Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Life Sentence is Free This Week On Kindle

First book of our Forlani Saga series
Go to this url and download

No Kindle device needed--you can also download free app KindleforPC or KindlefoMac
to enjoy the book on your laptop or desktop.

Don't delay, only four more days


Saturday, September 15, 2018

Witajcie Polskich Przyjaciol!

Great to have new readers in Poland, the homeland of the fantastic science fiction pioneer, Stanislaw Lem.  Please let us know of any new books about space travel and other themes that are new in your part of the world.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Wow, Aussies are really weighing in!  50% as many viewers as here in the USA and helping to push our worldwide viewership above the US level!

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Happy to see new viewers logging on from Ukraine and Brazil!!

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

About Those Golden Asteroids...

     Asteroid mining is one of the current buzzwords of interplanetary capitalism.  In 2017, an asteroid estimated to hold $50 billion worth of precious metals such as gold and platinum passed about four times the distance to the Moon from Earth.  Venture gurus are already salivating at the chance to lay hands on such wealth.  US-based Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries,  as well as Britain's Asteroid Mining Corporation, have started to plot out the feasibility of reaching, capturing, and exploiting the metallic asteroids that whiz by our planet.  Of course, most asteroids are of the stony variety and offer much less attractive prospects for instant enrichment.  But Harvard astrophysicist Martin Ellis has estimated that there may be about 10 near-Earth asteroids rich enough in precious metals to invite large-scale mineral exploitation.

     The stakes are dauntingly high.  Cal Tech sources have proposed a cost of $2.5 billion to construct an asteroid-mining spacecraft, as opposed to the $1 billion cost of opening and operating a new platinum mine on Earth.  Yet there is something about the shimmer of precious metals that has always lured humans into even the most dangerous and high-risk enterprises.  The scale of imaginative greed is mind-boggling: MIT scientists have estimated that a single 500-meter asteroid could produce up to 175 times the entire Earth's annual output of platinum. In particular, the body with the designation  2011UW158 is thought by some to offer a profit of $2 billion in platinum.  Some other metallic asteroids are evaluated at over $1 trillion.

     There is supposed to be some legal framework to prevent the neighboring sections of the solar system from becoming a new Wild West.  The United Nations is mandated by treaty to make sure that space is administered fairly for the benefit of all humankind.  Yet, American courts have already handed down decisions that effectively vitiate this oversight, claiming that anything in space is the property of whatever people or corporations lay claim on it.  The USA has effectively claimed ownership of all the asteroids it can land on and is preparing to do just that.  Moreover, Trump's recent proclamation of a completely American Space Corps shows that our nation plans to militarize space, in contravention of other existing international treaties and agreements.  When ore is at stake, history shows us that even the treaties recognized by the United States mean little.  When gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota, solemnly deeded by the government to Native American tribes in remuneration for previous land-grabs, Gen. G. A. Custer quickly contrived reasons to annihilate the Sioux people.  Though he was punished at the Little Big Horn, plenty of other generals and politicians lined up to complete the scheme.  Antarctica is already a lesson in point.   Despite statutes guaranteeing its non-partisan preservation, our nation has led a slew of greedy powers rushing to stake out every inch of the continent, polluting it with nuclear reactors even as the first buildings go up.  There is no doubt that as soon as an opportunity presents itself, capitalist powers will put the solar system up for grabs with no holds barred.  

     There are more than just ethical reasons to pause and give thought to this scenario.  There is the cold, hard fact of economic history that has unrolled here on Earth already.  Within less than a decade after Spain "discovered" the New World, conquistadores began pumping out unbelievable quantities of gold and silver that startled specie-starved Europe.  Just as modern wealth accrues directly to the CEOs and stockholders, bypassing a dwindling middle class, Native American treasure, redubbed Spanish, was not the property of the Spanish people, but was personally owned by the King.  Like our current congress, he had one favorite destination for this money -- armies to allow him to conquer the world.  The USA has bases in 170 countries.  The Spanish crown was the early modern equivalent, lavishing budgets on forces that made war on the entire world.  From their throne in Madrid, the monarchs gobbled up the Holy Roman Empire, Germany, Austria, Italy, the Low Countries, the islands of the Mediterranean, the coast of North Africa and dreamed of going further still.  The waste was unprecedented in the course of time.  Yet, with all of this expense, Spain could not conquer London, Paris, Amsterdam, or Istanbul.  Where are all those armies, all those fortresses, now?

