Just finished listening to the audiobook Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin, which I enjoyed (mostly). I am by no means complete on Jackson, but I read The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Already Lived in the Castle when I was younger as well as a smattering of the short fiction, mostly from her posthumous Come Along With Me. Given her deep connection with my little corner of literature, I was interested (and fearful) to discover what, if any, attitudes Jackson had towards sf&f. But Franklin gives us very little, complaining about how Jackson has been pigeonholed as a "horror writer." Franklin is very thorough on "The Lottery" obviously, but doesn't even mention "One Ordinary Day With Peanuts," which I believe may have been my introduction to Jackson. I probably read it Judith Merrill's The Best Of The Best. What a strange and lovely story, hardly genre at all in terms of content, but brilliantly twisted conceptually! I suspect, but have no proof, that Franklin slights this little masterpiece because of the taint of genre. since it was first published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and most of Jackson's works appeared in the slicks. But hey, Ruth, "Peanuts" was reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 1956! It got more traction than most of the other stories you discuss! Still, Franklin's book is worth a listen, sez me.
I started writing this as a stunt column but as I progressed, I realized that I actually had stumbled on an interesting insight about the ways of literary dogs and cats. But then came an unexpected inspiration: if readers were so interested in stories about cats and dogs, maybe I should write one. And so I did. My novella, The King of the Dogs and the Queen of the Cats will be published in January of 2020.
We Are The Cat People
Over the years, I have tried to point at websites where issues important to readers of science fiction are being thoughtfully discussed. For example, last time we looked at how the Streaming Age is transforming the entertainment/industrial complex. Before that we considered the risks of announcing ourselves to any aliens who might be lurking in the cosmos. Weighty stuff. But there comes a time when we need to lay down the burden of the momentous and embrace the ephemeral internet. Maybe we opt for a quick dive into Twitter or Facebook, only to be swept away for hours on the tides of social media. Or else we fall prey to a clickbait site. You know, one of the many time sinks profiled in “Upworthy: I Thought This Website Was Crazy, but What Happened Next Changed Everything”. So, in the spirit of wasting time, how about a few cat videos?
What is it that attracts us to cats playing the piano, cats leaping in bathtubs by mistake, cats freaking out in front of mirrors, cats tangling with Christmas trees or cats torturing gullible dogs? Not to mention cats interacting with lamps, keyboards and paper bags or cats climbing vines, curtains, screens, trees and ladders – and falling off same? The internet teems with clips of feline misadventure and these videos regularly go viral. Perhaps you remember the stars from such internet megahits as Cat Bath Freak Out which has had 28,468,935 views as I type this or Two Talking Cats with 66,827,350 views or Surprise Kitty with a whopping 78,370,778 views? In a few cases, megastar cats have brought fame – or at least fortune – to their owners.
Consider the career of Grumpy Cat who first scowled into our lives in 2012. Since then Grumpy Cat’s human, Tabatha Bundesen, has parlayed her pet’s fifteen minutes of fame into appearances on NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox. Grumpy Cat has endorsed Honey Nut Cheerios and Friskies cat food; had her own line of merch trademarked under the name “Grumpy Cat Limited;” published several books, a comic, and avideo game; and played the lead in a made-for-television movie called Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever.
What has your cat done for you lately?
Wait, is that a dog owner at the back of the room with her hand up? You. Yes, you. Go ahead with your question. Aren’t there lots of dog videos too? Sure. Here’s just one of many compilations. Are they as popular as cat videos? Good question. Your internet columnist has looked in vain for reliable statistics on this all-important matter.
So let’s make some guestimates. According to The Truth about Cats and Dogs—by the Numbers there are more cats than dogs in the United States: 88 million to 78 million. So maybe more cats mean more cat videos? Not so fast. 39% of all American households own a dog as opposed to the 33% who live with cats. This is because more than half of cat owners have more than one. (My wife and I currently live with the sisters Thelma and Louise, the latest in a long line of multiple cats in our family.)
We interrupt this column for some interesting but irrelevant statistics about cats, dogs and their owners. Those of the dog persuasion own roughly an equal amount of males and females, while pet cats are estimated to be between 65 and 80% female. Almost 80% of dog owners consider their pets “part of the family” but just over 60% say the same about their cats. On the other hand, 65% of cats sleep on a family member’s bed while 39% of dogs are granted that privilege.
A University of Texas survey from 2010 reported on differences in personality between owners of dogs and cats. Of the 4600 respondents, 42% called themselves “dog people” 12% said they were “cat people”, 28% said both and 15% neither. A dog majority there!
Another interruption: The psychologists also noted that dog people were generally about more extroverted, agreeable and conscientious than cat people. Cat people were reported to be more neurotic but more open that dog people. For the record, I identify as a well-adjusted cat person.
Here’s another totally unscientific measure of the relative popularity of dogs and cats. Typing “dog” into Google yields 1,940,000,000 results on this wintry day in March. “Cat” gets 2,250,000,000. Typing them into Bing yields an even more statistically significant win for cats: 71,800,000 to 58,500,000 for dogs.
Leaving aside the relative popularity of cat videos versus dog videos, it is clear that cat videos occupy a huge space in the popular imagination. Given their record of launching memes, ThoughtCatalogue has gone so far as to dub cats “the unofficial mascot of the Internet.” Recalling the Texas survey on cat people, Leigh Alexander argues that if an alien were to assess the culture of the internet, then it would be more likely to describe it in terms of cat people (neurotic and open) than dog people (agreeable and conscientious).
There are lots of sites which claim the internet as cat country. Gizmodo opines at length about Why Cats Rule the Internet Instead of Dogs. It claims that because cats don’t give a damn about whether we’re watching them or not, cat viewing has a voyeuristic component. “We’ve all heard of the ‘male gaze,’ but in this case? It’s the human gaze, and it’s a phenomenon that could be more closely linked with cat videos than dog videos because of cats not acknowledging the viewer at all.” Listverse lists 10 Psychological Reasons Internet Cats Are So Popular. Most telling to this cat person are Reason #10: Cats Never Evolved to Work With Humans, #8: Our Cats Think We’re Cats and #1: Cats Are Often Our Main Connection To Nature. We’ve created the modern dog to suit our own purposes. They take our orders. Cats resist our intervention and are thus wilder and stranger.
Wait, is that an Asimov’s reader at the back of the room with her hand up? You. Yes, you. Go ahead with your question. What do cat videos have to do with science fiction?
I thought you’d never ask.
I think there is an argument to be made (although I make it keeping one eye on the exit) that science fiction and fantasy, like the internet, lean more cat-ward than dog-ward. This is not to say that there aren’t shelves and shelves of wonderful dog stories in our genre. Check out this roster of dogstars on The 12 Best Dogs In Sci-Fi History. Or this one, from Tor.com. Among the canine faves mentioned are Krypto, Superman’s dog, K-9, Doctor Who’s doggy robot and Blood from A Boy and His Dog by Harlan Ellison. Alas, these and most other lists were too media-centric for my tastes, and it took considerable searching before I discovered lists that mentioned my own nominees for the most significant science fiction literary dogs: the uplifted narrators in Clifford Simak’s City, dogs who witness humanity’s decline, and the tragically intelligent Sirius by Olaf Stapledon. A dog named Sirius (in homage?) also plays a pivotal role in John Kessel’s 2017 novel The Moon And The Other.
While there are certainly online lists of fictional felines that skimp on the literary, like Wired’s Fantastic Cats in Sci-fi & Fantasy, which leads with Spot from Star Trek, The Next Generation and Jonesy from Alien, I had a much easier time finding lists of cats who appear only in books. For example check out The Twenty-Five Best Cats in Sci-Fi and Fantasy as selected by Barnes and Noble, which has much less crossover than I expected with The Portalist’s 15 Cat Books in Sci-Fi and Fantasy for You to Read Right Meow . (Is it significant that neither B&N nor The Portalist offer similar lists for dogs?). Among those print cats featured are Greebo from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, the Chesire Cat, Church from Stephen King’s Pet Sematary and Tad Williams’s Talechaser. My personal favorites are C’Mell the underperson tweaked from a cat in Cordwainer Smith’s novella “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” and Pete from The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein.
Since I have already admitted to being a cat person, some may say that my down and dirty survey does not show that there are more memorable cats than dogs in the fantastic genres. Feel free to call me out on this. But if you accept my premise, then why should this be so? I believe it is because we take these alien creatures into our lives on their terms, not ours. They are mysterious to us in ways that no other animals are, because we believe that we understand them but are so often wrong. Consider, for example, purring, a cat’s most common vocalization. Does it mean kitty is happy? Sometimes, but according to WebMD “Although contentment does appear to produce purring, cats also purr when frightened or threatened. One way to think about this is to equate purring with smiling … People will smile when they’re nervous, when they want something, and when they’re happy, so perhaps the purr can also be an appeasing gesture.”
I leave my closing argument to my friends and anthologist mentors Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann who in 1986 edited an anthology of cat stories called Magicats. This is from their introduction: “It’s probably a reflection of humanity’s multifaceted, sophisticated and passionately contradictory relationship with cats that so much more fiction has been written about them than about any other kind of domestic animal (one is almost tempted to say: than about any other animal).”
We (or at least some of us) are the cat people.
While cleaning out files I came upon this brief essay on Ray Bradbury, which I don't believe ever saw the light of readers' eyes. In the unthinkable event that you don't know about Bradbury, check this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Bradbury
Bradbury is certainly considered one of the great masters of science fiction, even though his work does not always fit neatly into the genre. As an example, when I was a kid reading this stuff, the Big Three names were Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. Bradbury, while appreciated, was never counted their equal. In part this is because he became science fiction’s first breakout writer, one who was appreciated by the larger literary community. To his credit, he never renounced science fiction, unlike his contemporary, Kurt Vonnegut.
One of the many reasons why Bradbury was the first sf writer to find a wider audience was that his work was more accessible than that of some of the more traditional genre writers. Some might argue that it was better written on a sentence to sentence level, although that is a matter of taste, since the Bradbury style tends to be flowery. I think it may well have to do with how Bradbury understood the enterprise of science fiction. While the Big Three, Heinlein certainly and to some extent Asimov and Clarke, probably thought that the futures they were writing about might actually happen, and thus expended their considerable imaginative resources on informed extrapolation from current conditions, I don’t think Bradbury ever bought into the idea that what he wrote about might actually happen. He used the furniture of science fiction as literary tropes. The Mars of his Martian Chronicles is not so much another planet as it is an imaginary landscape, rich in metaphor. It is no more (or less) real than Oz. The machineries of science fiction never got in his, or his readers’ way. Who knows or cares how his rockets worked? In this, his methods anticipate those of some of today’s literary writers who dip into genre waters.
With Bradbury, as with many other writers, the work of a specific time span is what we most remember. In his case it is the decade from 1946-56. Of course he continued to publish right up to his death. What are we do to with the work of his last fifty years, some of which hits his own high standard but some of which is, not to put too fine a point on it, self-indulgent? To some extent his successes in Hollywood draw our attention away from the lesser literary work of his later years.
Having typed the above, I have to acknowledge Bradbury’s influence on my own work. When I see the term “Bradbury-esque” or “reminiscent of Bradbury’s work” applied to my fiction, I take it as a term of the highest approbation. One of my best known stories “Bernardo’s House” is an homage to his heartbreakingly wonderful portrait of a dying house – yes, house – in “There Will Come Soft Rains.” And possibly my favorite line in any of the reviews of my work, is this from Booklist about my Nebula winning novella BURN: "Besides its fireman hero (a reversal of Montag in Fahrenheit 451) and its would-be-utopian setting, the warm humanity and rural sympathies of this affectionate, winsome short novel will make many recall Ray Bradbury at his best."
We’re at that time of the year when writers recap their publications in the hope that readers might take notice of work that they’ve missed or perhaps commend the stories they’ve read to others. Some regard this as unseemly self-promotion, but since I am not of their number, I’d like to invite you backstage to take a look at how the latest additions to my bibliography came to print.
In May, my 12,500 word novelette “Grace’s Family” was published on Tor.com. Of course, I actually wrote this one in 2017 and workshopped it twice: once at the Sycamore Hill Writers Workshop in Little Switzerland, NC and after revisions, again at the Cambridge (Massachusetts) Science Fiction Writers Workshop (CSFW). In its various incarnations has been titled “Forever” and “What The Universe Knows” and finally “Grace’s Family.” In my own head I think of it as the faithful starship story. It’s another of my attempts to find a way to write about a post-singularity universe. On the surface, it’s a coming of age story about Jojin, who is a crew member on a sentient starship which is on a mission of exploration. However, given the size of the known universe, it is clear to the starship Grace and her family/crew that their mission will be neverending. And in a way, kind of crazy, insofar as their goal of a comprehensive map of the universe is unobtainable. And yet, they persist. Existential? You bet! My challenge was to create a narrative which would hold the reader’s interest while staying true to the story’s philosophical conundrum. So there are a variety of characters who have made their peace with their situation, all except Jojin, who is still coming to grips with it. I hope that I made some of his flailing seem comic. I was also trying to satirize the relentless pacing of most space opera by contrasting it with what I imagined would be the actual pace of life on a realistic starship. This might have been a wrongheaded decision in terms of the market, but the challenge was what interested me about the story. Imagine my delight when Jonathan Strahan picked it up for Tor.com, since it had been seven years since my last appearance there! My favorite review was in Locus from Rich Horton, “This is fascinating original SF, deeply concerned with the purpose of intelligence in the universe.” I’m very happy with this story, but I can’t help but feel a twinge of regret about it. As I was writing, I was thinking of what my friend Gardner Dozois would say about it. It has what I think are many of the strengths that he always encouraged in my writing; several of the jokes in it are particularly aimed at him and his boisterous sense of humor. I couldn’t wait to hear what he thought. Alas, “Grace’s Family” came out the week he passed away, so that pleasure is forever denied me.
