I love reading science fiction that evokes a believable and complete world, a world that I can imagine coming into being. Tobias S. Buckell’s two recent science-fiction thrillers created an utterly plausible future where the arctic is no longer frozen, where the Caribbean is a player as well as a place where players go, and where string after string of heavy weather is survived with aplomb by the ultra-rich who attend hurricane parties.
Arctic Rising is a fast-paced thriller with a pretty fascinating female protagonist. I loved it. Hurricane Fever follows it. However, the books are loosely coupled – they can be read in either order. They tell different stories, which are linked by one character, and by the shared world that all of the characters inhabit.
These books belong on the shelves of futurists who are interested in a world we are barreling toward, and by those who love James Bond and want to read about that kind of character operating in a less well-heeled part of the world.
I’ve been off discussing the future at the World Future Society this month. It’s a topic I engage in fairly regularly online and other places. This is the most important conversation we can have a society. Perhaps telling your family that you love them or walking your dog and chatting with neighbors is more important on some daily soul-building level. But I believe that dinner and water cooler and political conversations should be at least partly consumed by the tsunami of change we’re riding. Yet, I’m amazed at how often I am finding mistaken thinking or lack of thought around our future (including, I’m sure, in myself). I hear us carrying our own false knowledge forward or falling into sound-bite land. When I catch myself doing this, its usually because I haven’t taken time to stop, talk, and think.
We’re living in a decade when the rate of change is increasing quickly, and as we climb the curves of this change, the things we know become outdated really fast. Things we “know” become untrue a few years after they were the best truth we had available. For example, I was just talking to a friend about desalination, and she mentioned that it was very difficult to figure out what to do with the extra salt. I did some research and in fact, the leftover brine has been (and in some cases is) a problem. But plants in Tampa have figured out how to return it to the ocean safely, and others have suggested ways to perhaps use that salt on roads in the winter. This is a rather pedestrian example, but in many cases things that were problems have been turned to opportunity, or had acceptable workarounds created for them. It’s important to assume our knowledge at any given point is wrong, and to go proof it. The knowledge we thought we owned may no longer be true. It’s not new math, it’s a new world.
We spend a lot of time on the Internet, which means we’re bombarded by misinformation constantly. Depending on where we spend that time, the signal to noise ratio can be pretty awful. I’ve always tried to avoid commercial television because the commercials are created by people who spend a lot of money (a LOT of money) to influence my thinking. There’s no reason to assume I’m immune to that. The Internet appears to have MORE advertising than a typical half-hour TV show used to have. So it’s even more dangerous. Add the polarized political atmosphere and corporate money flowing into politics like an engorged river of lies, and we probably intake more junk than real information. Let’s take a non-pedestrian example this time. People have conflated a single company’s business practices (much of which I disagree with, but which aren’t actually as evil as they’re made out to be) with a whole technology, and have turned GMO foods and animals into evil, no matter who created them or for what. Yet we’re almost certainly going to need this tool in the fast-changing adjustable climate-dominated world of tomorrow. The vitriol, hover, is so thick that it’s nearly impossible to have a rational conversation even in places where the audience is generally rational and thoughtful. On the internet, lies abound, and truths get picked up and exaggerated until they become lies.
Knowledge itself is changing and lies are regularly presented to as facts. There isn’t much we can do about that – it’s an external reality. But we can stop and think and talk. We can take quiet meditative time. We can make ourselves read whole essays and articles instead of skimming them for titles. I started this post yesterday, partly in reaction to a sound-bite of mine which has been getting retweeted (“What we grow up knowing and what we will die knowing will be different.”) Yesterday morning, I read an excellent essay in the New York Times, “No Time to Think,” by Kate Murphy. She did a nice job of expanding on something that disturbs me. Often it feels like I get up, give myself half an hour to read or FaceBook over coffee, and then I’m off and running with no real stops until I pass out for the night. On a good day, I get in an hour of dog walking, which is good thinking time. Many days, even that is rushed.
The best thing we can do for the the future is to spend some time with it, either in quiet contemplation or in thoughtful conversation. We have big problems to solve, and running around distracted by someone else’s soundbites isn’t going to solve them. Stopping and thinking clearly is more likely to help.
This sharp, shocking book covers the anthropocene extinction. Kolbert neither flinches nor reprimands, which creates a very powerful read. I read her “Field Notes form a Catastrophe” years ago (and heard her talk out here somewhere – maybe at Town Hall?) and that book helped to convince me that climate change is happening faster than any of our models suggest. The sixth Extinction convinced me that extinctions are happening even faster than I thought, and helped me understand the varying nuances of the primary cause, which is, of course, us.
