Summer reading 2016: Obsessed with the future

There is a common thread in all the books I’ve read in the first stretch of this summer: the future. I know that the past offers rich rewards – history, biography and historical fiction produce many of the pleasures of reading. But this season I’m obsessed with the future.

100-year-life

My non-fiction pick for the summer is The 100-Year Life: Living and working in an age of longevity by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott. Most financial planning guides to a long life focus on the narrow view of how much you need to have in your nest egg before you retire. This book does cover that in some detail (and it is indeed a grim picture for most of us), but takes a much broader perspective. Gratton and Scott prompt you not just to plan in terms of tangible assets, but to pay attention to three categories of intangible assets: 

  • Productive assets: education, knowledge, skills, professional social capital, reputation.
  • Vitality assets: health, well-being, friendships, family relationships and partnerships.
  • Transformational assets: self-knowledge, capacity to reach out into diverse networks, openness to new experiences.

In a fascinating exercise, the authors lay out the career paths of their fictional characters – Jack (born in 1945), Jimmy (1971) and Jane (1998) – and look at how their productive, vitality and transformational assets grow and are depleted through the stages of their lives. And Jane, of course, goes through many more stages than we know today: periods of exploration, reinvention, small-scale entrepreneurship (as an “independent producer”), full-time work, transitions (including going back to school, online or otherwise), and part-time and advisory roles. Jane does not, indeed, fully “retire” until 2083, when she is 85 years old. Even if you have a pretty good sense of how your life is going to play out (but who really does, these days?), this book is worth reading for the insight it can give you into what your children’s lives might well look like.

The fiction shelf – which, again, reflects my quirks and narrative passions – holds several gems this summer:

  • The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, by Lionel Shriver (I trust you have already read We Need To Talk About Kevin. If not, go do it.) In The Mandibles, the world is barely recovering from the global Internet blackout of 2024, but things start getting worse again. In 2029, the dollar is no longer the world’s reserve currency, replaced by another currency devised by the IMF. Congress bans American citizens from holding the new currency and imposes capital controls to prevent dollars from leaving the country. The US President obtains emergency powers, all gold in private hands is confiscated by the Treasury, and the US declares default on its debt. The story of the Mandible family unfolds through this crisis and provides the narrative glue that holds together a dystopia of increasing grimness. As we read this novel in 2016, we are in a peculiar election year, a fact that cannot have been far from the author’s mind, with the result that Shriver’s dark satire never degenerates into farce and never feels wholly implausible. (Yes, Nevada does secede). A must-read.
  • The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu. Ken Liu is best known for being the English translator of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, a somewhat frigid cornerstone of contemporary Chinese science fiction that has lately gained attention in Silicon Valley circles. But he is a talented narrator in his own right, and this collection of short stories is delightful. The stories span science fiction, little-known folds of American and Chinese history, alternate history, fantasy, sometimes in tones halfway between Borges and Lovecraft, some other times with a distinctly steampunk sensitivity (here’s just one of the sentences I underlined: “Once the automata were finished, we connected them to the latest analytic engines shipped from Britain and fed them with tape punched with dense holes in Babbage-Lovelace code”). It takes a special imagination to write a story (“A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel”) about Emperor Hirohito’s initiative during the Great Depression, in collaboration with President Herbert Hoover, to dig a tunnel allowing people to travel from Shanghai via Tokyo to Seattle in little less than two days in a capsule under the ocean; this feat of politics and engineering in the 1930s makes the Great War the last global war of the twentieth century.
  • The End of the World Running Club, by Adrian J. Walker. I have written before about end-of-civilization stories and how they never fail to enthrall us. The peculiar charm of this one is that it puts at its center a rather unlikeable character, trying to get to Cornwall from Scotland in the hope of reaching one of the last few evacuation ships sent by a hospitable nation of the Southern hemisphere after the Northern one has been pretty much wiped out by asteroids. The story of a few of the survivors in the months after the event is told with restraint and without fear.
  • Manna: Two Visions of Humanity’s Future, by Marshall Brain. This short fiction, first published in 2003, is a technology-driven dystopia (happening, of course, in America) and utopia (in Australia) together. Its vaguely Singularitarian thesis is that we can use robots either to make our own lives hell, or to create a paradise-like world in which everybody has the means to fulfill their talents and to create the life they truly want. It is a quick read (one would want, in particular, to read more about how technology will simply eliminate the need for markets) but it will linger in your mind for a long time. (Note that Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, a non-fiction potentially underpinning to Brain’s tale, wasn’t published until 2012).

Hope these books make you think, laugh, and cry. As usual, let me know your best of the season – particularly if they’re about the future.

