End-Stage Capitalism in Blackfish City

A lot of science fiction novels explore futures where economic and political ideologies reach their breaking point. The speculation is “what comes next?”

Few stories, though, dive as deeply into the intricate workings of the collapse. We’re talking the moment the system no longer works, the turning point.

Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller, published in 2018, is a perfect example of end-stage capitalism. It follows the progression of dissent among the citizens of Qaanaaq city, and ends with a blowout of a conclusion.

(Spoilers ahead for most of Blackfish City).

The Problems of Qaanaaq

In Blackfish City, the Earth as we know it has severely changed. Most established nations have fallen into chaos, and rising floodwaters have claimed many previously-inhabitable places. The story takes place on Qaanaaq, a floating city in the Artic. The city is powered by a geothermal vent deep under the water, which provides an endless supply of heat, and rotating screens protect the city from harsh winds.

Divided up into eight different Arms, Qaanaaq is a perfect example of class-structure. The poor—refugees, the sick, laborers—are forced to live packed into filthy houseboats or cramped apartments. The rich elite can afford lavish apartments and luxuries like real coffee instead of algae-grown substitutes.

Qaanaaq’s political and municipal systems are a bit murkier. Shareholders and landlords control the vast majority of the city’s workings. They leverage hidden apartments to raise rent and manipulate the poor. Municipal AI systems run the day-to-day of the city, and many consider them impartial governors, but they were built by the shareholders for their own purposes.

Crime syndicates have as much legitimacy as landlords, with some mob bosses being more magnanimous than their “lawful” counterparts.

Overall, Qaanaaq is an example of what happens when capitalism goes unchecked. There aren’t agencies or government officials who oversee landlords or corporations, so profiteering runs rampant, at the expense of the working class.

A Commentary on Capitalism

It’s clear that Miller’s Qaanaaq is a take on capitalist greed, with property politics at the forefront of the conversation. Being a landlord is a very profitable endeavor in our current system, and it’s largely unregulated. Rent rates can rise on a whim, maintenance isn’t overseen by a governing body, and the difference between a roof over your head or homelessness is up to the landlord’s digression.

Soq, one of the main characters in Blackfish City, comes to the realization near the end of the novel that “being a landlord was the biggest racket in town, in every town, in every city, across history.” And that sentiment is the culmination of 300 pages of strife for all the characters, struggling in different capacities against the system.

In the same scene, Soq also pieces together that their mother, a feared crime boss, isn’t that different than the evil shareholder she’s fighting against. While Go—Soq’s mother—might provide stability for wayward refugees and Qaanaaq’s lower class, her drive for more will end up hurting the very people she aims to protect.

Soq poses the question: “How would Go be different from Podlove (the shareholder), from every other rich and powerful player who sucked the blood of the poor, made them pay until they couldn’t pay anymore and then pushed them into the sea to sink? Soq doubted there’d be any difference at all.”

And that is the pinnacle problem that we ourselves are experiencing today. The people we hold in high regard—our government officials, spokespeople, corporate leaders, captains of industry—they’re all easily replaceable, but will their successors be any different?

It’s not a question of morals, personality, or individual willpower, it’s a consequence of money, greed, and power. Money, as Miller tells us, “is a mind, the oldest artificial intelligence. Its prime directives are simple, its programming endlessly creative. Humans obey it unthinkingly, with cheerful alacrity. Like a virus, it doesn’t care if it kills its host.”

Even the most well-intentioned person can turn sour when they get a taste of money and power, and that’s ultimately why Soq kills Go. Not because Go abandoned them at birth and left them to grow up on the streets, but because Soq saw down the line what Go would become. In the critical moment, Soq choose the good of Qaanaaq city over any kind of familial obligation they might have had.

And that violence, as calculated as it was, is not the mark of capitalism. It’s not matricide, or an act for power. It was a move for the benefit of the people.

What Comes Next?

After the final break down of Qaanaaq’s AI infrastructure, Go’s demise, and Podlove’s dethroning, there is a vacuum of power. While Miller doesn’t show us what comes after the end-stage capitalist free-for-all that was Qaanaaq, we get an inkling.

Soq has always dreamed of running things, of being a big shot, and they have a chance now to get a head of the game. They plan on recruiting Go’s people, and positioning themselves in a seat of authority.

I was a bit disappointed in this ending, to be perfectly honest. Soq feels responsible for the outcomes of their actions, sure, but the “play for power” and “claim to the throne” language they use makes it feel like a shadow of Go. Soq killed Go because they saw what she would become, but what will Soq become? How can they be trusted to take control and not become poisoned by the same money and greed that ended Go?

Despite the massive upheaval, it feels like a return to the status quo, which isn’t what I wanted to see at the end of Blackfish City.

But how do you think the story should have ended? Let us know in the comments below!

NFTs That Exchange Novelty for Utility

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) aren’t a new invention. They’ve been around in one capacity or another for a couple of years now. But they’re really getting popular now because of mainstream news outlets and investors on social media.

We’ve talked about some of the problems of NFTs before, but recently, there’s kind of been a shift in the way we think about NFTs.

A lot of the popular collections that have made press in mainstream media are purely artistic collectibles. They have no inherent value or purpose other than being a digital asset with a prescribed value.

When compared with cryptocurrency in general, these collectible NFTs serve far less function than a lot of people realize.

With Ethereum, you can purchase goods and services from online vendors (and some in-person places, too), hold onto it as an investment, or stake your ETH for interest.

With a collectible NFT, like a Bored Ape, you’re pretty much just holding onto it as a clout item or trying to flip it for profit. There’s not much else you can do with it.

That’s where many creators and crypto enthusiasts get caught up. Outside of the hype for these projects, what do they have to offer? And that’s where utility NFTs come into play.

