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We finally have a trailer for Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, and it looks incredible!

After I read Borne: A Novel I was informed that Jeff Vandermeer would be doing a reading and book signing close by. Admittedly it was my girlfriend who even suggested I read Borne and try a different author since I had been only reading Orson Scott Card novels. I couldn’t have been happier that I made the decision to branch out. If you want to know more about Borne, I wrote a review a while back. Click here to read it.

At Mr. Vandermeer’s signing I was able to pick up a beautiful hardcover copy of the Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation; Authority; Acceptance. I had heard from some of the other guests that he had a book being turned into a film which happened to be the first book of the trilogy. It’s been about seven months since I purchased the trilogy and, full disclosure, I haven’t gotten to it yet. (I’m building a highly diverse antilibrary.) My leisure reading has lessened with the busyness of the holidays, and I’ve made some promises to read a few other books before I get into this trio. Nevertheless, I can always count on my wonderful girlfriend to point me in the direction of some great Sci-Fi (it’s like she knows me or something). I watched the trailer and immediately had to pick my jaw off the floor. For those who haven’t seen it, here it is in all its glory:

Now I’ll be the first to admit, since I haven’t read the book yet I’m not too familiar with the universe Jeff Vandermeer has created in this trilogy. Anytime a sci-fi book gets turned into a film I watch it. I’m not one of those people that always says, “The book was better.” I always try to give a film the benefit of the doubt. That’s why I enjoy them whether or not I have read the book. After I watch the film then I’m able to dive into the book with a concept of the premise but will get a much deeper understanding of the universe, characters, and overarching tone. After watching this trailer, I am pumped and ready to watch the film and read the book!

For those of you who’ve read my post on Ender’s Game you know that the movie is what got me interested in the series. I want to know what you guys think: will you be watching Annihilation? Have you read the book yet?

Featured image from: https://fsgworkinprogress.com/2014/05/annihilation-annotated/

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Top 10 SciFi short stories for people in a hurry!

I didn’t choose the highway life, the highway life chose me. Since I spent an enormous amount of time on the road driving to and from work, being able to listen to short stories makes it simple to stay on top of my reading. Most of these SciFi shorts have an audio version from the always excellent Clarkesworld Magazine. That being said, this month’s list features stories from the good old hard copy anthology, The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer. Definitely worth picking up if you love Science fiction but want it in easily digestible, expertly curated chunks. Anyway, enjoy this month’s top 10 SciFi shorts and let me know which is your favorite below.

Short Stories You Should Read This December

  1. The Significance of Significance by Robert Reed

In this short, scientists have discovered and proven something we’ve all be speculating—that we are living inside a simulated realty. This short tackles a lot of the moral conundrums facing humanity if they knew this to be true. The protagonist, Sarah, makes some interesting decisions based on this knowledge that lead her to follow a morally questionable life, but given the information humankind knows, are her actions truly despicable?

Text version here

Audio Version here

  1. Last Chance by Nicole Kornher-Stace

In this post-apocalyptic tale, much of human technology is gone and the rest is now scavenged for because of its value. Our protagonists, a young girl and her mother, get separated by raiders who enslave children and force them to scavenge small and dangerous areas. The children sometimes compete among themselves to find the best stuff so they will get preferential treatment and bigger portions of food. What happens when the child stumbles across something extremely valuable but inexplicable? Could this be her key to freedom?

Text version: here

Audio version: here

  1. Forever Bound by Joe Haldeman

Sometime in the near future, a war breaks out. The US inevitably reinstates the draft and even graduate students aren’t safe from military service. The protagonist is forced into a special infantry unit operating mechanized fighting machines called “Soldier Boys” (no, not the rapper). All operators have to learn how to be “jacked” (plugging into other team members’ and the machine’s own consciousness). The intrusive process connects you intimately with your entire team exposing all your deepest secrets, thoughts, and wishes. To complicate matters, Halderman’s protagonist falls in love with one of his fellow team members. Halderman’s story explores the dangers of overuse of technology on a deep level. Can technology actually deepen our connection to other individuals, leading to an unhealthy attachment to one person?

