Good morning, or whatever time it happens to be where you live. In fact, it you’re living south of the equator in Australia or New Zealand, I hope tomorrow is treating you well! Anyway, today I thought I’d address a topic that has become very near and dear to my heart. And the reason is because in the near-future, I want to tackle this challenging topic soon.
This trailer is now making the rounds, which previews the upcoming science-fiction, first contact thriller Arrival. Based on the short story, “Story of your Life” by Ted Chiang, this film tells the tale of aliens coming to Earth, and the arduous process that follows as we try to figure out their intentions, communicate with them, and not provoke a “War of the Worlds” scenario.
In the lead roles are Amy Adams (famous for her role as Lois Lane in Man of Steel), Jeremy Renner (of Avengers and Bourne Legacy fame) and Forest Whitaker, who just finished up working on Rogue One. Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, the world’s foremost linguist who is called in to find a way to communicate with the aliens. Renner plays Ian Donnelly, a mathematician, who’s present because math is considered the only universal language. And Whitaker plays Colonel Weber, the requisite military man who’s there to disagree with the scientists and emphasize security.
As you can see from the trailer and gauge from the description, the story is one that has been told many times, but never gets old! In many ways, the plot, themes and aesthetics call to mind such movies as War of the Worlds, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Contact, Sphere, and even more recent ones like Prometheus. And from what I saw, I am desperately hoping they choose to take the more complex and nuanced approach, and avoid any Independence Day messiness with this one! If there’s one thing that’s been done to death, its the idea of scary aliens coming to kill us all. If anything, I am hoping they take a more Childhood’s End approach with this one.
After all, if we found another intelligent species which we could make contact with, and our level of technology was more sophisticated than theirs, would we kick in the door and just decide to conquer willy-nilly? Or would we take a slow approach, try to get to know them first, and go to war once we screwed all that up? Exactly!
The movie comes out this November 11th, 2016, on Remembrance Day (also Veterans Day and Armistice Day, depending on where you live). One has to wonder if there’s some subtle message there, eh? Enjoy the trailer:
Hey folks! Thought I’d pop by to share a recent story that I was originally supposed to write about for UT, but which got delayed and then fell out of the news rotation. However, since I feel that the story is really relevant and was quite proud of it, I’d figured it could see the light of day over here. As the title says, it’s all about the recent “discovery” of a coffin on Mars, and all the wacko speculation that followed. Enjoy!
It’s whats known as pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon which refers to the human brain’s tendency to spot familiar things in random images. And when it comes to the Red Planet, there has been no shortage of incidents where people have seen familiar shapes and objects amidst the barren landscape.
First there was the Martian rat, followed shortly thereafter by the Martian doughnut, thighbone, and ball. And in the the latest case of curious objects spotted by the Curiosity rover, it appears that a long, flat rock has UFOlogists claiming there’s a coffin on the surface. Alas, it seems that Dracula is a Martian!
This picture was one of several sent back by the Curiosity Rover, which is currently drilling in the Gale Crater, looking for more samples of methane. After pouring over the photos at NASA JPL’s Mars Exploration Laboratory site, space blogger WhatsUpInTheSky37 noticed the odd shape and immediately posed about it.
Over on his site, which deals with the subject of “Mars Anomolies”, he posted sections of the photo that emphasized the long, box-like rock with the following comment: “Sure would love to know what’s buried in that coffin.”
Naturally, he since indicated on both his website and Youtube Channel that such observations were made facetiously. However, he was sincere in his belief that this rock, plus the apparent “stonework” arranged around it, are part of a growing mountain of evidence that Mars was once home to a flourishing civilization.
As he put it: “At sometime or even currently on Mars something was crawling around. Something that was intelligent enough to work the stone and the landscape just like the beings here on Earth have for thousands of years.”
