Tag Archives: science

Which Future Are We In?

We talk about living in the future, but there are lots of different futures we could be living in. On Election Day, I saw a tweet referring to us as living in “the timeline with the Black president and flying killer robots”. It made me wonder just how much we see the present through the lens of futurism from the past.

Hans Rosling, a genius statistician studying global population (who also gave one of the best TED talks of all time), recently reported that the total number of young people in the world–people under 15–is no longer increasing. I guess we’re not living in the Stand on Zanzibar future of massive overpopulation. On the other hand, information synthesis as Brunner described it is more important than ever.

This election brings us a Hindu congresswoman, a lesbian senator, a bisexual congresswoman, a female Asian senator born in another country, a half-Asian war veteran congresswoman with artificial limbs. Are we approaching Star Trek‘s diverse future? But it’s hard to imagine the Federation without star ships and aliens, and we’re still at the level of getting excited about a robot examining rocks on Mars.

I’m not suggesting that these futurists failed by not accurately predicting the future; rather, I think they succeeded in giving us visions we could aspire to. The parts of our future that are most under our control are the parts that look most like science fiction’s predictions. We don’t get to decide whether there are aliens, and global demographic change is extremely difficult to influence. But we can make our government more diverse, and we can develop new careers based on navigating the sea of data. And perhaps our choices to prioritize those things are directed in part by their familiarity from science fiction.

The flip side is that things the futurists didn’t imagine can be hard for us to see. It’s one thing to talk in broad terms about global warming shaping the world; it’s another to really grasp what it’s like for people living through the aftermath of a massive storm. When I think of the Manhattan canals in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, all I see are the wrecked homes and displaced people in Staten Island and the Rockaways–and I wonder how many of those images I’ve seen only because I live in New York and have gone looking for reports from survivors and volunteers. It was the same after Hurricane Katrina, when national attention wandered off while the storm’s victims were still struggling. Are the well-off programmed to ignore the less privileged, or just not taught how to see them?

What other past visions of the future are shaping our present, teaching us what to expect and giving us goals?

One Small Step for a Rover

If you’re even the slightest bit of a space geek, you probably already know that NASA’s Curiosity rover safely landed on Mars very early Monday morning Eastern time. For those who weren’t able to stay up and watch the landing on NASA TV (or in Times Square, where I’m told the crowd was chanting “Science! Science! Science!”), have a video of the “touchdown confirmed” moment at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. You might want to have tissues handy, and definitely turn the sound on.

Yep, and I’m all misty-eyed again. *happysniffle*

Sometimes advances in science are hard for science fiction writers and readers to swallow. Where SF asks questions, science has answers, and for futurians who guessed wrong and science fantasists who prefer to paint on blank canvases, those answers can feel like slammed doors closing off avenues of speculation. But watching my Twitter feed explode with space geekery and cheers, watching a tiny, grainy picture get retweeted over 26,000 times (undoubtedly more by the time you read this), all I could think of was how many doors this opens for writers and readers, how many stories will be filled with the literally gritty details of what things are really like on Mars, and how many new mysteries we’ll be able to investigate with six wheels firmly on the ground.


Every once in a while, I’m reminded of how far the SF field has come. For example, I would be genuinely surprised these days to find one of the major SF magazines publishing a story as sexist, plotless, and generally poorly written as Ed Rybicki’s “Womanspace“, which appeared in Nature‘s Futures section a few days ago. (Yes, Nature publishes SF. They’ve even published some very good SF. I hope they’ll consider going back to publishing good SF instead of this nonsense.)

If you’re in the mood to read outraged letters, The Contemplative Mammoth has collected links.

Link Roundup

I’m putting together the November 14 romance issue, which doesn’t leave much time for blogging. Enter the handy link roundup!

Which Authors Should Meet Astrophysicists?

I mentioned a while back that Tor is sending a bunch of their authors down to Goddard to meet with NASA folks and collaborate with them on science-based SF. I caught up with Tor/Forge publicity director Patty Garcia the other night and we chatted about this a bit, and I asked her, with my usual disarming charm, “So, how many of the authors you’re sending down there are not older white men?”

She laughed and said they actually hadn’t chosen the authors yet, and did I have any suggestions?

Off the bat I named Vandana Singh, and once I got home, I also thought of nominating Joan Slonczewski, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and Chris Moriarty. But the truth is, I don’t read a lot of hard SF (mostly because I don’t have much time to read anything at the moment), and I’m sure there are plenty of really qualified people whose names would never float to the top of my brain. So I thought I would open the question to all of you. Who is currently writing good hard SF, could really benefit from a collaboration with someone at NASA, and isn’t one of the “usual suspects”?

