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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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Cosmic Books

Winter’s tales for science (and sci-fi) fans

Wintry weather and a COVID pandemic may have a chilling effect on travel itineraries at the start of 2022, but there are still opportunities to explore scientific frontiers from the comfort of a reading chair.

Here are seven books from the past year that should satisfy your scientific curiosity — or your yen for a sci-fi escape from the cold realities we’re facing this winter. We’re also including a few bonus picks, plus links to other best-book lists.

Because most of these books have been out for months, they qualify as this month’s selections for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which highlights books with cosmic themes that should be available to check out at your local library or secondhand book shop. 2022 marks the 20th anniversary for the CLUB Club, and for Cosmic Log.

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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

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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Cosmic Science

‘Tomorrow War’ adds time travel twist to today’s problems

As far as we know, we won’t be facing an alien uprising in 2051 — but there are plenty of catastrophes that could be hitting with full force by then, ranging from the wildfires, droughts and floods associated with climate change to super-pandemics and food and water shortages.

In that context, the aliens of “The Tomorrow War” — a sci-fi movie making its debut today on Amazon Prime — serve as stand-ins for the perils we could well bring upon ourselves over the next three decades.

“The Tomorrow War,” starring Chris Pratt, calls to mind earlier time-twisting movies including “Edge of Tomorrow” (the Tom Cruise alien-battle flick) and “It’s a Wonderful Life” (watch for Pratt’s “heehaw” greeting, which was used in the Jimmy Stewart classic as well).

This time, the time travel trope includes a setup in which unsuspecting present-day citizens are drafted to fight future-day aliens as unrelenting as the bug-eyed monsters of “Starship Troopers.”

“I wanted to do something with the idea of conscription, the draft, for a long time. The idea of not having it be about necessarily an ideology, or patriotism, or loyalty to your country, but being about literally your desire to save your own kids,” screenwriter Zach Dean said during a pre-premiere press conference. “Who doesn’t sign up for that?”

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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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Fiction Science Club

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

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.