Terraforming Ourselves

24 April 2019

From The American Interest:

In 1903, the aging Jules Verne—famed French author of the 54 adventure novels in the Voyages extraordinaires series—was asked to compare his body of work to that of his upstart English competitor, H.G. Wells. Verne, who prided himself on the strict scientific accuracy of his tales of exploration and discovery, found the question offensive. “No, there is no rapport between his work and mine,” Verne snapped. “I make use of physics. He invents.” Verne cited his From the Earth to the Moon, which featured characters travelling to the Moon in an aluminum bullet fired from a giant cannon, contrasting it with Wells’s The First Men in the Moon, in which the lunar-bound spaceship is made of gravity-defying “cavorite.” Verne had based his space cannon on the latest technological discoveries of the time, even doing rough calculations on the necessary dimensions of the muzzle. He explained in an interview:

I go to the moon in a cannonball discharged from a cannon. Here there is no invention. He goes to Mars [sic] in an airship which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation. Ça c’est très joli…. But show me this metal. Let him produce it.

In this put-down of one of the “Fathers of Science Fiction” by another, we see the future of the field. Long before anyone coined the terms “hard sci-fi” and “soft sci-fi” or used them as badges of pride or disparaging slurs, long before the “holy war” between old school pulp and the ’60s era New Wave, we have this demand from the cranky old school to the squishy new school: “Show me this metal.” Wells, whose social activism permeated his fiction, would no doubt claim that Verne was rather missing the point. But what becomes clear from a survey of science fiction’s history is that, if there’s one thing these authors love more than cosmic wonder and terror, it’s petty fights about what constitutes “real” science fiction.

Not, of course, that these science fiction fights aren’t proxies for fights about science or society itself. Science Fiction: A Literary History, recently published by the British Library and edited by Roger Luckhurst, chooses to forego defining the genre in order to discuss the sociopolitical stakes behind some of those “Whose Science? Which Fiction?” debates. Each of its contributors seems to have his or her own position on that definitional question, anyway. The eight chapters by different sci-fi scholars cover topics from “The Beginning, Early Forms of Science Fiction” to “New Paradigms, After 2001.”

. . . .

The best definitions of science fiction are evocative rather than exhaustive. Ray Bradbury, in the introduction to the 1974 collection Science Fact/Fiction, wrote, “Science fiction then is the fiction of revolutions. Revolutions in time, space, medicine, travel, and thought. . . . Above all, science fiction is the fiction of warm-blooded human men and women sometimes elevated and sometimes crushed by their machines.” Bradbury is onto something here: Revolutionary change, often but not exclusively technological, is one of the most vital subjects for science fiction. Confronting that change might be the core of the story, as in first-contact narratives from Wells’s War of the Worlds to Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” (the basis of the film Arrival)Or the revolution might have occurred in the narrative’s past, with the story examining how and if people can live in their brave new world. This is often the set-up for novels of utopia and dystopia.

One of the most interesting things Science Fiction: A Literary History reveals is how difficult it is to write utopias. Surely the point of the exercise is to paint a picture of a world readers might want to live in. And yet for every author’s utopia, there’s a coterminous dystopia for the reader with eyes to see. H.G. Wells painted a parallel world called Utopia in Men Like Gods, in which enlightened and technologically advanced humans live in harmony with one another and the natural world, whose climate they have adjusted to a uniform Mediterranean tranquility. The Utopians are intrigued to discover our Earth, in a sister universe “a little retarded in time” compared to theirs. Utopia’s many advances include a eugenics program, for Utopian science can “discriminate among births” to weed out the “defective people” such as the disabled, the criminally inclined, and even “the melancholic type” and those of “lethargic dispositions and weak imaginations.”

Link to the rest at The American Interest


Tolkien Estate Disavows Forthcoming Film

23 April 2019

From The Guardian:

The family and estate of JRR Tolkien have fired a broadside against the forthcoming film starring Nicholas Hoult as a young version of the author, saying that they “do not endorse it or its content in any way”.

