Monday, December 31, 2007

My Played-out SF Fads, Let Me Show You Them...

Posted by A. at 2:13 PM
Okay, this is going to sound like a broken record to long time readers of this blog. Obviously some of this is covered in Geoff's speech on the right, not to mention elsewhere.

But it's always zany to see other folks reaching similar conclusions themselves... (From A.R.Yngve's "Notes Toward Becoming A Better Writer")
All science-fiction fads, when you look back at them, seem naive. They are invariably rooted in the wishful thinking and cultural anxieties of their time and audience. But they were popular because they offered a phony wish-fulfillment "solution" to real problems, or articulated an irrational anxiety.

Real problem:
The reader, though intelligent and educated, is physically puny and gets sand kicked in his face by stronger, dumber guys.
SF "Solution":
Psi powers ("I may look weak on the outside, but I have hidden mental powers!").

Real anxiety:
Where are the aliens?
SF "Solution": There is intelligent life on Mars (despite zero evidence to prove it).

Real problem:
Space is enormously huge. Traveling to other stars would take hundreds or thousands of years.
SF "Solution": Faster-Than-Light space travel (Ask Star Trek fans how the warp drive works. Yes, really. Ask them.).

Real anxiety:
People who don't understand computers are scared of them, and fear losing their jobs to automation.
SF articulation of anxiety: Evil intelligent computers take over the world (despite zero evidence of this actually happening).

Real anxiety:
You're going to die.
SF "Solution": When the Singularity comes, we'll all be uploaded into a giant computer network and live forever as digitized souls.

It's not that I dislike using one's imagination -- far from it. But when SF readers and writers confuse "If Only" with "For Sure," you get embarrassments like "psi powers" and "the Singularity Movement"... or the "Super Adventure Fun Club" (created by a science-fiction writer). People start mistaking obvious fictions for future reality. Intellectual speculation becomes Manifest Destiny.

Continue reading here.

(compliments of sf signal)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Weekly Mundanista News Wrap-up

Posted by A. at 8:18 PM
I'm trying out a new feature here, let me know what you guys think:

-What!?! You mean my 30 horsepower diesel powered leaf blower isn't actually environmentally friendly? New studies are showing that 'greenwashing' marketing may be the biggest openly deceptive marketing practice since 'more doctors smoke lucky strikes than any other brand'. According to numbers by the Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Trade Commission, of the 1,018 claims made, only one was found not to be complete stinking horseshit. And the FTC isn't too jazzed. They're now introducing new guidelines to reduce the levels of disinformation in ads from 'insulting' to merely 'brazen'. And since the guidelines are voluntary, we know they'll be followed.

-2007 declared the most insane year for weather ever. Hottest year on record in the northern hemisphere, in the US nearly 8,000 new highs were recorded in the month of August alone, record droughts in Australia coincided with record rainfall in China and England, all records for melting ice in the arctic were broken, ice sheets and Greenland and permafrost in Alaska melted to the lowest in recorded history. I think that's the most time I've ever said record in one sentence.

-Loss of deep sea biodiversity in the ocean predicted to cause global eco-collapse.

-It looks like climate change was in fact partly responsible for the natural disasters that plagued Latin America this year. This comes after a report from Oxfam earlier this year, tying global warming to the 4x increase in natural disasters that are hurting the developing world the hardest.

-The U.S. Military, long-haired tree-huggers that they are, are now determined to be on the front lines of alternative energy, with only completely benevolent purposes in mind of course. Two stories broke, one with the military looking into space based solar power, and the other with the Air Force intending to begin the switch to synthetic fuels.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Blame and Collapse

