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Fiction Science Club

Hollywood creates a new kind of killer comet

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.

This month, Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe delivered fresh samples from a carbon-rich asteroid that’s likely to help scientists figure out how such asteroids are put together. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe is carrying an even bigger load of asteroid samples back to Earth. And a future mission known as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, will actually try out the kinetic impactor method for diverting an asteroid.

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.”

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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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.

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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How to give the climate story a happy ending

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.

You can hear the entire 46-minute discussion, moderated by science-fiction author Dominica Phetteplace and myself,  via your favorite podcast channel, whether that’s Anchor, Apple, Spotify, GoogleBreaker, Overcast, Pocket Casts or RadioPublic.

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.’ ”

Kim Stanley Robinson is the author of “The Ministry for the Future.” (Sean Curtin Photo)

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.

Many of those technologies are ripped from the headlines of geoengineering research: for example, injecting aerosols into the stratosphere to reduce the amount of sunlight hitting Earth’s surface, or adding reflective dyes or microspheres to Arctic waters to keep polar ice from melting.

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.

Other technologies facilitate the rise of renewable alternatives to fossil fuels — including less reliance on petroleum-powered airplanes, and more reliance on airships, trains and oceangoing clipper ships that make use of sails as well as solar power.

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.)

Other concepts, ranging from the Gini index to Nansen passports to the Half-Earth project, also figure in the plot.

The Ministry for the Future
“The Ministry for the Future” is set in the near future. (Orbit Books)

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.

Reading assignment for next time

The next episode of the Fiction Science podcast will be a Q&A with Ted Chiang, who wrote a novella titled “Story of Your Life” in 1998 that served as the inspiration for the 2016 movie “Arrival.”

Chiang’s latest collection of short stories, “Exhalation,” touches on sci-fi concepts ranging from time travel and predestination to artificial general intelligence.

“Exhalation” was one of our top picks for last year’s annual holiday book roundup, but if you want to do your homework for the next Fiction Science podcast, you can start with two stories from the collection: “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” and “The Lifecycle of Software Objects.” Give them a read if you can, and check back in a couple of weeks for the podcast.

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.

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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How technology can keep democracy from dying

Between the voting-machine failures, the cyberattacks and the social-media shenanigans, technology hasn’t had a great record when it comes to fostering and protecting democracy in the 21st century. But George Zarkadakis says the technology — and democracy — can be fixed.

In his new book, “Cyber Republic: Reinventing Democracy in the Age of Intelligent Machines,” the Greek-born tech expert, writer and management consultant offers a repair manual that takes advantage of innovations ranging from artificial intelligence and expert systems, to blockchain, to data trusts that are personalized and monetized.

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, GoogleBreakerOvercastPocket Casts or RadioPublic.

Zarkadakis’ journey to the frontiers of governance began back in 2006, when he was a facilitator for the European Union’s Meeting of the Minds citizen assembly experiment. In the book, he describes the experience as his “Pauline conversion.”

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.

Citizen assemblies have been called “the flavor of the month among political geeks,” but they’re not a simple panacea for what ails political systems. Zarkadakis acknowledged that the current information climate is rife with disinformation. Why? One big reason is that trumped-up polarization is so profitable, due to the algorithms used by Facebook and other social-media platforms.

“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.

In reply, Zarkadakis pointed to a $5.5 billion loan that American Airlines received from the federal government in June to weather the coronavirus crisis.

“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.

American Airlines valued its AAdvantage program at $19.5 billion to $31.5 billion. There may be some question about that valuation, but in any case, “that’s the kind of money we’re talking about around data,” Zarkadakis said.

To guarantee the veracity and the source of a given data stream, Zarkadakis suggests using the same kinds of blockchain-based software tools that are used for cryptocurrencies.

Cyber Republic book cover
“Cyber Republic” lays out a game plan for giving democracy an upgrade. (MIT Press / Shutterstock / chuckchee)

The data trust concept may sound way-out, but it’s already gaining some traction among pundits and researchers as well as science-fiction authors. In “The Ministry for the Future,” a newly published novel that anticipates the deepening of the world’s climate crisis, Kim Stanley Robinson works in references to a fictional data trust called YourLock. (Stay tuned for more in a future Fiction Science episode.)

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.”

George Zarkadakis
George Zarkadakis is the author of “Cyber Republic.” (Yannis Bournias Photo)

Are there lessons that political scientists can learn from science fiction? Or that science-fiction writers can learn from political scientists? Zarkadakis noted that there are ample parallels between “Star Wars” and the tale of the Roman Republic’s transition to the Roman Empire, or Germany’s transition from the Weimar Republic to the Third Reich.

“I also find it interesting when science fiction is looking into the future, into different sorts of political systems,” he said.