Recent Science Fiction. With Women

The_Martian_2014Two books I read in the last few months had me thinking not just about how science fiction is changing as a genre, but also how we as a society must be making some sort of improvement after all, if even male science fiction writers recognize their fellow geeks who happen to be women to the point of giving them lead roles in their stories.

The Martian by Andy Weir is a gripping survival story set on Mars, where astronaut Mark Watney has been stranded after a sandstorm has forced the rest of his mission to leave the planet without him. Mars, as you know, is a pretty cold and unhospitable place; Watney is there alone, with limited supplies and no communication system, and needs to hack what little he has in order to breathe, eat, and let the rest of the world know he is alive. At times most of the book is taken up with his calculations about oxygen, fuel, caloric intake needs and data transmission rates: math matters, and making a simple mistake could mean the difference between life and death. If you’re into such things as telecom engineering, extraterrestrial botanics, or space archaeology, you will enjoy this a lot.

So, Watney is a man; but the mission commander who decides to ignore higher orders and use her authority to go and rescue him, Melissa Lewis, is a woman. Originally a self-published work, the book was picked up by a publisher and is being adapted into a movie starring Matt Damon as Watney and Jessica Chastain as Lewis. I’ll be first in line for the ticket. (In the meantime, did I tell you how cool Sandra Bullock was in Gravity? no? did you miss it? go watch it).
Seveneves_Book_CoverNeal Stephenson‘s Seveneves is more than science fiction – it plots a future for humans in space after a cosmic catastrophe that spells the end of life on Earth. You already know I am a fan of what I call the end-of-civilization genre; I also was a fan of Stephenson’s after reading Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, two brilliant books ahead of their time, but I lost patience with Quicksilver and I found Anathem a bit of a dud. With Seveneves, Stephenson fully returns in my good graces. Other than chronicling rocket launches, the plot does not spend a lot of time spelling out the mayhem that happens on Earth in the two short years between the initial, inexplicable disaster – an explosion of the moon – and the meteorite shower that makes the Earth inhabitable for the next five thousand years, give or take. Most of Stephenson’s action takes place on the safest outpost in those circumstances: the International Space Station, suddenly loaded with as many people as it can drag along with itself in space, as well as with tools, microchips, spare parts for robots, genetic code records, and anything else that can be shipped there to help those humans survive and figure out how to rebuild a self-sustaining civilization. In the early days the commander of the ISS, Ivy Xiao, is a woman, although political maneuvers on Earth quickly replace her with a man; her second-in-command, roboticist Dinah MacQuarie, is another woman. Women’s resilience, strength, and adaptability is indeed key to survival, when everything seems to go wrong and the last few men in the human race, instead of cooperating, focus on killing each other. Two of the bad guys in the story, US President Julia Bliss Flaherty and Italian rebel leader Aida Ferrari, are women, too. The rebuilt civilization will indeed include men; but the descendants of the survivors, five thousand years later, will all be shaped by the personalities and skills of the women who were there at that decisive time. This book is for you if you like orbital mechanics, meteorites, comets, robots, and grand plans for staying away five years but eventually returning home.

On Snowpiercer, post-apocalyptic tales, and cult movies

SnowpiercerAs a poet and politician named Dante Alighieri descends through the circles of Hell, ascends Purgatory and reaches the highest sphere of Heaven, so a rebel leader named Curtis Everett moves from the tail of the Train hosting the planet’s only human survivors to the Holy Locomotive that drives it in a looping route around a frozen Earth.

Dante starts out lost in his dark wood, hungry for knowledge and salvation, meets a large set of characters placed in the afterlife according to their actions and sins in life, and ends his journey with a vision of “the Love which moves the sun and the other stars”. Curtis starts out in the filthy windowless final carriage of the train where he has spent half his life, driven by hatred and revenge, and ends his journey in a luminous perpetual-motion engine meeting Wilford, the creator of the train and the dystopian society it hosts, a microcosm where everybody has their own place based on the price they were able to afford to pay to board the train and escape death.

snowpiercer-poster-chris-evansSnowpiercer is a 2013 South Korean movie directed by Bong Joon-ho, based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, written in the early 1980s by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette. Oppression, violence, food and water, addiction, clairvoyance, self-mutilation, class war, revolt: just when you think the story cannot cram one more ingredient into its plot, a new twist takes place – say, child abduction or cannibalism – and glues you to the screen.

You know I am a fan of end-of-civilization tales, but Snowpiercer stunned me. It has the guts to take a few hundred survivors of a man-made climactic catastrophe and to truly, really do away with them in a spectacular final train wreck. (And perhaps that is all good: who would want to live in what looks like Panem from the Hunger Games, sequentially crammed onto a high-speed train?) We are drawn to post-apocalyptic stories because they force our imagination to answer uncomfortable questions. What would I do in such extreme straits? Would I survive, maintain my dignity? Would I be able to defend my family, my friends? Would I rise to be a leader for them?

