Miami, 2049

A setting for a story: Miami 2049. Shining towers rise from the sea, a glass archipelago. On the lower stories, buffeted by the sea, glass has been replaced with stout timber, purchased from the mainland, but higher up the old glass still gleams. If you look closely you will see missing panes here and there; in Miami, breaking a window isn’t just bad luck, it’s reason for exile.

Some of Miami’s towers have have fallen in the storms; others still stand tall, each a city-state.

All around them, the sea. Once teeming with fish, perpetual algae blooms have robbed the water of oxygen. All that’s left is algae and whales that eat algae. Suddenly-prosperous whales seem more organized than they used to be.

Algae is the blood of this place. Each building has a small fleet of algae harvesters, plying seas once rich with fish to provide protein for the starving masses on the mainland, now 100 miles away and receding. Protein is worth a premium, and what is left of Miami is prosperous.

Below the surface are streets still clogged with cars, and drowned shopfronts where once was sold for a premium things which have no value now. Gadgets and fancy clothes. Two stories up, piers extend from the glittering city-buildings, providing a place to load cargo, but offering no shelter from the all-too-frequent storms. It is widely accepted that once ocean temperatures find a new equilibrium that the storms will return to the relatively benign level of fury known in the 20th century and before, but the people of Miami have learned not to wait for that to happen.

The buildings’ bosses can efficiently control access, both at the piers and in the stairwells. Socially, building-states are insular, with two exceptions: There is a complex system of taboos governing sex and enforcing the exchange of women between buildings, and there are some tradesmen, primarily doctors and merchants, who can move between the buildings relatively freely. Of course, wherever they go, they are quizzed about the other buildings, but the smart ones know that those who tell tales won’t be in business long.

Out on the sea the algae harvesters have their own society, quite distinct from the structure in the archipelago. While the harvesters are not completely separate from the building-state rivalries back home, they have their own ethical code while out on the sea. Because of the wealth they bring, they have a level of autonomy other citizens do not.

There is still enough tech that they know when storms are coming. It has been a couple of years since a building toppled, but the possibility is real – though the greatest risk was when the surf lapped at the buildings’ foundations.

When a building falls, the city pulls together to save the victims. And if your building rescues particularly valuable citizens, all the better. Spoken out loud is a strict ethical code regarding helping a drowning neighbor, but some building-states might not honor the intent, even while they honor the letter.

So there’s a setting, one I rather like. If someone were inspired to use that setting for a story, I’d be right pleased.

Better Feet and the Conquest of the Galaxy

There’s an ad going around right now, for a car of all things, that features a woman who does not have the feet she was born with. It’s a cool ad, non-sequitur notwithstanding, but there’s a message there that maybe the car company didn’t intend.

The message is this: for certain well-defined purposes, we can build better feet than the ones we were born with.

We haven’t come close to matching the versatility of the human foot, and in my lifetime we probably won’t reproduce the feel of my toes wrestling with those of my sweetie, but if you want to sprint 100 meters there’s nothing like having springs for feet. People without human-born feet aren’t allowed in our races anymore.

So while the car company is trying to tie us to their brand through the undeniable awesomeness of this woman, there is another message, possibly more germane to their product: We can build some amazing shit these days. Technology that transforms lives.

It’s only a matter of time before folks start asking to have their weaker flesh-feet replaced with a socket that can accommodate a wide variety of specialized appendages. Once we develop muscle replacements that can be controlled by our nervous systems, things get crazier. And more powerful. There’s no reason to think that won’t happen in the moderately-near future.

Which leads, if you’re willing to follow me, to the Fermi Paradox. Fermi asked, “if there are so many stars, and presumably so many planets, where are all the civilizations?” The assumption is that any technological civilization will eventually send ships out to the stars, and even if it takes 10,000 years to get to the next place, that over a couple million years you can fill up a galaxy. It’s that exponential thing. And with millions of starters, one at least ought to succeed.

The ability to create a person who is powered by a nuclear reactor or solar cells, who can endure the hardships of empty space, makes that conundrum all the more perplexing. Better feet, better lungs, better heart. They’re all just machines serving our brains. We can give them galactic lifespans.

So the brains have to be the weak link, right? A car is just a way to get your brain to another location. Rocket feet are the same thing, but way cooler.

There’s an event that the Science Fiction crowd calls ‘The Singularity’. It’s the point at which we silly humans build something that surpasses us. It might be through genetic engineering, it might be though cybernetics, or whatever. Usually it’s presented as a scary thing; hell, nobody wants to become obsolete. But maybe better really is better.

But if it could happen here, doesn’t it stand to reason that it has happened a million times before? So where are those guys?

I have theories, but none I’m terribly convinced by. Either we are really unusual to reach the point of making custom feet, or there’s something ahead we’re really not going to like. Statistics favors the latter, but there’s a lot we don’t know. Meanwhile, let’s just keep on making things better.

1

The Hugo Kerfuffle

The most important award in Science Fiction has been reduced to the level of a Facebook popularity contest. Let’s stop wringing our hands and recognize the truth: It’s dead.

The Hugo awards are (well, were) the Oscars of Science Fiction. Except where the Oscars are sure to give lots of love to the commercial successes of the year, the Hugos seem rather disconnected from the commercial world. You can argue that’s good, recognizing talent that the marketplace has not (yet) discovered, and you can argue that it’s bad, showing that the judges are out of touch with reality.

This year, the Hugo awards will miss on both counts. The winner will suck by any measure. It’s a sad, sad story.

