Tag Archives: future

Writing prompt: Junk Food Day

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Junk Food Day” (Inspired by this list of silly holidays.)


The priest reached under the alter. With reverence, he placed three relics before the congregation. Antonia craned to see. She could see them through the plastic, bright yellow and emanating well-being. The packages were adorned with ancient symbols and decorations. Though these decorations had smudged and flaked in places, the contents remained intact. It was through the bountiful blessings of the Hostess goddess.

“Behold,” the priest said, “these relics have passed through the generations to us. And today, we shall share these Twinkies in Holy Communion.”

He recited an incantation, said to be the words of an ancient “commercial,” or a spreading of good will. Antonia recognized some of the words, like “fun for the whole family,” but others, like “snackalicious” were beyond her. The ancient civilization had been so advanced. Her father said they couldn’t have been human, or that they must have had the help of clever aliens. The ancients had built mysterious temples thousands of feet high, and roads hundreds of feet wide that extended beyond the farthest known horizon. Today, they knew so little about the ancients. But on holy Junk Food Day, they tasted the Twinkie and rejoiced. The priest went around, slicing off bits for the devoted.

 

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Science fiction worlds and the ancient west

After visiting Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico, I read archaeological articles about the region. For a region so full of artifacts, we know little about what life was like. We don’t know what their social structure was. We don’t know why they came to the region around the year 900 or why they left around the year 1300. We think the canyon wasn’t fully occupied most of the year, but archaeologists debate whether the region’s role was more economic or religious. We aren’t even sure if the region could sustain agriculture. There’s plenty of speculation, but little certainty. Events that already occurred can be almost as shrouded and mysterious as the future.

I tried to imagine life at the height of the Chaco culture. Science fiction can be about the extrapolations of technology and travel, but its emotional core explores the human response to extraordinary worlds. The Left Hand of Darkness explores the human response to extreme cold and unusual gender dynamics. A Canticle for Leibowitz explores the response to apocalypse, the assignment of blame, and the attempt to rebuild within poisoned ashes. The Wind-Up Girl looks at human response to bioplagues and the biomechanical future.

Imagining life at Chaco Canyon is arguably more alien than science fiction. Science fiction is written for western audiences with western lifestyles. (This is not a criticism—science fiction is fiction first, and sociology study somewhere down the list.) The social hierarchies are familiar. We quickly understand what is considered important and unimportant. The motivations of characters in science fiction are often less alien to me than customs on our own planet. Russians often find smiling a sign of foolishness. Japanese salespeople so dislike saying “no” that they will ignore the question rather than give such a rude answer. These are tiny examples of different outlooks on life, shadows of structurally different mental organizations. These are cultures extensively connected to my own, living with the same technologies and the same global events. Our very language biases our ability to conceive of and express concepts. Ursula LeGuin explored this concept in The Dispossessed, but of course it is still in English.

By comparison, Chaco Culture is almost Martian; it’s 700 years gone, it was isolated in a draconian environment, and even the statistics of their society are now matters of speculation. But we can infer that they found rhythm and certainty in the sky. They made the Sun Dagger and they aligned so many of their buildings to the patterns in the sky. Reading archaeology felt like holding sand; the very question of whether or not the people grew corn on site was a debate waged hotly across decades. But I could look up at the sky and see their sky.

But even the sky we look upon isn’t their sky. Our planet wobbles like a top, and because of that, our window into the stars slowly shifts. Today, the north star, Polaris, is less than a degree from celestial north. (A degree is about the width of your finger when held at arm’s length.) In the year 1200, Polaris was 5 degrees from north. In 900, it was 6.7 degrees from north. We know the sky that they saw, but it’s different than ours. Add in light pollution, planes, and satellites, and it’s very different.

Unlike the stories of time machines, Chaco won’t ever give full answers. In science fiction, we imagine peeling back the fog of both future and past. The lack of answers is really the motivation, though. Science fiction is an expression of human response to things we can barely imagine. It’s an act of exploration, and Chaco reveals how much there is to explore.

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A map of how the celestial north pole moves with time. I never realized how briefly Polaris had been close to north.

