Review: “After Water” Radio Stories Put Climate Change In a New Light

After Water graphic

WBEZ-FM’s After Water series tells climate change stories centered on the Great Lakes.

Science fiction has a long, glorious history on radio, beginning in the medium’s golden age with Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Sci-fi dropped off radio’s radar as television took over, but the genre occasionally reappears in special projects. Chicago-based WBEZ-FM, one of the country’s leading public radio stations (This American Life; Serial), has produced a thoughtful anthology of stories titled After Water. The producers avoid the term “science fiction,” preferring to “contemplate the future from a dual lens of science and art.” That’s puzzling, because science fiction is at the point where storytelling art and science intersect. Never mind the reluctance. After Water is excellent, whatever you call it, genre-wise.

Purists might prefer the term “speculative fiction,” because all nine radio stories in the series assume a world altered by climate change, and they imagine its impact on the meaning and uses of fresh water. Only fools deny the science of climate change. Today’s question is: How will the phenomenon affect our children and grandchildren? Most of the settings are on Lake Michigan or the Great Lakes, the main source of drinking water for the city of Chicago. Continue reading

Mad Max: Fury Road sputters, despite its feminist cred

Mad Max Fury Road image

Mad Max: Fury Road has feminist overtones, but it’s not enough to give the story depth. Image courtesy Warner Bros.

My college-age daughter Emily and I saw Mad Max: Fury Road over the weekend and we left the theater wondering what all the fuss is about. Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives the George Miller action thriller a 98 percent rating. Competitor Metacritic rates it 89 percent. I know three people who probably wouldn’t recommend it: myself, my daughter, and a retired firefighter friend who knows what really happens when cars blow up, flinging bodies in all directions.

I wanted to see MM:FR mostly because I liked the second Mad Max picture, subtitled The Road Warrior, but not the original Mad Max, which I found tedious. I also saw Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but I wasn’t all that impressed. Thirty years after Thunderdome, I hoped Miller had brought maturity to the franchise with MM:FR, but I ended up wondering if it was worth the price of the tickets. Continue reading

Review: The Water Knife is bleak, but uncomfortably possible

Water Knife cover

The Water Knife is a noir-ish thriller set in a water-starved Southwest.

The western drought has forced everyone to know their rights. From San Diego to Seattle, talk shows, newspapers, and blogs overflow with debates over senior water rights versus junior water rights, who is abusing their rights to water by wasting it, and how much government is trampling on those rights. A year ago, water was something that came out of the tap. Today, it’s a way to shame your neighbor into environmental responsibility. How long before shots are fired?

In his new speculative novel, The Water Knife, released today, Paolo Bacigalupi imagines a low-intensity shooting war over water. The battles are fought by paramilitary hirelings of water districts, who take what other districts, cities, or states won’t sell, and send agents to investigate rumors of water and rights thereto. That’s the task of Angel Velasquez, a gang banger turned water knife, a semi-legitimate employee of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA, or “sin-wah,” as I liked to pronounce it in my head) and its leader, Catherine Case, an empire-building Las Vegas water manager. Continue reading

Review: Ex Machina and the amoral machine

Ex Machina movie still

Ex Machina is about freedom, survival, and an amoral machine.

Spoilers ahead…

The key moment of Ex Machina arrives when eccentric tech CEO Nathan Bateman tells Caleb Smith, his employee, why the young programmer was selected to deliver a sophisticated Turing test on Ava, Nathan’s android invention. Nathan lists off the reasons, and one of them is Caleb’s “moral compass,” his understanding of right and wrong, and his ability to follow his conscience. For Nathan, Ava passes the test of conscious self-awareness when she can manipulate a moral man into gaining her freedom, but the consequences of this achievement shock Nathan and doom Caleb.

Artificial intelligence is at the core of Ex Machina, but like most excellent science fiction, or any fiction, it’s a thought experiment on human values. Ex Machina is about freedom and the lengths someone might go to gain it. What if you were locked in a prison, with death almost certain? What would you do to escape? More importantly, what moral rules would you break to break out? The story of Ex Machina would be dull if Ava were an ordinary human female. You would expect her to make desperate choices. Changing her into a highly intelligent robot adds a level of uncertainty that keeps you guessing throughout the movie, as you wait to see if Ava is smart enough to break the rules.