     With this in mind, one might be tempted to think that worst case scenario for asteroid mining might be the danger of universal war, but one would be wrong.  The most insidious effect of the influx of Spanish gold was not on the front lines, but behind them, in Spain itself.  It operated not by the bloody laws of war, but by the inexorable processes of wealth itself.  Between 1500 and 1600, in the heart of the siglo de oro, when Spain might have been expected to achieve paradise on Earth, its economy collapsed.  A 300% inflation in prices impoverished the majority of its inhabitants.  The tide of too much cash drove up prices for the limited products and means of life available.  Money was spent by the rich on foreign luxury goods, while Spanish businesses could not compete and folded -- perhaps an early analog to today's outsourcing.  At the same time, an instant and unshakable severe trade imbalance grew and the outflow of wealth stifled local initiative.  Bedazzled by the temptation to borrow on its seemingly limitless bonanza, the Spanish government itself became insolvent.  Between 1557 and 1596, Spain defaulted four times due to military costs and the impossibility of taxing its penniless population.  

     What would happen to our world economy if, within only a few years, Earth was flooded with many times the accumulated mass of precious metals now on the planet?  As with Spain, Earth would be in danger of seeing precious metal itself start to lose its value.  Gold would be the most critical culprit, for most of the world's major countries support the value of their currency to some degree with it.  What if the vaults of Fort Knox, dwarfed by quantities of interplanetary gold, suddenly became like Deutschmarks in the 1920's, enough to buy a handful of potatoes?  Fine, you say,  ban the gold or stock it up on Mars and we will be fine.  It is true that no existing governments are leveraged on platinum or even less flashy minerals like cobalt, magnesium, rare earths, copper, or aluminum, but a massive influx or these or other extraterrestrial materials could wreak untold havoc on markets.

     The time to start planning for a panic is before the panic happens.  To rely only on "affected industries" would be folly.  The are and will continue to be blinded by what George Soros calls the Speculative Function (seeing what you yearn to see) rather than by the Analytical Function (seeing what is).  We will need the best kinds of glasses to read into the secrets of this future, and they had better not be rose-colored.  Otherwise the Gold of the Asteroids might follow the Gold of the Indies, right into the dustbin of history.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Altered Carbon: Sleeves, Stacks, and Physical Bodies

One of the most dramatic elements of the streaming Netflix series Altered Carbon is the idea that humans could transform their consciousness from one body to another.  In this case, the modus operandi is the ability to download all biological brain functions onto a glorified dvd called a stack.  The stack is loaded or unloaded into a device implanted into the base of the brain.

People's bodies have thus come to be regarded as mere organic "sleeves," husks into which stacks can be transferred.  The bond between a personality and its corrresponding body is thus an elective and arbitrary choice, as much so as the choice of a piece of clothing.  Biology itself yields to the digital patterns it produces, which transcend physicality.  Nevertheless, the timeline acknowledges a sort of "ghost in the corpus" by admitting that restacking can involve difficult issues of body-mind adjustment, particularly in the case of warriors sent to distant planets, as we shall see below.

One of the undeveloped areas behind this universe is why everyone on Earth would be fitted with a stack device in the first place, even though only the very rich are allowed to receive new bodies when their old ones wear out, thus approaching immortality.  After all, the stacking technology is vaguely described as coming from an alien source and therefore being beyond the human imagination itself and presumably very expensive.

Added to this is the stipulation that most Roman Catholics -- apparently the only remaining organized religion in this timeline -- refuse to permit themselves to be "restacked" because of their belief in an afterlife.  However, some Catholics in the series cheat a bit on this rule under the assumption that they can access heaven anyway.   Have Buddhists, who seek to escape the karma cycle as an ultimate spiritual goal, ceased to exist?  Or Muslims, whose attitudes to the afterlife seem inherently opposed to resleeving?  Or have Hindus, who seek reincarnation into a higher lifeform, opted for a do-it-yourself approach?

