“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
If a killer asteroid or comet comes our way, don’t expect Bruce Willis or Robert Duvall to try flying to the rescue. And don’t expect doom to arrive in one big dose.
Those are two of the lessons that Hollywood has learned since 1998, when “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” put death from the skies on the big screen. The killer-comet theme returns in “Greenland,” a big-budget movie that’s making its debut on premium video-on-demand this weekend. But the plot twists are dramatically different.
There’s a different look to the movie as well, thanks in part to the research that was done by visual effects supervisor Marc Massicotte.
“The movies of the past have had a large creative influence on the direction we wanted to take, but at the same time, we didn’t want to repeat what had been done,” he told me. “We wanted to update and also be as close [as possible] to what reality as we know it now is.”
Massicotte discussed his vision of doomsday for the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and fiction. And to even out the proportion of science to fiction, I also checked in with Danica Remy, president of the B612 Foundation. Remy’s group focuses on the threats posed by asteroids and comets, as well as strategies to head off such threats — none of which involve Bruce Willis.
“Every movie that talks about this subject is a way to educate the public and raise awareness about the issue,” Remy told me. “The science in the movies may not be correct, but certainly the discussion and the education aspect — you know, the fact that these things do happen — we think is a plus.”
Massicotte was especially taken by the idea that incoming space objects may not hit the ground at all, but instead break apart as they plunge through the atmosphere, setting off a powerful airburst.
That was the case for the Tunguska blast that flattened half a million acres of Siberian forest in 1908, and for the Chelyabinsk meteor that injured hundreds of Russians in 2013.
For Massicotte, the fact that an airburst would look so good on the big screen was a bonus. “You’d have an asteroid that would come in and have an airburst — and in nighttime it would pretty much light up the sky, and light up its whole environment as if we were in total daytime, having beautiful shifting shadows and shadow play on vehicles that were driving at night on the road,” he said.
Several other choices were made with a nod toward scientific findings. For example, the filmmakers went with a killer comet rather than a killer asteroid, because comets are typically harder to track than asteroids. Virtually all of the near-Earth asteroids capable of causing mass extinctions are already being monitored, thanks largely to an effort that started around the time that “Armageddon” made its debut.
Even better, the comet in “Greenland” is an interstellar object, which plays off the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid in 2017. And the filmmakers set up the plot so that the comet broke up as it rounded the sun, turning a single object into thousands of unpredictable pieces.
As Massicotte and his teammates created the visuals for the movie’s latter scenes, they took their cues from the wildfires that were sweeping over Australia while the movie was being made. That explains the reddish sky that gives everything an eerie glow as the world burns.
“Considering the time frame within the film, the time that has passed, the amount of impacts that have hit the Earth and the devastation of ongoing fires from these impacts, we wanted to show how it had started to affect the climate,” Massicotte said.
There are also parallels to yet another real-world crisis, the coronavirus pandemic. The movie’s name, “Greenland,” refers to the location of a huge military shelter that was held over from the Cold War. Who decides which people survive? How do the deciders enforce their will? The failings and sacrifices that come to light in the course of the comet crisis may strike a chord for those concerned about COVID-19.
The script for “Greenland” doesn’t include parts for the brave astronauts who try to subdue the killer comet — which is pretty much how it would be in real life.
Remy said that none of the three generally accepted methods for diverting a potentially hazardous asteroid would involve sending humans. One calls for a kinetic impactor to smash into the asteroid, changing its course just enough to result in a miss. Another would use a “gravity tractor” to tug the asteroid into a slightly different orbit.
“The third one, which we hope we never have to use, is a nuclear standoff,” Remy said, “where you don’t blow it up, like in ‘Armageddon,’ but where you would explode it near the asteroid, and then the explosion will push the asteroid away.”
Scientists still have a lot to learn about comets, asteroids and interstellar objects — and about the best ways to keep our planet safe from cosmic threats — but perhaps the most promising plot development is that scientists are quick learners.