Text version: here

Audio version: here

  1. Travelers by Rich Larson

Think the movie Passengers if Chris Pratt was a demented cannibal and you have the short story “Travelers.” When the protagonist is awakened from “torpor,” she quickly realizes something is off about the only other awakened crew member. What is he planning and why? This is a short and suspenseful read that will have you on the edge of your seat.

Text version: here

Audio version: here

  1. The Ways Out by Sam J. Miller

In a mutant-filled world reminiscent of the X-men universe, the government has taken some very serious precautions to keep “mutants” in check. Utilizing state-of-the-art surveillance algorithms, they can predict where you’ll be and extrapolate whether you’ll be a future threat based on an individual’s special abilities. The meeting of two specific mutants with very unique abilities and a dash of cunning however, might just be enough to trick the system and allow them to wrench themselves free of their shackles.

Text version: here

Audio version: here  

  1. A Modest Genius by Vadim Shefner

Translated by Matthew J. O’Connell

Our main character, Sergei Kladesev, is a natural born genius. More often than not, he can solve his own issues and humanity’s using his own inventions. Despite his miraculous inventions he still struggles to find fulfillment in life chasing love in all the wrong places, or rather wrong people. When he finally finds someone whom he has a romantic interest in, his inventions end up ruining the opportunity. Will our uncharismatic but well intentioned genius get a second chance?

You can find this short in “The Big Book of Science Fiction” edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer

  1. Retrieval by Suzanne Walker

Retriever refers to a job class that finds tormented souls and returns them to where they belong so they can be at peace. In this short our main character works as one of these retrievers helping souls  find their way back to the afterlife. This is more easily done when a soul dies on a planet, but when a soul perishes in the void of space it undergoes the worst kind of torment. The protagonist learns that her father was executed by a tyrannical governing body called the Protectorate in this void of space. How will she find her father’s soul and more importantly will it come willingly back to planetside?

Text version: here

Audio version: here

  1. Swarm by Bruce Sterling

Sometime in the future when humanity has begun to explore space, humans encounter alien races waiting for human technology to develop sufficiently before making contact. During that time humankind has divided into different factions. The Mechanists have given up their humanity to integrate themselves more and more with machines and the Reshaped which are genetically altered to be highly intelligent and efficient. Sterling’s protagonist, Captain-Doctor Afriel, has been tasked with studying a newly discovered species called the Swarm which seem to be the first “unintelligent” life to travel space. With the ultimate goal of learning something from the swarm that could give the Reshapers an edge against the Mechanist, Afriel gets to work trying to understand these creatures but quickly finds out that he may have bitten off more than he can chew.

You can find this short in “Big book of science fiction” edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer

  1. Prasetyo Plastics by D.A. Xiaolin Spires

In the not-so-distant future a genius named Ali begins his career in the 3D printer world as a plastics engineer. Although there are many competing materials, plastics are clearly overtaking the industry because even hobbyists can purchase basic equipment to get started 3D printing at home. Imagine humanity debating over the use of plastic as it pollutes the environment while Ali is further innovating and creating plastics that can be used for space travel and protect against solar radiation. Sound familiar? What would happen when your invention starts to form a sentience of its own? A thought provoking short with clear parallels to today’s environmental struggles, “Prasetyo” is a fantastic story for anyone looking to read the latest in environmentally conscious sci-fi.

Text version: here

Audio version: here

  1. Martian Blood by Allen M. Steele

Humans have finally done it, they colonized Mars. After discovering there were already indigenous people living on the red planet, humanity builds casinos and luxury hotels, of course. Steele’s story is told from the point of view of a local guide named Jim. For the right price, Jim can take eager tourists through the deserts of Mars with the hopes of meeting its native inhabitants. Jim’s upcoming client is a professor and researcher in astrobiology who wants to collect blood samples from the natives in order to prove or disprove the panspermia theory. What conflicts might arise if the theory is proven to be true (if the inhabitants of Mars are shown to be descendants of Earthlings)?

