Saturday, January 14, 2017

Science Fictional News & Announcements

The Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination has launched a new podcast series - Into the Impossible - with conversations bridging the arts, sciences, technology, medicine and more! Episode 1: Imagining the Impossible; Episode 2Becoming a Galactic Wonder, Episode 3: The Hard Problem with Kim Stanley Robinson and Marina Abramović.

NEWS: my submission - “Bargain” - won the recent One Page Screenplay Contest! The script was performed and posted online by the Los Angeles Feedback Film Festival, with the role of Ronald Reagan well-played by Peter Nelson. Nelson did a fine and fun job with the brief, comedic-ironic part.

So will I receive my accolades at a gala tuxedo event with red carpet? I have this fluffy, backless thing....

One story I did not expect to be "prophetic"... though it deals with prophecy... is "The Loom of Thessaly," about a spectacular, ancient site lurking in the middle of modern, heavily traveled Greece. Only now comes word of a "Lost City" discovered just a few hours north of Athens in the ancient region of ... Thessaly.  Give "The Loom of Thessaly" a read -- from my collection The River of Time! 

Oh, a reminder: Last week saw the debut of my latest book -- Chasing Shadows: Visions of Our Coming Transparent World: An anthology of stories and essays about a future filled with light, edited by David Brin and Stephen W. Potts, in collaboration with the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, with stories and essays by Ramez Naam, Bruce Sterling, Brenda Cooper, Robert Sawyer, Nancy Fulda, Scott Sigler, James Morrow, Neal Stephenson, Robert Silverberg, Aliette de Bodard…and more. 

Join me and Stephen Potts for a booksigning at Mysterious Galaxy Friday January 27 at 7:30

== More news! ==


I'll be the author guest at San Diego Comic Fest, along with Greg Bear and Gregory Benford February 17 to20.

Would-be science fiction authors! I’ll be participating as a lecturer at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference in June.

On Canada Day, July 1, 2016, my esteemed colleague Robert Sawyer was named a Member of the Order of Canada, the highest civilian honour bestowed by the Canadian government. See Rob's latest novel, Quantum Night.

Well it’s about time, c’est vrai! Some of you will want the French edition of Existence — with a cool (if obscurely totally apropos!) cover by Yohann Schepacz, published this autumn by Bragelonne, translated by Claude Mamier.
                       
For his 100th episode, Kevin Tumlinson's Wordslinger Podcast invited me to offer some Big Picture perspectives in an "amazing" interview.  The show's primary emphasis is on the writing process and the writing biz, but also sci fi films and books and how to watch history unfolding around us. A fun and very well done podcast!

== Science Fictional Worlds ==

This essay on the history of the concept of parallel worlds is excellent, within its own narrow framework.  It leaves out all non-European versions of the idea, and give short shrift to all but a few treatments in mainstream science fiction. A more comprehensive look might also range from clear-eyed explications like Niven's "All the Myriad Ways" all the way to Vladimir Nabakov's murky, indulgent novel Ada.  Still it is an entertaining article and thought provoking.

Only an Apocalypse Can Save Us Now: Here’s an erudite Harpers piece by Mark Lilla on the varied ways that so many have been transfixed by romantic notions of apocalypse. 

Lila laces this rumination on doomcasting with bookish refs to Heidigger, Cervantes, bible, Islam etc. For example, after discussing how pampered people often dive into nostalgia – like so many spoiled American baby boomers -- “La nostalgie de la boue is alien to history’s victims. Finding themselves on the other side of the chasm separating past and present, some recognize their loss and turn to the future, with hope or without it: the camp survivor who never mentions the number tattooed on his arm as he plays with his grandchildren on a Sunday afternoon. Others remain at the edge of the chasm and watch the lights recede on the other side, night after night, their minds ricocheting between anger and resignation: the aged White Russians sitting around a samovar in a chambre de bonne, the heavy curtains drawn, tearing up as they sing songs from the old country.

“Some, though, become idolaters of the chasm. They are obsessed with taking revenge on whatever Demiurge caused it to open up. Their nostalgia is revolutionary. Since the continuity of time has already been broken, they begin to dream of making a second break and escaping from the present. But in which direction?” …

Lilla makes a lot of strong points, many of them quite different than my own take on apocalyptic-messianic-millennialist thinking. Yet he points to some of the same historical ignoramuses and hypocrites. 

