Sunday, July 29, 2007

Mundanespotting February 2007

Posted by frankh at 4:41 PM
I read most of these and then had some distractions before I wrote this up, so some of these thoughts are a bit stale. This is my first sustained reading of Jim Baen’s Universe (JBU), which is an electronic periodical using the subscription model. With the “big three” in perpetual circulation decline, and the “corporate patron model” of SciFiction shriveling up and dying, maybe this is the future for short “speculative” fiction. I found JBU to be an interesting alternative to the mostly stale form that is Analog (which had a double issue for January-February, covered last time). Interzone is at the other end of spectrum—a full-blown colorful magazine. The mundane-ness of this particular Interzone didn’t excite me, but overall the magazine is great to have (though quite expensive to import) as a counterpoint to the U.S.-centric sources.

Short fiction contents from:
Interzone 208 (February 2007)
F&SF February 2007
Asimov's February 2007
JBU Volume 1 Number 5 (February 2007), excluding “classic” stories

“War Stories” by Elizabeth Bear (JBU short): soldiers in a mundane future; not very interesting to me
— “I Could’ve Done Better” by Gregory Benford and David Brin (JBU short): historical fantasy with time travel, apparently; that is, crap
— “Demonstration Day” by Ian Creasey (JBU short): unserious and not mundane
— “Storm Warning” by Robert Cruze (JBU medium): ridiculous solar system space story, thankfully with ftl communications so I could stop reading at that point
— “The Star Necromancers” Alexander Marsh Freed (Interzone medium): “We await the necromancers in the palace of the Gloriarch, whispering to one another as jealous eyes watch from dataspace an mnemetic pollens cloud the air.” Yawn. Space opera or far future science-is-magic or both, or otherwise un-mundane.
“Red Card” by S. L. Gilbow (F&SF short story): interesting sociological story in the 1950s “Galaxy” mode; an odd future that may not be very convincing to many, but is quite mundane
— “Pawn’s Gambit” by Carol Hightshoe (JBU short): fantasy
— “Brain Raid” by Alexander Jablokov (F&SF novelet): an AI story that could go either way for me as mundane because it’s an interesting take on the sociology of this particular (otherwise) mundane future; I’m calling this story “not mundane” based on personal whim about AI; I think real AI could eventually come, but it is not at all on the near future horizon; the “bigger computers are smarter computers” argument failed long ago in real life, but lives on through too much crappy sf; if you think otherwise then this story is worth a mundane read
“Old Folks’ Home” by John Kratman (JBU short): traditional adventure story about a retirement home in orbit; silly, but I’ll let it pass for mundane
“Where the Water Meets the Sky” by Jay Lake (Interzone short): mundane ecological future in the U.S.; story didn’t leave much of an impression
— “Cold Fire” by Tanith Lee (Asimov’s short story): some sort of pirate fantasy or alternative history
“Empty Clouds” by G.D. Leeming (Interzone short): mundane ecological future in China; story didn’t leave much of an impression
— “A Stranger in Paradise” by Edward M. Lerner (JBU longish): ftl space opera far future crap
— “The Spiral Road” by Louise Marley (JBU longish): fantasy
“Marklord Pete” by Wil McCarthy (JBU longish): fun speculation about law and intellectual property; would likely be quite tiresome if bloated to novel length; in this form, my favorite story from this batch
— “Islington Crocodiles” by Paul Meloy (Interzone long): funky urban story; I read one chapter and would have kept going if this had any real hope of not being a fantasy
— “A Portrait of the Artist” by Charles Midwinter (Asimov’s short story): not very convincing story about an artist in some sort of biotech future, but otherwise I’ll say it’s mundane enough
— “Fool” by John Morressy (F&SF novelet): fantasy
— “Close” by William Preston (Asimov’s short story): psychological story with an un-mundane ending
— “Recovering Apollo 8” by Kristine Kathyrn Rusch (Asimov’s novella): alternate history
— “The Chimera Transit” by Jack Skillingstead (Asimov’s short story): escaping Earth with ftl
— “Stone and the Librarian” by William Browning Spencer (F&SF short story): nice tribute to Robert E. Howard, but too much of a stretch to be anything but a fantasy
— “The Goblin Hunter” by Jeff Stehman (JBU short): fantasy
— “Softly Shining in the Forbidden Dark” by Jason Stoddard (Interzone long): characters seem to be “jacking in” to some sort of “group mind” on trips to Alpha Centauri; might be mundane in some far out wacky sense, but I didn’t give it much of a chance
— “Rebel the First” by Edd Vick (JBU short): fantasy
— “Outgoing” by Alex Wilson (Asimov’s novelette): space story that might be mundane if it wasn’t utterly ridiculous; I am embarrassed that something like this was published in a magazine with Isaac Asimov’s name on it