Text version: here

Audio version: here

If you love SciFi shorts definitely pick up this little gem below.

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Is Artificial Intelligence good or bad? (Part 1)

In my review about Speaker for the Dead I briefly mentioned the artificial intelligence that accompanies Ender by the name of Jane. There are so many elements to consider when thinking about A.I.; does it already exist, will it create a utopia, will we all be annihilated? Some people think it’ll be the most extraordinary advance to change our lives since the industrial revolution, some think it’ll be the end of humanity as we know it, others still (like myself) are optimistically cautious. Each view holds some merit, especially since Moore’s law (the fact that computing power doubles every two years) has held true for over fifty years. Anything advancing that quickly demands our attention. The moral implications as we hand over decision making processes off to machines are astounding, the automation of killing people in certain military drones is quickly becoming a reality, and the displacement of jobs for the future is also a concrete wall that we’re speeding towards and there are no brakes.

A prime example of someone who believes our moral values are more important now than ever is Zeynep Tufekci. In her Ted Talk from 2016, she makes the case for human morals being more important than ever in a world where we are handing over more and more decision making processes to algorithms and automation we don’t entirely understand.

 

Zeynep begins with a great anecdote asking whether or not a computer can tell if a person is lying (her boss was asking her because he was cheating on his wife). This raises an interesting question on many levels; 1st can machines detect a lie, 2nd if they can then can they too also lie? Ponder on that for a moment, if a machine could learn that humans sometimes lie to avoid an undesired response could it then too not incorporate what it learned and use it itself? When we think about A.I. we need to consider that until this point machines and computers only had the capacity to do what they were told; humans maintained control. There’s always a person plugging in numbers into a calculator, there’s a person hitting the send button on that Facebook message, there’s a person behind the steering wheel pressing the gas or the brakes when needed. Although we all know we as humans aren’t perfect, we can count on (most) humans to act guided by a sound moral compass. Are we ready to trust machines with the same moral decisions?

A question I’ve pondered a lot lately is if a self-driving car kills someone then does their existence make roadways less safe than human drivers? An interesting article by Business Insider states, “A 2014 Google patent involving lateral lane positioning (which may or may not be in use) followed a similar logic, describing how an AV might move away from a truck in one lane and closer to a car in another lane, since it’s safer to crash into a smaller object.” Can we safely allow A.I. to make life altering decisions for us? How do we set acceptable limits? Zaynep argues that we don’t really have any bench marks or guides for making decisions in complex human affairs. Basically we’re not sure how an A.I. would make its’ decisions, and we don’t like what we don’t know. Zeynep also mentions “Machine Learning” unlike regular programming where its given detailed instructions on how to respond to certain scenarios, machine learning gives the computer tons of information which it then takes and uses to learn. For example, let’s say you show a program one hundred pictures of dogs, all kinds of dogs; it’ll analyze every picture and start to learn the features of a dog. Our programs do this so well that if you later showed it a picture of a cat it would tell you that the picture is “not a dog” if asked. Now that’s a REALLY basic summary but you get the picture (see what I did there?).

This to me is incredibly interesting because I’m one of those people sitting on the fence about A.I., I definitely see the appeal and become excited thinking about all the cures for disease, the technology we could further develop, and how much further we could get in our exploration of the universe if only we had systems like A.I. in place helping to do the research. In that same breath, I also see how giving these machines the ability to make probabilistic decisions in a way we don’t quite understand is worrisome, especially if these systems are put in place for military weapons, transportation systems, and even food and water filtration systems. It’s either a utopia or dystopia…great.

Another consideration is that although the computers will make decisions in ways we may not understand, it still does so using information we give it. Zaynep points out that these systems could pick up on our biases, good or bad. According to her, researchers on Google found that women were less likely than men to be shown job ads for high-paying jobs and searching for African-American names is more likely to bring up ads suggesting criminal history even when there is none. So what kind of future do we want to build? Are we unknowingly making A.I. with the same prejudices we have as a species? What further implications will that have?

All this is great speculation but are we even close enough to developing A.I. to be worried about it? Well, kind of. A blog post by nvida does a pretty good job breaking it down. The basic rundown is currently we’ve been able to program machines and computers to do specific tasks better than humans. This ability is classified as narrow A.I. and includes tasks like playing checkers or facial recognition on Facebook. Simple programs that once it knows the “rules” can execute nearly perfect. The next great step forward was machine learning, this is what Zaynep was referring to when instead of hand coding programmers use algorithms to help machines dissect information which they then use to make their calculated “best” decision. As we discussed earlier though, depending where that initial pool of data came from, there could be bias and even racism “programmed” into the machines unintentionally.

All great things worth considering and I want to know what YOU think about A.I. Are you for it or against it and why? Leave a comment below and I’ll see you on the next Part of Is Artificial Intelligence Good, bad, or neither?

 

*Featured image from http://mirrorspectrum.com/behind-the-mirror/the-terminator-could-become-real-intelligent-ai-robots-capable-of-destroying-mankind#

 

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Speaking about Speaker for the Dead

If you’ve read my first review on Ender’s Game then you probably already know that I’m a fan of the series, what you might not know however is just how different this sequel really is. Allow me to preface this by reiterating that the reason I decided to start reading Ender’s Game was because when I watched the trailer (yes for the movie) I was hooked by battle ships and aliens (which is really all I need to watch/read a SciFi book/film). That being said, Speaker for the Dead takes on a whole different turn and is not nearly as actioned-packed as the first book in the sense that there is no “war” going on… at least not in the traditional sense.

(Spoiler’s from Ender’s Game ahead, read at your own risk)

See after Ender essentially was tricked into killing nearly every bugger in existence he understandably feels a deep sense of regret and heartache (I mean how would you feel if every kill you every got in a video game turned out to be real?). Luckily there was a ray of hope; a phoenix from the ashes in the shape of an unhatched hive queen who can communicate in what I can only assume is telepathy. Since the military basically is indebted to our “Hero,” they give him his own starship and he decides to fly around at light speed with his sister Valentine and our beloved queen in the attempts to find her a new home. Now there’s a lot here that happens politically during and after the war that’s worth mentioning. Ender’s brother, Peter Wiggin, (remember the entire family are geniuses) starts to write influential political pieces alongside his sister (he pretty much manipulated her) under internet aliases to manipulate public opinion on the alien war, international political relations, and other global issues. Well Ender’s sister keeps writing under her Alias and eventually writes a series on the Formic Wars and adds Ender’s The Hive Queen to it.

Since they’re all traveling at light speed hundreds and thousands of years go by (for everyone else) as they travel from planet to planet looking for a home for the hive queen. Humans have now colonized tens of hundreds of planets and Valentine’s work had become almost like a religious text in popularity. Humankind seems to rebuke the actions of Ender Wiggin in this future and of course Ender himself is going by an alias and working as a “Speaker for the dead” now. This is where Speaker for the Dead picks up and continues the adventure.

It’s probably worth mentioning what a “Speaker for the dead” really is at this point. A Speaker in the Ender universe is basically a person that’s usually requested to come out after the death of someone and speak about them and their life in all aspects both good and bad so people could really know who that person was. Think of it as a secular funeral speaking but no real bias is intended since it’s a third party doing the speaking. At this point in humankind, they’ve developed certain protocols in dealing with alien life and eventually humans find intelligent life again on a planet called Lusitania. Since the planet is discovered to harbor such life the humans are only allowed to establish a small colony within certain borders that are never to get past a certain size. They are allowed to study and interact with the aliens (that they call piggies because of how they look) but their every interaction has regulations and limits regarding how they ask questions with the intention being to not affect their natural development (so no sharing tech or teaching them to farm, they’re very primitive in regards to technology).