“Apocalyptic historiography never goes out of style. Today’s American conservatives have perfected a popular myth of how the nation emerged from World War II strong and virtuous, only to become a licentious society governed by a menacing secular state after the Nakba of the Sixties. They are divided over how to respond. Some want to return to an idealized traditional past; others dream of a libertarian future where frontier virtues will be reborn and internet speeds will be awesome.” 

In the end I was disappointed because he doesn’t even try to glance – even sideways – at the folks who build civilization and who fought and dug our way out of the last apocalypse, the human nadir of 1943, at the bottom of the Concave Century. No glimpse of the greatest accomplishment of our time – turning the attention of millions to building a golden age with our own hands, not lamenting a (mostly fictitious) lost one, in the past.

Least of all does he notice that his own passionate erudition is clearly aimed at helping to prevent  the kind of alienation and despair that can wreck a civilization, that we recently saw in the election. Nor is he apparently aware that he aims to achieve the wonder of science fiction – a self-preventing prophecy – and yet the author’s bestiary makes no mention of folks like him.

== and more ==

Hugo Gernsback, who edited Amazing stories and coined the (unfortunate) term “science fiction, and after whom the Hugo Award is named, also invented the forerunner of today’s VR glasses.  See a glimpse of them in this entertaining article.

Interesting SFnal concept in a “mainstream” novel, the New York Times bestseller, Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters. From the review on NPR: “A tale set in a modern America where the Civil War never happened and four states still enforce slavery follows the experiences of a talented black bounty hunter who infiltrates an abolitionist group to catch a high-profile runaway.”

"The future," as the author William Gibson once noted, "is already here. It's just unevenly distributed." Look, I respect Bill immensely as one of our finest and most thought provoking metaphorists.  But why do people keep quoting things that are just plain dumb?  It’s like Yoda’s horrid aphorism: “Do or do not, there is no try.”  Huh? Sure, one can squint and see a comment on wealth disparity, on the one hand and determination to succeed, on the other.  But seriously, you know that’s not what those sayings are supposed to mean.  What they are supposed to mean… isn’t even remotely or in any conceivable sense, true.

In his article, The novel Heinlein would have written about GW Bush's America, Cory Doctorow gives a rave review to John Varley’s delightful Red Lightning.

Author and Futurist Brenda Cooper received the 2016 Endeavour Award for her novel Edge of Dark, a science fiction novel about mankind coming face to face with its past mistakes, as a near-AI that was banished to the edge of known space finds its way home again. The book is the first volume in the author’s The Glittering Edge duology, published by Pyr Books.  Read her terrific story in Chasing Shadows!

Catch this music video on YouTube, a very clever takeoff on the style of Betty Boop cartoons of the 1930s, but this time on the shallowness of ubiquitous cellphone culture.  Pretty good music too, by Moby & the Void Pacific Choir.

== Zombies vs Vampires?==

In response to my posting: Vampires, Zombies Werewolves and American Politics, one member of my blogmunity wrote: "I find I have to dispute your assertion, so comfortingly full of truthiness, that "vampire flicks always correlate with Republican administrations. (During democratic administrations, it’s zombies, all the way down.)" This may be because we are using differing data sets, but let's investigate. For science!"

Methods used: searches of IMDB for keywords "vampire" and "zombie", combined with 1-year time restrictions, for years 1953-2016. Data are insufficiently sparse to continue analysis before 1953; besides which, the controls of both the studio system and wartime propaganda restrictions would likely introduce fatal confounders in any case. Test statistic used was (V-Z)/(V+Z), i.e, the relative excess of vampire films as a proportion of the total of vampire and zombie flicks. Comparisons were made to control of the federal Presidency, Senate, and House by major party.

Results: With the exception of two outlier years, 1953 and 1959, vampire films dominated the box office until 1980 regardless of party control of any branch of government. A dramatic shift to zombie films occurs with the election of Ronald Reagan and persists until 1990, when a slow creep back to a slightly vampiric balance occurs. With the election of George W. Bush in 2000, instability in the V/Z balance occurs, settling in 2007 (after Democratic House control is secured) on a distinct zombie preference, a period persisting until the present day.

Conclusions: The hypothesis that the country displays distinct "moods" regarding vampire/zombie preference is confirmed. Data are insufficient to verify statistical significance, but support is found for the idea that the V/Z preference is tied to political shifts. The hypothesis of a tight linkage between the V/Z preference and presidential or other partisan control patterns is rejected.

