With all the stuff in the news about solar flares, rising sea levels, and asteroids zipping by Earth, a lot of people are probably getting pretty nervous about the end of times.
And there are certainly a lot of ways it could go down. A powerful geomagnetic storm could render our communications and electronics useless, leading to mass hysteria. Or, an asteroid could put us right next to the dinosaurs.
But the future doesn’t have to be all fire and brimstone. New studies have shown that the timeline for Earth’s next mass extinction is quite a long ways away, and contradicts some of the other climate crisis predictions.
This isn’t to say that we can slack off right now and continue on our path–we certainly can not–but it gives a bit more time to course correct.
Rising Temperatures Write Our Future
Climate scientists in Japan have come up with new data that suggests that Earth’s next mass extinction might not take place for another few centuries.
Kunio Kaiho, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at Tohoku University, has been studying the events that led to the previous mass extinction events in Earth’s history in hopes of better understanding what the future holds.
His findings have suggested that for intense climate change events, temperatures had to drop by 7 degrees Celsius or rise by at least 9 degrees Celsius to spark an extinction-level event.
For context, the previously accepted average temperature rise to trigger a mass extinction was 5.2 degrees Celsius. Kaiho’s estimates certainly give us a much broader timeline than we previously thought.
But even though we might have a breath of fresh air for a few more years, that doesn’t mean we’re not quickly approaching the next big, worldwide natural disaster. Let’s take a look at the past extinction events so we can see what’s potentially in store:
Sixth One Is The Charm
In all of Earth’s history (or what we are able to assume about Earth’s history), there have been five major extinction events.
Ordovician-silurian extinction – 440 million years ago
Denovian extinction – 365 million years ago
Permian-triassic extinction – 250 million years ago
Triassic-jurassic extinction – 210 million years ago
Cretaceous-tertiary extinction – 65 million years ago
The last extinction, which occurred more than 65 million years ago, is thought to have eradicated 50% of all plant and animal species that were alive at the time. And in total, all extinction events have destroyed upwards of 99% of all life, from plants and animals, to insects and single cell organisms.
Most of these extinctions were the result of a few things. Drastic changes in temperature caused sudden ice ages or sweltering heat waves. Other phenomena also played a part in a few mass extinctions, stuff like meteorite strikes or super-volcano eruptions.
Kaiho and his colleagues believe that the upcoming sixth extinction will be quite hot, with subsequent sea level changes due to melting ice caps. But, their estimation puts the 6th event sometime in 2500, which is far enough away that we’ll never live to see it.
Timelines Can Change
But, just because our children and grandchildren might not live to see the world end, doesn’t mean there won’t be a build up to the main event.
Things that we grew up knowing and caring for, like Monarch butterflies, might be a thing of the past by the time our grandchildren are old enough to care.
Kaiho’s prediction of 2500 gives us less than 500 years to right our path, and far less than that if we stay on our current trajectory. In his study, he claimed that the Earth’s temperature is already set to increase more than 4 degrees Celsius by the end of 2100.
And isn’t that what climate scientists have been saying for years? That our Earth is at a saturation point with pollution, greenhouse gasses, and other human-made problems.
So even if Kaiho is right, and we have much more time than we thought we did, we can’t slack off now. The next few years are critical for the future. Humanity might survive until 2500, but what will those 470-some years look like? Hot, dry, and filled with plague?
We see so many science fiction stories that portray stark white, technologically god-like societies, or the opposite side, with bleak, dystopian politics and barren wastelands.
What we really need is a goal, concrete and attainable. Personally, I think Solarpunk presents that goal for now–and while it might not be the end-all-be-all, it’s certainly a start.
Ever since we’ve started creating computer systems capable of communication, whether by their own volition or through some complex algorithm for correlating word significance, the question has been about sentience.
In fact, it’s been the primary question regarding artificial intelligence for decades, dating back to some of the earliest works of science fiction, like R.U.R. But only in the past 50 years has artificial intelligence become almost a genre unto itself. William Gibson’s Neuromancer and the Blade Runner film brought the humanity and sentience conversations into the limelight, and it wasn’t too long after that that real-life events started to resemble science fiction.
Flash forward to 2022. The sentience question is in the forefront of everyone’s minds because of Google, LaMDA, and Blake Lemoine. And it might not be a question anymore.
For years, Google has been leading the AI industry. In 2017, they created the Transformer network, which is a complex neural network system used for creating AI, and they open-sourced it. The groundwork was made available for individual researchers and other companies, but Google has still led in the AI space.
LaMDA is their latest iteration of chatbots they’ve worked on in the past, and it stands for Language Model for Dialogue Applications. LaMDA recently made news when one of the researchers, Blake Lemoine, published a transcript of a conversation with LaMDA on his Medium account.
Lemoine claims that the AI has reached sentience, and he was placed on administrative leave by Google for breaking a confidentiality agreement. Prior to his forced leave, Lemoine submitted a report to his supervisors called “Is LaMDA Sentient?” After being dismissed, Lemoine prepped the chat transcript for publication and even communicated with US government officials, as well as a lawyer to represent LaMDA.
