(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘speculative fiction

“We’re long on high principles and short on simple human understanding”*…

Really, most science fiction is about economics. What makes most future visions interesting is not just the technical particulars of the cool new Stuff, but the social ramifications. Here are some of the sci-fi books that I thought dealt with important economic issues in the most insightful and interesting ways. I also chose only books that I think are well-written, with well-conceived characters, engaging plots, and skillful writing.

1. A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge

In addition to being quite possibly the best science fiction novel I’ve ever read, Deepness is also a great meditation on public economics. When Vernor Vinge became famous in the 80s, he was a hard-core libertarian – his novel The Peace War, and its sequel short story “The Ungoverned”, are like a Real Business Cycle model come to life, with lone-wolf genius engineers teaming up with private police forces to bring down a fascist technocratic government made up of…university administrators. Ha. But by the 90s, Vinge’s views on government and markets had become markedly more nuanced – in the swashbuckling space opera A Fire Upon the Deep, we see private security forces failing miserably when faced with a powerful external threat (in fact, that book made me think of the “Tamerlane Principle“). Security, Vinge realizes, is a public good.

In Deepness, Vinge adds another public good: Research. The narrative of Deepness is split between a race of spider-people with roughly 20th-century technology, and a spacefaring guild of human merchants called the Qeng Ho. On the spider world, the protagonist is a brilliant scientist named Sherkaner Underhill, who is basically a Von Neumann or Feynman type. Sherkaner is the ultimate lone genius, but he ends up needing the government to fund his research. In space, meanwhile, the heroic merchant entrepreneur Pham Nuwen (who is a recurring protagonist in Vinge novels) struggles to decide whether he should turn his merchant fleet into an interstellar government. Governments, he finds, are good at producing really new scientific breakthroughs, but eventually they become unwieldy and stifle the economy and society, then collapse under their own institutional weight. The very very end of the book is – or at least, seemed to me to be – a metaphor for the Great Stagnation and the death (and future rebirth) of Big Science…

Seventeen other wonderful recommendations from the always-insightful economist and social/political analyst Noah Smith (@Noahpinion): “Science fiction novels for economists.” (Your correspondent has read many/most of them and enthusiastically seconds the suggestions.)

* Vernor Vinge, A Deepness in the Sky

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As we celebrate informative speculation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1949 that George Orwell published his masterpiece of dystopian speculative fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and introduced terms like “Big Brother,” “doublethink,” “thoughtcrime,” “Newspeak,” and “Memory hole” into the vernacular.

source

Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 8, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Sometimes that light at the end of the tunnel is a train”*…

 

The moment of impact

As the U.S. remained mired in an economic depression in 1896, the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (commonly known as “the Katy” line) faced two major problems: how to boost revenue and ticket sales amid increasing competition in the rail industry and what to do with an aging fleet of locomotives as it upgraded to larger, more advanced steam engines. And so the company’s creative passenger agent for Texas, William Crush, pitched an idea that would address both problems in one spectacular fell swoop.

With atom bombs and Justin Bieber still far off on the horizon in the late 19th century, an explosive train collision was perhaps the most eye-catching manmade disaster imaginable. And Crush knew he had the trains, the space and the public appetite to attempt such a spectacle. His plan was simple: ferry paying spectators to an isolated locale where two obsolete locomotives would be positioned face-to-face on the tracks. After gunning the trains to full speed, the engineers would jump to safety, and the masses would enjoy the fiery demolition from a safe distance. “Oh,” the exuberant Crush effused to The Galveston Daily News, “but it’s going to be a smash-up”…

In the event, over 40,000 people gathered at in the temporary town of “Crush, Texas” (for the day, the second largest city in the State).  And what a “smash-up” they saw.  As planned, the engineers stoked their locomotives, got them steaming toward each other, and jumped clear…  But though Crush had been assured by the railroad’s technicians that the engines’ boilers were strong enough to hold together on impact, both exploded.  As The Dallas Morning News put it: “The rumble of the two trains was like the gathering force of a cyclone… [then, a huge explosion, and] the air was filled with flying missiles of iron and steel varying in size from a postage stamp to half of a driving wheel… black clouds of death-dealing iron hail.”  Three spectators were killed, six others seriously injured; and countless onlookers were scorched by the hot shrapnel — many long after the explosion, when they picked through the flaming locomotive carcasses in a hunt for souvenirs.

Crush was immediately fired from the railroad. But given a lack of negative publicity, he was rehired the next day.

Read more at “Staging a Texas-size train disaster for fun and profit,” and check out the photos from the event here (one of which is used above).

* Charles Barkley

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As we ruminate on the rails, we might send foresightful birthday greetings to the extraordinary Jules Verne, imaginative writer non pareil; he was born in Nantes on this date in 1828.

Best known for his novels A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to the Moon (1865), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869–1870), Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) and The Mysterious Island (1875), Verne is the second most translated (individual) author of all time (behind Agatha Christie).  He is considered, with H.G. Wells, the founder of science fiction.

Verne was startlingly prescient: Paris in the 20th Century, for example, describes air conditioning, automobiles, the Internet, television, even electricity, and other modern conveniences very similar to their real world counterparts, all developed years– in many cases, decades– later.   From the Earth to the Moon, apart from using a space gun instead of a rocket, is uncannily similar to the real Apollo Program: three astronauts are launched from the Florida peninsula– from “Tampa Town” ( only 130 miles from NASA’s Cape Canaveral)– and recovered through a splash landing.  And in other works, he predicted helicopters, submarines, projectors, jukeboxes, and the existence of underwater hydrothermal vents that were not invented/discovered until long after he wrote about them.

Jules Verne

Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 8, 2016 at 1:01 am

Amazing covers for Amazing Stories (and other magazines)…

Clintriter (Glenn Harris) has given us the gift of his collection of vintage speculative fiction magazine covers…  the wonder!  the awe!

Marvel at them all here.

As we get down with our inner Jules Verne, we might run in gleeful circles– on this date in 1912, Keystone Pictures premiered Hoffmeyer’s Release, the first Keystone Kops picture.

Keystone Kops (The policeman at the left in extreme background is Edgar Kennedy; the hefty officer at extreme right is Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.)

But while comic genius Mack Sennett’s career took off, another important artist was stalled:  on precisely that same day, Nouvelle Revue Francaise, rejected an excerpt from Remembrance of Things Past (or, as the translation is now somewhat better known, In Search of Lost Time).  Following a series of similar rejections, Marcel Proust was reduced to publishing his first volume, Swann’s Way, at his own expense the following year.  Thankfully for Alain de Botton (and us), it was a great success.

The Master of the Madeleine

Here begineth your correspondent’s annual hiatus, the period when the responsibilities of the Holidays and the exigencies of travel overwhelm his (already marginal) capacity to focus…  There will likely be a post or three over the next ten days or so, but these missives will resume regularly early in the next decade.  (“Next decade”…  has a nice ring, doesn’t it?)

Meantime, Happy Holidays!

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