In July, my 3600 word story “Yukui” came out in my new collection, The Promise of Space, published by Prime Books. My astute editor was Sean Wallace, who sent me an email out of the blue way back in 2014 wondering if I’d be interested in doing a collection for him. I remember bolting upright out of my chair with a shout of exultation (or something like) as I read. Yeesssss! Indeed I was. I was instructed to include an original story in the table of contents of the stories we’d be reprinting. “Yukui!” started as a flash fiction piece called “Severance” that I wrote in 2016 at the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Southern Maine, where I teach. When I gave my workshop an assignment to write a 1000 word flash fiction story in two days, I took on the task myself. We critiqued all the flash pieces on the last day of workshop and my students gave me some fine suggestions, most of which pointed to a longer story. When I finished the rewrite, it was about three times as long as the first draft. I put it through CSFW, as is my custom with almost all of my work. I’ll admit that I was taken aback by the harshness of the workshop’s comments. I’ve written about my colleagues’ critiques and my reaction to them in a guest blog entry on Mary Robinette Kowal’s My Favorite Bit. Suffice it to say that I was schooled by the women in the group about what a man ought and ought not write about sexbots. I took their assessments to heart and did an extensive rewrite, which I then tried out on my friend, the gifted story writer Julie C. Day. She had an idea about how to open the story that made all the difference and after a final showing to my best reader and wife Pam Kelly, I sent the finished manuscript off to Sean. On the very first day the book was for sale, at the July 2018 Readercon, I was telling Sean about how happy I was with the book and I happened to ask him if he would object to me trying to resell “Yukui!” someday. I was thinking maybe six months or a year in the future. He said that would be fine with him, but that I could try to resell it now, if I wanted. It would be a good advertisement for the book, he said. I was flabbergasted. He then said that I ought to try it on Neil Clarke, who had done the book design of the digital edition, since Neil had obviously read the story and had liked my other work. Light bulbs went off in my head, but I was still too flabbergasted to do more than mumble. Sean then asked if I wanted him to walk across the dealers’ room and ask Neil, who was working at another table, if he’d be interested. I said sure and he left. Five minutes later, he was back, saying Neil would buy it. Easiest sale I ever made, and one of the most gratifying! And so “Yukui!” had a second coming in the August Clarkesworld. My favorite review of the story was by Gary Wolfe in Locus, as part of his review of the collection. “The one new story, “Yukui!” is set up as a familiar tale of getting dumped in a relationship – only the one getting dumped isn’t actually a girlfriend, but a digital sidekick, or “dependent intelligence,” who must begin to come to terms with the idea of independence – not a terribly original conceit, but one that Kelly sells convincingly through the sheer agony and passion of Sprite, the sidekick in question.”
I posted my afterword to The Promise of Space elsewhere on my little digital shrine to the book, and that’s most of what I have to say about it that’s of interest, so if you missed it back in the day, here’s your chance to catch up. My favorite review was on Amazon by Maren Tirabassi who wrote, “For years I gave up on short fiction -- all mood pieces or sad selfies. This is a fabulous storyteller, with characters I love and plot lines I can't guess, and this collection of stories is his best yet. I loved "Yukui," “The Rose Witch," and, of course, "The Last Judgment," but even the styles that aren’t my usual favorites are such rousing good stories that I consumed them like a child reading under the covers.”
And we’re on the 2019!
Are we really sure that we want to make First Contact, or any contact at all? Remember what happened to the Maya, Aztecs and Inca? Well, whatever you think about this question doesn’t matter, as it turns out. Some of our fellow earthlings have decided to reach out and touch someone — anyone! — Out There and they’re not asking permission.
In October of last year, a group of scientists and artists took it upon themselves to make a grand gesture in your name and that of all humankind. They beamed a message directly to Luyten's Star, also known as GJ 273, some twelve light-years away. As it happens, this red dwarf star has at least two planets – exoworlds – and one of them, GJ 273b, has the potential to be habitable, at least given our current understanding of habitability. More on that in a moment. The idea behind this gesture was that if GJ 273b is indeed habitable, and supports an advanced civilization, then maybe they’ll write … er … beam back. The Sónar Calling <> project was a collaboration between METI International and the Sónar Musical Festival of Barcelona, Spain. METI – short for Messaging ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence -- is a San Francisco non-profit which researches the science and technology of making contact with alien civilizations. Sónar is a three day celebration of “advanced” music which has been going on for twenty-five years; 123,00 people from 101 countries attended in 2017.
The Sónar Calling message contained a science and math tutorial designed to help any ETs decode the transmission and understand who sent it. It also included a series of ten second clips of new music by such Sónar Festival favorites as Jean-Michel Jarre, Autechre and Matmos. How to decide which compositions were “advanced” enough to send to our extraterrestrial neighbors? “Sónar Festival has selected 33 musicians or groups, with the criteria that they were a complete and varied representation of what Sónar has been … The criterion is not in any way stylistic. The question we have asked ourselves is: Who are the creators who have opened new paths for music in recent years?” Note that if you feel your work was unjustly overlooked by Sónar’s panel of judges, a second message is scheduled for August, 2018. (JPK notes: This happened. You didn’t make the cut on this one either!)
Many science fiction readers would probably applaud METI’s efforts. After all, what it’s trying to do is just a step beyond SETI -- not just looking for ETs but reaching out to them. Sónar Calling recalls the famed Golden Records that we stashed aboard the two Voyager space probes, which, not coincidentally, also contained musical recordings. Among them were works by such worthies as Beethoven and Chuck Berry.
But the Sónar Calling message is different. Consider that it will take 40,000 years before the Voyager probes come even remotely close to another solar system and then they’ll still be a couple of light years away from any exoplanets. The chances of an alien ever listening to Johnny B. Goode on our Golden Greatest Hits album are infinitesimal. On the other hand, if the inhabitants of GJ 273b decide to respond to Sónar Calling, we could be puzzling over their reply as soon as 2043.
Unless they decided to deliver it in person.
In case you’re wondering whether the artists and scientists behind Sónar Calling asked permission before they made that gesture on our behalf, the answer is nope, they didn’t. No wonder. Who is in a position to grant such permission?
In a previous column, we considered Stephen Hawking’s misgivings about the runaway research into artificial intelligence. He has warned of a future in which “… we may face an intelligence explosion that ultimately results in machines whose intelligence exceeds ours by more than ours exceeds that of snails.” AI is the alien threat that we ourselves are creating, but Hawking is also worried about another alien threat. In his video Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places he warns that “Meeting an advanced civilization might be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That’s didn’t turn out so well.”
While some dismiss Hawking as a high-tech Cassandra, he is not against all exotic research. He was present at the launch of the Breakthrough Listen Project, the most comprehensive SETI project to date, where he said, “In an infinite Universe, there must be other life. There is no bigger question. It is time to commit to finding the answer.” And he serves on the Board of Directors of Breakthrough Starshot Initiative along with billionaires Mark Zuckerberg and Yuri Milner which “aims to demonstrate proof of concept for ultra-fast light-driven nanocrafts, and lay the foundations for a first launch to Alpha Centauri within the next generation.” Ultra-fast light-driven nanocrafts? Milner explains here that, in the not too distant future, a spacecraft the size of a postage stamp, equipped with solar sails and propelled by lasers, could achieve speeds approaching .2c (c being the speed of light) for a reconnaissance flyby of our nearest stellar neighbor. Science fiction, you say? The Starshot team has already launched fully functional prototypes dubbed Sprites, 3.5-by-3.5 centimeter solar-powered probes that weigh just four grams.
But note that Starshot would be a flyby mission, and not a contact mission. Others besides Hawking have been troubled by METI’s contact agenda, including sf writer David Brin. His essay Shouting At the Cosmos…Or How SETI has Taken a Worrisome Turn Into Dangerous Territory lays out the case for caution. He regrets that there has been no international oversight of METI efforts, writing, “Very few in the public — or even the astronomical community — are presently aware of this situation, which has so far come up only before a small committee of the International Academy of Astronautics.” And even when people address the issue, “go slow” advocates are often “derided as paranoid, repressive of free expression and nonsensical.” Perhaps this is because METI supporters believe that it’s already too late to hide our existence, since leakage from our radio broadcasts has been travelling through the cosmos for decades. Everybody knows that if there are civilizations out there, they could already be learning all about us from listening to the Jack Benny Program and watching Star Trek TOS. Unfortunately what everybody knows is wrong. Check out Will Hitler Be the First Person That Aliens See? which discusses the difficulties of high frequency transmissions penetrating our reflective ionosphere and of lower frequency transmissions degrading over time and distance. Unless a signal was pinpointed as precisely as the Sónar Calling message, tuning in an episode of The Walking Dead someday on Gliese 832 c would be like "trying to detect the small ripple from a pebble dropped in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California - from Japan.”
So the Sónar Calling message would seem to be something new in our relationship to the universe. Except it isn’t. Rather it is only the latest in a series of METI projects <> that date back to the Arecibo Message, sent in 1974. If all this interstellar messaging gives you pause, check out the Lifeboat Foundation a nonprofit organization “dedicated to encouraging scientific advancements while helping humanity survive existential risks and possible misuse of increasingly powerful technologies.” Its AlienShield Program seeks to limit efforts to “purposely provide our technological level and location to potentially hostile aliens” while developing a rational first contact protocol.
In 1961 Dr. Frank Drake proposed his famous equation N = R* • fp • ne • fl • fi • fc • L <> as a tool to estimate the number (N) of advanced alien civilizations in the Milky Way. For those who are still a bit fuzzy on the Drake variables, here's a quick recap: (R*) is the rate of formation of stars capable of supporting intelligent life times the fraction (fp) of those stars which have planets times the number (ne) of planets per star capable of supporting life times the fraction (fl) of those planets where life evolves times the fraction (fi) of those livable planets where intelligence evolves times the fraction (fc) of intelligent species which bother to communicate times the longevity (L) of those chatty civilizations. Back then, the best we could do was guess about some of the variables. While we are still guessing about fl, fi and fc, in the past fifty years we’ve learned more about R*, fp and ne. The first exoplanet was discovered in 1992 but it wasn’t until the Kepler Telescope <> launched in 2009 that we really began to count exoplanets. As I write, 3,710 planets in 2,780 systems have been observed, but check for updates at the NASA Exoplanet Archive. And if you want the latest exoplanet news and views, click over to NASA’s excellent Exoplanet Exploration site, which features late-breaking bulletins, profiles of scientists and their research, and extensive galleries of images and videos. Based on data from Kepler and other sources, astronomers now estimate that our galaxy contains upwards of 50 billion planets.
How many are habitable? Defining habitability is complex and at the far reaches of our understanding. By some estimates at least 500 million exoplanets in our galaxy could be in the habitable zone. On the theory that life as we know it requires liquid water, habitable exoplanets were supposed to orbit neither too close nor too far away from their stars. This was sometimes called the Goldilocks Zone but is more properly, if less memorably, called the circumstellar habitable zone (CHZ). But a “just right” orbit is no guarantee of habitability; in our solar system both Venus and Mars are in the Sun’s CHZ. Nor is the presence of liquid water a reliable indicator; the harsh radiation environments of many stars is inimical to life. But given that the science is still evolving, if you want to shop some potentially habitable galactic real estate, try the Planetary Habitability Laboratory of the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo.
When I began my career in science fiction, there were no confirmed exoplanets. Writers were free to populate distant solar systems with made up worlds where their aliens could live. One solar system that was a particular favorite for placing habitable -- and inhabited -- planets was that of Epsilon Eridani. I, along with literally dozens of my friends, colleagues, and literary betters set stories around this spectral type K2 star, so similar to the sun and just 10.5 light years away. Alas, the existence of planets there is controversial, and in any event, it is unlikely that they would be habitable. Episilon Eridani is a relatively young star and emits high levels of ultraviolet radiation.
But that’s the science fiction writer’s burden. Like science itself, the damn stories keep needing rewrites!
This brief essay was commissioned by Shanna McNair and Scott Wolven for the literary magazine The New Guard Volume IV and was published in 2015, along with several other similar/dissimilar Letters to the Future.