I stand admonished!  While my general impression’s truthiness stands confirmed overall, its statistical reliability correlating with party administrations kind of… er… sucks.

== And a New Year's wish ==

We should feel strengthened in our dedication to use the greatest gifts that either God or Evolution gave us, or that we seized for ourselves. Yes, love and compassion... but also curiosity and calm willingness to exult in the holy catechism of science: 

"Yes, I might be wrong! Or maybe you are. Perhaps both! Ain't it cool? Let's go find out."

Scientific songs of praise: Watch and enjoy. In dedication to our one chance to grow up. Together.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Economics in the time of Trump... plus Dylann "Eratratos" Roof


Toward the end of this posting, I will comment on how the Dylann Roof trial perfectly illustrates one of my ongoing themes called the "Erastratos Effect." But first...

== A jumble: economics, politics and the future ==

Evonomics chose my essay - The Ultimate Answer to Government is Useless - to cap off a tumultuous year, and to welcome one that might be much better. That is, if we choose to remember where all our good stuff came from. 

All our wealth, comforts, adventures, illuminations, fun and progress came from a civilization that (till recently) encouraged negotiation based on facts. One that benefited from educating millions. One that developed the fantastic tool known as science.

Following up on that, I do worry about how far the cult of science-hating in America will go. Twenty years ago, the Republicans took over Congress (then held it for all but 2 of the last 22 years). They immediately banished the legislature's own, in-house fact-advisory service, the Office of Technology Assessment, or OTA. Their justification for banishing expertise? That all of OTA's advice was "partisan and biased."  

Of course if that were true, they had only to appoint an influx of conservative scientists and other experts, to restore balance.  But no, top republicans knew that would not work. Because they could find almost no scientists - even conservative ones - who were willing to outright lie or deny blatant facts.

We will see similar things, soon. Plans are already afoot to de-fund Public Television and Radio. Even more comparable: the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which was hugely boosted under Barack Obama, will likely be slashed. But the real fit will hit a shan when this purge of "fact people" extends to the military and intelligence communities. The first shots have already been fired. We need to start pondering now, what if Donald Trump tries to emulate Turkey's Erdogan, and purge the Officer Corps of "unreliables..."?

How to respond? For starters, lay into any "left-leaning" individual who gives in to the ancient and hoary-stupid reflex of spite toward military or intel folks. (I am looking at fetishist-obsessives like you, Glenn Greenwald.) Suspicion of authority is one thing -- indeed powerful state institutions merit close scrutiny, as I push in The Transparent Society. Even pacifism is defensible as a philosophical stance, meriting a place at the table. 

But we who stand on the fact- and reality-based side of this civil war cannot afford to reject other fact-and-reality users, including short-haired civil servants and folks in uniform. We all need each other right now. Long hair or crewcut. If you believe in objective reality, then our Enlightenment Experiment needs you. We need you.

== What's next? ==


Next? Well, after 20 out of the last 22 years, when GOP Congresses were the laziest in the republic's history, 
I do expect a flurry of cosmetic activity. In a narrow range, they will be very active! For example: watch a wave of tax cuts for the rich. Despite the fact that Supply Side "economics" has never made a single successful prediction. Even one, ever.  Not one. Ever.

"At least starting with the federal personal income tax-rate cut of 1964, all personal income tax-rate cuts have been followed with cumulative net widenings in the federal budget deficits."
  -- conservative economist Paul Kasriel

In other words, Supply Side forecasts of deficit closings via tax cuts have never come true. At all. Witness also Kansas, Oklahoma and other states plummeting into bankruptcy by following this cult, whose sole positive outcomes have been (surprise?) to vastly augment the disparities of the uber influential-rich over the rest of us.  These people are unfit to shine the shoes of the Greatest Generation, who made America “great” under high, Rooseveltean tax rates.

From Evonomics: Finance Is Not the Economy: An economy that is based increasingly on rent extraction by the few and debt buildup by the many is a feudal model. 

So say Dirk Bezemer and Michael Hudson, who show how finance wizards persuaded our economy to inflate asset bubbles and enrich the Rentier Caste of new lords by piling up debt. CEOs spend their companies' cash on stock buy backs instead of investing in production or new products. In particular, Bezemer & Hundson focus on the parasitic ways that one sector of the economy -- finance -- has latched onto the arteries of every other industry, and consumers, enriching a very few while bleeding the economy, as a whole.