Book Review: The Water Knife (Paolo Bacigalupi 2015)

Note: in this review, I avoid spoilers beyond the first few chapters.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Water Knife is set in the not-too-distant future American West. Water shortages have reached critical levels; states sabotage and fight one another for water rights. We have three main characters; Angel is a Las Vegas “water knife,” a shadowy figure that does the dirty ground work of securing water rights through any means necessary. Lucy is a high-minded journalist from the northeast that came west to cover the collapse of Phoenix and found herself unable to pull away. Maria is a teenage refugee from Texas stuck in the wreckage of Phoenix who schemes to go north. Rumors send Angel to Phoenix, and we get a first row seat to the violence and desperation surrounding water in this dystopian future.

I finished reading The Water Knife over a week ago and I still can’t quite decide what I think of it. I felt the same way after I read Bacigalupi’s Wind-Up Girl, though I now find myself reflecting favorably on that book. Bacigalupi seems to have a knack for leaving some questions unanswered. This is probably a good thing, but it left me unresolved at the end. Both of his books leave you in consideration for a while. His writing style is easy and engaging; both books drew me in quickly with a good balance of action and character development.

My least favorite part of the book is the future dystopian southwest, although it is a critical element of the book. I usually dislike dystopias and find myself remembering an Ursula Le Guin quote from the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness:

Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. “If this goes on, this is what will happen.” A prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life. —Ursula Le Guin

Bacigalupi’s Water Knife is undeniably extrapolative. And that extrapolation is undeniably cancerous. In history, the path that unfolds always seems richer and more meandering, even when things worsen. I felt unconvinced by a corrupt future where states are nearly at war over water. The book makes numerous mentions of Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, a 1993 nonfiction book about water shortages in the west. Perhaps reading that would provide some of the context I found lacking.

But as a New Mexican with a lawn and garden, and there’s no doubt Bacigalupi meant this work as a cautionary tale. Bacigalupi himself lives in western Colorado. It’s that intention that compensates for the gloomy dystopian aspect—it’s gloomy for a reason. In The Water Knife, Texas fundamentalists called “Merry Perrys” pray that water will simply return. In 20 years, readers may wonder why a Merry Perry, but today’s reader knows he means Rick Perry without any explanation. Until this year, I always lived in places with oppressive humidity and abundant water. The water landscape here is very different, but the attitudes toward water don’t seem much different. After I watched the Ken Burns’ documentary about the dust bowl, I was struck by how early settlers tended the land as they would have any last east or in Europe. The United States, with its European roots, is rooted in a culture that never considers water as a finite resource. In the west, even today, it must be considered as such, and you still see pushback to this rationing in protests against the Bureau of Land Management and in California’s current drought. The Water Knife is meant to be a cancerous extrapolation; it’s the doctor sitting down with the smoker and discussing the future.

Like The Wind-Up Girl, I would recommend The Water Knife to any sci-fi fan. Both books are thinking science fiction, enjoyable but challenging. In both books, the setting is a strong element in the plot. Much as I love distant future space operas, I also love science fiction set in concrete locations with real streets and climates. The commentary on problems in today’s world perhaps diminishes the escapism a bit, but cautionary science fiction is an old subset of the genre that deserves thoughtful revivals like this one.

 

Writing prompt: this day in history, the first Ringling Brother’s Circus

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

This day in history: Ringling circus premier (see this list of Days in History)


Macy heard a low rumbling on the horizon. She continued grinding the grain, staring in the direction of the noise. After a while, an electric humvee came over the horizon. It was painted bright pink and blue and it played a merry tune.

“Dan, come out here!” Macy called.

“I’m not done yet—” her brother protested, for once invested in his chores.

“It’s a circus truck, Dan!” she said.

He ran out, hands still red from handling the meat.

The truck inched forward along the road, the music growing nearer. When it finally arrived, it pulled to a stop.

“Hey kids, have you ever been to a circus?” the man inside said. His face was painted white except for a red nose and blue around the eyes. Macy could see a scar across his lips. His left eye was glass. On the ceiling behind him, she saw a large gun. No doubt he had more closer, but the ceiling one was for show. It wasn’t safe to be a traveling salesman. A desperate man could get a lot for the battery’s in the circus man’s car.

