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Category: Science Fiction

All fiction to some degree takes place in an invented world, with invented people doing unreal things. In a way the upside down definition may be the most useful - fantasy is books published by fantasy imprints and shelved in the fantasy sections. As far as what content makes a book a fantasy book rather than general fiction, it varies with the reader. I guess you know it when you see it. Although magic swords are often a giveaway.

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Law and Hard Fantasy Interview Series: Joe Abercrombie

joe_abercrombieThis post is a part of our ongoing interview series with fantasy authors who generally write in the burgeoning genre of gritty / hard / dark epic fantasy.   The series began with this book review post, and continued with interviews of George R. R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss, and Mark Lawrence.

Today, I’m interviewing Joe Abercrombie.  Joe is the author, most famously, of the “First Law” trilogy, and some more recent spin-offs set in that world.  Joe’s writing is characterized by dark (very, very dark) humor, grit (as in dirt), and an unhealthy amount of revenge.  He’s on twitter, he has a blog, and he was nice enough to agree to answer some questions from me about his writing and its relationship to law.

DH: There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the collapse of the “fantasy” and “fiction” categories. Is there anything useful about the distinction? If so, what are the minimal characteristics of books that would stay on your fantasy shelf?

JA: Any question about definitions and categorisations is always a complicated one, with lots of confusions and blurry areas. All fiction to some degree takes place in an invented world, with invented people doing unreal things. In a way the upside down definition may be the most useful – fantasy is books published by fantasy imprints and shelved in the fantasy sections. As far as what content makes a book a fantasy book rather than general fiction, it varies with the reader. I guess you know it when you see it. Although magic swords are often a giveaway.

DH: One marker of the trend toward harder / darker fantasy is more fulsome world-building and world-planning. But you are well-known as a guy who hates maps (recent books excepted!) Here’s a practical question: do you sit down and think about the rules of the world before you start to write, or do you start writing and work them out as you go along?

JA: I don’t know that I’d necessarily agree with your first assertion, there. I think a marker of the trend towards harder/darker fantasy is a greater focus on character and internal life over setting and world building, certainly I see that as key in what I’m doing. But you want the backdrop to be consistent and coherent. So you have some ideas about the rules of the world. Certainly you have some strong ideas about the effect certain cultures will have on the way the characters think. That’s the kind of world building I’m most interested in, I suppose you could say, the kind that has a direct effect on the behaviour of the characters, rather than the kind that specifies exactly how many thousand years the tower of Zarb had guarded Dragonfire Pass.

DH: What do you have against maps anyway?

JA: I love maps. I have loads of them. But I don’t necessarily want to share them with the reader. I want the reader to see the action in close up, not wide shot. I want them to be with the characters, not thinking so much about the setting.

DH: Is there any civil law in your world? By that, I mean a system by which contractual breaches and torts are enforced outside of blood feuds, deeds are recorded, property disputes disposed of? What does that system look like?

JA: It depends a little on the culture. In the North there has been a relatively primitive tradition of ownership by clans, judgement by elders and chieftains, but it’s broken down during a period of sustained warfare and a new king has tried to impose a new and much more centralised system, with varying success. The Union, by contrast, has a well-established aristocracy and a complex and extensive centralising bureaucracy, although with a weak king on the throne and a lot of pressure from external threats it’s become rather a corrupt system, prone to being carved into personal fiefdoms by powerful and charismatic individuals in the government. Hardly surprising, in a way, since the whole thing has been explicitly designed to allow one man (Bayaz) to maintain control. The whole thing’s further distorted by the conflict between old power and new money, as the Union has spread to include more diverse cultures and the merchant class has gained in influence.

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I’ve heard people say books are getting more ‘gritty’, meaning more violent and less stylised in general. The realism there might be in terms of warrior not shrugging off their wounds and being fine the next day etc. Researched realism and detailed city/country mechanics are not something I was aware of a movement toward. To me nothing is added by, for example, the author working out a grain distribution network. I’m interested in story and character, not mechanics.

— Mark L.

