Posted tagged ‘society’

Synthetic Biology: Where Will the World End Up?

April 6, 2023

We hear a lot of fearful hysteria or adoring glorification of the new large language model (LLM) pseudo-intelligences like Chat GPT.  The LLMs may show to some the imminent arrival of the Singularity, or to others the advent of over-hyped artificial entities which humans can con themselves into worshiping.

But if we must be alarmist about coming technological changes, there is another stream of more extreme hazard.  After reading “Emerging Threats of Synthetic Biology and Biotechnology“, you may want to run down the street waving your arms and tearing off your clothes to sob at the sky.

Emerging Threats of Synthetic Biology

If you can manage to wade through the bureaucratic and academic language of this compilation of papers from the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme, published in 2019, you will realize that none of the authors, or indeed, any one else are able to realistically suggest how to prevent the widespread weaponization of biology.  And why would anybody want to weaponize biology?  For the same reasons we see all about us on the internet where individual hackers and state actors manipulate the digital world.  For power and money.  Biological ransomware, anyone?

I’m working on a science-fiction novel which incorporates genetic engineering and synthetic biology set far in the future, so I’m reading a lot of background information on the subject.

synthetic biologyDespite all the attention paid to AI, synthetic biology is a technological revolution going on in parallel with it and with nanotechnology that portends much greater danger to the human race and other living creatures than a few chatbots imitating intelligence on the web.

Some of the upcoming and ongoing hazards listed in an article on biosecurity threats in the above compilation include:

Dual use
Bioweapon
Ecological impact
Accidental release
Bioterrorism
Gain of function
Societal impact
Information access
Lower barriers
Uncertain consequences
DIY community

“Dual use” in this context needs some explanation.  It describes how an aspect of technology can do good, and also be capable of causing great harm.  For instance, synthetic biology can be used to engineer microbes that can produce biofuels from renewable resources. While this has the potential to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and mitigate climate change, the same technology can be used to create novel biological agents for biowarfare or bioterrorism.

Gain of Function

“Gain of function” can mean:

By introducing new genes or modifying existing ones, synthetic biologists can create organisms with new or improved properties, such as increased resistance to disease, enhanced metabolic activity, or improved growth rate.

We’ll come back to this one, and the flaws inherent in this conceptualization.

One can also imagine parents demanding inheritable genes changed in their children to enhance a desired trait, such as musicality, tallness, large muscles or swaggering belligerence, with no idea of potential long-term consequences for their children, subsequent progeny, and the world at large.

Do It Yourself (DIY) Biology Hacking

The so-called Do It Yourself (DIY) community threat brings home a lot of the others.

The recent emergence of CRISPR as a gene-editing tool has enabled precise and inexpensive methods of engineering individual organisms, biological systems, and entire genomes.

CRISPR and similar tools along with the ability to order biological and genetic components online has enabled a movement of “citizen scientists” interested in synthetic biology experiments to become an international phenomenon over the last few years.

Often with little prior knowledge of the field, enthusiasts meet in makeshift labs to take crash courses in biotechnology and conduct hands-on experiments. Simple protocols found online and specialized kits costing US$150–US$1,600 have driven the movement’s rapid expansion. DIY Bio labs can be found in most major cities. There are hundreds if not thousands of such groups worldwide.  Bio-hackers are a reality.

A complex issue on the horizon is the development of benchtop DNA synthesizers. These devices would allow operators to synthesize DNA in house, reducing the need to order from a provider likely to screen an order.

“Managing” Biosecurity

Another article in the above compilation examines the challenges to managing biosecurity.

It makes three points:

  1. Security threats from synthetic biology are fundamentally different from those posed by chemicals, explosive, or radioactive material. Actors can use genetic engineering and editing technologies to alter or create a variety of platforms, including viruses, microorganisms, multicellular organisms, prions, and even cell-free systems.
  2. Exposure and vulnerability to synthetic biology threats are difficult, if not impossible, to quantify at present. We cannot confidently predict which platform might be used to generate a biological threat or weapon. We cannot know what the target of a biological attack will be, whether it be humans, important crops, livestock, native species, the environment, or other assets.
  3. It is hard to predict the consequences of release because it is unknown how the weapon will be deployed against the target. The new ability to modify almost all eukaryotic cells means that any biological system could be a mechanism of disruption for such a weapon. (“Eukaryotic” cells are more complex and have a definite nucleus.)

Even such a vital and basic structure as soils are vulnerable to genetic manipulation of the organisms that dwell therein which creates the ecosystem that grows our food.

