In Search Of Solid Science Fiction

Lately I’ve been consciously trying to do more leisure reading.  Unfortunately, I’d gotten out of the habit, because when you spend your work day reading it’s not easy to come home and read some more for pleasure.  But I love books, and I’d rather nod off at night while reading than nod off while watching some mindless TV show.

I’m not very systematic about my reading choices.  Kish is; she peruses the New York Times book review and uses the excellent Columbus Public Library on-line resources to reserve books that look interesting.  I tend to focus on one genre — such as biographies, for example — and read books exclusively in that genre until I’m ready to move on to another one.

issac-asimov-predictionsSeveral months ago I asked Richard what he was reading, and he said he was in the middle of Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation trilogy, part of which I’d read in high school.  He recommended the series, so I picked it up . . . and enjoyed it immensely.  Since then I’ve read Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, as well as some other assorted Asimov and Heinlein efforts.  I’ve always liked science and science fiction — one of the first pieces I ever wrote on this blog was about The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, one of my all-time favorite books — and I’ve decided that I want to get a better grounding in what the science fiction genre has to offer, both in terms of the other authors, like Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke, who helped to create science fiction’s golden age, and the more recent writers who have been well-received by critics and readers alike.

I’ve taken to making internet searches for sci fi “best” lists, and on the basis of those searches I’ve just started John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and I’ve got Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon next in line. I’d be happy to get any other recommendations on worthwhile sci-fi that Webner House readers are willing to share.

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Is Grandpa Safe?

One of the oldest themes in science fiction is time travel, and one of the oldest story lines in the time travel genre deals with the paradoxes of going back in time.  What if you went back into time and, like Marty McFly, did something that changed the future course of events so dramatically that you never actually came into being?

It’s called the Grandfather Paradox.  Specifically, what if you went back in time and killed your own grandfather before he had the chance to father your mother or your father?  And if you did, and your parents and, ultimately, you never existed as a result, then how could you have been here to go back into time and kill dear old Granddad in the first place?

Science fiction deals with this in all kinds of interesting ways — postulating, for example, the creation of parallel universes every time a back-in-time traveler messes with the existing continuum of events and offs an ancestor — but science isn’t so easily satisfied.  It’s clear that forward time travel actually can occur under Einstein’s theory of relativity and concepts of time dilation; tests have proven that as a spacecraft’s speed increases, a clock on board the ship runs more slowly than a clock back on Earth.  In short, blast off and travel fast and far enough, and you’ll return to a world where your children are older than you are.

Einstein’s theories also suggest that travel back in time is theoretically possible, because the interaction between gravity and spacetime means that if a sufficient gravitational field existed, a closed timelike curve could be created and the time traveler could travel along that curve to the past.  Some scientists, like Stephen Hawking, argue that the Grandfather Paradox means that backward time travel and therefore closed timelike curves cannot exist, and they puckishly argue that the fact that we aren’t currently besieged by future beings who’ve figured out how to journey back in time means such travel is not possible.

Other scientists, however, accept the possibility of moving along a closed timelike curve and have been testing theories that would prevent Grandpa’s untimely demise.  One theory focuses on consistency, and another on correlation.  The “consistency” theory argues that any object that enters a closed timelike curve must exit the curve with the same properties — which evidently means that, thanks to your self-directed consistency, you couldn’t go back and kill your grandfather and prevent your own existence.  Scientists have actually tried to test this theory, using polarized photons launched through a time loop simulator, and the tests showed that the simulated time-traveling photons had the same properties the theory would predict.  Another theory contemplates a kind of “post-selection” concept that (I think) means that you couldn’t go back into time unless you had already gone back into time and were therefore part of the causal chain that created the world in which you live.  The time loop is closed, and whatever you would do on your backward trip would inevitably be what you had already done.

