Reading Science Fiction

Amazon is great, but to discover something new, it helps to have a real (independent!) bookstore with a discerning owner. Thanks to one such, in an airport of all places (La Guardia, I think it was), I discovered Ted Chiang. In a ten-year career (so far), he has only written a few short stories, winning a Nebula Award with the very first, and most of them are amazing. It’s a rare writer who has challenging ideas and writes about them extremely well. Very highly recommended.

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang – Amazon UK

One thing to be said for forced bed rest: I’ve had lots of time to read. First was a collection of Philip K. Dick short stories, including “The Minority Report.” As has happened with a number of Dick stories, the author’s initial idea was intriguing, but the movie was actually a better story.

I have read a lot of science fiction in my lifetime, from the early classics on. It’s interesting to consider the trends and technologies happening today that early sci-fi writers never contemplated. For example, there are lots of stories about gigantic central computers going mad, killing people, taking over planets or spaceships, and occasionally being useful. But I don’t recall a single story featuring personal computers as the ubiquitous tools that we all use today.

Most of the authors even more glaringly failed to consider the cultural changes likely to take place within their own lifetimes, let alone over several centuries to come. Feminism completely escaped Philip K. Dick (even though it was well underway before he died); most of his female characters are secretaries and/or wives, who spend their time tucking the children into bed and making coffee for the men.

One author who has demonstrated real foresight is Norman Spinrad. In “A World Between,” published in 1979, he described the World Wide Web, and even called it ‘the Galactic Web.’ “Little Heroes” (1987) is about the music industry’s final solution to the problem of dealing with temperamental artists: computer-generated stars. Now that we’ve seen what can be done, with Gollum in “The Two Towers,” this doesn’t seem very far off. “Pictures at 11” (1994) is about a gang of terrorists taking over a TV station in Los Angeles; that, too, seems likely to come true any day now.

David Brin is perhaps the greatest science fiction author alive. His Uplift series is set in the far future, when dolphins and chimpanzees have been genetically ‘uplifted’ to be man’s sapient peers, in a universe populated by hundreds of similarly uplifted species. Brin is literally a rocket scientist, with a PhD in astrophysics, yet he does not fall into the Asimov trap of being far better at science than characters. One of the joys of the Uplift novels is that Brin creates and describes alien cultures which are completely non-human, yet convincingly motivated by their own biologies and cultures (my favorite example is the exploding priest).

I have re-started reading Brin’s “The Transparent Society,” published in 1998, subtitled “Will technology force us to choose between privacy and freedom?” This is non-fiction. Though I haven’t read it all the way through yet, Brin’s thesis seems to be that the privacy genie is already out of the bottle: governments and corporations have a great deal of private information about us stored in databases (where it’s subject to pilfering and abuse), and we are increasingly in the lenses of security cameras wherever we go. Brin suggests that the best defense is an open society, where we citizens can in turn oversee governments and corporations, to ensure that our data is not abused.

Norman Spinrad’s site

Buy from Amazon:

UK: Norman SpinradDavid BrinTed Chiang

US: Norman SpinradDavid BrinTed Chiang

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