Threats Emerge at Convergence Points

One learns in this document that emerging threats are likely to arise at the convergence points of new developments. So where synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and AI and computer advances meet, we can expect new hazards, many unanticipated, to make themselves known.

Synthetic-bio-cell-2726687662For instance last year a drug-developing AI invented 40,000 potentially lethal molecules in six hours. Researchers put AI normally used to search for helpful drugs into a kind of “bad actor” mode to show how easily it could be abused at a biological arms control conference.

I wanted to return to some of the problems with “gain of function” manipulations mentioned above, which are usually lauded for their beneficial effects.  The main problem is one of arrogance, and the blinders provided by greed and ambition.

One example: Researchers hunted for unintended consequence of genetically modified potatoes with supposed improved sugar metabolism in the plant.  They produced more amino acids than they were supposed to. This “was not known to be related to the sugar breakdown pathway targeted by the genetic manipulation.”

Another: Genetically modified canola was also investigated which had been changed to increase beneficial carotene.  The scientists found that “unpredictable unintended effects, in contrast, fall outside present understanding… Where the beneficial carotene content in transgenic canola was raised, the composition of fatty acids was also altered.  There is no known connection between fatty acid synthesis and the carotenoid pathway.”

One of the problems with much “gain of function” research is that unexpected or non-target results are ignored or not reported.

Unintended Consequences

As one review of scientific studies states:

“That is, unintended effects arise because the organism is a tightly integrated whole; but because we have hardly begun to understand the complex web of interactions within this whole, the effects remain unpredictable.

“So while the genetic engineer wants control, stability, regularity, and constancy, life plays itself out in dynamism, unpredictability, and change.”

If anything, I have understated the risks that have already and will likely in future develop from the rise of synthetic biology.  They are not just here in developed nations, but across the rest of the world in the midst of all the political and environmental upheaval going on everywhere.  It is sobering.

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Additional notes:

I found, in addition to the more recent summary document that initiated this post, that two articles by Craig Holdredge in In Context #19 gave a welcome detailed overview of the nature of risks associated with synthetic biology.  They are:

“Understanding the Unintended Effects of Genetic Manipulation” and “Some Examples of Unintended Effects of Genetic Manipulation.”

The images above are from (top down): Syngulon.com and Meer.com.

Halls of Sun, Corridors of Rain

March 1, 2023

Over the years, as a would-be writer, I jotted words into notebooks which I stashed away for decades.

There are freewriting efforts, poetry, observations, quotations and many abortive attempts at stories and novels in there.  Many more than I remember.

Nearing 72, I feel the need to perform archaeology on the life hinted at in those notebooks. They run from the early 1970s until today.  It is difficult to gauge their interest, if any, to others, but I still hope that a stray insight or quote resonates with the occasional reader. 

I only seek to make more sense to myself.

*    *    *

Good title – Halls of Sun, Corridors of Rain. (1986)

*    *    *

To the adequate expression of our truest and deepest feelings.  These are the solid things. (1977)

*    *    *

This is ridiculous.  Here I am a grown man at 26, and with a few words of criticism, I’m about to cry. (1977)

*    *    *

Mad as a bag of cats. (2018)

*    *    *

See people’s characters relative to the deals they attempt to make with the essential emptiness of human life.  The terrifying emptiness.  The fecund emptiness. (1987)

*    *    *

Is this a real thing?  In bug-ridden country, tie dragonflies to shoulders to chase away the bugs.  Catching them must be a trick. (1987)

*    *    *

“Reason – by which I mean the ability to grasp the moral sense, not just the ‘facts’ of reality….” — Erazim Kohak  (1987)

*    *    *

The true sacred life doesn’t lend itself to institutionalization.  (1970s)

*    *    *

The task of culture is to provide the individual with the conviction that he is an object of primary value in a world of meaningful action. (1970s)

*    *    *

So much is expressed by the spirit with which people move their bodies as they walk.  (Early 1980s)

*    *    *

Confucius: “Look closely into a man’s aims, observe the means by which he pursues them, and discover what brings him contentment.  How can a man hide his character?”  Also useful for writing.  (Early 1980s)

*    *    *

Having a notebook and being a ‘writer’ gives you permission to be anywhere, watching anything.  (Late 1980s)

*    *    *

At a café, an older woman eating cake, sipping coffee with a kind of desperation.  Her lower face, when she looks at people talking is mute, stiff; only her eyes show feeling.  She’s slightly buck-toothed, and keeps her mouth closed as if to hide. (Late 1980s)

*    *    *

“Three things are to be considered: a man’s estimation of himself, the face he presents to the world, and the estimate of that man made by other men.  Combined they form an aspect of truth.” — Paul Scott (1980s)