Very quickly, the photos went viral and attracted the attention of conspiracy theorists, who quickly took the internet to comment on this alleged coffin and NASA’s failure to comment. One blogger, writing for Top Secret Information, wrote the following in response to the image:
“This little box sure does look like a modern coffin concrete liner. As well as the stonework on the back part of the hill that looks like stairs or some left over stonework from some old civilisations constructions. It is incomprehensible that NASA takes no action to examine the stone box.”
Another blogger from UFO Sightings Daily – which also deals with suspicious photos and conspiracy theories – was quick to recommend that NASA inspect the box. “Coffins are made to stand the test of time, but this one is made from a stone like substance,” he wrote. “What would it take to get NASA to turn the rover around and examine the contents of this box?
Said blogger also estimated the dimensions of the so-called coffin from the photos taken, saying that the dimensions are consistent with the size of a Martian. “It looks to be about one meter across and a foot and a half wide and high. Lots of alien species are short, including a species of greys.”
Greys, it should be noted, is a slang term aliens that have grey skin, no hair, big black eyes, and are short and hairless – a concept popularized by pulp science fiction and conspiracy theorists for many decades.
But as you can clearly see from the original, unedited photo, there are any number of rocks in the picture. Any one of them could be said to resemble something other than Martian stone. And human beings are renowned for their ability to pick out patterns from seemingly random objects, seeking the familiar in an otherwise confusing and chaotic universe.
The most well-known instance of this occurring in relation to Mars took place back in 1976, when the Viking 1 Orbiter snapped a photo of a long mesa in the Cydonia region that appeared to have a “face” staring out into space.
This photo became the basis for the “Face on Mars” controversy that would remain fixed in the public imagination for another two decades, until a slew of spacecraft visited the planet and took much sharper photos of the Cydonia region. These included NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express probe.
What they found, using their high-resolution cameras, dispelled the notion of a face being carved into the mesa by an intelligent species. Nevertheless, decades later, the popularity of a Martian civilization leaving clues of its existence persists – as demonstrated by this latest “coffin” controversy.
Needless to say, NASA has not yet offered any comment, nor have they shown any desire to indulge suggestions that Curiosity change course and investigate the “coffin”. As it stands, Curiosity’s schedule is full investigating the discovery of organic molecules on Mars, a finding which actually point towards the possibility of their once being life on the planet.
This is perhaps the greatest irony to arise out of this and other conspiracy theories regarding the Red Planet. All too often, these viral theories distract from the scientific research going on, not to mention the real implications it presents. Unfortunately, it is also a tendency amongst people to see significance where we want it to be rather than where it truly resides.
Like it or not, the human mind has always been determined to find patterns in the chaos, be it faces on Mars, portents in the heavens, fortunes in tea leaves and chicken entrails, or the face of Jesus in a gasoline rainbow. And if there’s one thing people love more than making sense out of their world, it’s a good old fashioned conspiracy involving aliens and evil government agencies!
And feel free to check out this video from What’s Up in the Sky which explains the “coffin and stonework” theory:
Last month, the Swiss surrealists Hans Ruedi Giger – a painter, sculptor, set designer, and the Academy Award winning visual effects master who brought the world the Alien – died at the age of 74 in Zürich, Switzerland. After suffering injuries he sustained in a fall, the man who mined his own nightmares in creating phantasmagorical works finally passed away on Monday, May 12th, and leaves behind a robust legacy of inspiring people’s imaginations and striking fear into their hearts.
Describing his friend, American psychologist and psychedelic writer Timothy Leary was quoted as having praised the artist by saying:
Giger’s work disturbs us, spooks us, because of its enormous evolutionary time span. It shows us, all too clearly, where we come from and where we are going.
And though he is well known within the artist community for his ability to turn nightmarish visions into works of art, some of which were oddly sexual, it is his contributions to the movie industry and science fiction franchise that are arguably the most well known. As the man who created the title character of the 1979 horror sci-fi classic Alien, he and the film’s visuel effects team won an Academy Award and spawned a genre that would have enduring influence.
In addition to personally designing the Alien through all stages of its life – from egg to eight-foot tall monster – he was also responsible for the design of the Derelict (aka. the Space Jockey/Engineer spaceship) and the Space Jockey/Engineer itself. While some would describe these as “surrealist” or “Lovecraftian” in design, Giger preferred to call his art “biomechanics”, with its subjects often appearing to be hybrid creatures that had bodies that melded the organic with mechanical parts.
Nowhere was this more clear than with the design of the Alien itself. Combining elements of biology, technology, skewed sexuality and nightmarish visions into its design, it was this creation itself that the entire movie was built around. In fact, screenwriter Dan O’Bannon began crafting the script for the movie with neither a story idea nor a hero protagonist in mind. All he wanted was the sense of fear that came from more and more revealing glimpses of Giger’s creation.
And after seeing Giger’s first book, “Necronomicon” – a collection that was published in 1977 and named in honor of H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional grimoire of the same name – Director Ridley Scott immediately decided to hire Giger, who began producing artwork and conceptual designs that were essentially refinements of the work found in his dark collection. As Mr. Scott would later say of this fateful decision: “I’d never been so certain about anything in all my life.”
The end result was a huge and harrowing success, with the setting of the Derelict ship providing a sense of awe and wonder, not to mention foreshadowing the sense of terror and darkness that would follow. And combined with O’Bannon’s vision and Scott’s cinematography, the brief glimpses we get of this ancient and dark looking creature only help to augment the sense of terror and claustrophobia that would come from being trapped aboard a spaceship with it.
He would also collaborate on many other films of the horror and sci-fi genre. These include designs for the unproduced Alejandro Jodorowsky adaptation of Dune, which would later be made by David Lynch. Other examples include Poltergeist II: The Other Side, Killer Condom, Species, Future-Kill, and Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis. Unfortunately, for all concerned, one movie he collaborated on would ultiamtely reject his design – the updated Batmobile for the Batman Forever movie (picture below).
Beyond his work on the Alien franchise – which included designs for Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection and Prometheus – Mr. Giger published around 20 books of art, and his works were exhibited in Paris, Prague and New York. He also created many album covers, including one for the singer Debbie Harry’s 1981 album, “Koo Koo”, Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s 1973 album, “Brain Salad Surgery,” and a poster titled “Penis Landscape” for inclusion in an album by the punk band Dead Kennedys.
And over at deviantART, artist techgnotic has arranged a tribute to the artist that embraces the many personal tributes that this art community have made toward the late Giger. Describing Giger’s enduring legacy, techgnotic says that:
Giger was a touchstone artist for those in the 70s & 80s who sought to shake up the establishment with a walk on the wild side. Today he is thought of by many artists as being one of the exemplars of letting the mind go free—to explore either the light or the darkness—and be fearless in sharing what was found there in one’s art. His art might be considered “safe” today, but he was a real inspiration to many of today’s artists.
And as he puts it in the prologue: “He was an artist you might not know. But you’ve met his children…” Be sure to go and check it out, as it does a very good job summarizing his life’s work and influence, and contains some pretty interesting and inspired tribute pieces! And while we’re at it, I suggest we set aside some time to rewatch Alien or one of the many other movies he collaborated on to create the dark, nightmarish sets or costumes that would help establish the tone of the film.
And while were at it, perhaps we should take a page from Giger’s book and keep a nightmare journal. Not only did this man record all the dark visions he would experience in his sleep, he would use them to create artistic and cinematic gold! But if you’d rather leave that to the dark souls of this world and just enjoy letting them scare you, so much the better. RIP Giger, you will be missed!
“We are going to find life in space in this century.” This was the bold prediction made by Dr. Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) at this year’s European Commission Innovation Convention. As part of the European Union’s strategy to create an innovation-friendly environment, the ECIC brings together the best scientific minds from around the world to discuss what the future holds and how we can make it happen.