The children shook their heads.

“Well you’re in for a treat!” the painted man said. “Never in human history has there been such a rich display of freaks and oddities. Ringling and Barnum would have blushed to see such things. Fallout and gene wars have finally given back to the human race. We have a two-headed baby, a man-sized venus fly trap, a goat that glows in the dark, and a Christmas Tree with legs.”

Macy stared at the painted man, awestruck and silent.

“Come to Hilldale City on Saturday and see the show in the big red and white tent! Can’t beat some classics! Admission’s just 5 bucks!”

Macy and Dan sagged. Hilldale City. Grandma would never allow it.

Book Review: Architects of Emortality (Brian Stableford 1999)

Note: in this review, I mostly limit comments to the intro and  first chapter (65 pages in this case).

Rating: 1.5/5 stars

Architects of Emortality by Brian Stableford is the fourth book of the Emortality series and my first Stableford book. I am still unclear on the significance of “emortal” versus “immortal”, but otherwise, the book stood alone without reading the first three books. Architects of Emortality is set in the late 2400s. Life can be extended via technology, but for most, 200 years is roughly the limit. Due to a recent technological advancements, the next generation may be immortal, but only those treated before birth can partake. The book opens with a murder and the subsequent investigation of that murder.

Architects of Emortality had interesting world-building and intriguing ideas, but it had three big flaws: 1) the characters were flat and uninteresting, 2) the language was distracting, and 3) the female roles flat-out sucked. Not every sci-fi reader cares as much about character development as I do; if you enjoy big worlds with far-reaching ideas, this may very well be a book you will enjoy. For me, it felt out-of-date though it’s only from 1999.

The book opens with investigator Charlotte Holmes at the scene of Gabriel King’s murder. His murder is unusual; murders are uncommon in this future, and King has been consumed by flowers clean down to the bone. Video shows that a beautiful young woman visited just before the murder, bearing unusual flowers. Holmes, the protagonist, is a young sergeant and assistant to Hal Watson, who investigates from afar using the resources of the web. A minor spoiler: Holmes does nothing but fret about her limits as an investigator; she travels and observes but never acts. Her uselessness fuels complaints #1 and #3, above. Stableford draws attention to the fact that she is Charlotte Holmes by having a Watson. A famously clever investigator’s name suggests that Holmes will be at the center of solving the murder mystery, and that she will be clever. Neither is true. Most of the insights come from Oscar Wilde, a flamboyant flower designer with ties to the murder who travels with Holmes during the investigation. Holmes is an appendage to whom Wilde muses.

Other than Holmes, the only significant woman in the book is the murderess. We learn little about her; she is beautiful and young and acting on the behalf of someone else. All other significant characters are men; they are mostly experts of various kinds. Where Holmes is insecure and a hard-nosed investigator and little else, Oscar Wilde enjoys 19th century literature, designs flowers, and is beautiful, vain, and eccentric. He has opinions about everything, and he likes to make people uncomfortable with those opinions. He is better characterized than Holmes, but still a bit flat. If I imagined a future botanist version based on my thin knowledge of 19th century Oscar Wilde, this Oscar Wilde is about what I’d imagine. But he is still infinitely more rich than Holmes.

That pretty well covers my first and third complaints about the book. Finally, I found the language in this book excessively self-aware, and at times plain obnoxious. Instead of engaging in the story, I was rolling my eyes at word choice. I dog-eared the worst example from about halfway through the book (not a spoiler):

 “I saw it,” Charlotte said wearily. “Was there something significant I should have taken note of?” She knew that she ought not to end sentences with prepositions, but thought that the stress of the situation made the infelicity forgivable.

This occurs immediately after the characters have had a brush with death. Not only is the preposition rule a garbage grammar rule cribbed from Latinwho cares at such a time? The quote above is just the most egregious example of pompous language undercutting the impact of events in the book. Only one line of dialogue earlier she is described as “profoundly shaken.” Also, to describe near-death as “infelicity”… I had to put the book down for a bit.