Understanding NFT Utility

Where collectible NFTs have real no function other than being a novelty used by flippers to make a profit, utility NFTs come with some kind of inherent value or use outside of simply turning it around for a quick buck.

As a hypothetical explanation, let’s say you have a video game that relies heavily on weapon selection over real skill. The better gear you have, the better you are at the game.

We talked about how Counterstrike skins are like NFTs in the last blog, but they fall into the collectible NFT section. Other than adding cosmetic value, they don’t do anything else.

A utility NFT for a video game would be something you buy that has a use in-game that’s non-cosmetic. It could be a sword with reduced weight for faster swings, or a gun that has a higher rate of fire and more accuracy. These elements are what make the NFT useful, and that’s why people will buy them. Not only can they still look cool as a collectible item, there’s a functional purpose for owning them.

Additionally, some utility NFTs today provide more than just a digital asset. Some of them, like Jigen, provide an article of digital clothing for the Metaverse, as well as a physical edition of the clothing. You’re buying the NFT, but receiving both a digital and physical asset.

Why Adding Utility Solves Some NFT Problems

A lot of people that are serious about the NFT community always complain about the pump-and-dump schemes. Creators will hype up a project, profit off sales, and disappear, leaving buyers questioning the whole purpose of the project in the first place. The same goes for crypto tokens that started popping up after Dogecoin and Shiba Inu took the Internet by storm.

Utility NFTs solve this problem by providing users with a value other than an investment opportunity. With collectible NFTs, your use for them is controlled solely by market factors, much like a stock or other investment.

But with Utility NFTs, chances are you bought it for its functional purpose, and aren’t as concerned with the monetary potential in flipping it. This, overall, levels out the concerns a lot of people have with the NFT market.

Are we in a bubble right now? Will NFTs faze out in a few years when the novelty wears off? Maybe, but with an inherent use that gives value to users, NFTs will be a lot harder to rule out as a viable method of transferring goods and services.

Applications for Utility NFTs (In a Sci Fi Sense)

You might be wondering how many NFT projects actually have applications for the sci fi enthusiast, and it’s a reasonable question.

In a world that’s looking wackier and more dystopian every day, some utility NFTs can seem like they’re breaching privacy, weakening economic structures, and pulling the wool over the eyes of buyers.

Here are some examples of how utility NFTs are changing the digital landscape for good:

Nebula Genomics – This company is using blockchain technology to provide complete genome sequencing for people across the world. Where their counterparts collect and store DNA data—doing who knows what with it—Nebula Genomics makes their process 100% anonymous with a “blockchain-enabled multiparty access control system”. And, they’ve even shown they have the capability to turn complete genome sequences into NFTs, with their auction of Professor George Church’s genome data as an NFT.

Molcule.to – Where Nebula Genomics provides a service to the general public, Molecule is dedicated to provide top-tier research to medical and scientific professionals. On their website, Molecule states that it specializes in “funding, collaborating and transacting early-stage biopharma research projects”. Molecule allows researchers to connect with investors who will receive NFT data, and it facilitates the transfer of research between professionals in a decentralized marketplace.

Snapshot Snapshot provides a secure, tested location for blockchain project owners to engage with their communities. Snapshot employs a gasless, blockchain-backed voting system, where members in the community have clear access to poll statistics about the future of their backed projects. This service assures full transparency for community-driven projects.

The Future of Utility NFTs is Bright

While there the market is still rampant with collections and projects that don’t have a clear end goal in mind, the NFT world is starting to develop a coherent purpose.

While not all NFT art collections are bad—like this street-art preservation project—utility NFTs are opening up the community for more scientific and purposeful projects.

Who knows, maybe in the future we’ll see NFTs change digital reading, online subscriptions, and other high-traffic industries.

For now, it’s safe to say that projects that exchange collectability for utility are bound to see more success than those purely invested in the novelty of the format.

What is Lunarpunk, And Can It Fix Solarpunk’s Problems?

So, I have to be honest, I’ve been doing a lot of research into what makes particular sci fi subgenres tick. After writing about the solarpunk genre a few weeks ago, something didn’t sit right with me.

After doing some more reading, I’ve pinpointed a few issues with the idea of solarpunk, at least, with how it’s been previously defined.

This goes back to the idea of the punk—the social deviant and system-breaker—and how that really applies to these genres. In the “good-place” utopia that solarpunk strives to be, where does the punk come into play?

And what is lunarpunk? The dichotomous relationship with solarpunk really sets up a whole new perspective that opens up how we can look at the genres.

Problems With Solarpunk

One of the primary things I find a bit troubling about solarpunk as an ideology is the insertion of the ‘punk’. Now, previously, I had defined the solarpunk as being someone who “cares a lot less about rebelling against a system that impacts them as an individual, but instead takes a more environmental approach. They are eco-activists who aim to right the wrongs of the past with technology that is sustainable and renewable.”

On the surface level, I think this is still true. It’s an easy way to define the general mindset of the solarpunk in fiction, and in reality.

However, I overlooked the fact that solarpunk is so dedicated to the creation of a unified collective, that the ‘punk’ might end up slipping out of this collective. You simply can’t have a collective of punks, because that’s counterintuitive on two fronts. So where does the punk fit in a utopia they helped to create? Does the cycle continue after the ideal world has been achieved? What point is there in a rebellion when all is seemingly good?

To rectify this little oversight, we don’t have to completely rework the philosophy of the genre, we simply have to break it up.

We can look at it in three stages:

Three Stages of Solarpunk

Pre-solarpunk is (hopefully) the current state of the world today, in 2022. The climate crisis is getting worse by the day, biodiversity is rapidly deteriorating. But, the fundamentals of change are happening. You’re reading this blog, people are writing eco-fiction and using their skills to work toward a sustainable future.

Solarpunk really picks up when change is acted upon in radical ways. When rebellions begin and oppressive systems are picked apart. This stage is revolution, where the punks take their stand and worldwide change comes to fruition.