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Law and Hard Fantasy Interview Series: Mark Lawrence

Broken-EmpireI’ve sporadically run an interview series with fantasy authors who generally write in the burgeoning genre of gritty / hard / dark epic fantasy.  (I’m, obviously, a fan.)  The series began with this book review post, and continued with interviews of George R. R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss.  The series continues today as I interview Mark Lawrence.  Mark is the author of the Broken Empire trilogy, and the forthcoming Red Queen’s War.  His work has been lauded on both sides of the Atlantic (Mark was raised in the U.K., where he works as a research scientist).  He was gracious enough to respond to my email queries, which follow after the jump.

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Drones, Amazon, Pizza, and More

As I saw that Amazon is tinkering with drone delivery, I thought “How very Stephenson” and that the opening of Snow Crash tracked the idea of 30 minutes or less delivery. Of course, others thought of this connection overnight. And although Fox News hyped the idea as the Senate holding hearings on Amazon and Drones (“Senate to hold hearing to discuss Amazon package delivery drones“), the hearings were already in place as Fox reports. The Amazon glory is icing on the cake of let’s freak out about drones. And, yes, there are reasons to think about drones and what, if anything, should be done to regulate them. In this post I am more interested in the labor issues. Chris Taylor’s thoughts at Mashable get into this question. There are many limits to the tech. But as I wrote before, Amazon strikes me as well-placed to press into new ways to use this sort of technology to reduce its labor needs. Local distribution sites, same day or now maybe within an hour delivery, maybe on-demand printing of books (or 3D things), and Amazon could yet again change shopping. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case about forcing retailers to collect taxes even when they have no presence in a state. Amazon’s response of moving into states and taking on local retailers may prove to increase competition locally and in an ironic twist the idea that imposing taxes would be fair may prove to be what eats at local businesses more than expected.

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The school of the future: request for input

This post is a nerd crowdsourcing request. As a guest blogger I don’t know my audience as well as I might, but I am heartened by the presence of “science fiction” among the options my hosts give me for categorizing my posts; and my teenager assures me that “nerd” is a compliment.

As several of my earlier posts suggest, I am interested in the impact of virtual technology upon K-12 schooling; and one thing I have been doing in my spare time is looking at literary accounts, highbrow and low, of what schooling in the future might look like. A colleague gave me Ernest Kline’s recent Ready Player One, which imagines school in a fully virtualized world that looks a lot like the school I went to, complete with hallways, bullies, and truant teachers – but the software allows the students to mute their fellows and censors student obscenity before it reaches the teachers’ interfaces. Another colleague reminded me of Asimov’s 1951 The Fun They Had, where the teacher is mechanical but the students still wiggly and apathetic. On the back of a public swapshelf, I found the Julian May 1987 Galactic Milieu series, which imagines brilliant children, all alone on  faraway planets, logging on with singleminded seriousness to do their schoolwork all by their lonesomes. And my daughter gave me Orson Scott Card’s famous Ender’s Game, where the bullying is more educative than the mathematics, and scripted by the adults much more carefully.

That seems like an extensive list but really it’s not, and I was never a serious sci-fi person. If anyone is willing to post in the comments any striking literary accounts of schooling in the future, I’d be grateful.

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Bring on Jurassic Park!: Resurrection of Extinct Animals

Scientists have come to a “technical, not biological” problem in trying to resurrect a once extinct frog. Popular Science explains the:

gastric-brooding frog, native to tiny portions of Queensland, Australia, gave birth through its mouth, the only frog to do so (in fact, very few other animals in the entire animal kingdom do this–it’s mostly this frog and a few fish). It succumbed to extinction due to mostly non-human-related causes–parasites, loss of habitat, invasive weeds, a particular kind of fungus.

Specimens were frozen in simple deep freezers and reinserted into another frog. The embryos grew. The next step is to get them to full adulthood so they can pop out like before. Yes, these folks are talking to those interested in bringing back other species.

