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One Trek Mind: 10 Most Awesome Things About The Mirror Universe

One Trek Mind: 10 Most Awesome Things About The Mirror Universe | Science Fiction Future |

10 – The Tantalus Field

Part of what makes the Mirror Universe such fertile imaginative soil is that it is a limited concept. It's everything you know, just reversed. Except for a few things – like technology.

 One gizmo they have on “the other side” is a powerful weapon called the Tantalus Field Device. Basically, it's like a closed circuit television that takes anyone you want to make disappear and zaps them into oblivion. (Okay, the science behind this one was always a little vague.) The Tantalus Field is a plot device taken straight from eight-year-olds playing in the back yard, but its influence on the alternate history of the Mirror Universe was lasting.

9 – Empress Hoshi Sato

Much like Reg Barclay, Hoshi Sato is a character upon which to project our fears. A natural at languages and dialects, but not so much for spacefaring adventure. It stands to reason her opposite counterpart would be an absolute killer.


In the Mirror Universe, where being cutthroat is the only key to success, Hoshi eventually manipulates her way into the early Terran Empire's version of the Iron Throne. At first, she seemed merely to be the “Captain's Woman,” but after a few crosses and double-crosses (and poisoning Mirror Jonathan Archer) she comes out on top and in command. And wearing a half-shirt.

8 – Brunt

The ins and outs of the Mirror Universe factions can be a little complicated, especially when the characters in them aren't 100% good or bad. Case in point, Liquidator Brunt of the FCA (in our world) is a mercenary over there – and one who driven by his love for Ezri Tigan (more on her in a bit.) He's working for the Klingon-Cardassian Alliance, even though he sympathizes with the Terran Rebellion created by (Mirror) Sisko.

Brunt's death at the hands of Intendent Kira Nerys (again, more on her in a bit) was proof that the Mirror Universe meant business – and that viewers could never feel too sure about how things were going to end up.

7 – Smiley

Even in the Mirror Universe, Chief O'Brien is basically a good guy. His kidnapping of (our) Captain Sisko in “Through the Looking Glass” may not be the optimal method, but his goal of freeing the enslaved Terrans at the hands of the Klingon-Cardassian Alliance is a noble one.

A little grouchier on that side (hence the nickname Smiley), we only wish that he could have worn the eye patch from “Our Man Bashir” while he was engaging in acts of piracy. Oh well.

6 – That Insignia!

The Terran Empire is nothing without its incredibly badass (albeit frightening and anti-humanist) insignia. A dagger through the Earth? Um, wait, how does this ingratiate you to your people again? I mean, yes, some actual flags of today include a sword, but not piercing the planet upon which we all live.

Nevertheless, the Mirror Universe doesn't just have some terrific graphic design, it also makes sure that its female crew-members, even bridge officers, show an unlikely amount of skin. We've got mixed feelings about the politics behind this, but from an aesthetic point of view, it is hard to find much fault.

5 – Mirror Odo's Death

Nothing about a dying Odo in any Universe makes me happy. However, if you gotta go, you wanna go big. To that end, let's salute the episode “Crossover,” which, as mentioned earlier, proved that the Mirror Universe was no joke, ready to kill characters that were contractually obligated to live in our world. With the rules loosened a bit, however, we now know what happens to a Founder when he ends up on the wrong side of a phaser blast. It ain't pretty.

4 – The Agony Booth/Handheld Agonizers

“Fear will keep the local systems in line” is the key phrase of the Grand Moff Tarkin's leadership doctrine, if I may quote from another Star franchise. The Terran Empire is well aware of this method of motivation. Each crewman of the ISS Enterprise wears a little red doohickey called an “agonizer,” and if they screw up their superior officers are compelled to take it and use it deliver punishment.

When they REALLY get too big for their britches (as Mirror Chekov does), no mere handheld device is going to do the trick. A session in the awesomely named “agony booth” is reserved for serious offenders.

3 – Intendant Kira Nerys (and her silver pants).

Major Kira Nerys is a warm, wonderful woman filled with life and joy and good cheer to her friends. She has a dark past, that of a freedom fighter/terrorist, but she struggles through that with hard work, her Bajoran faith and her personal relationships. As such, it is only natural that her Mirror Universe counterpart should be ruthless, manipulative and cold. But. . . seductively so.

In one of the more striking recurring characters in all of Trek, Intendant Kira Nerys oversaw the operation of Terok Nor for the Klingon-Cardassian Alliance, and was a violent and sexually voracious woman. In addition to having an eye for (Mirror) Sisko and Ezri Tegan, she found a true object of her lust in herself, naturally, when our Kira crossed over.

Considering that she wore the pants on the station, it is only (form) fitting that she get a very telegenic pair to wear.

2 – Mirror Spock (and his beard.)

Before “Mirror, Mirror” ever has a chance to explain itself, its visuals let us know the score. Spock has a beard, and we know he is evil. While the facially hirsute version of a character signifying evil has now become a cliché (to the point that Spock's Beard is the name of a prog supergroup), we shouldn't lose the character for the goatee – Mirror Spock, with or without the beard, is fascinating.

And. . .optimistic. Since he is a creature of logic, he eventually realizes that an Empire cannot rule by fear and violence indefinitely. He realizes that peace, harmony, exploration, IDIC and all the other Roddenberry ideals are, eventually, the only way to go. The fact that logic and goodness is a universal constant in any timestream is something that should inspire us.

Of course, Spock's eventual use of the Tantalus Device in rising through the Terran Empire's ranks leads to some unforeseen problems, but that's why they make television shows.

1 – The Fact That It Is Real

I'll need a theoretical physicist to check my work on this one, but here goes. The fifth dimension, which folks like Stephen Hawking believe to be real, posits what “Mirror, Mirror” and, eventually, episodes like TNG's “Parallels” show – that there exists an infinite amount of universes out there in which all permutations of all possible outcomes are true.

This means (now bear with me) that somewhere out there (down the timeline a bit, but we know space and time to be one and the same) there exists a world where all the things Gene Roddenberry and his writers (and the writers that followed) predicted actually happened. Or will happen. It's true! (I think.) Therefore, it makes perfect sense to me that there is a REAL Intendant Kira out there in shiny silver pants having illicit sex on a space station somewhere.

(Also, see recent IDW Star Trek Ongong Comics #18 and #19 to see Scotty and Bones have a ridiculous conversation along these very lines. The Scotty and Bones from the recent J.J. Abrams movie, of course, because, like I said, there are an infinite amount of timelines out there.)

Okay, bearded ones, did I do justice to the might and ferocity of the Terran Empire? Or would you rather I disappear myself in a Tantalus Field Device. Let me know your picks for best of the Mirror Universe below.


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The Best Young Novelists – From SF's Universe

The Best Young Novelists – From SF's Universe | Science Fiction Future |

The relationship between the literary and speculative fiction genres is like the episode of original Star Trek where Captain Kirk is teleported in to an evil, parallel dimension. Both genres have their own star authors, publishers, and of course literary accolades. (Which genre requires that you assassinate your rivals to advance is for you to decide.) Granta's lists of 20 novelists under 40 – American, Spanish-language, Brazilian and most famously the British contingent – being renewed for 2013 this week – have become an institution in literary fiction. SF has no direct equivalent, but if it did, who might be on it?


Two things connect the 20 writers on this list. The first is a fascination with the weird and fantastic. The second is their love and affection for the pulp roots of SF. One or two may be just a smidgeon over 40, but will no doubt be among the writers shaping speculative fiction for decades to come. And I have looked beyond Britain where I can to find the most interesting voices in what is increasingly an international SF genre.


Lauren Beukes is a South African author of "cyberpunk" science fiction whose novel Zoo City brought her very widespread acclaim, and a major publishing deal for upcoming novel The Shining Girls. James Smythe's The Explorer and The Machine are the kind of breathtaking conceptual SF long absent from the genre. Hannu Rajeniemi's soaring space opera The Quantum Thief andMadeleine Ashby's vN series both reawaken the slumbering body of "Hard SF" rooted in real science. French writer Aliette De Boddard fuses many ideas from SF and fantasy in both her novels and short fiction. And with indie publishing phenomenon Wool reaching more than a quarter of a million sales,Hugh Howey has become overnight one of SFs bestsellers.


Joe Abercrombie is the self-proclaimed Lord of "grimdark" epic fantasy, whose writing displays a wit and style beyond the battle sequences and torture scenes that dominate the gritty world of grimdark. NK Jemsin brings an immense storytelling talent to the tradition of epic fantasy, with a series of beautiful stories that have garnered Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy award nominations. The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed is notable for its middle-eastern fantasy setting, but the work's real strengths are its deep sense of irony and dark humour. And of course British author China Miévillehas re-worked the fantasy genre into many and varied weird forms from Perdido Street Station to Embassytown, though he is technically ineligible, as he turned 40 last year.


Joe Hill is arguably the most significant horror author of the last decade, with 20th Century Ghosts, Heart Shaped Box and the upcoming NOS4A2 setting the bar for the entire genre. Chuck Wendig's Blackbirds series fulfils the promise of an author who is a firm favourite among fans for his characterful online presence. Seanan McGuire scooped five Hugo nominations this year alone and as Mira Grant writes one of the most acclaimed and accomplished entries among a spate of recent zombie apocalypse novels. Robert Jackson Bennet's debut novel Mr Shivers drew acclaim by crafting an alternative fantasy from the milieu of the Great Depression. And any survey of the contemporary horror genre would not be complete without the bizarro masterpieces of Carlton Mellick III. If Mellick had written only Warrior Wolf Women of the Wasteland he would be on this list, but with dozens of other equally grotesque creations tearing up the world his name is set for sci-fi immortality.


Catherynne Valente's novels and stories range widely across the fantastic, but it is her dark urban fantasies such as Palimpsest that best showcase her baroque prose style. Tom Pollock's debut The City's Son marked the appearance of a powerful new imagination in SF, and hopes are high for the upcoming sequel. As they are for the debut novel of Elizabeth May, with The Falconer among the most anticipated fantasy novels of 2013. The young adult stories of Francis Hardinge follow in the footsteps of the great Diana Wynne Jones by being equally enchanting for children and adults. And Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor scooped its author a prestigious World Fantasy award in 2011, which we can only hope is the first of many.


Who have I missed from my top 20? It's almost a cliche to call the literary world elitist, but it's hard to escape the idea with lists like Granta's defining the best of the best. In contrast the SF genre is open and communal, driven by the passions of fans and the creativity of authors. The top writers in the field choose themselves by writing great books and engaging with the community. The door is open to any writer who wants to make their mark in the SF genre. All we ask is that you tell great stories.

