Stephen Hawking Throws A Party

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.    

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Time Party

party

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?

no time

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.

exit

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! 

Hiking report: Around Mt. Washington

Without actually planning it ahead of time, we circumnavigated the tallest mountain in New Hampshire, Mt. Washington, on our short hiking vacation. 

On the Imp Trail, looking across Pinkham Notch at Mt. Washington (right above Pam's head). 

On the Imp Trail, looking across Pinkham Notch at Mt. Washington (right above Pam's head). 

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.


On Middle Sugarloaf Mountain.  Mt. Washington is atop that distant range to the left, hidden by clouds.

On Middle Sugarloaf Mountain.  Mt. Washington is atop that distant range to the left, hidden by clouds.

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.

Who says Pam has claustrophbia? 

Who says Pam has claustrophbia? 

When you're a ham, all the world is a stage.

When you're a ham, all the world is a stage.


Lunchtime on Mt. Potash, looking south toward Mt. Passaconaway 

Lunchtime on Mt. Potash, looking south toward Mt. Passaconaway 

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

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Looking north from Mt. Potash.  Washington is the far off peak framed by the two trees in the center of the shot. 

Where Are The Time Travelers?

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? 

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Remembering Bertie

by James Patrick Kelly

timely

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.

Bertie

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.

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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.

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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/spacetimeMinkowski’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?

exit

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. 

Can You Hear Me Now?

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

hysterical

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!

historical

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.

exit

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

"Someday" Is Today

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.  

Some reviews of "One Sister, Two Sisters, Three"

There has been a range of commentary on my latest story, which you can read here or listen to here.   Here are a few reactions. 

Locus, December 2016, Rich Horton’s review.

James Patrick Kelly in "One Sister, Two Sisters, Three" tells of a planet colonized by a religious group and two sisters growing up there, resistant to the wider galactic technology (including “replication” of people’s minds as they grow old or sick and uploading them to new bodies).

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Welcome Our Robot Overlords!

Here's another look at a column from my On The Net series as Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine

concerned

My friend John Kessel and I have had a longstanding disagreement about the future of artificial intelligence. Even though we have co-edited a couple of anthologies examining post-cyberpunk<tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/PostCyberPunk> futures and visions of the Singularity<singularity.com>, John remains skeptical about claims that we may soon be superseded by some kind of digital successor. He’s in general agreement with the celebrated mathematician Sir Roger Penrose<plus.maths.org/content/roger-penrose-knight-tiles>, who bases his critique of strong AI on its proponents’ assumption that intelligence can emerge from algorithms, if they are of a sufficient number and complexity. 

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