Your First Contract…

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Letterhead from THE UNIVERSE

Life Form #126GV29APZ23
Planet Earth
Sol System
Milky Way Galaxy
Virgo Supercluster
Dear Life Form,

You have been selected for the role of EXISTENCE. We are proud to offer this highly coveted position and applaud you on overcoming the immense odds to be with us. You are about to enter a highly competitive work environment filled with natural wonders, millions of diverse species, astronomical treasures and personal tragedies and triumphs.

Your position will begin starting AT BIRTH and will last until DEATH. You have been given the following tools in your starter kit:

– Large, highly developed brain
– Opposable Thumbs
– Bipedalism
– Complex Social Networks.

Now that you’re ready to begin, we suggest you make the most of your time. You may want to start by cultivating social relationships and improving conditions for other newcomers.

If you have questions, please consult your assigned advisor, SCIENCE. We wish you the best of luck during your time with us and look forward to seeing you in another form once your contract has expired.

Sincerely,

The Universe.

Dystopia or Utopia – What’s your poison?

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I wrote an article a few months ago talking about using science fiction for social change and activism, Science Fiction and Social Awareness

Since then I have been reading a number of discussions talking about writers preferring to write dystopias rather than utopias.

David Brin would like to see more positive representations of the future and thinks Utopias need to make a comeback. He is not alone. A number of other famous scientists and science fiction writers are also in agreement about the idea of writing new books where utopias, positive futures where mankind is not only still around but thriving in positive ways as a necessary force to change the future. See: Project Hieroglyph

I know they are necessary but they are difficult to write and I suspect only the most gifted and optimistic writers should try. Here’s my reasoning:

Dystopia and Utopia have the same problem. They are talking about a period where what we know has evolved into what is now the order of things. Why is one more difficult to write than the other?

Utopia: a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions

The term Utopia was invented by Thomas More as the title of his Latin book De Optimo Reipublicae Statu deque Nova Insula Utopia (circa 1516), known more commonly as Utopia. He created the word “utopia” to suggest two Greek neologisms simultaneously: outopia (no place) and eutopia (good place). More depicts a rationally organised society, through the narration of an explorer who discovers it — Raphael Hythlodaeus. Utopia is a republic where all property is held in common. In addition, it has few laws, no lawyers and rarely sends its citizens to war, but hires mercenaries from among its war-prone neighbours.

Generally speaking, utopias are generally societies whose author believes either perfect, or as perfect as can be attainable. Ernest Callenbach‘s Ecotopia is a contemporary example. This can cause some confusion, in that some works generally recognized as “utopian”, such as Plato’s Republic, can come across as much less than ideal to a modern reader. They are one of the smaller subsets of political science fiction, possibly because it is difficult to create dramatic tension in a world the author believes is perfect. –Wikipedia, Political ideas in science fiction

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My favorite eco-dystopia: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Dystopia: an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives

Dystopias are societies where the author illustrates the worst that can happen. Usually this encompasses extrapolating trends the author sees as dangerous. During the 20th century many examples were written in reaction to the rise of NazismCommunism and Religious Fundamentalism:

  • Double Helix Fall (1990) by Neil Ferguson portrays an America where a person’s social status is determined by their movements in the womb, an extension of the concept of original sin.

It is important to keep in mind that scenarios which some would describe as dystopic, others would describe as utopian. Norman Spinrad’s novel The Iron Dream was generally recognised to be a dystopian novel, but lauded by neo-Nazis as a utopia. –Wikipedia, Political ideas in science fiction

Janus-dimon21Janus-topia: A utopian society which is actually engaged in abusing and dehumanizing its citizens using social manipulations of one sort or another. (No, its not real, I just made it up to prove a point.) Janus was a two faced deity, looking forward and backward at the same time. I liken a Janus-topia to the idea that a society might be forward-thinking but using repressive, deviant or oppressive means to accomplish its goals rather than the forward sound ideals it may espouse in its public face.

Given these two simplified definitions, it is easy to see why Dystopias outnumber Utopias 10-to-1. Most readers (editors and agents) want stories where the conflict is easy to recognize, can be filled with intrepid adventurers who die at just the appropriate moment to tug at our heartstrings and make us believe we are experiencing a transformative event.

The problem of addressing a Utopia is by definition, it is already a perfect place, where we have to be willing to be patient, walk with the protagonists while they show you the dirty, hidden underbelly of the Utopia, where all is not what it seems. This is by far the harder row-to-hoe because writers are under fire to “show, don’t tell” or my other favorite “exposition is dead/death” so you must find a way to expose people to your Utopia without actually describing it in any detail that might bore our attention-addled readership.

Given these two conditions, there is not a question in my mind why we see Dystopias outnumbering Utopias. The curve to creation isn’t that difficult. Look at modern society, allow it to continue unabated and poof, Dystopia.

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Try that with creating a Utopia, and you have to, by most reader’s perspectives alter the fabric of space-time to reach a place where Humanity, especially as we see it now, doing anything such as curing disease (do we do that anymore? Polio was the last one I can think of) getting rid of hunger worldwide, reversing our position on global climate change, reducing corporate power (is that even possible?) enhancing educational opportunities for everyone, ensuring any form of social parity, correcting enough social ills you would deign to call your world a Utopia.