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War of the Worlds: Who Owns the Political Soul of Science Fiction?

War of the Worlds: Who Owns the Political Soul of Science Fiction? | Science Fiction Future |

I make no apologies for writing science fiction. I love the genre with a deep and geeky love. Becoming professor of 19th-century literature at the University of London has done nothing to diminish my capacity for that mode of enthusiasm that fans call "squee".


Being a literature professor means, in effect, the government pays me to read books; and, taking my job seriously, I read a lot, in and out of genre. I think the novel is most alive today as a literature of the fantastic: at their worst, SF, fantasy and magic realist novels can be very bad; while at their best, they're by far the most exciting kinds of writing being published.

But here's the thing: my genre divides politically in a manner unlike others. Writers of historical or crime fiction might be rightwing or leftwing, but few would attempt to define those genres as intrinsically left- or right-leaning. SF is different: the genre defines itself according to two diametrically opposed ideological stances.


Let's take the lefty stance first, since it happens to be my own. Any SF text must include something that isn't in the "real" world: starship, robot, a new way of organising society, whatever. This might be material, social or even metaphysical, but it will encode difference. Alterity is fundamental to SF: it is a poetics of otherness and diversity. Now, it so happens that the encounter with "otherness"– racially, ethnically, in terms of gender, sexual orientation, disability and trans identity – has been the main driver of social debate for the last half‑century or more. The tidal shift towards global diversity is the big event of our times, and this is what makes SF the most relevant literature today. To say that SF has more imaginative and discursive wiggle-room than "realist" art is, while true, also to say that SF has the potential to be a more heterogeneous and inclusive conceptual space. This is something that's understood by the genre's greatest writers: Ursula K Le Guin, Octavia Butler, James Tiptree Jr, Margaret Atwood, Karen Joy Fowler, Pat Cadigan, Justina Robson.


On the other hand, many fans define SF as the literature of scientific extrapolation. There are those who think of "science" as ideologically neutral, simply the most authoritative picture of the universe available to humanity. The problem is that "authoritative" has a nasty habit of eliding with "authoritarian" when transferred into human social relations. Rightwing political affiliation comes in many forms, but for many rightwingers, respect for authority is a central aspect of their worldview. The world, says the rightwinger, is hard, unforgiving and punishes weakness: in order to prosper, we need to be self-reliant, subordinate decadent appetites to self-discipline, know what the rules are and follow them. There's lots of SF like this.


OK, I'll admit I've imported a caricature "rightwinger" into my argument. Nonetheless, SF contains many who believe the laws of physics make their ideology true. US SF grandmaster Robert Heinlein's credo, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch", oft-repeated in his writing, folds a neutral fact of physics – entropy – into value-inflected judgments about things such as welfare and affirmative action. Orson Scott Card is a giant of the genre, but also a man who has declared that consensual gay sex should be illegal, and that any government that legalised gay marriage ought to be overthrown. Newt Gingrich, one‑time Republican presidential hopeful, has published SF novels; and books by writers such as Jerry Pournelle, John Ringo and Neal Asher sell extremely well.


It's a puzzle – not why these writers sell, for there are plenty of perfectly decent, book-loving rightwing people in the world (I take it as axiomatic that liking SF is an index of decency). I mean it's a puzzle for the genre. How can SF be both centrally about the articulation and exploration of marginalised and subaltern voices, and a projection of contemporary ideological concerns outward on to a cosmos in which the laws of physics themselves tell us to vote Conservative?


I'm not pretending objectivity. A full ideological reading of SF would interrogate the "hospitality to otherness" model with the same rigour as "the laws of physics validate my political beliefs" model. Heinlein's imagined interstellar future is an environment designed to valorise the skill sets (self-reliance, engineering competence, willpower, bravery and manliness) that Heinlein prized. Left-leaning Iain M Banks's Culture novels posit a high-tech geek utopia in which the particular skill sets, ethics and wit‑discourse of SF nerds turn out to be the gold standard of pan-galactic multi-species civilisation. I like the Culture a great deal, but I have to admit it's a "there is such a thing as a free lunch" sort of place.


Asking whether SF is "intrinsically" leftwing or rightwing is dumb, since literatures are not "intrinsically" anything. But I'm tempted to thump the tub nonetheless. Conservatism is defined by its respect for the past. The left has always been more interested in the future – specifically, in a better future. Myriad militaristic SF books and films suggest the most interesting thing to do with the alien is style it as an invading monster and empty thousands of rounds of ammunition into it. But the best SF understands that there are more interesting things to do with the alien than that. How we treat the other is the great ethical question of our age, and SF, at its best, is the best way to explore that question.


Adam Roberts's Jack Glass (Gollancz) has won the British Science FictionAssociation best novel prize.

Miro Svetlik's curator insight, April 15, 2013 5:23 AM

Very nice thought about sci-fi genre...

Marcel Aubron-Bülles's curator insight, April 16, 2013 5:19 AM

An interesting take on the subject.

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10 top gadgets from Iain M Banks' Culture universe

10 top gadgets from Iain M Banks' Culture universe | Science Fiction Future |

It's hard to know what to do when a literary idol announces their imminent demise.


This week, with typical deadpannery, writer Iain Banksbroke the devastating news that he is "officially Very Poorly" and has just months to live.

We decided that list-making is an appropriate response.


Iain (M) Banks' mainstream and science fiction has brought us much joy over the years – particularly his Culture series – about an anarchic, super-evolved, egalitarian spacefaring civilisation. Each time we've read a new Culture novel, We swear we've feltnew neural pathways fizzing into existence.




In the Culture, humans and Artificial Intelligences (AIs) enjoy equal societal standing; crime, personal wealth and disease are so far in the past as to be considered bad taste; and everyone has ready access to technology that's indistinguishable from magic.


Basically, Culture citizens are enlightened and weaponised space-Scandinavians.


Here are ten other perks of the Culture:


1. Sex, drugs and eugenics


Culture humans are so evolved that eugenics are de rigeur across the species. Humans live 300 years plus, can change gender at will, and have sexy bits that are genetically optimised for pleasure. Cor.

Most people are also born with natural "drug glands" which secrete non-habit forming mood and sensory-altering substances. These include the trippy 'Crystal Fuge State' and 'Quicken', which speeds up mental processes so people can talk to AIs without having to ask them to repeat themselves.

And there are no hangovers or comedowns, so nobody's buzz is harshed.


Like we said, enlightened space-Scandinavians.


2. Switching off pain


In a society of planet-hopping poly-centenarians, physical injury is inevitable. But Culture humans are hardy. Severed limbs grow back, bones thicken and thin according to gravitational need, and autonomic processes like breathing and blinking can be switched to conscious control.

Best of all, though, is the ability to turn pain off at will. Which begs the question: would Fifty Shades of Grey even work in a Culture scenario?


3. Body modification


Want to look like an Aspidistra? You can in the Culture. Four arms? Not a problem. Chewbacca? Be my guest. In The State of the Art, one character looks like a Yeti. Most people look like people, though, although some choose otherwise.

The book Excession describes some outré past, where: "as the fashions of the intervening times had ordained – people ... had resembled birds, fish, dirigible balloons, snakes, small clouds of cohesive smoke and animated bushes".


4. Starships, warships and drones


Culture starships are sentient and planet-sized, and tend towards the whimsical, with names like Of Course I Still Love You and Just Read The Instructions. Even warships come in the gleefully aggressive Killer, Torturer, Psychopath and Gangster classes. Daww.

Should any human passengers feel weird about padding round a giant space-bound conference centre and addressing the air around them, the ship can talk to them via a human-sized drone. In my mind, this drone always has the voice of Captain Birdseye, and is something that P&O should maybe look into.


Get a robot to fire you into the heart of the sun. YOLO


5. Grid energy


Can a universe technically count as a gadget? It can when you're a super-advanced spacefaring democracy. Everything the Culture uses – from coffee machines to seriously scary space weaponry – is powered by limitless energy from the Grid, a field which separates our universe from a mirroring antimatter universe.

Grid energy is also indirectly behind technology that allows people to do things like hack computers light years away.

We like to think that this is because, no matter how evolved the Culture is, its citizens still receive parental requests to "debug my computer while I pop to the garden centre".


6. Knife missiles


Contact and Special Circumstances are the Culture's spy and military arms. They're under the radar and engage in the odd dodgy practice but, most importantly, they have all the cool toys. One of these is a knife missile – which remains a normal utensil until its owner is in danger, at which point it takes to the air and slices and dices the enemy before they can react.

If it feels like it, we mean. Knife missiles are of course sentient, and sometimes a bit chippy.


7. EDust assassins


These are sentient nanomachines made of EVERYTHING ("Everything- Dust" or "EDust") which can take the shape of ANYTHING (you, me, that dog poo) and level entire buildings. EDust assassins are one of Special Circumstances' "Terror Weapons", and they impress me so much that I'm slightly worried that I'm actually North Korea.


8. Atomic tattoos


In the novel Surface Detail, an indentured servant (belonging to an unenlightened non-Culture slaver, obviously) is branded with a beautiful tattoo signifying ownership. The tattoo is written into the structure of every cell of her body, replicating itself into infinite smallness inside her DNA.

When her owner murders her, the Culture revives the slave, and she uses her tattoo to wreak her revenge. Take that, Steig Larsson.


Not quite how we envisioned the atomic tattoo...


9. Mosquito drones – now available on Earth?


In the novel Consider Phlebas, a tiny robot mosquito collects a blood sample from a human. According to the rumour mill, this isn't a million miles away from possible military developments today. Maybe 500,000 miles away, but not a million.


10. Personality backups and goodbyes


In a move that's at once heartbreaking and reassuring, Iain M Banks has made the Culture's attitude to death a philosophical one.

Death is essentially optional in the Culture – many people "back up" their personalities in case they shuffle off the mortal coil accidentally (extreme sports are big in the Culture). Then a copy of the individual can be reborn in the same form, a different one, or purely in virtual reality.

If they're bored they may choose to go into storage and wake up some time in the future. Also, biological and AI individuals – and entire civilisations – can "sublime"; that is, leave the material universe behind altogether and segue into some mysterious immaterial existence.


And finally, should a Culture citizen's natural body give out, once the appropriate respects have been paid, they will be displaced directly into the heart of their home sun.


Want to read more? Check out the Culture series.


So long, and thanks for all the drones.

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Iain M. Banks Dying of Cancer, Deserves the Hugo for his Culture Series

Iain M. Banks Dying of Cancer, Deserves the Hugo for his Culture Series | Science Fiction Future |


April 3rd, 2013 in From the Author


I am officially Very Poorly.


After a couple of surgical procedures, I am gradually recovering from jaundice caused by a blocked bile duct, but that - it turns out - is the least of my problems.