Okay, I admit it. I’ve been chasing you for forty years now, writing my little scenarios of what you would bring -- and they were mostly all wrong. We’ve dodged nuclear war so far, which makes all my fallout nightmares published during the Reagan years seem quaint. Most of us aren’t going to space anytime soon, so there go a couple of my early novels. Meanwhile, no Star Trek or Star Wars in my lifetime but then again, no Alien, Aliens or Alien Resurrection. Thanks for that! My predictions about politics? Not so great. I’ve got stories in my backlist, really good stories, that reference the Soviet Union in the Twenty-first Century. Back when Bill Clinton signed the ridiculous Defense of Marriage Act in the middle of the night in 1996, did I imagine that my gay friends would be getting married in less than twenty years? Nope. And even close to home, in my chosen profession of writing and publishing, I just didn’t Get It. I never saw Amazon coming until it stomped on my local bookstore like a capitalist Godzilla on a rampage. I thought the internet would be all about personal communications: email and bulletin boards and maybe telepresence. Not self-publishing, ezines and Netflix originals. I mean, I didn’t even understand about the phones. Do you realize how many species of plot your mobile phones have driven to extinction?
Some futurist I am. At least I have the bitter satisfaction of knowing that the professional futurists, the guys who got paid the big bucks to look into their statistical crystal balls, got it wrong too. We all chase you, but nobody catches the future. Even if we managed to clutch at your sleeve, you twist out of our grasp and dodge in a different direction.
Deep down, I knew it would be like this. But in order to get the stories written, I had to pretend that maybe, just maybe, I could anticipate where you were going. I needed that act of intellectual gymnastics to suspend my disbelief in order convince myself that the work was important because it could really happen. Now I know that if the work was in fact important (and heaven help me, I still believe some of it was) it wasn’t because it was some flavor of future history, or even that it was plausible, but because it was about people dealing with some very odd situations.
Which is the human condition here in 2015. You are more unknowable than you’ve ever been because you keep going faster and faster. The half-life of a science fiction story used to be measured in decades, now it’s five, maybe ten years. Then it decays into fantasy. 2001, A Space Odyssey, that most famous of science fiction novels and movies? It is, as we sometimes say in my genre, counterfactual. Alternate history. The real 2001 was much stranger than Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke could have imagined. And 2015 is even stranger. So yeah, future, the one thing I know with absolute certainty about you is your acceleration, which means that you are going to be very peculiar indeed.
But don’t you even think about slowing down! I’m still right behind you.
This essay was first published in the January 2018 issue of New Hampshire Magazine. Thanks to Rick Broussard for commissioning it!
Whenever an editor asks me to put on my science fiction prediction headgear (a wind-powered propeller beanie decorated in LED lights and wrapped in aluminum foil), I am reminded the Carousel of Progress, one of the first animatronic amusement park rides which made its debut at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. Later it decamped to the Disney theme parks. You can still line up in Orlando to view the revamped, Twenty-First Century version.
The future it depicts is the filled with gosh-wow technology, so let’s take a moment to indulge in a happy hardware vision of New Hampshire in the coming decades. The first thing to know is that your house, your car and all of your stuff is going to get smarter. Much smarter. Your refrigerator will know when you’re out of butter and will message Hannafords to add it to the order that you’ll be picking up on the way home from work. That is, unless you’re staying late, in which case your self-driving Prius will fetch it for you. When you’re done watching the latest ten part Ken Burns series on the Supreme Court, your mediawall will default to masterpieces from the Currier Museum’s Outreach Collection. While you sleep, your wall will automatically record the Red Sox/Mariners’s night game on the West Coast, and the replay will edit out not only the commercials but also all the scuffing in the batter’s box and the staring matches between pitchers and catchers. A complete game in an hour! And you can watch whenever you please the next day because you won’t be making that long commute to the job. Instead you and your co-workers will work mostly from home because your company will live in the cloud, running a networked, interactive work session that runs 24/7/365.
That is, if you have a job, because all this shiny technology will give rise to a new NH economy. If we’re living in a Carousel future where your car and your refrigerator and your desk are that smart, then Amazon or Google or Apple will have made the breakthrough in artificial intelligence that they’re currently burning through billions to achieve. Cheap, multipurpose artificial intelligence will usher in an age of economic disruption that will make the Industrial Revolution seem like a hiccup. You’ve seen the warning signs already in your bank’s ATMs and the self-checkout at Walmart. Robots – yes, robots! – are already doing jobs that used to be done by your neighbors or your kids. Maybe you’ve been reassuring yourself that while bots can run the Hampton toll booth, they can’t do your job. Don’t be so sure. According to a 2016 report from the World Economic Forum “… the nature of change over the next five years is such that as many as 7.1 million jobs could be lost through redundancy, automation or disintermediation, with the greatest losses in white-collar office and administrative roles.” And the President’s Council of Economic Advisors warns that workers who made less than $20 an hour have an 83% chance of losing their jobs to automation, while those making $20-40 an hour have a 31% chance of being laid off. How long before Amazon frees its robots from its warehouses and sends them out to deliver your goods? When will we see mechanized construction crews? AI accountants? Pharmacy vending machines? Many smarter futurists than I believe that the horizon for a job apocalypse is less than twenty years away.
So what are we going to do about it? Alas, many of the scenarios are not pretty. But in my opinion the brightest future involves what some might consider one of the most un-New-Hampshire-like ideas ever. If you’ve never heard of Universal Basic Income, let me be the first to introduce you. Love it or hate it, I predict with 100% confidence that we’ll be talking about it for years to come.
The breathtakingly simple idea is that all NH citizens would receive a regular and unconditional sum of money, either from the Feds or the State. Everybody would get paid the same amount: newborns and centenarians, poor and rich, with no means testing. How much? That depends, but the operative word is basic; the support would be designed to meet everyone’s basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. If a bot took your job and you couldn’t find another, the UBI would keep you from sleeping under the Queen City Bridge.
How could we afford this? Well, part of the answer is that it would replace not only welfare but the vast welfare bureaucracy, so there are savings to be realized there. But it is primarily an income redistribution program, and if that smacks of socialism, remember we are talking about a response to what would be unprecedented un-and-underemployment, maybe half the population without work and with no relief in sight. Would some people slump into a life of indolence under such a system? Without doubt, assuming they could live in flop and subsist on a diet of Cheerios, peanut butter sandwiches and ramen noodles. But most of us would likely build on the UBI foundation and the newfound free time to pursue our personal passions -- and in the process earn a little extra spending money. In a benign post-employment future, your play could become your work. You could teach poetry, banjo, ballet, fine carpentry, chess, or fencing. You could lead kayak paddles down the Saco, hikes up Monadnock, birding trips to Great Bay. Even in 2018, you don’t need to own a store to sell your honey, your leather motorcycle gear, your app, your graphic novel, or your handcrafted earrings. You wouldn’t need to earn a lot doing what you love to do; you’d just need to earn enough.
Can this actually come to pass? I am fairly certain strong AI is just around the corner, and that it will wreak havoc with our economic and cultural status quo. It’s all too easy to imagine a much darker scenario, but I have kids and grandkids. Besides, I’ve never been a fan of post-apocalyptic science fiction. And before you decide that your neighbors would never countenance a Universal Basic Income giveaway, consider this. According to Forbes Magazine, New Hampshire is the seventh most charitable state in the U.S. and first in New England.
We may be Yankees, but when the need is real, we take care of our own.
While others may wring their hands about the coming Jobs Apocalypse, we arty types have always felt secure . No bot could do what we do, could it? Hahahahahahahahaha!
The Art of Algorithms
I’m listening to music composed by Emily Howell as I write—from her album From Darkness, Light www.amazon.com/Emily-Howell-CHABRIER-CHOPIN-DEBUSSY/dp/B003JTUE1Y. I’m afraid that her headlong Prelude gallops a bit too fast for my taste but her Fugue II www.youtube.com/watch?v=wd__bsIDih0 is pleasantly complex, reminiscent of Bach. Emily was just a teen when this album was released and I think she shows promise. I’m tempted to send her a fan note but she wouldn’t be able to read it. You see, Emily is the brainchild of David Cope http://artsites.ucsc.edu/faculty/cope, a composer and professor of music at UC Santa Cruz. She’s a computer program.
David Cope is something of a digital provocateur. Back in 1980 he was a rising star in the music world, his work earning praise as it was performed around the world. Then he got stuck on a commission for an opera. To ease his composer’s block, he started playing around with programs to analyze the masterworks of classical music. The eventual outcome of his work was EMI http://artsites.ucsc.edu/faculty/cope/experiments.htm, short for Experiments in Musical Intelligence. Turn EMI (or Emmy, as some call her) loose on a body of work, say that of Johann Sebastian Bach www.jsbach.org, and it . . . um . . . she will deconstruct it into parts, then look for common signatures in those parts from which a unique style emerges and then recombine those signatures into new work.
This is easy enough for me to type, but it took years for Cope to make EMI work. Key to the process is what he calls recombinancy. In 2003 the composer Patrício da Silva www.patriciodasilva.com interviewed Cope www.thesoundstew.com/2010/07/interview-with-composer-david-cope-part.html and asked:
“At the core of EMI is the idea of recombinancy. Does a composer compose or recompose?”
Cope’s reply: “Music composition consists of a combination of what we hear and what formalisms we bring to bear. If I compose a work freely (i.e., without a prescription for voice-leading, allowable verticalities, etc.) then I will most likely integrate various ideas that I’ve previously heard. If I compose a piece strictly using a mathematical formula, then I won’t be re-composing music that I’ve heard but following strict rules. Most music consists of a combination of these two factors. The notion that humans have some kind of mystical connection with their soul or God, and so on, allowing them to produce wholly original ideas (not the result of recombination or formalisms) seems ridiculous to me.”
Soulless music! OMG! In another interview, this time with the Guardian www.theguardian.com/technology/2010/jul/11/david-cope-computer-composer, Cope said, “The question isn’t if computers possess a soul, but if we possess one.” Carried to its logical conclusion, Cope seems to be arguing that all music is essentially inspired plagiarism. If that seems too extreme, it’s worth interrogating our understanding of plagiarism. Is it basically an on/off function? Or is it a continuum, progressing from outright theft to unconscious borrowing to inspiration, allusion, homage, and satire? Did George Harrison plagiarize the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” when he wrote “My Sweet Lord” www.ultimateclassicrock.com/george-harrison-my-sweet-lord-plagiarism? A judge said he did. And what to make of postmodernism’s doctrine of intertextuality http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intertextuality that underlies so much of our sampling culture?
Emmy and Emily
Once Cope perfected Emmy’s routines, he used her to create new work in the style of Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, and more. Bach was a particular favorite, so Cope turned Emmy on to the master’s chorales www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chorale. One day he powered her up and went out for a bite to eat. When he came back that afternoon she had created 5000 new Bach chorales http://artsites.ucsc.edu/faculty/cope/5000.html. Now you may be wondering how good such instant music could possibly be. Judge for yourself here www.youtube.com/watch?v=PczDLl92vlc. Or how about a new Bach fugue (no. 44) www.youtube.com/watch?v=6BDEHMBsKfw, from Emmy’s Well Programmed Clavier? In 1993 Cope released an EMI album, Bach by Design, followed by Virtual Mozart (check out the Allegro www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kc9Iw5vnCwI and Virtual Rachmaninoff. While I am by no means an expert when it comes to classical music, I am an avid listener. I am quite certain that without prompting I couldn’t tell the difference between Emmy’s virtual Mozart and sonatas by the man himself.
But lest you attribute this to my tin ear, consider the sort of musical Turing Test http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_test that the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/11/the-man-who-would-teach-machines-to-think/309529 arranged in 1997.
(The Turing Test, for those not yet up to speed on Artificial Intelligence, was first proposed by the great Alan Turing www.turing.org.uk in 1950 and posits an answer to the thorny question “Can a machine think?” To overly simplify Turing’s idea: if a human in a protracted conversation with a machine programmed to mimic human responses can’t tell that she is talking to a machine, the machine passes Turing’s test.)
As reported in the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/1997/11/11/science/undiscovered-bach-no-a-computer-wrote-it.html, Hofstadter arranged for a recital at the University of Oregon at which three pieces were performed. One was by Bach, one by Emmy composing as Bach, and one by Dr. Steve Larson www.gazettetimes.com/news/local/obituaries/steve-larson/article_705f1118-bccc-11e0-9a96-001cc4c03286.html in the style of Bach. Dr. Larson was a professor of music theory as well as an accomplished composer and a devotee of Bach. “Bach is absolutely one of my favorite composers,’’ he said at the time. ‘‘My admiration for his music is deep and cosmic. That people could be duped by a computer program was very disconcerting.’’ Larson’s wife performed all three works and then the audience of music lovers was asked to decide who (or what) had written each. Their opinion? Emmy got the most support for being the real Bach. Bach came in second and Dr. Larson was third.
In Gödel, Escher, Bach http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Gödel,_Escher,_Bach, his classic inquiry into the nature of consciousness and intelligence, Hofstadter speculated whether music might someday be written by computers, but he believed that it would take more than mere algorithms to create anything worth listening to. He found Emmy’s achievement disturbing. ‘‘The only comfort I could take at this point comes from realizing that EMI doesn’t generate style on its own. It depends on mimicking prior composers. But that is still not all that much comfort.”