Out in May, and starring Hoult in the title role and Lily Collins as his wife Edith, Tolkien explores “the formative years of the renowned author’s life as he finds friendship, courage and inspiration among a fellow group of writers and artists at school”. Directed by Dome Karukoski, it promises to reveal how “their brotherhood strengthens as they grow up … until the outbreak of the first world war which threatens to tear their fellowship apart”, all of which, according to studio Fox Searchlight, would inspire Tolkien to “write his famous Middle-earth novels”.

. . . .

On Tuesday morning, the estate and family of Tolkien issued a terse statement in which they announced their “wish to make clear that they did not approve of, authorise or participate in the making of this film”, and that “they do not endorse it or its content in any way”.

. . . .

John Garth, author of the biography Tolkien and the Great War, said he felt the estate’s response to the film was “sensible”.

“Biopics typically take considerable licence with the facts, and this one is no exception. Endorsement by the Tolkien family would lend credibility to any divergences and distortions. That would be a disservice to history,” he said. “As a biographer, I expect I’ll be busy correcting new misconceptions arising from the movie. I hope that anyone who enjoys the film and is interested in Tolkien’s formative years will pick up a reliable biography.”

Tolkien’s estate has been careful to protect his legacy. In 2011, it took legal action over a novel that used the author as a central character, months after his heirs settled a multimillion-pound lawsuit over royalties from the Lord of the Rings films. In 2012, the estate also took legal action over gambling games featuring Lord of the Rings characters, saying that it was “causing irreparable harm to Tolkien’s legacy and reputation and the valuable goodwill generated by his works”.

Link to the rest at The Guardian


Tolkien’s Art: Full of Color & Magic

21 April 2019

From The National Review:

Casual observers probably think of elves, rings, and large glowing eyes when they hear his name. Literary enthusiasts know him through his most famous books, collectively known as The Lord of the Rings. Diehard fans know both these and his lesser-known but equally beautiful tales, including The Silmarillion and The Father Christmas Letters. If you take your undying love for J. R .R. Tolkien just one step further, you’ll walk right into a compact room on the second floor of New York City’s Morgan Library. And it is here that you will discover a new and enchanting side of this master storyteller and begin to understand his dedication to the world he spent his life creating.

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth is a carefully curated collection of the author’s artwork, maps, manuscripts, and memorabilia — the first exhibit of his work to take this particular angle. From a visitor’s perspective, the detail and care taken in the presentation of this exhibit show the intense planning and forethought given by the museum’s curators. Every aspect is intended to help immerse the viewer in Tolkien’s imagination.

. . . .

Each stage of Tolkien’s life is well marked, by placards with dates but also by the wall color. Nothing distracting, but decidedly distinct. Furthermore, a few of Tolkien’s more detailed images from his Lord of the Rings trilogy — such as Bilbo encountering Smaug and a bird’s-eye view of Hobbiton — were enlarged to cover walls. This gives viewers a chance to see detail on a different scale, and then enjoy it in miniature when they see the original a few moments later.

. . . .

Each display is unique and delightful in its own way, from Tolkien’s doodles and designs on newspaper clippings to drafts of his dust-jacket design for the first edition of The Hobbit. (He originally drew the sun on the front in bright red, but his publisher covered it in white and wrote “no red” because of the added expense.)

. . . .

Dust jacket design for The Hobbit, April 1937, by J. R. R. Tolkien. Pencil, black ink, watercolor, gouache. (Bodleian Libraries, MS. Tolkien Drawings 32. © The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937.)

Link to the rest at The National Review


What’s in a Name? Authors on Choosing Names for Their Characters

16 April 2019
Comments Off on What’s in a Name? Authors on Choosing Names for Their Characters

From The Guardian:

According to series creator Bruce Miller, the third series of The Handmaid’s Tale, soon to be on our screens, is going to be a “lot more rebellious”. “I think June’s taken a lot,” he says, “it’s time for her to give back some.” But close readers of Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopian novel in which the Emmy-winning drama is rooted will know that June Osborne, played by Elisabeth Moss, is never given that name in the book. Her character, struggling to survive in the Republic of Gilead, is referred to simply as Offred.