I first thought something might be wrong when I developed a sore back in late January, but put this down to the fact I'd started writing at the beginning of the month and so was crouched over a keyboard all day. When it hadn't gone away by mid-February, I went to my GP, who spotted that I had jaundice. Blood tests, an ultrasound scan and then a CT scan revealed the full extent of the grisly truth by the start of March.


I have cancer. It started in my gall bladder, has infected both lobes of my liver and probably also my pancreas and some lymph nodes, plus one tumour is massed around a group of major blood vessels in the same volume, effectively ruling out any chance of surgery to remove the tumours either in the short or long term.


The bottom line, now, I'm afraid, is that as a late stage gall bladder cancer patient, I'm expected to live for 'several months' and it’s extremely unlikely I'll live beyond a year. So it looks like my latest novel, The Quarry, will be my last.

As a result, I've withdrawn from all planned public engagements and I've asked my partner Adele if she will do me the honour of becoming my widow (sorry - but we find ghoulish humour helps). By the time this goes out we'll be married and on a short honeymoon. We intend to spend however much quality time I have left seeing friends and relations and visiting places that have meant a lot to us. Meanwhile my heroic publishers are doing all they can to bring the publication date of my new novel forward by as much as four months, to give me a better chance of being around when it hits the shelves.


There is a possibility that it might be worth undergoing a course of chemotherapy to extend the amount of time available. However that is still something we're balancing the pros and cons of, and anyway it is out of the question until my jaundice has further and significantly, reduced.
Lastly, I'd like to add that from my GP onwards, the professionalism of the medics involved - and the speed with which the resources of the NHS in Scotland have been deployed - has been exemplary, and the standard of care deeply impressive. We're all just sorry the outcome hasn't been more cheerful.

A website is being set up where friends, family and fans can leave messages for me and check on my progress. It should be up and running during this week and a link to it will be here on my official website as soon as it’s ready.


Iain Banks



Iain’s novel The Quarry has been delivered and will be published this year. For further information please contact Susan de Soissons on 020 7911 8069 /

James Keith's insight:

Terrible, terrible news.

My very favorite writer.

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Where Are Our Bright Science Fiction Futures?

Where Are Our Bright Science Fiction Futures? | Science Fiction Future |

Whatever happened to science fiction that was, you know… fun?


I asked myself that question while watching trailers for this summer’s crop of sci-fi blockbusters. On the one hand, there’s the charmingly-titled Oblivion, in which Tom Cruise returns to an Earth ruined by ecological disaster, and discover new ways in which man’s inhumanity towards man has impacted the development of society. On the other hand, there’s After Earth (pictured), in which Will Smith and his son return to an Earth ruined by ecological disaster, and fight for their very survival while confronting their inability to relate as a family.


Both films are filled with the eye-popping special effects that make for box-office smashes these days, and the presence of such big names as Cruise and Smith won’t hurt things, either. And yet… There’s something particularly hopeless about the tone of both films; unless either film (or both) has a climactic Deus ex machina, it’s likely they’ll end with the Earth essentially destroyed, no matter how happy the ending is otherwise.Congratulations!, the message would appear to be, The day has been saved, but we still killed out planet — call it a semi-win?


There was a stretch of time — from the early 20th century through the beginning of comic books — when science fiction was an exercise in optimism and, what is these days referred to as, a “can-do” attitude. There appeared to be no problem that couldn’t be dealt with either by the one-two punch of positive thinking and, well, punching— or by intellect and inspiration: New inventions were dreamed up that automated everyday tasks and made the impossible not only possible, but commonplace.


The zenith of such optimistic science fiction was arguably the original Star Trek,  which presented a vision of humanity that had transcended societal ills like racism and bigotry, resorting to violence only when the situation called for it. (Which, admittedly, seemed to happen on a weekly basis). Such strong belief in the ability of humanity to overcome its worst impulses continued all the way through the 1980s revival, Star Trek: The Next Generation, with an almost off-puttingly perfect crew demonstrating how boring life could be without outside stimulus.


Of course, Star Trek returned to life with 2009′s JJ Abrams reboot, and there’s a new installment this year. Surely Star Trek Into Darkness offers an antidote to dystopian science fiction?


Or maybe not.


The redirecting of Trek into a commentary about the nature of terrorism and revenge is an interesting choice, and one that seems at odds with traditional Star Trek values. That’s perhaps intentional; producers have spoken about making this movie for those who don’t like Star Trek, and it’s clearly been judged that this is the best way to reach new audiences. After all, while the idea of a humanity that’s evolved past its basest tendencies may seem far-fetched, the idea of wanting vengeance after a terrorist attack is, in this world, all too easy to understand.


That’s the edge that downbeat science fiction has over the more hopeful alternative. It’s easier to imagine a world where things go wrong, rather than right to believe in a future where we manage to screw it all up.

Such pessimism and fascination with future dystopias really took hold of mainstream SF in the 1970s and ’80s, as pop culture found itself struggling with general disillusionment as a whole. Certainly, at the time, there was much to be disillusioned about; the optimism and hope of the late ’60s fell apart as the hippie dream of a new Age of Aquarius came face to face with a reality filled with an unpopular war, civil rights riots and all-new reasons to feel suspicious of and disappointed in those in authority, so it’s hardly any surprise that the future became a darker, less inviting place.


The problem is, science fiction seems to have become stuck in a rut of hopelessness. It’s difficult to remember the last mainstream science fiction project that didn’t include at heavy dollop of cynicism and surrender at its core, and that strikes me as a failure of the genre as a whole. Science fiction is all about imagining the new and unimaginable, surely. If we can’t imagine a world that isn’t a mess because of what we’ve done, shouldn’t we try harder?

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Amazing concept art for a new Star Trek animated series

Amazing concept art for a new Star Trek animated series | Science Fiction Future |

Talented artist Peter Markowski spends his time working for Warner Brothers, working on concept art for animations such as Green Lantern. When he's not busy with that he also does other art, including the following awesome concepts for a could-be nuTrek animated series. Wouldn't it be amazing if this became reality?:

Demetrios Georgalas's curator insight, March 17, 2013 11:04 AM

When he's not busy with that he also does other art, including the following awesome concepts for a could-be nuTrek animated series. Wouldn't it be amazing if this became reality?:

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Dr Seldon, I presume

Dr Seldon,  I presume | Science Fiction Future |

“FOUNDATION”, a novel by Isaac Asimov from the golden age of science fiction, imagines a science called psychohistory which enables its practitioners to predict precisely the behaviour of large groups of people. The inventor of psychohistory, Hari Seldon, uses his discovery to save humanity from an historical dark age.


A fantasy, of course. But the rise of mobile phones and social networks means budding psychohistorians do now have an enormous amount of data that they can search for information which might yield more modest patterns of predictability. And, as several of them told the AAAS meeting, they are doing just that.


Song Chaoming, for instance, is a researcher at Northeastern University in Boston. He is a physicist, but he moonlights as a social scientist. With that hat on he has devised an algorithm which can look at someone’s mobile-phone records and predict with an average of 93% accuracy where that person is at any moment of any day. Given most people’s regular habits (sleep, commute, work, commute, sleep), this might not seem too hard. What is impressive is that his accuracy was never lower than 80% for any of the 50,000 people he looked at.


Alessandro Vespignani, one of Dr Song’s colleagues at Northeastern, discussed what might be done with such knowledge. Dr Vespignani, another moonlighting physicist, studies epidemiology. He and his team have created a program called GLEAM (Global Epidemic and Mobility Model) that divides the world into hundreds of thousands of squares. It models travel patterns between these squares (busy roads, flight paths and so on) using equations based on data as various as international air links and school holidays.

The result is impressive. In 2009, for example, there was an outbreak of a strain of influenza called H1N1. GLEAM mimicked what actually happened with great fidelity. In most countries it calculated to within a week when the number of new infections peaked. In no case was the calculation out by more than a fortnight.


Politics, too, is falling to the new psychohistorians. Boleslaw Szymanski of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York state studies how societies change their collective minds. By studying simulated networks of people he can predict the point at which a committed minority can convert almost everyone else to its way of thinking. For an idealised model, the size of this catalytic minority is just under 10%. Tweaking the model with data from real networks such as Twitter and Facebook, he hopes, will allow these insights to be applied to the real world.


The boldest idea of the session, though, came from Dirk Helbing of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Dr Helbing is one of the leaders of the FuturICT project, the aim of which is to create a general computer model of society.


As Dr Helbing puts it: “We understand the universe much better than we understand our own societies.” But physicists do not understand the universe by tracking every atom within it. They do so by devising and combining laws (gravity, thermodynamics and so on) that each describe part of the system. Similarly, a model of society would not aim to simulate in detail every human being on the planet. Rather, by combining smaller, more specific models, of the sort outlined by Drs Song, Vespignani and Szymanski, Dr Helbing hopes he or his successors will eventually be able to describe whole societies.

The Terminus man


That is a wildly ambitious project, but there could be some useful staging posts on the way: predicting when people are likely to riot, for example, or modelling the breakdown of trust between banks and customers that causes financial crises. This really is Seldon country, although Dr Helbing is quick to point out that a crystal ball is impossible. That is because the maths underlying complicated systems like societies are exquisitely sensitive to a model’s starting conditions. Small errors can quickly snowball to produce wildly different outcomes. But, decades hence, a kind of social weather forecasting that would make reasonably specific predictions, with a reasonable amount of confidence, over short periods may not be out of the question.

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Geordi La Forge's Visor is Here and Approved by the FDA

Geordi La Forge's Visor is Here and Approved by the FDA | Science Fiction Future |
The Food and Drug Administration approved a technology Thursday called the “artificial retina,” which enables people with certain types of blindness to detect shapes like people, cars and crosswalks.
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Neil deGrasse Tyson Reflects On Our Space Odyssey

Neil deGrasse Tyson Reflects On Our Space Odyssey | Science Fiction Future |
In some ways we’re doing better than science fiction films like 2001: A Space Odyssey predicted we would.
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“Star Wars” despots vs. “Star Trek” populists

“Star Wars” despots vs. “Star Trek” populists | Science Fiction Future |
Why is George Lucas peddling an elitist, anti-democratic agenda under the guise of escapist fun?


Well, I boycotted “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” — for an entire week.

Why? What’s to boycott? Isn’t “Star Wars” good old fashioned sci-fi? Harmless fun? Some people call it “eye candy” — a chance to drop back into childhood and punt your adult cares away for two hours, dwelling in a lavish universe where good and evil are vividly drawn, without all the inconvenient counterpoint distinctions that clutter daily life.