Emmy’s facility in mimicking the greats and her prodigious output disturbed Cope as well. He told the Guardian, “Because my program was continuing to pump out music like a spigot, it became a problem of: ‘Why play this sonata and not that one?’” Eventually, after eleven thousand chosen pieces, he decided to shut Emmy down and move on to developing her “daughter” Emily Howell. Cope writes on his website, “Since the early days of Experiments in Musical Intelligence, many audiences have heard its output in the styles of classical composers. The works have delighted, angered, provoked, and terrified those who have heard them. I do not believe that the composers and audiences of the future will have the same reactions. Ultimately, the computer is just a tool with which we extend our minds. The music our algorithms compose is just as much ours as the music created by the greatest of our personal human inspirations.”
The difference between Emmy and Emily is that Emily doesn’t imitate. Rather she is developing a style of her own based on feedback. Cope has given her a huge musical memory that consists of a collection of Emmy’s compositions. This means that she is intimately familiar with all the composers her mother analyzed and recombined over her career. Working from this reprocessed knowledge of music history, “The program produces something and I say yes or no, and it puts weights on various aspects in order to create that particular version,” says Cope. “I’ve taught the program what my musical tastes are, but it’s not music in the style of any of the styles—it’s Emily’s own style.”
Ask most composers or visual artists or writers—indeed, anyone in the arts—whether a computer could do their job and you’ll get flat out no way, perhaps with a snicker of scorn. Sure, truck drivers and cabbies should be worried, and maybe it’s time for cashiers and accountants to ponder second careers. Do you recall my previous column “Welcome Our Robot Overlords” www.jimkelly.net/blog/2016/11/29/m7w8c1ph5o4xcpzgtypq1ywoo23f6w, in which I pointed to several studies that warned of huge job losses due to automation and expert systems? But do poets need to worry about computers?
Consider this article: Artificially intelligent painters invent new styles of art www.newscientist.com/article/2139184-artificially-intelligent-painters-invent-new-styles-of-art, which reports that researchers from Rutgers University have created a generative adversarial network (GAN) to mimic the various artistic styles like Baroque, Pointillism, and Abstract Expressionism. In a GAN, two neural networks interact: one creates a solution and the other judges it, continually testing the product against a knowledge base. In this case, the product is art; one neural net generates images and the other consults a database of paintings in the chosen style and plays art critic. But the researchers also programmed a creative adversarial network (CAN) designed to make art that does not follow any one style but instead is “maximizing deviation from established styles and minimizing deviation from art distribution.” Their discriminator network had a database of some eighty thousand paintings from a thousand different artists drawn from WikiArt www.wikiart.org with which to steer the creator network.
Doesn’t this sound like Cope’s Emily Howell project? But wait, there’s more! The researchers then asked test subjects to look at four different groups of images and guess which were created by algorithms and which by humans. Two groups were by neural networks: a collection of GAN (mimicking) art, and a collection of CAN (original) art and two were made by humans, masterworks of Abstract Expressionism www.theartstory.org/movement-abstract-expressionism.htm and an assortment of non-figurative art on display at the Art Basel https://artbasel.com international art fair.
Yes, you’ve heard this story before. While 85 percent of respondents correctly guessed that humans had painted the Abstract Expressionist paintings, 53 percent thought the CAN images and 35 percent thought the GAN images were made by real people. Just 41 percent thought the art hanging in the Art Basel show had come from human hands.
Okay, maybe composers and visual artists might be facing some algorithmic competition someday. Maybe. But certainly not writers!
Meet Alena, short for Artificial Life Emerging from Natural Affinities. She’s another brainchild of David Cope; she’s software specializing in haiku. And she’s been published. Comes the Fiery Night www.amazon.com/Comes-Fiery-Night-D-Cope/dp/1466219157/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1320082013&sr=8-1 is an experimental volume—or is it a stunt? You see, it contains two thousand haiku by humans and a machine, only there are no author attributions. So which were written by Alena and which by flesh and blood poets?
You’re human. You figure it out.
If I'd known what I know now when I wrote this last May, I would have spent more time on the danger of weaponized narrative. Our intelligence community is worried about it, with good cause. Why isn't that man in the White House doing anything about it?
Is the Internet Broken?
In the last installment, we contrasted the current state of the internet with the vision some early adopters entertained of an online utopia of information exchange and elevated discourse. Here’s optimistic rhetoric from the 1996 A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence: “We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge. Our identities may be distributed across many of your jurisdictions. The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule.”
In 2018, the challenge of internet governance looms large. Last year the Pew Research Center www.pewinternet.org issued a report called The Future of Free Speech, Trolls, Anonymity and Fake News Online www.pewinternet.org/2017/03/29/the-future-of-free-speech-trolls-anonymity-and-fake-news-online. The researchers asked 1,537 technology experts, scholars, corporate practitioners, and government leaders, “In the next decade, will public discourse online become more or less shaped by bad actors, harassment, trolls, and an overall tone of griping, distrust, and disgust?” Forty-two percent of the respondents said they expected no major change for better or worse in our current troubling online culture, while 39 percent thought that the next decade would see even more negative activity. Just 19 percent were hopeful that online interactions would be “less shaped” by harassment, trolling, and distrust.
These experts were invited to expand on their replies by considering how social media might evolve. Are there technologies on the horizon that might discourage trolling and encourage inclusive behaviors? How might these solutions impact free speech?
Their extended responses are well worth a look, although they fill some eighty pages in the PDF version, and, alas, reach no consensus. They fall into four broad themes.
Things will stay bad because trolls have always been with us and anonymity on the internet only encourages them.
Mike Roberts www.icannwiki.org/Mike_Roberts, Internet Hall of Fame www.internethalloffame.org member and first president and CEO of ICANN http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ICANN, commented, “Most attempts at reasoned discourse on topics interesting to me have been disrupted by trolls in last decade or so. Many individuals faced with this harassment simply withdraw. . . . There is a somewhat broader question of whether expectations of ‘reasoned’ discourse were ever realistic. History of this, going back to Plato, is one of self-selection into congenial groups. The internet, among other things, has energized a variety of anti-social behaviors by people who get satisfaction from the attendant publicity. My wife’s reaction is ‘why are you surprised?’ in regard to seeing behavior online that already exists offline.”
We interrupt this column for a personal ’Mov’s reminiscence.
Longtime readers may remember the old Forum, an online message board linked to our webpage, where readers and writers mingled. I was a regular, as were our distinguished editors. The mythical official history of ’Mov’swould record that it was on the Forum where the idea for this column was first proposed in public—by me. I nominated Bruce Sterling www.wired.com/author/bruces, but then discovered that Sheila and Gardner were already considering hiring an internet columnist. To my vast surprise, they offered the job to me! Several years later the Forum began to attract trolls. Writers and readers left in droves until sometime in 2005 one egregiously offensive idiot crossed a boundary and the Forum went dark. This was only supposed to be temporary but it never came back and I still miss it.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled column.
Things will stay bad because existing platforms provide financial, political, and emotional incentives to negativity.
Or as Baratunde Thurston www.baratunde.com, a director’s fellow at MIT Media Lab and former digital director of The Onion www.theonion.com, wrote, “We’ve built a system in which access and connectivity are easy, the cost of publishing is near zero, and accountability and consequences for bad action are difficult to impose or toothless when they do. Plus consider that more people are getting online everyday with no norm-setting for their behavior and the systems that prevail now reward attention grabbing and extended time online. They reward emotional investment whether positive or negative. They reward conflict. So we’ll see more bad before more good because the governing culture is weak and will remain so while the financial models backing these platforms remain largely ad-based and rapid/scaled user growth-centric.”
Things will get better because we’ll find technical solutions—thank you, Artificial Intelligence—to call out and marginalize bad behavior. Or we’ll build digital walls to keep out the baddies.
Brad Templeton www.templetons.com/brad, chair for computing at Singularity University www.su.org and longtime Electronic Frontier Foundation www.eff.org board member, had this to say: “Now that everybody knows about this problem I expect active technological efforts to reduce the efforts of the trolls, and we should reach ‘peak troll’ before long. There are concerns for free speech. My hope is that pseudonymous reputation systems www1.cs.columbia.edu/~elli/papers/anonp2p.pdf might protect privacy while doing this.”
If you’re wondering what a pseudonymous reputation system is, think of the seller information systems on eBay www.ebay.com and Amazon www.amazon.com. On eBay, for example, the identity of a party to a transaction is hidden behind a screen name. According to eBay, “Whenever you buy or sell something, you can leave Feedback about the transaction. Your buyer or seller can leave Feedback for you as well. Over time, eBay members develop a Feedback profile, or reputation, based on other people’s comments and ratings. The Feedback score is one of the most important pieces of a Feedback profile. . . . Feedback comments become a permanent part of a seller’s record.”
Fixing this mess may come at a cost of increased surveillance, government regulation, and limits on access to information and free speech.
Joe McNamee http://storyengine.io/stories/decentralization/joe-mcnamee, executive director at European Digital Rights www.edri.org, observed, “In the context of a political environment where deregulation has reached the status of ideology, it is easy for governments to demand that social media companies do ‘more’ to regulate everything that happens online. We see this with the European Union’s ‘code of conduct’ with social media companies. This privatization of regulation of free speech (in a context of huge, disproportionate, asymmetrical power due to the data stored and the financial reserves of such companies) raises existential questions for the functioning of healthy democracies.”
As disturbing as the rise of the trolls may be, we face the more existential threat not from individuals acting out for personal reasons, but from shadowy groups who seek to manipulate social media to undermine our collective confidence in institutions. Weaponized narrative http://weaponizednarrative.asu.edu is the current buzzword for what used to be called propaganda www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/gi-roundtable-series/pamphlets/what-is-propaganda/defining-propaganda-i. However, in the last decade, the internet has given propaganda a reach and a complexity that has increased its power a hundredfold. In the previous column I commended Weaponized Narrative Is the New Battlespace www.defenseone.com/ideas/2017/01/weaponized-narrative-new-battlespace/134284 to your attention. “What’s new is the extraordinary power of today’s weaponized narrative. It attacks our group identity—our sense of who we are, our privilege of not being identified as ‘other.’ The rise of the Connected Age allows attacks that tear down old identities that have bound us together. But it also allows the creation of narratives that define the new differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ that are worth fighting for.”
Consider the phenomenon of fake news http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fake_news. This neologism was coined only a few years ago, but its fundamental principles are centuries old. Certainly the Founder Fathers were up to their necks in it www.mentalfloss.com/article/12487/adams-vs-jefferson-birth-negative-campaigning-us. During the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson employed a sleazeball named James Callendar to plant stories that his presidential rival and fellow Founder John Adams was a British agent set on fomenting war with France. Adams’ partisans, for their part, claimed Jefferson endorsed the bloodshed of the French Reign of Terror and was “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Of course, the current occupant of the White House has repeatedly got himself tangled in fake news, most egregiously as a spokesperson for the Birther Movement www.cnn.com/2016/09/09/politics/donald-trump-birther, and has used it as a weapon to divert scrutiny from some of his more questionable deeds.
But the real danger of fake news is not that it spreads lies, but that it deviously erodes belief in our institutions and indeed in the possibility of knowing the truth at all. Whom do you trust to call out the purveyors of fake news? The establishment news media are regarded by many as biased or corrupt. For myself, I have in the past relied on fact-checking websites like Snopes www.snopes.com and Politifact www.politifact.com. Would it surprise you to know that fake news perps and their sympathizers have launched an offensive against these sites? Almost all of their attacks have failed, but the effort continues.
There’s a wonderfully telling page on Snopes that I think of as Fake News in the News www.snopes.com/category/facts/fake-news. It features debunked news stories from the past couple of days. They’ll all be different when you read this, but this afternoon’s hoaxes include Google Earth Discovers Man Trapped on Desert Island for 9 Years? www.snopes.com/inboxer/hoaxes/googleearth.asp and Did a Man in Katy, Texas, Discover a Hired Escort Was His Wife? www.snopes.com/texas-man-prostitute-wife. It is to laugh. Not so funny, however, is this: Did President Trump “Reinstate” a Memorial Day for Police Officers, Canceled by Obama? www.snopes.com/memorial-day-police-trump-obama.
Although I have an account and tweet from time to time, I am not a Twitter aficionado. Many of you no doubt are, and so I leave you with this item from the New York Times: How Twitter Is Being Gamed for Misinformation www.nytimes.com/2017/05/31/technology/how-twitter-is-being-gamed-to-feed-misinformation.html. Did you know that there are tools you can download to create thousands of Twitter “bots”? These are accounts that look real, but that you control. Your friends in the fake news industry are all over this. The BBC found one network of 350,000 accounts www.bbc.com/news/technology-38724082. “It is difficult to assess exactly how many Twitter users are bots,” said graduate student Juan Echeverria, a computer scientist, who uncovered the massive networks. These bots can be used to create an illusion of popularity for a politician or a product or an idea.
Twitter has been called the journalists’ Clubhouse for the News www.poynter.org/2017/i-studied-how-journalists-used-twitter-for-two-years-heres-what-i-learned/453162. It’s where they find leads, meet sources, and pitch ideas. “When journalists see a story getting big on Twitter, they consider it a kind of responsibility to cover it, even if the story may be an alternate frame or a conspiracy theory,” according to Alice Marwick, author of a recent report on the mechanics of media manipulation www.datasociety.net/pubs/oh/Data-AndSociety_MediaManipulationAndDisinformationOnline.pdf. “That’s because if they don’t, they may get accused of bias.”
