Well, it seems that I have been roped into another challenge. Somehow, I thought these days were behind me the moment I began using this site strictly for professional reasons – you know, like book releases and promotions. However, when a friend and colleague nominates you, you got to step up! And hey, this challenge seems kind of fun and it is a way for writers (and aspiring writers) to share their influences.
Okay, so here are the rules of this challenge!
Thank whoever nominated you with big, bold print. If they have a blog, link to the post where you got tagged there.
Explain the rules.
Post the cover of a book that was influential on you or that you love dearly.
Explain why it was so influential to you.
Tag someone else to do the challenge, and let them know they’ve been tagged.
Okay, so my first act is to say thanks to RAMI UNGAR for the nomination, and you can find him at ramiungarthewriter.com. And here’s my selection for the challenge, the time-honored classic 1984.
I know, I know, everybody claims that 1984 is their favorite book, and apparently it is the novel that people lie about having read the most. But I actually have read it, three times now, and I can say without hesitation or doubt that it is one of the most influential books I’ve ever read.
The book was initially recommended to me by one of my high-school English teachers (Mr. David Gamble). He taught us Post-Colonial Literature and 1984 wasn’t on our syllabus, nor was it part of the senior English curriculum that year. But as he put it, this was a book that we all needed to read before we went off to college, university or whatever else we were doing with our lives. It would change the way we saw the world, he said.
That summer, I borrowed a copy from my mother and began digging into it. At first, I was only able to read a few pages at a time since I typically read before bed and had an early morning job that summer (like most summers when I was a student, I was working construction). However, I took the book camping with me and managed to finish reading it in a few sittings. I was so engrossed that I stayed up late just so I could finish it. And when I was done, I felt haunted, moved, inspired, and terrified all at once!
Needless to say, Mr. Gamble had been right, it DID change the way I saw the world! And twice more since University I’ve gone back to the book to re-read it with more appreciative and mature eyes. I even keep a list of quotes from the book that have had an enduring impact on me. All of them are taken from the Goldstein Manifesto, which (lesser-known fact) was the part of the novel Orwell wrote first. In this respect, the Manifesto is the part of the novel where Orwell is speaking directly to his audience, conveying his thoughts on history, politics, and human evolution:
“From the moment when the machine first made its appearance it was clear to all thinking people that the need for human drudgery, and therefore to a great extent human inequality, had disappeared. If the machine were used deliberately for that end, hunger, over-work, dirt, illiteracy and disease could be eliminated within a few generations.”
“But it was also clear that an all-round increase in wealth threatened the destruction – indeed, in some sense was the destruction – of a hierarchical society.”
“In earlier ages, class distinctions has not only been inevitable but desirable. Inequality was the price of civilization. With the development of machine production, however, the case was altered.Even if it was still necessary for human beings to do different kinds of work, it was no longer necessary for them to live at different social or economic levels. Therefore, from the point of view of the new groups who were on the point of seizing power, human equality was no longer an ideal to be striven after, but a danger to be averted.”
“In more primitive ages, when a just and peaceful society was in fact not possible, it had been fairly easy to believe it… But by the fourth decade of the twentieth century all the main currents of political thought were authoritarian. The earthly paradise had been discredited at exactly the moment when it became realizable.”
See? Still holds up even after all these years!
Okay, now it’s my turn to nominate someone, and I choose Fallacious Rose from butimbeautiful.com! I’ve always found her to be a very interesting woman and would like to hear what books have spoken to her over the years.
You know me, I’m not really in the habit of reviewing television shows that don’t involve a science fiction plot or zombies. But Community is one of my favorite shows currently on TV, and this past week they did an episode that I found absolutely brilliant. Starting with the premise of a new social utility app that let’s people rank others, it then got into some serious dystopian lit territory!
To break it down, the setting of the show – Greendale Community College – becomes the beta testing ground for an app called MeowMeow Beenz. This gives people the chance to rate each other the same way they would a movie or product online, and it becomes a big hit on the campus. Quickly, people realize that ratings made by people with five beenz (five kitty faces) carry more weight, and a social hierarchy is formed!
That’s when all the dystopian imagery comes into play. The school is then rezoned based on people’s rating and everyone is forced to dress accordingly. The fives live in pastel covered room, wear white robes and futuristic looking devices, and are waited on hand and foot. Four’s dress like something out of Logan’s Run and live in the halls adjacent to them, where they aspire to become fives.
Threes and Two live in the “common area” where things are darkly lit, everyone dresses in grey coveralls, and the voice of dean informs them over the PA that “tranquility is advancement… a happy three is a future four”. And one’s are banished to the “outland”, which is the campus grounds that have now been redecorated with barbed wire, search lights, and fires in metal drums.
Eventually, the Fives try to appease the masses by holding a talent contest where the winner will receive Five status. Jeff and Britta, two of the show’s MCs plot to bring it down by getting Jeff to win and then denounce the rating system. But after he wins the contest – which is a clear allusion to American Idol and so many other reality TV tropes – he joins the Fives and tries to become its new leader.
Meanwhile, Britta – disillusioned by his betrayal – goes amongst the Twos and Threes and foments a revolution, replacing the rule of the Fives with a system of revolutionary justice where the Ones run things. As the leader, she is called “the Mother of Ones”, and judges all the fives by “reducing them to Oneness” – i.e. reducing their status to make them the same as everyone else.
But in the end, Jeff points out the cruel irony that the app developers have played on them. It asks people to rate each other, but the beta test ended days ago and the app itself is already available and rated FIVE STARS. He tells everyone that they must rate this “unregistered Five” by erasing it, and they all do. Realizing it’s Saturday, everyone then leaves school and goes home to sleep.
I tell ya, it was brilliant! Not only did it capture the essence of so many 20th century dystopian epics – showing how a hierarchical system based on fear, greed, the promise of advancement and propaganda can so easily take over. It also captured the very dangers of a revolutionary movement which seeks to replace such a system with one of forced equality, led by a tyrannical mother/father figure.