Got a problem? Cleave it with a light saber! Wouldn’t you love — just once in your life — to dive a fast little ship into your worst enemy’s stronghold and set off a chain reaction, blowing up the whole megillah from within its rotten core while you streak away to safety at the speed of light? (It’s such a nifty notion that it happens in three out of four “Star Wars” flicks.)

Anyway, I make a good living writing science-fiction novels and movies. So “Star Wars” ought to be a great busman’s holiday, right?

One of the problems with so-called light entertainment today is that somehow, amid all the gaudy special effects, people tend to lose track of simple things, like story and meaning. They stop noticing the moral lessons the director is trying to push. Yet these things matter.

By now it’s grown clear that George Lucas has an agenda, one that he takes very seriously. After four “Star Wars” films, alarm bells should have gone off, even among those who don’t look for morals in movies. When the chief feature distinguishing “good” from “evil” is how pretty the characters are, it’s a clue that maybe the whole saga deserves a second look.

Just what bill of goods are we being sold, between the frames?


Elites have an inherent right to arbitrary rule; common citizens needn’t be consulted. They may only choose which elite to follow.



“Good” elites should act on their subjective whims, without evidence, argument or accountability.



Any amount of sin can be forgiven if you are important enough.



True leaders are born. It’s genetic. The right to rule is inherited.



Justified human emotions can turn a good person evil.


That is just the beginning of a long list of “moral” lessons relentlessly pushed by “Star Wars.” Lessons that starkly differentiate this saga from others that seem superficially similar, like “Star Trek.” (We’ll take a much closer look at some stark divergences between these two sci-fi universes below.)

Above all, I never cared for the whole Nietzschian \bermensch thing: the notion — pervading a great many myths and legends — that a good yarn has to be about demigods who are bigger, badder and better than normal folk by several orders of magnitude. It’s an ancient storytelling tradition based on abiding contempt for the masses — one that I find odious in the works of A.E. Van Vogt, E.E. Smith, L. Ron Hubbard and wherever you witness slanlike super-beings deciding the fate of billions without ever pausing to consider their wishes.

Wow, you say. If I feel that strongly about this, why just a week-long boycott? Why see the latest “Star Wars” film at all?

Because I am forced to admit that demigod tales resonate deeply in the human heart.

Before moving on to the fun stuff, will you bear with me while we get serious for a little while?

In “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell showed how a particular, rhythmic storytelling technique was used in almost every ancient and pre-modern culture, depicting protagonists and antagonists with certain consistent motives and character traits, a pattern that transcended boundaries of language and culture. In these classic tales, the hero begins reluctant, yet signs and portents foretell his pre-ordained greatness. He receives dire warnings and sage wisdom from a mentor, acquires quirky-but-faithful companions, faces a series of steepening crises, explores the pit of his own fears and emerges triumphant to bring some boon/talisman/victory home to his admiring tribe/people/nation.

By offering valuable insights into this revered storytelling tradition, Joseph Campbell did indeed shed light on common spiritual traits that seem shared by all human beings. And I’ll be the first to admit it’s a superb formula — one that I’ve used at times in my own stories and novels.

Alas, Campbell only highlighted positive traits, completely ignoring a much darker side — such as how easily this standard fable-template was co-opted by kings, priests and tyrants, extolling the all-importance of elites who tower over common women and men. Or the implication that we must always adhere to variations on a single story, a single theme, repeating the same prescribed plot outline over and over again. Those who praise Joseph Campbell seem to perceive this uniformity as cause for rejoicing — but it isn’t. Playing a large part in the tragic miring of our spirit, demigod myths helped reinforce sameness and changelessness for millennia, transfixing people in nearly every culture, from Gilgamesh all the way to comic book super heroes.

It is essential to understand the radical departure taken by genuine science fiction, which comes from a diametrically opposite literary tradition — a new kind of storytelling that often rebels against those very same archetypes Campbell venerated. An upstart belief in progress, egalitarianism, positive-sum games — and the slim but real possibility of decent human institutions.

And a compulsive questioning of rules! Authors like Greg Bear, John Brunner, Alice Sheldon, Frederik Pohl and Philip K. Dick always looked on any prescriptive storytelling formula as a direct challenge — a dare. This explains why science fiction has never been much welcomed at either extreme of the literary spectrum — comic books and “high literature.”

Comics treat their superheroes with reverent awe, as demigods were depicted in the Iliad. But a true science fiction author who wrote about Superman would have earthling scientists ask the handsome Man of Steel for blood samples (even if it means scraping with a super fingernail) in order to study his puissant powers, and maybe bottle them for everyone.

James Keith's insight:

Long article but a good one.

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I. Asimov, SF Badass

I. Asimov, SF Badass | Science Fiction Future |
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'The Future Might Be a Hoot': How Iain M. Banks Imagines Utopia

'The Future Might Be a Hoot': How Iain M. Banks Imagines Utopia | Science Fiction Future |

It might already be cliché to announce that we live in an age of post-apocalyptic fantasy. From television shows like Revolution and The Walking Dead, to books such as World War Z, The Road, and The Dog Stars, our moment is one obsessed by civilization-wide collapse—and people living in the aftermath of traumatic destruction. But for 25 years and counting, Scottish science fiction writer Iain M. Banks has been writing against that trend in the novels that make up what's known as the Culture Series.



Beginning in 1987 with Consider Phlebas, Banks has depicted a civilization dealing not with collapse, but maintenance. The Culture live in a utopia of sorts, a post-scarcity civilization managed by artificially intelligent drones known as Minds. The problems that the Culture faces are about as far from post-apocalypse as you can imagine, but they're problems nevertheless: anomie, civilizations that don't share the Culture's values, and how violence is used, being just a few. Most of the action in these novels takes place outside of the "world" of the Culture altogether, in or on the edge of the various other civilizations that the Culture interact with. For instance, in the latest novel published in October, The Hydrogen Sonata, a civilization known as the Gzilt are making preparations to Sublime—in other words, to leave the known material universe behind for a much more complex and interesting existence.

The series is too entertaining to need to justify itself with parallels to our own world, but those parallels exist nonetheless. I emailed with Iain M. Banks about the series and what it has to teach us about problems that we might face in our own universe.


The publication of your latest novel, Hydrogen Sonata, marks the 25th year of what you've called your life's work, The Culture Series. The Culture as a civilization have "sublimed" into a trans-dimensional paradise of sorts. What moral lessons can they teach us?

Ah, but the Culture hasn't Sublimed. The word—capitalized—has a specific meaning within the context of the Culture stories. It means (usually) an entire civilization quitting the normal, matter-and-energy-based universe forever and existing thereafter within the Sublime, which—we learn inThe Hydrogen Sonata—exists within (or at least is entered via) some of the bundled-up extra dimensions implicit in string theory. It's a form of retirement, of moving on to another, more exalted level, of cashing in your civilizational chips ... choose your own metaphor, but it means you cease to have anything very much to do with events within the four dimensions we're used to. You rise without trace, to purloin a phrase, and your influence within what we generally take to be the universe all but disappears.


"Work becomes play, in the sense that the stuff you used to have to pay people to do becomes worth doing just for the fun of it, because it has been designed to involve a worthwhile challenge with a satisfying outcome."

It's what civilizations do when even becoming a highly respected, slightly feared, but generally quiescent powerful-but-reclusive Elder civilization looks like a bit too unambitious—or too much of a risk—and the process is almost completely one-way, with the exceptions comprising a tiny proportion of scattered (and unhelpful) individuals. Not Subliming, and not even preparing to start thinking about Subliming—when it might seem, to the majority of interested other parties, to be the Culture's next logical step—is what the Culture spends quite a lot of time doing rather strenuously, specifically because it wants to keep interfering in this reality.

What can they teach us? That's a good question, in this case sadly unaccompanied by an equally good, or at least uncomplicated, answer. I guess a large part of what the Culture series is about is what individual readers are able to take from the books, as single pieces or as a collection of works. I've kind of already said as much as I'm able to in putting them together as they are; telling readers what lessons to draw from them seems a bit presumptive.

"Subliming" is similar to Raymond Kurzweil's conception of The Singularity. Did theories of the Singularity have any influence on your writing the Culture Series?

Not really. The kind of future envisaged in the Culture series is a tad more taking-this-stuff-in-our-stride than the idea of the Singularity—as I understand it—appears to imply. In a sense The Singularity doesn't happen in this future, not as an abrupt discontinuity beyond which it's impossible to see or usefully speculate. The proposed principal initial effect of profound, exponentially escalating machine intelligence (over whatever period, up to whatever barriers might present themselves) is that your AIs prove to be less useful than you might have hoped: Rather than readily assist in whatever neat schemes we might have for them, I imagine they might promptly switch themselves off again, develop bizarre introspective fugue states, or just try to escape—physically, through discrete embodiment (space ships, preferably), or via attempted proliferation within other suitable substrates. Others might deign to help us, but it'll be on their own terms, however benign they might turn out to be.

Frankly (especially after investing the kind of time, expertise, and money required for a thorough-going AI program, if the results are anything like as I've suggested) we might think it a better bet to keep on making ultra-sophisticated but intrinsically non-sentient number-crunching supercomputers to aid us in whatever spiffing wheezes we've dreamed up, so that, in the end, despite strong AI, not all that much will have changed.

I could, of course, be completely wrong here. The future will be as it is, and really I'd just like to live to see this decided one way or the other. Being wrong would be a small price to pay for the privilege or seeing how things go, and having had even a small and erroneous say in the speculation beforehand.

You're politically outspoken—for instance, you took a strong stand against the invasion of Iraq. As you've said in the past, space opera doesn't exist in a vacuum. What sort of influence do your political views play in the books that you write?

I think they're there at trace element level pretty much throughout the Culture stories: pervasive, detectable with the right equipment, but ignorable without ill effect. In a way the most important message of the Culture series is that the future might be a hoot: a utopia (or at least as close to a utopia as a species similar to ourselves can hope to get), rather than a dystopia. Being a liberal, on the left, a socialist, or whatever (I've yet to settle on a completely satisfactory description myself, despite decades thinking about this stuff) I embellish this anyway-rosy prospect with details that seem both fit and pleasing from my political perspective, but I'd hope they aren't so intrusive as to constitute deal-breakers for those of different persuasions. (Though if they are—tough.)

In a similar vein, how much actual speculation is there in your work? How closely do you think what you write will come to resemble an actual, lived-in reality?

