We have no friendly advisor looking over our shoulder. We will have to make do with the next best thing: humans who are close observers of the actions of our species, but who are not directly involved in trying to run the affairs of humanity.
This of course is exactly what writers are and have been through recorded history.... Even among writers, I argue that the writers of science fiction form a special sub-group. They tend to be interested in global problems, in the impact of science and technology, and in the long-term future of humanity. They are observers of events at the largest scale. (pp. 12–13)
This then is a collection of these observations, examining themes as far ranging as the failure of public education in the US to the breakthrough in space exploration to the cure for patriarchy to an ugly dilemma inherent in the feminist rhetoric of "reproductive choice." For those of us who (often) feel motivated to save the world, this book provides an entertaining meditation on the shadow side of the utopian and of the unknowable consequences of our wholly benevolent intentions.
Sheffield writes, "Some of the stories in this book may offend. I certainly hope so." None of the stories offended this reader, but disappointingly most didn't make much of an impression either way. The unevenness of the stories was a definite let-down, particularly considering the devastatingly understated (or, as Sheffield puts it, "unduly modest") title. After all, what self-respecting Christian anarchist bodhisattva utopian would pass up the manual on how to save the world?
So here are some thoughts on the stories that impressed a little SF wisdom on me, providing visions of possible futures and of some pitfalls that might face us along the way. They also all rocked as stories.
- "Zap Thy Neighbor" by James P. Hogan. I'd read this one almost a decade ago in an anthology of Hogan's stories and science writing called Rockets, Redheads & Revolution, and enjoyed rereading it. Hogan has envisioned a world in which everyone has a listing in a big directory, and that anyone with a grudge or grievance, if she can find two willing accomplices, can "call your number." It's a simple system with a twist that ensures that it really works as promised—in creating a more civil society.
- "Choice" by Lawrence Watt-Evans. In college anthropology I was first introduced to the dilemma faced by many feminists in Asia (and other locales) regarding abortion. It is, in short, that the rhetoric of "reproductive choice" that has dominated liberal discourse on the issue for almost two generations (i.e., that a woman's choice to terminate a pregnancy is absolute and absolutely hers) stands in uncomfortable company with third-world cultural realities which lead most women with free access to contemporary reproductive technologies to abort only female fetuses. Watt-Evans presents a "culturally pure" (read: third world) society, presumably in the Middle East, where poverty, disease, overpopulation, etc. have been become things of the past. How? By allowing women to make their free choices, aborting females and keeping males until the ratio of men to women is over 10 to 1. This, as we see in the story, poses its own interesting problems.
- "The Meetings of the Secret World Masters" by Geoffrey A. Landis. This story reminded me of the film The Last Supper except that instead of serving individuals poisoned meals, a handful of scientists genetically engineer myriad changes to the human race. A pretty chilling story about way too much power being in the wrong hands--or in any hands.
- "The Invasion of Space" by James Kirkwood. Reminisces about the crucial "Big Bang" moment in deep space exploration and how it was a poet (and an inadvertent martyr), and not a scientist, who was needed to get humanity's mythological juices flowing in the direction of outer space. Because without that, you can only get so far off the earth.
- "Buyer's Remorse" by Kathe Koja and Barry N. Malzberg. Why is this story here? I absolutely hated, hated, hated, hated this story. Completely pretentious short story told in the form of letters to an advice columnist about life in the far future and the columnist's responses. Confusing and didn't say much to me, which means I probably need to re-read it a couple of times until I finally get it. (That or simply forget about it).
