International aid, oppression, dystopias, Cosmos, and the future in science fiction…

Live Aid, Band Aid, USA for Africa: Did pop stars and hit songs help Ethiopia famine victims? is a very good read, which made me think of The Hunger Games. Stick with me. The article makes the startling but entirely logical point that democracies don’t suffer famines. Autocratic nations, dictatorships, suffer famine because the people have no power there; in fact, the famine is used as a tool to further control and oppress them. The Hunger Games has very effectively delineated these tools of oppression in a form that even young readers can understand. I guess that makes them more savvy than rock stars.

For related reading: How America’s leading science fiction authors are shaping your future. More on The Hunger Games and how it reflects our current societal anxieties, which helps explain its enormous popularity. Science fiction, like horror, reflects society’s fears, but unlike horror, it also reflects society’s hopes. Perhaps we do need more optimistic science fiction right now.

Have you been watching CosmosThe episode last night on the next great extinction was… unsettling.

A look ahead: Four possible futures

“It’s easy to imagine the end of the world, but we cannot imagine the end of capitalism.” – Four Futures

Why is it so difficult to see outside the box we’ve currently put ourselves in?

The author of this article imagines four possible futures based on combinations of scarcity or abundance of resources and a hierarchical or egalitarian social structure. Like all fictional utopias and dystopias, these postulations are not meant to accurately predict the future, but to point toward extreme potential end points of our current path. He draws heavily on science fiction to guide him, including the works of Cory Doctorow, Charlie Stross, Orson Scott Card and Star Trek.

For more fictional future takes, see my Dystopian Reading List.

Techno-optimism in science fiction…

In an interview published in yesterday’s New York Times (in the Future of Computing section), Neal Stephenson mentions his project Hieroglyph. By inspiring science fiction writers to return to their “techno-optimistic roots,” Stephenson hopes to reignite the popular imagination to “develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale.” Well, we certainly could use some of that. If it were up to me, I’d not only want to address the problem of climate change, but figure out how to get us off this rock once and for all. And science fiction can help us dream up possibilities. Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Mars trilogy almost makes it seem easy to colonize Mars and build a space elevator there.

Here is Neal Stephenson’s piece for the World Policy Institute, in which he describes his Hieroglyph theory: Innovation Starvation | World Policy Institute

More on Margaret Atwood and science fiction…

I like Margaret Atwood a lot, but I think this reviewer is on target in this review of her retrospective on science fiction. Atwood is still a bit too snippy about distinguishing the genres for my tastes. The reviewer also correctly identifies one distinction: While Atwood may favor a philosophy of leaving well enough alone, the science fiction author’s attitude is “let’s give it a try.” Fortunately, there’s room enough on my bookshelves for Atwood, mainstream authors who “slipstream” and good old-fashioned science fiction. And in my library, I get to decide what the labels are.

More book reviews! Science fiction by women…

I was pleased to contribute three of my book reviews to SF Mistressworks, a blog devoted to reviewing science fiction written by women and published during the 20th century.

The reviews:

I appreciate what SF Mistressworks is doing to highlight science fiction written by women, a strong interest of mine. Please check out the rest of the reviews while you’re there.

SF recommendations for newbies

On my books blog this week, I posted a list of science fiction recommendations for people who don’t read science fiction. The list includes several science fiction novels by authors not normally known for writing in the genre, following by a similar title from a more unabashedly SF writer.

I recommend some great reads about immortality

Remember a while back, when I wrote a neat little piece about our obsession with obtaining immortality. You don’t? Well, let me refresh your memory. And there has been news since then! Some scientist has come out and said we will achieve immortality within the next 20 years, using nanotechnology and robotic body parts. Sound like science fiction? Well, it is, because he’s just making a wild prediction based on technologies that don’t yet exist. But still, take care of yourself and let’s all try to mitigate the effects of global warming. Because you never know.

Anyway, all of this thinking about immortality turned my brain on to some good speculative fiction books that address the theme. So as is my hobby, I put together a little reading list, which Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations, a blog of book lists, has published. Please go by and check it out. While you’re there, why not browse all the intriguing book lists and maybe buy a book or two? (They are an Amazon.com affiliate.) You know you want to.

Hell is repetition: The theme of cycles in science fiction

Recently, I have become fascinated with the notion of cycles. We humans tend to regard everything linearly, with a beginning and an end, because that is our individual experience. But taking a wider view, we can see that events tend to happen in cycles, that an end leads inexorably to another beginning. It’s easiest to see this in nature, with our regular seasonal cycles and the cycle of growth to death to fertilizer to new life again. In physics, the concept of eternal return posits that the universe has been recurring and will continue to recur in a self-similar form an infinite number of times. According to Eastern religions, we are all caught up in the Wheel of Life, an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth, until we can escape via enlightenment.

Post-apocalyptic literature, a favorite of mine, is obsessed with endings, an interesting mind game in itself. What would happen if everything, as we know it, just stopped? But the concept of repeating patterns, of endless cycles, is even more of a mind bender. Recently, a couple of favorite TV shows have explored this theme.

**Spoilers for Battlestar Galactica and Lost follow, so stop reading now if you don’t want to know.**

Battlestar Galactica‘s controversial finale, seen as a happy ending by some and as a silly warning to be nice to your robots by others, was, in my view, highly pessimistic. Despite all their efforts to break the cycle of Cylon uprising and mutual destruction, even to the point of sacrificing their technological advantages, the surviving characters only managed to put the inevitable off for a few thousand years. But all this has happened before, and will happen again — and the cycle begins anew on modern-day Earth.

Lost is exploring similar themes, although it is not clear yet whether the pattern can actually be broken. Still, last night’s excellent season finale asks the question: If the pattern is destined to keep repeating, why take action at all? Why not just opt out? In my opinion, the show has not taken a side. We’ve seen characters opt out (Bernard and Rose), and they seem perfectly happy. We’ve seen other characters take action to try to change the pattern, break the cycle, but we don’t know if they will be successful. Even if they are unable to change the pattern, will just trying be enough for some kind of personal salvation or redemption? Is what matters making a choice and doing something, rather than the effects of that action? These are great questions to ponder on a sleepless night.

I am now getting interested in science fiction novels that explore similar themes. Here are a few that I could think of (ahoy, there may be spoilers ahead):

  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which is structured in a cyclical manner progressing forward and then back through time.
  • The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, in which Roland seems doomed to relive the events of his quest for the Dark Tower until he can find a way to break the cycle of repetition.
  • The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, in which an alien civilization is doomed to cause its own apocalypse and then rise from the ashes over and over.
  • Replay by Ken Grimwood, in which a man relives his life again and again (I haven’t read this).

Does anyone have other suggestions? I would love to hear them.