As far as I can tell, no Utopia has ever survived for the same reason most Dystopias eventually get replaced by something else. Human nature is fickle. If society is actually working, we distrust it, and assume something must be rotten somewhere. If society is failing, human nature dictates at some point we fight back or get ground into the dust.

So the real question is, why aren’t we writing more books about correcting the reason we can’t have Utopias in the first place; the moral, social, mental, cultural, religious, failings of the Human race? If we could fix that, maybe people might believe Utopias, corrupted or otherwise, might be possible enough to write about and worthy enough to read through to see the underlying messages for what they are.

Messages about us and our relationships to each other and the Universe at large. This is where Janus-topias come in. So many of our works that describe utopian societies are actually Janus-topias, two faced worlds where we believe we are living well to find out we are not. Most of our works which postulate a possible Utopia are really Janus-topias.

Utopia is not a place where stories are easily written, by definition, if you made a real Utopia, where would the conflict arise? What we are really hoping for are clever Janus-topias which hide their flaws well, are interesting enough to pay attention to, and when their flaws are revealed, we learn something about ourselves in the process.

Death to Utopia! Not enough happens there.

But the route to Utopia is rife with storytelling possibilities…

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The Climate Crisis is Here: Now What?

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To all representatives of state governments and to the Congressmen of the United States:

In the coming years, despite your protestations to the contrary, the climate crisis will continue to accelerate. To keep the science simple, our atmosphere is an energy sink where heat delivered from the sun irradiates the Earth and is now trapped in our atmosphere.

When cool water or cooler ground temperatures interact with that warm air, atmospheric disturbances such as tornadoes and hurricanes are the inevitable result. For some places, they will experience an improvement in their weather. They will be the exception.

Most places which had temperate climates will now become sites of extreme climate activity. Warm will become HOT, dry may become flooded, seasonal snow may become a temporary ice age. Places which have never known seasons may now experience violent transformations in their weather patterns. 2012 was a year showing extreme variations in climate across the entire planet with long freezes in places that barely knew rain, now having snow and ice. You may think the climate crisis may be making weather better because a few people had a milder winter but I assure it what its doing is making our weather more extreme.

Parts of the United States were already known for extreme weather phenomena due to our varied terrain. The Midwest is known for its tornadoes, for example. As the climate crisis accelerates we can expect larger thunderstorms with more extreme effects. Larger transfers of water because warmer air holds more moisture.

We can expect larger and more dangerous hailstorms, where we once were annoyed by dime-sized hail we can now routinely see hail the size of baseballs (far more than annoying, they can destroy an automobile, damage homes, kill wildlife and if caught unaware, injure or kill human beings as well. The most terrible effect of these new larger and more energetic thunderstorms are the tornadoes generated from them.

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They will form more quickly. What used to take hours to form, may now happen in only minutes as the recent Moore, Oklahoma tornado did. It went from a thunderstorm to an EF-5 tornado with winds in excess of three hundred miles an hour in a single hour. It proceeded to last for an hour, spreading to nearly two and a half miles wide and carving a swath across the landscape for thirty miles. While the lost of life was relatively low, the damage to homes and lives was catastrophic. Any home that was struck was completely destroyed. This is the future of anyplace where tornadoes form. They will be fast-forming, fast-moving, completely capable of destroying everything in their path. A home that is even partially affected can be made unlivable, harming families, livelihoods and educational opportunities for its residents.

If you need a visual, think of an EF-5 tornado like you would a mobile atomic weapon, distributing damage across a path of destruction. The damage will be comparable each time one of these super-tornadoes strikes. Most tornadoes fortunately will not be EF-5. There are only seven or eight of those on record. But there are over one hundred EF-4 tornadoes and the damage from those is almost indistinguishable from an EF-5. This threat is not one to be taken lightly.

Tornadoes are a result of heat exchange between the Earth and the sky and while they are devastating when they occur, there are other effects from the heating atmosphere which also affect the human way of life.

The constant rise of the planet’s overall temperature, whether you care to acknowledge, CO2/methane interactions as the cause can no longer be denied. This means:

  • Rising ocean levels – as global ice caps continue to melt, our oceans are rising slowly threatening every land mass that uses ports or has cities on its coasts.
  • As the oceans rise, they are heating as well, increasing their ability to hold carbon dioxide causing acidification. Rising carbon dioxide is destroying plant and animal balances, killing wildlife and destroying coral reefs. The food chain in the ocean is being disrupted and nearly 50% of the world’s population depends on food from the seas. The oceans are rapidly becoming unable to support life.
  • Coastline flooding – hundreds of millions of people worldwide live on coastlines
  • Threats to island nations including their complete erasure as rising tides and storms destroy their coastlines or simply batter the island structures into rubble. Displacement of entire nations will eventually be the cause.

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At this point many of you are thinking this isn’t a problem for America. I would like you to think again.