- "My Soul to Keep" by Jerry Oltion. In the near-future US, religion is seen as a dangerous, infectious neurological disorder and so free exercise of said infection is therefore no longer enshrined in the US Constitution. When the Pope is injured while on a clandestine trip to the US, and the contagion is released, all hell (ahem) breaks lose. One scientist begins to regain her faith, and so her fellows protect her from the illness. For her own benefit, of course.(less)
Whiskey tango foxtrot? This was a colorful, inventive, absolute clusterf*ck of a comic that might be about the ethical quandaries involved in the Big...moreWhiskey tango foxtrot? This was a colorful, inventive, absolute clusterf*ck of a comic that might be about the ethical quandaries involved in the Big Science of the Cold War. Or it might just be a geek's fever dream. Who knows? That's part of the problem. Is the writer just too smart for me to figure out? Maybe, but I doubt it. Instead it seems like this comic generates a lot of heat, but not much light.(less)
Meh. Took a good initial premise and more or less squandered it. (view spoiler)[Telepathic powers and Native American shamans are the least of the dis...moreMeh. Took a good initial premise and more or less squandered it. (view spoiler)[Telepathic powers and Native American shamans are the least of the distractions from the original leitmotif of resistance and rebellion. Now we find that no only has the evil corporation been reorganizing society around genomically-informed cost-benefit analyses, but that it has also been working on cloning. And not merely human cloning, but posthuman, transgenic cloning, the mixing of human DNA with that of other species. In the case of the protagonist and her clone sisters, the DNA of a sparrow. (hide spoiler)] I kept wanting to like this book more than I did, because it is fun enough and the author seemed good intentioned, but when I got to the final section, where the author resolved literally every loose end (and we're talking BIG loose ends, what used to be called the denoument and stuff) in less than fifteen pages, I couldn't be charitable any longer. (view spoiler)[Some of those loose ends include: Shutting off the global system for killing people using viruses encoded in their barcodes by means of an algorithm that the protagonist's discovered-minutes-before autistic bird-clone-sister remembered from infancy. Finding out via the news media, who have been singularly inept until this point, that the aforementioned barcode viruses die after six months anyway, so whew, dodged that bullet. The ACLU sues the government so that people (presumably losers and freaks, since most normal folks love their 'toos) can refuse to be tattooed. Clap clap, erm. Evil corporation running the country? No problem—the idealist ex-senator will run for president, and that will save everything. Huh? Can anyone take that seriously after the 2008 elections? (hide spoiler)] Yeah, lots and lots of loose ends. Seen better endings in overlong Stephen King novels.(less)
Really enjoyed the premise, a police procedural set in a near future wherein most USAmericans live, work, and love virtually, remotely inhabiting the...moreReally enjoyed the premise, a police procedural set in a near future wherein most USAmericans live, work, and love virtually, remotely inhabiting the synthetic "surrogates" of the title. Equally hated the artwork, except for the graphic design pieces between chapters. (less)
**spoiler alert** I really wanted to like this alternate history version of Batman, set in a theocratic America with its origins in Oliver Cromwell's...more**spoiler alert** I really wanted to like this alternate history version of Batman, set in a theocratic America with its origins in Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth of England. Unfortunately, as noted in Sam Quixote's review, the plot is "mind-numbingly boring." Father Bruce Wayne loses his religion as he discovers his parents were murdered, not by a lone nut, but by a politico-religious conspiracy at the highest levels. Lots of familiar DC heroes are introduced and killed off along the way. I guess this could have been worse—it could have been the other Batman/Holy Terror.(less)
Unsettling and grim view of a megalopolitan near-future embodying all of the social concerns of the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of which were sub...moreUnsettling and grim view of a megalopolitan near-future embodying all of the social concerns of the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of which were subsequently ignored and now seem to be coming more or less to fruition right on schedule. Not a police state-type dystopia, but one of the planned-society-so-humanity-can-eke-out-an-existence-in-the-face-of-converging-long-emergencies variety. A little too hopeless for my taste, with characters that are little more than "dumb, resigned victims" (to quote Algis J. Budrys who was referring to another of Disch's novels), and the New Wave, modernist, out-of-sequence plotting obscured more than it revealed. I wanted to like this book more, both because of its reputation as an sf classic and also because of how much I thoroughly enjoyed Disch's short fiction. Alas I didn't.(less)
I find myself agreeing and disagreeing in roughly equal measure with this critical review of the graphic novel adaptation of the cinematic adaptation...moreI find myself agreeing and disagreeing in roughly equal measure with this critical review of the graphic novel adaptation of the cinematic adaptation of Philip K. Dick's autobiographical, paranoid druggie classic. I agree that the comic "has a very artificial and lifeless feel" in part because it hasn't really been adapted to the comics/graphic novel/sequential art medium; instead, it looks as if the film stills have simply been cut-and-pasted into a book template and left at that. I do think that this graphic novel, even in its current artificial and lifeless incarnation, is valuable, however, because it allows the reader who is also familiar with the original novel and the film to bring together the textual and the visual, to triangulate so to speak, and in so doing to obtain a clearer picture of what Dick was attempting to tell us. For me at least, the original novel on its own was less than stellar and somewhat confusing (like many of Dick's books, alas), and the film, while one of the better and certainly more original cinematic adaptations of PKD, is also a bit cryptic, and so this graphic novel, lying as it does somewhere between the worlds of print and cinema, provides a helpful bridge to flesh out Dick's vision more fully. (less)
It isn't too much of an imaginative leap to the world of The Hunger Games from the political and social realities of the early 21st century USA. Take...moreIt isn't too much of an imaginative leap to the world of The Hunger Games from the political and social realities of the early 21st century USA. Take the contemporary fetish for "reality" television (or, more accurately, humiliation television), the open secret of USAmerican love of war (especially the at-a-distance, shock-and-awe variety), and the desire of many for televised capital punishment, and you have the Games themselves, more or less. As astute bloggers have noted elsewhere, from the perspective of nations and peoples on the periphery (those currently fighting riots over food prices and austerity measures) we in the U.S. already live in The Capitol with our relatively decadent lifestyles and ultra-shallow concerns. As the globe warms, cheap oil becomes difficult to obtain, and lifestyles impossible to sustain, it isn't hard to imagine this center contracting to its fictional locale in the Rockies while the remnants of the U.S. join the rest of the world in providing raw materials for the enjoyment of the few.