As for this particular animal, the process reminds me a bit too much of Alien, which still scares the heck out of me.

the gastric-brooding frog lays eggs, which are coated in a substance called prostaglandin. This substance causes the frog to stop producing gastric acid in its stomach, thus making the frog’s stomach a very nice place for eggs to be. So the frog swallows the eggs, incubates them in her gut, and when they hatch, the baby frogs crawl out her mouth.

Science. Yummy. Oh here is your law fodder. What are the ethical implications? Send in the clones! (A better title for Attack of the Clones, perhaps).

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Innovation, Magic: Gasoline Out of Thin Air?

If remotely true this article about a technique to convert air into gasoline is wild but great. As the BBC video embedded on the link above shows the folks at Air Fuel Synthesis have not, repeat not, solved the core issue which is how much energy is needed to create the fuel. But the hope is that

The fuel is not only viable; … it will be suitable for high-performance vehicles. But the biggest benefit of the fuel is its sustainability. Since burning the fuel only releases the same carbon dioxide that was already in the air to begin with, it is carbon neutral. (That is, so long as the electricity required to make the necessary chemical conversions is sourced from renewable energy like wind or solar.)

Another potential benefit of the fuel is that it will be price-predictable. Gas prices won’t fluctuate because the fuel source will be stable.

Science fiction? Perhaps. But there is a market here and if someone breaks through some rather cool outcomes could be in our future. For patent folks, I saw some idea that an oil company would buy up patents just to get this one off the market. I have heard similar claims in energy before. I wonder whether anyone has an example of that in energy? And has anyone argued that a break through for energy would have to be shared a la drug needs?

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Turns out it is all a dream, err, simulation: Physicists and proving the Matrix

2003. “Oxford professor Nick Bostrom suggested that we may be living in a computer simulation.” IO9 reports that now

Silas Beane and his team at the University of Bonn in Germany, [argue that] a simulation of the universe should still have constraints, no matter how powerful. These limitations, they argue, would be observed by the people within the simulation as a kind of constraint on physical processes.

So, how could we ever hope to identify these constraints? Easy: We just need build our own simulation of the universe and find out. And in fact, this is fairly close to what the physicists are actually trying to do. To that end, they’ve created an ultra-small version of the universe that’s down to the femto-scale (which is even smaller than the nano-scale).

Apparently, certain things that should behave one way will deviate and that deviation will be the clue.

OK this work seems quite wild. (study here if you like) But IO9 points out that this first step could lead to “more powerful versions in which molecules, cells, and even humans themselves might someday be generated. ” I am not sure whether these more powerful versions would be new simulated worlds or new things in the current simulation. Perhaps it is both. Ah another film nod! I rather liked the end of Men in Black when our blue marble that held a galaxy in it was part of another marble holding another galaxy and that was being thrown around when not stored in a bag. Even if we are in a simulation, as my friend John Scalzi said on a show about what happens if aliens show up here, we still have to take out the trash.

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Brin’s “Existence,” the Fermi Paradox, and the Future of Privacy

I just finished David Brin’s “Existence,” his biggest new novel in years.  Brin, as some readers know, has won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards for best science fiction writing.  He also wrote the 1999 non-fiction book “The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?”.  More about that in a bit.

Existence is full of big ideas.  A main focus is on the Fermi Paradox, which observes that we would expect to find other forms of life out there among the hundreds of billions of suns, but we haven’t seen evidence of that life yet.  If you haven’t ever thought through the Fermi Paradox, I think it is a Genuine Big Question, and well worth contemplating.  Fortunately for those who like their science mixed with fiction, Brin weaves fifty or so possible answers to the Fermi Paradox into his 550-page novel.  Does climate change kill off other races?  Nuclear annihilation?  Do aliens upload themselves into computers once they get sophisticated (the “singularity”), so we never detect them across the void?  And a lot, lot more.

It took me a little while to get into the book, but I read the last few hundred pages in a rush.  I’ve had the pleasure to know Brin for a bunch of years, and find him personally and intellectually engaging.  I was pleased to read this, because I think it will intrigue curious minds for a long time as our telescopic views of other planets deepen our puzzlement about the Fermi Paradox.