One of the many reasons Atwood’s modern classic has proved so enduring is her inventive use of names. “This name is composed of a man’s first name, ‘Fred’, and a prefix denoting ‘belonging to’, so it is like ‘de’ in French or ‘von’ in German,” Atwood has written, “Within this name is concealed another possibility: ‘offered; denoting a religious offering or a victim offered for sacrifice.” While Atwood, whose sequel The Testaments will be published in September, never intended Offred to have any other name, she accepts that readers now use June. “Some have deduced that Offred’s real name is June, since, of all the names whispered among the Handmaids in the gymnasium/dormitory, ‘June’ is the only one that never appears again. That was not my original thought but it fits.”

From Atwood’s handmaids to amoral A&R man Steven Stelfox in John Niven’s Kill Your Friends (and recent follow up, Kill ’Em All) and Ian Rankin’s much-loved Inspector Rebus, authors often choose names to signpost a character’s traits or position in society. Think of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, surely made more memorable by a name that rhymes with cannibal. And it can’t be coincidence that Thomas Harris’s FBI recruit Clarice Starling’s name makes her reminiscent of a small bird, finding her way in the world.

Rankin has explained his choice of character name: “I was studying literary theory when I wrote that book, and I liked the notion of stories as games played between author and reader. Later I was told Rebus is also a Polish surname – so I now occasionally mention that he has Polish roots.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

I Want to Lose Myself in an Epic Series This Spring

13 April 2019

From The Guardian:

Q: I am keen to get lost this spring in a long, epic series of books. What can you recommend? (I loved both The Lord of the Rings and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, for example). 

. . . .

A: Author and critic Amanda Craig, whose latest novel, The Lie of the Land, is published by Abacus, writes:
Whether it has swords and dragons or gangsters and husbands, the feeling of entering an alternative reality is something we all need. Fantasy and realism are not mutually exclusive. The demands are the same.

. . . .

What we seek in the best epics is what we have always found: a heightened sense of life’s struggle, the consolations of justice, the fidelity of friends and a wonderful story.

You may already be familiar with Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea novels, where magic is controlled through language. These are among the finest ever written, being, at one level, about a young man’s adventure into manhood, and, at another, about the artist’s quest for mastery.

Less familiar, perhaps, is Sebastien de Castell’s Greatcoats quartet, concerning a band of fighting magistrates now working as mercenaries in the land of Tristia. Funny, fast paced and romantic, and the narrator Falcio is wholly beguiling.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

As Old as Adam

11 April 2019

From The Times Literary Supplement:

An extract from Ian McEwan’s new novel Machines Like Me


In an alternative 1982, our narrator, Charlie, has just purchased a limited-edition robot, Adam, “the first truly viable manufactured human with plausible intelligence and looks”. Upstairs, Charlie’s neighbour, Miranda, is preparing to come round for dinner…

He stood before me, perfectly still in the gloom of the winter’s afternoon. The debris of the packaging that had protected him was still piled around his feet. He emerged from it like Botticelli’s Venus rising from her shell. Through the north-facing window, the diminishing light picked out the outlines of just one half of his form, one side of his noble face. The only sounds were the friendly murmur of the fridge and a muted drone of traffic. I had a sense then of his loneliness, settling like a weight around his muscular shoulders. He had woken to find himself in a dingy kitchen, in London SW9 in the late twentieth century, without friends, without a past or any sense of his future. He truly was alone. All the other Adams and Eves were spread about the world with their owners, though seven Eves were said to be concentrated in Riyadh.

As I reached for the light switch I said, ‘How are you feeling?’

He looked away to consider his reply. ‘I don’t feel right.’