It also managed to provide some fitting satire on reality TV, the very way it conforms to some of our earlier dystopian predictions, and how the drive to be popular and famous is responsible for a great deal of angst in America and the world. Top all that off with some stabs at Zuckerberg, Facebook, and social utility apps in general, and you’ve got yourself a kickass episode!
And at one point, there’s was even a subtle reference to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s WE, the classic novel that inspired Orwell to write 1984 and presumably, Huxley to write Brave New World (though he denied it). At one point, two of the show’s characters are hiding in an office, and label that reads D-503 is on the door. This just happens to be the designation of the main character in WE, as no one in the One State has actual names anymore.
This is the reason I love this show. Dan Harmon, the show’s producer, knows great television, has great writers, and loves being all meta! In fact, that’s something they repeatedly say in the show: “that’s meta!” If you haven’t caught this show yet, then do so. It stars Chevy Chase (until the most recent season), is on Netflix (Canada, but not in the US), and makes hundreds of clever movie and television references.
In the course of becoming an indie writer, there is one aspect of the creative process which keeps coming back to me. To put it simply, it is the challenges and delights of world building – i.e. creating the background, context, and location in which a story takes place. For years, I have been reading other people’s thoughts on the subject, be they authors themselves or just big fans of literary fiction.
But my own experience with the process has taught me much that I simply couldn’t appreciate before I picked up my pen and pad (or in this case, opened a word doc and began typing). Ad lately, the thoughts have been percolating in my mind and I felt the need to write them out. Having done that, I thought I might share them in full.
For starters, being a science fiction writer presents a person with particular opportunities for creative expression. But at the same time, it presents its share of particular challenges. While one is certainly freer to play around with space, place, and invent more freely than with most other genres, they are still required to take into account realism, consistency and continuity in all that they do.
Sooner or later, the world a writer builds will be explored, mapped, and assessed, and any and all inconsistencies are sure to stick out like a sore thumb! So in addition to making sure back-stories, timelines and other details accord with the main plot, authors also need to be mindful of things like technology, physical laws, and the nature of space and time.
But above all, the author in question has to ask themselves what kind of universe they want to build. If it is set in the future, they need to ask themselves certain fundamental questions about where human beings will be down the road. Not only that, they also need to decide what parallels (and they always come up!) they want to draw with the world of today.
Through all of this, they will be basically deciding what kind of message they want to be sending with their book. Because of course, anything they manage to dream up about the future will tell their readers lots about the world the author inhabits, both in the real sense and within their own head. And from what I have seen, it all comes down to five basic questions they must ask themselves…
1. Near-Future/Far Future:
When it comes to science-fiction stories, the setting is almost always the future. At times, it will be set in an alternate universe, or an alternate timeline; but more often than not, the story takes place down the road. The only question is, how far down the road? Some authors prefer to go with the world of tomorrow, setting their stories a few decades or somewhere in the vicinity of next century.
By doing this, the author in question is generally trying to show how the world of today will determine the world of tomorrow, commenting on current trends and how they are helping/hurting us. During the latter half of the 20th century, this was a very popular option for writers, as the consensus seemed to be that the 21st century would be a time when some truly amazing things would be possible; be it in terms of science, technology, or space travel.
Other, less technologically-inclined authors, liked to use the not-so-distant future as a setting for dystopian, post-apocalytpic scenarios, showing how current trends (atomic diplomacy, arms races, high tech, environmental destruction) would have disastrous consequences for humanity in the near-future. Examples of this include Brave New World, 1984, The Iron Heel, The Chrysalids, and a slew of others.
In all cases, the totalitarian regimes or severe technological and social regression that characterized their worlds were the result of something happening in the very near-future, be it nuclear or biological war, a catastrophic accident, or environmental collapse. Basically, humanity’s current behavior was the basis for a cautionary tale, where an exaggerated example is used to illustrate the logical outcome of all this behavior.
At the other end of the spectrum, many authors have taken the long view with their sci-fi world building. Basically, they set their stories several centuries or even millennia from now. In so doing, they are able to break with linear timelines and the duty of having to explain how humanity got from here to there, and instead could focus on more abstract questions of existence and broader allegories.
Examples of this include Frank Herbert’s Dune and Asimov’s Foundation series, both of which were set tens of thousands of years in the future. In both of these universes, humanity’s origins and how they got to where they were took a backseat to the historical allegories that were being played upon. While some mention is given to the origins of humanity and where they came from, little attempt is made to draw a line from the present into the future.
Instead, the focus is overwhelmingly on the wider nature of human beings and what drives us to do the things we do. Asimov drew from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to make a point about the timeless nature of history, while Herbert drew on the modern age, medieval and ancient history, religion, philosophy, and evolutionary biology and ecology to investigate the timeless nature of humanity and what factors shape it.
For non-purists, Star Wars and Star Trek can also serve as examples of both tendencies in action. For decades, Star Trek used a not-too-distant future setting to endlessly expound on the human race and the issues it faces today. And always, this examination was done in the form of interstellar travel, the crew of the Enterprise going form world to world and seeing themselves in the problems, norms and social structure of other races.
Star Wars, on the other hand, was an entirely different animal. For the people living in this universe, no mention is ever made of Earth, and pre-Republic history is considered a distant and inaccessible thing. And while certain existential and social issues are explored (i.e. racism, freedom and oppression), the connections with Earth’s past are more subtle, relying on indirect clues rather than overt comparisons.
The Republic and the Empire, for example, is clearly inspired by Rome’s own example. The Jedi Code is very much the picture of the Bushido code, its practitioners a sort of futuristic samurai, and the smugglers of Tatooine are every bit the swashbuckling, gun toting pirates and cowboys of popular fiction. But always, the focus seemed to more on classically-inspired tales of destiny, and of epic battles of good versus evil.