And this year, Dr. Shostak and other representatives from SETI were quite emphatic about what they saw as humanity’s greatest discovery, and when it would be taking place. Sometime this century, they claim, the people of Earth will finally find the answer to the question “Are we alone in the universe?” Like many eminent scientists from around the world, Dr. Shostak believes its not a question of if, but when.
There are 150 billion galaxies other than our own, each with a few tens of billions of earth-like planets. If this is the only place in the universe where anything interesting happening then this is a miracle. And 500 years of astronomy has taught us that whenever you believe in a miracle, you’re probably wrong.
As for how we’ll find that life, Dr Shostak sees it as a ‘three-horse race’ which will probably be won over the next 25 years. Either we will find it nearby, in microbial form, on Mars or one of the moons of Jupiter; or we’ll find evidence for gases produced by living processes (for example photosynthesis) in the atmospheres of planets around other stars; or Dr Shostak and his team at SETI will pick up signals from intelligent life via huge antennas.
Dr. Suzanne Aigrain – a lecturer in Astrophysics at Oxford University and who studies exoplanets – represents horse number two in the race. Dr. Aigrain and her research group have been using electromagnetic radiation (i.e. light) as their primary tool to look for planets around other stars. The life ‘biomarkers’ that she and her colleagues look for are trace gases in the atmospheres of the exoplanets that they think can only be there if they are being produced by a biological source like photosynthesis.
Speaking at the Convention, Dr Aigrain noted that, based on her studies, she would also bet that we are not alone:
We are very close to being able to say with a good degree of certainty that planets like the Earth, what we call habitable planets, are quite common [in the universe] … That’s why when asked if I believe there’s life on other planets, I raise my hand and I do so as a scientist because the balance of probability is overwhelmingly high.
Dr. Shostak and SETI, meanwhile, seek evidence of life in the universe by looking for some signature of its technology. If his team does discover radio transmissions from space, Dr. Shostak is quite certain that they will be coming from a civilization more advanced than our own. This is part and parcel of searching for life that is capable of sending out transmissions, and assures that they will have a level of technology that is at least comparable to our own.
At the same time, it is entirely possible that an advanced species will have existed longer than our own. As the Kardashev Scale shows, the level of a race’s technical development can be measured in terms of the energy they utilize. Beginning with Type 0’s, which draw their energy, information, raw-materials from crude organic-based sources, the scale goes on to include levels of development that draw energy of fusion and anti-matter to our host star, or even stellar clusters and even galaxies.
Considering that size of the universe, the realm of possibility – and the fact humanity itself is still making the transitions from Type 0 to Type I – the odds of us meeting an extra-terrestrial that is more advanced than us are quite good. As Shostak put it:
Why do I insist that if we find ET, he/she/it will be more advanced than we are? The answer is that you’re not going to hear the Neanderthals. The Neanderthal Klingons are not building radio transmitters that will allow you to get in touch.
“Neanderthal Klingons”… now that’s something I’d like to see! Of course, scientists have there reasons for making such bold predictions, namely that they have a vested interest in seeing their theories proven correct. But not surprisingly, they are hardly alone in holding up the numbers and insisting that its a numbers game, and that the numbers are stacked. Another such person is William Shatner, who in a recent interview with the Daily Mail offered his thoughts on the possibility of alien life.
I don’t think there is any doubt there is life in the universe, yes. I don’t think there is any question. The mathematics involved — what have they just discovered, 730,000 new planets the other day? — mathematically it has to be.
He was a bit off on the number of planets, but he does have a point. Earlier this month, NASA announced the discovery of 715 new exoplanets thanks to a new statistical technique known as “verification by multiplicity”. By observing hundreds of stars and applying this basic technique, the Kepler space probe was able to discover more planets so far this year than in the past few combined. In fact, this one batch of discovered increased the total number of exoplanet candidates from 1000 to over 1700.