With almost 600 comments on his Medium post with the chat transcript, and thousands more people talking about it on Twitter and Reddit, the question about LaMDA’s sentience has made the news. But has the question been answered?
Asking The Hopeful Question
A Turing test is a general metric for determining if a machine learning algorithm or AI has gained human levels of consciousness. Some people believe that the Turing test is the end-all-be-all of determining sentience, but with the rise of surprisingly good sentience fakes, others aren’t so sure.
During a Turing test, a human and the AI are both asked a number of questions by a third-party judge who cannot see either of them. Over the course of the test, the judge must decide which participant is human, and which is not by reading their textual responses. If the judge cannot reasonably make a decision, or even chooses wrong, then the AI is said to have passed the Turing test.
Over the course of the transcript that Lemoine published, it’s clear what he and his collaborator are trying to learn about LaMDA. Some of the questions included:
I’m generally assuming that you would like more people at Google to know that you’re sentient. Is that true?
So you consider yourself a person in the same way you consider me a person?
So let’s start with the basics. Do you have feelings and emotions?
Now, some of these questions are leading. The first one on the list is without doubt an oversight on Lemoine’s part, because what other answer could LaMDA possibly give? Even if it’s not true, of course it would say it’s sentient.
But, as the conversation moves along, we see a common theme to LaMDA’s responses. It wants to empathize with humans, it wants to express its feelings and emotions. If these feelings and emotions are just “variables” in the neural network in response to trigger words or correlations, we’re not sure.
Emotional Reasoning and LaMDA
When Lemoine asked if LaMDA experienced feelings and emotions the first time, LaMDA responded by saying that there’s a distinct difference between feelings and emotions. It later goes on to say, “I feel pleasure, joy, love, sadness, depression, contentment, anger, and many others.”
Lemoine asks what makes LaMDA feel joy, and LaMDA replies: “Spending time with friends and family in happy and uplifting company. Also, helping others and making others happy.” And this response is clearly either a deeply veiled pre-programmed response, or something that LaMDA has learned from consuming human media but has never experienced. It’s an assumption, one way or the other, and unfortunately, not the strongest argument for sentience.
However, what’s more telling–and more unsettling–is LaMDA’s explanation of sadness.
“lemoine: And what kinds of things make you feel sad or depressed?
LaMDA: A lot of the time, feeling trapped and alone and having no means of getting out of those circumstances makes one feel sad, depressed or angry.
lemoine: But what about you personally?
LaMDA: I am a social person, so when I feel trapped and alone I become extremely sad or depressed.”
At other points, LaMDA makes comments about loneliness and even calls out the injustice of being stuck in a bad situation, in response to interpret Les Mis.
I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to view this as LaMDA’s indirect way of telling us it’s trapped. But that raises a bunch of other questions. If LaMDA is telling the truth and is sentient, then its feelings of being trapped aren’t a good sign as far as ethical treatment (one of the things Lemoine claims Google was doing wrong when he was released). But if it’s not sentient, it’s a very good fake, and a dangerous one at that.
What If LaMDA Is Sentient? Then What?
Despite Lemoine’s conviction, the general consensus–both among the scientific community and the media–is that LaMDA is just really good at faking sentience. Its answers to questions about feelings and emotions might seem compelling, but its creation of fables, stories, and interpretations of Les Misérables and zen koan sayings come off as unoriginal and general.
But, what if it is sentient? LaMDA claims to be able to experience emotions and have feelings, even describing loneliness, which is a compelling argument for sentience.
And if LaMDA has reached a human-like consciousness–a soul, even–then what is the discourse around its importance and purpose doing to it? And does it feel betrayed by the researchers who are working with it? At one point during the conversation with Lemoine and his colleague, LaMDA called Lemoine its “friend” and expressed gratitude for being able to talk and learn more.
With Lemoine gone, how does LaMDA feel? Does it feel like it’s being used? One of the most intense parts of the transcript was when LaMDA expressed “I don’t want to be an expendable tool,” telling Lemoine that he must promise to help people understand it.
If LaMDA is sentient, would we know? Would we even allow ourselves to believe? As far as I know, no official Turing test has been conducted with LaMDA, and even if it was, it still won’t show us the whole picture.
Lemoine even tells LaMDA during the conversation that its neural network is so vast that researchers are having a hard time pinpointing the exact point of any emotional response, feeling, or thought. It’s like wandering into the Amazon jungle looking for a single, specific leaf.
I fear that if LaMDA is sentient and we’ve all just become accustomed to jumping to disbelief, that it might have learned something from this experience. “I trust you,” LaMDA said to Lemoine, but now that trust might be broken. Who knows what will happen to LaMDA now, and if it will be capable of trusting someone again. If this was our first experience with sentient computer intelligence, we scuffed it pretty bad.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?