*    *    *

“A reader should want to know the character infinitely.” — Arturo Vivante (1980s)

*    *    *

Colin Turnbull studied the Mbuti in Central Africa and found they don’t have a specific word for ‘god’. “The closest is the word ndura which can be translated as ‘forest’. … Ultimately, ndura does mean the forest, but more than that it means forestness. And this is the quality of life by which they measure everything that is good in their lives. All that is positive is related to ndura, this life-giving quality.” (1984)

*    *    *

“We no longer recognize spiritual pain, the distressed soul, although we suffer from that disease more than any other.” — Michael Shallis (1985)

*    *    *

When my brothers and I were kids, whenever we tasted something good, we wanted to make it into a sandwich.  “Hey, Ma, I want a peach sandwich….” (late 1970s)

*    *    *

Sun sinks low

Cloud shadows ride
      the mountains

Purple and yellow flowers                                        (1988)

 

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Note: To be continued, probably. 

A Personal List of the 20 Best Science-Fiction Novels

October 7, 2022

Often the internet seems like a collection of lists: the 100 best pop-songs, the 15 worst scams, and all the rest.  People seem to respond to numbered compilations.

In the science-fiction realm, I’ve read quite a few lists about some aspect of “best”, whether of this year, or by women authors, or the most technologically significant.

In the end, they are all personal lists – usually one person’s idea and often displaying whatever social correctness we are supposed to elevate.

This is my list, based on an admittedly incomplete sampling, although over quite a few decades.  Many of them were written in the 1950s through 1960s, which to me is the bedrock of modern science-fiction.  You can’t really understand where science-fiction is today without recognizing the immense talent that preceded the current flowering of the genre and its many brilliant authors.

If you were to read the novels mentioned here, I feel you could only come away with a deep appreciation for the wonder and otherness that science-fiction seeks to portray.

Such is the depth of the field that many variations of this list are possible.  This particular one though has stories that touched me on many different levels, and I think still could for anyone who reads them anew.

As I went through these titles, I was struck hard again by the sweep of imagination of the authors.  The daring.

A few of the entries below are trilogies or series, but in my mind those are one big novel.

I will go through them chronologically.

1. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

I was hard-pressed whether to select this dystopian novel, published in 1932, or George Orwell’s later take on the same theme, 1984.  I read them both in a log cabin in northern British Columbia in the 1960s as an impressionable boy.  They served to make me deeply suspicious of all forms of authority.

BNWIn the end, Huxley’s novel is the more menacing of the two.  While 1984 portrays overwhelming brutality against the individual by the state, in Brave New World people are effectively seduced to accept their utter servitude. As Huxley stated in a letter to Orwell:

“Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”

2. Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov

Set against a backdrop of galactic empire, the psychohistorian Hari Seldon founds a secretive branch of mathematical sociology.  It enables him to predict the future of large populations, and through it, he predicts the fall of the empire.  He foresees a new Dark Age lasting 30,000 years, but through his new discipline, he endeavours to slightly deflect for the better the onrushing series of events.  In later millenia he appears as a kind of hologram, although long dead, to help guide what happens, due to his calculations.

FoundationI still remember holding the hard-back volumes of this intriguing story by Isaac Asimov which began with the trilogy from 1951 onward, eventually extending to more volumes in the 1980s.  I read it several times during my teenage years.  Hari Seldon was an amazing character to me.  Foundation won the one-time Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series” in 1966.

Of course Isaac Asimov was one of the most famous of science-fiction writers, with work ranging from the I, Robot series to the novel The Caves of Steel.

3. Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke

The human race is about to enter a new phase.  At the end of this poignant story, published in 1953, we come to understand that children are undergoing a transformation.  They are metamorphosing into something that transcends human existence.  The facilitators of this change are a tragic alien race who peacefully invaded Earth.

CEThe aliens are only caretakers of the human race while it undergoes the transformation into something spiritually superior.  What has been the human race will be no more.

The English author, Arthur C. Clarke was a writer, futurist and inventor who also wrote the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey and many other novels such as Rendezvous with Rama.  He was a well-known proponent of space travel. 

I remember him also for short stories such as The Nine Billion Names of God, where Tibetan monks strive to encode all the possible names of God.  They believe the universe was created for this purpose.  They need modern technology to complete their task, and enlist the expertise of two Westerners.  As the monks complete their long mission, “overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.” 

4. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon

A novel about six misfits, each with a strange power, who come together after many tribulations to form a new kind of human being, homo gestalt, a whole of combined consciousness.

MoreThe story, published in 1953, was praised by some reviewers for “its crystal-clear prose, its intense human warmth and its depth of psychological probing.”

Others said the novel “transcends its own terms and becomes Sturgeon’s greatest statement of one of his obsessive themes, loneliness and how to cure it.”

Sturgeon also coined “Sturgeons Law”: “Ninety percent of science fiction is crud, but then, ninety percent of everything is crud.”

5. The Kraken Wakes, John Wyndham

Another novel from 1953, this apocalyptic story begins with a journalist and his wife observing the fall of mysterious objects into the ocean.

Kraken

The story has three sections: the first where the aliens arrive and do mysterious underwater things, the second when the aliens attack in “sea tanks” that send out sticky tentacles and drag people into the water, and the third where the aliens raise the sea level and change the climate, and civilization collapses. This all takes place over many years.

A professorial third character with considerable insight tries to warn everyone about what may happen, but is widely ignored due to his alienating manner.

Even by the end of the novel, nobody ever sees the aliens.

Reviewers praised the novel as “a solid and admirable story of small-scale human reactions to vast terror.”

John Wyndham, a British author, also wrote The Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids, among other notable works.

6. A Canticle for Liebowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Published in 1959 and winning the Hugo Award for best science-fiction novel in 1961, this story covers a post-apocalyptic period of thousands of years. The apocalypse was occasioned by nuclear holocaust.

In the 26th century, Brother Francis Gerard of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz of the Catholic Church is on a vigil in the Utah desert. Brother Francis discovers the entrance to an ancient fallout shelter containing “relics”, such as a 20th-century shopping list which becomes sanctified as a holy remnant of an ancient world. The Church persists as the preserver of civilization.

Canticle

The novel has been subject to considerable literary and critical analysis. In other words, it came to be treated with respect outside the science-fiction genre.

The novel is structured in three parts separated by six hundred years. This book was my first exposure to any model of cultural history. In Miller’s own words from another work: “All societies go through three phases…. First there is the struggle to integrate in a hostile environment. Then, after integration, comes an explosive expansion of the culture-conquest…. Then a withering of the mother culture, and the rebellious rise of young cultures.”

In the end, this cyclical process catches up, in a tragic way, to all that humanity hopes to accomplish.

7. The High Crusade, Poul Anderson

When an extraterrestrial scout ship lands in medieval England, it is encountered by a knight recruiting a force to help Edward III in the Hundred Years War against France. It seems the aliens have forgotten how to do hand-to-hand combat, and Sir Roger and his men capture the ship.

High

The whole set-up still makes me grin. Sir Roger and company think the ship is a French trick. The local villagers finish off the rest of the alien force, except for one, and join the soldiers in the ship. Sir Roger determines to go to France to win the war and then liberate the Holy Land.

With the grudging aid of the last alien, representing a tyrannical empire bent on invading Earth, they take off. The alien misleads the Englishmen and the ship actually heads off towards another of the alien empire’s worlds. Adventures ensue.

The prolific Poul Anderson was one of the great science fiction authors. His books were nominated for seven Hugo and three Nebula awards. The High Crusade was published in 1960. Anderson also wrote such novels as There Will Be Time (1972) and The Boat of A Million Years (1989).

8. Dark Universe, Daniel Galouye

Another post-nuclear-apocalypse novel, Dark Universe from 1961 finds survivors retreated underground, where they live in total darkness.

Dark UniSince the survivors have no visual ideas of Light and Darkness, the concepts become religious. They believe that the Light Almighty banished humankind from Paradise during a conflict with the demon, Radiation, and his two lieutenants, Cobalt and Strontium.

Jared is the son of the leader of the survivors who use click-stones and echoes to navigate the darkness. Jared goes on a quest for Darkness and Light and encounters another clan of survivors who use infrared to get around.

Galouye creates an ingenious world, which in the end is redeemed by the Light. Many have noted the resemblance of the story to Plato’s allegory of the cave.

The novel was nominated for a Hugo in 1962, but lost out to the next novel in this list.

9. Stranger in A Strange Land, Robert Heinlein

This is the story of Michael Valentine Smith, born on Mars and raised by Martians, who comes to Earth and encounters the United States after World War III, where religions are powerful.

He becomes a celebrity and his presence begins to transform human society. He exhibits psychic abilities and superhuman intelligence, while having a kind of open-minded innocence.

However, his appearance and actions on Earth shake the political and cultural balance and his life becomes in danger.

According to Wikipedia, Heinlein named his main character “Smith” because of a speech he made at a science fiction convention regarding the unpronounceable names assigned to extraterrestrials.

Stranger

He also was to write about the novel, “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines.”

It became the first science-fiction novel to enter The New York Times Book Review‘s best-seller list.