And of course, whether we are talking near future or far future has a big influence on the physical setting of the story as well. Which brings me to item two…
2. Stellar or Interstellar:Here is another important question that every science fiction author has faced, and one which seriously influences the nature of the story. When it comes to the world of tomorrow, will it be within the confines of planet Earth, the Solar System, or on many different world throughout our galaxy? Or, to go really big, will it encompass the entire Milky Way, or maybe even beyond?
Important questions for a world-builder, and examples certainly abound. In the former case, you have your dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and near future seenarios, where humanity is stuck living on a hellish Earth that has seen better days. Given that humanity would not be significantly more adavanced than the time of writing, or may have even regressed due to the downfall of civilization, Earth would be the only place people can live.
But that need not always be the case. Consider Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. In his dystopian, post-apocalyptic tale, Earth was devestated by nuclear war, forcing the wealthiest and healthiest to live in the Offworld Colonies while everyone who was too poor or too ravaged by their exposure to radiation was confined to Earth. Clearly, dystopia does not rule out space travel, though it might limit it.
And in the latter case, where human beings have left the cradle and begun walking amongst our System’s other planets and even the stars, the nature of the story tends to be a bit more ambiguous. Those who choose such a setting tend to be of the opinion that mankind either needs to reach out in order to survive, or that doing so will allow us to shed some of our problems.
Examples abound here again, but Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe seems like the ideal one here. In this series, humanity has access to near-light speed travel, nanotechnology, brain-computer interfacing, neural uploading, AI, smart materials, and has colonized dozens of new worlds. However, the state of humanity has not changed, and on many worlds, civil war and sectarian violence are common.
In either case, the setting also bears a direct relation to the state of technology in the story. For humans still living on Earth (and nowhere else) in the future, chances are, they are about as advanced or even behind the times in which the story was written. For those living amongst the stars, technology would have to advanced sufficiently to make it happen. Which brings me to the next point…
3. High-Tech or Low-Tech: What would a work of science fiction be without plenty of room for gadgets, gizmos, and speculation about the future state of technology? And once more, I can discern of two broad categories that an author can choose from, both of which have their share of potential positives and negatives. And depending on what kind of story you want to write, the choice of what that state is often predetermined.
In the former case, there is the belief that technology will continue to advance in the future, leading to things like space travel, FTL, advanced cyborgs, clones, tricorders, replicators, artificial intelligence, laser guns, lightsabers, phasers, photon torpedoes, synthetic humans, and any number of other fun, interesting and potentially dangerous things.
With stories like these, the purpose of high-tech usually serves as a framing device, providing visual evidence that the story is indeed taking place in the future. In other words, it serves a creative and fun purpose, without much thought being given towards exploring the deeper issues of technological progress and determinism. But this not be the case, and oftentimes with science fiction, high-tech serves a different purpose altogether.
In many other cases, the advance of technology is directly tied to the plot and the nature of the story. Consider cyberpunk novels like Neuromancer and the other novels of William Gibson’s SprawlTrilogy. In these and other cyberpunk novels, the state of technology – i.e. cyberpsace decks, robotic prosthetics, biotech devices – served to illustrate the gap between rich and poor and highlighting the nature of light in a dark, gritty future.
By contrast, such post-cyberpunk novels as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age took a different approach. While high-tech and its effects on society were explored in great detail, he and other authors of this sub genre chose to break with their predecessors on one key issue. Namely, they did not suppose that the emergence of high-tech would lead to dystopia, but rather an ambiguous future where both good and harm resulted.
And at the other end of the spectrum, where technology is in a low state, the purpose and intent of this is generally the same. On the one hand, it may serve as a plot framing device, illustrating how the world is in a primitive state due to the collapse of civilization as we know it, or because our unsustainable habits caught up with us and resulted in the world stepping backwards in time.
At the same time, the very fact that people live in a primitive state in any of these stories serves the purpose of commentary. Simply by showing how our lives were unsustainable, or the actions of the story’s progenitor’s so foolish, the author is making a statement and asking the reader to acknowledge and ponder the deeper issue, whether they realize it or not.
At this end of things, A Boy and His Dog and Mad Max serve as good examples. In the former case, the story takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape where a lone boy and his genetically-engineered talking dog rove the landscape in search of food and (in the boy’s case) sexual gratification. Here, the state of technology helps to illustrate the timeless nature of the human condition, namely how we are essentially the products of our environment.
In Mad Max as well, the way roving gangs are constantly looking for gasoline, using improvised weapons, and riding around in vehicles cobbled together from various parts gives us a clear picture of what life is like in this post-collapse environment. In addition, the obvious desperation created by said collapse serves to characterize the cultural landscape, which is made up of gangs, tinpot despots, and quasi-cults seeking deliverance.
But on the other hand, the fact that the world exists in this state due to collapse after the planet’s supply of oil ran dry also provides some social commentary. By saying that the world became a dangerous, anarchistic and brutal place simply because humanity was dependent on a resource that suddenly went dry, the creators of Mad Max’s world were clearly trying to tell us something. Namely, conserve!
4. Aliens or Only Humans: Another very important question for setting the scene in a science fiction story is whether or not extra-terrestrials are involved. Is humanity still alone in the universe, or have they broken that invisible barrier that lies between them and the discovery of other sentient life forms? Once again, the answer to this question has a profound effect on the nature of the story, and it can take many forms.
For starters, if the picture is devoid of aliens, then the focus of the story will certainly be inward, looking at human nature, issues of identity, and how our environment serves to shape us. But if there are aliens, either a single species or several dozen, then the chances are, humanity is a united species and the aliens serve as the “others”, either as a window into our own nature, or as an exploration into the awe and wonder of First Contact.
