“Dragons? Awesome. Napoleonic wars? Awesome. Together? Even more awesome.” So said Naomi Novik in kicking off yesterday’s Comic-Con panel on combining genres. Novik was so happy with that particular mishmash that she used it in her Temeraire series, which reared its dragony head for the sixth time with the publication of Tongues of Serpents this month.
All of the authors on the panel write in genre-bending styles, but they use the technique differently, and their reasons for doing it vary, too. Novik said her motivation for crossing the streams was simple: “It’s absolutely for short attention spans. The Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup theory.”
Yesterday evening we held our third annual Comic-Con panel on the science of science fiction. And in our unbiased opinion, it rocked. (Attendees said the same, but then they probably wouldn’t have told us it was lame, would they?)
One theme that emerged from the panel was that skillful use of science could make stories better. But being Discover, we needed some evidence. And how better to present this evidence than as a scientific publication:
The Enhancement of Dramatic and Aesthetic Qualities of Fictional Works Through Application of Authentic or Apocryphal Scientific Theories
One of the marvels of Comic-Con is that when a panelist asks the people in the room whether they’d be willing to risk a fatal mechanical failure for the chance to go into space, everyone raised their hands. It’s the kind of place where nerds roam free, geeks can be both predator and prey, and the answer to the question, “How about going to space?” is foreordained.
The panel I’m referring to focused on the question of whether private companies are better suited to taking humanity into space, or whether NASA is doing awesome work and we, as a society, should just keep on keepin’ on. To help answer the question, the panel featured Mark Street (from XCOR), John Hunter (Quicklaunch), Chris Radcliff (San Diego Space Society), Dave Rankin (The Mars Society), Molly McCormick (Orbital Outfitters) and was moderated by Jeff Berkwits (editor and writer).
Discover has descended in force upon the unexpecting San Diego International Comic-Con, not only to host our own panel (“Abusing the Sci of Sci-Fi,” tonight, 6pm, Room 6AB) but to pore over the rest of the conference and bring the choicest nuggets back to our own SNF readers.
To that end, I just emerged from a great panel hosted by the sci-fi blog (and new Discover syndication partner) io9 about “Sci-Fi That Will Change Your Life.” The panel included some io9ers (Annalee Newitz, Charlie Jane Anders, Meredith Woerner, Cyriaque Lamar) plus some sci-fi industry folks (Marc Bernardin, Bonnie Burton, Doug Wolk, and Lou Anders). Among this big panel of very dialed in sci-fi heads, they covered a really wide range of recent work, picking out their favorite, most “life-changing” material. Here are the recommendations that sounded the most recommendable of all:
Ever watched a science fiction movie and groaned when the science is spun, folded, and mutilated? Sure, outrageous science is fun, but so is making fun of it.
In that spirit, we’re happy to announce DISCOVER’s panel at Comic-Con 2010, in sunny San Diego. If you’re at the convention tomorrow (Thursday) night, come by for a little discussion we’re calling “Abusing the Sci of Sci-Fi.” It will run from 6-7 pm, in room 5AB.
The panel will be moderated by DISCOVER’s Bad Astronomy blogger Phil Plait, who will talk with five sci-fi movers and shakers about their favorite moments in good and bad sci-fi science. The panelists include two other DISCOVER bloggers: physicist Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance and NASA scientist and Eureka advisor Kevin Grazier, who blogs here at Science Not Fiction.
These scientists will be joined on stage by three people who actually make the sci-fi happen: Jaime Paglia (producer and writer for Eureka), Zack Stentz (producer for Fringe and writer for the upcoming movie Thor), and Bill Prady (executive producer of The Big Bang Theory).