The whole story revolves around how (mostly because of these regulations) the xenobiologists studying the piggies would often be murdered by them because of the communication regulations. If the humans were allowed to speak freely with them they would’ve been able to understand each other. After the first xenobiologist is killed, one of the colonists requests a Speaker to come on his behalf. Suffice it to say this is not like Ender’s game in the sense that you have and all-out war among different species but what makes this story great is all the depth involved in the Card’s story telling. You have the unhatched Hive queen convincing Ender that the planet Lusitania is perfect for her, while Ender deals with the politics of the Catholic church receiving him (Lusitania is a religious colony), Ender also has an A.I. friend that literally NO ONE knows exists and she helps him out a lot, you have the whole communication barrier with another species, and the drama that comes with the xenobiologist’s family who have been studying the piggies for a few generations now. Although this book isn’t overflowing with violence like Ender’s game, there’s definitely enough moving parts and character development to keep you interested. My guess is if you enjoyed the writing style of Ender’s Game, you’ll like this book too.

The A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) that helps Ender is probably my favorite aspect of this story, her name is Jane. The interesting part about Jane is she doesn’t really know how she was made. After humans started using bugger technology to communicate (the ansible) instantaneously through space, with enough time and random code falling to place Jane basically was created. Slowly but surely she became self-aware and started researching all the information available to her, after researching human history (along with the bugger war) she concludes that for the time being it’s best not to make her existence known for fear that humans would see her as a threat and try and kill her. After some time she finds The Hive Queen and easily connects it to Ender Wiggin and decides if anyone can change human opinion of “different life forms” so they don’t see her as a threat, it’s Ender.

The whole concept of Artificial Intelligence is one that both excites me and scares me simultaneously. The reality is, we’re getting closer to that possibility every day. Baidu’s A.I. team was recently able to teach a virtual agent the same way you would teach a baby human. The short summary is that the virtual agent can get a grasp of grammar and apply what it’s learned to other situations, something that previous computers/programs have an issue with. It looks like a lot of the philosophical questions posed in Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead might have to be answered (at least discussed) sooner than some of us would like to admit. If we do develop A.I. how to we handle it? Is it morally right to kill it if we perceive it as a potential threat? What if we’re wrong? The list can go on and on, it’s just amazing that we live in a time where a lot of Science fiction has or is becoming science fact!

Featured image came from:

http://enderverse.wikia.com/wiki/Andrew_Wiggin

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Enders Game, my 1st Sci-Fi book

If you’re anything like me I couldn’t wait to graduate from college so I could finally have some free time to read the books I wanted to read instead of the mandatory dribble dictated by my course curriculum. However after graduation I faced a problem I really didn’t think I would have… where to begin? I knew I was into anything space related so I knew Science Fiction would be the genre for me but even with that narrowed down there was still a mountain of books and authors to choose from! Luckily I saw a trailer for a movie (I know, I know, the movies are NEVER as good as the books right?) called Ender’s Game and immediately thought I HAD to check it out. Although I was a little cautious with child actors (scars from The Last Airbender movie *cough cough*) I decided I’d give it a shot mainly because it was in space and there were aliens in it, basically anything with aliens I’m checking out.

So there I was, just a small town boy, living in a lonely Sci-fi world, watching the midnight showing with a bunch of friends (or maybe I was alone). Needless to say I enjoyed the movie and many of the scientific concepts it portrayed. The concept of Battle school for starters, was this large space station that utilized centrifugal force to generate gravity (something we’re looking at accomplishing in the near future by the way link). The anisible was perhaps even more interesting still even if the movie hardly touches on it, basically it is technology that allows the humans to instantaneously communicate with any other human no matter how far in the fabric of space they were. The book does touch a little more on it and how it was reverse engineered from the formic technology but this is definitely something humans will eventually have to face when we start venturing further and further into space. Oh! How could I forget the zero gravity laser tag training room!? Who else saw that and thought forget paintball and sign me up for cramping-disabling laser pain! (I know I did!) Suffice it to say there were enough elements in this movie to get me interested in the book, so I went to my local library (those still exist) and picked up a copy… sort of.

After several trips to the library I actually couldn’t find the book (apparently more than one person had the same idea as me), maybe looking for a book right after its movie had come out wasn’t the brightest move, but lucky for me a friend of mine had a copy she let me borrow. What excited me initially about the book was that there were quite a few books in the Ender universe and I knew if I enjoyed it I would have plenty of material to keep me busy for a while (not the fastest reader here). Without spoiling too much of the book, it was actually pretty close to the movie as far as main plot line but the book painted a more in-depth picture of the entire universe. Orson Scott Card does a fantastic job developing his characters, some of which barely were mentioned in the movie (like Bean my personal favorite, he has his own series which I think is more interesting). The book also delves deeper into the different technologies and how they work. Battle School for instance is explained by using centrifugal force that creates artificial gravity by constantly rotating. They even specify how the closer to the center of the station you got, the less the force of the gravity would become (hence why zero gravity laser tag was at the center of the ship).

All this writing and I just realized I haven’t even gotten to the plot! Basically there are these aliens that invaded Earth years ago called “Buggers” (although officially they are called Formics, and you learn why in one of the prequels called Earth Unaware), Earth was barely able to fend off the first alien invasion but in the aftermath they were able to reverse engineer some fancy war technology and now they were bringing the fight to the nasty buggers. Since the alien menace works a lot like an insect hive, they can change and react to situations very quickly. In order to combat this ever adapting threat, all of humanity unifies under one banner and creates a “Battle school” where they send Earth’s brightest children (the idea being children are much better at adapting to situations on the fly, where adults are much more stuck in their ways) to get the best military training the world has to offer. Ender, coming from a family that apparently has great genetics (both his brother and sister went to battle school), is sent there as humanities last hope.

The book touches on so much more than a simple war among intergalactic neighbors though, it’s intertwined with elements of philosophy and questions relating to whether its right or wrong to kill an entire species. I especially enjoyed the twist of how the Formics communicate, the whole war basically is brought on by the fact that all attempts to communicate with the Formics had failed and they were just assumed to be blood thirsty-warmongering savages. In reality humankind in their arrogance assumed that all species would communicate more or less like humans and there lies the single most contributing factor to the war.

I definitely recommend the book and movie, they both captured my interest (one led me to the other) and I’ve began devouring the series since. Now, now, I’ll be up front and say I’m just starting to get my Science Fiction reading feet wet and am open to recommendations (once I’m finished the series) but in my ever so humble opinion, if you like space, aliens, well developed characters, and of course a good story line pick this book up.

Featured image came from:

Book Review: Ender’s Game

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My first blog post wasn’t first

So apparently I circumvented the “first blog post” by not introducing myself …I beg your pardon dear reader(s). My name is Mauricio, owner of Scienceislyfe. My intention with this is to write about Science fiction books and movies I digest and let you know my thoughts. Although I’ll probably talk about plot, my main focus will in all likely hood be the technology and science in the books and movies.

I also want to talk about advances in science that I find interesting (that could be a broad range). I may even write a section that talks about science and politics so you know which candidates or policies are helping advance or hinder humanities advancement in sciences. My number one goal is to hopefully awe and inspire anyone reading these posts to become more interested (and maybe involved) in science. The more we learn the better all our lives will be.

So sit back and enjoy the reading, live a little and click a little and hopefully every time you visit, you’re a little smarter.