Again, 7 stories that made the cut, but I’m less excited about this batch than the January ones. Asimov’s was especially disappointing this time. This issue of JBU has Mike Resnick as editor, apparently for the first time, so it’s too early to tell what direction he is taking it. Being able to publish a pile of stories without worrying about fitting them into an artifact of a specific size must be nice for the editor. Stay tuned.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

Soap bubble heads

Posted by goatchurch at 4:32 AM
I got given a copy of Michio Kaku's 2005 Parallel Worlds book yesterday as it seems to be the source of a lot of SF speculation about Time, Space, and Multiverse travel which supposedly makes all of Mundane SF irrelevant. I'm reached page 97, and it's so far a rehash of the usual Einstein history of physics. Flicking forward, I can tell I'm not going to like this M-space stuff. It reminds me of that cosmological speculation you hear when people have smoked enough dope.
Like, Man, you know each of those atoms in your fingernail could be like a tiny solar system with a whole other earth and people living on it.
The BBC appears to have had a lot of time for him. And there's this nifty FAQ which is good for a laugh.

Better still, there's a 23 minute interview with him on an in-depth news program in April 2005.

This interview literally took my breath away, so I've transcribed it extensively.
Kaku: Even 150 years ago thinkers like Charles Darwin or Bertrand Russell wrote about the fact that Physics does seem to say that the Universe will eventually run down, it rusts, we have what is called the Second Law of Thermodynamics, chaos takes over, stars blink out, stars get cold, the oceans will freeze over, and we'll all die in a big freeze. And Charles Darwin wrote in his autobiography, "What an unpleasant thought that we struggled to get out of the swamp, that every letter we struggled with is all for naught." Why bother to wake up tomorrow morning? Why go to work, knowing that we're all going to freeze to death billion of years from now?

Well, now we have an exit strategy. Ah, you mentioned George Bush. He has to ponder when is the situation cool enough in Iraq to exit troops.

Well, we Physicists believe that our universe is cooling down too rapidly. That it is out of control. That we are in an accelerating run-away universe.

...In some sense there seems to be a death warrant for our universe. Again, it'll be billions of years from now. But what a thought, knowing that all the achievements of humanity will eventually crumble, when the universe itself begin to crumble.

Now we Physicists just give talks. We get very embarrassing questions like, "Professor, what happened before the Big Bang?" Well the answer to that is: The Multiverse.

The other embarrassing question we get is, "This is all very depressing, hearing that the stars will blink out, the universe will consist of black holes, the oceans will freeze, the night sky will be dark, there will be no stars to guide us at night. What a horrible thought."

And my attitude is that the laws of Physics do have an escape clause. An escape clause by which we may have to go through this umbilical chord to perhaps journey to another universe.
(I stare at the screen with shocked and terrified expression like John Stewart after he's played an appalling clip of Bush.)

According to wikipedia, there's an interview with Kaku in the February 2007 Jordanian magazine "Business Today" in which he says that he considers terrorism as one of the main threats in man's evolution from a Type 0 civilization to Type 1 on the Kardashev scale, that's a civilization that is able to harness all of the power available from a single star.

Well, the link is broken; it's only wikipedia. Can't possibly be true.

The BBC interview continues.
Kaku: We're Type 0. We get our energy from dead plants. But every time I read the newspaper I read the birth-pangs of Type 1.

What is the internet? The internet is the beginning of a planetary telephone system. I see it right before my eyes a type 1 communication system opening up. The language of Type 1 will be English. It is already the universal language of elites. It will be the language of Type 1.

And, look at the economies. NAFTA, European Union, Trading blocks, the birth of a new economy is taking place.