Posted by A. at 7:49 PM
Free will is a funny thing. It's the one thing, above all else, that people want to have both ways. We want it to justify our choices when we do something right, and then we want it to go away when we screw up and need to blame something else. Jared Diamond pisses off a lot of folks for seemingly doing the exact opposite of this, and puncturing both myths. First, in Guns Germs, and Steel he shows in detail why most of the progress and material gain of Western societies, at the expense of indigenous peoples, had very little to do with ingenuity and very much to do with environment and geography. It wasn't the superiority of its genes, its culture, or its institutions. Then in Collapse, he showed how societies can't simply shift the blame when they make key mistakes. If Guns, Germs and Steel was an "antidote to racism", then Collapse was an antidote to blind determinism. So it's no surprise to find Diamond a subject of controversy in tuesday's New York Times, in an article describing a conference just held by the Amerind Foundation, entitled "Choices and Fates of Human Societies".

The conference was apparently organized around the premise that Diamond "washed over the details that make cultures unique to assemble a grand unified theory of history." And that the message of Diamond's work is that "the haves prosper because of happenstance beyond their control, while the have-nots are responsible for their own demise."

Whuh? Considering the kind of flack Diamond has taken over the years, calling him a colonialism apologist is a little like calling Milton Friedman a communist. In fact, the entire impetus for Collapse seems to have been to show how people in the developed world (such as present day Montana) are right now 'responsible for their own demise', and may perhaps take most of the planet with them. The entire argument was that the modern day developed world is no different than any societies that have come and gone before. We're not special, we're not any more favored to survive despite doing everything that caused earlier civilizations to fail. (In fact, the "haves" of today have even less of an excuse since we have the entire tapestry of history as our guide.) While some societies might start off with more material wealth than others (whether it be because of the access to domesticatable crops and livestock or living in latitudes that are best for growing.), ultimately all are equally subject to the same laws of ecology, economics, and thermodynamics. There is no magic wand. If you make decisions that don't take these laws into account, you will probably not be around long to complain about it.

Talk at the conference was of "instead of seeking overarching laws" to "'contextualize,' 'complexify,' 'relativize,' 'particularize' and even 'problematize,' a word that in their dialect was given an oddly positive spin". (It's too bad the post-modern essay generator disappeared. You could have a lot of fun with that.) Overall it struck the reporter as "less like a scientific meeting than a session of the Modern Language Association."

So, pretty sad. I think there's something to be said for Feynman's adage that reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.

KSR on climate change

Posted by goatchurch at 3:07 PM
Thanks to anonymous comment in posting below. Here's his talk online. He's trying to tell google people what they could do to help with their resources.

See YouTube Kim Stanley Robinson On Google and Climate Change (embedding disabled).

Begins with statement by Republican Senator John Warner
What we will do in the next two or three years will define our future
There are plans. Can anyone help us imagine it? This is about the future, it's science fiction, it's Mundane-SF, and it's important. Does anyone think that their latest story about ET or space travel emerging from a world that looks as it does now will seem a little odd with this starts to really hit the fan?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Just as one credit bubble has burst.....

Posted by A. at 7:24 PM
One in five Americans expects to have to go into debt this winter just to stay warm.

"Heating bills are rising at a time when utility companies across the country are broadening electronic payment options for customers, including allowing credit card payments for utility bills. Personal finance experts say paying for basic living expenses with credit cards makes sense only if you pay off the entire balance each month. They also warn that carrying a revolving balance encourages people to live beyond their means while racking up interest charges that can plunge families deeper into debt."

If one looks at the numbers, a new credit bubble might be forming, as heating bills aren't the only thing that's going up. In the "UK, FOOD prices are likely to carry on rising after a year when floods, drought, biofuels and a growing appetite for milk in China have taken their toll on our weekly grocery bills." And in America, it's been the most expensive year in food prices in nearly two decades.

So it's increasingly looking like we are gliding into a future where those in the developed world will now be forced to reach for their charge cards for such extravagances as keeping warm, keeping food on the table, and (lest we forget the housing bubble) a roof over our heads...