During the 1960s, the book became a countercultural favorite, not least for the word “grok” which took on the meaning of a coming together of subject and object that can’t always be articulated. When you grok something, you not only understand it, you become, in some sense, a part of it, and it, a part of you.

10. The Immortals, James Gunn

Published in 1962 and incorporating several previously published stories, this is the chronicle of a small group of immortals surviving on the edge of a dystopian society which is striving to hunt them down.

Immortals

They are living fountains-of-youth, due to a genetic mutation, whose blood can make others immortal too (if replenished every month).

As one reviewer on Goodreads notes: “…The Immortals opens with scenes that could almost come from a crime novel rather than a science fiction story. Private detectives are hired, people are on the run, evil rich men will do anything to get what they want, no one can be trusted.”

I remember it for its thriller-like excitement and the tense pacing of its writing.

James Gunn, who only recently died in 2020, was a well-known professor of English and promoter of science-fiction as a humanistic endeavour at the University of Kansas.

11. Cities In Flight series, James Blish

This four book series was published from 1950 to 1962, but the one that sticks with me most was A Life For the Stars from 1962.

The premise is that entire cities from Earth fly among the stars using an anti-gravity device called the Dillon-Wagoner Graviton Polarity Generator, or spindizzy for short.

Cities_in_Flight

The spindizzy allowed some cities to escape the oppression of a tyrannical regime on Earth and look for work among the other denizens of the galaxy.

The 1962 book describes the rise of 16-year-old Chris Deford who eventually becomes the city manager of New York City as it wanders through the cosmos.

These are stories for which the term “space opera” was invented.

The American writer James Blish also wrote a series of Star Trek novelizations and the Hugo Award winning A Case of Conscience in 1959.

12. Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak

As a lonely teenager, there was something about this story of a young man managing a way station for time travelers that resonated with me. The young man, Enoch, stays the same age while those in the normal world around him get older, and this gets difficult to explain after a while. Originally he is a Civil War veteran.

Way

Eventually after a hundred years or so, the US Government takes an interest and a CIA agent is sent to investigate him. This is the beginning of many adventures.

Published in 1963, the book went on to win the 1964 Hugo Award for best novel.

Clifford Simak had an unique, warm style of writing.

He once stated:

“Overall, I have written in a quiet manner; there is little violence in my work. My focus has been on people, not on events. More often than not I have struck a hopeful note… I have, on occasions, tried to speak out for decency and compassion, for understanding, not only in the human, but in the cosmic sense. I have tried at times to place humans in perspective against the vastness of universal time and space. I have been concerned where we, as a race, may be going, and what may be our purpose in the universal scheme….”

In 2019, Netflix announced plans, so far unfulfilled, to make a movie based on the book.

13. White Lotus, John Hersey

Here is a writer from the literary mainstream who created one of the best alternative history novels that I’ve come across. Some might call it speculative fiction, or other terms to make it more respectable, but it is still science-fiction to me.

In this 1965 novel, white Americans have become enslaved by the Chinese and are now a subservient race. The story follows a young Arizona girl renamed White Lotus.

White Lotus

In the memorable prologue of the story, White Lotus raises one knee and stands on the other foot to take the posture of a sleeping bird, in an effort to shame the Chinese governor as a non-violent protest against tyrannical treatment.

Her simple act of standing before her captors on one leg, head bowed like a sleeping bird becomes an often repeated act of nonviolent civil disobedience, an unconventional act in the spirit of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King.

John Hersey was born in China, the son of Protestant missionaries, and learned to speak Chinese before he learned English.

As a journalist, his account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, celebrated for its thoughtful and horrified humanity, was judged the finest piece of journalism of the 20th Century by a 36-person panel associated with New York University.

Hersey’s first novel, A Bell for Adano, about the Allied occupation of a Sicilian town during World War II, won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel in 1945.

14. Ubik, Phillip K. Dick

Phillip Dick was a strange and volatile man. He is now celebrated for the movie adaptations of such writings as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Blade Runner) and The Minority Report (Minority Report).

He had a hallucinogenic view of reality fed in part by actual hallucinogens.

But as Wikipedia points out:

Ubik

“His fiction explored varied philosophical and social questions such as the nature of reality, perception, human nature, and identity, and commonly featured characters struggling against elements such as alternate realities, illusory environments, monopolistic corporations, drug abuse, authoritarian governments, and altered states of consciousness.”

His 1969 novel Ubik illustrates much of this. In it psychic powers are used by corporations for business espionage, and cryonic technology preserves recently deceased people in hibernation.