Kolbert gives us information she has been gathering in the field through a series of short and readable vignettes. These stories are then surrounded and peppered with additional information, creating good readability. I’m often a bit tired and stressed with all of the hats I wear, and it’s become rare for me to find non-fiction that keeps me flipping pages and reading “one more chapter.”
I highly recommend this book to my futurist and science fiction writing friends, as well a the animal lovers I know. Or really, any humans. :)
Somewhere around a dozen years ago, I was sitting in a bar in Eastern Washington. It could have been Lake Chelan or Yakima. I really don’t remember. But I do remember meeting two cowboys. Real cowboys (we still have them in the west). They weren’t talking about herds of cows over their beers. They were talking about fires. I still remember the older of the two describing a fire he’d worked the previous season where the ground had been torched so thoroughly and with so much heat that the the grass wouldn’t re-seed. They explained to me how they had to bring in bales of hay and scatter the hay across acres and acres of seared ground in order to restore the badly-needed grass. Without it, the burnt hills would have washed away during the winter.
I asked him why that fire was so bad.
Now, recall that this man is not a Seattle-area liberal. He’s wearing jeans worn smooth by saddle-leather on the inside of the thighs, he’s chewing tobacco, and if he doesn’t have a gun on him, he almost certainly has one in his truck. He says, “It’s climate change.”
At this point, I was just becoming interested in the topic, and I wanted to know how he came to that conclusion.
“Why, it’s pine beetles. Now that the winters are warmer, they’ve taken to infesting trees that they didn’t used to bother. The trees die, and a forest of dead trees makes a hot fire.”
How did he know it was about climate change? He’d spent every year working the same large farm. He knew change when he saw it, and he knew the difference between a bad year and change that settles in and stays.
I suppose part of why I remember that conversation so clearly is because my son is a wildland firefighter. A fire hot enough to sear the seed from the ground is frightening. It could sear people easily, and take houses and farms.
Multiple recent studies have backed up the cowboys’ story. A Seattle Times article from May of this year reported on the National Climate Assessment. The article said, “Warmer and drier conditions are already blamed for insect infestations and an increase in the number and ferocity of wildfires across the West since the 1970s. By 2080, the amount of forestland that burns every year in the Northwest is expected to quadruple, to 2 million acres.” Just last month, the Governor of California, Jerry Brown, suggested that the extreme wildfires that his state has experienced recently are caused by climate change. In 2013, Super-hot fires raced through Tasmania and New South Wales, Australia, fueled by the hottest and longest heat wave on record. Valparaiso, Chile, was almost completely razed by wind-whipped forest fire earlier this year.
Climate change is not the only cause of fire activity. Many ecosystems such as our own in the Pacific Northwest, and California chaparral, benefit from regular fires. The cycle of burn/renewal can be disrupted when we fight wildfire so effectively that fuel builds up. Conscious fire management is going to be very important as we work toward a sustainable world.
Fire has always been with us, and without it much of modern human life might not have been possible. Our close relationship with fire has not historically extended to wildfire, but in the more controlled and gardened world of our future we may have to become masters of wildfire, both to adopt healthy wildfire as our friend and to mange the incidence of fire so hot that the seeds are seared from the soil.
As always, here are some links:
The World Future Society took a short parable of mine as an article for The Futurist Magazine. It was an interesting process to create it – they asked for what I interpreted as a more serious article, but this is what wanted to come out and play. I usually have more control of the tone of my writing than this, but they must have liked it since it showed up in their magazine and on their website. It may morph into the beginning of the Backing into Eden book which I hope to get to right after I finish Edge of Dark (my next novel).
I often do book recommendations. Seemed like time for a bit of a travel recommendation. This one is especially for science fiction writers and fans. The World Future Society’s annual meeting this year is themed “What if?” – a core question for science fiction fans, and certainly the starting question for many science fiction books and stories.
I’ve been helping them some with organizing the a science fiction symposium within the convention, and the speakers are fabulous.
In addition to the symposium, many of us will also be speaking in the other tracks of the conference. I’ll be there talking about my Backing into Eden concept blog, with a particular focus on ethics and GM animals.
So what happens when a techno-philospher, a volcano surfer, and a CIO walk into a bar…come to the World Future Society Science Fiction Symposium and you might just find out.
The conference is in Orlando in July, and registration is open. There’s even a discount if you sign up by the end of April. Join me for some of the best conversations of the year.
I live in Washington State, and all the news for the last two weeks has been the unthinkable Oso mudslide. Slides are not unusual here, although I have never heard of one with this much destructive force. It got me reflecting about the relationship between earth and water.