Post-solarpunk is really where a lot of the literature defined as “solarpunk” fits in. This stage is when the revolution has been completed, and the systems in place are all working together toward the “good-place” utopia. There will still be problems, sure, but the radical nature of the punk as defined by the revolution stage is no longer condoned. The system in post-solarpunk gets as close to the perfect, sustainable world as possible.

In the post-solarpunk world, I might venture so far as to define the punks as philosophical solar-anarchists. These people aren’t radicalized to the point of revolution (because their revolution has already occurred) but they still operate on the fringes, working against systems they deem as oppressive, or ones that might become oppressive. Traditional philosophical anarchists defy social order and state control, with the ultimate goal of freeing the individual from oppressive systems.

We might think of the post-solarpunks as being the watchers on high of the new society. The systems that replaced the capitalist regime are still a step away from true self-governance, but the post-solarpunks tolerate the new system.

Where Does Lunarpunk Come In?

Lunarpunk is the other side of the solarpunk coin. It’s a very new genre, and it’s more rooted in aesthetics and spiritualism than solarpunk is. While you might be able to skew solarpunk as a political ideology, lunarpunk is much harder to pin down.

solarpunk and lunarpunk together

No one person has been accredited with the creation of lunarpunk, but there are quite a few people on the Internet that have contributed to the philosophy of the genre.

In an expansive Tumblr comment from thecarboncoast, lunarpunk is defined loosely as:

“Aspeculative fiction style/genre defined by an obscured, shrouded, and/or dark near-future where the business of its inhabitants is done in secretive, cryptic or mysterious ways, accentuated by a visual style hearkening to lunar, occult, Pagan, Wiccan, Satanic, Anarchaic, Chaotic, practices, and comprised of world-building details which are more ideal for introverted, quiet, isolated or self-reliant people. Doesn’t mean an extroverted Christian isn’t part of Lunarpunk, or that someone who practices anything mentioned above isn’t part of Solarpunk. But in terms of what defines Lunarpunk as a genre, you would be more likely to see small sects of persons worshiping (or devoting to) The Self rather than The Other.”

So, it’s clear the lunarpunk operates side-by-side with solarpunk, with a duality that’s often characterized by the yin and yang symbol. The presence of spirituality as a defining feature is really what seperates lunarpunk from solarpunk.

Where solarpunk is a calculating genre that places a focus on the breakdown of societal structures—politics, religion, media, etc.—lunarpunk embraces the loose structure of spirituality and champions individuality.

Instead of a focus on the technology and practices for advancing society, lunarpunk is more about creating a more sustainable sense of self.

One way I’ve seen this concept described is that the sun represents the consciousness, while the moon represents the subconsciousness. It makes sense, primarily because lunarpunk revels in the unexplainable, while solarpunk focuses on reality.

Can There Be a Solarpunk Without Lunarpunk?

Part of the reason I was troubled by solarpunk was because there seemed to be a loss of the individual. Sure, individuals are the ones behind great ideas for sustainable technology, and a more accepting society allows people to be who they want to be.

But the individual is always talked about in connection to society, and that, even in a punk sense, isn’t what individual means.

After learning about lunarpunk, I realized that the two genres must coexist together, lest they both evaporate. Lunarpunk accounts for the individual outside of the societal sphere. Spirituality is largely an individual journey, and lunarpunk’s secretive, mysterious nature supports the development of individual politics and spirituality.

In this regard, I think that the “punk” in lunarpunk is about breaking away from society, no matter how green and pure and optimistic it may be. The dichotomy of solarpunk/lunarpunk levels both of the genres out. There’s a balance that’s necessary for survival. Focus on solarpunk for too long, you lose sight of who you are for the greater good of the society, and if you focus on lunarpunk for too long, you become isolated and disconnected from others.

And to answer the titular question: yes, I think lunarpunk succeeds in solving some of solarpunk’s problems. Not all of them, but those are bound to work themselves out as the two genres converge and grow together.

The Tale of Two Sci Fi Cities

Just like there are multiple different genres of science fiction, there are also many imagined outcomes for the spaces where we live. In post-apocalyptic futures, survivors of nuclear fallout or deadly contagion hole up in abandoned buildings and underground bunkers.

For space opera sagas, people call space stations, colony ships, and mining rigs home. And cyberpunk cities are filled with smog, neon lights, and poverty. It’s clear that the spectrum of sci fi cities—or sci fi habitats, in general—are all dependent upon each individual value-set of the genre.

For example, cyberpunk has long been defined by end-game capitalism, where mega-corporations blatantly control governments and dictate the habits of the population. Any and all infrastructure projects are designed to benefit the corporations, and the everyday person ends up working longer hours for less pay, if they work a job at all.

The cyberpunk city reflects the high-tech, low-life motto of the genre. Tech isn’t used to create a better collective future, instead it’s the tool of authoritarian, capitalist regimes or the hobby of “punks” who see their individualism tied with technology.

Thinking about how political, economic, and social factors impact the kinds of cities we live in, I was interested to learn about the “real life” sci fi cities that pop up once and again in WIRED articles or news coverage.

More specifically, I am intrigued by the mindset that dictates the design choices for these cities. If we were living in a sci fi novel, what would our genre be? That’s how I wanted to look at the following sci fi cities.

Songdo IBD, South Korea

Songdo is one of the more popular sci fi cities you hear mentioned today, and it’s certainly on of the most complete. What started as a tidal flat home to a few fishermen, is now a “green” metropolis that houses around 170,000 people.

Songdo, and the Songdo International Business District, are located along the Incheon waterfront, an hour away from Seoul, South Korea. The city was designed to be a sustainable city, with green spaces and LEED-certifications galore.