Now there are people who don't like this transition, who feel in their gut feel more comfortable being in a Type minus 1. They're the terrorists. They in their gut realize that a Type 1 civilization has flowing ideas, challenging orthodoxies, new bigger, wondrous ideas popping forth. That's Type 1.
The interviewer asked whether mankind is going to destroy the world in our own way with global warming or war before we have anything like these problems.
Kaku: When I look in outer space and we look for signals for alien life, we see nothing. It's quiet out there. But the laws of physics tell us it should be teeming with intelligent lifeforms.

One theory is that there were many Type zeros out there. But the savagery of their rise from the swamp kept with them all the sectarian, fundamentalist, racial nonsense of the forest. And that's why they self-destructed before they attained high-form status. So the birth of Type 1 we think is going to be quite convulsive. It'll take place in the next hundred years. The next hundred years are the most important hundred years in all of human history, because it'll determine whether or not we make that transition to Type 1 civilization, a planetary civilization.

...We'll go out into outer space and see different star systems. Perhaps we will see planets whose atmospheres are too hot, they did have a greenhouse effect, or their atmospheres are radio-active, they did have a nuclear war. And perhaps that's why we don't see them with our telescopes.
(I lean over and weep into my hands.)

I pretty much agree with the particle physicist Martinus Veltman that astrophysicists are full of crap, which he explained in a lecture I blogged about in February.

These are dangerous ideas. Of the kind that believing you can fly off a cliff with a pair of cardboard wings is a dangerous idea.

Correction: Replacing erroneous "Yaku" with "Kaku".

Friday, July 13, 2007

What's a Benderite?

Posted by goatchurch at 3:28 AM
I've no idea what a "Benderite" is. But it shows up in one of the interesting derivated discussions of this blog. Person had inspected my Myron Ebell Climate production, which is a proxy blog for the most evil person in the world, a major promulgator of life-threatening lies to the people of this planet. More people should join this undertaking. I have a whole list of such people.

My understanding is that human beings are born with an over-powering instinct to make ourselves consistent with the belief systems suggested to us by those in authority -- for very good reasons of self-preservation. You don't get far by disagreeing with your Chief. One of the unfortunate emergent properties of this instinct is that, on large scales, entire empires of human beings can go systematically insane. There is no doctor in the asylum to stop us from walking through the oven door.

Planet Earth is fine. In 500 million years there will be just as many oil deposits and beautiful living species as there were before humans discovered fire. We, however, are very likely to be one sorry grease spot, a thin 50,000 year layer in the rock strata, encapsulating all those childish dreams that we were somehow going to get off this planet, go forth and conquer the stars. This, after the scientists have applied their enormous energy and intellect to discover the laws of physics, ecology, and psychology, and we, the Science Fiction writers, have decided to disregard the entire lot for no reason other than habit and tradition.
MundaneSF backlog -- I've cleared it till 1 June. Having gotten many rejections of my own which are unhelpful, I try to write something down. I now understand why editors don't do this -- it can only cause trouble.

One unusual aspect of my rejections is I often include a link to a newspaper report or wikipedia article covering the same theme as the piece that was sent in. This is my none-too-subtle hint that reality has already beaten it, and it won't do. For me, the idea comes first. Without some form of thought-provoking vision about something real, no amount of good characterization and compelling writing can redeem it for me.

Here is a medley of sentences from notes I have sent out about stories recently. Submissions close October 31. Get your story in earlier and this gives you time to fail and try again.
Story appears to be from the PoV of aliens taking over the earth. Bacteria tend to be more specific in their activity. This is primarily a world-building sketch rather than a fully developed plot. For the purpose of your story you're assuming technology we don't have (cars that don't require a road network), and ignoring technology we do have (transponders). The SF element is not apparent. I'm looking for stories with larger scale conflicts than this. This story shoe-horns its premise into the standard "mad scientist invention escapes lab and destroys the world" plot. I don't believe space debris has the characteristics of velocity and density you require for your story. This appears to be about an application of a new law of physics. I believe there are already a good number of rules of war, with interesting and meaningful consequences based on historical cases, without needing to invent new ones to fit with a story. I am minded of the fact that with a shortage of gasoline people will not be abandoned, as they will be required for manual labour, as they were in the past. Although this story contains an illustration of some of the consequences of climate change, it also refers to brain downloads and a space elevator.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

A world without Science Fiction

Posted by goatchurch at 3:49 AM
Having no time to read anything apart from submissions to the MundaneSF Interzone webpage, I listen to podcasts. Last week there was this broadcast from Scientific American magazine on 27 June 2007 of an interview with the author of A World Without Us.