"Nearly all this asset-price inflation was debt-leveraged. Money and credit were not spent on tangible capital investment to produce goods and non-financial services, and did not raise wage levels."

Steve Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross, Mitt Romney and Donald Trump were all part of this "supply side" cult, criticized by Warren Buffett and all the west coast tech moguls who do invest in actual products and services. The foxes, truly, have been hired by the saps in the hen house. "Who better to look out for us, than guys who know how we're preyed upon?" demand the Trumpist masses, seemingly unaware that their 'logic' is not... logical. Nor is it self interest. 


== Science is the canary in our coal mine ==

The right's war against science and all other fact-professions has now zeroed in on the archetype of modern entrepreneurial enterprise, Elon Musk. So far, Donald Trump has appointed only finance-billionaire-rentier parasites... not a single successful businessman who made his fortune as a creator of actual, innovative goods and services. 

Only there's late news: Elon has agreed to serve on a Trump advisor board. Terrific! We'll see who gets useful show out of this... who gets used... and who shows agility for all our sakes.  Who knows? He can be persuasive...

In another Evonomics article, Entering the Age of Instability After Trump, Peter Turchin, author of Ultrasociety and Ages of Discord, asserts that cliodynamics (admittedly inspired by Asimov's psychohistory) predicted this era of social friction and wrath, which will peak in the 2020s. If this would-be Hari Seldon is right, then we must gird ourselves to get across the crisis.


And now... as promised...
== Erastratos Redux ==

As for Dylann Roof, as usual, the reporting gets it wrong: "It came as no surprise that a federal jury recommended the death penalty for Dylann Roof, the unapologetic, unrepentant young man who in June 2015 massacred nine African-Americans inside a historic church in Charleston, S.C. Not only did he deliberately target innocent parishioners in the midst of Bible study for the sole purpose of advancing the cause of white supremacy, but the trial was as one-sided as could be. Deliberations took less than three hours."

Journalists seem puzzled as to why Roof demanded to represent himself, why he offered no real defense, questioned few witnesses, refused a psychiatric defense and angrily rejected any notion of "insanity." Indeed, that insistence was the sole, central and passionate goal of a man who seemed bent on achieving for himself the death penalty.

Now this might be the tactic of a dedicated martyr, seeking to use his own death as a sacrifice for a cause.  But not in most of these cases.  Rather, this behavior is typical of what I have called the "Erastratos Syndrome" -- under which an individual who is generally inferior in intellect or positive accomplishment seeks to achieve fame and notice via some flashy-negative act of destruction. 

"I'm no poet or philosopher or warrior, but now you'll remember me!" shouted Erastratos, after he burned down the Temple of Diana at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Death is no large price to pay, when your only goal is to be noticed, at last, after a life of mediocrity. And thus it seems daunting to come up with any form of deterrence against this syndrome, which probably underlies fully half of all these mass-killers.

Except the ancient Greeks did find an answer.  It is a clear solution to this problem! One that I talk about here (and first published on Salon). One that would be cheap and simple and fair... and that would truly gall and repel all future Dylann Roofs, who will otherwise keep trying to tear the rest of us down, just to say "look at me!"

Monday, January 09, 2017

Perceptive and myopic views of our transparent future. Especially police cameras.

Let's veer from either science fiction or politics into our politically science-fictional new world of light. Starting with a reminder that my new anthology (with Stephen Potts) Chasing Shadows, is released this week by Tor Books, featuring contributions by William Gibson, James Gunn, Neal Stephenson, Vernor Vinge and many others, offering stories and insights into a future when light flows almost everywhere. Prepare yourself!  This might be a good start.

Steve and I will be signing copies, along with Scott Sigler, at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in San Diego, on January 27!

== Floundering gradually toward wisdom ==

In a vivid article - Should We See Everything a Cop Sees? - McKenzie Funk of The New York Times describes the wide cast of characters in Seattle who are grappling with a pressing modern problem, how to comply with a court order to make police camera footage available to the public.

It's a can of worms, because the police department is also legally required to redact or blur personal details such as faces or identifiable voices, for the sake of privacy. While Funk's article makes for entertaining reading, the story is murky about the context for it all. That context is a proliferation of cameras, getting smaller, faster, cheaper, better, more numerous and mobile at rates much faster than Moore’s Law.  