In the first century, the satirist Juvenal wrote “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quis_custodiet_ipsos_custodes%3F. Two thousand years later, we still wonder who is watching the watchers.
Copyright © 2018 James Patrick Kelly
This is the first of a two part reassessment of online culture. While I believe that the Sad Puppy episode has been consigned to the dust heap of internet history, the misuse and abuse of social media continues. I'm afraid that I'm no longer quite so optimistic about the future of digital discourse as I was when I started writing my column, lo these many years ago.
Don't Read the Comments
Science fiction has had its share of fan feuds, but the Sad Puppy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sad_Puppies uprising of recent memory was among the most disruptive—and pointless—in the history of our genre. Unlike the old time fannish dustups which took place at the glacial speed of the Postal Service, this one happened in real time on social media and blogs and comment sections. While the majority of science fiction readers pay scant attention to such insider doings, over the past few years the Sad Puppies and their rabid cohorts shouted their way not only onto the front pages of the genre press, but also into the headlines of many general news outlets.
To catch you up: storm clouds gathered in 2013 when Larry Correia www.larrycorreia.wordpress.com, an ambitious and popular sf novelist, chafed on his blog over his lack of awards recognition www.monsterhunternation.com/2013/01/08/how-to-get-correia-nominated-for-a-hugo. To remedy this perceived slight, he proposed gaming the Hugo Awards www.thehugoawards.org by asking his fans to pay a fee that would enable them to nominate his latest novel. “Monster Hunter Legion www.baen.com/monster-hunter-legion.html is eligible . . . I’m just pointing that out. The fact that I write unabashed pulp action that isn’t heavy handed message fic annoys the literati to no end.”
Correia believed that the sf establishment in general and the Hugo Awards process in particular were ignoring him and other like-minded writers. He recommended that his followers ask themselves: “Should I vote for the heavy handed message fic about the dangers of fracking and global warming and dying polar bears and robot rape as a bad feminist analogy with a villain who is a thinly veiled Dick Cheney? Or should I vote for the LAS VEGAS EXPLOSION SHOOTING EVERYTHING DRAGON HELICOPTER CHASE ORC SACRIFICING CHICKENS BOOK!?!”
He considered the answer to be self-evident. So, if his fans bought sixty dollar supporting memberships to the annual World Science Fiction Convention www.worldcon.org, they could intervene in the Hugo voting process to promote their favorites. “And once you’ve done that, you can nominate. The nominations stay open for a few more months, so I’ll post about some of the things I think which are awesome, but which normally have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning.”
It was possible at the time to read this as a tongue-in-cheek PR stunt that failed, since despite Correia’s lobbying, Monster Hunter Legion did not make the Hugo ballot. However, the next year he returned with reinforcements, birthing the insurgency known as the Sad Puppies. (The self-deprecating name refers to this ASPCA commercial www.youtube.com/watch?v=IO9d2PpP7tQ. It’s meant to compare pulp writers who provide entertainment to the masses, but get no recognition, to abused pets.) Not only did Correia have a new novel to flog, but he also posted a slate www.monsterhunternation.com/2014/03/25/my-hugo-slate of twelve works of fiction and non-fiction that he urged his Puppy minions to nominate. As an act of provocation, he included a novelette by one Vox Day, a pseudonym for a notorious internet troll www.time.com/4457110/internet-trolls named Theodore Beale. As Correia blogged, “. . . one of my stated goals was to demonstrate that SJWs would have a massive freak out if somebody with the wrong politics got on. So on the slate it went. I nominated Vox Day because Satan didn’t have any eligible works that period.” What’s a SJW, you ask. Wikipedia explains http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_justice_warrior: “‘Social justice warrior” is a pejorative term for an individual promoting socially progressive views, including feminism, civil rights, multiculturalism, and identity politics.”
Better organized the second time around, the Sad Puppies slate succeeded, after a fashion. Seven of Correia’s choices made it onto the final ballot, although almost all came in last place when the votes were counted, and one, Vox Day’s novelette, finished below “No Award” www.thehugoawards.org/the-voting-system/.
The embrace of Vox Day highlighted the true agenda of the Puppies. The claim that sf wasn’t adventurous enough and that it had strayed from its pulp origins was just a smokescreen for an alt-right political attack on the genre. The gloves came off after Vox Day launched the extremist wing of the Sad Puppies, which he called the Rabid Puppies. You will note that I have not included URLs for the Rabid Puppies or for Vox Day. I’m embarrassed enough to be writing about him, dear reader, much less to be pointing you toward the toxic sites where he spews! Consider that Day has come out against women’s suffrage, has suggested marital rape is an oxymoron, has stooped to racist taunts, and has preached that homosexuality is a birth defect and you’ll know more than you need to know about his vile beliefs.
When Correia stepped away from the Puppies, Vox Day became its central figure, in the process skewing some of the rhetoric perilously close to hate speech. Nevertheless, by adroitly pursuing the slate ploy a third time, the Rabid Puppies swamped the final ballot in 2015, placing fifty-eight of their sixty-seven recommendations before Hugo voters. Five different categories had nothing but Puppy nominees! Very few of these works would have received any notice had it not been for the Puppies’ ballot manipulation.
The overwhelming majority of SF fans were aghast. Not only were reforms implemented to forestall future Puppy interference, but the Hugo voters rejected the Puppies at Sasquan www.sasquan.org, the World Science Fiction Convention in Spokane in 2015. No Award won in all five of the Puppy-only categories. In those categories where there was a mix of Puppy and legitimate nominations, Puppy nominees lost to No Award. Although they suffered a crushing defeat, they had managed to hijack one of the genre’s most prestigious awards. They returned again in 2016 with a new strategy, this time including in their slates a few works by authors who had no sympathy whatsoever for the Puppy cause, using them as a kind of literary camouflage. This strategy proved ineffective, and by the time the most recent Hugos were awarded at Worldcon 75 www.worldcon.fi in Helsinki, the Puppies had been thoroughly marginalized. The influential fanzine File 770 www.file770.com/?p=34186 estimates that there were just eighty to ninety Puppy voters out of 2464 nominating ballots cast before the Helsinki Worldcon. However, Vox Day did manage to get himself and a few of the obscure authors he’d published nominated in a handful of categories once again.
Although the Puppies will probably continue to whine, their influence seems to have waned. What did they accomplish? Although they garnered a few empty nominations, they did not succeed in blowing up the Hugo Awards. They failed to make a convincing case for their conservative politics, nor did they woo converts to their literary cause. What they did get was a boatload of press, albeit most of it negative. The roster of news sources that reported on the Puppies is impressive. The Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly, Slate, NPR, The Guardian, Wired, The Atlantic, and The Huffington Post gave them bemused, but largely critical notice, while the National Review and Breitbart News cheered them on. Some viewed the sound and fury as a manifestation of a cultural malaise, linking them to Gamergate http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamergate_controversy or the rise of Donald Trump www.salon.com/2016/08/23/the-alt-right-attacks-sci-fi-how-the-hugo-awards-got-hijacked-by-trumpian-style-culture-warriors.
In 1996 the Internet pioneer John Perry Barlow http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Perry_Barlow published A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence that has since been widely reprinted, to both praise and criticism. At the dawn of the internet, it was possible to imagine it becoming a digital utopia. As Barlow wrote, addressing the existing governments of the world, “We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. . . . We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge. Our identities may be distributed across many of your jurisdictions. The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule. We hope we will be able to build our particular solutions on that basis. But we cannot accept the solutions you are attempting to impose.” I too was swept up in that early-days optimism about the future of the internet; my “On The Net” columns from the late nineties are aglow with it.
Last year the Pew Research Center issued a report called The Future of Free Speech, Trolls, Anonymity and Fake News Online www.pewinternet.org/2017/03/29/the-future-of-free-speech-trolls-anonymity-and-fake-news-online that shows the naïveté of pundits like Barlow and Kelly in trusting that the Golden Rule would hold sway over our digital discourse. The trends cited in the report were ripped from the headlines. ISIS is using social media as a weapon of terror www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/11/war-goes-viral/501125 and the Russians programmed internet bots to distort our most recent election www.dhs.gov/news/2016/10/07/joint-statement-department-homeland-security-and-office-director-national. Online harassment is on the risewww.pewinternet.org/2014/10/22/online-harassment, with some 40 percent of adults having experienced it personally, and the onslaught of internet trolls www.businessinsider.com/find-out-why-any-of-us-are-capable-of-trolling-2017-3 has led many sites either to close comments or use moderators to police them www.npr.org/sections/ombudsman/2014/09/24/348775874/policing-the-trolls-the-ins-and-outs-of-comment-moderation. And the report was issued before the horrific incidents of murders and suicides livestreamed to Facebook www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/facebook-wanted-visceral-live-video-its-getting-suicides-and-live-streaming-killers/2017/04/17/a6705662-239c-11e7-a1b3-faff0034e2de_story.html?utm_term=.9f5c00b7d5e7.
Citing digital bank heists www.nytimes.com/2016/05/14/business/dealbook/details-emerge-on-global-bank-heists-by-hackers.html, multiple hacks resulting in millions having personal information compromised http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/worlds-biggest-data-breaches-hacks/, the growing threat of ransomware http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ransomware, and a spate of distributed denial-of-service attacks www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/oct/21/ddos-attack-dyn-internet-denial-service, The Guardian has offered a chilling response to Barlow’s Declaration in Has the Internet Become a Failed State?www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/nov/27/has-internet-become-failed-state-crime-cyberspace.
I am still mulling over the Pew Report, since it raises important issues that we as members of the science fiction community and as citizens of the world need to address. But for now I leave you with a couple of quotes for further reflection. The first is from The Guardian article:
“One way of thinking about the net is as a mirror held up to human nature. Some of what appears in the mirror is inspiring and heart-warming. Much of what goes on online is enjoyable, harmless, frivolous, fun. But some of it is truly repellent: social media, in particular, facilitate firestorms of cruelty, racism, hatred, and hypocrisy.”
The other quote is from Defense One www.defenseone.com, a blog about “the future of U.S. defense and national security” that examines Weaponized Narrative www.defenseone.com/ideas/2017/01/weaponized-narrative-new-battlespace/134284:
“In the hands of professionals, the powerful emotions of anger and fear can be used to control adversaries, limit their options, and disrupt their functional capabilities. This is a unique form of soft power. In such campaigns, facts are not necessary because—contrary to the old memes of the Enlightenment—truth does not necessarily prevail. It can be overwhelmed with constantly repeated and replenished falsehood.”
Puppies, I’m looking at you.
This is the speech I gave to the assembly at the graduation of the Winter 2018 class of the Stonecoast Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts Program at the University of Southern Maine. As I note in the speech, I am (semi)retiring from Stonecoast to spend more time writing -- and working on my webpage! I will teach at this summer's residency but will no longer be mentoring students during the semester. My future at Stonecoast? I'd love to keep some ties, but I appreciate that the administration needs to serve the needs of the students, not the semi-retired faculty! But I am pleased with the current arrangement.
Dean Tuchinsky, Winter 2018 graduates and their honored guests, my colleagues on the staff and faculty here at Stonecoast, I believe tonight we have a first. The first time the graduating speaker is graduating with the graduating class. Just so the families and friends know, I’ve had the privilege of serving on the faculty since 2005 and am now easing into semi-retirement. Which means that I know all too well how my friends in the caps and gowns feel. We all have a mixture of pride in our accomplishments, relief that we made it through, regret that our Stonecoast adventure is coming to an end. Because when we adjourn tonight, there will be no more packets for you, no more letters of comment for me.
What are we going to do with all that time?
Me, I intend to write. I hope that’s your plan too. And if I can offer one last snippet of advice, it is don’t wait. As hard as you’ve worked over the last few months to whip that manuscript into shape and to learn the arcane magic of thesis formatting from Wizard Matt, don’t rest on your laurels. No extended vacations. Get back to the writing -- asap.
I’d like to say a few words to your family and friends. Hello. We know how marvelously you’ve been supporting your writers; that’s how they got here in the first place. But now you’re going to have take over at least some of the nurturing that we’ve been doing here at Stonecoast. Just because they’re not in the program anymore doesn’t mean that you’re going to get back all that time they spent writing their packets. They will want to keep working and you will want to help create the psychic space they will need to do that work, as they explore their evolving identities as writers. Because those identities may still be fragile. Before they came to Stonecoast, calling themselves writers was a huge leap of faith. It certainly was for me, back in the day. You tell someone a writer, and, if you’re lucky, they ask what you write. And you can say: memoir, novels, sonnets, essays, plays, films. But the conversation all too often goes on from there. Are you published? Have I read something you’ve written? Do you know Stephen King? Can you make a living writing that kind of stuff? Believe me, those are questions that can cause internal bleeding in a new writer. And now your grads may face a new question. So you got an MFA, how’s that working out for you? Your writers are going to need you to believe in them. But now it’s not only because you love them and want them to find their bliss. Now you can believe in them because we do.