Like everything in quantum physics, it’s all very weird and confusing, and of course the theoretical physicists don’t explain why anyone would want to go back into time and murder their own grandfather, anyway.  But the upshot of the theories and testing seems to be that, even if backward time travel could occur, Grandpa apparently is safe.  All grandfathers and potential future grandfathers can now breathe a sigh of relief.

Forcing Adherence To The Law

We may be on the verge of a new era in personal choice and personal responsibility:  Ford is getting ready to roll out a new car that simply will not allow you to exceed the speed limit.

From a technology standpoint, the Ford S-Max is an interesting step forward.  The car will come equipped with a camera that will read speed limits posted on roadside signs.  The S-Max will then automatically adjust the amount of fuel to the engine to prevent the car from reaching speeds above that posted limit.  So, rather than using braking action to control speed, the S-Max will use the operation of the engine itself to prevent any lawlessness by the lead-footed driver.

The Ford S-Max is in line with a recent trend to use technology to force adherence to the law, whether it is through electronic ankle bracelets that control where people can and cannot go or proposals for cars that require you to pass a breathalyzer test or to fasten your seat belt before the ignition will engage.  Leave aside the issue of whether requiring complete compliance with the law at all times is always safe and smart — there are circumstances, for example, when exceeding the speed limit to get out of the way of other vehicles in a merging situation is the only prudent course — and consider, instead, what such technological controls do to affect concepts of personal morals and to encourage governmental intrusion into personal choice.

If you have no ability to break certain laws, do you even need to develop a personal code of ethical behavior that will apply to your daily life and help to guide your actions?  If you can’t make the wrong choice, what does the concept of personal choice really mean?  And if we start to accept routine technological controls on our behavior, will government entities be tempted to increase the range of controls, by enacting new laws that regulate behavior and by requiring further technological limitations on our ability to act freely?

The Ford S-Max is a long way from futuristic, sci-fi worlds where computer chips are implanted into human brains to rigorously control behavior, but every journey begins with a single step.  I’m not going to be in the market for an S-Max — if the choice is left up to me.

Counting On The Alien Life Discovery Game-Changing Effect

In Gaza, Palestinians and Israelis are lobbing rockets and missiles at each others’ homes.  In Syria and Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites are murdering and beheading each other.  In Africa, Boko Haram continues its campaign of religious-based slaughter and kidnapping.  In central Asia, sectarian and tribal animosities have produced a wave of bombings and violence.  And in central America, conditions apparently are so bad that tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have traveled hundreds of miles in a bid to cross the border into the U.S.

That’s why the best news of the last week was the announcement by NASA scientists that they believe that, within 20 years, humans will be able to confirm the existence of alien life.  They believe that current telescope technology, and new devices like the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite that will launch in 2017 and the James Webb Space Telescope that will launch in 2018, will allow us to detect the presence of liquid water and indications of life on other moons and planets in our solar system and elsewhere in the universe.  Could the scientists be wrong?  Certainly . . . but the rapid advancements in planet discoveries and related detection technologies make their prediction plausible.

Science fiction writers have long posited that the discovery of alien life would have a unifying effect on the fractured world of humanity.  Such a discovery, they theorize, would cause humans to realize that the tribal, ethnic, religious, and political differences between them are trivial in comparison to the differences between humans and other intelligent life forms.  The ancient animosities would end and all of humanity would band together and venture out into the galaxy on vehicles like the starship Enterprise.

Is it really possible that a discovery that humans are not alone might have such a game-changing effect?  It seems far-fetched that anything could alter the benighted mindsets of religious fanatics who want to enslave women or restore medieval caliphates, or penetrate the rigid ideologies of people who cling to tribal or sectarian hatreds that are centuries old.  But, after decades of experience, we know that other approaches — like countless peace talks, the toppling of governments, the expenditure of billions of dollars in aid and training and infrastructure improvement, and the issuance of toothless UN Security Council resolutions — don’t get at the core problems.