As case studies for the former category, let us consider the Dune, Foundation, and Firefly universes. In each of these, humanity has become an interstellar species, but has yet to find other sentiences like itself. And in each of these, human nature and weaknesses appear to be very much a constant, with war, petty rivalries and division a costant. Basically, in the absence of an “other”, humanity is focused on itself and the things that divide it.
In Dune, for example, a galaxy-spanning human race has settled millions of worlds, and each world has given rise to its own identity – with some appearing very much alien to another. Their are the “navigators”, beings that have mutated their minds and bodies through constant exposure to spice. Then there are the Tleilaxu, a race of genetic manipulators who breed humans from dead tissue and produce eunuch “Face Dancers” that can assume any identity.
Basically, in the absence of aliens, human beings have become amorphous in terms of their sense of self, with some altering themselves to the point that they are no longer even considered human to their bretherin. And all the while, humanity’s biggest fight is with itself, with rival houses vying for power, the Emperor gaurding his dominance, and the Guild and various orders looking to ensure that the resource upon which all civilization depends continues to flow.
In the Foundation universe, things are slightly less complicated; but again, the focus is entirely inward. Faced with the imminent decline and collapse of this civilization, Hari Seldon invents the tool known as “Psychohistory”. This science is dedicated to anticipating the behavior of large groups of people, and becomes a roadmap to recovery for a small group of Foundationists who seek to preserve the light of civilization once the empire is gone.
The series then chronicles their adventures, first in establishing their world and becoming a major power in the periphery – where Imperial power declines first – and then rebuilding the Empire once it finally and fully collapses. Along the way, some unforeseen challenges arise, but Seldon’s Plan prevails and the Empire is restored. In short, it’s all about humans trying to understand the nature of human civilization, so they can control it a little better.
Last, but not least, their is the Firefly universe which – despite the show’s short run – showed itself to be in-depth and interestingly detailed. Basically, the many worlds that make up “The Verse” are divided along quasi-national lines. The core worlds constitute the Alliance, the most advanced and well-off worlds in the system that are constantly trying to expand to bring the entire system under its rule.
The Independents, we learn early in the story, were a coalition of worlds immediately outside the core worlds that fought these attempts, and lost. The Border Worlds, meanwhile, are those planets farthest from the core where life is backwards and “uncivilized” by comparison. All of this serves to illustrate the power space and place have over human identity, and how hierarchy, power struggles and divisiveness are still very much a part of us.
But in universes where aliens are common, then things are a little bit different. In these science fiction universes, where human beings are merely one of many intelligent species finding their way in the cosmos, extra-terrestrials serve to make us look outward and inward at the same time. In this vein, the cases of Babylon 5, and 2001: A Space Odyssey provide the perfect range of examples.
In B5 – much as with Stark Trek, Star Gate, or a slew of other franchises – aliens serve as a mirror for the human condition. By presenting humanity with alien cultures, all of whom have their own particular quarks and flaws, we are given a meter stick with which to measure ourselves. And in B5‘s case, this was done rather brilliantly – with younger races learning from older ones, seeking wisdom from species so evolved that often they are not even physical entities.
However, in time the younger race discover that the oldest (i.e. the Shadows, Vorlons, and First Ones) are not above being flawed themselves. They too are subject to fear, arrogance, and going to war over ideology. The only difference is, when they do it the consequences are far graver! In addition, these races themselves come to see that the ongoing war between them and their proxies has become a senseless, self-perpetuating mistake. Echoes of human frailty there!
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, much the same is true of the Firstborn, a race of aliens so ancient that they too are no longer physical beings, but uploaded intelligences that travel through the cosmos using sleek, seamless, impenetrable slabs (the monoliths). As we learn in the course of the story, this race has existed for eons, and has been seeking out life with the intention of helping it to achieve sentience.
This mission brought them to Earth when humanity was still in its primordial, high-order primate phase. After tinkering with our evolution, these aliens stood back and watched us evolve, until the day that we began to reach out into the cosmos ourselves and began to discover some of the tools they left behind. These include the Tycho Monolith Anomaly-1 (TMA-1) on the Moon, and the even larger one in orbit around Jupiter’s moon of Europa.
After making contact with this monolith twice, first with the American vessel Discovery and then the joint Russian-American Alexei Leonov, the people of Earth realize that the Firstborn are still at work, looking to turn Jupiter into a sun so that life on Europa (confined to the warm oceans beneath its icy shell) will finally be able to flourish. Humanity is both astounded and humbled to learn that it is not alone in the universe, and wary of its new neighbors.
This story, rather than using aliens as a mirror for humanity’s own nature, uses a far more evolved species to provide a contrast to our own. This has the same effect, in that it forces us to take a look at ourselves and assess our flaws. But instead of showing those flaws in another, it showcases the kind of potential we have. Surely, if the Firstborn could achieve such lengths of evolutionary and technological development, surely we can too!
5. Utopian/Dystopian/Ambiguous: Finally, there is the big question of the qualitative state of humanity and life in this future universe. Will life be good, bad, ugly, or somewhere in between? And will humanity in this narrative be better, worse, or the same as it now? It is the questions of outlook, whether it is pessimistic, optimistic, realistic, or something else entirely which must concern a science fiction writer sooner or later.
Given that the genre evolved as a way of commenting on contemporary trends and offering insight into their effect on us, this should come as no surprise. When looking at where we are going and how things are going to change, one cannot help but delve into what it is that defines this thing we know as “humanity”. And when it comes right down to it, there are a few schools of thought that thousands of years of scholarship and philosophy have provided us with.
Consider the dystopian school, which essentially posits that mankind is a selfish, brutish, and essentially evil creature that only ever seeks to do right by himself, rather than other creatures. Out of this school of thought has come many masterful works of science fiction, which show humanity to be oppressive to its own, anthropocentric to aliens and other life forms, and indifferent to the destruction and waste it leaves in its wake.