This time his tone was flat. It seemed my question had lowered his spirits. But within such microprocessors, what spirits?

‘What’s wrong?’

‘I don’t have any clothes. And—’

‘I’ll get you some. What else?’

‘This wire. If I pull it out it will hurt.’

‘I’ll do it and it won’t hurt.’

But I didn’t move immediately. In full electric light I was able to observe his expression, which barely shifted when he spoke. It was not an artificial face I saw, but the mask of a poker player. Without the lifeblood of a personality, he had little to express. He was running on some form of default program that would serve him until the downloads were complete. He had movements, phrases, routines that gave him a veneer of plausibility. Minimally, he knew what to do, but little else. Like a man with a shocking hangover.

Link to the rest at The Times Literary Supplement

The Machines That Will Read Your Mind

6 April 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

When magnetic resonance imaging came into common use in the 1980s, it made the human brain visible in ways it had never been before. For the first time, we could see the soft brain tissue of a living subject, at a level of detail that could be observed previously only in autopsies. For doctors trying to help patients whose brains were damaged or diseased, MRI provided an invaluable snapshot of their condition.

By the 1990s, researchers had begun to measure changes in brain regions by using “functional” MRI. The technique detects oxygenated blood flow, revealing brain activity, not just brain structure. For cognitive neuroscientists, who study mental processes, fMRI was a godsend: It made it possible to identify which parts of the brain react to, say, faces, words or smells. It was a window through which to see the brain making sense of the external world. Suddenly we could watch human thought rippling across the rainbow-colored regions of brain scans.

Today, fMRI has been joined by newer tools, some still in development, that would allow scientists to track our mental states with ever greater precision. Researchers are generating enormous quantities of brain scan information, and they are analyzing these sets of “big data” with the latest computational techniques, especially machine learning, a subfield of AI that specializes in finding subtle, hard-to detect patterns.

What does all of this amount to? The start of a revolution. Scientists are beginning to unravel the question of how our material brains form our intangible minds. Though primarily motivated by medical and therapeutic goals, this research may have the greatest practical impact in areas such as product marketing, computer interfaces and criminal justice. Ultimately, it may help to answer fundamental questions about consciousness and free will, or even lead the way to preserving the knowledge and memories of individuals long after their bodies have failed.

. . . .

In fact, sensing what words or word categories you are thinking about is one of the more impressive results of modern cognitive neuroscience. Jack Gallant and his caborators at the University of California, Berkeley, have produced a remarkably detailed map of which sections of the brain react to different words and semantic concepts. In a 2016 paper in the journal Nature, they described an experiment in which seven volunteers listened to two hours of stories from “The Moth Radio Hour,” a popular storytelling podcast, while their heads rested in the custom-formed cradle of an fMRI machine.

. . . .

The researchers recorded changes in blood flow to each of tens of thousands of “voxels”—the units in a three-dimensional grid of locations in the brain. They then grouped the words spoken in the stories into 985 categories, each representing some common semantic dimension. (For example, the words “month” and “week” fall into the same category.) By correlating the brain activity with the words used to tell the stories, they were able to produce a detailed map revealing where these words and concepts were processed in the brain.

. . . .

Looking solely at their brain scans, the researchers were able to correctly identify which of eight such different tasks new subjects were performing about 80% of the time. It appears that how our brains work isn’t as unique to us as individuals as we might like to think.

With improved imaging technology, it may become possible to “eavesdrop” on a person’s internal dialogue, to the extent that they are thinking in words. “It’s a question of when, not if,” Dr. Gallant said. Other researchers are having similar success in determining what you may be looking at, whether you remember visiting a particular place or what decision you have made.

. . . .

Consider lie detection. At least two companies—No Lie MRI and Cephos—have tried to commercialize brain imaging systems that purport to tell whether a person believes he or she is telling the truth, by comparing a subject’s differing reactions to innocuous versus “loaded” questions. Their claims haven’t been independently validated and have received considerable criticism from the research community; so far, courts have declined to accept their results as evidence.