On a final positive note, the ideas in the book are rich and passionate, which is why I gave it 1.5 instead of 1 stars. These ideas include longevity technology, artistic expression, bio-engineering, what a far-reaching future might look like, and how people might find identity in a far future. It also explored how people handle death, how the media might look in a distant future, what our current tendencies toward oligarchy might lead to, what a crime might be in the future, and what nature might be in the future. Truly, it covers a lot of bases conceptually. But for me, it was on the back of lackluster characters with distracting language. I felt that the author cared far more about the concepts than his vehicles for breathing life into them. The useless female characters also damaged the sense of futurism; an avid fan of classic scifi learns to forgive empty doe-eyed ladies in 60s novels, but in a novel written in 1999 that’s just too much. I won’t be looking for Stableford in my reading future.

Writing prompt: Designer babies

Back in Virginia, our writing group had what we called a Pint and Prompt. A group of friends hit the bar, have a pint, and write for a few minutes on a writing prompt. Then you read your responses to one another. It’s really great to see the variety of responses, and it’s a good time with friends. Recently, they got together and did a Pint and Prompt, and my friend  Keith at Strange Things Done posted his response.  So I added mine, though it’s a bit too early for the pint yet.


Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“designer babies”

“Designer babies!?” the headline shimmered in her mind’s eye. She engaged the article and read further. She shouldn’t, she knew. Nothing good ever came from reading media coverage about your own research. The journalists would never understand the science, and accuracy came second to eyeballs. The strategy worked, she mused, as even she was looking at the article.

“The FDA recently approved the so-called Designer Baby program at Johns Hopkins,” the article began innocently enough. Anitra scrolled down through the background, seeking what she knew would be there inevitably. “The program has drawn a number of ethical concerns. It’s hard not to share those concerns. Say you splice in elephant DNA to have a child that will never forget, but then that child will be terrified of mice and always gain weight. Or a child with the DNA of a cat will be lithe and clever, but doomed to be a jerk.

“In seriousness, though, the program raises the question of what it means to be human. If humans and oragutangs share 99.9% of their DNA, how much fiddling will fundamentally rob a child of it’s humanity? The program guarantees fertility and a variety of other qualities in its embryos, but there is no known measure of a soul.”

Anitra mused to herself that it always came down to souls with these people. People who politically wanted to go to war and wanted to punish bad eating habits in children were worried about the godliness of the embryos. It was always just an excuse to muck around past their intellectual depth.

But… well the concern mongering, as ill-informed as it was, she kept reading it because there was something at the edge of her own mind. A concern she couldn’t quite articulate after interacting with dozens of designed children from age 1 to 6. She kept reading these articles because each time she hoped this one would cast the light into the shadow of her mind that she could not see. Alas, not this time.

Writing prompt: Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk Day

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Don’t cry over spilled milk day” (Inspired by this list of silly holidays.)

The warning message on my phone had been accurately dire. Only the charred beams of the house remained. I saw Bella and Sadie out in the yard, doting upon a firefighter with a bag of treats. I pulled up behind the firetruck.

“It’s a total loss, ma’am,” one of the firefighters approached me, bearing forms.

“So the message said,” I sighed. “Do you know what caused it?”

“Electrical short, we think. We won’t know until the simulation results are in, and they run overnight. You probably know what I’m going to ask next.” He looked apprehensive. He glanced at the dogs, and back to me.

“I back up every week,” I said.

He relaxed noticeably. “Thank goodness. You don’t know how many fires I see where the family hasn’t backed up in five years. It’s devastating.”

“I bet.”

“Do you know how to initiate the rebuild?” he asked. I shook my head and he walked me through the process.

“By next week, your house will be back at the state of your last back-up. A few details might be less current, say you hadn’t scanned a closet for a while. The insurance will put you up at a hotel until it’s ready.”

I looked over the ruins of my home, ruins of my memories. In a week, they’d all be back. Maybe not the same piece of paper I’d received at graduation, not the same toy my dogs loved to fight over. But nearly. I sighed.

“Are you all right ma’am? It’s a lot to take in,” the fire fighter said.

“No use crying over spilled milk.”