One could argue that the dystopian future government, the Protectorate, enforced a universal stacking law to this effect.    Yet the influence of the Protectorate seems to be rather vestigial, inasmuch as much of the power and authority has been transferred to monster-sized private businesses that do not hesitate to put organizations like the police into their subordinate places at any opportunity.  Moreover, such an ordinance would seem to be egregiously inefficient for two reasons.  First of all, the many-bodied, quasi-immortal Methusalehs, or Meths, are only a small fraction of the population and would need only a limited supply of very perfect bodies to replace their used ones.  Beyond that, there would be little need for "stacking" the consciousness of the vast majority of humanity, which is destined to be worthless and totally fungible, given Earth's state of overpopulation and general misery.  Why go through the expense of storing and preserving the lives of billions of individuals when they would only be thrown away like old video cassettes from Blockbuster?

The creators of the series mitigate this somewhat by postulating that ordinary folks could rent another sleeve for special occasions.  Detective Ortega's abuela avails herself of this fancy to celebrate the dia de muertos before she dies, choosing the body of a burly male biker.  It is unclear when or how the stack of the biker was able to recuperate his body and get reloaded into it, if ever.  It stretches the imagination to believe that, in such a disorganized and corrupt society, some kind of stack bank would keep track of these transfers and enforce the integrity of a system of exchange.   Nor is it understandable where the profit for average people would lie within such a system.

This question of the disposition of bodies is further complicated by the existence of cloning.  Only the most wealthy members of the Protectorate system seem to be able to afford successful cloning, which for some reason must be more difficult than massive stacking and restacking, though this seems counterintuitive in some ways. After all, limited cloning technology already exists and requires only a supply of hosts to bring the cloned child to fruition.  This would not seem to be an insurmountable obstacle in a society where commoners' lives are cheap.  Perhaps the problem arises when one assumes that the clones can be produced in fully adult, stack-ready forms that presumably would then be fitted with a stacking device.  The paradox of what to do with the innate digital component of a clone's biological brain is sidestepped.

The universe of Altered Carbon would then have to contend ultimately with the dilemma raised in the Peter Graves movie Parts: The Clonus Horror.  In this somewhat naive film, eminent people have clones produced by a secret institute that accelerates their growth from embryo to adult.  Eventually, at physical maturity, the clone is terminated and put on ice to serve as an organ bank for the owner.  The brain-death of the clone is not an issue, as many of them are lobotomized prior to termination if they grow too inquisitive.  However, one inquisitive clone who escapes and discovers the truth of his existence is enough to put the whole system and institute in jeopardy.  Would clones in Altered Carbon be lobotomized somehow before being restacked?  Could this be done without impairing the functioning of the digital individual stored in the stack?  It certainly poses a sticky issue for the timeline.

It is interesting that Altered Carbon sometimes falls into a trickier continuity problem as it seeks to solve or avoid some of the most time-tested science fiction conundrums.  For instance, though the series postulates interstellar travel and warfare, it avoids the speed-of-light barrier by simply proposing an alternative.  In this timeline, bodies cannot be moved from system to system in a timely way, but stacks can, through light-speed digital transmissions called needles.  This allows for specially trained interstellar warriors called envoys to be transmitted to waiting sleeves on other worlds.  The main character in the series, Takeshi Kovacs, is such an envoy, the last remaining after his cohort is suppressed for a dimly motivated rebellion against the Protectorate.  Besides the motive for the uprising, numerous nagging inconsistencies present themselves.  Is Kovacs's body, presumably a Eurasian, also a Eurasian on various distant worlds?  It would seem strange to have a "library" of sleeves at each battle station getting stale while waiting for a needled stack to flash in.  Furthermore, Takeshi is given a Caucasian cop's body when he is reanimated on Earth to solve an industrialist Mech's murder.  Surely Earth, of all places, would seem to have an adequte "body library" to allow for a more practical match-up.