In the past 20 years, multiple governments and investors have contributed $40 billion to Songdo city, making it one of the most expensive megastructures in the world.

The city, in keeping with the goal of environmental sustainability, features:

  • Pneumatic waste systems that sort garbage and recycling
  • A lofty 100 acres of park space
  • Multiple LEED-certified buildings and spaces (approximately 106 buildings, when construction is complete)
  • Bike lanes and accessible public transportation

Pictures of Songdo city might lure you into thinking it’s the future of urban living. The precursor to a solarpunk city, if you will.

However, under its bright green environmentalism, Songdo reveals the ideologies upon which urban life is built.

sci fi cities songdo
An overview of the Central Park in Songdo, seen from the Observatory on the 29th floor of G-Tower. 18.08.15

On an innocent level, sensors and built-in computers around the city monitor water flow, energy usage, and traffic patterns. This data is collected under the guise of advancement of green tech—gathering data to better perfect urban infrastructure.

But these auxiliary computer systems act as an appendage to the hand of authoritarianism. Throughout the city, government-funded cameras are mounted on light posts, street signs, traffic lights, and buildings, connecting back to the U-Life Center. What’s detailed as a precautionary measure to prevent crime and respond quickly to disasters can easily be equipped for intelligence-gathering and a demolition of any sense of privacy.

What’s more, Cisco, one of the developing partners, proposed that all children be equipped with GPS tracking chips in their bracelets. Albeit back in 2014, this tech is still just as haunting today, where it’s hard to find any kind of privacy from prying, online eyes.

Forest City, Malaysia

Just a six-hour plane ride from Songdo, another smart, green city is under development. Forest City is located in the Johor Bahru District in Malaysia, spanning around 3,400 acres. The project was meant to be an energy-efficient, low-waste city to help solve the growing population problem in Malaysia. Forest City was a collaborative effort between Johor People’s Infrastructure Group and Country Garden Holding Ltd.

sci fi cities forest city

Construction for the project began in 2006, but has stalled multiple times due to political, environmental, and economic factors. Environmentally, the construction project has compromised water hydrology, traditional fishing grounds, and mangrove orchards. And many experts are saying that the land is sinking, seen through cracks in new foundations and shifting buildings. The man-made islands weren’t given enough time to settle, and will create problems in the future.

Despite having raised over $100 billion for the project, Forest City remains one of the least populated cities in the world, with only about 500 full-time residents.

The idea for this sci fi city was sound—a metropolis filled with green spaces and next-level technology—but corruption and environmental oversight have landed Forest City in the margins of history.

A Capitalist Future

It’s clear that there are some strides being made toward sustainability and an environmentally-friendly future. However, there’s a difference between end-goal sustainability and continuous sustainability.

The land Songdo is built used to be a costal flat, with a few fishermen calling it home. Over the course of a few years, the whole landscape changed, with earthmovers bringing in tons of sand and soil to create the foundation for the city. And at one point, construction ground to a halt because it threatened local ecosystems.

And Forest City is no different. The man-made islands it sits upon were once an Environmentally Sensitive Area, which prohibited development that wasn’t related to low-impact tourism and research. Construction of Forest City began without the proper legal documents and eventually impacted coastal wetlands and traditional fishing families.

If these sustainable cities were more than a venture by capitalist well-doers, they would have taken the proper precautions to abide by local restrictions and environmental protection acts. In the pursuit of a “green city”, the developers have overlooked the biodiversity and importance of the coastal wetlands.

I think we can best sum up both Songdo and Forest City with a quote from Bruce Sterling, from his Manifesto of January 3rd, 2000. Talking about CO2 emissions—and largely about sustainable building practices—he says, “it’s not centrally a political or economic problem. It is a design and engineering problem. It is a cultural problem and a problem of artistic sensibility.”

Economically, these cities are possible. If not for capitalism, the Songdo and Forest City projects might not have raised billions of dollars from private and government investors. But culturally, the projects turned into vanity projects, and abide by the same autocratic policies that plague urban centers all over the world. Information privacy is thrown out the window, and the foundations for the cities were built using the same strategies as every other city.

The only way to truly create a green city, be it today or 10 years from today, is to start with a good foundation. That foundation is both a literal and a metaphorical thing.

You need to build in a place that’s not a protected environmental zone, obviously, but you also need to make the construction a collaborative effort between scientific and thought leaders in the field and local authorities. And under capitalism, that cannot happen. Corners will always be cut for the sake of profit, a focus will always be placed on recouping investment, and design elements will favor the needs of the state, or in this case, the developer.

If we learned anything from our deep dive into Solarpunk, it’s that the best places are built outside of the conventional sphere—with “punk” energy, if you will.

So, until those things happen, hopeful sci fi cities like Songdo and Forest City will only every be that: hopeful.

Sci Fi Book Review: Constance by Matthew Fitzsimmons

Amazon has this program called First Reads, where each month they pick books from many different genres—cozy fiction, romance, mystery, sci fi/fantasy, etc. –and they make them free on Kindle for Prime members. (Alternatively, it’s $1.99 a month if you’re not a Prime member).

It was during January, I think, that I picked up Constance by Matthew Fitzsimmons from Amazon First Reads. The red fingerprint on the cover was a facsimile of the Rorschach comic book I’d just finished reading, and the premise of human cloning murder mystery had me intrigued.

So, I figured I’d do another sci fi book review and hope Amazon had picked a good book for me.

Awaken the Clones

Constance D’Arcy, Con for short, is a struggling musician living in D.C. Her band, Awaken the Ghosts, had broken up a while ago after a tragic car crash that left two members dead, a third in a coma, and the other two struggling to cope.

Con’s aunt, the woman responsible for the human cloning revolution in America, Abigail Strickling, had gifted everyone in Con’s family a clone. Typically, only the very wealthy could afford the luxury of extending their life after death, so Con jumped at the opportunity.