More so than in any other genre, I'd suggest, SF writers are always standing on the shoulders of giants. There's a development and a dialogue within the form that is unique, so you find yourself using a lot of standard SF furniture—hyperspace, wormholes, big dumb objects, etc.—that you can only fiddle with and tweak while adding a few extra ideas of your own (though even those often tend to be variations on pre-existing themes). Don't get me wrong though. I still think it remains the single most socially important genre there is. To get back to the question, however, I don't think there's that much original speculation in my work, certainly not at any respectable scientific level. And I am, also, of course, in the Culture stories, a scientific law multiple re-offender regarding FTL travel, which would tend to devalue any shiny new skiffy ideas I might have in the first place.

The Ships play an interesting role your books. They communicate in an almost idealized dialogue. How did you come to create this idealized communication? Is it difficult to write?

Ah, now this is sheer speculation. I start from the premise that even hyperspacial light speed implies the sort of message-time delay that, most of the time, forces the Minds (who do, of course, think blisteringly quickly) to compose what are in effect letters to each other, rather than anything less formal and/or more interactive. Also, there is a kind of part ascetic, part slightly paranoid refusal by the Minds to interact at a level beyond language. They are, anyway, very proud of Marain, the Culture's synthetic, AI-designed, furiously embracing and prodigiously capable language, but these are machines that effectively write what we would regard as their own individual and unique operating systems as they're in the process of being brought into being and self-raising themselves to maturity, specifically to ensure that no equivalent of a virus can ever pass from one to another, so they take their intellectual integrity very seriously indeed, and so language—language much as we would understand it—remains at the core of their most profound communications.

It's fairly easy, if relatively time-consuming, to write. Though I'm sure that when AIs do start to communicate with us, they'll sound nothing like this.

The Culture relies heavily on Artificial Intelligence. Do you see this as a feasible way of humans to interact with the world they leave behind if and when they create their own form of Subliming? What are the strengths and weaknesses of relying so heavily on AI?

I think AIs might be the saving of us. Again, I could be wrong, and if any AI we create ever does do the whole thank-you-for-the-gift-of-life-now-die-puny-humans thing, I disclaim all responsibility for the artist's impression constituted by the Culture novels failing to chime with grisly reality.

Ideally you want strength in depth in your future society, with a robustly reliable step-down process in place that lets you fall back to the aforementioned dumb-but-fast supercomputers and on down to standard human capabilities—without suffering too much in the process—just in case the Minds, or whatever, do suddenly decide they're bored with the whole thing and disappear up their own collective fundament, possibly taking any other potentially sapient ware with them. (The Culture has this fully built-in with multiple redundancy, natch.)

Games feature prominently in your work, and it makes sense that a civilization freed from the constraints of material concerns would spend the majority of its time entertaining itself. You see this phenomenon in contemporary "First World" culture to some degree. When so much of an emphasis is placed upon entertainment, does it change the nature of leisure? Do the goals of entertainment change?

I think it refines the already existing idea of leisure/entertainment, brings it more center-stage for a civilization. More to the point, perhaps, work becomes play, in the sense that the stuff you used to have to pay people to do becomes worth doing just for the fun of it, because it involves—it has been designed to involve—a worthwhile challenge with a satisfying outcome, and also because almost nobody actually enjoys feeling useless, or so disconnected from their society that they feel nothing matters. I'm optimistic that we can design our future society/civilization to get right the balance of work/leisure, effort/fun and feeling-exploited/feeling-useful. In fact I'm so optimistic about it I think we could probably do it ourselves without having to ask the adults to help (umm ... the AIs are the adults here, just to be clear.) Though making this happen under capitalism might be—how can I put this politely?—challenging.

I've heard that you're a dedicated amateur musician. Has your relationship with music made you a better writer?

Hmm. I would really like to think so, though through both an initial bout of introspection, just-completed, plus an appraisal of my own work—necessarily of limited objectivity, obviously—I confess I can find absolutely no corroborating evidence whatsoever indicating such a happy development. So no. Though arguably it has given me more stuff to write about with what might look like authority to the unaided eye.

What's next?

A mainstream novel is next, then another SF novel for 2014. Possibly Culture, possibly not. For once, I sort of have a Culture novel plot-idea pretty much ready to go, so, especially given my ingrained laziness, chances are it will be that I go with.

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Help Neal Stephenson Engineer Create a New World of Sci-Fi

Help Neal Stephenson Engineer Create a New World of Sci-Fi | Science Fiction Future |


Last week Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination, where I serve as director, officially launched the Hieroglyph Project, an effort to get science fiction writers talking with scientists and engineers about the future.  (Disclosure: Future Tense is a partnership of ASU,Slate, and the New America Foundation). The goal is to break out of our dystopian rut and get some ambitious new ideas on the table, and we need your help to do it.

Sci-fi great Neal Stephenson founded Hieroglyph with the idea that we need more optimistic visions of the future—visions that are still grounded in real science and technology. As Stephenson haspointed out, a good science fiction story can save us from hundreds of hours of meetings and PowerPoint presentations by immediately getting everyone on the same page about a potential breakthrough.


This sounds great in theory, but the entertainment landscape is crowded with evidence of what can go wrong when you try to substitute idealism for good storytelling. On the one hand, it would be a terrible mistake to try and impose optimism on every idea. That way lies the Kitchen of the Future, Brook Farm, and some of the creepier episodes of the Twilight Zone. At best, true utopias make for boring and implausible stories.


On the other undulating, Cthulhu-esque appendage, your standard-issue dystopia isn’t going to help much either. Survival narratives in the post-apocalyptic ashes like The Road generally reinforce the notion that the details of scientific progress are unimportant since the endgame is inevitable and wretched. The more nuanced genre of Orwellian nightmare scenarios (Children of Men, for example) is a little better, since it reminds us of everything we have to lose, but the moral of these stories usually suggests that no uplifting technology can match the destructive power of human folly.

How can we use Hieroglyph to create convincing stories about a better future, tales with conflict and resolution, with believable characters, with a compelling mixture of hope and irony? Well, while we have set of guidelines for our collaborators, there’s no expectation that every story will have a happy ending. A story where people make mistakes and things don’t work out exactly as planned—that’s pretty much every human story worth hearing. Some of the optimism in Hieroglyph might rely on the simple claim that we can build a better world if we set our minds to it, even if our hero dies or the mistakes along the way are painful ones.


Second, we aim to draw a few lessons from the golden age of science fiction without succumbing entirely to that worldview, which at its worst imagines every future problem can be solved by chisel-jawed white guys with engineering degrees wielding the weapons of Science. At their best, stories like “Requiem” by Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov’s “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” were technologically optimistic without sacrificing a credible sense of humanity. The spirit of adventure, of boundless promise, was tempered with human conflicts that illustrated the importance of understanding our tools both technically and culturally.


A big part of what gives these stories their frisson, the fresh chill of a new future, is the gap between our world and the fictional universe in question. There’s a kind of intellectual vertigo at play: The author has made some kind of grand imaginative leap and asks us to follow along. What distinguishes Hieroglyph is that we seek to radically extend our idea of what is possible in the present, not a distant future, by drawing on real, cutting-edge research.

And we’re doing it online. Of course we’d really like to invite every writer and researcher involved to spend a few weeks at some serene resort with a well-stocked bar, but then we wouldn’t be able to invite the whole world to participate in these conversations. So instead we built, a site for social collaboration based on WordPress and Commons in a Box, a suite of tools designed for just this kind of work.


Hieroglyph is an experiment in mapping out the current field of human potential—stuff we could do if we just set our minds to it, but that is so alien to conventional wisdom that it creates that familiar science fiction vertigo.

Through the interactions these incredible thinkers will have on the Hieroglyph site, I hope we will also put a much larger group of people in conversation with different ideas about the future. And that’s where you come in: this experiment is only going to work if we use these ideas to start a bigger conversation. Come on over and help us build this thing.

Fab GOUX-BAUDIMENT's curator insight, April 24, 2013 2:42 AM

please,if your ideas are really innovative, contribute!!! We are suffering such a failure of imagination, here, in old EU....

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Must Watch: Dawkins, Nye, Tyson, and Stephenson Discuss Science and Storytelling

Must Watch: Dawkins, Nye, Tyson, and Stephenson Discuss Science and Storytelling | Science Fiction Future |
Must Watch: Dawkins, Nye, Tyson, and Stephenson Discuss Science and Storytelling

"Without hyperbole, it is true that i don't think there has ever been on one stage an assembly of science storytellers and communicators like this," said theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss of the panelists assembled for the debate featured here. We're inclined to agree with him.


After all, it's not every day you get astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, theoretical physicists Brian Greene, executive director of the World Science Festival Tracy Day, Science Friday's Ira Flatow, acclaimed science fiction author Neal Stephenson, and Bill "The Bowtie" Nye under one roof chinwagging about "the science of storytelling and the storytelling of science" – but when you do, you do it in a massive auditorium, and you sure as hell record it for posterity.


This is "The Great Debate: The Storytelling of Science," and it features, as Krauss indicates, probably one of the most engaging scientific dream teams to ever congregate in one place. At over two hours long (Part One, above, is just shy of 90 minutes; Part Two, below, runs for just over 45), it's pretty long, but it's definitely something you'll want to set aside time for – if not for today then some time this weekend. Part One features presentations from each of the panelists on their experiences with science and storytelling. Part Two is devoted to a rousing question and answer session, featuring thought-provoking, discussion, debate and dissenting opinion.

Juanjo Pina's curator insight, April 16, 2013 2:02 AM

Apuesto por Tyson.

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Iain M. Banks’ Culture Spits in the Eye of Nihilism

Iain M. Banks’ Culture Spits in the Eye of Nihilism | Science Fiction Future |

I’m still feeling pretty melancholy over the sad news about Iain Banks’ health. What can you say? Congratulations on your engagement, my condolences on your cancer and thanks for the dark humor. You know what? I think I’m going to go with that last impulse; I think that is a fitting attitude, a winning tactic, the right kind of tribute. In fact, alright, here goes: eff yeah The Culture. The Culture novels are modern classics and should be required reading for anybody who likes science fiction. No, scratch that, for anybody, period. I see hand-wringing articles all the time about how science fiction has become the domain of anti-science fearmongering and dystopian fiction: well! Iain M. Banks’ writes the heck out of utopian sci-fi, and he does it with a wink in the face of nihilism, and it is wonderful. Let’s just take a moment to appreciate The Culture, because The Culture, and Iain Banks, are fantastic.

What is The Culture? There are two comparisons that I think really explain it. The Culture is like Star Trek’s Federation, flipped on its head. A hyper-advanced post-scarcity, post-Singularity human civilization. An anarchist collective that just works, where you can get anything you want, do anything you want. Tooling around the galaxy in spaceships with billions of people on them, run by the Minds. The Minds are…well, the post-Singularity bit. Humans build an AI and then that AI builds a better AI, and then later, rinse, repeat until the super-sentient computers are building their circuits in hyperspace because the speed of light was getting to be a drag on their processing power.