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Two Stories

Posted by A. at 8:16 PM
"I really do believe that the increasingly intense disasters that we're facing: wars, terrorists, blowback, climate change...flow from this very dangerous story in which humanity is trapped. It's that same old story that tells us we can make a terrible mistake, and when we can no longer stand the sight of it, when we can no longer bear to live inside it, we can escape. We can escape to someone else's land, to a gated city in the sky, a "celestial green zone". This is the story we've been repeating now for thousands of years. It's why capitalism, imperialism, and the major religions have had such a fruitful partnership. Some are choosing to fight this with different narratives that essentially say the same thing. Stories that promise salvation and utopia, but only after much more death and destruction.

"It's in indigenous communities that we find narratives that flow from an entirely different premise: The earth is finite. Life is a cycle. There is no escape hatch. No boat is coming. We will not be elevated to the sky."
-Naomi Klein, wrapping up her 2007 Shock Doctrine tour in Chiapas.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

BLDGBLOG interviews Kim Stanley Robinson

Posted by goatchurch at 3:05 AM
Go read it!

Some highlights:
Robinson: It’s a failure of imagination to think that climate change is going to be an escape from jail – and it’s a failure in a couple of ways.

For one thing, modern civilization, with six billion people on the planet, lives on the tip of a gigantic complex of prosthetic devices – and all those devices have to work. The crash scenario that people think of, in this case, as an escape to freedom would actually be so damaging that it wouldn’t be fun. It wouldn’t be an adventure. It would merely be a struggle for food and security, and a permanent high risk of being robbed, beaten, or killed... People who fail to realize that… I’d say their imaginations haven’t fully gotten into this scenario... [P]eople kind of shrug and think: a) there’s nothing we can do about it, or b) maybe the next generation will be clever enough to figure it out. So on we go...

It’s almost as if a science fiction writer’s job is to represent the unborn humanity that will inherit this place – you’re speaking from the future and for the future. And you try to speak for them by envisioning scenarios that show them either doing things better or doing things worse – but you’re also alerting the generations alive right now that these people have a voice in history.

The future needs to be taken into account by the current system, which regularly steals from it in order to pad our ridiculous current lifestyle.
His comments lead strikingly on from this morning's rant over at the Myron Ebell Climate -- (chronicling his part in the suicide of the human species). Oh, and for a bonus he's seen through the nonsense of economic growth:
...the whole thing comes out of a kind of spiral: if only you could consume more, you’d be happier. But it isn’t true... [You] fall down a rabbit hole, pursuing a destructive and high carbon-burn activity, when [you] could just go out for a walk, or plant a garden, or sit down at a table with a friend and drink some coffee and talk for an hour. All of these unboosted, straight-forward primate activities are actually intensely satisfying to the totality of the mind-body that we are.
So pay attention all you Science Fiction writers of the future. This is the future, so put aside your time machines, talking robots, and so forth, and tell us what it's really going to be like. BLDGBLOG already has a warning for you not to be seduced by liberation hydrology, but I don't think we need that yet at the rate we're going, do we?

BLDGBLOG really has a lot to offer. What it needs, though, is a random article button to make it easier to dip into all that goodness.

Monday, December 10, 2007

100 year letter again

Posted by goatchurch at 11:00 AM
As mentioned here last month, the hundred year letter project is on-going at DeSmogBlog and has collected one contribution from a professional fiction writer so far: Pete McCormack.

Although it's a challenge that ought to be squarely at the centre of the Science Fiction department, no SF fans or writers seem to have been drawn to it. Now I'm sure if pressed most mainstream SF people would give me perfectly reasonable sounding excuses about why they don't want to be involved, but the very fact that they want to make an excuses is something that is a recent phenomenon. Certainly, a similar hundred year letter project would have been welcomed by SF enthusiasts back in 1967, or 1977, or maybe even in 1997.

But here, in 2007, the Science Fiction community has abandoned the future; or the future has abandoned it and gone on its merry way, following the laws of physics and thermodynamics with absolutely no consideration for our fantastic dreams. What a shame.