Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Classic Science Fiction Channel

The Crotchety Old Fan has updated his Classic Science Fiction Channel, which is an excellent compilation of free classic SF movies from around the web. I find it a bit clunky to navigate through, but it's worth browsing through to find the gems.

Here are some of the more biological offerings, mostly of the "big deadly critter" variety:

And, in case it's not clear, you need to click on the poster to watch the movie. They are hosted offsite in a variety of locations, including archive.org, YouTube, and Hulu. Movies that COF gave at least a 4/5 rating have a star *. I've also linked to the Wikipedia description, in case you want to know more about the movie without actually watching it.

The Classic Science Fiction Channel site is still under construction. It looks like there will eventually be links to free TV shows and old radio programs as well, so keep an eye on it.


Monday, April 27, 2009

Hot Chicks Don't Read, Write, or Like SF?

At this year's Nebula Awards banquet, Joss Whedon received the Bradbury Award for excellence in screenwriting. I do think that Whedon - whose works include the TV series Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer - deserved the award. Both series have been given kudos for featuring strong women characters. It's a disappointment, then, that in his recorded award acceptance speech he goes right to the tired old stereotype that attractive women aren't interested in science fiction.
Hoyden About Town has the whole transcript, but here's the annoying bit:
Future is my business, because I write Fictionalised Scientifics, or as the kids call it nowadays, Fi Sci. And right now, I’m very honoured to be - not physically, but spectrally - among so many people that I admire. Especially you [points], and you [points], and that hot chick over there - why are you even here?
Hilarious, right? I mean, of course there would be no hot chicks at a SF awards banquet - just SF writers and SF fans. Never mind that the majority of the Nebula Awards this year went to women*.

Now I doubt Whedon would have said that if he had been at the awards banquet in person (at least I hope not), because that would have involved actually singling out one woman as both "hot" and not-belonging from a room where many women were present. Even if Wheden meant it as a throw-away joke line, it excludes me and every other woman from being a SF fan - being his fan. And that does indeed bother me, joke or not.

* Women winning a Nebula this year included Ursula K. Le Guin won for Best Novel (Powers), Catherine Asaro for Best Novella ("The Spacetime Pool"), Nina Kiriki Hoffman for Best Short Story ("Trophy Wives"), Ysabeau S. Wilce won the Andre Norton Award, and M.J. Engh was named Author Emerita.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Gregor Mendel died for your sins! Biopunk and Ribofunk

Ribofunk is speculative fiction which acknowledges, is informed by and illustrates the tenet that the next revolution--the only one that really matters--will be in the field of biology. To paraphrase Pope, ribofunk holds that: "The proper study of mankind is life." Forget physics and chemistry; they are only tools to probe living matter. Computers? Merely simulators and modelers for life. The cell is King!
~ Ribofunk: The Manifesto, by Paul Di Filippo (1996)

In the mid- and late 1980s the hot new science fiction subgenre was "cyberpunk". The stories were usually set in a gritty near-future Earth, where massive international corporations are more powerful that individual governments. The stories themselves heavily featured hackers and crackers and artificial intelligences, hence the "cyber" part of the name.

With the advent of the Human Genome Project and greater focus on biotechnology in the media in the 1990s, there was a natural evolution to stories where it was DNA that was hacked, rather than computer networks. The Such stories have been dubbed by some "biopunk" or the catchier "ribofunk", a term invented by Paul Di Filippo.

In a recent interview with Marshall Payne at The Fix, Paul Di Filippo talked about how he coined the term:
During the waning days of cyberpunk, I half-jokingly tried to predict the next big movement in SF. I took the prefix “ribo” from the cellular component ribosomes1.
I'm personally fond of the term, even though it was originally coined as a parody of the term cyberpunk. I think the greater rhythmic complexity of funk music helps capture the idea that biological systems are more complex and unpredictable than computers. And ribosomes are organelles found in all forms of life that help translate the gene sequences expressed in a cell into proteins (click the link for a cool video). As such, ribosomes play an important in translating changes in the genome made by human genetic engineers into detectable changes in the organism. I think that's fitting.

And I can't argue with Filippo's Ribofunk Manifesto: "the next revolution--the only one that really matters--will be in the field of biology."

Of course ribofunk just sounds catchy, which is important too.

When Di Filippo's Ribofunk collection of stories was published in 1996, he talked to Jeffrey Fisher at Wired about the impact of biotechnology on evolution and society. Instead of the conventionally beautiful, hyperintelligent, and uniformly bland engineered humans of the future that some people have posited, he imagined a much more interesting population:
I think humanity is not wise enough to know what genotype or somatype is going to be the most successful or the most fit - simply because we're not fully in control of our environment. You could engineer a human to survive the greenhouse effect because you think that's what's going to happen, and then all of a sudden the glaciers are creeping down on you. So what we should be encouraging is a kind of chaotic, wildly creative assortment of genotypes and somatypes. And I think that's going to happen naturally. I don't think there'll ever be any impetus toward monoculture; we'll see diversity become more rampant.
So what novels might be included in the biopunk/ribofunk cannon? Matt Staggs at Enter the Octopus has a list, as does the Genome Alberta blog. Different people have different takes on what should be included, but the elements that I'd include:
  • not-too-distant future setting
  • extensive use of genetic engineering, particularly on humans
  • a dystopian feel
That's a pretty broad definition, I know. Some of the books I'd include in the subgenre:

  • Ribofunk by Paul Di Fillipo (of course)
  • Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling (cyberpunk with biotech elements)
  • The Scab's Progress in Babylon Sisters and Other Posthumans by Paul Di Fillipo and Bruce Sterling
  • White Devils by Paul Mc Auley (which features biopunks)
  • Clade by Mark Budz (Kevin Anderson in the New York Times review of this novel supposedly coined the term "biopunk")
  • Winterlong: A Novel by Elizabeth Hand
  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  • possibly Richard K. Morgan's Thirteen
Human genetic engineering seems to be a pretty standard element in recent works set in near future dystopias, so I'm not sure where the line should be drawn - or even if it should. Arguing about such SF subgenre designations is all part of the fun.

1. There are some sources that say the "ribo" is from ribonucleic acid (RNA), but in every interview with DiFillipo I've read, going back to 1996 he's said the source was "ribosome". I fixed the entry in Wikipedia, and we'll see if it stays.

(Interview via SF Signal)

Image: Ribosome translating mRNA into protein
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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Cold as Ice

The seduction of Ellsworth Stevens made a temporary stir in certain lofty circles, shocking all but the most cynical.

A brilliant bio-chemist, a few months previously Stevens had reported some attempts at suspending animation in mammals by a method involving preliminary partial dehydration of the living tissue through starvation, followed by freezing.

The technique exploited the newly-discovered tendency of very minute quantities of radioactive phosphorus in certain phospholipids to counteract the degenerative anti-gelation effect of low temperatures on the colloidal phases of protoplasm.

He had not succeeded in reviving any of the animals, since none of the nerve tissue had lived through the freezing, but results had been nonetheless promising. Now Stevens was employed by the Cancer Institute, consecrated to this most important work.

Until one evening a Tempter called at his modest home. His name, of course, was Jones.

"Dr. Stevens," said Garry, "I want you to quit your job and go back to work on suspended animation."

~ "The Penultimate Trump" by Robert Ettinger, 1948
Imagine you are dying of cancer or Parkinson's disease or simply old age. Imagine having your body and brain preserved until a cure was developed. Imagine then being reawakened in complete health.

That was the promise of Robert Ettinger's 1948 short story "The Penultimate Trump". The premise of frozen sleep became fodder for many a "man out of time" science fiction story, from Frederik Pohl's The Age of the Pussyfoot, to Woody Allen's Sleeper, to Bev Katz Rosenbaum's recent young adult novel I Was a Teenage Popsicle. And cold sleep has become a standard science fictional method for humans to endure long journeys between the stars.

But it isn't only science fiction. Ettinger published a non-fiction book on cryopreservation, The Prospect of Immortality, in 1962. And it wasn't long after that advocates of cryonics began selling such services. That was despite the fact that they had no idea whether their preservation techniques would adequately preserve frozen human tissue or when (and if) the technology would be developed for successful revival.

And some people were frozen long before a storage facility existed. That's part of the story of Bob Nelson, TV repairman, cryonics enthusiast and president of the Cryonics Society of California. In January of 1967, Nelson helped freeze the body of psychology professor James Bedford - the very first human intentially frozen in anticipation of later revival. Bedford's frozen body was transferred from Nelson's care after a week. That was fortunate for Bedford, because he is the only one of Nelson's "patients" who are still frozen today. It's not clear if Nelson was deluded or a charletain, but the fact is that he talked as if he had a cryonics system in place, when he did not:
Although he had made virtually no progress toward establishing a cryonics facility, early in 1969 Nelson gave an interview to Cryonics Reports magazine describing it as if it already existed. He claimed that individual cryopatients were stored in pods "very similar to the units that were used in 2001: A Space Odyssey," and the pods were immersed in giant containers 14 feet in diameter, each capable of holding 15 to 20 people. "Units are moved by a series of stainless steel cables that guide them into position, and they can be introduced and retrieved at will," he told the magazine. None of these statements was true. Nelson subsequently circulated photographs of himself standing beside a tank with "Cryonic Interment" lettered on the side, but its location remains unknown, and since it was intended only for bulk storage of liquid nitrogen, it would have been unsuitable for maintaining cryonics patients accessibly.
The other bodies in Nelson's care weren't maintained in a frozen state, and their decomposing bodies were eventually revealed in 1979. You can hear Nelson's story on a recently-posted episode of This American Life (or read about it here). Not surprisingly, the ensuing scandal resulted in regulation of the industry.

People who choose to be preserved shortly after death have real faith in the development of technology that will revive them. Alcor, one of the companies offering cryonic preservation today, acknowledges that revival technology "may become a reality a century or more in the future." And when and if revival technology does become available there's no guarantee that the preservation process used today will have adequately preserved their bodies. It's a leap of faith, or perhaps a real fear of death, that they will return to life.