Sure, counting on the alien discovery game-changing effect may be pinning our hopes on an improbable scenario.  As we read about an angry and bitterly divided world, however, it may be all we’ve got.

Considering The Self-Driving Car

Google has announced that it will be building and producing its own self-driving vehicles, rather than retrofitting cars produced by other manufacturers.  The announcement means that we’re one step closer to the future envisioned in sci-fi books of days gone by — but I’m not sure it’s a future that I like.

According to the BBC story linked above, the Google car will look like a cute little cartoon bug, with two lights like eyes.  (That’s a specific design feature to make a self-driving car seem more harmless and fun and to encourage people to give it a try.)  It will seat two, be electrically powered, have a top speed of 25 mph, and have only a stop-go button — no steering wheel or pedals.  The car will follow Google maps built for the vehicle and operate using radar and laser sensors.  Google says its self-driving cars have already covered 700,000 miles of roadway, and it will produce a fleet of 200 cars and test them in Detroit within a year to make further advances in self-driving technology.

Advocates of self-driving cars say they will be safer for the car’s drivers, for other drivers, and for pedestrians.  If the cars are limited to 25 mph, of course, there is bound to be a safety enhancement, because there is a direct correlation between vehicle speed at the time of a crash and severity of injury.  Pedestrians also will benefit by a design that features a foam front end rather than a bumper.  But the safety arguments go deeper than that.  They assert that computer programs, lasers, and machines are bound to be more precise and careful on the road than humans, with no risk of distracted, texting drivers, drunken, impaired drivers, or macho, road raging drivers.

I’m somewhat skeptical about relying wholly on a machine guidance system — anyone who has GPS knows that it isn’t infallible — but more than that I’m leery of a future where machines do more and more for human beings.  We’ve already got problems with people becoming less active, less creative, and less self-reliant; self-driving cars is just another step toward a future of flabby, passive people waiting for a machine to move them around in slow-moving cars designed to maximize safety and security.  Sorry, but I don’t like it.

Part Of The Oneworld Alliance

Recently I booked a flight on American Eagle. Imagine my surprise, then, when the flight attendant announced that although I was technically on an American Eagle flight, I actually was being transported by the Oneworld Alliance.

The Oneworld Alliance? It sounds like the name for a vaguely fascist global government in some near-future sci-fi novel in which the rights of individuals are crushed in the name of collective advances, but it’s actually the name of a group of airlines that includes American Airlines, as well as British Airways, Japan Air Lines, and Qantas. Oneworld caters to frequent travelers and offers mileage perks to people who travel on airlines in the alliance.

It turns out that many airlines are part of alliances that offer the same kinds of benefits, and the other two alliances have similarly evocative names. One is the Star Alliance, which sounds like the successor to the Soviet Union and includes United Airlines, US Airways, and Air Canada, among many other carriers, and the other is SkyTeam, which sounds like — and is — the spunky upstart that includes Delta, Air France, and Aeroflot and probably was the name of the defense forces in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

I’m sure there are many savvy travelers who pay careful attention to booking their travel on one alliance so as to maximize their airline miles and resulting benefits. I don’t; I just focus on out-of-pocket cost and time of departure and arrival, and I try to fly on Southwest whenever possible because they rarely cancel flights. So I didn’t care who was flying me home on that occasion — but I did feel a certain pride in knowing that, for a brief instant at least, I was a part of the Oneworld Alliance.

Ender’s Game

I think Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, is a sci-fi classic.  The concept of children as warriors, and the Battle Room where they hone their strategic and tactical skills, make the novel stand out from your standard science fiction fare.

I always feel some trepidation when a book that I’ve enjoyed gets made into a movie — but when it’s going to happen, all you can do is grit your teeth and hope that the Hollywood process hasn’t totally ruined what you liked about the story.  Ender’s Game will be hitting the big screen this fall, and the trailer looks pretty good.  The movie features Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley in key adult roles, and a newcomer, Asa Butterfield, as the young Ender Wiggin.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed.