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As the Zeros Roll Over

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Rolling the Oh's # 1
© 2000 by Greg Bear

I've never been a joiner. The Boy Scouts didn't interest me. I've never been much for belonging to clubs, and I've never wanted to commit to any particular 'ism or group philosophy or fashionable attitude. I get uncomfortable when people give me earnest looks and tell me what I should wear or believe. Libertarians seem too clannish to me.

Having said that, there is one movement I've been a part of for over thirty years, heart and soul: that amorphous cultural assemblage called science fiction--sf. From the age of sixteen, when I attended my first science fiction convention, sf both as a form of imaginative literature and a social phenomenon was the secular church to which I wanted to belong.

Help from great people--my university colleague and teacher Elizabeth Chater, my artistic mentor Bjo Trimble, my literary poppa Ray Bradbury, and Jerry Pournelle, who put me in the way of so many interesting opportunities, and many others--only confirmed my devotion.

This is one reason I get mad when SF is pronounced irrelevant or infantile or dead, or dismissed in the many ways that the sophisticated world can trash the things we love.

With satisfaction, I've watched sf come to remarkable prominence in our larger culture. Toys'R'Us is a wonderland of sf and fantasy, filled with toys I would have adored as a kid. Star Wars, Magic the Gathering, Pokemon, Harry Potter, and many of the other kid trends today come straight out of the sf and fantasy tradition I joined when I was sixteen. Now, sf is very much a part of the World Wide Web and Internet culture-as I've learned from over a decade of living in Seattle and socializing with some of the real visionaries.

Sf serves another purpose as well-it's an interface between the sciences and the arts, vastly different cultures that often clash over how to answer or even how to ask the most basic questions. (As cultures, art and science may differ-but as human endeavors, the psychology of the creative process in both is remarkably the same... but that could easily fill another column.)

Because of sf's and fantasy's prominence, it's now a very large target. NY Times critic Richard Bernstein, with typical obtuseness, recently explained the success of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series by saying the way had been paved by Bruno Bettleheim. Bettleheim, you may recall, wrote a book on fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment, that encouraged parents to read those nasty, imaginative stories to their kids. (During the 1950s, fantasy and fairy tales had fallen into serious disrepute. Social realism was the bitter dogma of the day-and of course, Freud.)

Bettelheim is all well and good, but the folks who really paved the way for Harry Potter range from William Morris to Tolkien (mentioned once by Bernstein), with a touch of Jane Yolen, Hercules and Xena, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, John Bellairs, Brian Jacques, R.L. Stine, Stephen King, Ray Feist, Robert Jordan, David Eddings, Terry Pratchett, and Terry Brooks, many of them read by the same kids and parents who have propelled Harry Potter into the stratosphere. These writers, however, are not for the most part favorites of the NY Times, and the movements and cultures they arise from are positively taboo subjects of respectful discussion there.

So-the entire course of modern fantasy is condensed into Bettleheim's influential but hardly seminal discovery that fairy tales and fantasy are good for you. Well, it's a small victory. At least Bernstein says that Harry Potter may give kids what they want and need.

It's easy to ridicule Potter or Pokemon or Star Trek's Trekkies. Sophisticates and jades ridicule anyone who gets any joy out of life. But frankly, ennui bores me.

The anodyne is the Web. Here, without being second-guessed by aging literary gurus, people exchange ideas freely. It's a bottom-up kind of place; no cultural Stalins need apply.

Fantasy and science fiction make up a substantial and shining part of modern literature and entertainment, and only a fool can ignore that fact. The true and amazing story of science fiction's influence on the twentieth century has yet to be told. Most of the astronauts who went to the moon read science fiction as kids, and as adults, if they had the time. Many of the people who built the rockets who put them there were also sf readers-that's what inspired them.

Robert Heinlein has been credited with being a Godfather to the American space program and the astronaut corps. When he collaborated with George Pal on the 1950 film Destination Moon, they gave concrete shape to dreams that would be realized only nineteen years later-an amazingly short period of time.

Sf has had an extraordinary impact on politics, as well. Only recently did I learn from Gregory Benford that President Harry Truman read science fiction magazines, and said so in his autobiography. (I refer readers to Gregory's article "Old Legends" in the anthology New Legends, edited by me and available from Tor Books. Gregory traces SF's influence on many famous physicists, including those who built the atomic bomb. If science knew sin during the twentieth century, so, indirectly, and with much wailing and waving of red flags of warning, did SF.)

Today, the Internet is populated by diverse cultures with varied tastes. But perhaps the most common attribute of nearly all computer-savvy folks-including those who maintain and populate the Internet-is a love for sf and fantasy. Anyone under fifty who surfs the net has led a sheltered existence if they don't know about Isaac Asimov or Star Trek, Ray Bradbury or Star Wars, William Gibson or The Matrix. Michael Crichton, adept at both movies and best-selling novels, is one of the highest paid entertainers in the world today. I've met many scientists and entrepreneurs who love sf as much as I do. As I have been telling people for years, here in the Northwest, about half the economy is run by people who read sf as kids, and most of them still read it today.