Short-horizon myopia is common to every person I've seen weigh in - even very bright folks - on this topic.  Sure, a few of us predicted all this back in the 20th Century - e.g. in EARTH (1989) and The Transparent Society (1997) - yet the very notion of lifting one's gaze beyond this month, following trend lines instead for three or five, or ten years ahead, seems impossible even for intelligent and critical observers like McKenzie Funk.


Regarding just the zoomed-in dilemmas of 2016, Funk's article does a good job of showing us the trees (the dilemmas faced by police, prosecutors, attorneys and citizens in adapting to these court decisions), without even noticing the forest. The context of why this is all happening and how this amounts to - for all the tsuris and aggravation - a huge victory for our kind of civilization.


I have called it the most important civil liberties victory of this century so far -- perhaps in thirty years -- even though it was hardly covered by the press. In 2013 both the U.S. courts and the Obama Administration declared it to be "settled law" that a citizen has the right to record his or her interactions with police in public places.

No single matter could have been more important because it established the most basic right of "sousveillance" or looking-back at power, that The Transparent Society is all about. It is also fundamental to freedom, for in altercations with authority, what other recourse can a citizen turn to, than the Truth?


But the forest is rapidly changing! Next year, the same scene that was today only visible on a cop-cam’s footage will have been covered also by the suspect’s auto-record phone app, or a passerby’s dash cam. Or a store’s security system, or chains of cheap button cams pasted on lamp posts or bridge overpasses by activist groups, or even hobbyists. Follow the price curve a bit farther and you have the sticker cameras that I describe in EXISTENCE, stuck to any surface by 9-year olds who peel them from great, big rolls, each with its own code in IPV6 cyberspace and powered by trickles of sunlight.


In that context, not a single issue wrangled-over in the NY Times hand-wringing article will seem anything but archaic - even troglodytic - just half a decade from now. If there was ever an era in desperate need of the Big Perspectives offered by science fiction….

== The pattern continues ==

After which I listened to NPR's To The Point broadcast about the regulation of police body and dash cams. And despite generally liking Warren Olney - he always asks good questions - I must say I was disappointed in how this topic makes everyone myopic. The only interviewee who applied two neurons to a bigger view was the former Redlands police chief, who gave thoughtful, logical answers... though like the others, only focused on the here and now. (All right, the ACLU guy got a little better, across the interview.)

Not one of them contemplated how technology made all of it possible - this entire topic would have been (and was!) science fiction five years ago - and every interviewee on Olney's show ignored how tech will be utterly different five years from now. None contemplated the proliferation of ever smaller, faster, cheaper cameras.


How could they have gone an hour without mentioning the one fundamental... that other people than police have cameras? More and better ones, every day. This will -- and already has -- empowered citizens on the street.

Listen to the broadcast, then tell me how many hand-wringing statements will be even remotely relevant, as a skyrocketing percentage of police-citizen encounters will be recorded from more than just the police perspective, with both the suspect and onlookers loading their files into the cloud.


How, oh how, can we have such bright folks, who mean well and who want to solve problems, yet absolutely refuse to lift their gaze beyond the near-sighted today? Don't answer. We all know the greatest recent example: the entire political caste of the Democratic Party. 


A much smarter article that actually tries to peer ahead is this one in the Atlantic - Even the bugs will be bugged - by Matthew Hutson.


See a more in-depth analysis of central surveillance, predictive policing and tools for accountability from the new Scout site: Should the Future of Policing Look Like This? by Berit Anderson and Brett Horvath.


Futurist Glen Hiemstra discusses The Future of Policing -- looking at some of the problems and possible solutions for policing in the fast-changing world of today and tomorrow.


== Another try ==


More hand-wringing. Even when a writer tries to look beyond the immediate horizon, the usual result is short-sightedness.  As in this case: “Should Police Bodycams Come With Facial Recognition Software?”  Jake Laperruque, on Slate, warns that such technologies loom just ahead and will be used… unless serious efforts go into privacy protection.


Three plus points to Mr. 
Laperruque for at least trying.  And five more for an article that brings us up to date on current efforts to either introduce or construct facial recognition use by authorities… 

... then minus thirty points for failure to peer just a little farther, asking: “What on Earth do you think could possibly prevent this, over the long run?”

Take into account a crucial factor, technological drive. Reiterating a point made above: as cameras get smaller, faster, cheaper, better and more mobile at a rate much faster than Moore’s Law (sometimes called Brin’s Corollary ;-) cop cams will get too small to see and the facial recognition databases will proliferate far beyond your ability to limit them with well-meaning, ACLU promoted regs.