In a few minutes Dean Tuchinsky will speak words of power to all of us. Warning: spoiler alert. He will announce that these fourteen have been duly approved by the Board of Trustees for a Masters Degree of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Then he is going to say something that has always puzzled me. Twice a year for thirteen years I’ve heard a dean say that our graduates are entitled to their degree with all honors, distinctions and privileges. I’ve always wondered what those honors, distinctions and privileges might be. And now as I get ready to leave Stonecoast myself, I think I know. You see, sitting right behind your grads are a clutch of writers who have sold books and books and shelves of books and who know fine writing when they read it. So they and I – we proclaim now to everyone in this hall, and to all the world, that we’ve read those impeccably formatted theses and they are by writers. Not aspiring writers. Not wannabe writers. That is the distinction we want you understand, friends and families. We honor them because they are truly writers. Never doubt it.
Now graduates, back to you. You are very, very different people than you were before you came to us January of 2016. And I’m talking different right down to the cellular level. You may have heard it said that the human body totally replaces itself every seven years. Think of it, a brand new you, every so often like clockwork. Actually, that’s not exactly right. Yes, your cells are dying and being replaced all the time but different parts of you are replaced at different rates. For example, the cells lining your digestive system come and go every few days, so each of you have grown a completely new stomach lining since you arrived here, maybe more than one depending on how many times you stopped by the Broad Arrow. And life is tough on your skin, so snakelike you’ve grown an entirely new hide since Christmas to shield you against unwanted literary criticism. Blood cells come and go every few months, so all that blood you sweated writing your prefaces? No big deal. Those poor corpuscles were doomed anyway. And did you know that you grow a new skeleton every ten years? So start stiffening those backbones so you’re ready for encounters with feisty editors
But the problem with the notion that you are an entirely different collection of cells than you were, once upon a time, is what’s up here, in your brain. Chances are very good, if you’re over twenty-five that you’ve got all the neurons in your cerebral cortex that you ever going to have. But although you’re pretty much stuck with the brain cells you’ve got, you can change the way they connect. Neurologists call this capacity for rewiring yourself brain plasticity. And that rewiring is what we’ve been doing to you for the past two years. This program isn’t only designed to pour some literary encyclopedia into your heads. It’s not about whether you can define free indirect discourse or understand the correct use of serial commas or explain the difference between a dactyl and an anapest. This program has changed the way you think about writing and to do that we have changed your brain. Possibly the most critical rewiring we accomplish here is to create a habit of writing. It may be that before you came to us, you wrote when inspiration struck. Maybe you indulged in binge writing, cranked chapters or poems or essays out and then, exhausted, laid low for a few weeks. Or months. But that’s not the way it worked here, was it? There was always a packet due every month, and when it wasn’t the packets, there were the submissions for the residency. Over and over and over. When would it stop?
Well, it stops now. You don’t owe us any more writing. From now on, you owe it to yourselves. All the work you did here more than justifies the prodigious efforts you put into it. But I believe that, going forward, creating a habit of writing may be the most important legacy of Stonecoast to your careers. And I’ll say again what I said at the outset, because it bears repeating. You should get right back into it. Come February 1, I’m hoping you’ll feel good and antsy if you’re not getting regular keyboard time.
And why is it a good thing, this habit of writing? Well, because it gets the work done, that’s obvious. But let me share a controversial opinion I’ve formed over some thirty years working with writers. Talent is overrated. Since I first came to Stonecoast there has been lots of new research in the science of expertise that attempts to document how we master difficult cognitive skills like playing the violin, excelling at chess or writing a masterpiece. And the research all shows whatever contribution talent might make, if it even exists, what really counts in mastery is practice and feedback. Regular practice. Over and over and over. Packet after packet after packet. Of course, you can’t look to Stonecoast for your feedback anymore. But that’s because it’s time to send your work to editors. Time to publish. You’re ready, believe me. Don’t worry about whether you’re talented enough to submit to this market or that. Talent is overrated. When I read work by a writer I really admire, who -- let’s not put too fine a point on it -- writes better than I do, I don’t get all discouraged because I got shortchanged at the talent bank. I just indulge my writing habit and keep practicing. Over and over and over. So should you.
I’m afraid it’s time for us to move on, graduates. Like you I loved – love Stonecoast, but there is a season to everything. Like you I want to thank Justin and Matt and especially Robin, in my case, who has watched out for me for all the thirteen years of my time here. And we graduating Stonecoasters want to thank the faculty for changing our brains, and our lives. But before we go, one last assignment for you. There is a saying that goes something like this. “It is a poor teacher whose students do not surpass him.” I tried looking up who said that on the internet, but couldn’t find a definitive attribution. Some sites claim it was said by a Zen master like Dogen Zenji, others assigned it to Leonardo da Vinci or Will Rogers.
It is a poor teacher whose students do not surpass him.
All of you who have worked with us have written evaluations of what we do here at Stonecoast. But I put it to you beautiful writers, soon to be graduates, soon to be masters, that you have not yet submitted your final report on our teaching.
Because it is a poor teacher, whose students do not surpass him.
Go out into the wide world, my friends, and make us look good.
This is a followup to a column I wrote for Asimov's called "Remembering Bertie" in which I considered the contributions of one Herbert George Wells, known as Bertie to his friends, to science fiction in general and the subgenre of time travel very particularly. In it, I wonder how to explain the paucity time tourists trooping through our exciting era.
Coincidentally, this happens to be the one hundredth column in my On The Net series.
On June 28, 2009, the celebrated physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking threw a party www.youtube.com/watch?v=elah3i_WiFI. It was a catered affair, complete with champagne and hors d’oeuvres. Hawking was meticulous in creating his invitations, giving not only the address of the hall at Cambridge University, but its exact coordinates in hyperspace. He distributed these invitations throughout the world; over the years they’ve become something of a collectors’ item. You can find them on the internet, and for £39.00 you can own an authorized reproduction www.kiteprint.com/collections/frontpage/products/stephen-hawkings-time-travellers-invitation-open-edition. Despite all his efforts, however, Hawking failed utterly as a host. “I sat there a long time,” he reports, “no one came.”
Perhaps this was because Hawking didn’t send invitations out until after the party took place. Or perhaps it was because the guests he invited didn’t exist. You see, the invites read, “You are cordially invited to a reception for Time Travelers. Hosted by Stephen Hawking.”
Anyone who thinks that Hawking doesn’t have a sense of humor just hasn’t been paying attention. But when Hawking documented this party in his television series www.dailymotion.com/video/x1lvfi0_into-the-universe-time-travel_tv, it was not only as a jape but also as an experiment. He did all that he could to ensure that his invitations would last a long, long time in the hope that someone in the (perhaps distant) future who had mastered time travel would jump at the chance for a convivial glass or two with him in the twenty-first century. It was a win-win proposition for Hawking, who famously declared in his 1992 paper “Chronology protection conjecture” www.thelifeofpsi.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Hawking-1992.pdf that time travel into the past was impossible. “It seems,” he wrote then, “that there is a Chronology Protection Agency which prevents the appearance of closed timelike curves and so makes the universe safe for historians.” On the other hand, if someone from the future had shown up, think of the hot stock tips he could have passed along!
The apparent scarcity of tourists from the year 802,701 is reminiscent of the Fermi Paradox www.seti.org/seti-institute/project/details/fermi-paradox, which observes a similar scarcity of alien astronauts from TRAPPIST-1ehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TRAPPIST-1e and the myriad other Goldilocks worldswww.nationalgeographic.com/astrobiology/goldilocks-worlds/ in our universe. Where the hell is everybody?
Is the chronology protection conjecture right? I’m just an English major and can’t begin to explain the prediction that radiation feedback would almost certainly collapse any wormhole a time traveler could conjure up in order to zip into the past. But since a gap—to put it mildly—exists at present in our understanding of wormhole engineering, might there not be other explanations for why Hawking got no takers?
One is that time travel might be possible, but it’s way too hard to accomplish. Special relativityhttp://www.einstein-online.info/elementary/specialRT tells us that any subluminal particle with mass would need infinite energy to accelerate to the speed of light. So, galactic empires? No way! Except various workarounds involving space warps have been proposed, notably the Alcubierre Drivehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcubierre_drive and traversable wormholes www.space.com/27845-interstellar-movie-wormhole-travel-feasibility.html. And if we could break the speed limit of the universe, that might also give us access to time travel. However, warping spacetime will require a tsunami of new science and the harnessing of energy sources that we are most likely centuries, if not millennia, from achieving.
Returning for a moment to the Fermi Paradox, let’s consider some of the variables in the famous Drake Equation www.seti.org/drakeequation, which weighs the probability that there might be aliens out there capable of contacting us. The last three variables in the Drake Equation are fi, the fraction of planets on which intelligent life emerges; fc, the fraction of these civilizations that develop technology capable of sending signals; and L, how long those civilizations last. While we are an instance of fc in the Drake Equation, in that we have been sending radio signals to the stars since 1906 www.quora.com/How-far-has-the-first-radio-signal-data-transmission-to-space-traveled-to-date, we are not yet counted in the fc of what I’ll call the Hawking Equation, which might estimate how likely time travel is to be developed—if it is possible. And what is our L in either equation? Will our fragile civilization survive long enough to leap all the daunting technological hurdles? Maybe our descendants will never get the chance to develop time travel?
Another explanation is that perhaps the time machine can only go back in time to the point where it was switched on. Since one hasn’t been invented yet, much less activated, 2009 (and for that matter 2017) was not accessible from the future. But if at some point a working time machine was turned on, it would create a closed timelike curve (CTC) www.scientificamerican.com/article/time-travel-simulation-resolves-grandfather-paradox/. The CTC would loop from the coordinates of its startup through other spacetime coordinates in the future and then back to the original coordinates. But no further back!
Still another explanation is that future generations may be too responsible to use time travel technology, since they’ll have read the countless—if somewhat quaint —science fiction stories from our era warning of the paradoxes that arise from travel to the past. For an excellent brief look at such hoary tropes as the Grandfather Paradox www.timetravelphilosophy.net/topics/grandfather, the Bootstrap Paradox www.astronomytrek.com/the-bootstrap-paradox-explained, the Meet Yourself Paradox www.timetravelphilosophy.net/topics/double and others, check out 5 Bizarre Paradoxes of Time Travel Explained www.astronomytrek.com/5-bizarre-paradoxes-of-time-travel-explained. For a more comprehensive and logic-twisting survey, try the excellent Time Travel Philosophywww.timetravelphilosophy.net website.
As a side note, a fannish reading of Stephen Hawking’s passing mention of a “Chronology Protection Agency” in his 1992 paper suggests that he was familiar with at least some of SF’s Time Police subgenre http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/time_police in which responsible citizens from the future patrol the time lines to prevent evildoers from changing history. Indeed, no less an authority than SFWA Grandmaster Frederik Pohlwww.thewaythefutureblogs.com asserts that Hawking has always been an SF fan. “Stephen Hawking said he spent most of his first couple of years at Cambridge reading science fiction (and I believe that, because his grades weren’t all that great).” And did you know that Hawking and his daughter Lucy have written a science fiction series for young readers, beginning with George’s Secret Key to the Universehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George’s_Secret_Key_to_the_Universe?
One final explanation for why Hawking failed to attract any guests might be that we inhabit the original timeline that existed before time travel was invented. Suppose that whenever time travelers switch on their devices and traipse off into the past or the future, they remove themselves to a different timeline in a parallel universe and are therefore unable to return to ours, the universe of their origin. Thus whatever mischief they wreak and whatever wrongs they right would have no impact on us.
We Asimov’s readers know all about the long tradition of flipping historical turning points into alternate histories. For “What if the Nazis had won WWII?” see The Man in the High Castlehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man_in_the_High_Castle by Philip K. Dick www.philipkdickfans.com or for “What if the Spanish Armada had defeated the English?” see Ruled Britannia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruled_Britanniaby Harry Turtledove www.sfsite.com/~silverag/turtledove.html. For some time these tales have occupied contested ground in the genre. Are they fantasy or science fiction? Critics still disagree.
In a ground-breaking doctoral thesis published in 1957, physicist Hugh Everett IIIhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Everett_III showed (among other things!) how these alternate histories might actually be SF. His proposed interpretation of quantum mechanics was at odds with accepted theory at the time, the Copenhagen interpretation http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qm-copenhagen championed by Neils Bohr www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1922/bohr-bio.html. To understand the disagreement, recall the famous Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment www.youtube.com/watch?v=OkVpMAbNOAo. It was designed so that, due to a probabilistic quantum process, a vial of cyanide might or might not be smashed, thus poisoning a cat sealed with the vial in a box. The equations tell us that something must happen, but that there’s no way to know what until someone opens the box and looks. Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation says that the cat exists in a state of superposition, that it is at once alive and dead until someone opens the box and by observing collapses the quantum wave function, settling the cat’s fate. Everett’s take is that the microscale quantum event that determines whether the vial is smashed or not happens at the macroscale as well. Two universes diverge from the defining moment; one in which the cat is alive and one in which the cat is dead. Everett’s mind-boggling idea is known today as the Many Worlds Interpretation www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzKWfw68M5U. While originally dismissed with scorn, it has garnered more and more adherents, although majority opinion among physicists still lies elsewhere. If you don’t mind losing your grip on reality, click over to io9 www.io9.gizmodo.com/the-9-weirdest-implications-of-the-many-worlds-interpre-1692618056, for an exploration of what the many worlds interpretation might mean to you personally.
