coronavirus pandemic has been problematic in part because it doesn’t match what we’ve seen in sci-fi movies.

“The greatest conflict that we see generated is from people who don’t believe in it vs. everyone else,” he said. “That might be the product of the fact that it is not as severe. If it looked like various movie pandemics, it’d probably be hard for anyone to deny that it was happening.”

This pandemic may well spark a new kind of sci-fi theme.

“It’s worth thinking about, that traditional depictions of pandemics don’t spend much time on people coming together and trying to support each other,” Chiang said. “That is not typically a theme in stories about disaster or enormous crisis. I guess the narrative is usually, ‘It’s the end of civilization.’ And people have not turned on each other in that way.”

Artificial intelligence is another field where science fiction often gives people the wrong idea. “When we talk about AI in science fiction, we’re talking about something very different than what we mean when we say AI in the context of current technology,” Chiang said.

Chiang isn’t speaking here merely as an author of short stories, but as someone who joined the Seattle tech community three decades ago to work at Microsoft as a technical writer. During his first days in Seattle, his participation in 1989’s Clarion West Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop helped launch his second career as a fiction writer..

In our interview, Chiang didn’t want to say much about the technical-writing side of his career, but his expertise showed through in our discussion about real AI vs. sci-fi AI.

“When people talk about AI in the real world … they’re talking about a certain type of software that is usually like a superpowered version of applied statistics,” Chiang said.

That’s a far cry from the software-enhanced supervillains of movies like “Terminator” or “The Matrix,” or the somewhat more sympathetic characters in shows like “Westworld” and “Humans.”

In Chiang’s view, most depictions of sci-fi AI fall short even by science-fiction standards.

“A lot of stories imagine something which is a product like a robot that comes in a box, and you flip it on, and suddenly you have a butler — a perfectly competent and loyal and obedient butler,” he noted. “That, I think jumps over all these steps, because butlers don’t just happen.”

In “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” Chiang imagines a world in which it takes just as long to raise a robot as it does to raise a child. That thought experiment sparks all kinds of interesting all-too-human questions: What if the people who raise such robots want them to be something more than butlers? Would they stand by and let their sci-fi robot progeny be treated like slaves, even like sex slaves?

“Maybe they want that robot, or conscious software, to have some kind of autonomy,” Chiang said. “To have a good life.”

Chiang’s latest collection of short stories, “Exhalation,” extends those kinds of thought experiments to science-fiction standbys ranging from free will to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Both those subjects come into play in what’s certainly Chiang’s best-known novella, “Story of Your Life,” which was first published in 1998 and adapted to produce the screenplay for “Arrival” in 2016. Like so many of Chiang’s other stories, “Story of Your Life” takes an oft-used science-fiction trope — in this case, first contact with intelligent aliens — and adds an unexpected but insightful and heart-rending twist.

“Exhalation” is the latest collection of Ted Chiang’s science-fiction short stories. (Knopf Doubleday)

Chiang said that the success of the novella and the movie hasn’t led to particularly dramatic changes in the story of his own life, but that it has broadened the audience for the kinds of stories he tells.

“My work has been read by people who would not describe themselves as science-fiction readers, by people who don’t usually read a lot of science fiction, and that’s been amazing. That’s been really gratifying,” he said. “It’s not something that I ever really expected.”

What’s more, Chiang’s work has been popping up in places where you wouldn’t expect to see science fiction — such as The New York Times, where he weighs in on the implications of human gene editing; or Buzzfeed News, where he reflects on the downside of Silicon Valley’s world view; or the journal Nature, where you can find Chiang’s thought experiments on free will and transhumanism; or Nautilus, where Chiang offers an unorthodox perspective on SETI.

During our podcast chat, Chiang indulged in yet another thought experiment: Could AI replace science-fiction writers?

Chiang’s answer? It depends.

“If we could get software-generated novels that were coherent, but not necessarily particularly good, I think there would be a market for them,” he said.

But Chiang doesn’t think that would doom human authors.

“For an AI to generate a novel that you think of as really good, that you feel like, ‘Oh, wow, this novel was both gripping and caused me to think about my life in a new way’ — that, I think, is going to be very, very hard,” he said.

Ted Chiang only makes it look easy.

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

So what’s Chiang reading? It’s definitely not an AI-generated novel.

“I recently enjoyed the novel “The Devourers” by Indra Das,” Chiang said. “It’s a novel about — you might call them werewolves, or maybe just ‘shape-shifter’ would be a more accurate term. But it’s about shape-shifters or werewolves in pre-colonial India, in medieval India. It’s a setting that I haven’t seen a lot of in fiction, and really, it’s an interesting take on the werewolf or shape-shifter mythos.”

"The Devourers" cover
“The Devourers” by Indra Das is set in India. (Del Rey)

Based on that recommendation, we’re designating “The Devourers” as November’s selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. Since 2002, the CLUB Club has recognized books with cosmic themes that could well be available at your local library or used-book store.

An alternate selection would be “Watchmen,” the classic graphic novel that inspired a critically acclaimed HBO limited series last year.

“I had been very skeptical about the idea of a TV series that was going to be a sequel to ‘Watchmen,’ ” Chiang said. “When I first heard about it, I thought, ‘That sounds like a bad idea.’ But I heard good things about it, and I gave it a try, and it surprised me with how interesting it was. For people who haven’t seen that, I definitely recommend checking it out.”

Ted Chiang and other Arthur C. Clarke Foundation awardees will take part in the 2020 Clarke Conversation on Imagination at 9 a.m. PT Nov. 12. Register via the foundation’s website and Eventbrite to get in on the interactive video event.

My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. She’s among the science-fiction authors featured in The Best Science Fiction of the Year. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.

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