I did get Patty’s permission to post this question; of course she can’t guarantee that any given suggested person will be invited along, but it certainly can’t hurt to put a list of names in front of her.

Bacteria and Old Lace

The news is out on NASA’s recent exciting discovery.  No, it’s not alien life on Titan, and  it’s not the answer to David Bowie’s question about life on Mars either.  It’s pretty amazing, though, and might well change things for writers of hard science fiction.

Gizmodo reports that bacteria whose DNA is made with arsenic in place of phosphorus have been found at Mono Lake in CA.  This changes a lot about our understanding of how life can operate.  The official NASA announcement is not out yet, but it will probably provide a lot of rich material for SF authors to use in future books.

On a personal note, I remember from my California days that “Save Mono Lake” bumper stickers were popular.  I’m glad we saved as much of it as we could.  A photographer friend of mine, Joe Decker, has a photo gallery of the natural beauty of Mono Lake, though none of us knew it would hold such an amazing secret.

Twin Tufa

Twin Tufa • Mono Lake State Tufa Reserve, California • January 2003 • Joe Decker/Rock Slide Photography

My Airship!

Charlie Stross complains about unscientific zombies and implausible steampunk, and calls out Cherie Priest.

Cherie responds.

A Kate Beaton comic from a while ago provides a meta-metaphor about the whole thing.

Complaining that steampunk is insufficiently scientifically correct only matters if we’re to judge literary metaphor by how well the physics works.  When Stross confesses to being a fan of Girl Genius, it seems like he’s admitting to some sort of dark shameful secret in context: the sin of liking a work of art that talks about science, but really means what is essentially magic.

Sad News

Genreville notes with sadness the passing of Benoît Mandelbrot.  Both Rose and I were fortunate enough to have met him in person at the Ig Nobel Awards.  For those not in the know, Mandelbrot was best known for his work in the mathematics of fractal geometry.  He formulated the classic fractal formula for what became known as the “Mandelbrot Set“.

Mandelbrot’s influence on genre fiction is huge, ranging from Piers Anthony’s whimsical Fractal Mode to Connie Willis’ arguably hard SF novel Bellwether.

He will be missed.

Flying Cars, Hoverboards, and Food Pills of the Future

Rose’s upcoming project, The Wonderful Future that Never Was has me thinking about how often I see people remarking that “we live in the future”.  We have pocket computers that have more processing power than large desktops did 10 years ago.  Electronic editions of books might eventually become more popular than print editions.   Spaceflight is unremarkable and GPS units are commonplace.

For many of us, this is what living in the future looks like.  Authors like Robert Heinlein and Arthur Clarke took pokes at predicting the future in their fiction.  Although Clarke was arguably a better prognosticator, they both made a conscious effort.

Where are the authors today who’re predicting our future?  Charlie Stross looks like a strong contender.  His book, Halting State, talks about Massively Multi-player Online Role-playing Games  (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft, where there are actual virtual economies, and drawing a speculative line from EVE Online’s virtual banking scandal, Stross used a bank heist in an online bank as a plot device.  William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition and Spook Country are also near future novels, and both take plausible technology that does not currently exist in large scale, and use it as a plot device by expanding its scope.

But what, readers, do you think someone born today would be talking about when they say, like I sometimes do, “I am living in the future”?  Who are authors that should be followed for more predictions?

Stand Back, I’m Going to Use Science!

PW reviewer James Nicoll noted this bit of what can charitably be described as science-ish research. Rose shared it with Improbable Research (an organization devoted to collecting odd, funny and thought inspiring tales of scientific research) here.

The authors decided to graph the political leanings of science fiction fans against how “hard” or “soft” the science was in the fiction they like.  It eventually goes on to this one amazing, tragic sentence:

If we make one little assumption, we can say something about the political orientations of the authors themselves. Let’s assume, “People like authors that have the same opinions they do.” This sounds reasonable.

The authors are associated with Harvard in some way that’s not quite clear, and the article was published in Analog Yearbook, in  1977. One of the authors, William Sims Bainbridge, teaches sociology as a part-time professor at George Mason University.  The other  appears to be a “global managing director for organizational effectiveness and management development services at the Hay Group in Philadelphia” by the name of Murray M. Dalziel (it’s possible he’s now the Director of the University of Liverpool’s Management School ).

We all have probably come to silly conclusions in our lives, and it seems that Bainbridge and Dalziel managed to recover gracefully and move into impressive careers.  Let’s hope they’re not supporting that “one little assumption” anymore, though.