This begs another question: what protocols govern the preservation of "ordinary" sleeves obtained from body-dead humans?  Why not simply substitute uniformly cloned receptor bodies?  This would seem an obvious result of any economy of scale in the stacking process.  If it appears redundant and pointless to preserve and archive all digital personalities in the form of stacks, would it not be even less efficient to do so with "unoccupied" physical bodies of every type and description?  Given the totalitarian nature of the Protectorate, would not the alternative of eugenics be a more likely solution to many of these situations?

The terrific appeal of Altered Carbon lies perhaps in its ability to present its timeline in the genial form of film noir, complete with a convoluted plot worthy of Raymond Chandler.  This invites the viewer inside the bodies and minds of Kovacs and Ortega so quickly and seamlessly that we do not pause to consider the thornier technical issues.  Vicarious substitution is far easier here than in earlier digital mind transfer scenarios such as Overdrawn at the Memory Bank or even the Matrix line of films.  Overdrawn even hints at this without realizing it, since protagonist Aram Fingal works through his struggles with his displaced consciousness in the form of adventures grafted from Casablanca.  On the other hand, a film like Total Recall could raise analogous quibbles, did it not move so quickly from one blast to another.  There is even a metatextual ending to the action, as Quaid and Melina muse over whether their recent adventure was truly real, or just another illusion.  Its model, the writings of Philip K. Dick, generally depended on such a suspension of disbelief in the face of chaos that the finessing of technical considerations was a given.  In any case, Altered Carbon  is a great leap forward, for the essence of science fiction has always been to pose ever more probing questions in an unsure universe.

Monday, June 11, 2018

An Age Without Trust: Science Fiction on Linear TV

               Every year in roughly the first two weeks of May, broadcast and cable networks announce their yearly cancellations like clockwork.  Many TV series pass unlamented and are quickly forgotten, victims of low ratings, attrition, old age, or simply apathy.  However, some cancelled series still have a devoted, angry fanbase ready to yell once the announcement comes, and The Expanse was one of them.  When SyFy announced its cancellation a few weeks ago, its viewers were so upset that many of them threatened to abandon the channel altogether.  Although it can be tempting for some commentators to dismiss such emotional responses as “overreaction”, this cancellation fits a pattern of negative behavior in terms of how linear networks treat their speculative fiction series that makes such disgust by science fiction fans completely understandable.

               Sci fi series on broadcast networks often have short and unpredictable lives.  The Fox network has had a long-lived reputation for giving its series a quick cancellation, from Space: Above and Beyond in the 90s to Firefly in the early 2000s to Almost Human in the 2010s.  Even series that manage to survive their first season have no guarantee of longevity on Fox; witness Lucifer’s abrupt third season cancellation, even though the writers were so certain of a renewal that they ended the season on a cliffhanger!  Most other broadcast networks don’t even bother with sci fi, except the CW, which typically only approves properties owned by DC Comics.

               With their emphasis on niche audiences and lower production costs, cable channels would seem to offer a better potential for sci fi series to succeed than on broadcast TV.  Yet cable channels are just as prone to cancelling their sci fi series as broadcast networks in favor of “reaching out to a wider audience”.  SyFy is particularly bad about frustrating its viewership by cancelling its series in the third season, as they had cancelled Dark Matter roughly a year before The Expanse.  BBC America has also been proven likely to cancel any sci fi series that isn’t Doctor Who, doing in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency at the end of its first season.

               Streaming platforms have proven to offer a strong audience platform for science fiction series, in contrast to the linear cable and broadcast stations of today.  Amazon began its streaming platform with an adaptation of The Man in the High Castle by Phillip K. Dick, and quickly “uncancelled” The Expanse after SyFy abandoned it, ensuring that a fourth season would exist on Amazon Prime.  Netflix has greenlit and showcased numerous sci fi series already, ranging from the family-friendly Lost in Space to the dark and gritty Altered Carbon.  Also encouraging is the fact that the streaming platforms seem much less likely to do a surprise cancellation with no resolution than the broadcast and cable networks; Netflix even went through the trouble of funding a 2 hour ending movie for the cancelled series Sense8, an action unthinkable for broadcast networks.  This suggests that the future of sci fi “TV” may not be in linear TV at all, but in the more fertile grounds of streaming.  Could a better future for audiences of speculative fiction be had away from the world of overnight ratings and early summer cancellations?