It follows Joe Chip, a technician at a psychic agency who, after an assassination attempt, begins to experience strange alterations in reality that can be temporarily reversed by a mysterious store-bought substance called Ubik.

15. The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula Le Guin

In this 1971 novel, a man wakes up one morning and discovers that his dreams have the ability to alter reality. 

From this simple and imaginative premise, Le Guin devises a tale about a man who goes to a psychiatrist about his problem. The psychiatrist understands immediately the power his patient wields.

Lathe

At one point the protagonist dreams of aliens who become a reality.

The patient finally understands that he must preserve reality itself as the psychiatrist becomes adept at manipulating the man’s dreams for his own purposes.

Of course Le Guin is famous for many of her thoughtful, culturally significant novels, including The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness and the Earthsea trilogy. She also wrote much non-fiction, including essays about her craft, which I found quite inspiring (Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story).

16. The Sheep Look Up, John Brunner

This novel from 1972 is the third in what has been called British author Brunner’s near future “Club of Rome Quartet.” The Sheep Look Up concerned itself with consumerism and rampant pollution. Stand On Zanzibar was about overpopulation, The Jagged Orbit concerned itself with racial tension and violence, and the later The Shockwave Rider dealt with technology and future shock.

Sheep

As much as I admire these books and Brunner, they often now seem outdated, surpassed by actual events. But his prescience in many cases was spot-on. In Shockwave Rider from 1975, for instance, he created a computer hacker hero before anyone even heard of such a thing.

In The Sheep Look Up, water pollution is so severe that “don’t drink” notices are frequently issued. Household water filters are popular items. Air pollution has reached the point that people in urban areas can’t go outside without wearing masks. The fumes left behind by aircraft are such that it causes air sickness in planes trailing behind. California is blanketed by a thick layer of smog that prevents the sun from shining through. Acid rain forces people to cover themselves in plastic so that their clothes don’t get ruined. The sea has become so polluted and the beaches so strewn with garbage, that people now vacation in the mountains. (Not so far-fetched, no?)

It follows several characters over the course of a year as their paths intertwine while they struggle to cope with the drastic changes in the environment, and as the United States starts to collapse under the weight of pollution. It is a pessimistic novel redeemed for me by its somewhat experimental structure, and the density of its ideas and insights about our world’s problems.

17. Lord Valentine’s Castle, Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg is one of my favorite science-fiction authors for the excellence of his writing, the philosophical cast of his mind, and his tendency towards themes of transcendence.

He is more celebrated for earlier novels such as A Time of Changes, The World Inside, and Downward to the Earth, deservedly so, but for some reason this novel sticks with me more.

Lord Val

Lord Valentine’s Castle (1980), part of what is known as the Majipoor Series, incorporates aliens, galactic empire, descendants of colonists, lords, castles and wizards to become that odd genre creature, science fantasy.

The story takes place on the gigantic planet Majipoor. It is about ten times the size of Earth, with cities often housing as many as 10-20 billion citizens. We follow a young man named Valentine who suffers from amnesia and who joins a troupe of jugglers during celebrations for the ascension of a new Coronal, the emperor of this planet, also named Valentine (which is said to be a very common name).

Gradually, we learn that the juggling Valentine has been robbed of most of his memories, and has had his true body stolen from him. He is the rightful Coronal of Majipoor.

The planet of Majipoor becomes another character in the narrative. It is full of people, creatures, machines, alien races and interesting locations.

This straightforward, in many ways, adventure story exhibits Silverberg’s wonderful writing craftsmanship.

18. Plague Year Trilogy, Jeff Carlson

Microscopic machines designed to fight cancer instead go awry and begin to disassemble warm-blooded tissue to make more of themselves. Eventually the human body succumbs to the onslaught of the spore-like machines. They spread like a virus by way of bodily fluids and through the air.

Plague

Either on purpose or as a design flaw, the nanovirus is limited by altitude, namely 10,000 feet. All warm-blooded animals are killed below that elevation, while humanity retreats to high places.

With thriller-like pacing, the Plague Year trilogy (begun in 2007) portrays humanity in extremis with two key characters struggling to survive and turn the tide. Over the three volumes, with Plague War in 2008, and Plague Zone in 2009, we are taken on a remarkable adventure. Cam, a ski bum with full emergency medical training and an impressive talent for survival, and Ruth, a genius capable of manipulating and designing nanotech together fight to save the world.

In 2008, Plague War was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award.

Sadly, Jeff Carlson died in 2017 of cancer at only 48 years old.

19. The Passage Trilogy, Justin Cronin

Justin Cronin, another author from the literary mainstream, wrote The Passage, 2010, The Twelve, 2012, and The City of Mirrors, 2016, after his daughter asked him to write a book about a “girl who saves the world.”

