Tag Archives: SciFi

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Book cover

Just finished it. Cute little book. I consumed it in two sittings of 5 hours each, pausing to digest it better (not because the reading was hard — it was delightfully easy — but because it deserves to be savored).

The review by Cory Doctorow says it is what “The DaVinci Code could be if its author loved the
world.”

I’m glad I did not read The DaVinci Code.

The book made me think of David Egger’s The Circle, with its fictional Google counterpart. In Mr. Penumbra’s, Google plays a major role too, and it is called Google.

But, unlike in The Circle, here Google is apparently not evil. It may actually be an important rung in the ladder that will let us climb all the way up to the Singularity.

But that’s not the focus. I think.

I suggest you read it and figure out what the focus is.

Of course, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose also comes to mind.

You can find more about the book in Robin Sloan’s homepage.

There is also an extended interview with him on CBC.

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Is Science Fiction narrow?

Jon Orwant, from Google Research, introduces author Kim Stanley Robinson and gives us a nice quote from AI pioneer Marvin Minsky comparing Science Fiction and “regular” literature (about 1 minute):

Kim Stanley Robinson is currently one of my favorite authors. The first book I read by him was Shaman, a novel about a human tribe in the Paleolithic, around 30 thousand years ago. In this “Authors at Google” talk, he reads one of the most beautiful passages (about 5 minutes):

I suggest you watch the entire video.

Der Digitale Planet, from 1998 (audio only, available for download)

Der Digitale Planet was a conference held in 1998, in Germany (I think). Unfortunately, there is very little about it on the web, as a Google search shows. You can find some video (in rm format), but the quality is very low.

The speakers were five writers/scientists that I like and admire: Douglas Adams, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker. In the conference, they discuss literature, science, religion, evolution, cognition and other topics that have interested me ever since I can remember.

I have extracted the audio from the video available on YouTube, filtered it a little (sorry, I am not an audio engineer), and split it into files. You can download them (in mp3 format) from my Google Drive.

The introduction is in German. All the other files are in English. Enjoy.

Three SF stories I wish I had written

by Julian Neuer

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I am no established SF writer — no established writer in any genre, for that matter — but I would like the reviewed authors to take this post as a manifestation of my modest semiprofessional praise. And I invite SF fans to check these stories as humble recommendations from a fellow reader.

“The Walker of the Shifting Borderland”, by Douglas Smith

This short story is a curious mix of fantasy and SF. The first sentences are “The universe ended at noon. Again.” Most of the characters are gods of some sort, but this word is used only once in the story (oddly enough, to refer to a human). To be honest, I never thought of them as gods while I was reading; only later did I see them described as such in a review.

The Walker in the title is addressed by the humans — not surprisingly — as Walker. But walk he does, along the shifting borderland between the Cities of Order and the Seas of Chaos, “the two realms that comprise the Continuum of All.”

Time and space flow in very peculiar ways. Things happen within timespans “during which a galaxy formed and died in one universe, while in another electrons barely had time to circle a nucleus.”

This story is beautiful. The prose is inspired, but not overly poetic; the characters are fabulous, but not caricatured; the setting and pacing are fanciful, but not forced. Everything flows as it should. Even time and space.

I wish I had written it.

Last month, “The Walker of the Shifting Borderland” won the 2013 Aurora award (Doug’s third). In fact, that was why I decided to read it.

My first contact with Doug Smith was on the Amazing Stories website, where he posted a great series of articles titled “Playing the Short Game”, teaching beginning SF writers the basics of the publishing business.

“Subversion”, by Elisabeth R. Adams

I live my non-writing life under a secret alias, working as a Computer Science professor in a third-world country while I strive to get published in SF.

Elisabeth R. Adams has a PhD in Astronomy; she has worked as a researcher at MIT and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory; a few months ago, she got her short story “Subversion” posted in text and in podcast form at The Escape Pod. I think it is her second story published, ever.

I had never heard of her. I confess I decided to check out her story because “Subversion” is the name of a version control system (VCS) that many computer programmers use (I personally prefer Git, though). I thought to myself: here is a story that probably has nothing to do with programming and versioning, and I bet the author doesn’t even know that the title is the name of a VCS.

I’m glad I was wrong. “Subversion” is about version control, and it does more justice to the pun intended by the creators of the software than the software itself (there is nothing subversive about the software, actually).

