Category Archives: Reading

Reasons to Sci-Fi

I’ve heard many times that science fiction is about space ships. Way too many times to ignore it, so I wanted to address this massive misconception. Science fiction is about our future potential as a technological civilization. SF stories are told about a future based on the application of (hypothetical or actual) technologies and about what the potential outcome might be, whether good, bad or mad. Real-life spaceships are awesome and the men and women who get blasted into orbit regularly should be considered heroes, but those incredible feats are achievements of science, engineering and exploration. They might have been considered science fiction at the beginning of the twentieth century,  but they are real and we’re living them now. Remember, your smartphone was also a matter of science fiction a mere 15 years ago, yet today we’re living out that fact. Add tablets and the Web to that equation.

Science fiction as a genre is a way of discovering how the human condition could change, how societies do or don’t adopt certain technologies, and the subsequent culture clashes between pre-, non-, and post-adopters. We get to see how humanity may fare in an increasingly complex world filled with knowledge and technology we don’t have (yet). It explores hypothetical situations and gives hypothetical answers to questions we’re unwilling to face or might not even fully understand, simply because we don’t have the capacity or imagination to do so. SF can at least give us a snapshot,  a glimpse of what may be or not be.

It is, in short, about a potential future. Whether a plausible or a possible future, is a different question.

What should we then consider science fiction? Here are five paradigms or perspectives I think should be considered part and parcel of science fiction. The list is bar far not exhaustive, merely scratching the surface:

  • Time and scale What happens to us or the universe in the long term? A million or a billion years from now, things will have changed in way we cannot predict or understand. Think about time travel or time manipulation, all those tantalising what-if scenarios, like encouraging Hitler to seek a career as a monk or not asking that girl out back in 91, what would happen to our reality?
  • Evolution and adaptation – Are we the end point? Will we change dramatically? Or are we the stepping stone for something bigger and more powerful like a functioning AI? Telling stories where humanity itself is at stake is the key here.
  • Adaptation of certain technologies Do we choose to use a particular piece of technology or not? What happens to those who use it? What happens to those who don’t? The social, political and ecological outcomes might vary wildly and we should explore them.
  • Into Inner SpaceWhat do intangible elements, like ideas of dreams and identity mean? Can we explore them or even try to explain them? What if we do and don’t like the answers?  
  • Into Outer SpaceSPACESHIPS! And yes, science fiction can be about the exploration of space, colonising worlds, discovering new life and the conflicts that would ensue. What will that mean for us? Would it save us or doom us?

Stories like The Windup Girl, Brave New World, 20.000 Leagues Under the Sea, Red/Green/Blue Mars, Frankenstein, 1984, Dune and Childhood’s End create wondrous and terrifying narratives aimed at questioning and exploring key aspects of changes to our society, if the scenarios play out.

I was born in the late seventies. Back then my family had turn-dial black and white TV with 8 local channels, our telephone was still tethered to the wall and my dad drove an Morris Mini. To visit a friend I had to walk several blocks to knock and ask if he or she wanted to go play, because often they wouldn’t be near the phone. So while I was growing up I dreamed of a future with easier access to knowledge.

Today we literally have access to the world from our smartphone, a device so small it boggles the mind how we made that in my short lifetime, and in the immediate future we’ll be facing personal drones, driverless vehicles, 3D-printing in our garages and personal digital assistants that are more like Tony Stark’s “Jarvis” than Siri. We live in the future and the world is only going to move faster. So the role of science fiction is becoming more and more complicated and fascinating, and has to deal with ethics and morals of technological progress by predicting the potential change and fallout from progress.

Like someone more articulate said:

Science fiction is an existential metaphor that allows us to tell stories about the human condition. Isaac Asimov once said, “Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinded critics and philosophers of today, but the core of science fiction, its essence, has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.

But what do you think of science fiction? Are deeper philosophical musings getting squashed by big shiny tech toys? Let me know and stick around for weekly posts on reading, writing and life in general.

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Encouraging a reading culture

69317437The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled  – Plutarch

Hey you… You there. Yeah you, reading these words. As you obviously like to read, you should read more. A lot more. Finish this post, then go pick up something else, like Fatherland or Supergods or Bite of the Mango (all on my personal reading list). Or pick anything else really. Keep kindling that mental flame because you’re going to need it. If your mind lacks proper kindling it will burn without direction, get confused and burn your house down… Admittedly this mixed metaphor lacks a bit of je ne sais quoi, but you know what I mean.

And I’m probably preaching to the choir, but it still needs to be said. Reading is important, not only on a personal, but a social level as well. When you encourage a reading culture, you really encourage a thinking culture. And who could argue that we need more thinkers? Take the Brexit vote, the latest abysmal example that springs to mind. An entire country goes to vote on an issue that will have national and international consequences and sets the tone for many years to come, and the very day after the vote Google surges with queries like “What is the EU?” and  “What does it mean to leave the EU?”, which exposes a serious lack of fundamental knowledge.

Why didn’t people know anything about what they were voting against? Is that anybody’s fault that information was scarce? Or was it scarce? (Also, let’s not get into the discussion, why they wouldn’t gather information before the vote?) If you want to point fingers, you could argue that it’s a failure of education, a failure of the system and the culture. I can’t comment on your specific country’s basic education, but there’s a lot of recent criticism about the declining standards in schools becoming the norm. And that may very well be the case, yet that is only one side of the coin. Albeit educating young people about current affairs would be important, this is more about the generation who’s already out of school and will actually be voting.

