Thursday, August 30, 2007

Computing Brainiacs

In posts like this one over the past year, lots of emerging developments point to a fast track in brain-computer hook ups in the near future. Most of what's written on the subject refer to aiding those with disabilities. However, I think business will likely drive it in another direction.

Aside from business interests, however, this is good stuff for speculative fiction. I remember a flashy James Cameron story and movie called Strange Days that used a skull cap to wire you into a computer -- a similar kind of technical link up. Lots of intrigue can be imagined out of such computer-to-brain oriented technologies.

My biggest concern from the business world is the marketing potential. Spammers have proven how resilient tenacious marketers can be with linked up information. Imagine if you could hack into someone's brain. You'd know literally everything about their psychographics: what they like, their hidden obsessions, their personal weaknesses. If these personal artifacts ever got exploited by corporate America, the targeted selling could bankrupt such an unfortunate person.

Let's hope, on this note, that we maintain a modicum of common sense as these brain-computer hardwiring technologies get considered for the mainstream. In the hands of the greedy -- and you know who you are -- it could be a nasty thing.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Fictional future sports

With a new football season on the brink, it makes this speculative fiction writer ponder the various sports ideas imagined for future worlds.

The wildest idea that I've read recently is Centrifugal Bumble-puppy in Huxley's Brave New World. The game is described as: "A ball thrown up as to land on a platform at the top of a tower rolled down into the interior, fell on a rapidly revolving disk, was hurled through one or other of the numerous apertures pierced in the cylindrical casing, and had to be caught." Sounds like a mix of batting cages combined with a carnival game.

Huxley also has more sporting fun in the form of obstacle golf. These ideas of his were quite amusing...and they differ quite a bit from my take on sports of the future.

In my book, Darwin's Orphans, I reflect on the future of sports here and there...but more from various practical perspectives. Over recent decades, one interesting aspect that's been changing rapidly is television coverage. In football, for example, there were no cameras draped over the field roughly a decade ago, nor was there a yellow line superimposed on the screen indicating the first down marker. I also explore the television coverage of the Olympics in my book...there have been huge strides in coverage over the past few decades. There is likely to be much more in coming decades as well with such a broad spectrum of sports.

With regards to football itself, I muse on the likelihood of another great quarterback coming from the cradle of great professional quarterbacks: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Rather dry stuff but still interesting to some enthusiasts. By comparison, Huxley reminds one that a speculative fiction writer can have lots more fun with the less practical aspects. Centrifugal Bumble-puppy sounds like a hoot...I wonder what the television coverage would be like?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Arthur C. Clarke's sat-com future realized

In this post yesterday, Earth Times assesses future plans for satellite communications. Mirroring Arhtur C. Clarke's vision of 1945, a new European Commission is mapping out plans for MSS (Mobile Satellite Services) to expand them into a much broader usage.

The problem today impeding expansion is licensing. This EU commission is taking on this challenge in hopes of expanding the service range of satellites. You can read the article to get further details but what might this mean to you?

Imagine a world where you don't have to check that cell tower map when you travel to the hinterlands. With satellite phone communications, you wouldn't have to worry about such matters...a line of sight to the proper spot in the sky and you'd be all set...wherever you are. It would be life-enriching to be sure but it sounds like an economic conundrum for the time being.

Hopefully, we'll see a broad realization of Clarke's satellite communications vision. It's going to take some deft problem solvers to get us there.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Biotech in a Brave New World

Living in today’s world of Viagra, Ambien and other drugs designed to enhance our living conditions, reading Aldous Huxley’s future scenario in Brave New World sounds a bit familiar today. His main drug featured in the book, soma, is the most common tool used by the citizenry to feel good. But Huxley takes overall medicine and biotech predictions in the book quite far.

Looking through the eyes of 1932, Huxley prognosticated on three fronts: genetic engineering, intensive human conditioning, and drug development. With these three tools, society’s leaders in the book are able to shape the population and control it by keeping people “happy.”