The sad story starts with the Sad Puppies, a group who asks, “whatever happened to good ol’ science fiction where dudes shot things with blasters?” They began an effort to promote GOSF to Hugo voters. (Anyone can be a Hugo voter. It costs $40. A friend of mine once gave me a priceless gift — he paid the bucks to nominate me. Alas, it took more than one nomination vote that year to win a place on the ballot.) At the edge of the Sad Puppies sat another, smaller group (well, a couple of guys), who said, more or less, “the liberal gay agenda is ruining our genre, and that’s why fine upstanding woman-haters like us don’t get the awards.” (I’m paraphrasing.) They took the Sad Puppies list, extremified it (by adding themselves over and over) and launched a grass-roots campaign to get their readers to vote for them.

It only took a couple hundred faithful to totally trash the ballot. The Hugo system was devised in a world before Internet trolls. Had I realized how easy it was, I would have bagged myself a Hugo long ago. I figure a cost of $100 per vote; $20K and I’m in!

But allow me to take a moment to consider the Sad Puppies’ initial complaint, and the objective fact that the awards are diverging from what the mainstream wants.

I think SF is still secretly annoyed that people think of it as pulp fiction. Not capital-A Art. For all the “fie on you, world, we all know that literary fiction is just another genre,” there’s still a little defensiveness. The insiders, the ones who usually vote for these awards, are well-read, lit-leaning, and (secretly) self-conscious. They want to sit at the table with the lit-fic guys, and get the nod of respect in the hallowed hallways. So they vote for more literary-leaning stories.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Eric Flint, a commercial success but not an awards darling, has some interesting thoughts that diverge from what I just wrote. We agree on this, however: the divide between commercial success and awards recognition is not about politics. In the comments for that post someone suggested that maybe SF should emulate the recording industry and give out awards based purely on sales. I kinda like that. (“Munchies goes platinum!” I hear in my head. That novel will not be winning any literary awards.)

So, what now? With the Hugo being torpedoed, and other major awards losing relevance, will the marketplace be the only measure of success? What will become of beautiful prose that is challenging to read, without the ivory-tower league to raise it on a pedestal? There is capital-A Art in Science Fiction, dammit, and it should be recognized.

My humble suggestion: The Sad Puppies handing out beanie baby trophies for the best stories with white guys saving scantily-clad helpless space princesses, the ivory tower crowd awarding elegant chess sets (with rooks made of ivory) to the most beautiful prose of the year, the geek crowd awarding the golden propeller beanie to the best representation of cybernetics, and so forth. Let the fragmentation happen. It’s healthy. It’s good. It’s time to surrender the One Award that Rules Them All to the trolls.

2

Darwin’s Radio

Greg Bear has written before about the end of the human race. One thing he does well is making the end of mankind as we know it not such a bad thing. He’s also better at science than many Science Fiction writers out there.

Darwin’s Radio is a pretty good story with some really interesting science. You see, our DNA is filled with junk. It’s possible that some of that junk came from viruses that made themselves a permanent home in our genome. Now they’re just camped there, never activated, hitchhiking in the backwaters of our chromosomes. Mission accomplished, as far as preserving that pattern goes.

So what if some trigger kicked one of these garbage genes into production? And what if the resultant virus could hop from person to person and activate that gene in the new host’s cells? The virus could actually move DNA from one person to another.

Finally, what if that new virus activated a sequence of events that fundamentally changed our offspring? Perhaps it has happened in the past; evolution seems to be more a series of little jumps (and occasionally a big jump) rather than a continuous progression.

In this story, the time is roughly now. Biology, the ascendant science, is starting to produce astonishing results. And just as we start to understand the human genome, some crazy shit starts going down. DNA is moving laterally — being exchanged between people — and that’s never happened before. Bacteria share DNA willy-nilly, but they don’t keep their genetic material bundled up and cataloged they way more complex organisms do.

Children are coming out broken. And when they’re not broken, they’re weird. What would you do, if your job was to protect the people of your society? What if, as time passed, you realized that you were working to protect not just your society but humanity as we know it? Would you slaughter an entire village to contain the epidemic?

Maybe you wouldn’t, but you can bet your boots that there are plenty who would. And if saving the human race isn’t justification for a few atrocities, I don’t know what is. And the effects of the virus are really, really bad. Lots and lots of dead babies. People are doing the math and there might be a time when there are no children born alive at all.

Then there’s the guy who has evidence that all this has happened before, to the Neanderthals.

Despite all the science flying around, the root of the drama is political. How does a civilized, law-respecting society face a horrific health crisis that just keeps getting worse and worse? What effect can the ambitions of a few key people have on a global calamity?

Mr. Bear went out of his way to create a peripheral precondition for the virus to take effect: The parents have to be in love. Sex without love produces normal human babies. This makes love a biological condition, and I’m all right with that. Presumably the virus is designed to work in the cases where the new child has the best chance at success. Makes sense, but biology is rarely self-limiting like that. Even if the chance of success is zero, biology will give it a try.

Parents are also altered, and the disfigurement they suffer becomes a social stigma. They carry the virus.

There are some really good scenes in this story. The scene that first springs to mind is when one of our favorite characters is in a crowd. There is a surge, a change of atmosphere, and the peaceful gathering crosses a threshold and becomes a mob. It’s a moment impossible to define but obvious when you see it.

That said, there are also some events and one element of the science that I just couldn’t buy. That wasn’t enough to stop me from staying up later than I should to read a few extra pages each night.

The story ends with a lot of questions, but enough is known to allow the enthusiastic reader to set down the book and imagine a wide range of scenarios, all with one inevitable outcome. Any by the end, that outcome seems like a pretty cool thing.

If you like Science Fiction with actual science in it, you will likely enjoy this book.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Millage Flying Tourbillon (3826) Collection), I get a kickback.