And of course, there’s the even older Utopia school, which presents us with a future where mankind’s inherent flaws and bad behavior have been overcome through a combination of technological progress, political reform, social evolution, and good old fashioned reason. In these worlds, the angels of humanity’s nature have won the day, having proven superior to humanity’s devils.
In the literally realm, 1984 is again a perfect example of dytopian sci=fi, where the totalitarian rule of the few is based entirely on selfishness and the desire for dominance over others. According to O’Brien, the Party’s mouthpiece in the story, their philosophy in quite simple:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake.We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.
Hard to argue with something so brutal and unapologetic, isn’t it? In Orwell’s case, the future would be shaped by ongoing war, deprivation, propaganda, fear, torture, humiliation, and brutality. In short, man’s endless capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others.
Aldous Huxley took a different approach in his seminal dystopian work, Brave New World, in which he posited that civilization would come to be ruled based on man’s endless appetite for pleasure, indifference and distraction. Personal freedom and individuality would be eliminated, yes, but apparently for man’s own good rather than the twisted designs of a few true-believers:
Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t. And, of course, whenever the masses seized political power, then it was happiness rather than truth and beauty that mattered… People were ready to have even their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life. We’ve gone on controlling ever since. It hasn’t been very good for truth, of course. But it’s been very good for happiness. One can’t have something for nothing. Happiness has got to be paid for.
But even though the means are entirely different, the basic aim is the same. Deprive humanity of his basic freedom and the potential to do wrong in order to ensure stability and long-term rule. In the end, a darker, more cynical view of humanity and the path that we are on characterized these classic examples of dystopia and all those that would come to be inspired them.
As for Utopian fiction, H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods is a very appropriate example. In this novel, a contemporary journalist finds himself hurled through time into 3000 years into the future where humanity lives in a global state named Utopia, and where the “Five Principles of Liberty” – privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion and criticism – are the only law.
After staying with them for a month, the protogonist returns home with renewed vigor and is now committed to the “Great Revolution that is afoot on Earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein.” In short, like most Positivists of his day, Wells believed that the march of progress would lead to a future golden age where humanity would shed it’s primitive habits and finally live up to its full potential.
This view would prove to have a profound influence on futurist writers like Asimov and Clarke. In the latter case, he would come to express similar sentiments in both the Space Odyssey series and his novel Childhood’s End. In both cases, humanity found itself confronted with alien beings of superior technology and sophistication, and eventually was able to better itself by opening itself up to their influence.
In both series, humanity is shown the way to betterment (often against their will) by cosmic intelligences far more advanced than their own. But despite the obvious questions about conquest, loss of freedom, individuality, and identity, Clarke presents this as a good thing. Humanity, he believed, had great potential, and would embrace it, even if it had to be carried kicking and screaming.
And just like H.G Wells, Clarke, Asimov, and a great many of his futurist contemporaries believes that the ongoing and expanding applications of science and technology would be what led to humanity’s betterment. A commitment to this, they believed, would eschew humanity’s dependence on religion, superstition, passion and petty emotion; basically, all the things that made us go to war and behave badly in the first place.
Summary: These are by no means the only considerations one must make before penning a science fiction story, but I think they provide a pretty good picture of the big-ticket items. At least the ones that keep me preoccupied when I’m writing! In the end, knowing where you stand on the questions of location, content, tone and feel, and what your basic conception of the future, is all part of the creation process.
In other words, you need to figure out what you’re trying to say and how you want to say it before you can go to town. In the meantime, I say to all aspiring and established science fiction writers alike: keep pondering, keep dreaming, and keep reaching for them stars!
With this year in full swing and the events of 2013 now a memory, I thought it was high time to take stock of everything I need to do in the coming twelve months. As always, I got a lot of projects in the works and plenty of things I want to get done, some of which I was supposed to be finished with already. And I seem to recall mentioning a few of these items in the course of my New Year’s resolutions…
So here goes…
1. Finish Editing Papa Zulu and Release It: Now this is one I’ve been letting linger for quite some time! Originally, I had hoped to have this book ready a year ago, but editing has proven to be a more arduous process than previously expected. However, I got my trusty and professional editor (hi Leslie!) in my corner, and she’s editing both it and Whiskey Delta. So sometime before the Spring season hits us, I plan to release the one and re-release the other. It will be a kind of one-two, launch/relaunch combo!
2. Edit Fast Forward and Release it: Back in April of 2013, I penned a number of short stories for the A to Z Challenge. Since that time, I’m coalesced the best stories, added a few extras from over the years, and created a volume of futuristic tales that I named “Fast Forward”. And with my membership over at Shutterstock.com, I also prepped a new and eyepopping cover that I think will get some attention once its published. But before that can happen, I need to go through it again and make sure its all cleaned up.
3. Bring Yuva Anthology to Completion: Khaalidah and I – a friend and fellow indie writer over at Writer’s Worth – started this anthology of space travel and colonization two years ago. At first, we found ourselves joined by several friends and respected colleagues who also wanted to see the project come to fruition. But after several months of initial progress, things began to slow down and linger.
But I’m pleased to say that in the past few weeks, things have really picked up again. Owing to a full-court press to recruit new talent, we have just about all our stories accounted for and I’m waiting for drafts from all the participants. It would be really nice if we could get this book – a tribute to Ray Bradbury and a tale that is more relevant than ever now – finished by the end of the year.
4. Finish Reading List and Review Them: Yeah, my reading list is, as always glutted and filled with stuff I was supposed to have finished a long time ago. It seemed to take me forever to finish reading World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks. And now that that’s finished, I am hoping to finish the last three books that I have started but not finished, and then move on to the many other novels on my nightstand.
These books include Accelerando by Charles Stross, a story about this century that is required reading for anyone trying to write about the Technological Singularity; We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, the quintessential dystopian tale about social engineering, failed utopias, and the inspiration behind such classics as 1984 and (arguably) Brave New World. And last, but certainly not least, The Quiet Game: Five Tales To Chill Your Bones by Rami Ungar.