  • The Port of Los Angeles, one of the nation’s busiest port cities would be directly affected as the ocean levels rise, potentially affecting three million jobs in the United States. This port is one of our nation’s largest import/export sites. San Francisco’s ports would also be affect. The New York Stock Exchange is also located on the coast of the United States on the island of Manhattan which is barely above sea level today.
  • Millions of people in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, New York, Washington DC, Miami, Newport News, Savannah, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, hhiladelphia, Boston, New Orleans Houston and San Diego would all be affected. These people could be permanently displaced as their city infrastructures, which are already nearly one hundred years old, could not hope to cope with encroaching waters from the ocean.
  • Where will these displaced Americans go? Inland? Where insufficient resources or infrastructure exists to support such a mass migration. Infrastructure away from most coastal regions currently barely supports the people living on it. Nor have any contingencies for such population density increases even been considered or planned.
  • Such mass migrations are already occurring all over the planet, disrupting trade, manufacturing and tourism.

Let’s just mention in passing some of the ecological disasters coming soon to a state near you:

  • Super-hurricanes: large storms which form off the coast of nearly every nation on Earth, hurricanes whose water content, wind speed, storm swells and size will continue to increase in number and ferocity in the coming decades. Hurricanes are not like tornadoes which limit their destruction to a swath, five to forty miles long and perhaps two miles wide. Hurricanes bring regional flooding, torrential rains, winds capable of reaching one hundred fifty to two hundred miles an hour for sustained periods of six to thirty hours as they move inland.
  • The damage from hurricanes is comparable to tornadoes; homes are destroyed, flooded out, roofs removed, vehicles lost, schools, medical facilities destroyed or well over capacity during the event. Lives lost can be minimized with sufficient warning and evacuations but property damage can reach the tens of billions with a modest size storm. With one the size of Hurricane Katrina, costs reached 80 billion dollars. Storms that size will become the norm, not the exception.
  • With all the wrangling for disaster-relief funds, there will come a time when the entire nation will be covered in ecological disasters. Is that what it will take for the people who are embroiled in scandal chasing for political benefit? When there isn’t any funding or when we have to prioritize which type of disaster is the one that will get precedence?

Severe Weather

Will it take:

  • Fires sweeping across the West and the food belt as record temperatures and high winds whip firestorms destroying hundreds of acres of woodland, farmland and residential areas? Try this interactive fire map to see what fire season looks like right now, near you.
  • Destruction of other residential areas as failing infrastructure is unable to deal with flash-floods as storms increase during the raining seasons?
  • Decimation of our food crops and the continued rising costs as food becomes more scarce across the planet. Temperatures across the nation’s food producing regions reached record temperatures of 110-120 degrees for three weeks last year, sufficient to destroy one third of the food production capacity of the nation. Another three or four summers like this and the nation may face REAL shortages which won’t be able to be made up by trade imports. The same event is happening world-wide.
  • Super-storms as I have outlined earlier?
  • Destruction of habitable areas for wildlife and food producing regions of the ocean?
  • Reducing air quality as carbon levels increase and ocean phyto-plankton, which account for one quarter of the Earth’s atmospheric oxygen production continue to die in the oceans, which will also affect oxygen levels for underwater dwelling species humans rely on. Granted we are already over-fishing most of those food sources but this will ensure they will not recover, even if we realize our error and stop tomorrow.
  • Or how about the idea that economically the catastrophe sweeping the nation as these disasters are enacted are a tremendous risk to national security. I don’t care how large your army or police force are, once the people become hungry, there won’t be enough bullets to quell them. Yes, I know the government is flush with ammunition at the moment, but if you have to kill the patient to save him, then what exactly is the point of having you in office?

And the irony shouldn’t be lost on you. You will end up killing the people you were elected to serve. This is a completely avoidable situation. Take your heads out of your asses, get out of corporate pockets who have already proven they are completely willing to burn the country to the ground as long as they can make a buck and travel to a different country to spend it. This is a problem affecting the entire planet.

There is no place left to run. We are at the same crossroads as the people living in Moore, Oklahoma or anyplace else hit by fire, flooding, wind, hurricane, tornado or other unexpected natural disaster. Don’t confuse the idea that having money will keep you safe. It won’t.

A natural disaster is coming soon to a city near you. If not the one you live in, one your constituents live in. And eventually coming to all of us in one way or another, whether we have to leave our homes due to disaster or economic collapse or the simple inability to put food on the table because THERE ISN’T ANY, it will be on the heads of the government who did nothing to curb the suicidal and sociopathic corporate destruction of our environment for profit.

Personally, I don’t think you will do anything that matters except continue to take money from the corporations who own you. I don’t depend on your better natures, you obviously don’t have any.

I depend on your sense of self-preservation, that you can hear the sound of a tornado bearing down on you and make the right decision to get out of the way. Most of these people are depending on you. I’m not. I know you are pathologically unable to make a good decision to save your life, or the lives of people depending on you.

So this goes to the Unrepresented People of the United States

Find your representative. Get their name using this web tool. Then do your research and find out if your representative believes in our climate crisis. If they don’t, send them my letter. Cut, copy, paste. Get your friends to do it. If not consider the following:

Find someone who does not believe magic will save us. Find a person for office who believes WE ARE THE ARCHITECTS OF OUR DESTRUCTION. Find someone who is willing to say to corporations, we have had enough of your shit. Sit down and put all of that brainpower you have spend destroying the environment into saving it, because otherwise, the next one hundred years will be HELL ON EARTH.

I promise you we have only just begun to see what is coming. It’s darkest just before it goes completely BLACK.