DISCOVER: The Science and the Fiction, a gallery of sublime and ridiculous science in sci-fi
Discoblog: World Science Festival: The Science of Star Trek
Discoblog: Scientists to Hollywood: Please Break Only 1 Law of Physics Per Movie
“Would you take a magic pill to make yourself straight?” asked an audience member at a GLBT forum at Winona State University in Minnesota. The concept is not pure fantasy: scientists have flipped a genetic switch to make female mice homosexual and rogue pediatric endocrinologist, Maria New, has been giving mothers dexamethasone to prevent lesbian daughters. Pre-implantation genetic diagnostics, combined with in-vitro fertilization, is making it possible to select out genetic defects and disorders, and to select for desirable traits. The science of sexuality is driving us towards a future in which we may have the option to choose our child’s sexual orientation. This scenario poses a few questions:
30,000 years ago a Neanderthal woman died in what would become Croatia’s Vindija cave. Five years ago, 454 Life Sciences and the Max Planck Institute started working together on the tedious and time-consuming task of piecing her fossilized DNA back together. Just over a month ago, they succeeded and, in the process, revealed that most of us are between 1% and 4% Neanderthal. To crudely paraphrase the ever artful Carl Zimmer, knowing where Neanderthals fit into the evolution of Homo sapiens is essential to understanding the development of the human mind.
Knowing where Neanderthals fit, however, also creates a problem. What do we do if what makes humans “human” isn’t from a “human” at all? How do we justify “human rights” in light of evidence that our rational and moral minds are in no small part the result of prehistoric crossbreeding? In short: if human rights are based on being human, what rights would a cloned Neanderthal have?
The problem is, of course, that we don’t have a cloned Neanderthal. Which is why we need to make one.
Science fiction is often associated with depictions of technology which, to quote Arther Clarke’s third law, is “so advanced that it seems like magic to us.” But science fiction’s other side is less about techno-gizmology and more about pushing us to think about what it is to be human. It asks what it would be like to live with different social norms (think of the group family structure in Caprica, or the androgynous society of Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness), different notions of identity (think of Star Trek’s “The Borg”, Avatar), and of reality itself (The Matrix).
The examples I’ve mentioned are from literature, movies, and TV. What about theater? Science fiction rarely shows up on the stage. But there are exceptions. This past week I was a guest instructor in a class called “Theater for Nerds” in Northwestern University’s summer program in theatre arts for high school seniors. It’s a class created by JC Aevaliotis for in-depth readings of plays that work at the intersection of art and another discipline (history, philosophy, science)–nerdy stuff indeed. I was invited to help discuss a play called On Ego, a collaboration between playwright Mick Gordon and neuropsychologist Paul Broks. The play is an exploration of different ideas about how we can go from what David Foster Wallace called the “2.8 pounds of electrified pate” that is our brain to something so vaunted as a sense of self. One idea, called “ego theory,” holds that there is an inner essence, denoted by “I”; the other idea, called “bundle theory” holds that there is no inner essence, but instead we are long series or bundle of interconnected sensations and thoughts. The underlying brain processes such as memories, feelings, thoughts, are sprinkled across diverse regions of the brain with no special point of convergence. Instead, we “come together in a work of fiction” – our brain is a story-telling machine, and the “self” is a story.
You’ve been running for hours, chased by a crazed grizzly bear. Suddenly you lose your footing, and you’re balancing on the edge of a cliff. Your stomach lurches as gravity pulls you down. Instantly you’re jolted awake and find yourself teetering precariously over the edge of your bed in your New York apartment. You’ve been asleep for just 5 minutes.
Like me (or whoever I stole that bizarre-o dream about the crazed grizzly from), everyone has dreams that strangely intertwine with reality. That’s what makes Chris Nolan’s newest thriller, Inception, so fun to watch. It plays with ideas we’ve all experienced—how dreams can reveal our most guarded memories, feel like days when only hours have passed, or affect our emotions when we wake up.
New York Times bestselling author Scott Sigler has just come out with another novel in the fast-moving, horrific, science-tastic style that he’s made his trademark. The new book is about a creature engineered to be the perfect organ donor–the ANCESTOR of the title–and he (and his publisher, Crown) have agreed to let us run an excerpt right here on SNF for your reading pleasure. To entice you to read on, check out the great blurbs from these top-notch reviewers:
“ANCESTOR isn’t science fiction. It’s science acid-trip pulp-horror, an irresistible genre unique to Scott Sigler’s wonderfully warped mind.” —Carl Zimmer
“Fun, creepy, and impossible to stop reading, ANCESTOR is the rare thriller that’s based on cutting-edge science and is entirely possible. Long after you’re done with the book, you’ll still be looking over your shoulder. Just in case.” —Phil Plait
Without further ado, here is your ANCESTOR excerpt: