The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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In Defense of Progress

I am, in general, quite the fan of Ken Liu and his (prolific) string of beautifully written and diverse science fiction. Yesterday, however, he tweeted two statements to which I take strong exception:

Ken Liu ‏@kyliu99 12h9:26 PM – 2 Jul 13
I don’t write scifi that tries to imagine a “better” future because I fundamentally don’t think human nature changes. There’s no “progress”.

Ken Liu ‏@kyliu99 9:27 PM – 2 Jul 13
The future is both better and worse because technology just magnifies our existing tendencies.

I’ve heard this sentiment echoed by many people, including friends and colleagues, in recent times. I’m not sure if its the hangover from post-modernism or just an extension of the disaffection of the times. I suspect it is a combination of both, perhaps mixed in with a little neo-liberal angst about the fact that the civil rights movement, while a momentous step forward, hasn’t yet actually solved the problems against which it arose.

Whatever the cause, I think the belief that we never make progress (moral, social, political, or technological) is not only ideologically self-defeatist, but also simply wrong on the facts.

Here were my responses to Liu:

N.A. Ratnayake ‏@QuantumCowboy 9:52 PM – 2 Jul 13
@kyliu99 I respectfully disagree. We have a long way to go yet, but think of what we have accomplished with civil rights, disease, & war.

N.A. Ratnayake ‏@QuantumCowboy 9:53 PM – 2 Jul 13
@kyliu99 For example see: I am often saddened by the world, but believe in humanity and scifi’s role in shaping it.

N.A. Ratnayake ‏@QuantumCowboy 9:54 PM – 2 Jul 13
@kyliu99 Discrimination, segregation, & misogyny remain rampant, but few would say that we are worse off than 1960. Visionary writers help.

I am a teacher in an urban public school. I will be among the last to say that we are even close to solving the problems of structural racism, ethnic/class/sex/gender segregation and discrimination, and economic and social exploitation. And anyone paying even marginal attention to the news around the world today may find little that is heartening.

But to claim that we make no progress denies the hard-won successes on so many fronts by brave people that brought us closer, step by painful step, to the day when we actually live up to our stated ideals.

The article I linked to in my reply tweet to Liu is about Stephen Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. It makes several points that many disaffected contemporary citizens might find surprising. Chief among them is this one:

The central thesis of “Better Angels” is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence. The decline in violence holds for violence in the family, in neighborhoods, between tribes and between states. People living now are less likely to meet a violent death, or to suffer from violence or cruelty at the hands of others, than people living in any previous century.

The trend holds true even accounting for the advancement of destructive technology:

Against the background of Europe’s relatively peaceful period after 1815, the first half of the 20th century seems like a sharp drop into an unprecedented moral abyss. But in the 13th century, the brutal Mongol conquests caused the deaths of an estimated 40 million people — not so far from the 55 million who died in the Second World War — in a world with only one-seventh the population of the mid-20th century. The Mongols rounded up and massacred their victims in cold blood, just as the Nazis did, though they had only battle-axes instead of guns and gas chambers. A longer perspective enables us to see that the crimes of Hitler and Stalin were, sadly, less novel than we thought.

Further, with respect to human rights:

The final trend Pinker discusses is the “rights revolution,” the revulsion against violence inflicted on ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals and animals that has developed over the past half-century. Pinker is not, of course, arguing that these movements have achieved their goals, but he reminds us how far we have come in a relatively short time from the days when lynchings were commonplace in the South; domestic violence was tolerated to such a degree that a 1950s ad could show a husband with his wife over his knees, spanking her for failing to buy the right brand of coffee; and Pinker, then a young research assistant working under the direction of a professor in an animal behavior lab, tortured a rat to death. (Pinker now considers this “the worst thing I have ever done.” In 1975 it wasn’t uncommon.)

I won’t rehash all of Pinker’s arguments and supporting points here. Read the article (and really, the book) if you are curious.

My point is threefold.

  • The advancement of scientific ideas has saved or improved the lives of hundreds of millions if not billions of people through medicine and medical technology, agriculture, sanitation, informatics and data, structural engineering, civil infrastructure, and countless other applied fields, all of which rely on advancements in the pure sciences as their foundation. Science has also opened up our eyes to the big picture of who and where we are in the universe, and helped us to see ourselves as one species on a pale blue dot. It has also proven 19th century philosophers wrong by showing that human nature is essentially collaborative, not brutishly selfish1.
  • The advancement of moral, philosophic, and socio-political ideas2 has liberated countless people from slavery, bondage, discrimination, persecution, superstition, and prejudice through the spread of humanism and rational thought.
  • And last but certainly not least, the advancement of cultural ideas through the production and dissemination of art has repeatedly forced people, societies, and governments to face and analyze both the beautiful and ugly sides of our nature, and served as the catalyst for change in modes of thinking, living, and treating each other.

Of course these battles are not yet won, of course we’ve sometimes taken two steps back for every one forward, and of course many of the leading people and ideas in these movements were flawed3. But to focus on these narrow aspects with the smug satisfaction of neo-liberal hindsight is missing the forest for the mushrooms at the base of the trees.

These liberating forces (Science, Philosophy, Art) are not about individuals, but ideas — of grand movements that span generations, in which the contributions of individuals join like droplets forming a river.

Let’s bring it back around. Where is science fiction in all this? I don’t mean to unfairly single out Liu, as I think this goes well beyond any individual. And as I said before, I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for Liu, his writing, and what he has done for science fiction. He just happened to tweet something which irked me and now here I am on an idealistic rant.

Liu is a prominent writer, and deservedly so, in the field of science fiction. As a consequence, I think his remarks, even off-the-cuff ones, can do much harm. These remarks can propagate the myth that science is somehow “equally good and bad” (or worse) in affecting human condition (see above, I think it has been unequivocally an overall force for good4. These remarks can entrench the contemporary negative trends of looking inward, to what is about ME, rather than outward, to what is about US and what we could accomplish together if we tried. And these remarks can encourage other science fiction writers to abdicate their responsibility to further social, technological, and ethical discourse about both the present and our shared future.

There is progress. Science fiction is a genre that has both the power and, I would opine, the moral obligation to help shape that progress. To quote a progressive warrior from decades past, I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it.

And I think Liu welcomes it too, whether he consciously admits it or not — his fiction has arguably done more to increase diverse and progressive thought in science fiction than that of perhaps any other writer of which I am aware, at least in the past couple of years. Those are welcome drops in the river.

Eyes on the prize. March on.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. Though I would say certain economic structures can definitely promote selfish behavior.
  2. For the western world, this means most particularly the Enlightenment. However, there are analogs of this idealogical reformation in the history of many cultures around the globe.
  3. Yes, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and was by many measures a hypocrite; he also helped craft the very documents and ideas that the civil rights movement used to justify emancipation and desegregation, and the inspiration for other progressive movements around the globe. Yes, Hemingway was a chauvinist; that doesn’t erase his damn fine prose and insight into the human struggle for meaning. Have we become so polarized even in thought that we can no longer handle these gray superpositions?
  4. See also my philosophy of science education for further discussion.

Boskone: The Changing Face of Science Fiction


The Changing Face of SF — Editorial Viewpoints (Saturday February 16th, 2013)
If you want the widest possible view of the ever-evolving science fiction landscape, ask a bunch of editors to tell you what’s really happening. (And who, and why.) So we did.
Jim Frenkel (M), Ellen Asher, Shahid Mahmud, Beth Meacham, Julia Rios

Frenkel (Sr. Editor at Tor) opens by commenting that it is becoming a “multiverse of media and genre” with many areas of writing that were once separate blending (gives examples of fantasy and manga). He says that in some ways it feels like the 1960s again, with political questions coming to the forefront and linger issues of civil rights and white backlash. And that there are counter-trends to these trends as well.  With regard to what gets published, he says “we don’t print anything that we don’t already have orders for”. He labels Steampunk a fashion statement, and comments on the prevalence of urban fantasy and paranormal, etc, says that in the face of these trends there is still good hard SF out there, for example from Stross and Vinge.

[I note that Stross and Vinge are, though certainly hard science fiction, also mostly concerned with electronic / cyber / AI / computer type subjects. I would suggest that these subjects, while remaining important, have taken a back seat to bioinformatics and bioengineering in the past decade. I would love to see more hard science fiction in those areas, rather than continue to beat the cyberpunk drum from the 1980’s and 1990’s.]

Asher notes the existential crisis of science fiction caused by the fact that it is now popular. Almost all top-grossing movies and many of the top TV shows are science fiction. SF has won the culture wars and doesn’t know what to do with itself. Geek is no longer an exclusive cult, and that is creating conflicts of identity, of who is a “real” geek or fan. She also claims that the audience for hard SF is now the smallest part of the field.

Rios highlights the recent trend of online magazines becoming respected places to publish work and look for award-winning science fiction.

Meacham says that SF has been leading the field (of publishing) in getting things online and into digital formats. Comments on how even Newsweek recently has changed over to digital only. She says that at F/SF moves further into the mainstream, we should start to act like it, demands the respect of a genre that is being such a leader.

Mahmud reiterates the popularity of the blockbusters of science fiction and fantasy like Tolkein and the new Star Trek movies. “We are living in Science Fiction now.” He recalls Nimoy once saying that the cellphone is now far better than the communicator. He hopes to see more crossing of genres and even leaving behind the idea of genre entirely. Asher counters and says that maybe genre will continue to create smaller and smaller subdivisions with the ease of dissemination and clumping with people who share your view. An extreming of genre as opposed to leaving it.

Rios bemoans the amount of steampunk, alternate history, and dystopia out there. Wonders if it is the fact that we now live in a world where so much is changing so fast. Is it impossible to predict in such a world?

Many of them go around about how science fiction has always been political (Frenkel mentions Apollo 8 earthrise photo), about how SF claims to be about the future but is and should be about the present, a commentary on our times. Meacham wonders then why we don’t see more climate change dystopia, or other scientific challenges that we face.

[Overall I really enjoyed this panel, but I am curious why — especially in a session called The Changing Face of SF — no one broached the subject of diversity in the genre. By my own rough estimates, the conference was about three-fourths over 40 years old, two-thirds male (and most of the females were artists, not writers), and about 99.8% white.]



Family Portrait: Han, Darth, Leia, Luke, Chewie, annnnnnd R2D2.


Love!  This should be in a textbook next to a paragraph about size variation in humans.

Arc 1.3 Competition – Science Fiction

Link: Arc 1.3 Competition – Science Fiction

Found my writing project for the next month. Game on.

Arc, in collaboration with The Tomorrow Project, is looking for new, original stories – between 3000 and 5000 words – set in the near future. Technology, from robotics to synthetic biology to geo-engineering – should be featured prominently. But we’re looking for stories, not theses, and the human element will have to be compelling.

The current theme for submissions is “Post Human Conditions”. We want you to explore the post human condition and tell us what you see. Is humanity due for a make-over? Dare we change ourselves? And into what? Fifteen or twenty years from now, will we have made ourselves happier, or not? What will “happiness” mean to our children, and their children?

You’ll find our own approaches to that theme throughout Arc 1.2. Distinctive, thoughtful visions inspired by this theme are more likely to be successful, so it’s very important that you follow the first rule of writing and read the magazine first! Arc’s editors will select one story for publication in the next issue. We will pay £500 for that story and £200 for each of five shortlisted stories.

