I just finished Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and found it to be the best book I have read in awhile. It fits the themes of this blog, but I really don’t want to say too much more about it up front, because it employs some really interesting story telling techniques that I think are much more interesting to discover as you go along than to know about up front. So I don’t recommend reading a review or even description of the book, just read the book itself.
Most frightening stories:
- A misapplied equation might have crashed the world financial system in 2007.
- Shell was well aware of climate change science in 1991, and made a movie to educate the public about it. But nothing was done.
- The U.S. health care market is screwed up seemingly beyond repair. Why can’t we have nice things? Oh right, because our politicians represent big business, not voters. Also, we have forgotten the difference between a dialog and an argument.
Most hopeful stories:
- There are ideas for better traffic lights.
- Tesla’s market share eclipsed Ford’s. Mercedes is promising self-driving taxis within three years. I put these in the win column because creative destruction of the automobile industry status quo is long overdue. In other creative destruction news, e-commerce is starting to eat the bricks-and-mortar retail industry alive, possibly because people are realizing they can buy stuff and have time left over for things other than sitting in their cars on the way to and from stores.
- The value added tax is a boring but good idea. Why can’t the U.S. have nice things? Oh, right…
Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:
- I first heard of David Fleming, who wrote a “dictionary” that provides “deft and original analysis of how our present market-based economy is destroying the very foundations―ecological, economic, and cultural― on which it depends, and his core focus: a compelling, grounded vision for a cohesive society that might weather the consequences.”
- Judges are relying on algorithms to inform probation, parole, and sentencing decisions.
- I finished reading Rainbow’s End, a fantastic Vernor Vinge novel about augmented reality in the near future, among other things.
On a crowded train platform, Interpol agent Kenneth Durand feels the sting of a needle—and his transformation begins…
In 2045 Kenneth Durand leads Interpol’s most effective team against genetic crime, hunting down black market labs that perform “vanity edits” on human embryos for a price. These illegal procedures augment embryos in ways that are rapidly accelerating human evolution—preying on human-trafficking victims to experiment and advance their technology.
With the worlds of genetic crime and human trafficking converging, Durand and his fellow Interpol agents discover that one figure looms behind it all: Marcus Demang Wyckes, leader of a powerful and sophisticated cartel known as the Huli jing.
But the Huli jing have identified Durand, too. After being forcibly dosed with a radical new change agent, Durand wakes from a coma weeks later to find he’s been genetically transformed into someone else—his most wanted suspect: Wyckes.
Now a fugitive, pursued through the genetic underworld by his former colleagues and the police, Durand is determined to restore his original DNA by locating the source of the mysterious—and highly valuable—change agent. But Durand hasn’t anticipated just how difficult locating his enemy will be. With the technology to genetically edit the living, Wyckes and his Huli jing could be anyone and everyone—and they have plans to undermine identity itself.
I only understand a few words of this paper in Cell, like “human”, “pig”, “embryo”, and “implantation”, but they are enough to raise both my eyebrows. I’ll quote the last paragraph of the paper rather than the abstract because it contains a little less jargon. There are some understandable, or possibly hair-raising depending on your point of view, pictures in the paper too.
The procedures and observations reported here on the capability of human pluripotent stem cells to integrate and differentiate in a ungulate embryo, albeit at a low level and efficiency, when optimized, may constitute a first step towards realizing the potential of interspecies blastocyst complementation with hPSCs. In particular, they may provide a better understanding of human embryogenesis, facilitate the development and implementation of humanized animal drug test platforms, as well as offer new insights on the onset and progression of human diseases in an in vivo setting. Ultimately, these observations also raise the possibility of xeno-generating transplantable human tissues and organs towards addressing the worldwide shortage of organ donors.
Of course rich people are going to have copies of all their vital organs cloned in pigs as soon as this technology is available. And some mad dictator or Bond villain on an island somewhere is going to be breeding pig people. Now speaking of madmen on islands, there was a story about a certain Dr. Moreau…but it was only a story, right?