Image: "Steel & aluminum cryo-capsule containing mylar-wrapped body, designed by wigmaker Edward Hope to store frozen body of James Bedford, re experimental cryonics", published in Life magazine in 1967.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Transcendent Man

One of the films at this year's Tribeca Film Festival is Transcendent Man, a documentary that looks at the life, ideas and cult-like following of futurist Ray Kurzweil.
Ray Kurzweil is one of the world’s foremost inventors. At age 15 he was designing programs that were adapted by IBM and soon after machines that allowed the blind to read. Today he is hailed by some as a modern-day Nostradamus and dismissed by others as a crackpot. The “futurist” and best-selling author is a leading theorist on the “technological singularity”—a time when humans and machines will fuse in the next phase of bio-technological evolution, creating superintelligent, godlike beings that could conceivably live forever. The kicker is, Kurzweil claims that this monumental change is destined to happen in just 30 years.
And Kurzweil has said in an interview with Brooke Gladstone for On the Media that the change will come in closer to 20 years:

RAY KURZWEIL: By 2029, we'll have finished the reverse engineering of the human brain. There’s already 20 regions of the brain we've modeled and simulated and tested. We'll have very powerful and very small computers by that time. Most of the computers in the world are not yet in our bodies and brains, but some of them are in our brains. If you’re a Parkinson’s patient you can put a computer in your brain. It’s not blood cell-sized today, it’s pea-sized.

And if you take what we can do today and realize these technologies will be a billion times more powerful per dollar in 25 years, a hundred thousand times smaller, you get some idea of what we'll be able to do.

It seems to me that Kurzweil overestimates our current understanding of how the brain works. The Blue Brain Project - a major research to create a supercomputer-based functional model of a mammalian brain - used 15 years worth of experimental data to map the connections of 10,000 neurons in the 2-week-old rat brain. That's a tiny fraction of the 100 billion neurons found in an adult human brain. Considering that the experimental procedures currently used to map the rats' brains would be unethical to use in humans, a substantial increase in computing capacity is not the only technical hurdle to overcome. I do believe the human brain will be completely mapped eventually, just not in 20 years. And even once an "average" brain is completely mapped, there is the separate problem of recreating unique individual brains. I suspect it will be significantly easier to construct a computer-based intelligence from scratch than to build a computer that models a specific brain with all its memories and personality intact.

I personally believe Kurzweil's speculations are more science fiction than science, but maybe he will turn out to be the prophet people make him out to be. Watch the trailer for Transcendant Man:

(via Popular Mechanics)

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Chimeras, Immunology and other Bad Science on Fringe

Creative taxidermists have been known to assemble monstrous creatures using parts from a variety of animals. It's like the assembly of Frankenstein's monster using the heads, bodies, wings and tails of different species. Such critters are dead, of course, but wouldn't they be horrible if they were alive and crawling about in the sewers?

That's was the basic premise behind this week's episode of Fringe. A monster with the head of a bat, body of a gila monster, and egg-laying system of a wasp escapes from a laboratory and terrorizes the Boston metro area. But this being Fringe, the creature wasn't created by cutting and sewing, since that isn't Science! No, it was genetically engineered, of course.

Now the episode itself was pretty predictable. The monster roams about attacking people and occasionally laying eggs inside its victims. Agent Dunham and super-scientist Walter Bishop must catch it and figure out how to kill its offspring before they burst from poor Agent Francis's gut. Amazingly, they are able to do that, even though Bishop displays a complete lack of understanding of vertebrate genetics, immunology and behavior. The biology was very bad, oh so very bad.

The first problem is that genetic engineering is not like taxidermy. There is no "head gene" that could be introduced into a lizard genome and end up adding hairy big-eared head of a bat to a scaly lizard body. The development of the body plan of animals - both vertebrates and invertebrates - is controlled by the Hox genes, which regulate gene expression during embryonic development. Changes in the regulation and expression patterns of Hox genes are thought to have been a major factor in the evolution of different body plans. And it's not a simple matter of bat Hox proteins functioning differently from lizard Hox proteins - they function similarly even in animals as evolutionarily distant as fruit flies and chickens . Adding a bat's head to a lizard's body would require some very complex engineering of the DNA sequences that regulate gene expression. Add to that the problem that the physiology of a warm-blooded mammal like a bat is very different from a cold-blooded lizard, and it's extrodinarily unlikely that one could engineer a hybrid of the two critters that looks like a fusion of the two. Add on parts of an invertebrate wasp, and it's pretty much complete fantasy.

But despite the implausibility, that didn't really bother me that much. I figure it's dramatic license that allows a visual representation of a hybrid creature.

What bugged me was Dr. Bishop pontificating on the monster's immune system. He confidently claims that bat genes were included in the mix because the bat's special immune system would prevent "massive rejection" of tissue, such as one sees when organ transplants are made. The trouble is that the immune system doesn't work that way. It's one of those little factlets that sounds plausibly sciency if you aren't familiar with the topic, but actually takes a couple of true bits of information and puts them together in a way that is is simply wrong.

It is true that when organs are tranplanted - expecially xenotransplants from different species - they are often seen as foreign tissue and rejected by the immune system. If you created a chimeric creature by sewing together bits and pieces of different animals, tissue rejection would indeed be a problem. But the monster developed from a transgenic embryo. As the immune system develops, it "learns" not to respond to the body's own cells and other molecules. Self-tolerance is one of the characteristics of a normally-functioning immune system, no matter how many different sources of the organism's genes. The monster's bat genes were apparently largely for show - and to provide it with "maternal instincts", of course.

Of course the show is silly on many levels, not the least of which is that crazy Dr. Bishop is supposed to be an expert in chemistry, medicine, genetics and esoteric physics. I guess he doesn't really know everything.