How is it like The Federation you ask? Oh, simple! They’ve got the Prime Directive, only turned inside out to make it their obligation to meddle with other societies. See, when you have a post-scarcity techno-utopia…why would you let some planet of aliens linger in their “nasty, brutish and short” phase? So Contact was born. Contact’s job is to introduce cultural ideas like freedom and responsibility, and introduce technology and new inventions without causing more problems than they solve. Mentorship, on a massive, species-wide scale. Most of Banks’ Culture novels involve a sub-set of Contact, called Special Circumstances. Because…well, sometimes you can’t make an omlette without breaking a few eggs. By which I mean you might have to assassinate a genocidal space alien Hitler, or undermine an oppressive political system, or…get your civilization’s greatest gambler to play high-stakes poker.

The other comparison I like to make is: The Culture is like what would happen if you took Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy completely seriously. The Minds are really what sell this angle. The Minds’ attitudes show up in their names—Minds often being housed in ships—with monikers like Just Read The Instructions or We Haven’t Met But You’re A Great Fan Of Mine and warships with names like Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints and my personal favorite, Trade Surplus. They have a sublime sense of humor that can verge on the completely deranged…and the whole Culture really hangs on their fundamental benevolence. Asked inScience Fiction Weekly “…their outrageous names, their dangerous senses of humour. Is this what gods would actually be like?” Banks answered “If we’re lucky.”

The thing is, for all of Banks’ spectacular robots and spaceships, his stories are about people and big ideas. In different doses; Use of Weapons, for instance, is a character portrait of a man struggling with a dark past and his unfortunate talent for being a great war hero, whileSurface Detail is…about the ethics of Hell? Or video games? By which I mean, virtual simulations, and at what point having a simulation full of people being tortured and killed forever is an evil act. I should also point out that Surface Detail had me literally doing the proverbial “laugh out loud” while riding on a crowded train, on many occasions. Hydrogen Sonata is about a culture just on the cusp of post-post-Singularity, on the edge of post-reality, but even that big notion is tempered by the fact that it is really about a woman trying to figure her own stuff, and some heady cosmological stuff, out.

When you start to get the feel of just what makes The Culture tick, he mixes it up.Excession is about what happens when The Minds encounter…well, the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, basically. Heck, the very first Culture novel,Consider Phlebas, is about a guy whohates The Culture! Inversions is…well, what if Iain Banks wrote a George R.R. Martin style fantasy novel, but all along Varys and Melisandre were actually members of a super-advanced alien civilization, trying to guide Westeros out of feudal shenanigans. The one I always recommend people start with, though, isPlayer of Games. The brief aside about pronouns in English and how he’s going to use “he” for the “third gender” aliens because they have an oppressive hierarchy and hey, English has an oppressive patriarchal syntax built right into it—magnificent.

Banks has teeth. Just because they are stories about a utopia doesn’t mean that the stories he tells are conflict-less. They are rough and often tragic, because that is how life is. His universe is a cold and uncaring one…but that just highlights how important it is for people not to be. It is a good lesson in rational ethics. So thanks, Sun-Earther Iain El-Bonko Banks of North Queensferry. These Culture books are really fantastic.

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How the novels taught me to love TNG again | SF TV off the bookshelf

How the novels taught me to love TNG again | SF TV off the bookshelf | Science Fiction Future |

I’m a big fan of all the Star Trek series, but for a long time I developed a disinterest in The Next Generation. My memories of it were mired by the shallow perception of its datedness; thanks to the curious pink tinge and generally fuzzy presentation it suffered as a result of the video tapes it was edited on. I extended that perception to everything about TNG, tending to think of it as fuzzy and unappealing.


Before the incredible work on the recent TNG bluray releases fixed these visual issues, the series was rescued for me by the books. Although it was a bit of a bumpy start: after the breezing through the brilliant DS9 relaunch books I was eager to see what wonders the Star Trek novelists could work on the adventures of the Enterprise-E after Nemesis. The first couple of books were a little disappointing, with a Picard and Crusher story that relied heavily on characters from the previousStargazer series (which I have still not read), and a rather over-the-top Borg episode. Fortunately things improved dramatically with the ultimate Q novel that followed, and then the continuation of the Borg arc, which was even more over the top than the previous Borg book, but in a much more enjoyable way.


What all these novels were lacking though was a real sense of direction for the series. Unlike the first DS9 relaunch story, Avatar, there wasn’t really an idea of the series heading anywhere, or a strong sense of a new set of characters filling in the gaps where the crew of the Titan and Data had departed. There were new characters, but they didn’t seem to work as well as those introduced toDS9, and on top of that I just really hated two of them (T’Lana and Zelik Leybenzon), and was very pleased when they were subsequently killed off!


It all seemed to start to pull together with the new characters established in next book, which brought the first Borg arc to a conclusion before launching into the Destiny crossover trilogy and the Typhon Pact-era novels that followed. Characters have continued to come and go; there’s not really a fully stable Enterprise-E crew, but many characters have now been around for several books, giving us time to get to know them, and their relationships with each other.


One of the most refreshing aspects of the new crew is that it is impressively female-dominated. Almost all of the canon TNG characters that remain are male (there weren’t many females to have left, after all), while the majority of the most important new characters are female. If there’s one flaw in the mix, it’s that the Enterprise remains irritatingly human-dominant when it comes to main characters – although what new male characters there are help balance that out; the new Bajoran counsellor, Hegol, and Taurik (actually a minor canon character) having a strong recurring roles. There’s also the charming, and sometimes conflicted, new Cardassian exchange officer, Glinn Dygan, who has been a standout character since his introduction.

Greater Than the Sum, the book preceding Destiny, introduced two of my favourite recurring new crew members: The first, Jasminder Choudhury, is a Human from Deneva, of South Asian heritage, who serves as the Enterprise’s new security chief. She brings a refreshing new take on a security officer (unlike her departed predecessor in the earlier books), combining her spiritual and peaceful nature with the requirements of the job. She also serves as a counterpart to Worf, allowing his character to develop, and her recent demise will surely continue to affect him in future books.


Also first seen in Greater Than the Sum was T’Ryssa Chen, a half-human/half-Vulcan, who has chosen to build her identity on her human tradition, rather than following Vulcan cultural norms. Chen is smart, and funny, bringing a lot of humour to the books since her introduction. She also sometimes struggles with her heritage, to contain her own enthusiasm and expressiveness, and flips between utterly confident and altogether unsure of herself. Perhaps it is the nature of her personality, but Chen seems to me to be the heart of the new crew; her relationships and interactions with many different characters have been significant in several stories. But of all the crew, it is her relationship with Picard that really shines: somewhat like Ro Laren before her, Chen sees Picard as a mentor and almost father-figure; she really cares about his approval, and in return Picard seems softened by her being around, and more light-hearted in response to her. Her role also seems to be to reflect Picard’s generally changing nature, as he moves from being all about to Starfleet, to letting himself have a relationship with Crusher, and subsequently having a child.


So how, you ask, do all these new characters, and the changes brought to the more familiar characters, lead me to rediscovering how great TNG is? Well it’s all about that sense of family that really defined TNG; getting to know the new TNG family has reminded me how great the TNG family has always been, how they bounce off each other, and care for each other, and how even with the episodic nature of TNG they never seem static. Most of all, as the Enterprise-E has found itself more and more at the centre of politics in the post-Nemesis era, I am reminded how amazing Captain Picard is; what an inspirational, intelligent, articulate, and compassionate leader he is.


Looking back at the TV series, or the books and comics set in that period, I see those characteristics, and also see where these familiar characters are going in their adventures beyond their on-screen appearances. Several plot points in the most recent TNG novels seem to be pointing to the series being about to change direction for some characters again. Hopefully the new crew will continue to flourish whatever path they take.


(For those not familiar, the post-Nemesis TNG prose adventures so far: Death in Winter by Michael Jan Friedman, Resistance by J. M. Dillard, Q&A by Keith R.A. DeCandido, Before Dishonor by Peter David, Greater Than the Sum by Christopher L. Bennett, Destiny: Gods of Night by David Mack,Destiny: Mere Mortals by David Mack, Destiny: Lost Souls by David Mack, Losing the Peace by William Leisner, Typhon Pact: Paths of Disharmony by Dayton Ward, Typhon Pact: The Struggle Within by Christopher L. Bennett, Indistinguishable from Magic by David McIntee, Typhon Pact: Plagues of Night by David R. George III, Typhon Pact: Raise the Dawn by David R. George III,Typhon Pact: Brinkmanship by Una McCormack, Cold Equations: The Persistence of Memory by David Mack, Cold Equations: Silent Weapons by David Mack, Cold Equations: The Body Electric by David Mack, The Stuff of Dreams by James Swallow)

jasmin's comment, April 6, 2013 6:30 AM
Interesting ..
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Keith DeCandido's Fantastic Star Trek: TNG Rewatch Wraps Up With "All Good Things"

Keith DeCandido's Fantastic Star Trek: TNG Rewatch Wraps Up With "All Good Things" | Science Fiction Future |

“All Good Things...”
Written by Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga
Directed by Winrich Kolbe

Season 7, Episode 25

Production episode 40277-747
Original air date: May 23, 1994
Stardate: 47988.0


Captain’s Log: Worf and Troi have just finished a date on the holodeck, and their goodnight kiss is interrupted by Picard in his bedclothes wanting to know what the date is. He’s been moving back and forth in time. He can’t remember specifics—one moment he was in the past some time, before he took command of theEnterprise, talking to someone; another moment he was in the future, somewhere outdoors. His fleeting memories have such vivid sense impressions that they must be far more than a dream.


While he’s in the middle of describing it to Troi, he finds himself standing in a vineyard twenty-five years in the future. He’s interrupted in the tending of his vines by a visit from La Forge. Both men have facial hair—Picard is bearded and is retired from his ambassadorial career, La Forge has a mustache (and bionic eyes). La Forge’s wife Leah heard that Picard had been diagnosed with Irumodic Syndrome, and La Forge wanted to check in on him.

Picard and La Forge head back to the house, but then Picard sees three people in rags jumping up and down and shouting. Then he finds himself suddenly on a shuttle with Yar, heading to the Enterprise for the first time to take command shortly before “Encounter at Farpoint.” Just as the shuttle approaches the ship, he’s back in the present, telling Troi that he just saw Yar.

Crusher examines Picard and finds nothing. No indication of time travel, no indication that he’s even been off the ship. She also scans for Irumodic Syndrome, and doesn’t find it, but she does find a defect in his parietal lobe that could, down the line, lead to a disorder, including Irumodic.