Little did she know her decision would set into motion a number of devious plans that would leave her original dead, and her clone on the run from some of the most powerful people in the country. With an eighteen-month gap of memory missing, Con’s clone hunts for the answers about her original’s death, trying desperately to avoid the same fate.

The Mainstream Sci Fi

After reading Constance, I did some research about the author, Matthew Fitzsimmons. I was surprised to find that he is actually a well-known thriller writer, and his work has made it to the Wall Street Journal Bestseller list.

I was kind of surprised that I’d never heard of Fitzsimmons before, but I think it’s because his primary work is the Gibson Vaughn series, a military/hacker thriller series.

Constance seems to have been Fitzsimmons’ first jaunt into sci fi territory, but the story he chose to tell fit his style well. Coming from a background of writing intense political and military thrillers, Constance pairs the concept of human cloning with the intense murder mystery in a palatable way.  

As far as science fiction goes, I feel like Constance is very much a work of mainstream sci fi. By this I mean it’s not over the top, out of this world, space ships and aliens and stuff.

It’s still very much relatable to our own world. Some changes we see in this 2038 America include self-driving cars that become part of a nation-wide network of traffic, 3-D printed meat, and the new cell phone replacement, LFDs, act as little personal holograms.

Aside from human cloning and the anti-cloning religious fanatics that follow, Constance’s America is much the same as we know it today.

In this way, Fitzsimmons creates a sci fi story that fits neatly into the mainstream because it’s not so far-fetched that casual readers will be unimpressed. I’d say that this is a great book for people that don’t read sci fi, because it’s largely a murder mystery, but with the subtle sci fi overtones.

The Verdict

I don’t often read thrillers because I find they lack a certain introspection and self-awareness, but Constance wasn’t like that. The book asked potent questions about the value of human life and the morality of cloning.

One of the most interesting interactions in the book is when Con meets Franklin Butler, the leader of the anti-cloning militants, the Children of Adam. The public perception of Butler was that he hated cloning with a passion, but in reality, he hated the idea of cloning, but had to make his argument more digestible for his followers.

That kind of nuanced thinking underlies the whole novel, and by the end, you’re left with a few more moral quandaries than when you started.

Overall, I thought the pacing was good and the characters were well-developed. There are a lot of characters in this relatively short book, but Fitzsimmons has a way of quickly making them unique and memorable.

I felt the book stumbled a bit as it approached the climax. Multiple chapters ended with Con being told “oh, you’ll change your mind when you see this,” and then we’re teased for another chapter. You could see the big reveal from a mile away, but it really isn’t that big of a problem.

At the end of the day, I enjoyed this book. It combines the sci fi genre with the thriller mindset in a way that makes it an easy book to pick up, no matter if you’re a sci fi fan or a Gibson Vaughn reader.

I’d give it an 8/10. The characters are well-developed, but the plot seems to drag on a bit near the end, and a few of the character motivations become unclear as we approach the last pages.

Plus, I found out after I’d wrapped up my read that Fitzsimmons is working on a second book featuring Con D’Arcy. Chance is set for release in November of 2022.

Does Paris Syndrome Have a Place In Speculative Fiction?

Paris Syndrome is one of those things that everyone’s heard about but most people haven’t experienced. It’s a result of high expectations of a place, primarily Paris, hence the name, and the resulting disappointment when the place doesn’t live up to the hype.

It seems like a very specific condition, and it is, and in this article, I want to dissect how Paris Syndrome plays a part in science fiction, or, how it might.

What is Paris Syndrome?

For centuries, Paris has been a travel destination for people from all over the world, from all walks of life. The city has a rich history of intrigue and romance, and often, the hype around the city is far more exaggerated than what the city has to offer.

Paris Syndrome was coined by Japanese psychiatrist Hiroaki Ota when he worked at the Sainte-Anne Hospital Center in France. The condition, as Ota states, is primarily seen in Japanese tourists who visit Paris. The high expectations set by magazines, media, and travel advertisements—like how people think Paris is filled with models, millionaires, and artists—are the primary cause of Paris Syndrome.

It’s worth noting that the condition comes in two forms—the people that had predetermined mental conditions that were triggered by the realization that Paris isn’t a city of glamour and romance, and those people that had no prior history of mental conditions.

Those who suffer from Paris Syndrome often display delusions, hallucinations, anxiety, and in severe cases, derealization and depersonalization. Not to mention the psychosomatic effects, like dizziness, sweating, trouble breathing, and vomiting.

The condition was deemed so serious that the Sainte-Anne Hospital and the Japanese Embassy set up a department to assist Japanese travelers suffering from Paris Syndrome.

How Does Paris Syndrome Apply To Sci Fi?

While the original use of the term Paris Syndrome was to describe Japanese travelers experiencing a place that hadn’t lived up to their expectations, it can also be used to describe the same situation in different cities, regions, countries, etc.

When I was reading about Paris Syndrome, even just the simple article I’d found, a thought crossed my mind. How severe would Paris Syndrome be in the future? For a time-traveler, maybe, or for someone so sheltered from society that they experience the extreme effects of Paris Syndrome.

Imagine a character who had been living in a rural area far removed from a cyberpunk city in the future, that all of their perceptions of the place were from advertisements, news, or second-hand accounts. Now imagine they visit the city and are so overwhelmed by its neon bulbs, drugs, crime, and all-around nastiness that they start to have hallucinations and delusions. To me, at least, it sounds reasonable.

Even traveling from a small, Pennsylvanian town to NYC for the first time, I was anxious, felt closed-in and constantly watched, and generally uncomfortable. What would that experience be like in a sci fi world?

I started looking for examples of Paris Syndrome in science fiction literature, and I uncovered some interesting things.

“Border Control”

The first story I came across was the flash piece, “Border Patrol” by Liam Hogan, published in The Arcanist.