Among his favorites are “The Dispossessed” by Ursula K. Le Guin and “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert Heinlein.

“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.”

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.

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How the stars gave birth to the Human Cosmos

Once upon a time, the sky was filled with stories.

They might have been tales of migrating bulls, horses and antelopes, translated from the constellations into paintings in prehistoric caves. Or sagas about the cycles of life and death, commemorated in stone structures oriented to mark the seasons. Or legends about the Widower Sun and the Sky Coyote that dictated the timing of rains, ripenings and rituals for California’s Chumash culture.

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.

“We understand so many wonders about the cosmos, but at the same time … we’ve never been so disconnected from the cosmos,” says Jo Marchant, the author of a new book titled “The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars.”

In the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, Marchant and I delve into how our cosmic perspective has been simultaneously sharpened and dulled. Give a listen to the Q&A via your favorite podcast channel, whether that’s Anchor, Apple, Spotify, Google, Breaker, Overcast, Pocket Casts or RadioPublic.

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.

Jo Marchant
Jo Marchant (Photo by P. Marchant)

“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.

The Human Cosmos
“The Human Cosmos,” published by Penguin Random House

The closest things we have to the cosmic myths of ancient times are science-fiction tales such as George Lucas’ Star Wars saga or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. (The former took many of its themes from “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,”  Joseph Campbell’s distillation of mythic archetypes, while the latter was inspired by “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”)

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.)

But even before “Avatar 5” rolls out, another type of cosmic connection could well inspire a fresh wave of awe and innovation. Within the next decade, actual men and women could well be walking on the surface of the moon, and perhaps even on Mars.

“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?”

Deeplight cover
“Deeplight,” published by Pan Macmillan

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.

UNESCO made Francesco Bandarin’s photo of the prehistoric auroch painted in the Lascaux Cave available under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 IGO license. We’ve added a rendering of the constellation Taurus.

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.

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Fiction Science Club

‘Twin Peaks’ star channels tech genius in ‘Tesla’

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.

To cut to the chase, proceed directly to the Fiction Science podcast, which is also available via Apple, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public.

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.'”

Tesla’s life has been touched upon previously in TV shows and movies: In “The Prestige,” David Bowie played him as something of a light-bringing demigod with a Frankensteinian twist. More recently, Nicholas Hoult played Tesla as a foil to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Edison in “The Current War.” Both Edison and Tesla have had their turns in the documentary spotlight as part of PBS’ “American Experience” series.

In head-to-head match-ups with Edison, Tesla tends to come off as the lesser-known underdog. In fact, filmmaker David Grubin told me that when he was asked to do the Tesla documentary, he initially thought it was about the electric car built by Musk’s company of the same name.

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.”

But not every weird twist in “Tesla” is an anachronism; some of them are true to life. Tesla really did rub elbows with Sarah Bernhardt and Anne Morgan, and he really did have many of the eccentricities shown in the movie — including an aversion to pearl necklaces and a need to polish his dinnerware with a set of 18 napkins before using them.

Toward the end of the movie, Tesla is shown obsessing over particle-beam weapons and the “statistical certainty” of extraterrestrial life. Back in Tesla’s time, such ideas may have seemed like science-fiction tales at best, and delusions at worst — but today they’re being taken totally seriously.

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.

Speaking of movies, here’s a video from astrophysicist Andy Howell that explains the AC vs. DC battle between Tesla and Edison in the context of “The Current War.”

IFC Films’ “Tesla” opens in theaters and on demand on Aug. 21. 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, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public.

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Cosmic Books

Join the CLUB Club with Asimov’s Foundation books

Classic science-fiction tales from the likes of H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and Philip K. Dick are in the midst of a revival, thanks to streaming-video series such as “War of the Worlds,” “Brave New World” and “Man in the High Castle.”

Now one of the sci-fi world’s best-known sagas, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, is being reimagined for an Apple TV+ series due to premiere in 2021.

The saga had its genesis almost eight decades ago, and the action is set more than 10,000 years in the future. But the themes of the work — centering on the decline and fall of a high-tech empire, Machiavellian machinations and unintended consequences — are, if anything, more relevant than ever in the here and now.

That’s what makes the Foundation series the perfect literary work for the revival of the Cosmic Log Used Book Club.

The CLUB Club goes back to the foundation of Cosmic Log. In contrast to book clubs that promote pricey new publications, our aim is to highlight books with cosmic themes that should be available at used-book shops as well as local libraries.

Over the past 18 years, we’ve issued more than 60 CLUB Club selections — many of them suggested by Cosmic Log readers. And to celebrate the return of the CLUB Club, we’re giving you the full list at the end of this item.

We’re also presenting a book giveaway, so keep reading!

