Friday, January 25, 2008

Synthetic life lives?

For avid readers of biologically-bent speculative fiction, here is some interesting news on synthetic organisms. J. Craig Venter has been at the forefront of groundbreaking bio-science for years. He's in the thick of it again.

Going first across the finish line on the genome, Venter has steadily been pushing the envelope on the keys to life. Now his team has made a breakthrough in synthetic life. Very soon we may face a world with goofy new forms of life...or even unexpectedly dangerous ones. We all remember Crichton's Jurassic Park.

It's the H.G. Wells version of synthetic life that's really freaky. Wells was way ahead of his time. He wrote The Island of Dr. Moreau at the end the 19th century. It remains one of the most chilling stories about how science can head in the wrong direction. His speculative fiction probably gave lots of future Craig Venter's their ideas.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Ice Floes: a prolific setting?

It may seem a bit counter intuitive, but life under the ice is a very likely setting for a new wave of speculative fiction. Mars has been a favorite setting for years and we had trends of meteor and subterranean settings over the past couple of decades. But there's so much fresh scientific writing about life in icy places that it's sure to catch on soon in fiction.

To wit:

Wired magazine has recently explored it

Discover has recently covered news on life origins in Antarctica

And Discover just added: "Did Life Begin in Ice" -- see its February Discover magazine article (not online yet) exploring how RNA and the chemical building blocks of life appear to actually flourish in Arctic conditions

Indeed, cold places are the next target for fiction. My first screenplay Terraform featured intelligent life being found on Europa, a Jupiter moon, and it's since been targeted as another icy place where life could form.

It's now a hot trend...the next wave to ride. If you're searching for that next exotic setting for your own speculative fiction, you might want to start someplace icy.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Musical speculation

Music hasn't played a big role in the speculative fiction classics. Writers thinking years into the future seem to have trouble imagining future musical styles. Just about every other aspect of society is taken on: marriage, technology, totalitarianism, transportation, clothing and technology...but not music.

I remember reading Vonnegut's short story Harrison Bergeron and his description of music playing and Bergeron dancing on stage. The nature of the music, however, isn't described. There is merely a mention of "grabbing the baton."

Pondering this subject, there is one obvious reason I can think of for this. Music, of all societal aspects, is the most ethereal. The feeling of society is reflected in it. Speculative fiction doesn't typically grapple with prognostications of how human sensibilities will evolve and reflect themselves through music.

On this note, I admittedly copped out when I described the music of my Darwin's Orphans protagonists as punk-hip-hop fusion. I guess since the book is set only a couple of decades into the future, I expected more of the musical mashups we hear today to continue. This may not be the case...and I consider this speculation to be one of the least imaginative in the book.

How does one effectively project where music might lead? To reflect on it, I popped the iPod earbuds in and called up some tunes. Going back a few decades, I selected Someone Saved My Life Tonight by Elton John. It was a meaningful selection for context. I remember the kid down the street getting Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy on vinyl and cranking it up on his mom's console hi-fi stereo. This was 1975 and listening to it again reminded me of the big collars on shirts, a confusing social feeling after Nixon's demise and the local teacher's strike.

But what about the music itself? Big piano sound and the drum arrangement contributing to a heavy dramatic build. Hmm, could I have realistically forecasted the likes of Nirvana or Kid Rock back then? And are these styles really all that different? A tough subject for speculation.

I guess it's just as well that speculative fiction writers leave music alone. Thankfully, it defies the imagination. It is pure. I am thankful.

Monday, January 14, 2008

An essay on speculative fiction

I read this conscientious essay on speculative fiction and the literary establishment and thought it worthy of calling attention to it. Mr Sanford has done a good job of bringing the literary facts to light on critical commentary.

A few acknowledgements included in his essay mirror my published views. Most prominently, he agrees that Cormac McCarthy has written in the speculative fiction vein and gotten appropriate critical attention. However, most critics seem to fail to give credence to other speculative fiction writers in the process. It's as if McCarthy is an island in the sea of fiction.

To address this issue, Mr. Sanford writes: "What lovers of great speculative fiction must do now is simple: When deserving literary novels like The Road employ speculative fiction themes and tropes, praise the novels. If the novels are not deserving, condemn them. Either way, readers and critics should make sure to point out the previous works of speculative fiction upon which the novels built."

Proudly, although I'm not a critic...but a participating writer with an opinion, I have praised McCarthy's work as Sanford suggests up to a point. My failing was the final suggestion he makes. You'll find lots of historical speculative fiction comparisons in the contents of this blog. I should have employed more in my praises of McCarthy.

Personally, I pledge to strive to continually praise deserving works of speculative fiction. Hopefully, others will also take Sanford's advice and do the same.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Transportation speculation

One recent 2008 trend tied to speculative fiction is the future of the automobile. There have been plenty of books and movies featuring designs and technologies for future personalized transportation. However, the automotive science world has been hot lately in publications.

Wired magazine is full of stories this month for example. They talk about the Smart car and changing face of the SUV. The best article from a future perspective is The Race to Build the 100-MPG Car which is centered around the X-Prize. There is a car company named Aptera which has a pretty wild looking model...definitely looks futuristic.

The Wall Street Journal also recently published this article about future car technologies. Their focus, however, is not on fuel efficiency but automated driving technologies. Tearing a page from Lexus' parallel parking car, GM is seeking to build a self-driving automobile.

This is fascinating stuff. In my speculative fiction book Darwin's Orphans, I featured a car that automatically stopped when a dog jumped across the driver's path. Personally, I'd like to take drives out in the country at twilight without fearing a deer will leap out in front of me. A little radar to detect such things and initiate instant reactions would be a really cool feature. I'm not, however, looking forward to a car driving entirely. Sometimes it's actually fun to be behind the wheel.

Monday, January 07, 2008

20 Things from Discover

There is a sweet section in Discover magazine on the last page called "20 Things You Didn't Know About..." You can check out a bunch of them here. They may not pertain much to speculative fiction but check out next month's edition. In hardcopy, the February edition is already out to subscribers.

The theme in this edition is "20 Things You Didn't Know About Science Fiction" and it's got some entertaining nuggets:

  • Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 features Pan Am shuttles to the moon
  • In real life, Pan Am wrote up their waiting list following the book's release which included Ronald Reagan and Walter Cronkite
  • Isaac Asimov wrote about interstellar flight but refused to board an airplane
  • Ray Bradbury, one of SF's greatest living legends, avoids computers, ATM's and has never driven a car.

Thanks Discover for these fascinating factoids. Hopefully, for the non-subscribers, this 20 Things list will be posted soon on the Web.