Even Massicotte is fascinated by the real-life science behind big-screen tales of killer asteroids and comets. “It’s all these little aspects that I’m still very curious about and would love to learn more about, obviously,” he told me. “It has shone a light on our little place in the universe — and how we’re not so indestructible.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
Spoiler alert: Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest science-fiction novel about a coming climate catastrophe, “The Ministry for the Future,” doesn’t end with the collapse of civilization.
Millions of people die. Millions more become climate refugees. And the crisis sparks terrorist acts, against those who are working for change as well as against those who are defending the status quo.
But by the end of the book, there’s hope that humanity will actually be able to keep things from spinning out of control. And that’s in line with what Robinson has come to believe in the process of writing “The Ministry for the Future.”
“We could either crash the biosphere, and thus civilization, or we could actually create a really high-functioning and prosperous permaculture, a sustainable and just civilization on the planet in the biosphere,” he says. “Both the utter disaster and the quite great, semi-utopian historical moment are available to us.”
Robinson talks about “The Ministry for the Future,” and the real-world technological initiatives on which his tale is based, in the latest episode of our Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and fiction.
Robinson writes meticulously researched “hard” science fiction — that is, stories that rely on plausible physics and engineering rather than flights of fancy such as magic, mind-reading or faster-than-light travel. He’s best known for his Mars Trilogy, a sweeping saga about the settlement of the Red Planet, but the same approach applies to novels such as “Aurora” (about multigenerational interstellar exploration) and “Red Moon” (a murder mystery set in China and on the moon) and “2312” (a thriller that spans the solar system).
The book that’s most like “The Ministry for the Future” is Robinson’s “New York 2140,” which is set in a future version of the Big Apple that’s been inundated due to rising sea levels. “Ministry” follows a different timeline that’s closer to the present day.
The ministry in the title is a sub-agency that’s set up in 2025 as an outgrowth of U.N. climate accords. Soon after the founding of the Zurich-based ministry, a heat wave in South Asia kills millions of people. The ensuing story focuses on Mary Murphy, the Irish-born head of the ministry, as well as Frank May, an American aid worker who survives the heat wave.
“Mary and Frank have a bad meeting,” Robinson said. “This is absolutely not the Hollywood ‘cute meet.’ ”
Although Mary and Frank are the central characters of the narrative, the tale is also driven forward by eyewitness accounts from those caught up in the crisis.
It could be argued that the main drivers of the overarching plot are the technologies employed to adapt to Earth’s changing climate.
Robinson said he picked up one idea for the book from a glaciologist.
“The glaciers are sliding in Antarctica, 10 times as fast as they used to,” he explained. “It’s not that the Antarctic is melting, it’s that it’s sliding into the ocean, where it then melts. … And that sliding issue has to do with water lubricating the bottom of the glaciers. It’s not that much water. You can pump it out from there. The ice would bottom out on the rock again, slow back down again just through friction.”
If such a scheme worked, it could eliminate one of the worst effects of climate change. “I think my book is the first introduction of that idea to the world,” Robinson said.
The most decisive twists in “Ministry” have more to do with public policy and finance than with physics.
That part of the technological arsenal includes Modern Monetary Theory, which would basically loosen up the world banking system’s purse strings for more investment in green technologies; a carbon-coin currency tied to emissions reduction; and a data-trust platform known as YourLock that ends up breaking a social-media stranglehold. (In an earlier Fiction Science podcast, “Cyber Republic” author George Zarkadakis touched upon blockchain-enabled data trusts as well.)
Then there’s the darker side of climate action: In “Ministry,” one of the big drivers for change is a campaign of sabotage and assassination mounted by an eco-terrorist group called Children of Kali. Airplanes, coal-fired power plants and oil tankers fall victim to shadowy “pebble-mob” attacks. (That high-tech guerrilla strategy also makes an appearance in “2312”).
Does Robinson think eco-terrorism will be necessary to bring about a sustainable post-carbon civilization?
“I hope that doesn’t happen. … Partly I write those things to say we should try to avoid these by doing better things right now, and making a future even better than the Ministry for the Future’s future,” he said.
But Robinson said there’s a chance that “we may come into a situation where other people on the planet are so angry that we will see violent things being done, essentially against us.”