Passage

These are books slightly hard to define in that they straddle the intersection of the science-fiction, horror and fantasy genres. Some blithely describe them as novels about vampires, which are a major element, but this categorization does an injustice to the depth of the writing, characterizations and story.

I was swept away by the quality of the writing. One reviewer said of the trilogy, “There is a sense as you read this series that you are witnessing the creation of a modern classic.”

Colonies of humans attempt to live in a world filled with superhuman creatures who are continually on the hunt for fresh blood. It all starts when an abandoned young girl named Amy becomes an unwitting test subject in an attempt to use an ancient Bolivian virus to create a perfect super soldier. The virus may be the source of the vampire myth. That young girl goes on after many harrowing adventures to eventually fulfill Cronin’s daughter’s wish.

The reviewer quoted above also writes: “The scope of the trilogy is staggering at times. We see characters grow from scared kids to brave heroes, going on to become parents, then grandparents, then legends.”

20. The Nexus Trilogy, Ramez Naam

This trilogy has been described as a “postcyberpunk thriller”. The three volumes, Nexus, Crux, and Apex were written by their American author (born in Egypt) from 2012-15.

Set in 2040, the hero Kaden Lane is a scientist who works on an experimental nano-drug, Nexus, which allows the brain to be programmed and networked, connecting human minds together. As he pursues his work, governments and corporations take an interest and begin to threaten.

Nexus

Near the beginning of the trilogy genetically enhanced supersoldiers become vegetarians and pacifists after being dosed with Nexus and realizing first-hand the suffering caused by their actions. At the same time, sociopaths dose with Nexus so they can feel the pain they inflict on others.

At the climax of the final book a distributed intelligence made up of thousands of Nexus-linked humans tries to save the world by healing a posthuman AI goddess who was tortured into madness by her near-sighted human captors.

I was enthralled by the books. The pacing and events are definitely that of a thriller, while the wild possibilities of computer-brain interfaces, and linked human consciousness, are explored in depth.

In Conclusion

This was a sentimental journey back to considering many of these novels, although their worth is much more, I would argue, than pure nostalgia.

I did realize one insight as a result of doing this. The force of thinking and feeling realized in Emerson’s and Thoreau’s transcendentalism, that quest for the true and transcendent in our lives, has gone largely dormant in our culture. But I believe that in not a few of the science-fiction novels noted here, that quest reappears to evocatively light up the minds of talented writers. It has been expressed through narratives which include aliens and galactic empires, and stories about dreams and reality and the nature of consciousness.

It is amusing to reflect on the possibility that the best of Emerson and Thoreau lives on through science-fiction.

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Beta Reader Exchange?

July 21, 2022

I’ve finished a second science-fiction novel. This one is set just ahead of us in the middle of this century, which is rather daring given the speed of change.

I like to put characters in science-fictionish environments and explore what might happen with them. This second novel is part of a trilogy I’m calling The Three Eras. The first was set way in the future, in the Third Era. This one is in the First Era, and the next is in the Second. The stories are all in the same universe but each stands alone with only historical connections.

You might think that it would make sense to write them in chronological order, but my mind has worked itself out differently. It may have something to do with ease of writing. The third novel, of the Second Era, promises to be the most difficult. I’m going to have to do a lot of research, which I’ve already started, on such matters as space elevators and genetic manipulation.

But for the just completed novel set in the relatively near future (third draft or so) let me give you the pitch for it:

“What if an intellectual, even spiritual genius, like a young combined Einstein and Simone Weil, appeared as a young girl? In the middle of the 21st century, in the midst of societal decay, climate disruption and technological change, a young investigator searches for a brilliant girl who has gone missing. This is a novel about a young man still suffering from the suicidal death of his sister who makes it his mission to rescue a genius girl who wants to save humanity. He must overcome an international crime cartel, local corruption, and social and environmental disruption, to find her and keep her safe.”

Voluntary first readers?

Before I get serious with sending it out to literary agents, I would like a beta-reader or two to give it the once over. For those unfamiliar with the term, a beta-reader is a voluntary first reader who gives the writer their reactions.

I propose that if anyone has their own novel work-in-progress who also needs a beta-reader then we could exchange first chapters or synopses to see if we still want to proceed. My throw-away email for this is: 5cfstkof5osg@opayq.com .

There are beta-reader groups and services available on-line. One I’ve found which I’ve signed up for is the Critters Writers Workshop. It is “home to several on-line critique groups (aka workshops) for professional and professionally aspiring writers, artists, and creators in any endeavor.” It is free (donations welcome) and one pays for being read by reading others and writing critiques. Originally it was set up as a science-fiction and fantasy workshop, but now there are groups for all types of writing.