And while the discovery of only four potentially habitable planets amongst those 715 (a mere 0.0056% of the total) may seem discouraging, each new discovery potentially represents hundreds more. And given how little of our galaxy we have mapped so far, and the fact that we’ve really only begun to explore deep space, we can expect that list to grow by leaps and bounds in the coming years and decades.
Naturally, there are some fundamental questions that arise out of these predictions. For example, if we do find life on other planets or intercept a radio signal, what are the consequences? Finding a microbe that isn’t an earthly microbe will tell us a lot about biology, but there will also be huge philosophical consequences. Even more so if we are to meet a species that has developed advanced technology, space flight, and the means to come find us, rather than us finding them.
In Dr Shostak’s words, ‘It literally changes everything’. But that is the nature of
Hello all! Now that I’ve finally finished with all my edits and revisions for Papa Zulu, I thought I might get back on the science fiction train and start working on some the ideas that have been piling up in my memory folder. Awhile back, I began proposing dusting off an old idea – the Council of Muraqaba – and making it see light again. And today, I managed to put the finishing touches on the first installment.
To recap, the story takes place in the distant future and is part of the Legacies universe I came up with many years ago. In this universe, Muraqaba is a colony that grew up around an institution started by Sufis seeking relief from the intense and rapid pace of progress taking place in the Core. However, over the course of many generations, it became an interfaith institution connected to the rest of the universe.
Within the Council, all matters pertaining to faith, belief, practice and the spirit could be contemplated and ironed out. People of all walks of life and faith were free to set up an annex in the place, either physically or virtually, and eventually, it would become a beacon for the establishment of a universal religion. But in this particular story, the institute becomes the site of something much more interesting.
Contact with a presence that is something else entirely. After generations of leading all of humanity in the contemplation of higher things, it seems a higher intelligence wants in on the discussion…
“If the Qutb is indeed the pole and axis of the universe – a man through whom divine grace did flow – does it follow that men who demonstrated wilaya would have been invincible to attack?”
The specter of Mahdi Grasciano peered intently at the others in the circle, each of which had been rendered flawlessly amidst the background of the Rifa’i. At the moment, the prayer hall was bathed in the faint glow of artificial light, courtesy of the floating embers that ensured the circle could see each other clearly now that nighttime had fallen on the Mosque in real-time.
Standing on the far side of the circle, Imam Selvanayagam hummed thoughtfully and formulated a reply to this latest challenge.
“It does, necessarily, follow. The Qutb could not have been harmed by men, being under the protection of God.”
Grasciano was quick to jump on that:
“Alas, Mohammed, the example of the armed prophet, was unvanquished by men. But Jesus, Socrates, Siddhartha Gautama, and all other candidates mentioned here today, did not share that fate. They succumbed to treachery, judgement, and poisoning, thus demonstrated that they were of mortal condition.”
Imam Koteib, who had been standing quietly by the northeast column, chose to intervene on this point:
“And yet, in An-Nisa, it clearly states ‘but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not. Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and God is Exalted in Power, Wise.'”
Selvanayagam spoke again.
“Such a circumstance pertains to this one of God’s Prophets, but can it be said to extend to those others as well?”
The heads in the circle turned to Zahawi, who stood at to the south-west end of their circle. Being their host, the one who had selflessly offered the Rifa’i prayer hall to conduct it, his was the place of honor – his back facing towards holy Mecca.
Scratching at the white, wispy beard that covered his chin, he offered what insight he could. “Such a condition could be said to apply, in that all such men triumphed over death in their own fashion. Who can remember the names of the Athenian statesmen who sentenced Socrates to death. And did Sidharta’s wisdom not live on in the absence of his corporeal being?”
Yusuf finally saw an opportunity to offer a point of consensus and spoke from his spot at the east end. “Indeed. Shall it be agreed upon then that the condition of death does not rule out the existence of sanctity?”