“This was the pain of writing the novel … the extreme fear that when you write about political violence, it sounds like you’re approving it, or saying, ‘This is the only way things will happen,’ ” he said. “That’s not the case, but in this novel, I’m saying that it very well could happen if we don’t do even better than this.”
How closely will reality match Robinson’s science-fiction view of the future. Will the true-life tale have a brighter or darker outcome? “The Ministry of the Future” stands out as a case where we won’t have to wait very long to find out.
Kim Stanley Robinson is due to discuss “Ministry for the Future” during an online talk at 7 p.m. ET (4 p.m. PT) today, presented by the Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor, Maine, and co-sponsored by A Climate to Thrive and Sherman’s Books. Registration is free. Check the Jesup Library website for more information.
According to Zarkadakis, one of the most important fixes will be for governments to earn back the trust of the people they govern.
“We should have a more participatory form of government, rather than the one we have now,” Zarkadakis told me from his home base in London. “A mixture, if you like, of more direct democracy and representational democracy. And that’s where this idea of citizen assemblies comes about.”
He delves into his prescription for curing liberal democracy — and the precedents that can be drawn from science fiction — in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. Check out the entire show via your favorite podcast channel, whether that’s Anchor, Apple, Spotify, Google, Breaker, Overcast, Pocket Casts or RadioPublic.
The process involves recruiting small groups of ordinary citizens, and getting them up to speed on a pressing social issue. In Zarkadakis’ case, the issue had to do with the policies and ethical considerations surrounding brain science. During a series of deliberations, the groups worked out a series of recommendations on research policies, free of the political maneuvering that usually accompanies such debates.
One of the key challenges involved how to connect regular citizens with expert knowledge. It struck Zarkadakis that machine-based expert systems — for example, IBM’s Watson, the question-answering computer that bested human champs on the “Jeopardy” game show — could help guide citizen assemblies through the complexities of complex issues such as climate change, health care and education.
“Those algorithms are very powerful,” he said. “They collect a lot of data, and they have a lot of collateral damage. They just want to sell ads. Now, can we do something about it? I think we can, of course. We can use this technology for other purposes. We can use this technology, for example, to build algorithms with different goals.”
Rewriting the formula for how personal data can be used is a big part of Zarkadakis’ prescription. In the book, he proposes the development of data trusts that put consumers in control of their own data — and put a price tag on the use of such data by businesses.
Is the market for an individual’s data lucrative enough to sustain the sellers? That was one of the questions my Fiction Science co-host, sci-fi author Dominica Phetteplace, asked Zarkadakis.
“Interestingly, they put up a collateral for that loan that wasn’t the airplanes. It wasn’t the slots they have on various air fields around the world. It was the loyalty program, a database,” he said.
Speaking of science fiction, the sky’s not the limit for Zarkadakis’ ideas: Early on, he planned to devote a chapter of “Cyber Republic” to the idea of creating decentralized, crypto-savvy cooperatives to govern future space settlements.
“My publisher dissuaded me from including the chapter in the book,” he said with a chuckle. “I didn’t want to argue the point too much, so I said, OK, fine, we’ll keep it on Earth and keep it earthly for this time.”
Instead, Zarkadakis laid out the idea in a pair of postings to his personal blog. He’s also working on a science-fiction novel that capitalizes on his familiarity with the ins and outs of AI and robotics — and who knows? In that novel, he just might address the invention of democracy for intelligent machines.
I reminded him that happy endings aren’t guaranteed, whether we’re talking about science fiction or real-world governance. The example I had in mind was the scene from “Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” where Natalie Portman’s character watches the birth of the Galactic Empire and remarks: “So this is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause.”
“Both of those novels are interesting, because they imagine future human colonies on the moon, very near, but in very different ways as well,” Zarkadakis said. “It’s always interesting to read science fiction when you are interested in politics.”
Will citizen assemblies and data trusts end up being consigned to the realm of science fiction, along with Heinlein’s lunar revolutionaries and Le Guin’s anarcho-syndicalists? Zarkadakis, for one, hopes not. The way he sees it, we’re already stuck in a bad science-fiction plot.
