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.

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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.

Pessimism and a false scientific orthodoxy of the 1890s

H. G. Wells in 1931, remembering the way that a false scientific consensus be-numbed and hobbled the optimism of the late Victorians and early Edwardians, and indeed the world…

“… the geologists and astronomers of that time told us dreadful lies about the “inevitable” freezing up of the world — and of life and mankind with it. There was no escape it seemed. The whole game of life would be over in a million years or less. They impressed this upon us with the full weight of their authority, while now Sir James Jeans in his smiling [book] Universe Around Us waves us on to millions of millions of years. Given as much as that man will be able to do anything and go anywhere, and the only trace of pessimism left in the human prospect today is a faint flavour of regret that one was born so soon.”

This is from his 1931 preface to a new edition of his famous book The Time Machine (1895). Wells refers to the claim that the Sun only had a limited store of material to burn, and must inevitably cool as it used this up before a million years had gone by — and with it the Earth was also forever cooling.

Here is the Wells of 1894, noting the consensus of the day…

“On the supposition, accepted by all scientific men, that the earth is undergoing a steady process of cooling …” (“Another Basis for Life”, Saturday Review, 22nd December 1894).

New book – Arkwright

Allen Steele, Arkwright and the art of keeping the ‘golden’ spirit of sci-fi alive

I personally thoroughly enjoyed Arkwright – a novel about a science fiction writer, containing science fiction history from an age gone past, that tries to remind us what science fiction is capable of and can do as a genre. Arkwright is a book that wears its optimism on its sleeve. In an age when dystopias are ‘in’, this is required, I feel… a book that evokes a sense of wonder and hope.

The author Allen Steele grants the journalist a very short interview…

“I had a certain sense of purpose in writing Arkwright in that I’m tired of dystopian SF, particularly the sort that poses no solutions but just turns the demise of human civilization into a form of entertainment. If the end of the world comes, I promise you that it won’t be just like a movie or a game.”

For some reason the Kindle ereader version of this book does not appear via search on Amazon USA or UK. But going in through Google Search reveals the missing Kindle edition for the USA and UK (unavailable).

Going into Amazon.com with a USA VPN turned on (a free feature in the Opera browser) reveals that the title is available to USA readers as a Kindle ebook, so presumably the lack of a Kindle edition in the UK is not as as result of the author being an Amazon-hater. My guess is then that, since the novel is about an author, it probably quotes snippets of pulp sci-fi texts which are public-domain in the USA but which are still caught up in the foul nets of copyright in the UK and Europe. Amazon’s Kindle platform is hyper-sensitive to that.

Update, August: looks like they just released an audiobook version!

Creativity training for all?

A recent interview with Alan Moore caught my eye, “Alan Moore on Science, Imagination, Language and Spirits of Place”. Moore’s politics may be lumpen and wrong-headed, but much else he says makes good sense…

“Yes, when I was a child, comics and books dealing with fantasy or mythology were incredibly stimulating, but I think that has to be seen in a context of what was, for me, a far greater stimulus to the imagination, this being my otherwise complete lack of imaginative stimuli. What I’m talking about here is leaving some un-colonised space for a child’s imagination to grow into, rather than rushing in to fill that space with an insatiable desire to flog as much merchandise as possible to a malleable audience of trend-conscious juveniles.

As an illustration, when I was around seven years old and first discovering American superhero comics, I would have probably given just about anything for a set of, say, Justice League of America toy soldiers. However, such things didn’t exist in 1960, and even if they had existed, my family would not have been able to afford them. Thus, if I wanted to play with a team of toy superheroes I had to invent one myself from the motley assortment of mismatched toy soldiers, cowboys, Indians and Trojan warriors that I already possessed. This required a certain amount of ingenious re-purposing: an Indian Chief-type figure became a time-travelling medicine man with magical powers. A seven-inch tall American G.I, probably from a non-regulation set of soldiers I’d acquired somewhere, was obviously a superhuman giant, and by the same logic those tiny little Airfix military [kit] figures that used to be available could be pressed into service as heroes with shrinking abilities. A plastic Robin Hood give-away figure from a box of cereal became one of the ubiquitous masked archers familiar from my superhero reading, and as I recall the green plastic robot figure from an arcane general knowledge novelty board game – The Magic Robot – was re-cast as a more science-fiction oriented non-magical robot, possibly with a human brain. As a headquarters, I customised and decorated a cardboard shoebox, and as a principal villain I took an unpleasant bruise-coloured lump of merged and forgotten Plasticine discovered down the back of the settee, and re-imagined it as an amoebic shape-shifting alien monster from another planet, capable of engulfing my heroes and thereby somehow stealing their powers. My point is that, lacking a ready-made set of Justice League of America toys, I had to exercise my imagination by creating characters and situations of my own. Whereas I fear that kids today, assuming they or their parents can somehow scrape the money together from somewhere, can completely satisfy any imaginative whim without having to do a stroke of (actually very enjoyable) work or exhibit any creativity of their own.