I’m familiar with Hogan’s work from when I worked on the Triangulation anthology series, as he was a regular contributor. His work has always been interesting and thought-provoking, and this story was no different.

In this micro-fiction piece, Hogan thinks about what Paris Syndrome would be like for time travelers. And rightfully so. The future holds so many possibilities, it’s easy to create a grand illusion of what it would be like. But, it’s probably much darker and mundane that we imagine it to be.

I suppose the same would apply to the past. If you traveled back into the past, say, the 1920s, you might expect Gatsby-style parties, car-rides through growing cities, and unprecedented wealth. However, your hopes would be dashed when you landed in the trash-strewn streets of New York, where the average American is still grieving their losses of WWI and struggling to get by.

Speaking of war, let’s get to our next example:

The Forever War

After picking r/sciencefiction’s braintrust, I realized that The Forever War by Joe Haldeman has elements of Paris Syndrome, while not named as such.


 the forever war

For those of you who haven’t read The Forever War, the premise is that the world’s most elite military recruits are sent into space to wage an impossible war with the Taurans. Because of their tech and their missions in the farthest reaches of our galaxy, time passes much more quickly on Earth than it does for the recruits waging war.

When they finally return to Earth, so much time has passed on their home planet that they don’t recognize it at all. And that’s where Paris Syndrome comes in.

Instead of finding their place in the futuristic Earth, they mourn so much for the place that they knew and had dreamt about while at war that they reenlist. They’d much rather return to a galaxy at war than learn to live in a place that so drastically changed shattered their hopes and expectations.

Of course, there are elements of PTSD, but the Paris Syndrome is part of the underlying reason Mandella and Potter return to the Forever War.

Frequently There, Never Named

Even though we might not recognize it, the Paris Syndrome plays a part in many science fiction novels. It’s never noted as being the Paris Syndrome, but the same idea is there.

The Dark Eden series by Chris Beckett has elements of Paris Syndrome, and Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson and The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin both have shadows of the idea.

the dispossessed

Paris Syndrome is more prevalent that we might think, and it’s certainly a condition that plays—or has the potential to play—a larger part in science fiction literature. Like in The Forever War, the future has so much potential that everyone has their expectations of what it will be like. But, when faced with the harsh reality of things, it turns out to be less ideal than one could have hoped.

I think in many ways, we might all feel Paris Syndrome sometimes, though to a less severe degree than Japanese tourists in France’s pearl. If you’ve ever had high hopes for a new book or show or movie, and then felt wildly disappointed or distraught when it doesn’t live up to your expectations—that’s small scale Paris Syndrome. Especially if there was a lot of hype around it, like positive advertisements, reviews, etc.

What do you think? Is it a stretch to believe Paris Syndrome plays a role in science fiction? Or is it a reasonable hypothesis?

Let us know in the comments below!

Sci fi Subgenres: Splice & Dice, the Biopunk Code

Of all the sci fi subgenres, biopunk probably hits the closest to home. Modern medicine and biotech has reached new heights, but a lot of the seeds of the fields were planted 40 years ago in some of the seminal biopunk novels.

Biopunk is closely related to cyberpunk and its derivatives, but it certainly presents a more realistic, while grim, outlook for our future.

What is Biopunk?

Where cyberpunk focuses on modifying the human body mechanically (think implants, advanced prosthetics, and computerized neuro functions), biopunk focuses on biology. Specifically, synthetic biology, including genetic engineering, extreme natural selection philosophies, and biochemical enhancement.

While some sci fi genres like solarpunk take a more optimistic outlook on the human experience, biopunk is closely related to cyberpunk in its adherence to a pessimistic, even grim, philosophy. As such, most biopunk books, novels, and games have dystopian societies, shadow governments, and totalitarian overtones.

Biopunk often features illegal black-market biohackers, people who operate outside the sanctioned scientific community to provide experimental—and dangerous—solutions to people’s troubles. While William Gibson’s Neuromancer was instrumental in the creation of cyberpunk, it also hinted at a biopunk world functioning in tandem with the flashy neon and advanced hardware of cyberpunk.  

Case, the main character, sustained significant damage to his nervous system, which prevented him from hacking into cyberspace. In exchange for his services as a hacker, Armitage repairs his nervous system while implanting a failsafe—poison—in Case’s bloodstream. Biopunk, right?

It’s clear that biopunk doesn’t operate in a vacuum, but just how connected is it to real science? Well, this sci fi subgenre is simply a culmination of fear, anxiety, and contempt for the illicit activities of real-life scientists. The history of the biotechnology revolution laid the groundwork for the core tenets of the biopunk genre.

The Biotechnology Revolution

Biotechnology isn’t a new field. It’s predecessor, zymurgy, was incredibly prevalent in the late 1800s. The bustle and boom of the industrial revolution brought with it the need to increase food production and raise valuable capital for impending wartime projects.

German scientists began developing specific yeast strains that would increase beer production and boost the industry’s revenue. And during WWI, German and Russian scientists raced to use their new fermentation tech to support the war efforts, through the creation of hydraulic fluid alternatives and acetone.

Eventually, the focus moved away from fermentation and the field was more broadly defined as biotechnology, coined by Karoly Ereky, a Hungarian pork mogul. With the discovery of penicillin, the field became obsessed with curing human ailments and making a stronger workforce.

sci fi subgenres biopunk and penicillin

After a few decades of tinkering with biofuel and single-cell protein projects, biotechnology experienced its next boom with the creation of genetic engineering. DNA structure and recombinant DNA took biotech by storm, and would remain the core focus of the field for the next fifty years.

Realizing the vast potential of biotechnology, politicians went to war with human rights activists over the ethics of biotech, and for a while the science community placed a moratorium on biotech until the industry was regulated and assuaged public fears.