“Monsters manufactured!” said I. “Then you mean to tell me—”
“Yes. These creatures you have seen are animals carven and wrought into new shapes. To that, to the study of the plasticity of living forms, my life has been devoted. I have studied for years, gaining in knowledge as I go. I see you look horrified, and yet I am telling you nothing new. It all lay in the surface of practical anatomy years ago, but no one had the temerity to touch it. It is not simply the outward form of an animal which I can change. The physiology, the chemical rhythm of the creature, may also be made to undergo an enduring modification,—of which vaccination and other methods of inoculation with living or dead matter are examples that will, no doubt, be familiar to you. A similar operation is the transfusion of blood,—with which subject, indeed, I began. These are all familiar cases. Less so, and probably far more extensive, were the operations of those mediaeval practitioners who made dwarfs and beggar-cripples, show-monsters,—some vestiges of whose art still remain in the preliminary manipulation of the young mountebank or contortionist. Victor Hugo gives an account of them in ‘L’Homme qui Rit.’—But perhaps my meaning grows plain now. You begin to see that it is a possible thing to transplant tissue from one part of an animal to another, or from one animal to another; to alter its chemical reactions and methods of growth; to modify the articulations of its limbs; and, indeed, to change it in its most intimate structure.
“And yet this extraordinary branch of knowledge has never been sought as an end, and systematically, by modern investigators until I took it up! Some of such things have been hit upon in the last resort of surgery; most of the kindred evidence that will recur to your mind has been demonstrated as it were by accident,—by tyrants, by criminals, by the breeders of horses and dogs, by all kinds of untrained clumsy-handed men working for their own immediate ends. I was the first man to take up this question armed with antiseptic surgery, and with a really scientific knowledge of the laws of growth. Yet one would imagine it must have been practised in secret before. Such creatures as the Siamese Twins—And in the vaults of the Inquisition. No doubt their chief aim was artistic torture, but some at least of the inquisitors must have had a touch of scientific curiosity.”
“But,” said I, “these things—these animals talk!”
He said that was so, and proceeded to point out that the possibility of vivisection does not stop at a mere physical metamorphosis. A pig may be educated. The mental structure is even less determinate than the bodily. In our growing science of hypnotism we find the promise of a possibility of superseding old inherent instincts by new suggestions, grafting upon or replacing the inherited fixed ideas. Very much indeed of what we call moral education, he said, is such an artificial modification and perversion of instinct; pugnacity is trained into courageous self-sacrifice, and suppressed sexuality into religious emotion. And the great difference between man and monkey is in the larynx, he continued,—in the incapacity to frame delicately different sound-symbols by which thought could be sustained. In this I failed to agree with him, but with a certain incivility he declined to notice my objection. He repeated that the thing was so, and continued his account of his work.
I asked him why he had taken the human form as a model. There seemed to me then, and there still seems to me now, a strange wickedness for that choice.
He confessed that he had chosen that form by chance. “I might just as well have worked to form sheep into llamas and llamas into sheep. I suppose there is something in the human form that appeals to the artistic turn more powerfully than any animal shape can.
Here is the Amazon description of a new(ish) book by Donald Worster called Shrinking the Earth: The Rise and Decline of American Abundance.
The discovery of the Americas around 1500 AD was an extraordinary watershed in human experience. It gave rise to the modern period of human ecology, a phenomenon global in scope that set in motion profound changes in almost every society on earth. This new period, which saw the depletion of the lands of the New World, proved tragic for some, triumphant for others, and powerfully affecting for all.
In this work, acclaimed environmental historian Donald Worster takes a global view in his examination of the ways in which complex issues of worldwide abundance and scarcity have shaped American society and behavior over three centuries. Looking at the limits nature imposes on human ambitions, he questions whether America today is in the midst of a shift from a culture of abundance to a culture of limits-and whether American consumption has become reliant on the global South. Worster engages with key political, economic, and environmental thinkers while presenting his own interpretation of the role of capitalism and government in issues of wealth, abundance, and scarcity. Acknowledging the earth’s agency throughout human history, Shrinking the Earth offers a compelling explanation of how we have arrived where we are and a hopeful way forward on a planet that is no longer as large as it once was.