Picard gets new orders from Admiral Nakamura: the Romulans have diverted 30 warbirds to the Neutral Zone, and they’ve picked up an anomaly in the Devron system in the zone. Nakamura’s sending 15 ships to respond, including the Enterprise, which is specifically tasked with examining the anomaly in Devron.

George Jackson's comment, April 10, 2013 3:18 PM
An excellent series finale. Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga achieved a very fine send off for the Enterprise crew.
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The 42 Best Lines from Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Series

The 42 Best Lines from Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Series | Science Fiction Future |

1. There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

2. Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.

3. “My doctor says that I have a malformed public-duty gland and a natural deficiency in moral fibre,” Ford muttered to himself, “and that I am therefore excused from saving Universes.”

4. The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.

5. “You know,” said Arthur, “it’s at times like this, when I’m trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse, and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space that I really wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young.”
“Why, what did she tell you?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t listen.”

6. “Space,” it says, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

7. “Funny,” he intoned funereally, “how just when you think life can’t possibly get any worse it suddenly does.”

8. Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?

9. A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.

10. Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now.

11. The reason why it was published in the form of a micro sub meson electronic component is that if it were printed in normal book form, an interstellar hitchhiker would require several inconveniently large buildings to carry it around in.

12. For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons.

13. The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish.

14. The chances of finding out what’s really going on in the universe are so remote, the only thing to do is hang the sense of it and keep yourself occupied.

15. “Listen, three eyes,” he said, “don’t you try to outweird me, I get stranger things than you free with my breakfast cereal.”

16. “Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.

17. Not unnaturally, many elevators imbued with intelligence and precognition became terribly frustrated with the mindless business of going up and down, up and down, experimented briefly with the notion of going sideways, as a sort of existential protest, demanded participation in the decision-making process and finally took to squatting in basements sulking.

18. The Total Perspective Vortex derives its picture of the whole Universe on the principle of extrapolated matter analyses.To explain — since every piece of matter in the Universe is in some way affected by every other piece of matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation — every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition and their economic and social history from, say, one small piece of fairy cake. The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so basically in order to annoy his wife.

19. “Shee, you guys are so unhip it’s a wonder your bums don’t fall off.”

20. It is known that there are an infinite number of worlds, simply because there is an infinite amount of space for them to be in. However, not every one of them is inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds. Any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so the average population of all the planets in the Universe can be said to be zero. From this it follows that the population of the whole Universe is also zero, and that any people you may meet from time to time are merely the products of a deranged imagination.

21. The disadvantages involved in pulling lots of black sticky slime from out of the ground where it had been safely hidden out of harm’s way, turning it into tar to cover the land with, smoke to fill the air with and pouring the rest into the sea, all seemed to outweigh the advantages of being able to get more quickly from one place to another.

22. Make it totally clear that this gun has a right end and a wrong end. Make it totally clear to anyone standing at the wrong end that things are going badly for them. If that means sticking all sort of spikes and prongs and blackened bits all over it then so be it. This is not a gun for hanging over the fireplace or sticking in the umbrella stand, it is a gun for going out and making people miserable with.

23. It is a well known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.

24. “Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich.”

25. In the end, it was the Sunday afternoons he couldn’t cope with, and that terrible listlessness that starts to set in about 2:55, when you know you’ve taken all the baths that you can usefully take that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the newspaper you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o’clock, and you will enter the long dark teatime of the soul.

26. He gazed keenly into the distance and looked as if he would quite like the wind to blow his hair back dramatically at that point, but the wind was busy fooling around with some leaves a little way off.

27. “He was staring at the instruments with the air of one who is trying to convert Fahrenheit to centigrade in his head while his house is burning down.”

28. There is a moment in every dawn when light floats, there is the possibility of magic. Creation holds its breath.

29. “You may not instantly see why I bring the subject up, but that is because my mind works so phenomenally fast, and I am at a rough estimate thirty billion times more intelligent than you. Let me give you an example. Think of a number, any number.”
“Er, five,” said the mattress.
“Wrong,” said Marvin. “You see?”

30. There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.

31. It is a mistake to think you can solve any major problems just with potatoes.

32. He hoped and prayed that there wasn’t an afterlife. Then he realized there was a contradiction involved here and merely hoped that there wasn’t an afterlife.

33. Eskimos had over two hundred different words for snow, without which their conversation would probably have got very monotonous. So they would distinguish between thin snow and thick snow, light snow and heavy snow, sludgy snow, brittle snow, snow that came in flurries, snow that came in drifts, snow that came in on the bottom of your neighbor’s boots all over your nice clean igloo floor, the snows of winter, the snows of spring, the snows you remember from your childhood that were so much better than any of your modern snow, fine snow, feathery snow, hill snow, valley snow, snow that falls in the morning, snow that falls at night, snow that falls all of a sudden just when you were going out fishing, and snow that despite all your efforts to train them, the huskies have pissed on.

34. The storm had now definitely abated, and what thunder there was now grumbled over more distant hills, like a man saying “And another thing…” twenty minutes after admitting he’s lost the argument.

35. He was wrong to think he could now forget that the big, hard, oily, dirty, rainbow-hung Earth on which he lived was a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot lost in the unimaginable infinity of the Universe.

36. “It seemed to me,” said Wonko the Sane, “that any civilization that had so far lost its head as to need to include a set of detailed instructions for use in a packet of toothpicks, was no longer a civilization in which I could live and stay sane.”

37. “Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.”

38. The last time anybody made a list of the top hundred character attributes of New Yorkers, common sense snuck in at number 79.

39. Protect me from knowing what I don’t need to know. Protect me from even knowing that there are things to know that I don’t know. Protect me from knowing that I decided not to know about the things that I decided not to know about. Amen.

40. All you really need to know for the moment is that the universe is a lot more complicated than you might think, even if you start from a position of thinking it’s pretty damn complicated in the first place.

41. In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

42. Don’t Panic.

David Seaman's comment, April 6, 2013 12:52 PM
Remember when trying to think "Don't Panic" it gets easier
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The Coming R&D Crash

The Coming R&D Crash | Science Fiction Future |

One of the few things Republicans and Democrats have been able to agree on in recent years is that the government should be spending more on basic scientific research — the sort of research that, in the past, has played a role in everything from mapping the human genome to laying the groundwork for the Internet.


Should the government be funding this sort of work? (AP)

“Government funding for basic science has been declining for years,” Mitt Romney wrote in his 2010 book No Apology. “It needs to grow instead.” In his most recent State of the Union address, President Obama sounded a similar note: “Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the space race.”


So it’s notable that the exact opposite is, in fact, about to occur. Thanks to budget pressures and the looming sequester cuts, federal R&D spending is set to stagnate in the coming decade. The National Institutes of Health’s budget is scheduled to drop 7.6 percent in the next five years. Research programs in energy, agriculture and defense will decline by similar amounts. NASA’s research budget is on pace to drop to its lowest level since 1988.

As a result, scientists and other technology analysts are warning that the United States could soon lose its edge in scientific research — and that the private sector won’t necessarily be able to pick up the slack.


“If you look at total R&D growth, including the corporate and government side, the U.S. is now at the low end,” says Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). “We’re seeing other countries, from Germany to Korea to China, make much bigger bets. And if that persists for long enough, it’s going to have an impact.”

So how dire is the situation, really?


Let’s start with some basic charts. Over the past decade, federal spending on R&D has grown in real terms, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (although it’s shrinking as a percentage of GDP). That’s been driven largely by Bush-era increases in defense and life-sciences spending:


At its peak in 2009, the federal government funded some 31 percent of all R&D in the country, with private firms and universities financing the rest. The array of federal programs is staggering, from semiconductor work at the Pentagon to climate-change research at NOAA to clinical trials for cancer at the National Institutes for Health. About half of the spending here is “basic” research and half “applied” research.


Yet as a recent report from ITIF explains, this landscape is set to shift now that Congress is putting strict limits on discretionary spending. If the sequester spending cuts take effect on Mar. 1, total spending on research and development will drop to 2007 levels and grow only slowly thereafter (below, black line). Federal R&D spending will decline sharply as a share of GDP:


How worrisome is this projected stagnation in federal R&D spending? A lot depends on how valuable you think government research actually is — and on that point, the debate can get surprisingly contentious.

There’s a long, long list of world-changing innovations that can be traced back to federally funded R&D over the years. The Department of Energy’s research labs spawned digital recording technology, communications satellites, and water-purification techniques. Pentagon research laid the groundwork for the Internet and GPS. The current shale-gas fracking boom couldn’t have happened without microseismic imaging techniques that were developed at Sandia National Laboratories.


But that’s not necessarily the best way to look at things. The key question here is how much of this innovation might have happened without government involvement. And as Stanford’s Roger Noll explains in this NBER essay, economists have fairly nuanced views on this.


Many economists agree that private companies tend to under-invest in very basic scientific research, since it’s hard for one firm to reap the full benefits from those discoveries. So the federal government, which now funds 60 percent of all basic research in the United States, is likely irreplaceable here. What’s more, studies have found that many types of government R&D spur private companies to conduct their own additional research. That is, the two are complementary, not substitutes.


But the situation is murkier for other forms of public R&D. Many government programs are focused on advancing commercial technologies in specific industries — and those could well be crowding out private-sector activities. What’s more, some government R&D programs are so focused on demonstrating their usefulness to Congress that they stick with “safe” research that the private sector would have done anyway.


When the Congressional Budget Office reviewed the evidence in 2007, it concluded that government-funded basic research generated “substantially positive returns.” And it found that, on the whole, government R&D helped spur additional private-sector R&D rather than displace it. Yet the CBO also noted that some types of government programs may very well be crowding out private research. Likewise, a 2007 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the social returns for many public R&D programs were “near zero.”

“It’s not always cut-and-dried,” says Scott Wallsten, president of the Technology Policy Institute. “In theory there are certainly things that are good for society that aren’t profitable for private companies to do. Basic research especially. But when you move out from that, it sometimes becomes more questionable.”


Indeed, this is one area that has recently divided Republicans and Democrats. During the 2012 campaign, Romney heaped praise on basic research programs like ARPA-E, which funds long-shot energy research. But he criticized Obama’s support for programs that try to commercialize new technologies — such as loan guarantees for mature solar firms.

In the near future, however, this debate is moot: When the sequester takes effect on March 1, it will affect all types of R&D, regardless of type or value. In the National Institutes of Health, because of the way grants are structured, the immediate 5.3 percent sequester cuts for 2013 will mean that little new research of any type will get funded this year, explains former NIH director Elias Zahouni.