If you are in the US, you can watch the latest episode of Fringe at Hulu.com or in the embedded video below.

Image (top): The mythical Chimera, with the body of a lioness, snake for a tail and an extra goat's head on its back.
Image (bottom): The monster on Fringe.
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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Next Phase of Human Evolution?

Back in February 2003 bioethicist Gregory Stock gave a TED talk where he speculates that biotechnology - particularly genetic engineering and individually tailored personalized medicine - will ultimately "drive" our evolution:

He thinks the human genome project was the first step in revolutionizing medicine, unravel the aging process, allow us to modulate our emotions, and generally improve human life. He thinks human cloning - "birth of a delayed identical twin" - will happen in 5 or 10 years, and be "no big deal". All of that seems pretty straightforward.*

Anyway, he then goes on to what I would consider the very speculative part of his thesis: embryo selection and genetic engineering that will drive human evolution. He talks about selecting embryos that don't have the risk of manic depression, and screening for a desired personalities, which ignore the role of the environment, in addition to our genes.

Even more speculatively, he thinks that the technological solution to introducing genetic changes in our offspring will be the development of an extra artificial chromosome that can be used "program" parents' genetic preferences in their offspring. It's not clear to me how that would work exactly - adding new genes won't necessarily override the genetic program that's already present. If both parents are brown-eyed, it's unlikely that simply adding new DNA sequences will override the genetic code in their offspring that drives the synthesis of brown eye pigment. The problem becomes even more difficult when a trait is affected by many genes.

And it's not clear to me how genetic modification, which he notes will likely be reserved for the wealthy, will drive human evolution in any meaningful way if the majority of humans don't have access to the technology. How will such changes spread in the population when parents with different numbers of chromosomes often produce infertile offspring? Perh

Of course I'm not the only one who has pointed out such issues. The review Stock's 2002 book on the subject, Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future (amazon.com, indiebound.com), in Science makes it sound like he has taken some of those issues into account, so I'm not sure how he envisions genetic engineering carried out by a tiny segment of the population significantly affecting human evolution. I suppose I should read his book.

It's worth nothing the pace of biotechnological development is very difficult to predict. Back in 1998, Stock claimed that human germline engineering "will be a realistic option within a decade or so." Here we are, more than a decade later, and I don't see human germline engineering becoming an option in the immediate future, both for technical and ethical reasons.

* Except for the "no big deal" part - some people still think hormonal birth control is a big evil deal, and that's been around for nearly 50 years. In vitro fertilization also has loud detractors. I doubt the people who are against control of human reproduction today will quickly jump on the cloning bandwagon. He does note that some people will be against human genetic engineering for religious, ethical or other reasons. I suppose the question is whether those people will have a significant effect on the adoption of the technology.


Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Meme: Guardian's Science Fiction and Fantasy Novel List

Back in January, The Guardian came out with a list of "10000 Novels everyone must read", which included a list of 149 science fiction and fantasy titles. It is, not surprisingly, fairly UK-centric, and a lot of entries are arguable. The list seems heavily weighted towards literary fiction and magic realism, and many, like Eco's Foucalt's Pendulum or Golding's Lord of the Flies, I don't consider science fiction or fantasy at all. But there are many speculative fiction classics on the list too. And taking the next logical step, SF Signal has meme-ified the list, and asked other people to play along.

Here's my take, with the novels I've read bolded.

1. Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
2. Brian W Aldiss: Non-Stop (1958)
3. Isaac Asimov: Foundation (1951)
4. Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin (2000)
5. Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
6. Paul Auster: In the Country of Last Things (1987)
7. J.G. Ballard: The Drowned World (1962)
8. J.G. Ballard: Crash (1973)
9. J.G. Ballard: Millennium People (2003)
10. Iain Banks: The Wasp Factory (1984)
11. Iain M Banks: Consider Phlebas (1987)
12. Clive Barker: Weaveworld (1987)
13. Nicola Barker: Darkmans (2007)
14. Stephen Baxter: The Time Ships (1995)
15. Greg Bear: Darwin's Radio (1999)
16. William Beckford: Vathek (1786)
17. Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination (1956)
18. Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
19. Poppy Z Brite: Lost Souls (1992)
20. Charles Brockden Brown: Wieland (1798)
21. Algis Budrys: Rogue Moon (1960)
22. Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita (1966)
23. Edward Bulwer-Lytton: The Coming Race (1871)
24. Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange (1960) (part of it, anyway)
25. Anthony Burgess: The End of the World News (1982)
26. Edgar Rice Burroughs: A Princess of Mars (1912)
27. William Burroughs: Naked Lunch (1959)
28. Octavia Butler: Kindred (1979)
29. Samuel Butler: Erewhon (1872)
30. Italo Calvino: The Baron in the Trees (1957)
31. Ramsey Campbell: The Influence (1988)
32. Lewis Carroll: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
33. Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)
34. Angela Carter: Nights at the Circus (1984)
35. Angela Carter: The Passion of New Eve (1977)
36. Michael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000)
37. Arthur C Clarke: Childhood's End (1953)
38. GK Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)
39. Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004)
40. Michael G Coney: Hello Summer, Goodbye (1975)
41. Douglas Coupland: Girlfriend in a Coma (1998)
42. Mark Danielewski: House of Leaves (2000)
43. Marie Darrieussecq: Pig Tales (1996)
44. Samuel R Delany: The Einstein Intersection (1967)
45. Philip K Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
46. Philip K Dick: The Man in the High Castle (1962)
47. Thomas M Disch: Camp Concentration (1968)
48. Umberto Eco: Foucault's Pendulum (1988)
49. Michel Faber: Under the Skin (2000)
50. John Fowles: The Magus (1966)
51. Neil Gaiman: American Gods (2001)
52. Alan Garner: Red Shift (1973)
53. William Gibson: Neuromancer (1984)
54. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland (1915)
55. William Golding: Lord of the Flies (1954)
56. Joe Haldeman: The Forever War (1974)
57. M John Harrison: Light (2002)
58. Nathaniel Hawthorne: The House of the Seven Gables (1851)
59. Robert A Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)
60. Frank Herbert: Dune (1965)
61. Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game (1943)
62. Russell Hoban: Riddley Walker (1980)
63. James Hogg: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)
64. Michel Houellebecq: Atomised (1998)
65. Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (1932)
66. Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled (1995)
67. Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
68. Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (1898)
69. PD James: The Children of Men (1992)
70. Richard Jefferies: After London; Or, Wild England (1885)
71. Gwyneth Jones: Bold as Love (2001)
72. Franz Kafka: The Trial (1925)
73. Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon (1966)
74. Stephen King: The Shining (1977)
75. Marghanita Laski: The Victorian Chaise-longue (1953)
76. CS Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56)
77. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: Uncle Silas (1864)
78. Stanislaw Lem: Solaris (1961)
79. Ursula K Le Guin: The Earthsea series (1968-1990)
80. Ursula K Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
81. Doris Lessing: Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)
82. MG Lewis: The Monk (1796)
83. David Lindsay: A Voyage to Arcturus (1920)
84. Ken MacLeod: The Night Sessions (2008)
85. Hilary Mantel: Beyond Black (2005)
86. Michael Marshall Smith: Only Forward (1994)
87. Richard Matheson: I Am Legend (1954)
88. Charles Maturin: Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)
89. Patrick McCabe: The Butcher Boy (1992)
90. Cormac McCarthy: The Road (2006)
91. Jed Mercurio: Ascent (2007)
92. China Miéville: The Scar (2002)
93. Andrew Miller: Ingenious Pain (1997)
94. Walter M Miller Jr: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)
95. David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas (2004)
96. Michael Moorcock: Mother London (1988)
97. William Morris: News From Nowhere (1890)
98. Toni Morrison: Beloved (1987)
99. Haruki Murakami: The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1995)
100. Vladimir Nabokov: Ada or Ardor (1969)
101. Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler's Wife (2003)
102. Larry Niven: Ringworld (1970)
103. Jeff Noon: Vurt (1993)
104. Flann O'Brien: The Third Policeman (1967)
105. Ben Okri: The Famished Road (1991)
106. George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-four (1949)
107. Chuck Palahniuk: Fight Club (1996)
108. Thomas Love Peacock: Nightmare Abbey (1818)
109. Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan (1946)
110. Frederik Pohl & CM Kornbluth: The Space Merchants (1953)
111. John Cowper Powys: A Glastonbury Romance (1932)
112. Terry Pratchett: The Discworld series (1983- ) (A few of them)
113. Christopher Priest: The Prestige (1995)
114. Philip Pullman: His Dark Materials (1995-2000)
115. François Rabelais: Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-34)
116. Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)
117. Alastair Reynolds: Revelation Space (2000)
118. Kim Stanley Robinson: The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)
119. JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997)
120. Geoff Ryman: Air (2005)
121. Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses (1988)
122. Joanna Russ: The Female Man (1975)
123. Antoine de Sainte-Exupéry: The Little Prince (1943)
124. José Saramago: Blindness (1995)
125. Will Self: How the Dead Live (2000)
126. Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (1818)
127. Dan Simmons: Hyperion (1989)
128. Olaf Stapledon: Star Maker (1937)
129. Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash (1992)
130. Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
131. Bram Stoker: Dracula (1897)
132. Rupert Thomson: The Insult (1996)
133. JRR Tolkien: The Hobbit (1937)
134. JRR Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings (1954-55)
135. Mark Twain: A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court (1889)
136. Kurt Vonnegut: Sirens of Titan (1959)
137. Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto (1764)
138. Robert Walser: Institute Benjamenta (1909)
139. Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes (1926)
140. Sarah Waters: Affinity (1999)
141. HG Wells: The Time Machine (1895)
142. HG Wells: The War of the Worlds (1898)
143. TH White: The Sword in the Stone (1938)
144. Angus Wilson: The Old Men at the Zoo (1961)
145. Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun (1980-83)
146. Virginia Woolf: Orlando (1928)
147. John Wyndham: Day of the Triffids (1951)
148. John Wyndham: The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)
149. Yevgeny Zamyatin: We (1924)

So by my count, that's 50 of the total. Interestingly, there a number of authors on the list whose work I've read, but I've missed their apparently "essential" work. Some of the books that I haven't read, I've had on my mental "to read" list for a while. Other books and authors I've never even heard of - the names Ramsey Campbell, Angela Carter, Hilary Mantel, Jed Mercurio, and Michael Marshall Smith don't even ring a bell. But now I have heard of them, and that's part of the fun of lists like this.