“We are living actually in a nightmare right now, as far as I’m concerned,” Zarkadakis said. “And I believe that one of the reasons why this is happening is because the public was not involved in the conversation, and therefore there was not acceptance by the public of those measures. To cut a long story short, I believe that this needs to change.”
Such stories helped ancient peoples get a grip on the workings of the natural world — and set the celestial stage for millennia of scientific advances. But ironically, those advances may be leading to the extinction of the stories, as well as the fading of the night sky.
As a species, Homo sapiens is exceptionally skilled at recognizing, replicating and creating patterns out of raw data. In her book, Marchant traces how ancient cultures connected the star patterns they saw in the sky with the natural cycles they had to deal with on Earth, and how those connections evolved in the ages that followed.
Our proclivity for finding patterns can sometimes get us into trouble, as illustrated by the attraction to the Face on Mars — or, more recently, QAnon conspiracy theories. But in the main, it’s a good thing: An argument could be made that the scientific method boils down to the ability to identify patterns that knit together data, and verify that those patterns apply to subsequent occurrences.
“I’m interested in how we built the scientific view, but I’m also interested in what have we lost,” Marchant said. “Does it matter that we no longer see the stars? We know from light pollution that most people in Europe and the U.S. can no longer see the Milky Way, for example. With artificial lighting and heating, and air travel, and our computers and phones, we’re living in a way that’s more disconnected from the cycles of the sun and moon than ever before.”
An overreliance on our devices, and on perspectives that are divorced from the natural world, could leave us unaware about emerging risks from climate change and viral spillovers. It could also rob us of the emotional response that pushed our ancestors toward discoveries: a sense of awe about the vastness and complexity of the cosmos.
“One of the most common ways that scientists use to trigger awe in studies is to show people pictures or videos of the starry sky, and they’re finding that when people feel awe, it makes them more curious, more creative, less stressed, happier, even weeks later,” Marchant said.
Exercising your sense of awe can also have a beneficial social effect. “People make more ethical decisions,” Marchant said. “They’re more likely to make sacrifices to help others. They care less about money. They care more about the planet. They feel more connected to other people and the Earth as a whole.”
Can we heal our social and political divisions and unite to solve environmental challenges just by looking at pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope? If only it were that easy. Marchant said we’re sorely lacking in the kinds of stories that knit together the human and the natural world.
“Now we have this view of a physical universe out there — the scientific universe, if you like, made of particles and forces, and we’re separate observers of that,” she said.
Even those sagas are more about all-too-human affairs rather than our connections with the heavens. The long-ago, faraway galaxy of Star Wars, for example, primarily serves as a new stage for war-movie drama, just as Lucian’s 1,850-year-old sci-fi novel served to satirize his own society.
When I asked what kind of sci-fi came closest to capturing the cosmic connection Marchant was looking for, she pointed to “Avatar,” James Cameron’s 2009 movie about the clash between naturalistic aliens and machinery-mad humans. (Due to coronavirus-related delays, the sequels are now scheduled for release between 2022 and 2028.)
“I think it makes a difference, having people up in space rather than just machines,” Marchant said. “It’s kind of going back to that ancient view of the heavens, of seeing these characters and people in the stars, in the skies. … There’s also that perspective of looking back down on Earth, which has been so influential — that view of Earth from space.”
Astronauts have long talked about the Overview Effect, a deep sense of oneness with the Earth that arises when seeing its full disk from space, paired with a heightened desire to protect the planet from harm.
Could a widening of the Overview Effect restore humanity’s cosmic balance? If so, it’d be a sky story worth retelling for ages to come.
Cosmic Log Used Book Club
After our podcast Q&A, I asked Marchant if she had any recommendations for science fiction worth reading or watching. On the streaming-video front, she talked up “Devs,” an FX/Hulu series that capitalizes on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics.
“What would the consequences of that be if you could have a computer that could literally predict everything that you were going to do in the future?” she asked. “How would that affect our sense of who we are, and our responsibilities?”