What We Could Be If We Tried

I got a lot of good feedback from friends/colleagues regarding my last post on defending the literary and humanistic elements of science fiction. The discussion led me to an important point which got left out of that post.  While using a speculative setting and premise to examine human element is certainly what I personally like best about the science fiction that I read and write, there is also another important role that the genre plays (or should play): to inspire and advocate for new ways of thinking, understanding, and living. As I wrote before, all art both reflects and influences the society in which it finds itself. For science fiction, examining the human condition is the reflection part; imagining the future is the influencing part. There seem to be a variety of opinions as to what the balance between the two should be however.

Neil Stephenson’s article in the World Policy Journal, Innovation Starvation has been creating quite the kerfuffle in the science fiction community for the past few months. In it, Stephenson argues that the genre has come to be dominated by inward-looking, dystopian, and cynical renderings of humanity and its near future. Perhaps this is not surprising considering the times… I certainly sense widespread disaffection with the world and its institutions at the moment, and just as certainly have little confidence myself that these institutions are capable of seriously addressing the grave problems facing our nation, world, and species. But I think Stephenson’s point is that especially in uncertain times, it is incumbent on a genre like science fiction to imagine a way out:

Believing we have all the technology we’ll ever need, we seek to draw attention to its destructive side effects. This seems foolish now that we find ourselves saddled with technologies like Japan’s ramshackle 1960’s-vintage reactors at Fukushima when we have the possibility of clean nuclear fusion on the horizon. The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale no longer seems like the childish preoccupation of a few nerds with slide rules. It’s the only way for the human race to escape from its current predicaments. Too bad we’ve forgotten how to do it.

There is obviously a valid point to be made here. I don’t think anyone who has talked to a group of scientists and engineers can deny that science fiction has influenced many (though certainly not all) of our best and brightest on the front lines of innovation and discovery. I absolutely agree that the sheer amount of pessimism out there does get to be a drag sometimes when getting through the latest issues of the mags. And our society in general does seem to have lost the capacity to think long term, to dream about what could be, and to consider anything beyond what affects them immediately and directly.

However, I think what irks me about Stephenson’s rant is that it seems to imply at least two notions which I find disingenuous:

  1. The only “good” science fiction is that which is centered on speculation about the future.
  2. A cynical viewpoint about the future expressed in science fiction is “bad” because it doesn’t spur the imagination and innovation needed to get to a better future.

With respect to implication 1, I have to insist that science fiction as a genre does not necessarily have to include future at all. It certainly can, and often does. But to me, all that is required is a premise that rationally speculates on some aspect of science. Steampunk is the perfect example of this: its works imagine a world in which steam and mechanical technology evolved more rapidly than electronics. Most aren’t set in the future at all, but often go into the past. Yet the stories rely on rigorous speculation about how science would work under different circumstances. (For the record, I have other issues with Steampunk, but that’s a post for another day.)

Also with respect to implication 1, I have to also insist that imagining what could be in terms of our own society and humanity is at best only half of the function of any art form; examining who we are now is perfectly legitimate, and moreover just as vital. This is the proverbial “holding up the mirror” to society that has been a mainstay role of the arts since ancient times.

Science fiction writer Charles Stross put it well:

We’re living in the frickin’ 21st century. Killer robot drones are assassinating people in the hills of Afghanistan. Our civilisation has been invaded and conquered by the hive intelligences of multinational corporations, directed by the new aristocracy of the 0.1%. There are space probes in orbit around Saturn and en route to Pluto. Surgeons are carrying out face transplants. I have more computing power and data storage in my office than probably the entire world had in 1980. (Definitely than in 1970.) We’re carrying out this Mind Meld via the internet, and if that isn’t a 1980s cyberpunk vision that’s imploded into the present, warts and all, I don’t know what is. Seriously: to the extent that mainstream literary fiction is about the perfect microscopic anatomization of everyday mundane life, a true and accurate mainstream literary novel today ought to read like a masterpiece of cyberpunk dystopian SF.