It is a hangover from the old internet when coming together in creative ways was the prime mover rather than the exciting possibilities of monetization, branding and Meta. The interface is a little old-fashioned, run by a guy who hearkens back to the old days. It can be hard sometimes to find the exact information you’re looking for, but I like the atmosphere of it.

So we’ll see how this goes….

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Distraction – Science Fiction For Our Times

August 22, 2020

Distraction, by Bruce Sterling, 1998, Bantam Books
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Science fiction pioneer H.G. Wells is often given as an example of a writer who predicted the future. For example, almost 100 years ago he foretold wireless communication systems, and before that he wrote about devastating atomic weapons and the doomsday scenarios they might cause.

Given that the pace of technological and social change has accelerated so much from Wells’ time, Bruce Sterling’s feat of prognosis in his sci-fi novel Distraction, from 1998, is equally impressive in its way.

For me, it is not so much the specifics of the world in 2044 that Sterling imagines, it’s that he’s captured much of the weird atmosphere that we’re living through today.

Although published in 1998, Sterling must have been writing it for at least a couple of years before that. This is before Google, and Y2K; before Napster and massive downloading of music files; just after the first online purchase (of pizza) in 1994; and before social media platforms, and corporate and political interests, have turned the internet into a surveillance system mixed with genuine information and outlandish conspiracy theories.

In brief, the story’s protagonist, Oscar Valparaiso, is a political operative who has just got a senator elected, and is casting about for work for himself and his “krewe” (anyone who can afford them has such an entourage). Oscar has the advantage of not having to sleep very much, and the social disadvantage of having been birthed as a clone from a test tube, with a few genetic tweaks. He is quite philosophical about this.

Oscar comes across as a well-meaning guy who wants to see the world progress, while all around him the political and social system is coming apart at the seams.

Extortion by bake sale

An Air Force base nearby in Louisiana, mistakenly left out of the budget by the dysfunctional national government, has soldiers blockading roads with the pretense of a bake sale to extort money from the citizenry.

The renegade governor of Louisiana is running his own nomadic militia and using outlaw biotech to further his presidential ambitions.

Rabid internet disputes become street fights between ideological militias. Half the population is unemployed and the United States has a 20-year-old State-of-Emergency. Covert wiretapping is a national pastime. Whites are considered a violent, unpredictable, suspect minority. Squatters take over federal buildings as needed. Climate change has made genetically modified crops necessary for people to survive.

“There were sixteen major political parties now, divided into warring blocs…. There were privately owned cities with millions of ‘clients’…. There were price-fixing mafias, money laundries, outlaw stock markets. There were black, gray, and green superbarter nets. There were health maintenance organizations staffed by crazed organ-sharing cliques, where advanced medical techniques were in the grip of any quack able to download a surgery program.”

Plausible deniability

There is one particular situation that Sterling imagines that really knocked me out with its futuristic insight and potential for harm that to a certain extent has already happened in our world.

He imagines political bosses throwing out ridiculous, extreme conspiracy theories about an opponent which no sane person would believe. They’ve compiled large lists of dangerous lunatics, though, and feed them all the inflammatory rubbish.

“Finding the crazies with net analysis, that’s the easy part. Convincing them to take action, that part is a little harder. But if you’ve got ten or twelve thousand of them, you’ve got a lotta fish, and somebody’s bound to bite. …That [opponent] guy might very well come to harm….

“Somebody, somewhere, built some software years ago that automatically puts [the politican’s] enemies onto [such] hit lists.”

Talk about plausible deniability.

In the midst of all this, Oscar soldiers on as a new member of a national science committee, appointed there by his senator, who by the way has become bi-polar. Oscar is good at manipulating people, mostly for their own good, but is not averse to dirty tricks either if he deems them necessary. He sees the only possible path out of the nation’s quagmire as starting with a new mission for science, where the practice of science becomes the actual primary function, rather than striving for the blessing of committees and making desperate appeals for funding.

In the end, Oscar creates a coalition between one of the large, disenfranchised nomadic militia groups and a bunch of renegade scientists.

Writer Michael Burnam-Fink, who is a major fan of Distraction, summarizes the outcome well: “While the nomads provide muscle and logistics, the scientists provide a sense of idealism and purpose for the nomads, who don’t recognize their own political power. The alliance threatens everything about the status quo.”

I’ve only provided a glimpse of the many imaginative wonders of this work, not all of them depressing. There are many parallels with our times. And often the book made me laugh out loud.

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