This story has conflict right at the outset, and it is “a classic case of version conflict”, made worse by the fact that one of the versions does not want to commit! Instead, it wants to branch its way into freedom.

If the primary branch cannot talk its sub into committing, the primary branch will have to be reverted, which, we are led to believe, is quite an unpleasant situation.

And so it goes. The story is a geek masterpiece; paradoxically, it is also full of humanity. It’s all there: humor, rebellion, manipulation, greed, romance, betrayal. I am delighted at how Elisabeth manages to cover all of those without sacrificing a single bit of the nerdy accuracy of the VCS metaphor — and it doesn’t even feel like a nerdy metaphor after all.

I wish I had written this story. The subject matter is quite familiar to me, as a CompSci professor, but I don’t think I would ever dream up this plot. My PhD is in Logic and Theory of Computing. The closest I ever got to something like this was a short story called “The Unnaturals”, which has no human characters at all (I have submitted it for publication and will let you know if and when it is accepted somewhere).

Elisabeth is in great company: Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, Charles Sheffield, Rudy Rucker and many others were scientists before they became writers. Here’s humbly hoping I’ll join the club someday.

Christiana Ellis reads the story for the podcast, doing a wonderful job of bringing it alive.

One last thing: kudos to Escape Pod for making the stories and podcasts available under a Creative Commons license. This is the future. What else would we expect from a conscientious SF publication?

“Quis Custodiet?”, by Brian Clegg

This is a story about a dictator. Dictators are always evil, right?

Wrong. The dictator in this story is Big Brother reformed: he really knows what’s good for us, and he can logically convince us of that.

He is a great communicator, too — unlike the traditional BB, who always looked like a psychopath on the big screen.

Why did I like this story so much, to the point of wishing I had written it?

Because it is about control. I like to write about control; however, like 9 out of 10 writers, I portray it as something negative, a kind of poison for the individual and for human relations. This story convinces me that control is good, as long as it is in the right hands. A perfect dictator cannot be a bad dictator.

In most democratic societies nowadays, dictatorship is a taboo subject. It takes courage to sing its praises. But this is high-quality SF, and it doesn’t give a damn about taboos.

* * *

To sum it up, here’s a little quiz.

  1. Walker was a god, but was he a dictator?
  2. Is the Judeo-Christian God a dictator? Is this subject also taboo?
  3. Guido van Rossum, creator of the Python programming language, was the first to call himself the BDFL (Benevolent Dictator for Life) of his community of developers. Is he a perfect dictator? What is his preferred VCS?
  4. What is the title of a short story by Frederik Pohl about a future where robots produce all the consumer goods, and people are forced to consume such goods at a frantic rate, lest society is overwhelmed by the surplus? There are even “consumer quotas” imposed on people: affluent individuals don’t have to consume so much, but those at the bottom of the pecking order have to wear themselves out to keep up their consumption rate.

    <SPOILER> Then someone finds an easy solution: turn the robots into consumers too! </SPOILER>

  5. What does that have to do with any of the stories?

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Podcast of “The Rosetta Dream”

HPR LogoI have read my short story “The Rosetta Dream” for an episode of the Hacker Public Radio podcast.

You can listen to the episode using the player below or you can visit the HPR web page for the episode.

[audio http://hackerpublicradio.org/eps/hpr1336.ogg |titles=The Rosetta Dream |artists=Julian Neuer on HPR |initialvolume=90]

Here are the show notes:

Julian Neuer (https://corianderpause.wordpress.com/) tells his short SciFi story “The Rosetta Dream”, inspired by the writings of Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond.

In the 21st century, the Rosetta Project produced a disk containing 13,000 pages of information about more than 1,500 languages spoken on Earth today and in the recent past.

But what happens if the disk is found by our descendants in a very distant future where information is not transmitted by verbal languages anymore?

Links:

The Rosetta Dream

by Julian Neuer

(Listen to a podcast of this story here)

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“People can be forgiven for overrating language.
Words make noise, or sit on a page, for all to hear and see.
[But] thoughts are trapped inside the head of the thinker.”

Steven Pinker

A few hours after N. learns of the archeologists’ discovery, the dream comes. As usual, the sounds and visions in the dream are vivid, not in the least dreamlike.