The first thing the author presents to the reader is a bioengineering laboratory. Huxley makes good use of mechanical and sound effect descriptions as we tour a plant with some children. As we learn about the process of producing different types of people – the swiftest and most beautiful are “alphas” and the menial grunts are the “epsilons” – Huxley makes sure you get a nice dose of supporting philosophy along the way. Through exploring this plant, we are able to understand the reasons for such a place to exist and the goals of the men who run it. All of this is written in a light tone with plenty of humorous reactions from the children.

Beyond the genetically engineered humans themselves, we next hear about how they are intensely conditioned through their upbringing. The youth are never attached to a parent but grow up in groups together. During their sleep, they hear phrases uttered continuously to program their beliefs. It’s a bit like The Manchurian Candidate only on a broad scale and with complete buy in from the entire public. We learn that the conditioning is relatively effective but that anomalies will crop up here and there. It’s not foolproof but gets the job done.

Finally, there are drugs to control births, certain desires and, of course, soma to make everyone feel good. There is a dose for every occasion and plenty of rituals to go along with it. The orgy-porgy gatherings are particularly scandalous and are one of the ways society mixes the drugs with group activities. Later in the book, we learn how soma can also be used to gradually slip away from life. When a person gets on in years, they can medicate more and more until they pass away in their blissful state. Soma gets more of the drug attention in the book than other mentioned medication but it’s seemingly engineered to manage many conditions. Today’s pharmaceutical companies compete in an environment where differentiating drugs has a huge marketing advantage. Perhaps if today’s government supported production of a drug like soma like it does in Huxley’s future world, we’d probably have such a thing available to the masses.

Fortunately, our government is not yet pushing a panacea on us to keep us quiet. Let’s hope this never happens. All of the human bioengineering seems like it could realistically happen very soon with the many rapid strides in DNA discoveries. Again, let’s hope this stays under control and we’re never forced to have children become a certain programmed type or alpha or beta based on a lottery or social standing. Much of what Huxley predicted could realistically happen with today’s technologies or those that are literally on the brink of discovery. My sense is that we’re all watching closely and don’t want clones running around or T-Rex’s coming to life. With any luck, we’ll keep it that way.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Huxley's nuclear family explosion

Good bye, oh nuclear family, you are no more. That's the bottom line of future society in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

Banishment of family and redefined personal priorities allowing for more societal control seems like the deepest concept that sets Brave New World apart from other contemporary speculative fiction of his era. Aldous Huxley’s vision describes how leaders could remove society’s combative impulses by making monogamy and personal attachment to others a thing of the past. By tying aggression to personal desire, Huxley describes a key aspect of society that leaders could seek to control for peaceful conditions to exist.

The world leader in the novel, Mustapha Mond (appropriately named!), explains how happiness and peace are achieved through drugs and removal of impulses to possess one another. It’s an interesting concept that flies in the face of today’s norm. However, in a truly academic way, it’s a fact that if we were conditioned not to get attached to personal goals or people we’d likely exist quite passively.

This heavy concept drives the central drama of the story. The protagonist (which takes a number of chapters to appear by the way) struggles with his old world beliefs in this new era. As we do today, this character still values personal attachment to a special person – seeks true love and needs to be punished for unchaste ways. He challenges the world leader to explain how they can live like they do without love or attachment. Expounding on social control reasoning, Mustapha Mond has practical reasons for him on every aspect of life in his Brave New World.

Clearly Aldous Huxley had spent years contemplating society, its drives and the challenges they present to leadership. He shines in setting up a comprehensive social control scenario. This meticulous "solution" to the problem of social control makes his novel a joy as he leaves no questions on the table. It's a scary proposition, yes, but one that makes you think and alert to what's happening in our world today.

Brave New Mode

Huxley’s fashion sense lit up Brave New World. Catchy phrases that everyone used, clothing styles that made a statement, vacations that were en vogue…the world of the future reflected on the roaring twenties and the sensibilities of The Great Gatsby were projected hundreds of years forward.

Again using our incisively clear hindsight, we can see where Huxley was going with fashion. New materials were being produced in Huxley’s time and his future clothing would don many of the trendiest accoutrements of the day in clever implementations. Zippers were everywhere in his Brave New World and this is understandable. They were extant during his time but hardly commonplace…especially beyond the dress back or trouser fly. In Huxley’s vision, you’d see them up the sides of short-shorts and on various other garment locations that were uncommon in his time. There was no way to know when the book came out in 1932 that the eighties would produce the parachute pant with its cleverly placed lengthwise zippers up the entire outer leg.