The desert near my parent’s home in Mesa, Arizona can do well with very little water while parched farmland turns into a spiderweb of empty cracks with the same amount of rainfall.
As the climate changes, soil changes. When the balance transforms dramatically, we can get flood or drought, and the soil – described by the World Wildlife foundation as, “the fragile skin of the Earth,” can change consistency or place and richness. It can become incapable of sustaining the same life that it was once in balance with.
Soil is complex. It’s made of eroded rocks, silt, sand, dead plants, living organisms, water and air. Soil composition varies from place to place, but always the basic elements are in a dance and the points of balance matter.
This series is about gardening the Earth, and if there is anything gardeners know, it’s to tend to the soil.
The US Department of Natural Resources suggests that we change our way of thinking, and begin to treat soil as an organism, that we imagine it as something that can experience health and disease, as something that can be nurtured. Something living. This is directly in line with the concept of humans as caretakers of the environment. So let’s explore some ways to do that:
Soil is critical. So is learning more about the world we walk on. Doing research for this blog series and general research on fracking, I’ve learned that there are living organisms far below the surface, some as far as two miles below the surface. We know almost nothing about these organisms, but to me they seem to be yet more proof of the tenacity of life. Perhaps they are the type of life that we will find on Mars some day, or even living on the moon. Perhaps they perform functions we need in order to have the right balance in the soil on the slopes above our houses.
Climate change management is about the air that we breathe, but it’s also about water and land, about the soil on which we walk and on which we depend for food. It’s about the earth we live on, and the land that we don’t want to have thundering down onto our heads and turning our houses to splinters.
Every year, we science fiction fans are given the opportunity to vote on a host city for a future World Science Fiction convention. This year, the vote will be between Kansas City and Shanghai. I’m certain that I’ll be voting for Kansas City. I’d LOVE to see the Great Wall, but I’ve seen pictures of the air in China lately, and my instincts suggest I may not want to take the health risks associated with a visit. I’ve read that some of China’s elite are leaving for health reasons. China is also beginning to have a hard time convincing people from western countries to work there. Other places have even worse air. A recent Guardian article wonders if Kathmandu is actually “unlivable” because of poor air quality. India is only ranked slightly ahead of Kathmandu at 174th out of 178, based on the Yale Environmental Performance Index. There are plenty of other pain points in air quality:
There’s more, but that’s enough bad news to convince almost anyone that as much as we need to pay attention to water, we also need to focus on air.
The elephant in the room is the collection of pollution that is damaging the atmosphere and leading to climate change. Carbon is the most talked about part of this elephant. Programs to reduce carbon in the atmosphere are being developed and implemented in many places, but the amount of carbon is still rising dangerously.
The problem is complex, but nonetheless there are three primary sources of air pollution. These are fossil fuel use (from coal plants to gasoline cars), deforestation, and the release of methane. If we focus on those three items, we can make a significant difference.
We can directly affect the amount of carbon released by personal transportation. “Alternative transportation” includes walking, bicycles, electric cars, subways, trains, shared cars, bus rapid transit, and more. Most have a carbon cost, but they are all better choices than gas-powered cars with single occupancy drivers.
For the coal plants, we need regulation with teeth, and to capture that carbon at the source. There is technology for that now, and we should be using it. MIT keeps a page with a list carbon capture projects worldwide, and it appears that there is a lot more planning than implementation happening at the moment. Mostly, we need to move away from coal, but to do that while maintaining a healthy economy we may need to spend a few decades in ‘capture and sequester’ phase.
Deforestation has a lot of causes. One simple way to look at it is deforestation is a result of the inability to express and move value around. The value to the world of a plot of healthy rainforest is far greater than corporation or individual farmers get from the land after they burn the forest off. But we don’t have any way to recognize that. Even though some programs are trying to do just that, in general the hungry farmer can’t use conservation to feed his or her family. This is changeable.
We’re back to another root I’m seeing. Cattle. Cattle-ranching drives a lot of the deforestation. Eating beef, of course, drives cattle-ranching. The vast water-cost of feeding cows came up in last week’s blog about water, and cattle come up again in this blog under the topic of methane. I didn’t set out to write about becoming vegetarian, but it’s beginning to look important. More on that topic in a future whole chapter.
Deforestation fills the atmosphere with black carbon, or soot. In addition to deforestation, soot is released from diesel engines, from fires (including household fireplaces and cooking fires), and from some industrial processes. Soot absorbs solar radiation, and interacts in complex ways with forces for both warming and cooling. Scientific sentiment is beginning to suggest that reduction in soot worldwide may slow global warming significantly.