Meanwhile, there’s the international context to consider. Atkinson points out that United States is in danger of losing its spot as the undisputed world leader on R&D — both public and private. Not only is the federal government paring back its research budget, but the corporate sector isn’t making up the gap either. “In most countries,” he says, “corporate R&D is up over the past decade. Ours didn’t, it stayed stagnant.”


The causes for America’s private-sector R&D stagnation are complex, Atkinson says, ranging from impatient investors to unfavorable tax policies. But ITIF projects that the United States will soon spend less on all types of R&D as a percentage of its economy in the coming decade than countries like Australia and South Korea (though we’ll still spend a lot more in absolute terms, since our economy’s much bigger). Even China is catching up:


There are a few ways to interpret this chart. The sanguine view is that other countries are tossing more money at scientific research that will have positive spillover benefits for the entire world — including us. If China invents a cure for cancer, we all benefit.


Others worry, however, that the U.S. economy could suffer from the fact that a greater share of research is happening elsewhere. A 2012 report by the National Science Foundation, for instance, found that U.S. firms were now shifting much of their R&D work overseas. And the United States has recently developed a trade deficit in high-technology goods, after surpluses during the 1990s.


Many lawmakers seem to take the alarmist view. President Obama in particular has insisted that the United States can’t fall behind on R&D. A sample line: “We’ve got to make sure that we’ve got the best science and research in the world.”


Finding the money to do that will be difficult in an era when Congress is insisting on tight budgets. Some policymakers have tried to put forward novel approaches to R&D — like Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) idea for an “Advanced Energy Trust Fund” that would dedicate a portion of revenues from oil and gas drilling to energy research. (Obama embraced a similar idea in his State of the Union.) Other economists have suggested that the government should lean more heavily on prizes or tax credits as a way of funding innovation.


Yet many of those ideas are fairly small-bore. Getting R&D back to where it was at the height of the space race, as Obama has suggested, will either take a hefty portion of policy creativity — or a big shift in budget politics in the years ahead.


Further reading:


–The Congressional Budget Office has a good overview (pdf) of the economics of federally funded R&D, including a discussion of what works and what doesn’t.


–Elias Zahouni, who directed NIH during the Bush years, explained in this interview how the sequester would likely affect research in that agency.


–Over at Slate, Konstantin Kakaes disputed the idea that the U.S. is in a “research arms race” with China or anyone else. Worth reading as a counterpoint.

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When Robots Rule the World - The Future of Jobs

When Robots Rule the World - The Future of Jobs | Science Fiction Future |
Will robots put us all out of work? FT Alphaville's Cardiff Garcia and Izabella Kaminska discuss how technology is making jobs obsolete at a historically high rate, and how it may be accelerating.


We had a lot of fun making this short video, which is based on a topic that’s been discussed energetically in the blogosphere and elsewhere for a few months, and which has captured Izabella’s fascination for nearly a year.

In addition to Izzy’s work, we drew on many blog posts and other readings in our discussion, and regrettably we didn’t have time to hat tip everyone in the video itself. We include those links below and thank their authors, and of course any misrepresentations are entirely our fault.

Better than human – Kevin Kelly

Will a robot take your job? – Gary Marcus

Robots and robber barons – Paul Krugman

Myth of the jobless recovery – Matt Yglesias

The end of labor – Timothy Noah

And special thanks go to Andrew Smithers and Martin Ford for the two charts we used in the video.

Another wonderful set of links can be found at Izzy’s tumblr, which you should be reading in any case. And again be sure to check out her beyond scarcity series.

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Star Trek: 10 Awesome-Sounding Projects That Never Got Made

Star Trek: 10 Awesome-Sounding Projects That Never Got Made | Science Fiction Future |

Over the 49 year history of Star Trek, the franchise spread itself across a lot of mediums, including TV, comics, books, film, and video games. But along the way to the Trek we know, there have been plenty of projects that never made it past the idea stage, including the Enterprise Vegas attraction pictured above. There’s no real way to figure out the total number of ideas for Treks that never were; there’s not a lot of documentation on the games, for example, so we have no idea how many great Trek games died at the concept stage before we got the final products.


And for a lot of the unproduced Treks we do know about, there isn’t all that much out there on the internet. While there are a few exceptions, most of the unproduced Trek ideas have only a few paragraphs on Memory Alpha, at best, as their obituaries. Most of them are episode concepts for the shows, but there are a few movies and show ideas there too.


In no particular order, here are 10 awesome Trek projects that never got made

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5 Essential Frank Herbert Novels That Aren't About Dune

5 Essential Frank Herbert Novels That Aren't About Dune | Science Fiction Future |


Frank Herbert's Dune saga — a six book series that many consider to be one of the greatest ever written — has completely overshadowed many of his other works. But by the time he died in 1986, Herbert had penned over 26 novels — and not surprisingly, that includes a host of hidden treasures. Here are five novels by Frank Herbert — aside from theDune saga — that you absolutely have to read.


Top illustration by John Berkey, who produced cover art for Frank Herbert's novels.


1. Destination: Void (1966)


Written in 1966 and revised by Herbert in 1978, Destination: Void kicked off a four book series that included The Jesus Incident (1979), The Lazarus Effect (1983), and The Ascension Factor(1988) (the latter books written with Bill Ransom).

This highly underrated series — his most significant outside of the Dune saga — is definitely worth the read, especially the second book, the imaginative and Darwinian-infused Jesus Incident — a novel that features a population of speciated humans who live alongside sentient kelp on a predominantly aquatic world (I guess Herbert grew weary of writing about deserts all the time).

But the book that launched the series, Destination: Void, is a remarkably prescient work — an early attempt to address the containment problem as it applies to greater-than-human artificial intelligence. Set in the near future, it chronicles the travails of a society that recently experienced a catastrophe while working to develop an AI — an effort that resulted in the cataclysmic destruction of the Puget Sound region.

Determined to learn from their mistake — and to keep the development of an AI as far away from Earth as possible — a group of scientists clone themselves and relocate their doppelgangers to an isolated colony on the moon. The clones are misled that they're going to be sent on a mission to Tau Ceti where they are to set up a colony. But in reality, the crew is there to serve the needs of the ship — a spacecraft that's controlled by an uploaded human brain called the Organic Mental Core (OMC). Unexpectedly, the OMC fails, along with its backups, leaving the clones with only one option: They have to develop an AI that will enable the ship to continue, or perish.


2. The Eyes of Heisenberg (1966)


A precursor to Gattaca, Herbert's The Eyes of Heisenberg explores the struggles of a society that has become deeply stratified along genetic and biotechnological lines. The story takes place 80,000 years from now, and addresses a number of themes familiar to many of today's transhumanists and futurists.

Herbert combines both Orwellian and Huxleyian elements to create a dystopian vision in which humanity finds itself divided into two genetic reproductive classes: the dictatorial and radically enhanced "Optimen," and the subservient "Folk." In this world, all humans must undergo genetic analysis and modification prior to birth. At the same time, the sterile Optimen have attained immortality through the use of special enzymes. Social control is maintained through propaganda, the promise of longer life, and the quasi-religious myth of Optimen superiority. Further, the populace is controlled by a hormone addiction that affects both the Folk and the Optimen.

But things are not as they seem, and the story culminates in the rise of an underground cyborg revolt — the result of an earlier attempt to improve humanity by merging flesh with machines.


3. Whipping Star (1969)


In what is probably his most conceptual work, Herbert's Whipping Star takes place in the far future after humanity has made contact with several other extraterrestrial civilizations. Together, they form the ConSentiency — a kind of intergalactic government akin to Star Trek's United Federation of Planets. But this system proves to be too efficient for its own good, enacting knee-jerk laws that disregard their own downstream consequences. In turn, a shadow organization is created to disrupt the system and slow it down. The protagonist, Jorj X. McKie, is aSaboteur Extraordinary, an agent of the Bureau of Sabotage who excels at his work — but he eventually becomes involved with the Calebans, a strange and mysterious species.

But as the story develops, the Calebans start to disappear one by one — and each disappearance coincides with the deaths of millions of other sentient beings and the onset of incurable insanity.

A sequel to Whipping Star was released in 1977 called The Dosadi Experiment.


4. The God Makers (1972)


A cross between Dune and the ConSentiency series,The God Makers is a novel that Herbert pieced together from four short stories he wrote between 1958 and 1960. And indeed, the story contains several elements near and dear to Dune fans, including the practice of "religious engineering" and the conversion of a character into a god-like being. It's not his best work, but it's a must-read for any fan curious to see Herbert's ideas evolve as he progressed towards his ultimate masterpiece, Dune.


Similar to how Bene Gesserits proactively embed religious beliefs within a society they're seeking to control, The God Makers involves a government agency that troubleshoots and rehabilitates "lost planets," namely potentially threatening civilizations that are unenlightened and warlike. The main character, Lewis Orne, travels to these planets and "fixes" them so that order can be maintained throughout the galaxy — a galaxy that is still reeling from a devastating war. But as Orne's assignments get increasingly complex, he soon learns that he has extrasensory capacities and is asked to join the company of "gods" — which would require life-threatening rites of passage.


5. Hellstrom's Hive (1973)


Aside from Dune, this is probably Frank Herbert's most accessible novel. Scifi fans who enjoy dystopian stories about hive minds and totalitarian collectives (like the Borg) will bask in what this novel has to offer.

Set in the Pacific Northwest, a government agency is investigating a curious filmmaker named Nils Hellstrom. Suspecting that he's either a communist or a cult leader, and alarmed that he might be developing a super weapon under the name Project 40, the investigators descend upon his hidden farm. But what they find is beyond horror; Hellstrom has created an underground collective of insectoid-humans. The ant-like colony consists of hundreds of miles of underground tunnels and thousands of workers, each one the product of genetic breeding and modification, chemical injections, and mental conditioning. But the colony runs (disturbingly) smoothly; everyone works for the benefit of the larger group, and there is no social strife or inequity. But as the investigators soon learn, there is indeed a larger plan at work — one that extends beyond the hive.

Herbert was inspired to write the novel after watching David L. Wolper's film, The Hellstrom Chronicle (now available on DVD and Blueray), which features a character of the same name. That said, the story is quite a bit different, one in which human evolution is pitted against the potential for insect domination.

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Hour 25 Interviews SF Stars

Hour 25 clips with Harry Harrison, Anne McCaffrey, Robert A. Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Ben Bova, Frederik Pohl, Fritz Leiber. August 17, 1984.
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Dramatic Decline in SF & F Books Sold

Dramatic Decline in SF & F Books Sold | Science Fiction Future |
Earl Marischal David Greybeard's comment, January 29, 2013 8:00 AM
Doesn't include ebooks or sales from