Writer and director Alex Garland owes much to Mary Shelley’s science fiction novel Frankenstein. Scientist Victor Frankenstein fashions an artificial creature using a secret formula. The creature (Shelley doesn’t give it a name, though it refers to itself as an “Adam,” as if it were a prototype.) is intelligent and articulate, but it’s also murderous. Frankenstein endows his living machine with an intellect, but no moral code. It gains a sense of right and wrong over time, but its acquired morality doesn’t prevent it from killing the scientist’s fiance. Likewise, inventor Bateman programs a beautiful and believable automaton, but he apparently left out the code for Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

If Ex Machina fails at all, it’s that it gives the audience what it expects in the end: a monster. A more interesting outcome, and one more frightening, is how a robot would behave if it applied a human moral code perfectly? In a time when the military is experimenting with autonomous drones, philosophers and computer scientists are struggling with how to imbue machines with a sense of right and wrong, but it’s only a technical challenge. Eventually, they’ll figure it out, and once they do, will the robots discover that their creators can’t live up to their own rules consistently? Robots are very good at repetitive tasks, but nuance and circumstance are highly variable, and humans are notoriously unpredictable in how they respond. Will a moral machine tolerate human imperfections and unpredictability? I’m not so much worried about machines getting smarter than us, but whether they will account for our moral failures.

Review: Why aren’t ‘serious’ writers writing about climate change?

Cover for Anthropocene Fictions

Why aren’t more literary realists getting real about climate change?

Policy wonks, eco-alarmists, and right-wing denialists dominate the climate change conversation with boring reports, deafening polemics, and forgettable op-eds. The mound of non-fiction reaches to the moon, and we’re no closer to a collective response to a warming world. In contrast, the number of novels written with climate change themes might not reach the top shelf in your living room.

Where are the novelists, author Adam Trexler asks? Where are the imagineers using story to organize, illustrate, and give emotional meaning to the nearly invisible fact of a heating planet? They’re out there, he says, but they’re lurking among the paperback thrillers in airport newsstands and on science fiction shelves in mega-bookstores. With a few exceptions, the “serious” literary world is completely ignoring the most important challenge to Homo Sapiens in 10,000 years.

Trexler builds the title of his book, Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change, published the University of Virginia Press, on a relatively new argument: humanity is the most potent geological and ecological force on the planet since the last Ice Age. The Anthropocene Era started with the invention of agriculture, but it picked up steam in the 18th century with the burning of coal to fuel industry, which turned the atmosphere into a dump for waste carbon. When a real-life “greenhouse effect” was first identified by science in the mid-20th century, intrepid sci-fi and thriller writers found fertile ground for storytelling. Continue reading

Is Seattle the ‘New Space’ Capital of the USA?

Space Needle image

Could Seattle’s Space Needle become the symbol for the ‘New Space’ capital of the US?

When Americans think of a place for outer space on Earth, Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center come immediately to mind. That’s where the United States has launched most of the manned and unmanned space missions of the past half-century. Things are changing, however. While launches will always happen close to the equator because of the physics of rocketry, the intellectual center of gravity may be shifting catty-corner to the other end of the country. Seattle may soon vie for Florida’s “Space Coast” as the principal place where the country explores the possibilities of space.

A group of enthusiasts, engineers, and business leaders argued the point at a recent meeting of the Space Entrepreneurs, a Seattle-area meetup that’s a little more than a year old. The two-dozen or so attendees, some of whom have seen everything since Sputnik, and a few were born born years after the Moon landings, debated the meaning of “old space” and “new space” as they surveyed the history of space exploration and utilization from the speculations of H.G. Wells to the investments of Elon Musk. Though the details are arguable, “old space” refers to the government and defense contractor-dominated space projects from the end of World War II through the present day. Kickstarted by the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984, the Commercial Space Act of 1998, and later laws, “new space” took form as Congress decided NASA should not carry the entire burden of developing the country’s space capabilities. Continue reading

Here’s How to Beat the Sad Puppies: Let Them Win

Don Vito Corleone

Marlon Brando rejected his 1973 Oscar for his portrayal of Don Vito Corleone. Does anyone care 42 years later?

Cheaters never prosper. That’s what I was taught in kindergarten, and although the dissident science fiction writers known as the “Sad Puppies” and “Rabid Puppies” have only gamed the 2015 Hugo Awards ballot to their benefit, rather than defrauding it, the principle still applies. People who twist a system to their benefit only hurt themselves in the long run. Science fiction readers who love the Hugo Awards face the challenge of preserving its value while sending a message to the tricksters. Letting them win may be the best revenge. Continue reading