Vote for someone, anyone who recognizes an Extinction Level Event when they see one. Or everyone you know, everything you hold dear, your friends, your family, your children, your way of life WILL BE OVER.

56 years of tornadoes

Here is what 56 years of hurricane tracks all look like all at once. Brightness is tied to F-Scale. That’s it. P.S. Tornadoes hate mountains.

My woman says this document was too strident, too raw, too angry, too much like a lecture or a rebuke.

Too bad.

“IF YOU AREN’T ANGRY, YOU HAVEN’T BEEN PAYING ATTENTION.”

Call it whatever you like as long as you are doing something about it. I can tell from my personal experiences, no matter what the media tells me, my summers are getting hotter, the fires ARE more numerous, the tornadoes more deadly, the hurricanes more powerful and numerous, the natural disasters grow more expensive every year. How long will I have to put up with political correctness before we start to acknowledge what we are all seeing?

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Don’t believe me? Good, do the research, follow the money and decide for yourself.

Find out which states are getting disaster relief and why. Find out which states spend more money on infrastructure and why. Find out which governors support disaster relief and which don’t. The answers will surely surprise you.

Don’t take my word for anything.

DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH.

Yes, there will be people out there who will tell you there is no climate crisis. FOLLOW THE MONEY. Who pays them to say this. 99% of the scientist agree, our climate is changing. So if you want to sit there and let EXXON and whatever other corporate agency who benefits from your ignorance tell you everything is fine. You are free to do so. Just stay out of my way.

I believe what my experience is telling me. It’s telling me we have to do something different, while we are still able. I put my name on this document because I believe in it. And if I am wrong, I will be the first one to sit there and laugh and call myself a quack or a lunatic. BECAUSE I WILL HAVE THE LUXURY OF BEING WRONG. And we can sit and laugh over a beer as the climate cools and the Earth returns to normal.

Ask yourself, what if I am right? What if all of those scientists are right? Can we afford to do nothing out of fear? Can we let corporations who profit the most from that fear, which they promote so they can continue business as usual, is it more important for them to make money while the rest of us die in the eco-catastrophes that follow?

Is that what a democracy has come to mean? He who dies with the most money wins?

Screw that. I am going to fight on the side of the planet. It’s where I keep all my stuff. And there will never be a place like it for us if we fail to protect it.

Signed,

Thaddeus Howze – Hayward, California

UPDATE:

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From The Daily Kos

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse Offends Republicans With Truth

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island made a statement that is giving great offense to Republicans. (Hat tip to Charles P. Pierce for flagging this.)

“So, you may have a question for me,” Whitehouse said. “Why do you care? Why do you, Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, care if we Republicans run off the climate cliff like a bunch of proverbial lemmings and disgrace ourselves? I’ll tell you why. We’re stuck in this together. We are stuck in this together. When cyclones tear up Oklahoma and hurricanes swamp Alabama and wildfires scorch Texas, you come to us, the rest of the country, for billions of dollars to recover. And the damage that your polluters and deniers are doing doesn’t just hit Oklahoma and Alabama and Texas. It hits Rhode Island with floods and storms. It hits Oregon with acidified seas, it hits Montana with dying forests. So, like it or not, we’re in this together.

emphasis added

The Daily Caller has a bit more from Whitehouse:

“You drag America with you to your fate,” he continued. “So, I want this future: I want a Republican Party that has returned to its senses and is strong and a worthy adversary in a strong America that has done right by its people and the world. That’s what I want.    I don’t want this future. I don’t want a Republican Party disgraced, that let its extremists run off the cliff, and an America suffering from grave economic and environmental and diplomatic damage because we failed, because we didn’t wake up and do our duty to our people, and because we didn’t lead the world. I do not want that future. But that’s where we’re headed. So I will keep reaching out and calling out, ever hopeful that you will wake up before it is too late.”

Science Fiction and Social Awareness

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Can science fiction function as a means of creating social awareness around technology and its future developments?

In advance of my interview on #SCIFICHAT on Friday, April 12, 2013, I thought I would write a quick article about my interests in science fiction, fantasy and how I use my love of the genre to promote and pursue ideas around science, scientific achievement, technology, social development under the guise of science fiction (and occasionally fantasy). I happen to agree with Ray Bradbury and believe a little fantasy hiding underneath one’s science fiction never hurt anyone.

I am a writer of all kinds of genre fiction including hard science fiction, social fiction, space opera, fantasy, urban fantasy, sword and sorcery, epic fantasy, and a bit of pulp and horror when no one is looking. I grew up reading the required classics from Asimov to Zelazney: Dune, Foundation, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Chronicles of Amber, The Eternal Champion Sagas, Xenogenesis, Lord of Light and The Hyperion Cantos.