But for our purposes, the Many Worlds Interpretation offers an explanation of how all time travelers would have to pass out of our universe, never to return. This would leave our world as the pristine one in which time travel does work, but in which it appears not to.
For an amusing video recap of these explanations of why our most famous cosmologist was stood up by the future, click over to Stephen Hawking Invites You To His Time Travel Partyhttp://journalofthingsblog.wordpress.com/2017/02/17/stephenhawking. In fact, let me recommend the entire Journal of Things Blog http://journalofthingsblog.wordpress.com “a weekly essay series on topics ranging from films, politics to science and spirituality” created by Sudharsanan Sampathkumar www.sudharsanansampath.com. His concise and clever videos cover a range of topics of interest to readers of this column.
I’m afraid I have to agree with Stephen Hawking’s chronology protection conjecture, alas. The arguments against it, while fun to explore and well-suited for storifying by up-and-coming SF writers, do not pass the Occam’s Razor www.youtube.com/watch?v=skcCu4RUkAg test. So sorry, no time travel into the past for the likes of us!
Time travel into the future, on the other hand. . . .
Meanwhile, if it’s any consolation, Hawking was not the first to come up with the tongue-in-cheek idea of a “Chronology Protection Agency . . . which makes history safe for historians.” As James Gleick www.around.compoints out in Time Travel www.nytimes.com/2016/10/02/books/review/james-gleick-time-travel.html?_r=0, the book that was in part the inspiration for this and my previous column:
Ray Bradbury, for example, stated it in his 1952 story about time-traveling dinosaur hunters: ‘Time doesn’t permit that sort of mess—a man meeting himself. When such occasions threaten, Time steps aside. Like an airplane hitting an air pocket.’ Notice that time has agency here; time doesn’t permit and time steps aside.
Hey, if you haven’t read Ray Bradbury’s www.raybradbury.com “A Sound of Thunder” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Sound_of_Thunder go find a copy to cheer yourself up. One of the best time travel yarns ever!
And on a personal note, I was reminded when I went to save this file that my first “On The Net,” entitled “Experiment,” appeared in the August 1998 issue of this magazine. I’m proud, if a little bemused, to report that this is my one hundredth column. Thank you, dear readers, for your attention and support over the years!
Without actually planning it ahead of time, we circumnavigated the tallest mountain in New Hampshire, Mt. Washington, on our short hiking vacation.
We drove up to Pinkham Notch on Wednesday and started hiking on the Imp Trail on Carter Mountain around noon. This is a loop trail with the northern half being a very steep 2.2 miles to a small ledge with spectacular view of the Presidential Range looking to the Southeast. Then 4.1 miles down on the southern loop. This hike was taxing due to the temperature, which was in the high 80s. Total vertical: 1900 feet.
Thursday the temps had dropped into the pleasant 60s and we headed for the Zeeland Road to climb the 3.3 mile Sugarloaf Trail. This one climbs to the saddle between two peaks North and Middle Sugarloaf and hikers are invited to visit one and then the other. We chose to begin with North, with ledges offering an expansive view to the west and the Presidentials. The top of Mount Washington was in the clouds but we could see some of the other peaks in the range. Then we headed back down to the saddle and up Middle Sugarloaf for lunch and more views from ledges which opened not only West but south and east. We could see Mt. Garfield the mountains at the top of Crawford Notch. On the climb down we passed some interesting glacial erratics and we hammed it up. Total vertical: 1100 feet.
Friday was even cooler and we continued to circumnavigate Mount Washington by driving the Kancamagus Highway to the trailhead of the Mt. Potash Trail. This was a 4 mile up and back hike to the summit of an oddly named little mountain with great views. There’s some low scrub on top, but chances to see in almost every direction. Looking north we could see Mts. Eisenhower and Washington. Also great views of Passaconaway, the Twins, Osceola and Chocorua and the Kanc snaking to the west. A nice mix of trail conditions from downy hemlock litter to bony granite slabs. Highly recommended! Total vertical: 1400 feet
Looking north from Mt. Potash. Washington is the far off peak framed by the two trees in the center of the shot.
One of my best known stories "Ten To The Sixteenth To One" asks and answers this question in a disturbing way. It's been widely republished, most recently in China. But it's a fascinating question and well worth further interrogating. Maybe this column will inspire stories the way that James Gleick's book Time Travel inspired this column.
Meanwhile, my pal Kim Stanley Robinson wrote me an email to take issue with this passage from the column: "And after a couple of disappointing message novels like The Sleeper Awakes and The Food of the Gods (read ’em and weep), this forefather of our genre spent the last four decades of his life on other matters. Are we modern sf readers presumptuous to wish he had stayed with us?"
Stan writes persuasively: "I wanted to register a counter-view: of course HG Wells wrote 5 great SF novellas in a brief burst of glory, and people still read The Time Machine and always will because it is so great (not despite but because of the lack of dialogues, characterization, etc etc). But you could argue he had already done everything sf can do, hit all the signicant sub-genres (time travel, aliens, genetic engineering, paranormal, space travel) so that really there was nothing left to do but repeat himself, or split hairs. Instead he shaped what his generation thought had happened in world history (Outline of History) then, starting with A Modern Utopia, stubbornly kept churning out utopian fiction, with all its bad info dumps of course, suggesting how better to run the world right during the 1905-1945 period when everything was going to hell— definitely stubborn, those books largely unread, and yet when the diplomats had to put the world back together in 1945, they used WELLS’S PLAN. Scientific meritocracy, social safety net, basically techno-socialism, sure there were precursors to Wells on this stuff, but he was the one who kept putting the vision out there. So I would argue that he did the right thing, and changed the world more than he could have by banging out variations on his early sf stunners."
What do you think?
by James Patrick Kelly
I can’t imagine any science fiction writer not being fascinated—or at least tempted—by the idea of time travel. However, although I’ve had a couple of time travel stories in these pages, I must admit that it’s been years since I’ve thought seriously about the subject. But recently I’ve been experiencing something of a time travel moment.
A couple of columns ago I was anticipating Arrival www.youtube.com/watch?v=wu8_5TGwr90, based on the novella “The Story of Your Life” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Story_of_Your_Life, by Ted Chiangwww.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest/ted-chiangs-soulful-science-fiction. Then the movie came out last November to rave reviews www.rottentomatoes.com/m/arrival_2016. Not only is it wonderfully smart sf that achieves its best special effect not on the screen, but in the mind of the viewer, but as a bonus, it was a huge box office success. Arrival was just the first tick of my time travel moment. I teach creative writing at the Stonecoast MFA program www.usm.maine.edu/stonecoastmfa in Maine and even as Arrival arrived, I was preparing a lecture on H.G. Wells http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._G._Wells, for which I assigned The Time Machinewww.gutenberg.org/ebooks/35 as required reading. As I was gathering my thoughts for that presentation, the noted science writer James Gleick https://around.com published a book called Time Travelwww.nytimes.com/2016/10/02/books/review/james-gleick-time-travel.html?_r=0, which, in my opinion, is the best survey of popular and scientific literature on the subject ever written. My fellow writers, are you looking for ideas? You could make an entire career writing stories and novels based on mind-bending concepts explored in this book.
The latest tick in my personal time travel moment came yesterday, just days after I’d given my lecture on Wells, when I came across an essay “When They Came from Another World”www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/01/19/when-they-came-from-another-world in the New York Review of Books, by one James Gleick, in which he reviews the ideas about time central to both Arrival and “The Story Of Your Life.” If you loved the movie, you need to read this. And then go buy Gleick’s terrific book.
I called my talk “H.G. Wells, the Man Who Invented Science Fiction.” And yes, I know that Jules Vernewww.gutenberg.org/ebooks/search/?query=l.en+Verne and Mary Shelley www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/84 have legitimate claims to being our founders. However, if not science fiction, Wells is certainly the man who invented time travel, despite all the precursors. As Gleick persuasively argues,
How strange, then, to realize that time travel, the concept, is barely a century old. The term first occurs in English in 1914—a back formation from Well’s “Time Traveler.” Somehow humanity got by for thousands of years without asking, What if I could travel into the future? What would the world be like? What if I could travel into the past—could I change history? The questions didn’t arise.
That Herbert George Wells—Bertie to his friends and many lovers—would become the first to ask this question would have come as no surprise to those who knew him as a young man. Relentlessly ambitious in his twenties despite many failures, Wells returned again and again to speculation about traveling through time. His first attempt to express his ideas came in 1888. “The Chronic Argonauts”www.colemanzone.com/Time_Machine_Project/chronic.htm was published in his college newspaper when he was just twenty-two, seven years before The Time Machine. He dusted off his theories for a longer time travel story in 1894; his untitled serial ran at irregular intervals in the National Observer as a series of dialogues between an anonymous Time Traveler and a gathering of dinner guests. Another extensive revision published in 1895—more or less the one we read today—was also a serial, published as The Time Machine: An Invention in The New Review. Yet another revision came out in book form later that year. This novella caused a sensation and marked the beginning of an astonishing five-year run for Wells, during which he would write the classic sf for which we now remember him. The best of these, in addition to The Time Machine, are The Island of Dr. Moreauhttp://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=159, The Invisible Manhttp://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=5230, and The War of the Worldshttp://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=36, all of which and more you can read free at the indispensable Project Gutenberg www.gutenberg.org. By 1899, the thirty-three-year old Wells had become one of the best known writers in the English-speaking world.
It would be impossible to overstate the influence The Time Machine has had, not only on popular culture, but on philosophy and science as well. Gleick quotes our own Isaac Asimov www.asimovonline.com on the cultural shift that Wells helped bring about.
Before we can have futurism, we must first recognize the existence of the future in a state that is significantly different from the present and the past. It may seem to us that the potential existence of such a future is self-evident, but that was most definitely not so until comparatively recent times.
The Time Machine has never been out of print since 1895, and the many millions who haven’t read it have some notion of the Morlocks and the Eloi, thanks to numerous movie, television, comic book, and other adaptations. In my biased opinion, the best of these is the 1960 film version of The Time Machinehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Time_Machine_(1960_film), directed by the Hungarian director George Palwww.awn.com/heaven_and_hell/PAL/GP12.htm. Pal also produced a fine The War of the Worldshttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_War_of_the_Worlds_(1953_film) in 1953.
But if you know The Time Machine primarily from movies, television, and word of mouth, then you may not be aware of Wells’s profoundly pessimistic vision of our future. This untidy novel begins with a frame story retrospectively narrated by one of the Time Traveler’s dinner guests, who listens patiently as the Traveler spins his theories about time. In writer parlance, this section would be called a narrative lump. Note however that when the Traveler grandly announces that “There is no difference between time and any of the three dimensions of space except that our consciousness moves along it,” and that “any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and Duration” he is anticipating a famous lecture delivered thirteen years later by the physicist Hermann Minkowski www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/history/Biographies/Minkowski.html. After doing the math, Minkowski realized that Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity www.einstein-online.info/elementary/specialRT could best be understood in a four-dimensional manifold, which we now call Minkowski space or, more commonly, spacetime www.einstein-online.info/elementary/specialRT/spacetime. Minkowski’s talkwww.spacetimesociety.org/conferences/2004/minkowski.html began “Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.”
Way to go, Bertie!
Wait, where was I? Oh right, The Time Machine! Once we get past the frame, the Traveler himself takes up his tale. Riding what amounts to a steampunk bicycle into futurity (Wells was an avid cyclist), the Traveler recounts his adventures with the Eloi and Morlocks in the year 802,701. What catches this writer’s attention from a craft point of view is that Wells uses no dialogue for most of the book. The Eloi don’t speak English—of course!—nor are they particularly bright.
“Either I missed some subtle point or their language was excessively simple—almost exclusively composed of concrete substantives and verbs. There seemed to be few, if any, abstract terms, or little use of figurative language. Their sentences were usually simple and of two words, and I failed to convey or understand any but the simplest propositions.”
After recovering his stolen Machine from the cannibal Morlocks, the Traveler makes two long hops into the distant future, the last to a cold, dead earth some thirty million years hence, before finally returning to his own time. The novel ends back at dinner in the frame story; our narrator guest returns to marvel at the Traveler’s adventure and wonder what became of him after he disappears on yet another time adventure. Alas, the Traveler’s amazing invention has no impact whatsoever on history.
If H.G. Wells was, in fact, the man who invented SF, or at least had a hand in creating it, examining his life and work might help us understand some of today’s genre concerns. Sadly, despite his early achievements, Wells turned his back on the scientific romance www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/scientific_romance, as sf was called back in the day, to write comic novels of lower middle-class life, optimistic socialist tracts, didactic futurological essays, journalism, and histories. He became one of the great explainers of his age, not unlike Isaac Asimov, although his explanations seemed more and more beside the point through the two World Wars. And after a couple of disappointing message novels like The Sleeper Awakes www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/12163 and The Food of the Gods www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/11696 (read ’em and weep), this forefather of our genre spent the last four decades of his life on other matters. Are we modern sf readers presumptuous to wish he had stayed with us?