Saturday, April 04, 2009

Biology in Science Fiction Mega Link Roundup: April 4 Edition

I've slowly - oh so slowly - been going through the links I collected for "future reading" over the past few months. I also had a link roundup post meant to be published in January that somehow never made it out of draft form. The result? A mega maxi link roundup!

General SF Rumination

Gerry Canavan presented a talk on "Science Fiction and Ecological Futurity" (via SF Signal)

Mike Brotherton: Why Science Fiction Rules the World (but not enough!!!)
More and more often these things are aspects of our modern reality that have no precendence in human history. Somehow history gets respect and people say it “repeats itself” even though that is not true. Science fiction isn’t exactly great at prediction, but the process is very useful for meeting the future with open eyes.
Jason Stoddard suggested that the burden of the modern science fiction writer is keeping up with scientific progress. In response, Jeremiah Tolbert explained why Stoddard is wrong. The central issue seems to be how important "realism" in science is to science fiction (via Futurismic).

Meanwhile, Megan at Teen Ink magazine is teaching teenagers how to research science before writing science fiction. (via io9)

BBC talked to Ken MacLeod, Paul Cornell, Iain Banks, and Ian Watson about whether science fiction needs to stay up to date with scientific breakthroughs to be relevant.

Arvind Mishra has a more detailed look at the First National Discussion on science fiction in India.

The Consumerist reports on a study showing people rate harder-to-pronounce words as "riskier". It's true for food additives and rolloer coasters - maybe it's true for alien names too?

Written Word

Vice Magazine interviewed Ursula Le Guin (via SF Signal):
Some sf writers decided a while ago that true sf can only be based on the so-called hard sciences—astronomy, physics, chemistry, engineering, computer science, and so on. The word “hard” brings some gender luggage along with it. And sure enough, these guys find stories based on the “soft,” or social, sciences to be a debased and squashy form of the genre. They see it as chick lit for geeks. So, OK. If anybody wants to build a ghetto inside the ghetto and live there, fine with me. But I wish this sectarianism hadn’t infected Wikipedia. If they want to call my stuff social science fiction, that’s fair enough. But so much of what I write isn’t sf at all.
Graham Sleight at Locus online: Yesterday's Tomorrows: Ursula K. Le Guin
[Left Hand of Darkness] traces a slow process of discovery — of Winter and its inhabitants. In that respect, in that it's about finding out, it's a perfectly science-fictional work. (The later Ace edition carries a provocative introduction by Le Guin, in which she administers a few well-judged kicks to the idea of sf as narrowly extrapolative or predictive.) We find out, for instance, via Chapter 7 how and why the Gethenian biology was created. This chapter is an ethnologist's report on the planet — what would, in other circumstances, be considered an "infodump." But Le Guin is so thoughtful a writer, the implications of her thought-experiments so thoroughly and deeply felt, that you find yourself wanting to hear this information, even if it is couched in as dry a form as this.

Mur Lafferty at Tor.com reviews Scott Sigler's Contagious.

Peter Watts reports that his novel Blindsight is "going to be a required text for a Biological Psychology course at the University of Miami"

Brian Switek at Laelaps rants about Monster, a creationist anthropology thriller:
Peretti also mentions that his favorite author (and chief writing influence) was Michael Crichton, and this makes sense. Not only does the book have an anti-science bent, but it reads as a sort of mash-up between Jurassic Park, Congo, and Icons of Evolution. Even though it is a monster story, the author makes it clear that the real monsters are the immoral evolutionists who will stop at almost nothing to uphold their crumbling intellectual doctrine.
Jeff Carlson writes about the background behind his novel Plague Year

Nancy Kress reviews Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and talks about "cloning-for-organ-donation" in SF in general.

Kress also looks at genetically modified mosquitos, as they appeared in her biothriller Stinger, and in real life.

Jo Walton writes at Tor.com about Octavia Butler's Survivor, a novel Butler repudiated and refused to be a allowed to be reprinted. Part of her problem is the simple interbreeding of humans and aliens, and the way the novel depicts race and color (literally).

Jo Walton also looks at aliens and sapience in H. Beam Piper's Fuzzy novels

Annalee Newitz at io9.com: The Rise of Science Among Insects in Greg Egan's Incandescence

NK Jemisin reviewed Naomi Novik's Temeraire novel Victory of Eagles last August for Fantasy Magazine and the discussion touched on alternative evolution.

Peter Watts posts a proposal for a new novel, Dumbspeech.

DamienBarret has a great Flickr set of his visit to Alan Dean Foster's house. He got to see Foster's awards and decorations including a "fossilized critter" that "might help ADF with his depictions of the Thranx or other insectile cratures in his books."


The Oyster's Garter takes a look at what the Earth was really like 150,000 years ago, when the Battlestar Galactica folks landed in Africa.

James F. McGrath at Exploring Our Matrix writes about John the robot in Sarah Connor Chronicles who questions why God didn't make humans with more ball socket joints and uses to talk about evolutionand "the image of God" (via io9)

Science Not Fiction talks about the real science of Sanctuary's abnormals, gives the lowdown on Sanctuary's Bad Bad Prions, and looks at the series' gene therapy

Charlie Jane Anders at io9: Kyle XY: How Not To Do a TV Series Finale

Science Not Fiction: Battlestar Galactica, Self-Repairing Material and biofilms


ScienceOnline: Alexis Gambis brings science and film together to create a new genre of science fiction (ScienceOnline is a project of NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program)

George Dvorsky posts about young filmmaker Jason Silva's short film "The Immortalists", which is "a love letter to science and philosophy that explores the idea of engineered radical life extension and biological immortality"

T. Ryan Gregory at Genomicron: Would you act as a consultant on a scifi movie? And more importantly, would you accept compensation if you did?