Heavy stuff for a young adult novel. Luckily it is leavened with enough young love, self-searching angst, and interesting plot twists to make it appealing to even the least politically and ecologically aware reader. I think the reason that novel has been so explosively popular, though, is precisely because it speaks to those concerns that our young people have about the world they are inheriting. They, after all, are the heirs to the long emergency, a future of climate change, powering-down, diminished opportunities, and other converging catastrophes. (less)
Great collection of previously released material from Heinlein's "future history" timeline. The first story in the collection, "If This Goes On...," d...moreGreat collection of previously released material from Heinlein's "future history" timeline. The first story in the collection, "If This Goes On...," describes an American theocracy and the efforts of the Cabal (apparently Freemasonry) to overthrow it and return to the traditions of a democratic republic. "Coventry" (the second story, and my favorite) is about an anarchist citizen of the subsequent society who rejects its Covenant (a document rooted in general semantics) and discovers that is is harder to be an absolute individual than he ever imagined. The last story in the first half, "Misfits," and the second half of the collection, "Methuselah's Children," describe the era of space colonization and galactic exploration that follow the previous tales.
Fast-paced, engaging, and chock full of interesting ideas. (less)
Set in a near-future, dystopian, terror-obsessed police state, Batman: Year 100 examines the role of secrecy and privacy (i.e., of alter egos...more3.5 stars
Set in a near-future, dystopian, terror-obsessed police state, Batman: Year 100 examines the role of secrecy and privacy (i.e., of alter egos) as it re-envisions this classic vigilante-superhero. Initially off-putting artwork grew on me over the course of the story, particularly because the details never got lost in the murk. (less)
Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow has evidently written some great short stories, six of which are presented here in graphically adapted form. All of these...moreBoing Boing's Cory Doctorow has evidently written some great short stories, six of which are presented here in graphically adapted form. All of these stories but one--"When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth"--really struck me and made me want to read the original, un-adapted versions. Doctorow is the first SF author I've read who deals with our mash-up/remix culture's concerns about intellectual property vs. free speech, piracy vs. legal controls over research and communication, and corporate profits vs. human needs. He revisits many of the themes of classic SF and rethinks their implications for a radically changing, and changed, world. In addition, the artwork in most of these graphic adaptations was excellent and really added to the storytelling. (less)
"Unapologetically didactic..." Indeed! Thanks to Cory Doctorow's lectures and footnotes, I now know where to look to learn how to do the stuff describ...more"Unapologetically didactic..." Indeed! Thanks to Cory Doctorow's lectures and footnotes, I now know where to look to learn how to do the stuff described in this work of repression and resistance in near-future, all-too-real, dystopian Fortress America. Cool.
I harbor strong doubts about the long-term future of our current technoscience fetishes. That said, while these technologies dominate the near-term, young people need to be encouraged to analyze, to tinker, to explore, to dismantle, to dissect, to synthesize, to rebuild, and to hack; so that they approach the technologies in which they are immersed as they grow up (including the political technologies of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights) in the same way that we all approach written language, i.e. those who read can also write. In other words, they need to program, rather than to be programmed (to steal a phrase from Douglas Rushkoff). To that end, this is definitely something I want high schoolers to read, even if it does encourage "anti-social" behavior like cutting class to play inane Japanese alternate reality games, losing your virginity to the one you love, questioning teachers and principals, and standing up to the Department of Homeland Security.