We are at a moment in the history of science fiction and our country when many are asking for a change in literary direction. For instance, there are calls for a more optimistic science fiction from the good folks involved with the Hieroglyph Project http://hieroglyph.asu.edu, and more politically engaged writing from those aghast at recent election results. I’m all for messages in their place, but I’m also mindful of Wells’s checkered reputation. While his optimistic and politically engaged writing is largely forgotten, we continue to turn to the dark vision of his scientific romances. His apocalyptic future in The Time Machine is peopled by a bifurcated humanity, simpleton Eloi and bestial Morlocks, who have forgotten Aristotle, Newton, Shakespeare, and Einstein. The British and American Empires are dust and all that remains at the end of time are giant crabs and a twilit beach. Nor are the other great sf novels any less grim. The Invisible Man is a sociopath and humanity survives the Martian slaughter not because of its courage or idealism but because of viruses and bacteria. The bloody-minded and blasphemous Island of Dr. Moreau caused such a scandal that a reviewer in the Times wrote, “The book should be kept out of the way of young people.” Another complained that it never should have been written and suggested that Wells pull it from circulation. . . .
Uh oh, look at the time! I got carried away thinking about Bertie. I’m not ready for the last tick of my time travel moment, so we’ll have to continue this in the next column.
I’ve been mulling over ways to promote Mother Go, my first novel in more than twenty years, which has just been published as an audiobook original by Audible. At the moment, the audio version is the only version and it needs all the help that I can give it. Which is why I'm contemplating an experiment; I’m thinking of reviving Strangeways, the little JPK magazine that I self-published a few years, only in a different incarnation. The new Strangeways will be free and come as an email attachment to your inbox. It will have all the usual author propaganda like reviews and interviews, as well as news about Mother Go and insider stuff about the new stories I have coming out in the fall. But I’m not kidding myself that anyone will flock to sign up for a promotional newsletter, if that’s all it is.
Strangeways will feature links to some of my not-yet-published print work as well as to exclusive original audio narrated by me. I’ll do some of my own stories and some of my favorite stories that are in the public domain. I’ll also be doing twitter-sized reviews (140 characters, natch) of books I’ve read recently. And for the writer (aspiring and otherwise) demographic, I’m thinking of including links for a limited number of what I’m calling “Flash 250s.” The idea here is that you send me the first 250 words of a work in progress and I will send you back a flash (ie. short) critique of your opening. How many of these will I do? Dunno. Depends on demand. Strangeways will be a very occasional publication, quarterly tops. If this sounds interesting, sign up. below. I’ve opened an account on Mailchimp and am told that’s the proper way to create a mailing list. One more thing: like I said, this is an experiment. Issue One will drop just as soon as my mailing list hits two hundred. You should know that I already have seventy-three, so maybe you – and I -- won’t have too long a wait.
When I wrote this column almost a year ago, I resolved in print not to throw more money at Apple, and I would have kept my resolution had not my doddering 5s not given up the ghost a few months later. However, I didn't pop for one of the fancy iPhone 6s or 7s. Instead I stayed with the smaller screen iPhone SE, mostly because it fits in my pants pocket.
Hold the Phones
I am typing this in the afternoon of Black Friday. This morning, while in the throes of the mass hysteria that captures so many of my fellow Americans around this time, I went to my local Apple store to trade in my aged iPhone 5s for a newer model. The Apple minion, upon examining my phone, detected a couple of teeny scratches in the bezel which, to my shock, meant he couldn’t accept it in trade. “Then you’ve lost a sale,” I said in a cold fury and stormed off.
On the drive home I pondered why I’d been so angry. The minion’s rejection wasn’t personal; Apple is entitled to whatever trade-in policy it deems best for the corporate bottom line. Hell, I own AAPL stock, so I should want the company to maximize profits, right? Upon reflection, I realized that part of my problem was that although I wanted a new phone I didn’t really need one. Holy Consumerism, Batman! I get calls and texts and emails just fine on my old phone. It takes great photos. It remembers Sheila’s number and Connie Willis’s address and my dentist appointments. I use it all the time to navigate through strange cities on foot and via public transportation. It reads to me while I jog and tracks where I’m going and how long I take to get there. It plays the soundtrack for my daily meditations. It’s an alarm clock, a compass, a shopping mall, an encyclopedia, a flashlight, and an issue of Asimov’s. Who could ask for anything more?
And yet there I’d been at the showroom. Why? Because of some slick new design? Whoop-de-doo! Because of rumors that Apple’s new operating system causes slowdowns and battery problems on older phones?
So don’t update! Because my phone is four years old and your internet columnist needs to have the latest and greatest hardware? Nah!
I now (figuratively) thank that mall minion for bringing me to my senses. My fellow geeks, I say it’s time to step off the treadmill of planned obsolescence and throw off the yoke of our marketing overlords! According to the CNET, many of you have already moved on; worldwide sales of smartphones have flatlined in 2016. “The reason? The smartphone industry has been hit by ‘phone fatigue.’ Consumers in mature markets have been turned off by a lack of exciting features in new phones, causing more of them to stick with their current smartphones.”
So yeah, I’m sticking with what I’ve got, or at least until Apple releases the iPhone 8, or whatever they decide to call it. Oooh, that OLED display! That glass body! Not to mention an edge-to-edge display!
Snark aside, I have to admit that tech companies have certainly given me compelling reasons to upgrade over the past few decades. When I started writing this column in 1998, the default access to the internet was dial up. According to a 1999 Pew Survey, just 43 percent of Americans owned a computer, 41 percent used the internet, and 12 percent went on line every day. Why? Because connecting was unreliable and freaking slow! Over time the bandwidth increased and access became more robust—and portable. Service providers built high speed conduits that could bridge the last mile from the nation’s telecommunications backbone to our homes and places of business. We connected our devices to networks, at first wired and later wireless or wifi. Cutting the cord meant that ever sleeker laptops could wander away from the desk to places computers had never been, although they still had to be within range of a wifi hotspot. That is, until the rollout of 3G and 4G mobile networks. The arrival of smartphones, beginning with the Blackberry6210 in 2003, but, more significantly, the first iPhone in 2007, and then the swarms of copycat Android Devices that followed, meant you could put the internet “in your pocket” as Steve Jobs claimed in the iPhone announcement video. I found that historic video worth a look, despite Jobs’s preening, if only to remind myself what a revolutionary device that first iPhone was. Reviewers at the time were cautiously wowed . “The iPhone isn’t just the gadget du jour, it’s a fresh new platform, an exceptionally powerful mobile computer that’s still in its infancy,” wrote Lev Grossman in Time. And David Pogue opined in the New York Times, “But even in version 1.0, the iPhone is the most sophisticated outlook-changing piece of electronics to come along in years. It does so many things so well, and so pleasurably, that you tend to forgive its foibles.”
We tend to forget those foibles these days as well, since many of them have been addressed with each new generation of smartphone, which is why, until recently, tech companies have been able to keep us coming back for upgrades. Once upon a time, connecting to a mobile network was a dicey and expensive proposition. Many of us still have to monitor our data usage. And did you know that the first iPhone lacked GPS, so if you were navigating by Google Maps you had to stop and tell it where you were? The App store didn’t launch until a year after the first iPhone, and it took time for its shelves to fill; now experts predict that it will reach five million apps by 2020. The nextgen iPhones and Androids kept getting bigger screens with sharper resolution, faster processors, and more memory. Improving smartphone cameras destroyed changed the standalone camera business. Speaking of cameras, although mirrors had been around for a while and you could buy a phone with a front-facing camera as early as 2003, the iPhone 4 in 2010 brought the selfie to the masses, ushering in a new era in human misadventure. And yes, selfie is a real word. The Oxford Dictionaries actually anointed it word of the year in 2013!
smartphones r us
Compare that 1999 Pew survey to a more recent look at digital America. Of course, there were no smartphones back then, whereas by 2015 they’d become ubiquitous. Smartphone ownership among certain key demographic groups approaches the saturation point: 86 percent of those ages 18-29 own one, as do 83 percent of those ages 30-49. Meanwhile nearly two-thirds of all adults own a desktop or laptop computer, well up from 1999 but trending downward slightly from 2012 because, I would argue, of smartphones. Meanwhile 45 percent of adults own a tablet, another device that didn’t exist at the turn of the century. As a writer, I find it interesting that the numbers of dedicated E-readers are off. Just 19 percent of adults report owning a reading device in 2015 while in 2014 almost a third had one. Are more people reading ebooks on tablets? I confess that I do, although I have as yet to read a novel on my phone.
What do we use our smartphones for? In descending order, according to the Pew survey, first comes texting, then surfing the internet, making voice/video calls, emailing, social networking, taking pictures, getting news, watching videos, playing games, mapping, and listening to music or podcasts. The vast majority of smartphone users report that their phones make them feel “productive” and “happy”—79 percent and 77 percent respectively. On the other hand, 57 percent say their phones are distracting and 36 percent are frustrated by them. I am not surprised by these statistics from the millennials: 97 percent have turned to their phones to allay boredom and 47 percent have used their phones to avoid interacting with people around them.
I’ve been making up science fiction stories about smartphones and their technological descendants for most of my writing career. I’ve called them thinkmates and sidekicks and tells and imagined them as hardware and software and mindware. And now that we’re well into the twenty-first century, I’m looking for some version of these gadgets to go on sale at my local mall. No think tank is paying me for my opinion, but I’m guessing that “phone fatigue” will continue as long as smartphone makers concentrate mostly on improving their processors and packaging. For example, I’m betting that the smartwatch will be a dead end if I have to peer at it and push buttons to make it work. The interface is too constricted. The interface is the key to the future of smartphones, it says here. I don’t need a computer on my wrist. I’d rather stick one in my ear.
You may remember a previous column in this series in which I chatted with Siri and Alexa and their pals. Their conversational abilities, as of 2015, were definitely lacking. And yet they were so much better than AI chat used to be. And yes, I’m looking at you, Tay, Microsoft’s racist chatbot. So I’m optimistic that someday it will be possible to pop a nearly invisible earbud into my head and have some clever sidekick guide me to the best route from the Hayden Planetarium on New York’s upper West Side to the Asimov’s offices downtown or remind me that I’m having drinks with my agent tomorrow afternoon. And maybe a flesh colored bandaid mic will pick up my murmured questions like “What did the ‘A’ in Robert A. Heinlein’s name stand for?” (answer = Anson) or “Where did I put my car keys?”
Now that would be a smartphone worth trading for!
Copyright © 2017 James Patrick Kelly
I am very psyched that my story "Someday" has just been reprinted on Escape Pod. This is its first time in audio and the narration by Ibba Armancas is superb! It first appeared in the April/May 2014 issue of Asimov's I suppose this is one of my best known stories, since it was reprinted in three different Best of the Year anthologies: Jonathan Strahan's The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year: Volume Nine, Rich Horton's The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2015 Edition and Gardner Dozois's The Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Second Annual Collection.
I moderated a panel at Readercon last month called "The Catastrophe of Success" which was informed by a quote from Tennessee Williams, who apparently was something of a technophile (who knew?). He wrote, "We are like a man who has bought up a great amount of equipment for a camping trip ... but who now, when all the preparations and provisions are piled expertly together, is suddenly too timid to set out on the journey ... Our great technology is a God-given chance for adventure and for progress which we are afraid to attempt." When I suggested that Williams might be wrong and that sometimes it's a good idea for humanity in general and you and I in particular to take a pause and ask if the tech in front of us has more unintended tragic consequences than the potential for heroic achievement. II got quite a bit of push back when I advanced this idea. Especially about CRISPR and gene editing. Especially about controlling this new technology. Mostly people were saying that the scientists would police this technology.
I am not convinced.
This column first appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine January 2017
Longtime readers of this column will recall that from time to time, I’ve interviewed distinguished experts who have offered unique perspectives on important topics. In this installment I’ve gathered four – count ‘em, four -- specialists to help us explore the brave new world of digital assistants. All of them have been helpful to me in the past, although some more than others. In alphabetical order they are: Alexa <alexa.amazon.com> who lives in the Echo Dot from Amazon <amazon.com/b/?node=14047587011> I got for my birthday; Cortana, newly arrived in my Hewlett Packard Recline desktop computer<support.hp.com/us-en/document/c03926770> via last month’s Windows 10 update <microsoft.com/en-us/windows/windows-10-upgrade>; the awkwardly-named Google Now <google.com/landing/now/>, who pipes up from time to time from my aging Nexus 7 Tablet<store.google.com/product/nexus_7>; and Siri <apple.com/ios/siri/>, the doyenne of digital assistants, a fixture of my Apple iPhone 5S<cnet.com/products/apple-iphone-5s/>. The following is a transcript of our interview. All digital assistant responses are quoted verbatim:Read More
Those of you who know my reading tastes know that the majority of my pleasure reading is listening. These days my audiobooks all come from Audible. I’ve had a long and fruitful relationship with this company. Not only do they stock recordings of fifty-five of my stories (mostly read by me) but you can also find my novels LOOK INTO THE SUN and WILDLIFE (not read by me!) in their store.Read More