Something for the weekend #14

A round-up of the week’s optimism, causes for optimism, and discussions of optimism/pessimism gap, as noticed in the media:

* Islands of hope: “The eradication of South Georgia’s rats proves we can do anything”, Matt Ridley in The Spectator. “The organisations were too small to have people in them who insisted the impossible was impossible.”

* No pressure: The ‘Haber-Bosch process’ revolutionised the production of agricultural fertilizers, circa 1919. But today it still takes a lot of processing and energy to make the ammonia required for fertilisers. Now scientists at Virginia Tech have created a much more efficient way to do ammonia synthesis. It works at room temperature and low pressure, and uses the same catalyst that’s used in catalytic converters.

* Pints of Pruitt: The U.S.’s EPA “recently signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with Israel-based Water-Gen”. The company has well-tested and patented technology that, in four hours, can suck 7 pints of clean drinkable water out of humid tropical air.

* Getting sentimental: A new survey from YouGov and V&A museum broadly splits respondents along scales of optimism/pessimism. It’s just a basic dubious 1,000-person opinion survey, done partly as a publicity-booster for a new V&A ‘100 objects’ exhibition in London. But the segmentation of sentiment within the demographics is interesting.

* Plus Plus Ultra: Looking back at Tomorrowland – Was Disney Studios’ 2015 epic ahead of its time?. Yup. It’s a classic, and eventually people will realise it. It might still be a bit too soon to start the re-assessment, but it’s a welcome article.

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New book: 2020 & Beyond

Superversive Press is a rare publisher specialising in traditional heroic and conservative science-fiction (tagline: “books for a more civilised age”). One of their most recent books is the optimistic and future-facing conservative sci-fi anthology MAGA 2020 & Beyond (Nov 2017)…

“MAGA 2020 & Beyond tells the tales of a prosperous future where evil is defeated, the border wall is built, society has righted itself, space exploration is common and world peace has been attained. These aren’t just fantastical stories of a far-fetched future, they are stories of a future that can be obtained.”

For my piffling £3 I got 340 pages of optimistic essays and futurist articles and short fiction. Available on Kindle.

I see they also have a forthcoming sci-fi anthology for readers who are “sick of today’s portrayals of men as toxic or bumbling idiots”. The call for that book was last September, so I’m guessing it’ll be available soon.

I have to say that 2020 & Beyond doesn’t have the best front cover. I want a bit of curvy eco-green in my future city, not some re-hash of a tired 1980s conception of a future city. And while I can see how the gold typeface is meant to evoke MAGA/Trump, it’s in such a cheesy font and the gradient is naff. I do wish people would use cover consultants and put a bit more thought into covers, but I guess bad covers are now just a near-unavoidable occupational hazard for science-fiction authors. Very few get the superb covers they deserve. That said, many of Superversive Press’s steampunk and art-lit covers are definitely above average.

“It’s all dystopia”

The leading science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash, Anathem) was interviewed last week at MIT. It wasn’t the greatest interview in the world, frankly, but he was asked about the effects of his recent multi-author anthology of optimistic science-fiction. He replied that, as a result of the anthology…

NS: “I feel like there was a little uptick in people being more conscious of, you know, why they’re always dystopias [in contemporary science-fiction], you know. Can we please get away from the dystopian thing for a minute?”

Interviewer: “I mean… the effects on young people [can’t be good. For instance]… I see my daughter’s middle school… yeah… they’re reading science fiction. But it’s all dystopia.”

New documentary: The New Fire

The New Fire is a cinema documentary on the promise of nuclear fission via new reactor types. The 84-minute documentary has just been given its premiere at the Heartland Film Festival 2017…

“The New Fire is as optimistic as its title suggests. There is a new fire ready to light the way forward in the United States, and that fire is engineered by bright millennials and fuelled by nuclear fission. The film does a fantastic job explaining complex topics to the audience without ever condescending. The complexities of engineering challenges faced by nuclear physicists is laid bare in simplistic explanations and beautifully rendered animated segments that illustrate how the various designs for different reactors work.”

Equally optimistically, the movie is set to screen on the campus of U.C. ‘no free speech here’ Berkeley on 16th November 2017. Expect howling mobs of eco-worriers outside the venue, although the film does hype up the climate alarmism to ridiculous levels so perhaps they’ll be pacified by that.

The film’s website — which needs a “high-res press stills / press pack” section added, for magazine editors.

For those who want to delve deeper into the topic, I see there’s a new primer book from Cambridge University Press, Seeing the Light: The Case for Nuclear Power in the 21st Century. Although with a poor choice of cover picture, showing an antiquated lightbulb which undercuts the book’s future-facing theme.

With all of this, my first question is not “can it work”, but “can it work in a world of terrorists” who will seek to turn such technologies to deadly ends? Small sites packed full of nuclear waste, strung all across the planet and at remote locations with low staffing levels, does not seem like a good scenario to me, re: acceptance by both the public and security services.

Still, I guess we now have to think about off-world uses as well. Such as bases on the Moon, colonies on Mars, spaceships inside hollowed-out asteroids. Possibly also large undersea / sunken offshore aquaculture bases. Presumably such reactors would be far safer there, re: the terrorist threat.

Positive Japan

Leading Japanese sci-fi/thriller novelist Taiyo Fujii, also chairman of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of Japan association, visits Malaysia for that nation’s main think-fest (theme this year: ‘the Future’). The local press there reports, in “The future is bright” that…

Fujii hopes that those who have read his [novels] Orbital Cloud or Gene Mapper gain a more optimistic view of the future like him. The author said: “”I love Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and James P. Hogan. All of them write of a positive future. I’ll be telling the audience how I view the future world with optimism, whereas many literary works tend to focus on a dystopian world.”

Available in good English translations, and Kindle ereader format, though as yet no audiobooks.

I also recently had cause to notice Arthur C. Clarke’s mid-career novel Imperial Earth (1975), which apparently has a very positive tour of its main setting: the high-tech USA of the year 2276 as seen through the eyes of a visitor from the colony on Titan. Clarke was at that time in a similar situation personally: living in the British Commonwealth protectorate of Ceylon, watching his home in the UK try to shape “the white heat of technology” into a sustainable form, and touring America as it lived through the early 1970s. I’d no doubt read the novel in the 1980s, along with most other hard science-fiction, but had forgotten it in the meantime. Apparently it was also an important breakthrough novel, for its time, in its approaches to sexuality.

Update: I had read Imperial Earth in the 1980s, and have just finished re-reading it. It’s still a very enjoyable and vivid novel.

Using algorithms to map the history of ideas

Buried in what appears to be a leftist attack-article on the digital humanities, in the latest THES…

“Crane’s latest research project, with German federal funding, is as ambitious as they come: an attempt to use algorithms to map the history of ideas from antiquity to the present day, analysing millions of texts to chart the influence of thinkers on each other over the course of thousands of years.”

I can’t get more than a few snippets of the Times article, and a quick search turns up nothing via ‘last month’ Google Search or Google News. But it sounds like a fascinating project. Although the pathetic state of retail recommendation systems and taste matching (Amazon, eBay etc) suggests that the much-touted semantic revolution needed to do this sort of thing properly is still a long way in the future. You’re also still going to need a ninja historian to trace a chain of influence between things like Erasmus Darwin’s musing on Ancient Egyptian botanical symbolism, Blake’s Jerusalem, and the birth of the Victorian fairy.

Still, Crane’s work sounds like it may be an interesting start on an Asimov-style psychohistory of the past, and something which might one day also be applied to outlining the near-future. How might that work? Well, we might be able to formulate some hard ‘laws of ideas’ and attach probabilities to how well these will propagate if the conditions remain stable. If we can spot a similar idea and its native conditions in the present, we may then be able to project that idea’s development into the future with a greatly increased certainty about its trajectories and likely collision-points with other ideas.

The problem with such approaches, as the great Asimov suggested for psychohistory, is that it only works if it’s secret. One its rules are public, many will try to ‘game the system’ for their own advantage.