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Fiction Science Club

Science fiction gets real in the billionaire space race

The state of commercial space travel is changing so quickly that even science-fiction authors are struggling to keep up.

That’s what Time magazine’s editor at large, Jeffrey Kluger, found out when he was finishing up his newly published novel, “Holdout,” half of which is set on the International Space Station.

Kluger’s plot depends on the Russians being the only ones capable of bringing an astronaut back from the space station — but that no longer holds true, now that SpaceX is flying crews to and from orbit.

“At the very end of the editing process, SpaceX started to fly … so I had to quickly account for that,” he explains in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and technology with fiction and popular culture.

Kluger filled that plot hole by writing in a quick reference to a couple of fictional companies — CelestiX and Arcadia — and saying they were both grounded, due to a launch-pad accident and a labor strike.

It’s been even harder to keep up in the past few weeks, due to the high-profile suborbital spaceflights that have been taken by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. Each of them flew aboard their own company’s rocket ship: Blue Origin’s New Shepard for Bezos, and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane for Branson.

Kluger told me those billionaire space trips are at the same time less significant and more significant than they might seem at first glance.

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Fiction Science Club

Prophetic sci-fi tale retold in a not so comic book

Climate catastrophes? Gang violence? Political divisions? A president whose slogan is “Make America Great Again”? In the 1990s, that was the stuff of science fiction for Black author Octavia E. Butler.

“Just really hard-to-believe fictional stuff,” cartoonist/writer/teacher Damian Duffy says. “I keep doing that joke, and it’s not funny at all.”

Today, the outlines of the apocalyptic world that Butler described in her Earthseed novels — “Parable of the Sower” and “Parable of the Talents” — are all too close to reality. And it’s up to Duffy as well as his longtime collaborator, illustrator/professor John Jennings, to adapt those works to the graphic-novel format for 21st-century readers.

Although graphic novels are often thought of as comic books for grown-ups, there’s nothing funny about the late novelist’s books, or the adaptations created by Duffy and Jennings. Duffy even acknowledges that working on “Parable of the Sower” — which has just come out in paperback — added to the “depression stew” he’s been dealing with.

But in the end, he thinks it’s worth it.

“You feel a little bit stronger for having survived it,” he says. “I think that’s true as a reader, and I think it’s also true as adapters.”

Duffy and Jennings discuss the process of creating graphic novels, and their work with Butler’s novels in particular, in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. Fiction Science, co-hosted by science-fiction writer Dominica Phetteplace and yours truly, focuses on the intersection of science and fiction.

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Cosmic Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fiction Science Club

Why ‘Voyagers’ puts space travelers in a rat maze

Space may be vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big, as humorist Douglas Adams wrote in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” But during a long journey,  a spaceship’s confined quarters can feel mind-bogglingly small — potentially messing with a space traveler’s mind.

Depression, isolation and brain fog are among the health hazards traditionally associated with months-long space missions.  And back in 1999, a 110-day simulated space mission in Russia reportedly sparked even more serious flare-ups, including a sexual harassment case and a bloody fistfight between crew members.

So what might happen if space travelers go on a decades-long odyssey to a far-off, habitable star system — a mission so long that the children who begin the trip have little hope of seeing its end?

That’s the premise of “Voyagers,” a movie written and directed by Neil Burger. And it shouldn’t be any surprise that sex and violence are part of the formula, as they were during the simulated space trip in 1999.

In the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, production designer Scott Chambliss discusses how the stripped-down, closed-in environment he created for the movie’s multi-generational spaceship sets the scene for a space-based retelling of “Lord of the Flies.”

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GeekWire

NASA names Mars landing site after sci-fi pioneer

Fifteen years after her death, Seattle science-fiction author Octavia E. Butler has joined an exclusive pantheon of space luminaries memorialized on Mars.

Today NASA announced that the Red Planet locale where its Perseverance rover touched down last month is called Octavia E. Butler Landing, in honor of a Black author who emphasized diversity in tales of alternate realities and far-out futures.

“Butler’s protagonists embody determination and inventiveness, making her a perfect fit for the Perseverance rover mission and its theme of overcoming challenges,” Kathryn Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist for Perseverance, said in a news release. “Butler inspired and influenced the planetary science community and many beyond, including those typically under-represented in STEM fields.”

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Fiction Science Club

‘Machinehood’ casts humanhood in a new light

S.B. Divya has been thinking about the technologies of the future for so long, it’s hard for her to imagine living in the present.

Her debut novel, “Machinehood,” stars a super-soldier with body enhancements who packs it in to become a bodyguard for celebrities — but becomes enmeshed in an action-packed race to save the world.

Technologies ranging from human enhancement to do-it-yourself biohacking play supporting roles in Divya’s tale of 2095. And oh, if only some of those technologies were available in 2021…

“There are definitely days where I came out of the writing, and looked around and realized that I was back in the real world — and was occasionally sad about it, because there are really useful things in ‘Machinehood’ that I wish we had today,” Divya says in the latest episode of our Fiction Science podcast.

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Fiction Science Club

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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Fiction Science Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chiang’s answer? It depends.

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

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

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

Ted Chiang only makes it look easy.

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Fiction Science Club

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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Fiction Science Club

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.

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