The biotechnology as we know it today was born out of the desire to improve the human condition, with IVF, gene-editing therapy, and microbiological advancement like synthetic insulin.

But the biotechnology prominently featured in the biopunk genre is the biotech of the 1960s, which placed a heavy focus on eugenics and biological warfare.

Biopunk Novels, Films, and Games

One of the early proponents of the biopunk genre was Paul Di Filippo, with his collection of short stories, Ribofunk. Di Filippo emphasizes that cyberpunk as a genre lacks any real substance to maintain a status in the public eye for more than a fleeting moment. Instead, in Ribofunk, he proposes that biopunk, or slipstream works with a focus on biotech, is the study of living, not the depressing, close-to-extinction fiction of cyberpunk.

biopunk ribofunk

Despite his efforts to elevate the genre, much of biopunk still riffs off the dark nature of human experimentation and exploitation, albeit with some positive undertones.

Some prominent novels in the genre include:

  • Blood Music by Greg Bear (often seen as an overlap of biopunk and nanopunk)
  • The Xenogenesis trilogy by Octavia E. Butler
  • Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling
  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

But, the biopunk genre extends farther than the written word, encompassing visual mediums like film and video games.

  • The BioShock game series
  • The 2009 film Splice
  • The Resident Evil game series
  • The TV show Orphan Black

Blade Runner, the 1982 film based on Philip K. Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is often categorized as a cyberpunk work, which in many ways, it is. However, it does feature biopunk themes. The Replicants, sometimes thought to be androids, are actually biologically-engineered, clone-like entities. This becomes clear in Blade Runner: 2049 with the scene Replicant-birth scene.

A Sci Fi Subgenre With Substance

Biopunk started out as an offshoot of cyberpunk, but in many ways, it has overshadowed its predecessor. The dedication to the ideological expansion of biotechnology and its implications to the everyday person makes biopunk a much more digestible genre than cyberpunk.

While we’re closely catching up to the cyberware featured in the cyberpunk arsenal, biopunk hits closer to home. Everyday we see incredible advancements in genetic engineering and biochemical panaceas that make biopunk’s darker ideations much more realistic and haunting.

What do you think? Will biopunk outlive its predecessor? Or will our biotech surpass the bounds of imagination?

Let us know in the comments below!

Latest Science News: Larger Brains, More Intelligent? Not the Case

One of the most prevalent conventions of human thought is “Bigger is Better”, whether that’s referring to buildings, cars, bank accounts, etc.

And the same concept applied to brains, too. For a long time it was thought, the bigger the brain, the more intelligent the creature.

But, new studies show that the correlation between brain size and intelligence isn’t really much of a correlation at all, and the age-old idea that increased size = increased [insert variable here] has been blown out of the water.

A team of 22 international experts in human and animal biology have studied approximately 1,400 brains of extinct mammals. The idea was to compare information about their brain masses with the rest of the body in each sample.

Latest Science News Says: Big Brains Aren’t Big Enough

All this biology news looks like science fiction, but it is not. The study, published in April 2021 in Science Advances, is the result of years of research on brain size and intelligence.

The species known to be the smartest on our planet have very different proportions:

  • Elephants amaze us with their size, but their brain development is much greater
  • Dolphins tend to shrink their body size over the years and mutations across the species, but the brain grows larger with each generation
  • Monkeys have a wide range of sizes and seem to follow a pattern when it comes to body and brain
  • Humanity follows a trend similar to dolphins, where we become smaller and with greater intellect.

Kamran Safi, a lead researcher from Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, said that “Using relative brain size as a proxy for cognitive capacity must be set against an animal’s evolutionary history and the nuances in the way the brain and body have changed over the tree of life.”

Studying the Past

The researchers discovered that the biggest evolutionary changes to brain size occurred after cataclysmic events in the earth’s history. Think events like meteor strikes and massive climate shifts.

The first point analyzed was the mass extinction 66 million years ago at the end of the Cretatian era. During this period, dramatic changes were found in rodents, bats, carnivores, and some animals recognized as direct survivors of dinosaurs.

Likewise, between 23 to 33 million years ago, at the end of the Paleonege era, profound changes in the structure of seals, bears, whales, and other primates were also found due to a brutal change in the planet’s climate.

Based on this information, who’s to say that other events in the future won’t spark evolutionary changes too? Like the eruption of a supervolcano or widespread nuclear fallout.

Humans Cognition and Their Developed Brains

Talking about evolution concerning our own species in this aspect needs the support that the research from the University of Vienna carried out in 2015.

After more than 8,000 individuals were studied nearly 90 times, the result says that it is not the size but the structure of our brain that gives us greater intelligence.

Although the result is not 100% compatible because they have tested IQs, it is accepted that what makes someone more or less intelligent than others is their ability to rationally understand the world around them, their memory, resolutions, and logical capacity.

Another project, published in the Royal Society Open Science in 2016, supports the thesis that brain stucture, not size, is indicative of intelligence.

An experiment used to test brain function has subjects collect food in a container that has two entrances. Once the specimen learns both entrances, a transparent block is added, and if it remembers the alternate path to the food and does so, it is considered to be more intelligent than another species that insists on the shortest path.

Many of the test subjects (which varied in size and species) demonstrated the same performance, which again shows subjects with different brain sizes are capable of reaching the same end goal. It’s all about structure.

All of this research leads to the question: have humans evolved to unlock the full potential of our brains? Or will cataclysmic events in the future lead to evolutionary changes in the human brain?

It also raises the question: what does this new science mean for non-earth species?

Alien Science Meets Earth Science

A common stereotype about aliens is that their hyper-intelligence comes from their massive brains, which is reflected in the oblong-shaped heads.

But, if alien biology follows the new developments in Earth biology, it’d be more likely that aliens have slighter frames and smaller heads. It’s all about brain structure, not size, so the massive heads common in depictions of the green men don’t seem as realistic.