“Foundation” dates back to a series of short stories that were published in Astounding Magazine starting in 1942. In the 1950s, those stories were published as a book trilogy — and in the 1980s and 1990s, Asimov produced two sequels and two prequels.

The key concept is psychohistory, the idea that the mass behavior of billions of people can be predicted and shaped centuries in advance. The series’ foundational character, Hari Seldon, uses psychohistory to foresee the fall of a galactic empire. He also comes up with a plan to reduce the resulting dark age from 30,000 years to a mere millennium.

That idea may have seemed far-fetched in 1942. But in this age of micro-targeted messaging, demographic data analysis, disinformation campaigns and social-media groupthink, the concept is less weird and perhaps more worrisome.

The latter half of the Foundation Trilogy highlights another concept: the potential for one individual with a talent for inspiring loyalty and fear to throw the course of history on a different track. That concept is as relevant today as it was in the midst of the Second World War.

Asimov’s masterwork ended up having an influence on luminaries ranging from conservative politician Newt Gingrich to liberal economist Paul Krugman. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk thought so much of the Foundation Trilogy that he agreed to tuck digitized copies of the books aboard the Tesla Roadster that was launched toward Mars on a Falcon Heavy rocket in 2018. “They’re amazing,” he tweeted.

Who am I to argue with Elon Musk on this?

To celebrate the revival of the CLUB Club, as well as the centennial year of Asimov’s birth, let’s have a trivial giveaway. This giveaway is “trivial” not only because it involves a trivia question, but also because there’s a relatively trivial sum at stake.

The prize is a $4 Amazon e-gift card that can be put toward the purchase of the Foundation Trilogy — or, frankly, any other purchase. I’ll send that amount to the first person answering the quiz question correctly in a comment below, based on submitted time stamp.

Here’s the question:

The Foundation series features a fictional reference work that has also popped up in books written by Carl Sagan and Douglas Adams. What is the two-word name of that reference work?

Update: We have a winner! Congrats to Kathy Coyle…

In case you’ve already gotten all the way through the Foundation series, here are 66 other CLUB Club selections you can check out using your e-gift card or your library card:

  • “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell (June 2002 selection)
  • “Alice in Quantumland” by Robert Gilmore (July 2002)
  • “Mr. Tompkins” series by George Gamow (August 2002)
  • “Manifold: Time” by Stephen Baxter (September 2002)
  • “Dreamer” by Richard L. Miller (October 2002)
  • “Earth” by David Brin (November 2002)
  • “Roadside Picnic” by A. and B. Strugatsky (December 2002)
  • “Strange Matters” by Tom Siegfried (January 2003)
  • “Out of the Silent Planet” by C.S. Lewis (February 2003)
  • “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert A. Heinlein (March 2003)
  • “The Copper Crown” by Patricia Kennealy (April 2003)
  • “Dragon’s Egg” by Robert L. Forward (May 2003)
  • “The Elegant Universe” by Brian Greene (June 2003)
  • “Contact” by Carl Sagan (July 2003)
  • “A Skywatcher’s Year” by Jeff Kanipe (August 2003)
  • Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson (September 2003)
  • “Book of the New Sun” series by Gene Wolfe (September 2003)
  • “The Best of AIR” by Marc Abrahams (October 2003)
  • “Flare” by R. Zelazny and Thomas T. Thomas (November 2003)
  • “Mother of Storms” by John Barnes (November 2003)
  • “Mars: Uncovering the Secrets of the Red Planet” by Paul Raeburn (December 2003)
  • Tripods Trilogy by John Christopher (January 2004)
  • “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs (February 2004)
  • “Bad Astronomy” by Phil Plait (March 2004)
  • “The Spirit of St. Louis” by Charles Lindbergh (April 2004)
  • “Angels and Demons” by Dan Brown (May 2004)
  • “The Man Who Sold the Moon” by Robert A. Heinlein (June 2004)
  • “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by P.K. Dick (July 2004)
  • “Idlewild” by Nick Sagan (August 2004)
  • “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe (October 2004)
  • “Science and Theology” by J.C. Polkinghorne (November 2004)
  • “Evolution” by Stephen Baxter (December 2004)
  • “Krakatoa” by Simon Winchester (January 2005)
  • “Killing Star” by C. Pellegrino and G. Zebrowski (February 2005)
  • “The Forge of God” by Greg Bear (March 2005)
  • “Short History of Nearly Everything” by B. Bryson (April 2005)
  • “The Red One” by Jack London (May 2005)
  • “N.Y. Times Book of Science Questions and Answers” (June 2005)
  • “Heavy Weather” by Bruce Sterling and “Forty Signs of Rain” by Kim Stanley Robinson (August 2005)
  • “Chaos” by James Gleick (October 2005)
  • “A Brief (or Briefer) History of Time” by Stephen Hawking (and Leonard Mlodinow) (November 2005)
  • “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle (December 2005)
  • “1491” by Charles C. Mann (January 2006)
  • “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card (February 2006)
  • “The Gnostic Gospels” by Elaine Pagels (March 2006)
  • “Prey” by Michael Crichton (April 2006)
  • “Hellstrom’s Hive” by Frank Herbert (May 2006)
  • “Inferno” by Jerry Pournelle (August 2006)
  • “This Place Has No Atmosphere” by Paula Danziger and “Countdown for Cindy” by Eloise Engel (September 2006)
  • “Orbit” by John J. Nance (October 2006)
  • “Time and Again” by Jack Finney (November 2006)
  • “God in the Equation” by Corey Powell (December 2006)
  • “Conversations on Consciousness” by S. Blackmore (Jan. 2007)
  • “Everyday Life in New Testament Times” by Bouquet (April 2007)
  • “Supernova” by Roger Allen and Eric Kotani (May 2007)
  • “The Twilight of Briareus” by Richard Cowper (June 2007)
  • “The Traveler” by John Twelve Hawks (July 2007)
  • “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut (August 2007)
  • “Flatland” by Edwin A. Abbott and “The Fourth Dimension” by Rudy Rucker (December 2007)
  • “The Year 1000” by D. Danziger and R. Lacey (November 2009)
  • “Creation” by Randal Keynes (January 2010)
  • “In Search of Time” by Dan Falk (February 2010)
  • “Space” by James Michener (September 2011)