This needn’t be a disaster, if common citizens share in the new powers of vision, able to scrutinize and criticize when no cop action can remain unobserved. If we can not only recognize any harm doer, but also catch and chastise eavesdroppers and gossipy peeping toms, who stare too closely, then a surprising side-benefit will be more, rather than less privacy. 


The increase in light flooding the planet could be prodigious, searing the harmful and helping drive trends toward our crucial victory condition. In other words, technological trends seem to work in our favor.

But first, our well-meaning paladins of freedom must get better glasses, and start looking beyond next year.


Saturday, January 07, 2017

Shadows (and light) from science fiction: drowned worlds and brightnesses


Before discussing dark dystopias, here’s something more uplifting... 

The perfect, thought-provoking pre-order! Chasing Shadows is an anthology edited by David Brin and Stephen Potts -- in partnership with the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination -- with stories and essays by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Cat Rambo, Vernor Vinge, Ramez Naam, Scott Sigler, Neal Stephenson, Aliette de Bodard, John Perry Barlow, Robert J. Sawyer and other science fiction luminaries—available January 10th from Tor Books (pre-order now).

Already posted at Tor’s site is the book’s Introduction, by James Gunn, and one of the novellas — “Feast War” by Vylar Kaftan — which portrays how a near future band of online foodies and wargame players do their own sleuthing to solve a deadly biowar attack that has all the authorities flummoxed! Drop by and have a look at one of the best themed anthologies, every tale offering a unique glimpse at what life just might be like in a future that’s filled - for worse or much better - with light.

== Dark Visions that match our mood ==

Veering to dystopias, I will start with a brief mention of a book that will get its own posting and analysis, soon. Several times I have spoken of the predictive power of Robert A. Heinlein. Among other things, he knew that underneath the American surface of tolerant, progressive pragmatism there simmers a spectacularly anti-future, anti-science troglodyte. 

A Nehemiah Scudder, who might leap upon a populist wave, much like 1930s Europe, only with a fundamentalist-zealous tinge, and proceed to shut down our Great Experiment on any contrived excuse. Heinlein had scheduled him for 2012, but there's still time. (Read more about Heinlein's vivid prophetic novel Revolt in 2100, now available on Kindle.)

Also look at Heinlein's short story “The Year of the Jackpot", in which several dozen insanities result when all sorts of statistical ‘cycles’ combine, at the same time.  

Is it possible then, that we are in a fluke? Heinlein’s Crazy Years? Certainly all the smart folks whose professions deal in actual facts and bringing about positive change did not want or see this coming… So might we just ride it out? Well, to do that… Survive. I urge you to. And keep hope. We'll get back to Revolt in 2100 in a later posting.

But more and more, it seems we are living in a sci fi story. In darker moments, watching neo-Nazi ravings, I am reminded of Ray Bradbury’s great story “The Sound of Thunder.” A tale of time travel and the Butterfly Effect. How one change could profoundly alter the course of history. Terrifying… and clearly prophetic. 

Watch a short -- and moving -- film version here from the Ray Bradbury Theater.

An interesting and fun article discusses how various robot and AI apocalypse scenarios play out in the movies....often following the three themes: direct attacks, social manipulation and runaway intelligence.

An excerpt: “At the Georgia Institute of Technology, a team of researchers have been attempting to teach human values to robots using Quixote, a teaching method relying on children’s fairy tales. Each crowd-sourced, interactive story is broken down into a flow-chart, with punishments and rewards assigned to various paths the robot can choose. The process particularly targets what the researchers call “psychotic-appearing behavior.”

"The question is this: how do you test to make sure the robot is effectively learning values? One possibility involves using a real-world testing methodology that puts the AI in increasingly complex environments and situations that challenge its training.”

See an excellent podcast exploring: Asimov and the Robot Uprising.

== Other Dire Futures ==

A quick look at books old and new...

Swastika Night, by the English author Katharine Burdekin, was first published in 1937 under the male pseudonym Murray Constantine. This dark dystopia, which predates Orwell’s 1984, portrays a nightmarishly feudal Europe, in which Hitler's fascism and male dominance have reigned supreme for seven centuries. All remnants of pre-war history, books, and art have been destroyed; Hitler has been elevated to a god. Boys are removed from their mother’s care at 18 months, indoctrinated in a male culture of violence and brutality. Women are regarded as sub-human, caged, subjugated and kept docile and ignorant; rape is acceptable and allowed. When Alfred, an English subject is presented with a secret history, he begins to question Nazi ideology and power, trying to spread ideas among those who have lost the ability to think for themselves.