The hypothesis of this Science Fact book was: Assume all human beings vanished off this planet in an instant, for whatever reason, what would be the changes that would be seen on the ground in the coming days, years, and decades?

The reason why this premise is scientifically relevant is that it provides a base-line control situation to compare against what we are doing. Ideally we should have a second planet orbiting the sun on the opposite side which is untouched by humans to use as a controlled experiment. This would put paid to arguments by certain fishermen I have met at a small harbour in Scotland recently who blamed the lack of fish in the North Sea on those pesky seals who steal 20 pounds of their fish a day! On alternate earth there would be a thousand times more seals, and even more fish. The discrepancy could be explained in terms of industrial fishing methods; a seal kills exactly 20 pounds of fish to fill its stomach, whereas the damage caused by bottom trawling is the equivalent of slash-and-burning of a rain forest.

Helpfully, Sci Am also has it's article on-line for this piece, and includes a rather cheezy animation of the bit about the decay of Manhattan. It's a shame not to watch it after they have gone to the expense.

There's no point in me recounting all the details here, which you can read there, or listen in the podcast. Save to say that yet again SF is falling perilously behind the Scientific writing in this day and age. If you're going to have a story that features an abandoned large city, you don't need to make it up from scratch. It's there, and it's far beyond most of the visions of such in SF which I have seen so far. Get with it already.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Greg Bear on TV

Posted by goatchurch at 3:46 AM

Greg Bear was interviewed on the esteemed Daily Show on 21 June 2007 as "one of several science fiction writers who gets called upon by the United States government to help combat terrorism".

It is my claim that the US government is one of the greatest consumers of bad MundaneSF in the world. Whilst the SETI@home project showed that there is a big market out there for searches for Little Green Men, that's not where the money is. The money is in fabricating excuses for a hundred billion dollar space weapons system against a closed society that is teetering into its second famine in ten years and over-selling terrorist plots by uneducated and incompetent bozos who don't know what an explosion is. But then, neither do the journalists.

Famines. Now that's a major human event that doesn't feature in SF very often. Does not compute with our current culture. As always, what you get to read in fiction is determined by what's popular with the editors. In scientific writing the literature is determined by what's important, whether or not it's liked.
Stewart: ...So you can't just in the middle of your story go, 'And there's a gate, and you step through it. You're on another planet!

Bear: I've done that! That's fun.
He was showing off his book Quantico which is a "technothriller" based on what he learnt during a conference in 2000 on Future Crime.

He points out that the bullet we don't hear is the one that gets you. "We are concentrating on all these foreign terrorists, and we've forgotten about domestic terrorists."

They're starting to talk about dual-use technologies in biological laboratories.
Bear: The point is we need to put these capabilities into high schools and universities and so on so that our kids can be raised for the bio-tech world we are entering into.
By dual-use, it's medicine and research into pathogens which you necessarily learn how to culture and grow them.
Stewart: For you the ultimate scenario of terrorism is not a bunch of guys on planes doing those sorts of things, it's eleventh grade chemistry students figuring out how to grow viruses and then figuring out how to switch this little protein here we can make it have teeth.

Bear: That's it. Very concise. In five to ten years college students will have the equipment to assembly viruses from scratch.

Stewart: Not computer viruses. You're talking about living viruses.
Then it degenerates into something silly about putting pathogen sensors and radiation detectors into everybody's cell-phones so it can phone in the alert.

Maybe they'll only use it to detect kids smoking pot.

It does seem believable that millions of high school kids are likely to contain more stupidity and greater capability to get up to some serious mischief than any band of terrorists. It's like Vonnegut's Ice-9 in Cat's Cradle. Someone young without any sense of mortality will make something awful. And the reason they had the capability was that we were trying to educate them.

This is likely to come out of one of the rich upper class private schools where they have excellent facilities. Maybe they'll drive across the railway tracks and try out their concoctions on people in the poor part of town and inject Plutonium into their bloodstream.

Oh, the CIA has done that already.

Unfortunately, this is one of those crazy things that happen which goes beyond anything that features in polite SF writing these days.