This brings me to implication 2. So here we are, in some respects living the dystopia that the science fiction of yesteryear feared and loathed. Yes, putting more optimistic work out there is one great way to counter all the negativity and nihilism in the world right now. But it’s not the only way. Dystopia can inspire positive progress as well. As futurism blogger Mike Labossiere writes on io9:

On one hand, such works could provide ideas which would inspire later innovation. For example, a dystopian work could still include descriptions of interesting technologies or innovations that latter engineers of scientists might duplicate. There is also the possibility that such works could provide an inspiration in a negative way. That is, by portraying a horrific future a writer could inspire people to try to avoid that possible future. […] That is, the bad can be inspirational — provided that there is a strong element of the possibility of the good.

So where does that leave us? I’m not sure. For me, the debate has definitely made me look at my own writing. Sure enough, the two short stories I have in submission circulation right now are fairly pessimistic about our near-term future (though both feature protagonists who struggle to create positive meaning and identity in those dark futures… I’m a Hemingway fan). Maybe I should take a look at what else I could bring to the table.

It’s not that I don’t have optimistic ideas about the future; indeed, I’m often labeled a stubborn idealist. I guess I discard these ideas as subjects of my writing often because it’s a lot harder to bring in good character conflict when everything is fine. I, for one, CAN’T STAND the science fiction that goes on for pages about describing some technology or system or society, but nothing much happens to the PEOPLE. I want a story dammit, not an engineering manual… I read enough of the latter at work. I also don’t want a psychology textbook or a cultural anthropologist’s field report. To be sure, those can be the seeds of good worldbuilding, but the output of your worldbuilding is not a story in and of itself.

I will amend my argument, and hopefully arrive at a compromise, with the following: I know there are fundamental human conflicts, mostly of the inner variety, that aren’t going to go away, no matter what our future holds. Love. Identity. Belonging. Isolation. Mortality. Hope. Perhaps the challenge I need to set for myself as a still-forming science fiction writer is to blend these with a positive vision of what we could be if we tried… Sounds lovely actually, if hard. Maybe I’ll give it a shot.

In Defense of Science Fiction

I sent a draft of one of my latest stories to a friend with whom I’ve been sharing a lot of my writing lately. Being a writer herself, she gave me some great feedback, and I’m always appreciative of her perspective. Part of her response caught my mind though, and I’ve been thinking about it since. She said that she really liked my approach to storytelling on that piece because it combined futurism and humanity, and that it surprised her. Why? Because:

I hardly read sci-fi and fantasy stuff, one reason being that I find it hard to relate to the subject matter. I can better connect to a story if there is strong character development.

And I thought, wow, does science fiction really have that reputation for being so scrappy? Looking back at what gets popularized in the media, I suppose I can’t blame the “non-geek” public for thinking that science fiction is some niche genre for comic-book-guys who would rather nerd out to Death Star plans than appreciate depth of character or linguistic finesse.

I think this perception of science fiction kind of gets into the difference between what I would call “pop culture” science fiction and “literary” science fiction. For example, consider Star Wars… most people would call that sci-fi, but it really doesn’t meet most of the general criteria for it. I would actually call it more of a highly commercialized “western-meets-fantasy” that happens to take place in space. Oh and it sells a lot of merchandise. Definitely more “entertainment” than “art”, and there are those different camps in every creative field. (And don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, I own a ton of Star Wars books and memorabilia myself… it’s a generalization.)

Literary science fiction is quite a bit broader and deeper than some folks might think. There are a whole bunch of sub-genres, such as cyberpunk (advanced computational systems, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, etc), steampunk (parallel world in which steam and mechanical technology developed far faster than electronics), gothic, alternate history, galactic empire type stories, higher abstract life form type stories, etc etc. Within these subgenres there is a range of hardness, from what they call “hard” sci-fi (rigorously defined scientific underpinning for everything going on, clear ties to known physics) to “soft” sci-fi (loosely defined science, more suspension of disbelief). And then on top of that I would say that is a whole separate range of “technology-driven” or “character-driven”.  So yeah! Lots of variety.