Now, what do we need to do counterbalance that? What can we do? The Brexit debate itself was crippled by misinformation (not to mention apparent lies slapped on the side of busses), yet anyone who dared to point that out, was either sidelined or simply ignored. When specialists and experts in their field came out to say “Look, this doesn’t add up, we need to think about the…” they were promptly dismissed with a nod and were told “Let’s not listen to experts”.

If this is the situation we are in, then we need to encourage people (especially people who don’t listen to experts) to go and do the work or research themselves. They bloody well need to read more. What can we do, as a culture, to encourage more reading and more critical thinking? And I’m not pretending to have the answer, but a few suggestions worth considering:

  • How about we encourage a diverse approach to reading? Stop saying that audio-books, comics or anything else isn’t reading (whether it’s a specific genre or author), and be happy that person is reading.
  • How about after we stop belittling certain types of reading, we start suggesting more? I see you like X, have you read Y? You may actually like it.
  • How about we share the contents of a book or any other topic? My experience of reading X might be completely different and my learning points completely different. Book clubs shouldn’t be a thing of the past.  
  • Most importantly how about we don’t take anything a book (or the side of the bus) claims for granted? You read the claim, now take it with a pinch of salt and go and verify it. Let’s be inquisitive and curious about the world, people.

We need to venerate long/short/any form of writing, doing actual research, being knowledgeable and well educated. We need to learn again how to think for ourselves and to be able to make our arguments count, and all of it starts with reading and thinking more.

Note, this is not the end of my thoughts on these topics. I barely scratched the surface. Have a lot more to say about social bubbles, sceptical thinking, etc. Who knows… Adding some more kindling to the mind fire.

But what do you think? And if you are reading Fatherland or Supergods or
Bite of the Mango, let me know. Would love to have a chat about them. Also tell me if I’m wrong, you might think a poorly educated and misinformed public is a good thing.

Comment, like, share and subscribe. Stay tuned!

 

5 Unusual Reasons for Summer Reading

While summer in England, my current country of residence, is a mixed bag of clouds, rain, fog, and the occasional 2 minutes of raging sun and heat that sets gingers aflame with its fury, it does give much needed time for reading and reflection. There are enough what you should read this summer posts to fill a Stephen King novel. If you want suggestions, go read one of those, like the one I link to above. If you need an incentive, read on.

So why should you read during your summer holidays, besides that you have the time, it’s quality entertainment, and it’s relaxing? Well… read on. Continue reading 5 Unusual Reasons for Summer Reading

The Bucket List

A public list in Cork, Ireland.
A public list in Cork, Ireland.

The bucket list, supposedly named for the stuff you need to do before you ‘kick the bucket’, is a great tool for planning your goals; be it reading, places to see, dishes to cook or books to read. For reading, I keep several lists that I have compiled over time (divided by topic/interest). I do kinda like the Amazon 100 Book to Read in a Lifetime list, but only because its aim is long enough for me to actually get through it. I have like 40 years left to get through the last 94. Continue reading The Bucket List

How Can You Spend 7 Hours on TvTropes?

tvtwlampshadekcblueLet me answer your question with a questions; How could you not? Besides, 7 hours in one sitting is but a drop in a bucket compared to the time I spent reading Wikipedia and other Wikia sites, so don’t you complain about a mere 420 minutes on TvTropes. It could be worse… I am sure there are several recreational drugs that are more addictive and fun than TvTropes.  Continue reading How Can You Spend 7 Hours on TvTropes?

Gateway Literature

First onBooks-are-a-hard-bounde is free. Thats what they told me. Well, actually they told me that I could only get six items or less from the library at any one time, but they were free in that I still had to return them every 4 weeks for renewal. That was my gateway into reading, letting me loose in a wonderland of forbidden knowledge and experience. Yes, this was pre-internet. Didn’t get my first computer until 1994 and back then Google was still a fantasy land far far away. Continue reading Gateway Literature

Combine Reading and Running (like a BOSS!)

SONY DSCPlease please please, pay attention to what you’re doing when you’re out there. The dangers faced by runners outside, like cars and trucks, other (blind) runners, roaming dingos, impromptu Bollywood shows and the odd ice storm, should not be made more severe by cutting off one of your primary senses. And if you run with a book held out in front of you, then you are just begging to be nominated for a Darwin Award. With that said, if you the type of person who needs to be distracted from the running bit of running, then audiobooks (and podcast) are one way forward. You get to add a bit of narrative enjoyment to an otherwise dull activity. So… Continue reading Combine Reading and Running (like a BOSS!)

Showdown: Book vs. E-reader

SONY DSCE-reader and book will have to find a way to co-exist. I spoke with book and it’s clear that it’s jealous of e-reader’s portability and adaptability, but snorted derisively its limited resolution and inability to display colour. E-reader responded by downloading the full bibliography of Stephen King and blowing a raspberry. Then book turned off the WiFi just to make a point about needing an infrastructure to function, but e-reader thought little of this as it perused its library of 598 books for something less snooze-worthy to listen to. Book then distracted e-reader with a full page glossy colour print of a turnip, and then punched him squarely in the screen. I left before it got ugly. E-reader ended up with a scratched screen and book without a back cover. Sigh… Kids these days. Continue reading Showdown: Book vs. E-reader