In the United States, we are reducing black carbon emissions through more controls on diesel fuels and other methods. Since soot is not as persistent in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, reductions in the release of soot can have a fairly quick payoff.
Methane is another abundant greenhouse gas. There are a number of natural reasons for this, but there are also anthropogenic causes. Coal and coal plants and even natural gas production, transportation, and use release methane. And for a nearly comical source of even more methane? Cows. One more reason we should seriously consider shifting our sources of protein.
Air pollution comes from a lot of sources, and the intricacies of our atmosphere are not completely understood yet. I suspect that before we made the air dirty enough to see after the industrial revolution, humanity simply took it from granted that air was free and clean. We need to both act now on the things we do understand (it can be done; California’s air is far cleaner than it used to be) and to do a lot more basic research.
We breathe each other’s air. The wind mixes our air together and blows it across political boundaries. Chinese air affects the United States, and our air affects China. Even more than water, the same air flows across all of us, and it is up to all of us to work together to clean it up and keep it clean. Think of it as housekeeping 101.
As always, here are a few links to follow if you are interested in diving any deeper:
It seemed like I should give people a bit of an update about Google Glass, and what the experience of being a Glass Explorer has been like for me.
First, I’ve met a number of really great people through Glass. I spent the first month basically wandering alone and not seeing anyone else wearing Glass at all. Then I hooked up with Seattle Glass Explorers Artists and Developers Incubator, which meets every Friday afternoon. Because I have a day job, I can’t be there every Friday, but I’ve been there a few times, and met the core people from the incubator at a few other functions. They are really very smart and kind people. At any rate, I have some new friends and some new things to learn. These are both things I find energizing.
Second, I’ve learned that people’s reactions to Glass vary along a bell curve. The most common reaction, and the middle of the curve, is mild curiosity. For most people, Glass is just not that big a deal. They’re curious, will ask a few questions, and then the conversation moves on.
The curiosity side fades to fascination. Some people are really interested in Glass. Glass Explorers, futurists, and science fiction writers, entrepreneurs, young people in technology, and a few random others who find Glass interesting. These people want to try it on, to understand it, and in some cases are actively interested in using Glass for good. Think applications that make the world a better place or simply make things easier. After all, hands-free computing is awesome. Good for inspectors, dog trainers, health care workers, house cleaners…the list goes on.
On the other hand, the disinterest side of the bell curve fades to fear, which I find is almost always based on misunderstanding. There are people who are convinced that Glass is always on and always recording, and always being watched by some evil human being at Google. None of the above are true. In most cases, I’ve found people are willing to learn and to often change their attitude about Glass when they understand it better. Generally, this group of people does not come from the tech community, but a few times I’ve been surprised by conspiracy-theory level worries from people who really aught to know better, like DBA’s and other people with college degrees.
Best thing about Glass today? It’s lovely to be able to do some basic computing without needing my hands for much of it (Glass is not entirely hands free). Next best? The potential is amazing.
There is a certain awkwardness to Glass in many situations. Sometimes I don’t use it for days. I usually like wearing it, and I wish I had more time to learn more about it and try out more applications. Some of this awkwardness comes from the fact that Glass is still an expensive limited edition, some comes from the very idea of wearing a camera on your face (or anything electronic on your face), and some is that the user interface is still rough around the edges in spite of really good apps like the turn by turn directions.
The current conversation about Glass is really waiting for a clear sign from Google about next steps. For example, most development is small stuff since VC funding is hard to go after for a product with no release date, no cost, and no clearly communicated direction. In the meantime, I’m still out here exploring Glass and enjoying the process.
…picture credit Chad Emerson
I am always watching for excellent science fiction. I also have a particular interest in science fiction written by women, probably because that’s what I do. This year, I noticed that Anne Leckie had a Nebula nomination for her debut novel, Ancillary Justice.
Perhaps because it is a brand-new set of worlds, it was a pleasant but slow entrance. By about half-way through I found myself glued to my kindle, my first cup of morning coffee growing cold in my hand as I flipped pages quickly.
I ended up really quite impressed. It is a smart novel, full of very convincing world building and a fresh culture that is quite believable. It’s also quite well-paced and hard-hitting, full of twists and surprises and with a fabulous viewpoint character.
I’m looking forward to reading more work by Anne in the future.
I am a writer, public speaker, and a futurist. I’m interested in how new technologies might change us and our world, particularly for the better.
I’m excited about my most recent book series, a duology called “Ruby’s Song” which includes the books The Creative Fire and The Diamond Deep, both published by Pyr. I’m also doing a non-fiction blog series, Backing into Eden, which comes out roughly twice a month and explores ways to care for the world, now and in the future.