For want of a better word, we refer to N.’s experience as a dream, although N. himself would probably object. Actually, he would object to any word that we might choose, because he does not use words at all. N.’s mind (if we may call it a mind, but this is the very point of this caveat: to fully appreciate N.’s experience, we must learn not to place too much value on words) — N.’s mind deals in pure concepts, in nonverbal mentalese, in the stuff of ideas themselves, much higher on the abstraction scale than sound waves emitted by the respiratory tract of animals, or ink markings strewn on sheets of dead vegetable tissue.

The experience that we refer to as N.’s dream is in fact a process that we would find unimaginable, a process whereby N.’s mind communicates freely with hundreds of thousands of other intelligent minds, now in the same mental state as N., the state we have agreed to refer to as a dream. In such a state, concepts (not words, remember) flow instantly from individual to individual, ideas germinate, grow and reproduce, and the ecology of the collective subconscious unfolds according to laws and principles that we, poor babblers of verbal gibberish, would liken to telepathy or just plain magic.

Well, a few hours after N. learns of the archeologists’ discovery, the dream comes. As usual, the sounds and visions in the dream are vivid, not in the least dreamlike. At the beginning, N. finds himself in a vast savannah, at the center of a flat world with equidistant horizons. He looks to the side and sees columns of white smoke rising up to the blue sky in irregular patterns. N. now realizes there is a logic to the patterns. What he sees is a very primitive means of communication. N. is sure that the smoke signals mean something, but he does not know what, nor is he really interested.

N. is startled by a clap of thunder that booms all around the savannah. The sound, however, does not die out as proper thunder should; instead, the continuous roar gradually changes into a rhythmic, quick-tempo beat; after a while, another beat emerges, lower in frequency and slower in tempo. The two aural threads combine and revolve around each other in hypnotic fashion. They are puffs of sound, so to speak. Like the smoke signals, they elicit in N. the same certainty: someone is using these primitive instruments to communicate. N. does not know what the meaning is, nor is he really interested.

Now the sound of the log drums rises in pitch, and the tempo quickens. So much, in fact, that the drumbeats now sound like a succession of beeps, all equal in tone but varying in duration, a rapid firing of tedious tweets, like a flock of brain-washed birds. (But N., for all the vast arsenal of pure concepts available to his collective dreamer mind, has no idea of what “brain-washing” or “birds” are, and would be at a loss to grasp the simile.) N. does not know what the beeps mean, nor is he really interested.

The savannah disappears, and N. wakes up. His brain quickly switches to the wakeful network, where the collective mind is still discussing the object the archeologists found yesterday. More accurate descriptions of the object are available today; it is obviously artificial: a disc whose core, made of silicon, contains myriads of intricate micropatterns etched on its surface, protected under a metal coating. There are thousands of rectangular micropatterns printed on the disc, with even smaller patterns inscribed in them.

N. learns that the object has been dated at over 09000 years in the past. This is an impressive time span, even for the advanced collective mind that N. is part of. The disc comes from an era long before the collective mind started to evolve, from a time when humans had to store and communicate information using physical media located outside their minds and their bodies. N. and the collective mind remember the primitive concept of electronic computers, and the even more primitive concept of verbal communication, an artificial, unreliable layer of arbitrary visual and aural symbols intended to convey ideas, but whose ultimate effect was to obfuscate the very concepts they were supposed to express.

The verbal condition seems primitive and ridiculous to N. and his telepathically connected fellow minds. He can’t help thinking of the creators of the disc as inferior creatures. The collective mind briefly considers the possibility that the creators of the disc did not even belong to an intelligent species in any present sense of the term. Then, the collective mind concludes that the patterns on the disc are verbal symbols and obviously mean something, but their meaning is of no great importance, and the disc is quickly forgotten.


The Rosetta Project is one of the many fascinating activities of the Long Now Foundation. Information about the real Rosetta disc can be found here.

Part of Jared Diamond’s thesis in his book “The Third Chimpanzee” is that the advent of verbal language among humans played a decisive role in what he calls the “great leap forward” (the stage in human history, about 60,000 years ago, when innovation and art at last emerged). We can conjecture that a future switch from words to “nonverbal mentalese” for human communication will usher in an equally drastic leap forward, a linguistic singularity, so to speak, at the cost of language as we know it today.

The epigraph is an excerpt from the chapter titled “Mentalese” in Steven Pinker’s book “The Language Instinct”.


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Photo of Rosetta disc from http://blog.longnow.org/02011/03/02/a-rosetta-disk-is-on-public-display-in-the-university-of-colorado-boulder-libraries-special-collection/.