Example: Most people have read Flowers for Algernon. It’s a beautiful and touching human story, and not many people consider that to be science fiction just because there are no spaceships and laser pistols, but technically it is well within science fiction as a genre (in fact it was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction)… the premise is an element of scientific speculation (the ability to confer boosted intelligence on a sentient being) that leads to consequences and conflict for the characters (does the fact that the subject will lose this intelligence and be painfully aware of his descent back into a mentally retarded state make the temporary boost worth it?).

It’s been said by many that the best science fiction asks one or more “what if?” questions, then explores the consequences of that on people. Some of my personal favorites:

  • What if warp drive were possible, and the resulting contact with dozens of new species rallied humanity around setting aside our differences and embracing exploration and knowledge as our highest pursuits? What if in doing so, however, we were forced to confront the best and worst parts of what makes us human? Star Trek (Gene Roddenberry)
  • What if we created an artificial intelligence so advanced that it didn’t even know that it was artificial? What if we devise a construct that genuinely believes itself to be human and even we “normal” humans can’t tell the difference either without disassembling it… is it effectively human? What if people got very scared of the consequences of this and tried to eliminate them, and they rebelled? Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  (Phillip K. Dick, also loosely made into the movie Bladerunner).
  • What if contact with a particular alien species forced us to re-examine everything we thought we knew and believed about God and spirituality and what it means to sin or be virtuous? What if our anthrocentric perspective of religion was turned on its head? Would it destroy our capacity and desire for faith, or make them stronger? The Sparrow (Maria Doria Russell)
  • What if the relativistic effects of deployment in interstellar war created huge gaps in culture and language between soldiers and the civilians they defend? What if after a 2-year deployment to the front in subjective time, a solider returned to find 30 years had passed on Earth, and after a couple more tours over a thousand years had gone by at home?  The Forever War (Joe Haldeman)

In this way, science fiction is, in my opinion, one of the best vehicles for exploring the human condition. By using a speculative backdrop, we can “artificially” isolate or enhance the various factors that influence how people behave, and thereby investigate what it even means to be human. The novel I just finished reading, The Forever War, for example, was strongly based on Haldeman’s experiences in Vietnam. In reading it, we can see how exaggerating the culture shock that real soldiers experience when returning from deployment, by making the conflict an interstellar one, lets us look in a new way at how we count the human psychological cost of war. Does a returning soldier sometimes feel like an alien in his or her own home? I mean, just try and tell me that’s not culturally relevant right now.

I think science fiction can hold its own with any other literary genre in the best tradition of what makes a good story: telling an emotional truth through a literal fiction. Sure, you have popularized, superficial, unadulterated entertainment sometimes, just like any other genre… but the deeper stuff is there, and plenty of it, if you look.

I sometimes wish that people didn’t have this insatiable need to classify things. A good story is a good story, no matter what the marketers and publishers file it under. The sad part is that I feel like there are a lot of people who would really enjoy the themes and ideas in a lot of science fiction, but never get exposed to it because they are not interested in the popular idea of sci-fi, or the culture that surrounds it.

Admittedly, geekdom does go hand in hand with science fiction (yeah that’s me in a Starfleet TNG tactical uniform, so what). You don’t have to be a geek to enjoy what this genre has to offer though.

But you don’t have to take my word for it, as a leader among readers once said… splurge on some free short fiction and check it out yourself. Science fiction literary magazines Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed are just a few that I’ve noticed running great character-driven stories. I’m sure there’s a lot more out there, those are just the ones I’ve been reading lately.