As for privacy, my own view is that the privacy academics didn’t take his 1999 book seriously enough as an intellectual event.  One way to describe Brin’s insight is to say that surveillance in public becomes cheaper and more pervasive over time.  For Brin, having “control” over your face, eye blinks, location, etc., etc. becomes futile and often counter-productive once cameras and other sensors are pervasive and searchable.  Brin picked up on these themes in his earlier novel, “Earth,” when elderly people used video cameras to film would-be muggers, deterring the attacks.  In the new novel, the pervasive use of the 2060 version of Google Glasses means that each person is empowered to see data overlays for any person they meet.  (This part is similar to the novel “Rainbow’s End” by Brin’s friend Vernor Vinge.)

Surveillance in public is a big topic these days.  I’ve worked with CDT and EFF on USvJones.com, which asked law academics to propose doctrine for surveillance in public.  Facial recognition and drones are two of the hot privacy topics of the year, and each are significant steps towards the pervasive sensor world that Brin contemplated in his 1999 book.

So, if you like thinking about Big Ideas in novel form, buy Existence.  And, if you would like to retain the Fair Information Principles in a near future of surveillance in public, consider Brin more carefully  when you imagine how life will and should be in the coming decades.

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Curiosity! It Landed!

Congratulations to NASA/JPL/Caltech! The latest rover appears to have landed safely. I love this stuff in general, but I happen to have had a special connection to the rovers. A dear friend has worked on the rovers from when they were just tiny vehicles to the current Mini-sized one. Brett Kennedy, you rock.

I also happen to be re-reading Spin which has some a great Mars storyline. Despite John Carter, think of all the science fiction about Mars. What we find won’t live up to that, but the science and truth may prove more fascinating.

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Stanford Law Review Online: The Dead Past

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published Chief Judge Alex Kozinski’s Keynote from our 2012 Symposium, The Dead Past. Chief Judge Kozinski discusses the privacy implications of our increasingly digitized world and our role as a society in shaping the law:

I must start out with a confession: When it comes to technology, I’m what you might call a troglodyte. I don’t own a Kindle or an iPad or an iPhone or a Blackberry. I don’t have an avatar or even voicemail. I don’t text.

I don’t reject technology altogether: I do have a typewriter—an electric one, with a ball. But I do think that technology can be a dangerous thing because it changes the way we do things and the way we think about things; and sometimes it changes our own perception of who we are and what we’re about. And by the time we realize it, we find we’re living in a different world with different assumptions about such fundamental things as property and privacy and dignity. And by then, it’s too late to turn back the clock.

He concludes:

Judges, legislators and law enforcement officials live in the real world. The opinions they write, the legislation they pass, the intrusions they dare engage in—all of these reflect an explicit or implicit judgment about the degree of privacy we can reasonably expect by living in our society. In a world where employers monitor the computer communications of their employees, law enforcement officers find it easy to demand that internet service providers give up information on the web-browsing habits of their subscribers. In a world where people post up-to-the-minute location information through Facebook Places or Foursquare, the police may feel justified in attaching a GPS to your car. In a world where people tweet about their sexual experiences and eager thousands read about them the morning after, it may well be reasonable for law enforcement, in pursuit of terrorists and criminals, to spy with high-powered binoculars through people’s bedroom windows or put concealed cameras in public restrooms. In a world where you can listen to people shouting lurid descriptions of their gall-bladder operations into their cell phones, it may well be reasonable to ask telephone companies or even doctors for access to their customer records. If we the people don’t consider our own privacy terribly valuable, we cannot count on government—with its many legitimate worries about law-breaking and security—to guard it for us.

Which is to say that the concerns that have been raised about the erosion of our right to privacy are, indeed, legitimate, but misdirected. The danger here is not Big Brother; the government, and especially Congress, have been commendably restrained, all things considered. The danger comes from a different source altogether. In the immortal words of Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Read the full article, The Dead Past by Alex Kozinski, at the Stanford Law Review Online.