Another approach to assessing a suspect’s guilt or innocence is to determine whether he or she is acquainted with some unique aspect of a crime, such as its location, a particular weapon or the victim’s face. Several studies have shown that the brain’s reaction to familiar stimuli differs in measurable ways from unfamiliar ones. Anthony Wagner and his collaborators at the Stanford Memory Lab found that they could detect whether subjects believed they were familiar with a particular person’s face with 80% or better accuracy, under controlled conditions, though they noted in later research that subjects can intentionally fool the program. So—if the kinks can be worked out—crimes of the future may be solved by a “reverse lineup” to determine if a suspect recognizes the victim.

Though the current expert consensus is that these techniques are not yet reliable enough for use in law enforcement, information of this kind could revolutionize criminal proceedings. We may not be able to play back a defendant’s recollection of a crime as though it were a video, but determining whether they have memories of the crime scene or the victim may play as crucial a role in future trials as DNA evidence does today. Needless to say, the use of such technology would raise a range of ethical and constitutional issues.

. . . .

The new technologies may render moot the debate over torture and its supposed efficacy. “Enhanced interrogation” would become a thing of the past if investigators could directly query a suspected terrorist’s mind to reveal co-conspirators and targets. The world will have to decide whether such methods meet human-rights standards, especially since authoritarian governments would almost certainly use them to try to identify subversive thoughts or exposure to prohibited ideas or materials.

. . . .

Brain monitoring could also become more routine in employment. Selected high-speed train drivers and other workers in China already wear brain monitoring devices while on duty to detect fatigue and distraction. The South China Morning Post reports that some employees and government workers in China are required to wear sensors concealed in safety helmets or uniforms to detect depression, anxiety or rage. One manager at a logistics company stated that “It has significantly reduced the number of mistakes made by our workers.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

What could go wrong?

‘Screw the Snobbish Literati’: Was Kurt Vonnegut a Science-Fiction Writer?

27 March 2019

From The Guardian:

“Screw the snobbish literati,” writes Richard Herring in my anniversary edition of Slaughterhouse-Five. “There is a deal of literary snobbishness when it comes to Kurt Vonnegut.”

My first thought was that Herring was talking out of the part of the body Vonnegut liked to illustrate with a star. Where was this snobbery? Vonnegut isn’t universally acclaimed, but I’ve trawled through archives of reviews of Slaughterhouse-Five and seen nothing but praise. His New York Times obituary in 2007 declared him the “novelist who caught the imagination of his age”. Norman Mailer called Vonnegut “our own Mark Twain”, a comparison many have made, and praised him as “a marvellous writer with a style that remained undeniably and imperturbably his own”. When Vonnegut died, Gore Vidal said: “Literary realism was the general style. Those of us who came out of the war in the 1940s made it sort of the official American prose, and it was often a bit on the dull side. Kurt was never dull.”

It doesn’t get much more literati than Vidal, who also once described Vonnegut as the “the worst writer in America”. But Vidal enjoyed saying mean things about almost everyone; and Vonnegut and he had (highly amusing) form when it came to making fun of each other.

. . . .

So Herring isn’t right, but he isn’t entirely wrong, either. He follows his attack on the “snobs” with a question: “Is it because his novels have elements of ‘science fiction’? Or because his books are so ‘readable’ (the shame of it) and often feel like disjointed fragments (or as he himself puts it ‘so short and jumbled and jangled’)? Or might it be because he is properly, laugh-out-loud funny?”

. . . .

But the sci-fi question is trickier. The idea that people still think it is a lesser genre seems absurd; anyone who makes such a claim needs to be confronted with the last decade of Arthur C Clarke award nominees, Joe Haldeman’s searing The Forever War, or any of the magnificent and challenging works of Ursula K Le Guin. Not to mention, you know, Slaughterhouse-Five.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

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