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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.”

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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.