In my opinion, this has been an increasing problem throughout the closing decades of the 20th century and has only been greatly exacerbated in the opening decades of the 21st. And, if I’m right, this is only likely to get worse. By not investing in the imaginative growth of the young we would seem to be setting up a massive failure of creativity, progress and imagination for the not too distant future.”

Broadly I think that the general increase in the level of pre-made mass-media stimulation is a good thing, especially for the 30% of dull children who are not very imaginative and never will be. It provides a crutch for their disability, and must at least widen their horizons a little. Far more so than was the case a century ago in the 1920s, for instance, when their imagination might have been limited to sport and its heroes. For the other 60% — the ‘mundane middle’ children — the constant media stimulation is probably no worse now than in the 1970s. It seems most dangerous when left unregulated by “can’t say no” parents and enabled by ubiquitous access to screens at all times of the day and night. This risks adding screen-addiction and premature exposure to adult content, to the older pre-existing problem of affluent children becoming ‘spoiled’ because they are given everything they want. It appears to be a real problem, and has already affected the Millennial generation in terms of their selfishness and ‘snowflake’ qualities. One might have hoped that — along the way — they would have acquired a savvy self-starting talent for ‘media dieting’, but for many ‘binging’ young consumers that seems not to be the case.

This problem of early media saturation is probably best addressed for the current generation of children by a blanket ban on screens (including TV, expect perhaps for a twice-weekly curated set of quality cartoons) until age 8, and then a ban on phones and hand-held games until age 14. If ‘long car-travel boredom’ is a real problem, then give them noise-cancelling headphones and audiobook stories instead. A good deal of ‘free-range’ outdoors activity will probably also help matters, ideally free of nagging and fussing parents, which will mean providing kids with the ‘wilding’ skills and tools to be able to enjoy such autonomous freedom.

Beyond that 30% + 60% group, I’d suggest that what Moore is really talking about is the problem for society in any early identification of the 10% of ’emerging creative makers’. But this assumes these children can be reliably spotted as young as 8-11, by teachers and parents who are not themselves creative producers and makers. Since no sit-down test will pick up that kind of tentative recombinant ongoing emergence, expect among the 0.1% of brilliant savants (who will not need a puny test to uncover their obvious talent). Nor will a test pick up the different kinds of often very-tentative emerging clusters of creativity, such as…

* curatorial systematising
* expressive translation
* adeptness at depiction
* emotional re-shaping in media
* “what if” future-mapping
* word-wrangling

Such a test would also assume that creativity emerges at a uniform early age. When we know, from biographies of powerful creatives, that their painfully-fashioned working coherence of talents only emerged years after the expected age of 11 or 12.

There would be a risk in such early identification, if this 10% can be somehow roughly identified as an emerging ‘creative class’. The state will then feel the need to play up to parental demands and provide standardised creativity training. Such a school-based approach, being easily identified and channelled into obvious and easily-delivered niches in music, dance, acting, graphic design and the like, would probably not do much harm to children who show an aptitude for such endeavours of technique and timing. Many teachers know the type well… the ones who are creative, but who are very reluctant or unable to combine this with deep reading in books.

But such training could potentially do great damage when applied to bright ‘bookish’ kids who have not yet found an expressive talent and niche, for whom Moore is suggesting the opposite approach. Moore is really talking about the more literate 3-5% who sit within this 10% of truly creative children, those who have the potential to harness the accumulated power of language to their own vivid imagination. Those who are able to freely engage in “visioning on the vacant air” (Hardy), and who can in time harness this not only to language but also to historical consciousness and future speculation. He’s saying that we might do best to just leave this group alone, and remove from them a great deal of the fully developed pre-packaged media stimuli with its torrent of words and shoddy distractions.

I’d add: also remove the inevitable bullying of such bright imaginative kids; introduce them to others with similar interests; guide them to the best stories and then align these stories with do-able real-world short-term projects. If possible, entirely remove this 5% from the stultifying conventional school system and its mundane and often-incompetent third-rate teachers. Which may also help to reduce the possibility that a fraction of this 5% might find malign and criminal outlets for their imagination, since they would not have a chance to fall in with the ‘future criminal class’ at school.

Xprize Airlines, boarding now, destination Future

Good to hear that another science-fiction anthology is on the way. Presumably it won’t be filled with gloom and pessimism, since it’s from the outstanding Xprize organisation (.mp3 talk by the founder). They’ve partnered with All Nippon Airlines (ANA) to “imagine a bold vision of the future” via science fiction. The trailer/think-tank for that new Xprize will be the launch of a new anthology of stories set 20 years in the future. Sign-ups for that are being accepted now, by the dedicated website.

Why are nearly all sci-fi movies anti-science and/or dystopia?

“When science had no shame. Part 1: Why are nearly all sci-fi movies anti-science dystopia?” (mild plot-spoilers).

The article is welcome but starts off ranty, with pictures that look rather kooky at first glance. In combination, that’ll be enough to cause 80% of casual readers to click away, before they even scroll down. But if you do scroll down, you find there’s a moderately good tabulated list of sci-fi movies ranked for their optimism and pro-science stances. The author struggles to find any really optimistic pro-science movie, of course.