What’s your favorite cosmic reading matter? Pass your suggestion along in a comment, and it just might be featured as a future CLUB Club selection.

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GeekWire

How the cloud lifts ‘The Expanse’ out of this world

Dominique Tipper on 'The Expanse'
Engineer Naomi Nagata (played by Dominique Tipper) watches a projectile whiz past her in an episode of “The Expanse.” Mavericks VFX was responsible for the whiz. (Mavericks VFX Photo)

It used to take a cast of thousands to create cinematic extravaganzas, but now the job can be done with a cast of dozens of artists and developers, plus thousands of cloud-connected computer servers.

The proof of that can be seen today in science-fiction epics ranging from “Star Wars” to “The Expanse.” And those shows merely hint at the beginning of a computer-generated revolution in visual effects, or VFX. Just wait until artificial intelligence hits its prime.

“That’s changing the game for all of us,” Brendan Taylor, president and visual effects supervisor for Mavericks VFX, told me. “That’s going to turn the VFX industry on its head in the next couple of years.”

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Real-life planet quest goes far beyond Star Wars

Luke Skywalker on Tatooine
Luke Skywalker’s home planet, Tatooine, and its two suns are a good example of science echoing Star Wars. Or is it the other way around? (Lucasfilm / 20th Century Fox Photo)

Over the past 42 years, filmgoers have seen exotic worlds come to life in a succession of Star Wars movies — a series that is now coming to a climax with “Star Wars: Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker.” But are those exoplanets really all that exotic anymore?

Sure, we’ve seen two suns in the sky over the sands of Tatooine, Luke Skywalker’s home planet. We’ve been to an ice planet (Hoth) and a lava planet (Mustafar). We’ve even spent time on a habitable exomoon that’s in orbit around a gas giant (Endor).

Back in 1977, most of us might have thought those types of worlds to be science-fiction fantastical. Today, they’re seen as totally plausible categories in the study of thousands of planets beyond our solar system. And Rory Barnes, a University of Washington astronomer who focuses on astrobiology and the habitability of exoplanets, suspects Star Wars creator George Lucas knew this could happen.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin links space fiction and space facts

If “The Expanse” ever decides to shoot episodes of the science-fiction series on a Blue Origin spaceship, Wes Chatham is ready to go.

“I do think it’d be an excellent marketing opportunity to be the first show that shoots a scene in space,” said Chatham, who plays the role of a space jockey with a gruff exterior but a soft heart on the Amazon Prime Video series.

His comments came to light in a video documenting the “Expanse” cast’s visit to Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash. That visit took place in March, but back then, all we had to go on were tweets from Chatham’s fellow actors. Today, Prime Video posted highlights from the visit to publicize next week’s Season 4 premiere. This’ll be the first season to have its first-run airing on Amazon, thanks in part to CEO Jeff Bezos’ intervention.

Bezos also owns the Blue Origin space venture, so it was an obvious move to have the “Expanse” cast and crew stop by during March’s tour of Amazon’s home territory. In addition to the show’s stars, the entourage included showrunner Naren Shankar as well as Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who are co-authors of the “Expanse” book series under the pen name James S.A. Corey.

Get the full story on GeekWire.