What do you think? Have cataclysmic events altered evolutionary patterns for non-Earth lifeforms, just like they have influenced human and animal brain size/structure? And what’s next for the human evolutionary pattern? Let us know in the comments!

Updates From the Edge: March 16

The Science of Social Distancing

Earlier this week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said gatherings of 50 or more people are strongly discouraged over the next eight weeks. This is to help contain the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. Tons of other stuff is closed down, such as many schools, libraries, colleges, places of worship, etc.

All of this is to help create and enforce distance between humans, a proven way of slowing the progress of pandemics.

We have been hearing the term “social distancing” quite a bit lately. But why is it important? And what does it really mean?

Why Social Distancing Is Important

Even those who become only mildly ill, and those who never show any symptoms at all, can still carry the virus and be a big problem when it comes to the exponential increase in the virus in our population.

Even if you are young, healthy, and have no risk factors, you should still not be socializing. Certainly older people and those with other health conditions are most likely to catch the virus, but young people are not at all immune, and may even be carrying the virus without realizing it.

For example, actor Idris Elba recently said he tested positive for COVID-19, but he said he wasn’t feeling sick at all. This is a prime example of why experts urge everyone to practice social distancing, not just those considered at high risk or who are seriously ill.

What Does Social Distancing Really Mean?

At its most basic, social distancing is the concept of keeping a distance between you and other people. Right now experts suggest at least six feet.

In practical terms, it’s important to minimize contact with all people as much as you are able. So avoiding public transportation when you can, don’t travel, work from home if you can, and definitely and skip social gatherings—ideally even small ones like coffee visits.

Since people weren’t staying out of crowded bars and similar places, many governments have closed down restaurants (other than for takeout), bars, and clubs. And pretty much all sports are shut down at this point as well.

This distancing strategy saved thousands of lives both during the Spanish flu pandemic a little over 100 years ago, and much more recently in Mexico City during the 2009 flu pandemic.

Note that you may have to be physically distant, but be sure to check in with friends and family on the phone or online. People can get lonely out there!

So Can I Go Outside?

Yeah, you can totally go outside. Get some air, go for a walk alone or with your pooch, read on your patio or in your yard. All of that is great. Just don’t do it with a group of neighbors or friends. Do it by yourself.

And you can still get groceries and prescriptions and the like. Just minimize the number of trips you make. If it isn’t important, wait until you need a few more things and go shopping then.

If your grocery store offers disinfecting wipes for your grocery cart use them, and if not, feel free to bring your own.

Just keep practicing good hand-washing and disinfecting, and not touching your face, whenever you go out for any reason.

One expert noted that you should not use your cell phone when out shopping because you may transfer the virus to your phone if you touch it before you’ve washed your hands. You can mitigate this somewhat with hand sanitizer, however.

The Math of Infectious Disease

There is a COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planner created by the Georgia Tech quantitative biologist Joshua Weitz which you can check out here. In an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Weitz, along with co-authors Richard E. Lenski, Lauren A. Meyers, and Jonathan Dushoff, gave some real-world examples to help us understand.

They use the example of March Madness basketball games to illustrate the point. What are the odds that none of the 75,000 attendees are affected? They use statistics to determine that there is a 99% chance that one ore more attendees would have arrived infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

If you’re into mathematical models you can get the full story and all the math here.


What’s Happening at CAEZIK SF & Fantasy Publishing

The Pursuit of the Pankera: A Parallel Novel About Parallel Universes comes out in just over a week! It’s the previously unpublished work by Robert A. Heinlein that is a parallel to his 1980 novel, The Number of the Beast.

Check out this recent review here and if you think it’s for you, definitely reserve your copy right away.

Of course there’s also Robert J. Sawyer’s new novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative, which is being published by CAEZIK in paperback on June 2 in the United States. Read an advanced preview here (link opens a PDF) and be the first of your friends to have a peek inside Sawyer’s latest work.

Also, The Oppenheimer Alternative is now available for pre-order, so be sure to get on the list right away.

Follow news from CAEZIK and all of ARC Manor’s imprints on Facebook and Twitter.

The Beauty of Why English Is Hard To Learn

Why is the English language hard to learn? Well. English is is acknowledged as being one of the most complicated languages to translate into other languages, along with Hindi, Korean, Icelandic and a host of others (depending on which particular set of statistics you look at). English incorporates multitudes of words from other languages, like the word robot for example. The robot definition actually came from a Slavonic word, and was popularized by Czech playwright Karel Capek.

But did you know there are some weird and wonderful words that are unable to be translated at all?

No? Well, even more interesting is the reason why these words can’t be translated. No solo word in any other language represents the scope of the original word. Each of these words can usually only be translated using multiple words or a phrase.

A notable English word that fits the bill is Serendipity, which literally means fortunate accident, and has no direct translation in any other language. But there are some really fascinating words in other languages, too, that helps us realize how emotion-driven verbal and written forms of communication can be.

3

What if those precious nameless moments between a couple actually did have a word to describe them?

2

Who would think there was a word for the specific type of bad luck you can experience?

1

There are many untranslatable words that seem to focus on someone’s sense of being. While Litost in Czech describes the torment that is gained by being aware of how miserable your life is, there are other single words our their to describe a positive feeling. Hygge is that cozy feeling you get while you are sitting around a cozy fire with your loved ones, but my favorite, all-encompassing, untranslatable word is Gezellig.

4

Has this given you some insight as to why is English hard to learn? There are many, many more examples of untranslatable words (the Italian even have a word for people addicted to the UV glow of tanning salons: Slampadato!), but one thing they all have in common is they show us that not matter who we are, we all have the same experiences over our lifetimes, and it behooves us to learn more about the fascinating languages around us that connect us to each other.