A shadowy region: Annihilation and its sequels Authority and Acceptance form the Southern Reach Trilogy, by Jeff Vandemeer. These surreal thrillers offer spine tingling suspense and dark layers of intrigue. The mysterious wilderness of Area X has been sealed off, abandoned for thirty years for unknown reasons. Eleven expeditions across the border have failed. Now four women are sent across the border. Known only by their professions (Biologist, Psychologist, Surveyor, Anthropologist), their mission rapidly begins to fall apart …Everything seems wrong -- as they find themselves transformed, their memories altered, unsure what is real and who to trust. Whatever has encroached upon Area X…it must be stopped… before the world becomes Area X. A chilling, haunting tale that will pull you in… and won’t let go.

Note: I am reminded of the series of eco-collapse novels penned by the great J.G. Ballard, whose The Crystal World, The Downed World and The Burning World all featured mysterious zones of danger and weirdness encroaching upon our normal reality.

Speaking of drowned worlds, do have a look at Kim Stanley Robinson's new epic peek at a daunting future, in New York 2140. After the ice caps have melted, Gotham is an enclave of Venice-like canals in a world devastated by deserts and floods and extinctions.  Yet (as the cover depicts) humanity cleverly finds new ways.  KSR's trademark mix of cautionary chiding and optimistic belief in scientific ingenuity is on display, in full force. You know in advance that you'll have to buckle down, in earnest study-mode, for some data-rich passages. Nevertheless, Robinson is a diverting and fascinating professor. And you have not gone to him for light, escapist sci fi. This is exploratory, grownup science fiction, of the first water.

See another drowned world novel, below. Also note: I portrayed Houston and other cities flooded and using gondolas, back in my 1989 eco-and-more novel, EARTH. Just sayin....

Afterparty, by Daryl Gregory offers an all-too plausible future where desktop printers can customize and manufacture designer drugs. Lyda Rose was part of the scientific team that set out to cure schizophrenia, manipulating the brain’s biochemistry with a newly developed pharmaceutical called Numinous. However, the drug had unintended consequences, causing people to see god -- or at least hallucinations of their own personal version of god. When Lyda is released from a mental institution (along with an angel doctor that only she can see), she tracks down drug pushers who have released the drug onto the streets.

From Tor: a wide-ranging list of science fiction and fantasy novels that explore issues of religion and god – including Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, Roger Zelazny’s excellent Lord of Light, Walter M. Miller's classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man, James Blish's insightful A Case of Conscience, and Arthur C. Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names of God

This issue is explored in great detail in Paul Levinson's anthology of stories and essays -- Touching the Face of the Cosmos: On the Intersection of Space Travel and Religion - in which I have an article. As we move out into the cosmos, how will our sense of identity, humanity and spirituality evolve?

Okay, back to another drowned Manhattan! And more religion drugs! The Burning Light by Bradley P. Beaulieu and Rob Ziegler is a post-apocalyptic tale set amid the canals flooding the hollowed ruins of New York City, overrun by scavengers, pirates and slavers. The ruthless Colonel Melody Chu has a singular obsession, stopping an epidemic of the “Light.” Chu relentlessly drives her squad of exiled soldiers to track down junkies addicted to the ecstasy of the Light – as well as the “vectors” – often children, who give people access to it. The Light can make you feel like you’re touching infinity… but it also kills. Chu knew: “She had personally stared into the Burning Light – and the Light had stared back. She knew it was coming.” And yet, controlled, the Light may usher the next stage of humanity… This short novel presents a vividly textured, if dark future. 

Have we seen some common themes, yet?

And... a few recent novels in French: Les 5 romans SF du moment à ne pas manquer.

Jakub Rozalski
Finally, a reflection on shadows and light.... Scroll through these idyllic landscapes (by Polish artist Jakub Rozalski) of East European peasants and soldiers of the early 20th century -- haunted by nightmares of steampunk-ish robots and machines... See more of Rozalski's fantastic artwork on his website. I was just informed that there is a boardgame - Scythe - using Rozalski's artwork.

Oh, don't forget to pre-order Chasing Shadows! You will see the light.