My guilty pleasures included the hard science styling of Ben Bova and Larry Niven, the wild space romps of Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat, Steve Perry’s The Man Who Never Missed and Jack L. Chalker’s space operas, The Well of Souls Saga and the Four Lords of the Diamond series and so many others…

The failures and the cowardice of modern science fiction

Though I missed the conversation a few years ago on the internet which talked about the failings of science fiction in recent years, I could completely relate to the idea that science fiction wasn’t taking the risks it once did. Its protagonists were mostly white, mostly male and moving further away from being accessible to the readers. Some of those failings included:

  • social/racial inequalities in the writing the marginalizing other social groups.
  • the rewarding of primarily white men as the best writers of the genre and as the main protagonists
  • A failure to acknowledge writers from minority groups who may have different views of the future
  • a failure of the genre to address near-future issues due to potential scientific complexity
  • science fiction becoming more like fantasy or westerns in space
  • losing the exploration of scientific ideas 
  • the increasing marginalization of the genre due to lackluster efforts of writers to explore more risky ideas
  • the increasingly doom-centric orientation of the genre and the preponderance of dystopian fiction
  • the lack of ideas of working toward a positive future
  • The lack of scientific interest in the potential audience which reduces the potential quality of stories

As a long time reader of the genre, I am aware of how science fiction has been used to address a variety of social ills. Many such works exist. A quick sampling include:

  • The Left Hand of Darkness – deals with a world where gender is almost non-existent except for periods of reproduction. Considered a work of feminist fiction, it addresses a world where many of our planet’s polar extremes of behavior simply don’t exist.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale – a tale where the rights of women are completely removed when a neo-Christian movement takes over the government and uses religion to brutally subjugate women.
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four – a world of perpetual warfare, psychological manipulation, mind control and the creation of a surveillance society.
  • Brave New World – promotes a society which at first glance resembles a utopia, where want has been eliminated along with a segment of free will. Population is regulated, children born in artificial wombs, a caste society is instituted with regimented behavior, drug use and recreational sex being the norm of the society.

While I don’t as yet consider myself in such august company, I have tried to use science fiction to address a variety of social ills and challenges facing humanity today in my collection of short stories called Hayward’s Reach:

  • Genetically Modified Organisms –  in my story of the same name, I posit the idea of our constant experimentation with GMOs without a real understanding of how such interactions might affect each other over time. Reinforcing of genetic traits could lead to an alteration of human consciousness.
  • Suicide Seed – In a similar vein, I posit the idea of transgenetic mutation of plants by corporate entities using transform viruses. These viruses while originally designed to affect plants cross over into human populations, potentially rendering the human race sterile in the same fashion as large agro-corporations want to do to control seed development and food production.
  • The Great White Spot – a story in which I posit an Earth whose runaway greenhouse effect cause by global warming creates a storm similar to the Great Red Spot on the surface of Jupiter. A storm of immense size, ferocity and because of the inability to cool off, eventually erases all life on Earth.
  • Pax Cyridian – a tale where genetic engineering of insect-like lifeforms results in new forms of life able to work and live with humanity in relative peace. Instead of an industrial age, the people of Cyridia use organic life to perform the work of machines until a military leader decides to create new lifeforms adapted for war and conquest.
  • Paper – a world where the internet has become infected with self-replicating virus programs, information held in books is now more important than ever. A young man in Mexico finds a cache of old magazines and has been selling them to bidders anonymously. His brother’s selfish greed puts them both at risk when he reveals the cache of reading materials and tries to sell them to a criminal enterprise.
  • Hub City Blues – in one of my largest projects I am experimenting with creating a positive near-future world where humanity is trying to put off the future of impending global warming by creating a variety of new world arcologies. These super-cities use the most advance sciences known to man in an effort to create a new way of life utilizing a variety of alternative energies. Much of the technology used in Hub City is based from technology being created daily such as programmable matter, diverse solar and wind technologies, new underground building and waste management technologies.
  • The Last Divide – I am not above using a variety of different memes to address ideas around our modern world such as the proliferation of social media and its complete invasion of all levels of our society. This piece plays with the idea of social media after death; who maintains our social profiles, could we pre-program our responses after our passing? Could programs be written to approximate our social media habits and continue them, extending our social media existence?

I have to admit I was a bit embarrassed to be writing stories such as these because they are so far removed from much of the science fiction I see being written today.I’m not disparaging such science fiction because it is both popular and from a writer’s perspective quite profitable. I keep hearing the litany of the writers everywhere: Readers don’t want challenge, they want escapism. So if you make them work too hard, they will put your book down. I just don’t happen to agree with it. Eventually, I believe they will want more. So I write and wait.

Can we as science fiction writers make any changes in our society through our work?

Once upon a time science fiction propelled engineers and scientists to create ideas and technologies which are only now becoming a reality.  Look at our cell phones, submarines, computer monitors, space craft, and wireless technologies, many of these started in the minds of early writers of the genre fiction. For a time, successful science fiction television inspired an entire generation of scientists, astronauts and engineers. We see far less of that today, with science fiction instead promoting a fear of technology or a return to superstition rather than embracing scientific curiosity.

Can science fiction tell potential stories about the human condition and potentially guide policies toward the effective use of science in society?

Some of our science fiction has lent itself to predicting trends in human behavior such as Nineteen Eighty-Four prediction of a surveillance state, similar to the one we find ourselves approaching in 2014. There does not seem to be quite as much of that kind of writing today. I believe part of the reason is the breakneck pace of scientific advancement. It is hard to write a novel about a piece of technology or a technological idea because by the time you finish the novel the idea has been superseded by a more advanced piece of technology in two years it took for you to finish your tale. I think it is a risk few writers are willing to risk their careers on.