It’s interesting to think that humanity took a few thousand years to “deplete” Europe and Asia, and now we have depleted North and South America in just a few hundred years. If there were another sizable continent out there, we could probably deplete it in a few decades, and the one after that in a few years, then months, etc.
But there aren’t any more out there, unless and until we are talking about going into space. This reminds me of a couple plausible near-future science fiction series on exactly this theme: Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson and Coyote by Allen Steele. Both worth reading, although I found the latter a bit more entertaining.
3 most frightening stories
- The U.S. government’s dominant ideology of free trade and globalization may have roots in U.S. government propaganda designed to provide hidden subsidies to Japan and Korea, our Cold War allies in Asia. And resulting financial deregulation in the 1990s may have been the beginning of the end for the U.S. empire.
- A new study says that ice melting in Antarctica could double sea level rise projections in the long term. Meanwhile, in the short term, the drought in Southeast and South Asia is getting more and more severe.
- Robert Paxton says Trump is pretty much a fascist. Although conditions are different and he doesn’t believe everything the fascists believed. Umberto Eco once said that fascists don’t believe anything, they will say anything and then what they do once in office has nothing to do with what they said.
3 most hopeful stories
- Brookings has a new report on encouraging innovation in the water sector. A lot of it is just about charging more, and it should be fairly obvious why that is politically controversial even if it is the right thing economically. But the report did have an explanation of decoupling (p. 28) which I found helpful. Decoupling is an answer to the puzzle of how a utility can support conservation without losing its revenue base.
- The U.S. Department of Energy says the technical potential of solar panels is to supply about 39% of all energy use. And electric cars may be about to come roaring back in a big way.
- Better management of agricultural soil might be able to play a big role in carbon sequestration.
3 most interesting stories
- Beyond: Our Future in Space is a new book on space colonization. It caught my eye because I also read Coyote by Allen Steele in April, which besides being a supposedly plausible story of near-future space colonization, was just a really entertaining read. Luckily, there are options for hiding our current planet if aliens decide they would like to colonize us.
- Virtual reality is coming.
- Genes can now be programmed just like circuits.
Another book I’m reading (actually listening to) right now is the The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. This is biopunk, possibly my favorite genre when it is done well. I won’t spoil the plot below, but I’ll tell you some of the background on what is going on in the society about halfway through the book, so if you prefer to read it and discover this gradually, then stop reading now!
The interesting thing about this society (Southeast Asia, supposedly about 100 years in the future), is that it has very advanced scientific and technological knowledge compared to our current society, and yet it is extremely energy and resource poor compared to our current society. All food seems to be genetically engineered by a few western companies (“calorie companies”). At some point there has been a catastrophic loss of biodiversity. At the point in the book where I am now, there are hints that these companies themselves have engineered the pests and diseases that brought this about. We don’t know why – maybe as a form of competition to attack each others products, or maybe to attack non-genetically engineered organisms. Whatever the original strategy, these plagues have devastated natural ecosystems and come back to attack the company crops themselves, and also to sometimes jump to humans, so that everyone is sick and starving and the companies are trying to hunt down any surviving stashes of biodiversity.
The society is also extremely energy poor. Climate change and sea level rise have been devastating, and fossil fuels seem to be entirely gone with the exception of coal, the latter rare and used only by the government for pumping in a last-ditch effort to keep the ocean at bay. There is some methane available from digesting animal manure, again tightly controlled by the government. For mobile power, they wind “springs” using animal power, including “megadonts” which sound like reconstituted mammoths. I have a couple questions on plausibility here, neither of which detracts from the story which I am really enjoying. First, which such advanced biological technology developed over 100 years, it is surprising not to see solar power, wind power, fuel cells, or even nuclear power. In fact, there seems to be no form of electricity at all. Second, I imagine mammoths would eat a lot. Let’s say you grow food, feed the mammoths, have them wind the springs, then digest their manure to obtain methane all very efficiently. I find it hard to believe that if you took whatever you are feeding the mammoths and digested it directly, you would not obtain more energy. The exception might be if the mammoths go foraging themselves and eat something that grows naturally on land that will not grow anything else, and that particular plant is digestible by mammoths but not by methane-generating bacteria. With a very limited range of plants available, maybe this is not all that implausible in the bizarre universe of this book.
