Is Microsoft co-opting sci-fi’s techno-optimism vs skepticism debate?

Space plane

The space plane from 2001 A Space Odyssey is also an ad for (now defunct) Pan American Airways.

Many high-profile science fiction writers are bemoaning the tone and content of 21st century sci-fi and fantasy. It’s too dark, too depressing, too filled with rampaging robots, malevolent AIs, and oppressive governments. The trend is hurting humanity by discouraging the kind of can-do-ism that got America to the moon and beyond. We need to revive the innocence and naivete of a time when we trusted technology to solve our problems, they say.

Corporate America agrees. On Tuesday, Microsoft released a free ebook titled Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft. The company invited science fiction luminaries Elizabeth Bear, Greg Bear, David Brin, Nancy Kress, Ann Leckie, Jack McDevitt, Seanan McGuire and Robert J. Sawyer, as well as graphic novelist Blue Delliquanti to its research labs and asked them to imagine worlds with Cortana, Hololens, and its take on quantum computing as the world-fixing (and profitable) products MS hopes they’ll become. The concept is as creepy as it is laughable. Continue reading

Review: Gold Fame Citrus is tangy, acidic, and tasty

Gold Fame Citrus cover

Gold Fame Citrus is as tangy and acidic as a California orange.

Climate science encourages the public to imagine global warming as a decades-long desiccation, a slow transformation of liquid water to vapor locked in the atmosphere, turning the planet into a wasteland of deserts, as if everything is dropped into a saucepan over high heat and cooked into Nevada. In speculative fiction and fantasy, the image often plays out in the planet-girdling sand dune, whether it’s Frank Herbert’s Dune or George Lucas’ Tatooine. Claire Vaye Watkins finds the metaphor useful in her debut novel Gold Fame Citrus, in which the Amargosa, a dune sea that covers much of the Southwest, is central to her dystopian world of prophets, prostitutes, survivors, and assorted characters at home in a Mad Max movie.

The Amargosa Desert is a real place, which Watkins knows, having grown up in the Mojave Desert and in Pahrump, Nev., a stone’s throw from Death Valley. Her intimacy with these landscapes puts her prose on a par with other great Western writers, such as Edward AbbeyJohn Steinbeck, and Ivan Doig. Almost no other writer captures the utter desolation of these places without a hint of romantic disrespect; Watkins loves and fears the desert in the same breath. Continue reading

How writers can read The Grapes of Wrath as climate fiction

Farmer and sons during a dust storm.

John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath serves as a model for speculative fiction writers interested in portraying the effects of climate change. Photo credit: Library of Congress

Great fiction dramatizes times, places and attitudes it was never meant to illuminate. Shakespeare’s plays are loved today, despite the sometimes impenetrable language and unacceptable sexism and racism, because they reveal the universal. For several years, I’ve been interested in how fiction authors deal with climate change, and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is one of the better attempts, if you choose to interpret it this way.

In case you skipped your American Literature class, or forgot to watch John Ford’s film adaptation, the 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows the Joad family from the loss of their Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s through their migration to California’s Central Valley. They descend from a life of gentile poverty to one of desperate survival. Continue reading

Why The Martian’s success probably won’t spawn a sequel

The Martian still

Hollywood needs to make more science and technology movies like The Martian. Photo courtesy 20th-Century Fox.

My two college-age daughters and I walked out of a showing of The Martian last weekend in a mild daze resembling postprandial satisfaction. You want that feeling of well-being to go on, and so the first question I asked them and an accompanying friend was, “Should it get a sequel?”

The answer: “NO!!!!!”

I agree. In fact, most hard science fiction movies don’t get a sequel. No science-driven stranded-in-space stories I can think of—Marooned, Apollo 13, Gravity, Interstellar—got a sequel. The only hard sci-fi film that did was, ironically, the granddaddy of them all, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Does anyone remember 2010: The Year We Make Contact? Continue reading

Why I Would Fail As An Amazonian, And Other Predictable Misfortunes

Father and child

Why I would fail as an Amazonian, and other predictable misfortunes.

I recently tolerated, er, celebrated my 56th birthday. Going by the usual retirement schedule, I have about ten years left in the workforce, give or take a year. I feel ready to take one last shot at a career change, or at least modification. Here in Seattle, it’s inevitable to think of Microsoft, Starbucks, or Amazon as the main choices. They are the top employment “brands,” if you will. Let’s think this through.

I once had an interview at Microsoft for a temp job. One of the interviewers gave me a pencil, a legal pad, and he put this question to me: “Using these tools, how would you build a 747 jetliner?” This was one of those interview questions that’s supposed to gauge how you think. “Well, sir,” I thought to myself, “because I’d be writing blurbs on your website, and not building airplanes, I think that’s a stupid question.” Scratch MS. Continue reading

Review: The Subprimes is Primo Satire

The Subprimes cover

Karl Taro Greenfeld’s The Subprimes is first-rate satire.

I read Karl Taro Greenfeld’s The Subprimes in the midst of Seattle’s hottest summer in a century, so it was easy to imagine the characters in this laugh-out-loud satire surviving the burning dust of an expired exurb. I have a specific interest in climate change as a narrative force, and the novel’s slow strangulation of the environment makes for a lot of black humor. For instance, endangered whales beach themselves on both coasts, and they become a kind of living—and dying—parentheses enclosing an America gone crazy with Ayn Rand ideology.

Greenfeld’s near-future is an economic dystopia, but most dystopias are utopias for someone. In The Subprimes, the beneficiaries are in-power libertarians led by the inheritors of Republican Senator Paul Ryan, the failed vice-presidential candidate who lends his name to “Ryanvilles,” squatters camps of individuals and families—the eponymous “subprimes”—who lost their homes after the Great Recession. In this world, everything is privatized, even the police and fire departments, and woe to the citizen whose mortgage is in arrears. The cops will ignore your 9-1-1 call if your credit score is too low. Continue reading

More Skirmishes in the Genre Wars

Real sad puppy

Oh god, not another genre. When will it end?

I find the genre wars incredibly entertaining, mostly because they’re pointless, and the participants waste an amazing amount of time making their points when they could be writing good stories. The kerfuffle everyone in the scifi universe talks about these days concerns the definition of “science fiction.” Traditionalists, who call themselves the Sad Puppies, have a stereotyped, populist view of science fiction, defined as technology-driven dramas and masculine adventure stories. On the other side are the “inclusives,” as I like to call them, which have an expansive, sociological view of speculative storytelling. This scifi is more about societies than gizmos and evil aliens. Both sides, particularly the Puppy partisans, behave like a two-year-old having a meltdown in the supermarket’s cereal aisle.

Any close examination of genre shows its meaninglessness. I’ve completed another draft of my novel Carbon Run, and although I’ve pitched it as science fiction, my editor suggested I call it a dystopian thriller. I’m in the midst of reading Kindred by Octavia Butler, widely regarded as a master science fiction writer. Though I’m in the early going, Kindred is closer to fantasy or possibly magical realism than scifi. Amazon, however, classifies it as African-American women’s fiction. I’ve just finished The Subprimes, by Karl Taro Greenfield, described in its blurb as a “dystopian parody.” Amazon classifies it as dark humor. Continue reading