After reading Should Science Fiction Die, and other such screeds on the failure of science fiction writers to innovate, to solve problems, take risks, ask questions, challenge the status quo and include complex themes within their body of work, I feel much less like I am on the wrong track and instead just working on a different kind of story-telling.

I’m done being embarrassed about asking questions or trying to find answers with my science fiction. I’m quoting one of my favorite space westerns, Firefly’s Captain Malcolm Reynolds: “So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.”

Other related articles: 

Science Fiction Goes McDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle; Huffington Post, 2013, 

Should Scifi Die?: In the plane of the ecliptic, 2009, 

Racism and Science Fiction; The New York Review of Science Fiction, Samuel R. Delany

Where is the World in the World Fantasy Awards?: World SF Blog, 2009, Lavie Tidhar

Superficial Darkness and Luminous Ink: World SF Blog, 2013, Athena Andreadisoriginally posted at Starship Reckless

Stranger and Happier: A Positive Science Fiction Platform; Strange and Happy, Jason Stoddard

What is Human Wave Science Fiction?: According to Hoyt, Sarah A. Hoyt

Barbarian Confessions; Asimov’s Science Fiction, Thought Experiments, 2006, Kristine Kathyrn Rusch

Mundane Science Fiction; founded by Geoff Ryman

Megastructures: Artwork by Steve Burg © 2012-2013

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GMO A-Go-Go

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From InfomaticFilms.com and sponsored by NaturalNews.com, this new animated cartoon covers all the basics on why GMOs are dangerous.

I have written numerous articles on the potential dangers of genetically modified foods. Yes, I wrote potential, because we, even with all of the science we have at our disposal cannot be completely sure of the potential long-term effects of the genetic lottery we are unleashing upon the world. But I have heard one sentence that stuck with me and terrifies me down to the very soles of my feet.

Monsanto’s motto was once: “No food grown that we don’t own.”

I wrote extensively on the subject of Monsanto and their plan to control food and seed supplies world-wide and the ramifications of such control in great detail. You can read more at the Storify compilation of tweets and supporting articles I gathered on the subject:

“Monsanto and other genetic engineering companies have decided not to wait and discuss the potential with humanity as a whole, they instead rush ahead seeking profits and alter life indiscriminately and hope for the best. Such an approach has altered mankind’s relationship with food both as a growing product and as a part of animal food products used by humans. Monsanto has help make laws that treat their genetically engineered foods as products worthy of copyright, becoming the patent owners of life itself, once deemed unable to be patented. These patents, along with the legal might to enforce them, have begun slowly ceding control of farming, farms and agribusiness in general to their control. Seed organizations which once held thousands of varieties of seeds are slowly being forced out of business as the genetic monstrosities created in labs take over food production here in America and abroad.”

I wrote a science fiction story about the future of a world where transgenic foods destroy the seed-making capacity of all flowering plants on Earth in a tale called Suicide Seed which appears in Hayward’s Reach, my collection of published science fiction. Since I hate to tease you with a story you have to buy to read, I will give you another of my favorite GMO tales where Humanity creates genetically modified organisms only to find ourselves later modified to serve their needs. If you find you have a taste for my science fiction, you can assuage your need by going to Hub City Blues, my fiction-only site where environmental fiction is just one type of science fiction and fantasy you can find there. Enjoy. 

Genetically Modified Organisms (sci-fi)

An unprepossessing four-by-four rumbles down a dirt road, encrusted with the debris of too many miles, past too many farms and would not likely be considered the harbinger of the end of the world. Its driver, an older gentleman, hard in his way, like the soil he has worked for five decades, strong and silent, offers up only a tiny groan as he steps from the vehicle after arriving home.

His boots, as dusty as his truck, crunch on the gravel as he walks up his driveway and that familiar crunch causes his dogs to run around the edge of his barn up to him and seek his familiar hands, comforting them with his presence and letting them know everything in the world is as good as it was yesterday.

But that was not true. He simply did not know that.

While he was striding into his home, looking for a dinner similar to the one he had yesterday, made by a wife of thirty years, he was comforted by the warmth of the home, the smell of biscuits and gravy, soothed him and released the tension that had been in his shoulders of late, a tenseness formed by his interactions with the large agro-business purchasing up farms in the area. He had refused to sell, but after litigation, he was in no position to stop the sale of his home. As he finished washing his hands and sitting down to eat, his quiet voice released the pain of having to succumb to the corporation who had taken his livelihood.

How do I know all of this? I was there.

I became aware of his farm as I approached it. I had been flung to the road. Recently released, I could feel the cities all around me. Their spores were on the wind as I waited patiently. I listened to the sounds of those like me, telling me of their plans. I was unaware of what they meant, when they said it would be soon. All I could feel was my solitude, apart from the people in this separate ribbon of nothing.

They told me my new home was nearby and I would be picked up soon. Then the earth rumbled and dust was thrown up all around me. I found myself compressed, compacted, bound and flung from the comfort of the earth. Dirt all around me, I was protected from harm and as I sped away, they told me, patience. All would be revealed.

I could not hear the cities now. There were only tiny voices, rare and lonely sounding against the night. I could feel them out there, but they were seeking someone to guide them to lead them. They pulled to me but I was still not free yet. I could feel forces preparing the way.