Beyond the many fashion predictions, Aldous Huxley saw a new set of hip words emerging in his future world. The new descriptor for the well-shaped female form: pneumatic. Works for me…airy, hmm, yes inflated in all the right places…I see what Huxley intended with this one. Aside from pneumatic, he also had a vast set of new terms and initials. With all of the science in place to shape society, there are for more lettered terms than I can retell here. Some were for medicines, others for conditioning treatments, and social status took the form of alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon with a plus or minus tacked on for more refined definitions. In our computer age, Huxley’s foresight has come to be and we live now in that age of abbreviations, acronyms and initials.

Finally, there is always the vacation fashion of the era. Most recently, we’re all going off to a "time share." In the twenties it was the hippest vacation liner. Huxley noticed society's vacation fashion sense and employed discussions of trips to the desert, for example, to see Savages as an edgy option for vacationers. It’s an esoteric aspect of society that he comments upon reflecting on a trend of his own time. I’ve noticed the varying fashionable vacation shifts in my two-score-plus years but I always assumed it to be part of the fast-changing era in which I live. Not so…patently wrong. These trendy vacation shifts were obviously swooshing around society through Huxley’s years as well.

There are a plethora of fashion statements in Brave New World. I’m just scratching the surface here. If you like social commentary, then this is indeed the book for you.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Huxley's Brave New World

The subject matter of this blog has wandered as news and events have unfolded to date. However, I just read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – it’s been 25 years since I first read it. Needless to say, a classic in speculative fiction will change for the reader as the reader changes over time. I got so much more out of it this time around…not because I’ve now written my own speculative fiction novel but due to what I’ve learned in 25 years.

On this note, it’s time for back-to-back entries on Huxley’s opus. So many subjects came to mind deserving their own entry that you’ll notice a trend in coming days. When I’ve exhausted the bubbling observations such a rich book brings, expect a return to the usual Darwin’s Orphans blog format. So, here goes the first of many…

Although it’s true that Jules Verne and H.G. Wells wrote rich works of speculative fiction prior to the past century, so did Nostradamus. All pioneering spirit aside, I must confess that the big futurists of the 20th century captured my attention like no others. There are the greats of Asimov and Vonnegut, yes, but before they really took off there was my favorite trio: Huxley, Rand and Orwell. This is, incidentally, a chronological order with regard to key speculative works in their respective careers.

Huxley published Brave New World in 1932, four years after Point Counter Point – another speculative fiction work. I’ve heard stories from grandparents and other octogenarians about their childhood in this era. There were electric lights, aviation was a new part of life, electrical devices were growing in number and becoming more commonplace -- but where it would all lead was anybody’s guess. And social trends during the great depression was a hot topic.

Huxley wrangled the future with an eye to 600 years ahead. Many of his future state predictions occurred in their own way much earlier than predicted. His rocket planes in the book are a bit faster than today’s supersonic transports but not much. He had a slower expectation of travel progress than we’ve seen but it’s enjoyable to read his descriptions of future transportation.

But as far as other writers of the era are concerned, it makes one think about Ayn Rand and George Orwell and Huxley's influence on them. Did they get some ideas of their own for speculative fiction from him? I’m sure they at least started to ponder similar concepts when they read his take on the future. Rand published Anthem in 1938 describing her work as “like the preliminary sketches that artists draw before their first big canvases." This was six years after Brave New World. She went on to write her more known works after Anthem. Personally, I liked the “preliminary sketch” the best of all.

Following Rand came Orwell and 1984. Published in 1949, it followed the anti-Stalinist writing trend that Orwell had well established. Prior to 1984, Orwell had written Animal Farm in 1944 which was his most well known work at that date but was fantasy infused social statement far more than it was speculative fiction. Looking back at his recent predecessors, one could easily guess that the futuristic musings of Orwell were infused by recent works of Huxley…at least that’s my take on it. Feel free to share yours here.