On the book front, Marchant recommended Frances Hardinge’s “Deeplight,” a Lovecraftian fantasy tale that’s set in an underwater realm. “It’s a great adventure story, but also she’s looking into themes of power and the divine, and what happens when the gods are taken away,” she said.
Marchant said her favorite part of “Deeplight” was Hardinge’s disclaimer: “The laws of physics were harmed during the making of this book. In fact, I tortured them into horrific new shapes whilst cackling.”
Based on Marchant’s recommendation, I’m designating “Deeplight” as this month’s selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which spotlights books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to pop up at used-book stores or your local library. For a list of previous CLUB Club selections going back to 2002, check out last month’s lineup.
Can you picture Thomas Edison with a smartphone? Or poking a rival with an ice-cream cone? When you watch Kyle MacLachlan play one of America’s most famous inventors in the movie “Tesla,” you can.
And wait until you hear which 21st-century tech genius MacLachlan would love to portray next.
“The story of Elon Musk would be interesting, just because I think he’s a quirky fellow,” MacLachlan told me during an interview for the inaugural Fiction Science podcast. “That would be challenging, to understand who that his, and how he moves through the world, what he thinks, how he interacts with people.”
MacLachlan is pretty good at playing quirky roles. His best-known character is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, who delves into dark secrets, interdimensional weirdness and damn fine coffee in “Twin Peaks,” the classic TV series directed by David Lynch.
In a wide-ranging Q&A, MacLachlan and I talked about “Tesla” and “Twin Peaks,” as well as “Dune,” the science-fiction cult classic (or classic flop, depending on your perspective) from 1984 that marked his big-budget movie debut.
It’s interesting that MacLachlan makes a connection between Thomas Edison and Elon Musk. Just as Musk has a long-running rivalry with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos over rockets and cars, Edison butted heads with Nikola Tesla, a Croatian-born genius who was more eccentric in real life than Agent Cooper was on “Twin Peaks.”
The Edison vs. Tesla rivalry had to do with how best to distribute electricity, which was revolutionizing the American economy in the late 1800s. Edison favored the direct-current approach, which pushed the electrical charge in one unvarying direction. Tesla, in contrast, championed alternating current, which involves reversing the direction of the electrical flow dozens of times per second.
Edison argued that DC was safer than AC, and his associates went so far as to have dogs electrocuted with alternating current to prove his point (though a tale about electrocuting an elephant is said to be overblown). Despite Edison’s efforts, AC eventually won out — largely because DC electricity couldn’t be transmitted across long distances.
Tesla went on to blaze trails in wireless communication and power transmission — technologies that are continuing to change the world. But as brilliant as Tesla was as an engineer, he was a total failure as a businessman. He ended up dying penniless in a New York hotel room,
Edison, meanwhile, reaped fame and fortune — in part because of his pragmatism and hardheaded business sense.
“If he was working on something and it didn’t work, he would just try something else,” MacLachlan told me. “It was really that simple. There wasn’t a whole lot of thought given to it. It was just, ‘Let’s bring up the next thing and give that a shot, and see if that gets the job done.'”
In the new movie, veteran actor Ethan Hawke plays Tesla as an earnest electricity nerd who suffers outages in business — but nevertheless generates sparks with women admirers including actress Sarah Bernhardt and Anne Morgan (the scion of industrialist J.P. Morgan).
Anne, played by Eve Hewson, serves as the movie’s narrator and occasionally addresses the audience directly as she pulls up pictures of Tesla on a MacBook. After the Tesla vs. Edison ice-cream fight, Anne immediately sets viewers straight: “This is pretty surely not how it happened, but what can I tell you?” she says.
Those aren’t the only anachronisms engineered by “Tesla” director Michael Almereyda: In one scene, Edison is seen idly thumbing a smartphone, while in another, Tesla sings a karaoke rendition of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”
It’s debatable whether “Tesla” will succeed at the box office, but the mere fact that the movie was made with such high-profile stars argues that the real-life Tesla won’t be forgotten. And in case we’re ever tempted to forget, we should remember every time we switch on a light, flip open a laptop — or watch the movie on a mobile device.