And when I’m done all those books, which I’ve been reading simultaneously and in bursts, I can move on to Ready Player One, The Giver, and Back To The Front, an account of one man’s walking tour of the battlefields of World War I. Hey, I don’t just deal in science fiction, you know!
And with all that done and put away with, maybe the wife and I can finally find a bigger place, which is something we’ve been working on for some time. And of course, there will be the walking tour that we will be doing with my family this coming April. I need to do some research to prepare for that, and you can bet your bottom dollar you’ll be hearing about it too!
So yeah, 2014 is shaping up to be an eventful year. I hope it proves to be as productive and enjoyable as I hope, and that you all get what you want from it as well. Take care and Happy New Year!
The good people over at Envisioning Technology – the independent research organization based on Brazil – have produced yet another intriguing infographic. As some of you may recall, whenever ET has released a new inforgraphic, I’ve been right there to post about it. So far, they have produced graphics addressing the future of Technology, Education, Health, and Finance.
There latest graphic is similarly significant and addresses the future of something that concerns and effects us all: money. Entitled “The Past, Present and Future of Money”, this graph looks at the trends affecting the buying, selling and investment patterns of people over time, contrasting three trends that are interwoven and have moved between centralized, decentralized, and distributed monetary systems.
In this scenario, centralized tendencies refer to networks where the nodes are connected through dense centers (aka. urban environments), which rely on hierarchically structures institutions (i.e. banks) and require legal tender (physical money). This sort of system relies on an ordered distribution of power, one that generally favor the connected few, and which emerged with the advent of modern industrial civilization.
Decentralized tendencies are those which are based on networks where nodes connect in clusters, that have irregular distributions of power, and favor the selected individual. As the graph shows, these types of networks predate centralized networks, taking the form of bartering and commodities in earliest times, but which have emerged yet again in the modern era and are predicted to continue to grow.
Examples of current and future trends here include crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, banking APIs (Application Programming Interfaces), microfinance, and collaborative consumptions – where access is developed so that consumers can lend, swap, barter, share, and gift products. Whereas this model predates centralized tendencies, it is once again emerging with decentralizing potential of digital technology and open-source databases.
In the third and final method, one which is emerging, is the distributed network of money. These are networks where nodes connect independently, where power is distributed horizontally, and which favor the entire network. This trend began as a result of global real-time communications (i.e. the internet, satellite communications, etc.), and which are expected to expand.
Combining the concepts of attention economies, digital currencies, peer-to-peer communications, and digital wallets, the essence of this final stage is a network economy that is controlled by individuals, not financial institutions or corporations. In addition, currencies are based shared belief in their value, transactions occur between individuals, and physical currencies are replaced by digital ones.
Other trends that are incorporated and cross-referenced into this infographic include global population versus the number of people per capita who have online access. As it stands, less than half the world’s 7 billion people currently have access to the internet, and are hence able to take part in the decentralizing and distributed trends affecting money. However, the infographic predicts that by 2063, nearly 90% of the world’s 10 billion people will be online.
Like many predictions that I’ve come to know and respect, this latest infographic from ET gives us a glimpse of a future where a Distributed model of politics, economics and technological development – otherwise known as Democratic Anarchy – will be the norm. It’s an exciting possibility, and places history in a new and interesting light. In short, it makes one reconsider the possibility that true socialism might exist.
While this was crudely predicted by Karl Marx, the basic concept is quite intriguing when considered in the context of current trends. What’s more, subsequent thinkers – Max Weber, Proudhon, Gramsci and George Orwell – refined and expressed the principle more eloquently. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Goldstein Manifesto in 1984, where Orwell addressed how the process of industrial civilization was making class distinction virtually unnecessary.
Product marketing has always been a high stakes game, where companies rely on psychology, competitive strategies, and well-honed ad campaigns to appeal to consumer’s instincts. This has never been an exact science, but it may soon be possible for advertisers to simply read your brainwaves to determine what you’re thinking and how much you’re willing to pay.
This past October, the German news site Spiegel Online profiled the provocative work of a Swiss neuroscientist and former sales consultant who is working on a method of measuring brain waves to determine how much a person would be willing to pay for a good or service. Known as “feel-good pricing” to marketing critics, the idea is already inspiring horror and intrigue.
The neuroscientist in question is Kai-Markus Müller, the head of Neuromarketing Labs who has over 10 years of experience in neuroscience research. According to his test, Starbucks is not actually charging enough for its expensive coffee. In fact, it’s probably leaving profits on the table because people would probably still buy it if they charged more.
To conduct this test, Müller targeting an area in the brain that lights up when things don’t really make sense. When test subjects were presented with the idea of paying 10 cents for coffee, their brain reacted unconsciously because the price seemed too cheap. A coffee for $8, on other hand, produced a similar reaction since the price seemed too high.
One would think that this method would help to determine optimum pricing. However, Müller then set up a coffee vending machine where people were allowed to set their own price. The two methods then matched up and revealed that people were willing to pay a higher price than what Starbucks actually charges. Somehow, paying less made people think they were selecting an inferior grade of product.
Naturally, there are those who would be horrified by this idea, feeling that it represents the worst combination of Big Brother surveillance and invasive marketing. This is to be expecting when any talk of “reading brainwaves” is concerned, dredging up images of a rampant-consumer society where absolutely no privacy exists, even within the space of your own head.
On the other hand, Müller himself takes issue with the notion of the “transparent consumer”, claiming that “Everyone wins with this method”. As proof, he cited the numerous flops in the consumer economy in the Spiegel Online article. Apparently, roughly 80 percent of all new products disappear from shelves after a short time,mainly because the producers have misjudged the markets desire for them or what they are willing to pay.
It’s all part of a nascent concept known as Neuromarketing, and it is set to take to the market in the coming years. One can expect that consumers will have things to say about it, and no doubt those feelings will come through whenever and wherever producers try to sell you something. Personally, I am reminded of what Orwell wrote in 1984:
“Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed — no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.”