Here’s the epilogue from The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1898):
One cannot choose but wonder. Will he ever return? It may be that he swept back into the past, and fell among the blood-drinking, hairy savages of the Age of Unpolished Stone; into the abysses of the Cretaceous Sea; or among the grotesque saurians, the huge reptilian brutes of the Jurassic times. He may even now—if I may use the phrase—be wandering on some plesiosaurus-haunted Oolitic coral reef, or beside the lonely saline lakes of the Triassic Age. Or did he go forward, into one of the nearer ages, in which men are still men, but with the riddles of our own time answered and its wearisome problems solved? Into the manhood of the race: for I, for my own part, cannot think that these latter days of weak experiment, fragmentary theory, and mutual discord are indeed man’s culminating time! I say, for my own part. He, I know—for the question had been discussed among us long before the Time Machine was made—thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end. If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so. But to me the future is still black and blank—is a vast ignorance, lit at a few casual places by the memory of his story. And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers—shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle—to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.
What will the next global conflict look like? Find out in this ripping, near-futuristic thriller.
The United States, China, and Russia eye each other across a twenty-first century version of the Cold War, which suddenly heats up at sea, on land, in the air, in outer space, and in cyberspace. The fighting involves everything from stealthy robotic–drone strikes to old warships from the navy’s “ghost fleet.” Fighter pilots unleash a Pearl Harbor–style attack; American veterans become low-tech insurgents; teenage hackers battle in digital playgrounds; Silicon Valley billionaires mobilize for cyber-war; and a serial killer carries out her own vendetta. Ultimately, victory will depend on blending the lessons of the past with the weapons of the future.
Ghost Fleet is a page-turning speculative thriller in the spirit of The Hunt for Red October. The debut novel by two leading experts on the cutting edge of national security, it is unique in that every trend and technology featured in the novel — no matter how sci-fi it may seem — is real, or could be soon.
The gold standard, for me, will always be Clancy’s 1986 Red Storm Rising, which was about a hypothetical U.S.-Soviet Union War. He tried to pull an encore of sorts in 2001 with The Bear and the Dragon, but it just wasn’t that great. A similar hypothetical U.S.-China war novel is 1999’s Dragon Strike, by Humphrey Hawksley, which was a little better than the Clancy version even though Clancy invented the genre (and you wonder if Clancy read Dragon Strike before he published his novel, or maybe had already written the novel and was annoyed someone beat him to the punch with similar subject matter).
One more future war novel I found interesting and thought provoking was Deep Sound Channel by Joe Buff. In that one, yet another German-led axis of evil arises. The novel focuses on the hypothetical use of nuclear weapons in fairly limited and tactical ways in naval and submarine warfare.
Maybe I like these books for the chance to put my petty everyday concerns and irritations in perspective.
Remember when you read Starship Troopers, and found that it wasn’t quite the book you thought it would be? But then you decided even though it wasn’t the book you thought it would be, it was a pretty good book, maybe even better than you thought it was going to be, and you forgave it for not being the book you thought it was going to be. Well, when you start reading Armor, you think it is going to be the book that you thought Starship Troopers was going to be. About half way through, you decide it is not the book you thought Starship Troopers was going to be after all, but it is a good book in its own right, maybe better than the book you thought it was going to be, which was the book you thought Starship Troopers was going to be.
Then you read Enders Game, and The Forever War, and you thought, gee, there sure are a lot of books about fighting alien bugs, or bug aliens, or whatever. And they are all actually pretty good, even though none of them is exactly the book you thought Starship Troopers was going to be. And entertaining as all this is, you really, really hope there are no actual bug aliens out there.