Jonathan Fahey at Forbes.com writes about The Science Behind 'Watchmen' and the teaming of Hollywood with scientists

John Scalzi @ SciFi Scanner on Video Game Movies:
In point of fact, the average gamer is nearly thirty, not dumb, and while he may enjoy bombs, blood and babes, I'm willing to bet he'd happily see a movie that doesn't assume he's stupid. When I watched Doom, the scene where a scientist explained that a certain percentage of the human genome has never been mapped (and the part that hasn't, well, that's your soul, you see) made me want to throw a rock through my TV -- which is ironic, as the film stars The Rock.
SciFi Scanner looks at directors that include some real science in their science fiction. Included are Andrew Niccol, director of Gattaca and Steven Spielberg, director of Jurassic Park (and lots of other movies, of course).

Matthe Nisbet at Framing Science: "What about the "Gattaca" Effect on Perceptions of Medical Cloning?"

James Sanford takes another look at GATTACA, plucked from Rotten Tomatoes' list of "Ten Sci-Fi Flicks for the Thinking Man... or Woman".

At Nature Jascha Hoffman reviews films about science at the Sundance Film Festival (subscription required). LabLit.com points out that "it seems a lot of this was more medical than scientific, with tales of mental breakdown, bipolar disorder, autism and psychopathology."

Scientific American 60-Second Science: Science at the Oscars

Ain't it Cool News reports that Ronald D. Moore's prequel to The Thing will be directed by Matthijs Van Heijningen, who is an experienced director of commercials. Hopefully he can make the transition from the 15 second to 90 minute storytelling. In any case, it's supposedly heavily based on John W. Campbell's 1938 novella "Who Goes There?", which I'd think makes it a remake of John Carpenter's 1982 The Thing, which itself was a remake of the 1951 move The Thing From Another World, rather than a prequel. Don't moviemakers realize there are SF stories out there that have never been made into movies? But what do I know.

Darren Naish at Tetrapod Zoology reports on the whereabouts of the Krayt dragon skeleton from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

BoingBoinger Xeni Jardin reviews her favorite B-Movie - The Food of the Goods - for Fancast.

Repo! The Genetic Opera is coming to DVD. Genevieve Valentine at Tor.com rounds up the special features. BloodyDisguisting.com has an exclusive peek at the DVD's "Sing-Along" feature.

io9 has a nice clip of Vegan Horror, Sheep Punching, and a Lot of Fart Jokes (with a clip from Black Sheep)


Torsten Reil gave a TED talk on how he studies biology to make realistic animation.

John Holbo at Crooked Timber points out that Jack Kirby's comic books are really bad on evolution and Norm Doering has more on creationist misconceptions about evolution that seem to be based on comic book science.

An article in the January 2009 issue of Scientific American looked at the depiction of evolution in the game Spore.

NotCot visited Alien Fresh Jerky in Baker - a small town out in the California desert between Barstow and Las Vegas. Despite the name, they don't sell jerky made from aliens, which might or might not be tasty. No, what they sell is beef jerky made from abducted cows and other alien-related products. Sounds awesome.

Correlation vs. causation: There are fewer babies and fewer storks - is it pollution? or space aliens?


Thursday, April 02, 2009

Elizabeth Moon, Autism, and The Speed of Dark

Today is World Autism Awareness Day, and so I thought it would be appropriate to point to Elizabeth Moon's essay "Autism: Past, Present, Future, Speculative." The topic is an intensely personal one for her, because her son - now an adult - is autistic. She writes:
One of the things which impressed me about our son, even before he could communicate in signs, gestures, or words, was the healthy quality of his emotional life. Yes, he screamed when he was upset, and I would have preferred a "Mom, I don't want to do that." But the things he enjoyed were reasonable, healthy things to enjoy: food that tasted good, music he liked, running around on the grass on a spring day. There was nothing weird about what he liked. His dislikes were harder to understand, but made sense once I realized that his sensory input was different than mine, and his responses were stronger. He felt hot when I barely felt warm. Tags in clothes (that I find only mildly irritating) bothered him a lot. He liked some colors more than others. Certain textures and flavors in food bothered him more. He liked some people and didn't warm up to others. These are perfectly normal responses in a small child--just on a different scale.
Moon was inspired by her son, as well as the conversations she had with other parents of autistic children and with autistic people she met online to write The Speed of Dark, a near-future novel in which the story is told from the perspective of a high functioning autistic man.
It would have been impossible [to write The Speed of Dark] *without* the years of experience in watching an autistic child's abilities develop. No research can compare with that. It was a difficult book to write once I committed to doing nearly all of it from "inside" Lou, but that was a technical difficulty, as any writer will recognize. It's hard to hold the focus that strongly on a single character for that long. What it boils down to is that parenting a child with autism is a difficult job; writing about it is far easier.
Lou is a bioinfomatics specialist with a special talent for pattern recognition. As Jo Walton points out in a recent review, his perspective is an alien one:
There’s a great immediacy to Lou’s point of view, and it’s all entirely comprehensible, if deeply weird. Moon chose to include a few brief sections from the points of view of Lou’s friend Tom and boss Pete Aldrin, which probably do make the plot flow more smoothly but which always jerk me out of the complete immersion in Lou’s perceptions. It’s amazing how much of a life he manages to lead, despite how acutely he feels textures and how much he needs a regulating routine. Besides that, Lou sees patterns in the world, patterns that other people don’t see, patterns that are really there and help him cope. Sometimes this is just weird, like when he wants to park on a prime number spot, or counts floor tiles, and sometimes it saves his life.
Lou's bosses recommend that he undergo an experimental procedure that will alter his brain and cure his autism, and he must decide whether to undergo the treatment.