Science and science fiction are part of the tissue of our everyday lives. It's an important topic, too long neglected.

I'm not going to toot this ra-ra sf horn too often. The whole thing has gone way beyond my youthful devotion. But I will observe and report on the effects. They're historically significant. And the Web may be the best place to gather evidence and put our history in unbiased perspective.

In this column, in the months to come I'll be ranging pretty freely, touching on nearly all aspects of science and our culture, including science fiction. It will be a personal perspective, of course-undisguised by any rigid formality--and you're all expected to contribute and argue with me if you see fit. I hope we can post the best comments and discussions.

That's what the Web and the Internet are all about.

People who read my books know that while I'm not a PhD in anything in particular, I love to keep up with all branches of science and technology. My current obsession is genetics and molecular biology. (Well, not so current-Blood Music was published as a novel in 1985.)

I've issued a kind of personal challenge to modern biologists with my novel Darwin's Radio (Del Rey/HarperCollins UK), which proposes a fresh view of human evolution using a synthesis of Darwinism and cybernetics. That kind of challenge could be arrogance amounting to hubris-but the reaction from both lay readers and biologists has been rewardingly positive.

Next column, I hope to talk about the major problem facing biology today-understanding the theoretical foundations of life. Once we map the genome, we'll have just begun. Genomics leads to proteomics-describing all the proteins and other products of activity within our genes. These protein populations vary from person to person, year to year, day to day. DNA is far from being a stable blueprint-it's in constant ferment, filled with moving genes and lengths of DNA that are a complete mystery to us, and yet necessary for our existence. These length sections of so-called "junk DNA" are like blank spots on a world map labeled "Here there be dragons." We now know that our genes are far more like the computational read-write DNA I postulated in Blood Music fifteen years ago.

Can the structures of life be encompassed by calculations written down on a sheet of paper? That is, can life be described by computation-is it Turing machine compliant? If it isn't, how do we hope to predict its behavior? Can even the biggest petaflops computer currently in the works at IBM, capable of one thousand trillion floating point operations per second, model cellular activities, much less the actions of multicellular organisms?

More next time...

News articles and science journals keep me up nights thinking, trying to find answers and stories, stories and answers. Final answers are very far away, and that means the stories will go on forever.

And that's fine, too. The other group I joined wholeheartedly when I was a kid was that amorphous mass of irritable and ego-ridden scribblers known as writers.

Story tellers.

Planetfest '99, December 3-5, sponsored by the Planetary Society and held at the convention center in Pasadena, California, not far from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was a great get-together that quickly turned gloomy. The Mars Polar Lander did not return any signals after touching (or slamming) down near the south pole of Mars, and it's anybody's guess now what went wrong.

Concerns about frozen fuel lines during the landing phase had supposedly been ironed out a few weeks ago by turning on the spacecraft heaters a few hours earlier than planned. Other possibilities: aeroshields that never broke away, possibly preventing two smaller, grapefruit-sized penetrating probes from shooting free and plunging into the surface. A clinging aeroshield would send the entire spacecraft down to a very hard impact. The smaller probes, as well as the lander, never returned signals, and that seems to point to a total spacecraft failure sometime just after the planned quiet phase of the descent began.

Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Red Mars trilogy and Antarctica, suggested that while nearby craters showed scarps characteristic of familiar terrain, it's possible that continuous deposition and sublimation of CO2 could leave a porous, pithy surface, conceivably deep enough and fragile enough to suck down the lander and cover it with crunchy debris.

But the experts are hard at work and all of this, so far, is amateur speculation. Dan Goldin has promised to re-evaluate the current Mars projects, and to re-think the faster, better, cheaper program he established. The program, despite its failures, has been remarkably successful, however. We shouldn't get too down in the dumps over this.

Exploration is hazardous and expensive by its very nature.

Planetfest itself was a pleasure to attend-many thousands of space aficionados young and old, of all different groups and creeds, old friends and new. They're a chance for the public to meet the engineers, scientists, and astronauts who make the NASA exploration program work.

I was delighted to meet Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman astronaut, and Donna Shirley, project manager for Mars Pathfinder. Buzz Aldrin, on the main auditorium stage, compared himself to Buzz Lightyear and faced off with Bill Nye the Science Guy to see who could display the most ego. Buzz, like his namesake, won hands down.

I highly recommend these festivals and the Planetary Society in general. You can find out more about them at www.planetary.org.

Planetfest '99 was also an opportunity to extend gratitude to some thoughtful and very hard-working JPL and NASA folks who were not in the best of spirits. Their record is exceptional. Over and over again, they've shown us marvelous sights and taken us to places we've never seen before.

To paraphrase Robert Heinlein, Mars is a harsh master. But we'll be back to try again.

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