I’ll even peg some example short stories I recently read and liked for their focus on character, good writing, and/or thoughtful premise:

Movement (pdf), by Nancy Fulda (Asimov’s)

Ruminations in an Alien Tongue, by Vandana Singh (Lightspeed)

My She, by Mary Rosenblum (Lightspeed)

The Paper Menagerie (pdf), by Ken Liu (F&SF)

Prayer, by Robert Reed (Clarkesworld)

Convinced yet?

…the exhausting exhilaration of doing the unreasonable, not just adequately but well and with grace.

Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow.

Data on why you should keep submitting rejected work! I Should Be Writing, Episode 239: Interview with Vylar Kaftan (science-fiction short story writer) contains a link to some interesting statistics on Kaftan’s submissions.  In the interview, she says “have faith and keep trying.” I think most wannabe writers have heard that so often that it starts to sound trite, but this time it comes with data.

I note (and much of the details are discussed in the interview) that even after 7 years, three dozen short stories, and a Nebula… Kaftan’s work still takes an average of about 6 submissions before acceptance, a number which apparently hasn’t changed over time (even as she has become more well-known and established). Further, there was no difference in the submission count between pro- and non-pro markets.

Even her Nebula-nominated story I’m Alive, I Love You, I’ll See You In Reno was rejected three or four times before getting picked up by Lightspeed. One story took 19 submissions to get accepted, and that one received six Nebula recommendations.

So… wow. Makes me feel a whole lot better about my two lousy rejection letters. Time to revise and resubmit elsewhere! 

Wired: Tech Billionaires Plan Audacious Mission to Mine Asteroids

Link: Wired: Tech Billionaires Plan Audacious Mission to Mine Asteroids

A group of wealthy, adventurous entrepreneurs will announce on Apr. 24 a new venture called Planetary Resources, Inc., which plans to send swarms of robots to space to scout asteroids for precious metals and set up mines to bring resources back to Earth, in the process adding trillions of dollars to the global GDP, helping ensure humanity’s prosperity and paving the way for the human settlement of space.

“The resources of Earth pale in comparison to the wealth of the solar system,” said Eric Anderson, who founded the commercial space tourism company Space Adventures, and is co-founder of a new company along with Peter Diamandis, who started the X Prize foundation, which offers prize-based incentives for advanced technology development.

Nearly 9,000 asteroids larger than 150 feet in diameter orbit near the Earth. Some could contain as much platinum as is mined in an entire year on Earth, making them potentially worth several billion dollars each. The right kinds of investment could reap huge rewards for those willing to take the risk.

I think I need to push out one of the novel storylines I’m working on… that’s the trouble with science fiction, it keeps turning into science fact. 🙂

Review of “The Sparrow”

The SparrowThe Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished this book a couple of weeks ago and LOVED it. The style is very interesting… it starts from both ends of a 50 year ish story and works towards the middle (climax) with alternating perspectives. From the description of the book, one might be tempted to think that it is a “Christian” book… after a few pages in, this is what I was expecting. I continued only due to the strong recommendation from a fellow sci-fi geek whose tastes overlap with mine often.

The themes are surprisingly accessible, as long as one is even mildly spiritually inclined even in a vague way. It is really more about how our understanding of the human condition and faith in general could and would change upon contact with another sentient species. The construct of the Jesuit worldview is used as as convenient vehicle for this theme, and adds a very interesting perspective that I normally would not consider.

The science is on the hard end (near term accessible technology and propulsion for example). The culture of the new Jana’ata and the Runi species is laid out with decent rigor, though not with a whole lot of depth or backstory (not necessarily a bad thing, just noting it).

Thumbs way up, a very thought-provoking read and well-written too.

He was always working or laughing or studying, and his intensity and humor made him seem ageless. She knew something of his life, having worked with him, and recognized him as one of her own kind: an eternal beginner, starting over and over in a new place in new circumstances, with new languages, new people, a new commission. They had this in common: the continual rushed confrontation with change, the feeling of being hothoused, forced to bloom early, the exhausting exhilaration of doing the unreasonable not just adequately but well and with grace.

View all my reviews