I haven't read The Speed of Dark but I have read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which also has an autistic narrator. I'm interested in seeing how the novels compare in their portrayal of the autistic perspective, and I've put Moon's book on my "check out from the library' list.

The Speed of Dark won the 2003 Nebula award for best novel.

See also: The Speed of Dark blog

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Crossroads: Free Korean SF Stories in English

Crossroads is a science web site launched in 2005 by the Asia Pacific Center for Theoretical Physics with the theme "vision for Science, Future, and Humanity". It includes essays and articles in Korean and English about science and culture, as wells as a number of science fiction short stories. I'm not sure how the English translations were created, but I suspect that they don't do the original stories justice.

Here are a few with biological themes:
(via Gord Sellar and the World SF News Blog)
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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Molecular Biology or Thundercats?

Molecular Biology Jargon or Minor Thundercats Character? How many can you get right?

(via Miss Prism)


Did science fiction invent "genetic engineering"?

Jeff Prucher, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary's science fiction project (and author of Brave New Words) posted a list of "nine words you might think came from science but which are really from science fiction" on the Oxford University Press blog (hat tip SF Signal). Among them:
2. Genetic engineering. The other science that received its name from a science fiction story, in this case Jack Williamson’s novel Dragon's Island which was coincidentally published in the same year as “Liar!” The occupation of genetic engineer took a few more years to be named, this time by Poul Anderson.
I immediately thought "ooh interesting blog fodder", and did a bit more research.

It turns out that Williamson discussed Dragon's Island in a 2002 interview with Science Fiction Weekly:
I used to claim I'd been first to use the term genetic engineering, in my novel Dragon's Island, published in 1951, but now I understand that some scientist beat me by a couple of years.
Oops. So what's the real story?

One of the things that makes researching the use of scientific jargon difficult is that it's largely confined to technical publications, most of which aren't searchable beyond the title and abstract of the articles. If you are looking for a term that first came into use before the mid-1980s or so, it can be well nigh impossible.

However, the journal Science has made its archives searchable, way back to the first issues in the late 1800s (a serious treasure trove if you are interested in the history of American science). A quick search for the term "genetic engineering" before 1951 and I turned up the following article:
Stern C. "Selection and Eugenics" Science 26 August 1949 110: 201-208 [DOI: 10.1126/science.110.2852.201]

Human genetics concerns our own as well as future generations. Genetic counseling is largely devoted to individual problems, but the social implications of specific advice usually have not been disregarded. Eugenic thinking has always emphasized the well-being of mankind, even though much eugenic counseling was based on inadequate knowledge and has been harmful. In the future more knowledge will be gathered and will aid wise planning. Then genetic and eugenic counseling will become the foundation of human genetic engineering.

The article uses the term "genetic engineering" in the breeding sense, rather than the molecular biological sense - not surprising, since this was several years before Watson and Crick published the structure of DNA. At the time there was no scientific method available for modifying an individual's - or population's - genes other than zapping with X-rays or other mutagens or traditional selection and breeding methods.

Similar searches of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (back to 1915) and Nature (back to 1950) came up empty. So, while Williamson certainly isn't the first to use the phrase, it doesn't appear to have been in common usage.

And the idea of manipulating genetic material weren't new to Williamson either. The Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Literature traced the the idea in pulp fiction to Clement Fézandie's first "Doctor Hackensaw" story (1921) and Norman L. Knight's "Crisis in Utopia" (1940), which used the term "tectogenesis."1

Genetics and eugenics were hot topics in th 1930s and 1940s. The Nobel Prize awarded Hermann J Muller in 1946 likely raised both awareness of genetics and that X-rays and radiation could introduce heritable mutations among the general public. As Muller said in his Nobel Prize lecture:
We see then that production of mutations by radiation is a method, capable of being turned in various directions, both for the analysis of the germ plasm itself, and of the organism which is in a sense an outgrowth of that germ plasm. It is to be hoped that it may also, in certain fields, prove of increasing practical use in plant and animal improvement, in the service of man. So far as direct practical application in man himself is concerned, however, we are as yet a long way from practicing any intentional selection over our own germ plasm, although like most species we are already encumbered by countless undesirable mutations, from which no individual is immune.
By the time Williamson wrote Dragon's Island, the neither idea of intentional genetic manipulation or the term "genetic engineering" were new. He did, however, make the science entertaining, which is what science fiction does best.

1. "Tectogenesis" was the term used by Norman Knight and James Blish to mean the "direct, surgical, manipulation of chromosomes."

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