“It so shall…” Koteib said, nodding. Grasciano smiled and appeared ready to reply, but the smile quickly faded. His next words sounded almost like a pained admission.
“Hmm, I’m not sure where that leaves us.”
Zahawi also began to look grave and added his voice to Grasciano’s. “Indeed. Have we determined the existence of Qutb, or merely found a way to redefine it?”
A pause followed as each specter groped for something more to add, a comment or illumination that might break the deadlock. Eventually, a number of the Imams began to laugh. There seemed little else to do under the circumstances. Many times, expounding on such matters only served to cloud them further, expanding upon the mystery rather than dispelling it.
One could only laugh in the face of such irony, and perhaps conclude that divine obfuscation was at work. In any case, the debate had run its course, a sort of consensus settling in after many hours of discussion. It now fell to Yusuf to conclude the transmission.
“I would like to thank you all, masters of your turuqs, for your continuing participation in these majalis. In so doing, you are a part of the greatest ongoing spiritual dialogue our species has ever conducted.”
“As-salamu alaykum,” the Imams said in near-unison. Yusuf replied in kind.
“Wa alaykumu al-salam.”
They concluded with the dhikr, citing the appropriate verses and repetition of His name. The simulation began to fade a moment later – the elaborate stone walls and flickering light from the suspended aerodrones that marked the interior of the Rifa’i slowly retreated from his consciousness and was replaced by his true surroundings.
Yusuf became aware of the room, the tall metal panels and the lighting that emerged from behind them, and the cool air like a man waking up from a dream. His mind responded to it all like a harsh reality intruding upon quiet sleep.
As always, he sat on the room’s central dais with his legs crossed, but his knees ached as if he had been upright for some time. The sensation of being offworld was so immersive that he truly felt that he had been standing for hours in an entirely different setting. But of course, that was the point of the experience, and an ongoing cause of concern amongst the more conservative elements in their turuq.
The sound of the door opening behind caught Yusuf’s attention. He turned his head just in time to see Mansur appear in the open doorway.
“Maruf!” he said informally, smiling. “You’re timing is impeccable.”
“I know, Master. I waited until you were finished. I did not wish to disturb you while you were conferring with the others.”
Yusuf slowly stood up and tried his best to hide the sudden sense of chagrin he felt. It was sometimes difficult to tell how just long a session lasted. Even without the effects of dilation and correcting for local time, hours could feel like days. And knowing Mansur, he could be expected to wait indefinitely.
“So what can I do for you, Maruf?”
“It’s Lusserer, master. She asked that I come find you.”
“Ah, and what does the lady of technical support require of me?”
“Well, sir…” he said delicately. “It’s the signal. We seem to experiencing some trouble.”
“Trouble?” Yusuf stopped, turned to face him. “That’s a little vague, Maruf. Care to elaborate?”
“She did not say,” he replied. “In all truth, master, I don’t think she’s quite sure what the problem is either.”
Yusuf suppressed a scowl. Any sign of misgiving was likely to be taken on by the young Mansur, who was in the habit of taking on his master’s moods and amplifying them by varying degrees. He tried to sound as calm and even as possible as he replied.
“Then I shall go to her forthwith, and see what I can do to help.”
“She would be most pleased by that, I’m sure,” Mansur said and smiled happily. He stood there for a moment, idle and twitchy, as if expecting something more. Another quirk of the young man, always in search of a duty, and always in need of being dispatched before he could tell that a conversation had run its course.
“Perhaps she and I could do with some tea. Would you fetch us some and meet us in the ISIS lounge?”
“Certainly, master!” said the young man, quickly slapping his hands together and issuing a short bow. He was gone quickly after that, letting Yusuf address his own thoughts in private. At the moment, he only had two, and they were vying for just about every inch of his cortex.
A problem with the interstellar array and Lusserer is at a loss, he thought. This must be something of consequence…
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 Sprawl Trilogy. 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!
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.
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!