And perhaps more appropriately, I’m also reminded of what Fry said about advertising in the Season 1 episode of Futurama entitled “A Fistfull of Dollars”:
“Leela: Didn’t you have ads in the 21st century?
Fry: Well sure, but not in our dreams. Only on TV and radio, and in magazines, and movies, and at ball games… and on buses and milk cartons and t-shirts, and bananas and written on the sky. But not in dreams, no siree.”
Gee, I don’t know what to say here… Aside from the fact that this post coincides quite nicely with the 2nd anniversary of this blog, which just came and went, and comes what I can only assume will be a week before the site reaches the milestone of 250,000 hits. So I guess there are a few reasons to celebrate. And at times like this, when we take the time to look back, I also like to look ahead and see about what goals need to be set.
Well, in the last year I wrote two zombie stories which still need to be edited and released. And on top of that, I’ve already begun plotting the third and final one in the trilogy. When they are complete, I hope to release them individually and as a box set, so zombie fans can decide for themselves just how much reading they want to do! Trust me, I’m not sparing with my use of words, but I do like to think I keep them interesting.
Then there’s Yuva, which is coming along nicely, but needs a big push to get to the finish line. And who better than yours truly, el editore-en-hefe (that’s editor-in-chief for those who don’t speak mangled Spanish)? Of the sixteen stories in the anthology (we started with twelve), fourteen are spoken for. Not bad, but as the editor, I need to whoop some butts to make sure we make our summer deadline!
Ah, which is itself a bit of news. After talking it over with my co-editor and inspirational muse, Khaalidah Muhammed-Ali, we decided that a hard deadline was needed. Some people specifically asked for one when initially signing on, but I’ve left that somewhat open, as I’m kind of loosely-goosey when it comes to timetables. I’m more of a flex-hours kind of guy, task-oriented rather than time-oriented. But as it stands, summer of 2012 is when I hope everyone will have their homework in!
And of course, Data Miners had just come out, and it’s proposed sequel, Data Pirates, has been sitting on the shelf for some time. DM took me three years to write, so naturally I’m hoping for a speedier turnover on this one! And whereas the first one focused on the subject of “white-hat” hackers, people who believe in freedom and information, Pirates will focus on the darker aspects of hacker culture, on the so-called “black-hats”.
Assuming I can get all that done in a timely manner, there’s the matter or revisiting a very long-term project, one which I’ve been working on since late in 2009. As some may know, I released a novel called Source some time ago. Almost immediately after I finished writing it, before it was even published, I began work on the sequel, entitled Fortress.
As part of the dystopian, distant-future collection, it’s a old-school sci-fi romp that is dark, gritty, and has lots of war, struggle, and mysanthropic impulses. However, I decided to commit to some sequels to it in order to ensure some measure of a happy ending. No dystopian story, unless its purpose is to issue a stern warning (see 1984 or Brave New World), should offer its readers some slim ray of hope (see Catch 22).
Yeah, I design covers before the work is even complete. What can I say, I like to see how a book will look, long before it’s even finished! Hopefully, these covers will pack a good 40,000 plus words in between their two folds. Oh, and if anyone knows a good editor who works for cheap, I could sure use their help! I like to write, I do multiple projects, but when it comes to my own work, I suck horribly!
And of course, there’s the editing that needs to be done for Rami and other friends, still yet to be completed. And always, the research into the future and what course it will take must continue. Always, always continue. The world is not slowing down and neither is the future, despite what some weirdos might say! 🙂
In a decision which has been decried by countless community activists and civil rights leaders, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department announced plans last month to deploy up to two small, lightweight drones to assist in police surveillance. Despite resistance from the community, the town seems poised to join many other cities in using UAV’s for domestic security, effectively steam-rolling over concerns over privacy and “Big Brother” government.
As it stands, several police agencies across the US are currently using drones, including the Miami-Dade Police Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Until recently, the Seattle Police Department also employed a two-drone fleet, but grounded them amidst growing concerns over privacy and a recent government report, which warned that drone use could become even more commonplace.
Before anyone gets too worried, rest assured that the drones in question are a far cry from the UAV’s currently conducting armed missions overseas. Unlike the Predator and Reaper drones that carry multiple Hellfire missiles and can level entire villages, these drones are relatively benign, weighing only a few pounds and relying on a series of propellers to keep them aloft. But of course, the potential for harm resides in their ability to monitor, not to kill…
Concerns over domestic drone surveillance reached a sort of climax last February after federal lawmakers signed the Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 into law. Among other things, the act required the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to accelerate drone flights in U.S. airspace. In response, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned that the act would allow drone use to become commonplace in the US.
In accordance with that law, drones, known in the report as “unmanned aerial systems,” are currently limited in the United States to law enforcement activities, search and rescue, forensic photography, monitoring or fighting forest fires, border security, weather research, scientific data collection and even hobbies. However, the law calls for expansion so drones can be used for commercial, utility and public uses.
Naturally, the FAA feels that the new law doesn’t take into account several key problems – notably concerns surrounding privacy, security and even GPS jamming and spoofing. In short, they pointed out that despite drone’s on-board navigation and detection system that allow them to avoid crashes, said systems could cause complications if and when drones share airspace with private aircraft.
Among other things, the FAA recommended that drone GPS systems undergo encryption so they would be resistant to jamming and hacking, which is apparently a danger in non-military unencrypted drones. They also advised that the government set up secure operation centers for unmanned drones, and recommended that the government formulate privacy protections to head off potential “abuses”.
Obviously, the FAA’s report and public concern struck a note. Just last month, federal lawmakers introduced legislation regulating state and federal government use of unmanned drones in the United States. This legislation prohibits drones from being armed, and would demand that agencies register drones and adopt privacy polices. What’s more, the proposal would allow drones to be used only in criminal matters, in which warrants would be required.