Cinematically and visually, this movie’s claustrophobic appeal recalls such classics as Brazil (1985), The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), and Strange Days (1995). It rarely happens anymore, but after two hours in the movie theater, I came out feeling I wanted to watch it all over again. Snowpiercer is scheduled to be released in the United States on June 27, 2014. It will become a cult movie. Don’t miss it.

This isn’t the future they sold us. Thoughts on the Singularity

I’m all for the future, you know. I am confident it is vastly better than the past and I believe in the potential of science and technology to solve real problems. It is, therefore, with real anticipation that I prepare to attend the day-long Singularity University session organized by Intesa SanPaolo in Milan on May 3rd (Our future is now: Singularity University – How exponential technologies impact our lives). I like the people who’ll speak there and I love to see so much passion for the potential of technology to change the world. In short, I am a techno-optimist.

But I am also disappointed.

I’m disappointed, because science and technology haven’t kept the promises they made years ago. And I want to see them keep those promises before making new ones.

We still have solar panels so ridiculously inefficient that we need to subsidize them with massive surcharges on other power sources, or taxpayers’ money.

We still have batteries that pack so little power that your iPhone drains them in less than a day.

We still have planes so slow that it takes longer to fly today between New York and London than it took ten years ago, when you could at least book a seat on a Concorde.

We still have cars so dumb that they crash, transport systems so poorly designed that we sit in traffic jams, robots with so little artificial intelligence that a mouse outsmarts them, chemotherapy so brutal that it nearly kills you, sanitation so poor that millions succumb to cholera.

I know each of these problems is on the brink of being solved – isn’t it? But this isn’t the future that science fiction writers sold us.

Social sciences aren’t doing any better: we still have perversely ineffective political systems, massive intransparency, and gigantic corruption. We still have slavery, war rapes, and acid thrown on women’s faces if they don’t behave. Numbers tell us that poverty is declining, but it feels like we’ve just moved to a slightly better off dystopia.

Never before have there been so many minds focused on solving the world’s great problems. (Some of those same minds, I understand, are busy pursuing the transhumanist quest for immortality, a rather more crackpot strain of Singularitarianism that Carole Cadwalladr’s piece in yesterday’s Observer does not challenge enough). And never have there been so many people who can manipulate exponentially accelerating technologies in the attempt to “positively impact the lives of a billion people”. So, I remain an optimist. But I’m cautious about the new promises. Remember, we haven’t kept the old ones yet.

Lunar mining: “Limit” and “Moon”

Fiction, as you know, is one addiction I nurture with pride. Over a recent long weekend, I was able to read Frank Schätzing’s Limit, at 1,300 pages a doorstopper of a science-fiction thriller that I am told is the author’s worst book so far, but that I rather enjoyed, to the point of claiming that Schätzing was Dan Brown for people with brains.

Limit is set in 2025. Its earthly locations are Shanghai, Berlin, and a few others; notably, a remarkable digression projects into 2025 the wretched history and politics of Equatorial Guinea, which I recommend you read about in Ken Silverstein’s recent Foreign Policy story. But much of the action takes place on a colonized Moon, where Julian Orley, a distinctly Richard-Bransonish entrepreneur, is giving his VIP guests a preview of an unprecedented space tourism experience. Orley has also set up a massive and successful mining operation on the Moon to extract helium-3 from lunar regolith, largely solving our dependence on terrestrial fossil fuels and leaving the world’s oil companies to scramble for an alliance with him or wither and die. Things, of course, will go wrong; but I won’t spoil them for you, dear readers.

In our reality, according to contributors to the Wikipedia page, it turns out that the premise of helium-3 as a power generation fuel has been explored, that the isotope is indeed present on the Moon, and that Chinese and Russian sources have expressed an interest in mining it.

A few days later, I watched MoonDuncan Jones‘s well-regarded film debut. In Moon, there is lunar mining of helium-3, just like described by Schätzing in Limit, but there is no space tourism; and indeed, the loneliness and isolation of the astronaut manning the mining operation plays out in a rather unexpected plot twist.

The connections between book and movie do not end here. Jones’s father, David Bowie, appears as a character in Limit, playing guitar in the evening for his friend Julian Orley and declining an invitation to join the trip to the moon. He is just too old, he says, and he has found that his calling was on Earth all along. Limit, as fiction, does have its limitations; yet, Bowie’s wistful appearance lends it a true touch of poetry.