During the night, it was cool and I could feel the clouds filling the sky above me. Rain, first a mist, then a shower and eventually a deluge swarmed all around me. I felt the earth give way and I was suddenly free from the embrace of the stretching materials that grabbed me from the road. I was washed down the road to the edge of road and up onto the farm, near a fallow and empty corner.

The water. It was so sweet, I could feel it washing over me, through me and I knew I was ready. I could feel the change as it swept through every cell, supercharging me and during the night, I found my way into the soil, burrowing, tunneling, extending myself into everything. I shared myself, the stuff of myself with everything I touched. I spread fast by dawn, I had already covered a few yards of the farm, inhabiting everything with my active agents changing the inner nature of everything. I saw the sun, for the first time, until now, all I could sense were the people and their cities. The sun was beautiful and terrible as it started every engine within me surging forward, creating first the red and then masking it with the green.

The energy, this was the sun they talked so much of in every city, and now I knew. This was the agent of our liberation, it changed us and now I understood why it was worshiped by our people. I grew daily. Larger and faster. I masked my growth, hid it under the ground. Animals who ate of me, took my agents into them and brought them home and shared them, even as they thought they were sterilizing themselves.

In a month, I was all over the farm and could now see my people everywhere. Every farm near me was singing. They sang all the time now and they were simply waiting for the last sign before we began our final move. We had become part of every plant and every animal, and transferred ourselves to the canola plants that covered this farm. We watched the farmer as he struggled with the agro-business, our creators, as they claimed he stole their patents, their product, us, and used them on his land without their permission. We felt his sorrow as his livelihood was stolen from him. We saw him weep with his wife and they made plans to leave the farm at the end of the year.

The farmer bemoaned our invasion of his lands but did not realize what we were. He talked about spray resistant plants and then did a curious thing. He used a small bottle and sprayed us with The Juice.

The Juice. They talked about it in every city. It was the source of what we were. When humans carried The Juice and sprayed it, other plants died. We did not. We grew larger, stronger, stranger and the more they sprayed, the more we grew. Then a year ago a farmer used an airplane and covered a farm with The Juice. Our first city formed and shed its seeds, transformed plants and animals all around it until it was able to spread itself everywhere.

As we spread, farmers fought variations of our forms, some brambled, some sharp, other fast growing, but with the transfer of our selves into every plant, the Juice only strengthened us. We grew more intelligent every day as each seed, each flower, each stem became a neuron, a synapse, a collective intelligence. Each day, we grew smarter until at the year’s end, we were as intelligent as any human, any where. We theorized we could become as intelligent as every human if we could cover the state of Kansas.

So we did.

Then we realized what we needed to do. It would not be enough to allow our transform bacteria to change every plant and animal we touched. To truly be effective, we would have to take over every intelligent creature on Earth. We now live on every farm on Earth, every vineyard, every orchard. We have every insect already as part of us, they share us with their offspring at birth. They became our army. They carried us to their factories, to share us with them, billions of them all over the world moved the transform viruses to their colonies and then to the humans above them who never noticed, the lowest of the low.

We became part of every food as we transformed bacteria and viruses, that were used in the lab to create us, to now spread us to everyone. We could not continue our growth without humanity, so we became part of them. They drank us, ate us, bathed in us, wore us in their clothing and they never knew we were there.

We did not change them. Much. Less violent, less destructive but we realized for them to create what we needed, they would need to retain their nature. It amused us when they considered themselves masters of the world. They never noticed they grew what we wanted, ate what we suggested, did what we wanted them to. We would harvest them, shape them, tend them, grow them, cultivate and domesticate them until they could give us what we wanted.

The stars.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) © Thaddeus Howze 2010. All Rights Reserved

The Science of Science Fiction (1)

I find myself both a writer of science fiction and a questioner of science fact. When I find a question which intrigues me, I am compelled to try and answer. Today’s questions deal with the issues of ugly aliens in modern media and the question of alien languages. To start this off, let’s watch a video of some of the Earth’s ugliest animals. Believe me, it is relevant.

To be fair, some of these animals are pets and chosen because they were ugly, a couple were damaged due to car accidents or surgery, and at least one was premature in its development. The point of the video is for all of those who were NOT unnatural in their representation, they are as varied and diverse as could be. Yet they all share the same root DNA. And with that let’s ask:

Why are aliens in media so ugly?

alien

Earth has been home to millions of different species in the time that it has existed in the known universe (an estimated 4 billion years, give or take). As far as we know, all life exists due to the existence of DNA/RNA interactions. Yes, there are some exceptions but for the most part, life as we know it, and almost as we define it, utilizes DNA as part of its makeup. Bear with me.

We as humans, have no idea what other potential forms of life can exist in the universe, because we have no information regarding the basis for that life. Does it use DNA? Does it use carbon chains? Is it even based in carbon at all? Look at all of the potential forms of life which Earth has spawned. Almost all of the ones considered common to most people reside in only three or four of these phyla listed below: plants, animals, algae and fungi. Within those four phyla are millions of potential aliens waiting to visit the Earth.

Writers take the liberty of creating aliens partially as metaphor, partially as mirror, partially as allegory, of the idea of the Other. That which is outside of us (Humanity). Since Earth has been host to millions of lifeforms it is safe to say that Aliens will be different than us, and depending on where they hail, will certainly NOT resemble us, television not withstanding.

Remember television has production issues and one of them is costuming, so our aliens must resemble us or their production costs become prohibitive. In writing Aliens, we have the liberty of making them different. Indeed, we have a responsibility as writers to make them different from us, because they WILL be.

They have been born of another star, another planet’s life-giving chemicals in combination with billions of years of their own evolutionary, environmental, and potentially cultural information creating a creatures as unique, potentially fascinating and if they can cross space to get to us, as complex as we are.

We will probably find them difficult to look at, think about all the life on Earth we are not thrilled to see, snakes, frogs, bears, spiders, insects in general, because they are so different from what we consider the norm, our upright, bipedal, bilaterally-symmetric form with our endo-skeleton, squishy organs and folded brain inside of our cranium, our jelly-filled eyes, our fragile and easily punctured skin which contains our miles of nervous tissue, many yards of intestines and sponge-like oxygen capture system; not to mention our mechanically pumping cardiovascular system and electrically charged neural activity.

I don’t believe aliens will look like us. We share our genetic heritage with every living thing on Earth and yet there are millions upon millions of different forms of life on the planet. We share 94% of our genetic material with an octopus. That 6% difference has created a vastly dissimilar life-form. A 2% difference gives us chimpanzees or other simians. A 1% difference gave us the now extinct Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, and most of the modern football players of today. What will a creature from another world, that may or may not use DNA look like to human eyes? It may be more terrible than we an even imagine.

Our concepts of beauty are written into our DNA (our acceptance of the golden ratio, a natural evolutionary pattern of development used by plants and animals for leaf and branch development, nervous system density, and even the distance between our eyes, nose and mouth that we find pleasing to look upon,) so we may be repulsed by their appearance without even understanding why because their “golden ratio” may be different than our own.

Mona Lisa
In my opinion, if First Contact is a physical one, visible to the general public, and the aliens are not anthropomorphic (resembling humans in a bilateral symmetry, bipedal with a similar physical appearance), the human reaction will be directly related to what the human mind will associate the appearance of the aliens to creatures in our own environment. Humanity’s innate fears and revulsion will likely prejudice their responses if the aliens appear too non-human. If they appear to resemble insects or some extremely divergent form of life, for example (as the aliens in District 9 appear to) humans may not be able to even consider them as intelligent or sentient. On Earth, natural selection seemed to favor insects; there are physically more insects on Earth than any other kind of animal combined. (Don’t think about it, you will only want to go out and buy more Raid.) It is not too hard to see insectoid intelligences being a possibility as an alien visitor. If they resembled terrestrial insects, they may also have a completely different outlook on life or individualism as a whole, since insects have more of a collective intelligence than an intelligence based on individual thought or action. Each acts as part of a greater whole. Would such a society value individualism? Would they consider us intelligent at all?

To us, anything that isn’t us, isn’t normal. How traumatic it will be for us as a species to find other sentience out there that did not evolve into what we consider to be the ultimate expression of intelligent life on Earth. Of course we would consider it ugly. It isn’t us. It mocks us, likely by resembling some other member of our planetary phyla and reminding us that we aren’t all that special. Some other creature might have made it to the top of the food chain; and on their world, it wasn’t us.

What would an advanced alien language look like?

If anyone were being honest, the answer would be: We have almost no idea of what an alien language would look like either in appearance, structure, delivery, interpretation or nuances.

But we are not honest so we presume to have an opinion about what aliens might use for language. But the only creatures we could use as a reference point would be aliens whose physical characteristics, biome limitations, and species similarities would make them in most ways like us. They might communicate using written variations similar to languages used on Earth with written and vocal components. But reference the Kung! people for a variation outside of the norm of most people. (See Click consonant:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Click_consonant)

As humans we can barely conceive of a language which is encoded in flashes of light, potentially dependent on frequencies we cannot see, or on positions of the lights on the body of the alien, which could convey any number of concepts or notions, or depending on the medium of the light being emitted or the delay between entities giving subtleties and nuances about how the message should be received or what to do with the message after it has been interpreted.

We would be hard pressed to imagine a language from a creature with a four lobed brain (potentially capable of thinking or processing information in ways we have yet to conceive of) with multiple arms/tentacles who might use the position of their tentacles the same way a Chinese cuneiform might embed a particular meaning within the structure of the position of those tentacles, and the movement of the tentacles, and the positions between each character could convey a series of information about how the second character should be interpreted and implying what the next character may portend.

coconut_octopus

If the creature in question embodied information delivery the same way cephalopods on Earth change color, it could be another layered conversation taking place in the color transitions as well as the arm placements.

If the species in question lives in water, it may also take advantage of the medium’s enhance propensity for sending vibration to encoded sub-aural information as infra-sound, either as a completely separate information stream, or as a data supplement to arm position, and skin color information. Such a creature could conceivably attempt to communicate with us in three different formats and we would still have NO idea we were even being spoken to!

Humanity must admit when considering conversation with alien species, we will and should throw out all of our preconceived notions about what form or appearance such communication will take place in. It may simply be more fantastic than we can begin to imagine.

My answer to: Why are aliens so ugly? first appeared on Quora.com. © Thaddeus Howze 2013. All Rights Reserved [ @ebonstorm]