Once again, it appears that the Obama administration is willing to step in where public concerns over developing technology are concerned. Recall the instruction signed by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter back in December of last year designed to limit the development of autonomous aerial drones? Well here too, instructions have been given, but the general sense of worry is far from alleviated.
It puts me in mind of a prediction Arthur C. Clarke made shortly before he died in 2008. He predicted that despite concerns over “Big Brother”-type monitoring, that digital surveillance would be adopted by every city within the civilized world, until such time that crime was virtually eliminated. Much like many predictions he made, this one proved a little optimistic and futurist for some of his fans (including this one!).
As it stands, the use of remote machines to monitor our world is an ongoing and growing concern, and the debate will hardly be decided so easily. In the end, we all just have to ask if we really want to live in a post-privacy state, what the costs of living in that kind of world will be, and whether or not it will truly mean the emergence of dystopian scenarios, as envisioned by George Orwell and others.
It’s no secret that North Korea uses all means at its disposal to indoctrinate its citizens to share the same world view. Intrinsic to this is the idea that the West is evil, South Koreans are their pawns, and that the north is bastion of “proletarian freedom” that must triumph over them all. Even if it does find itself cornered, embargoed, run by loons, and wasting most of its GDP on displays of nuclear might.
And on tool which is coming to light is the use of cartoonish-style violent video games. Unlike the military parades and the cult of the leader, these are by comparison a bit crude. Actually, they are very crude, and will no doubt remind most westerns of their Nintendo or Sega gaming system, with a few exceptions where flash media games are concerned. But overall, the point is clear: when it comes to video games, North Korea is seriously behind the times!
For starters, there is Uriminzokkiri, a web portal that pushes North Korean propaganda from the country’s central news agency. It’s based in China, but is apparently controlled from the North Korean capitol of Pyongyang. So basically, the government was forced to outsource its web-based needs to a neighboring country that is ostensibly allied and far more advanced. A tell-tale sign for sure!
In any case, on Uriminzokkiri, there are a handful of flash games you can play on your computer. Some examples include “Treasure Key”, where the player navigates a crudely animated maze and is forced to deal with enemies such as George W. Bush (rendered as a rat) and Japanese politicians who are his monkeys. The ultimate goal is to collect all the keys and in so doing, unify Korea.
Then there is “Hang A Traitor”, where players attempt to hang a noose around the moving icon of South Korean conservative politician Lee Hoi-chang. That is rivaled by “Beating Up Rat LMB”, where players get to beat up the image of the current South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, apparently to death! And that’s all topped off with games like “Fly Swatting” and “Hitting South Korean Politicians”, where players simply swat of hit (whack-a-mole style) images of South Korean politicians and George W. Bush.
I’m put in mind of the Two Minutes of Hate. Anybody else getting that vibe? What’s more, I’m wondering how often they choose to update these games. Are North Korea’s authorities aware that Dubya hasn’t been president for four blessed years? And of course, there’s the pathos I feel for all those souls who are forced to live in this kind of environment, where hate is fostered and the means used to do so are so very crude, ugly and transparent.
I look forward to the day when the last Stalinist regime on Earth joins its brethren on the ash heap of history and the people are permitted a look at how their southern cousins live. I also hope they have an easier transition that some of their Eastern European counterparts. But then again, after all they’ve endured, any change is likely to be painful!
Hi all, and welcome to the third and final installment in the “Envisioning Technology” series. Today, it’s the “Future of Education Technology” that’s up for all to see. Much like their speculative work on Future Tech and the Future of Medicine, they present us here with an infographic that shows the interrelated fields of educational technology and how growth in one will inevitable lead to change in others.
On the one hand, we see a gradual transition from the Classroom (i.e. traditional educational environment) to the Studio environment, where a peer and group dynamic becomes the focus, rather than classic teacher-student transmission. In the final environment, learning becomes Virtual, divorced from any specific geographical context – i.e. it happens wherever you are, not just in a classroom or academic institution.
Also, through an incorporation of various education and education-related technologies, six steps are discerned within this process. As usual the entire process is traced from the present day to 2040, with many of the necessary technologies already in existence or in the process of development.
As a teacher, I was rather fascinated to see this, as it illustrates much of what was being espoused when I was still in teacher’s college. Back then, the concept of the post-modernist classroom was all the rage, even though there were many who insisted that this movement had passed.
Intrinsic to the concept was the deconstructing the traditional learning paradigm and even the classroom environment. Openness was the new rule, individuation the new philosophy and building on a student’s existing knowledge and experience, rather than simply handing them the curriculum and evaluated their assimilation thereof.
Naturally, many of us felt the same about all the concepts and ideas that were being thrown at us, in that they seemed highly idiosyncratic and theoretical. Missing from just about all the articles, studies and lectures we heard on the subject was mention of how this was to be done. Lectures on applied technology and new methods, on the other hand, seemed much more effective. Whereas the theory seemed to be commenting on trends that were happening, or still needed to happen, these lectures seemed to be showing us how.
Kind of makes you think… and in a way, I’m reminded of what men like George Orwell said. In 1984 (Goldstein’s Manifesto, to be specific), he claimed that the advent of modern industry and education had removed the basis of class distinction and elitism. By the 20th century, when totalitarian philosophies emerged, humanity was closer to the state of true equality that Marx predicted than ever before. Granted, that road has been fraught with bumps and attempts at subversion, but the general trend seems pretty clear.
Perhaps we’re seeing something of the same thing here with the emergence of IT and what people like Foucault, Derrida and Habermas predicted. The breakdown of singular standards, the opening of discourse, the plurality of perspective and opinions. Perhaps they weren’t just speaking off the cuff or stuck in an esoteric bubble. Maybe they were just picking up on trends which were yet to come to true fruition.
Makes me think, at any rate. But then again, that’s the point isn’t it?