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[REVIEW] Arthur. C. Clarke’s July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century

I had been passingly aware of Arthur C Clarke’s 1986 book Arthur. C. Clarke’s July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century for some time. This book was one of his many books in his later career where Clarke played the futurologist, pointing his audiences towards the possibilities of the future. It was only when I saw this winter a copy in near-mint condition in The Junction‘s Pandemonium that I took particular note: The date of the title was closing. Surely it merited some exploration. Sadly, when I popped into Pandemonium I was told that someone had bought that copy just a few minutes before my arrival. Off to Amazon I went.

Arthur C. Clarke's July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century #books #hardcover #arthurcclarke #sciencefiction #futurology #future #retrofuture

The significance of the title July 20, 2019 comes of course from this date being the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. It does indeed begin with an imagined address to the reader by the Arthur C. Clarke of 2019 himself, a resident of Clavius City, a base in the Moon’s Clavius Crater home to a only a thousand people. From that lofty perspective, Clarke sets out from this lofty perspective the framework for these great changes in humanity. The subsequent chapters, written with a wide variety of collaborators, go on to look at different areas of the human future: education, health, robotics, space and transportation, sex and work, crime and war, all get explored in turn.

The one overriding theme that July 20, 2019 gets perfectly right is the extent to which what we in actual 2019 would call Big Data is transformative. The new generation of computers and associated technologies that were only beginning to emerge in 1986, capable not only of collecting vast amounts of data but of drawing meaningful conclusions from these, would make many things possible. It would become possible, for instance, for modern medicine to provide finely tailored recommendations as to what patients should do to enjoy the best possible health, to finally make psychiatry a science wit effective interventions to deal with the ills of the human mind.

It would allow people to become life-long students, to continue to expand their skills and to learn more about the world.

It would allow people to enjoy all kinds of popular culture, for sports enhanced by bioengineering to new distribution methods for shows and for altogether new cultural forms scarcely imagined.

More, this Big Data would enable all sorts of innovations in the physical sciences, in the manufacture of all sorts of robots capable of acts of great precision and in the development of new swift vehicles to travel the skies and the oceans and in new sorts of pleasure.

All of the chapters are informative, but not that many were outstanding. I did particularly like one built around a criminal investigation looking at the relationship of a smart home with its owner. (I, for one, take care to always be polite to my Google Home Minis.) I was also caught up by the drama of an imagined Third World War, fought almost bloodlessly with precise smart weapons along the inner German frontier, ending mildly enough with a loss by East Germany of Schwerin as West Germany gave up the Fulda Gap.

It is not that there were many things that were outright wrong. (I remain convinced that we were biased by the geopolitics-driven space race of the 1960s towards thinking crewed space travel would be easier and would come about earlier than we should have expected in the technologically primitive and poor world of the mid-20th century; the 2020s might well be a good time for a durable resurgence.) The overall contours of the world depicted, generally speaking, are ones that people in actual 2019 would be able to recognize as something mostly like their own.

The big problem with July 20, 2019 is that it does not quite take account of people. Who was it who said that science fiction was a literature of ideas if not a literature of literature, of heady concepts but not so much about people or societies? The geopolitics of this imagined Third World War are uninspiring, reflecting Clarke’s 2001 or 2010, the colossi of the United States and the Soviet Union dominating to the exclusion of anyone else. We have fought multiple wars with smart weapons, and we know that even if these smart weapons actually are as good as we’d like them to be they are fired by governments acting with imperfect knowledge at targets in societies made up of innumerable human beings. This imagined near-total stability, in retrospect, is a failure.

Beyond this, I do not think that Clarke quite recognized how the impact of Big Data would change the quality of human lives. If people are to become life-long patients, life-long students, constantly being engaged in a stressful world full of challenges and stimuli barely imagined to the people of 1986, what would the impact of this be? Looking back, I think that we can see the people of Clarke’s imagined 2019 would be desperately grinding, perhaps just as we are in our post-Cold War globalized era. Clarke, though, did not seem to get this.

July 20, 2019 is a good book. I quite enjoyed going through it, taking a look at what one of the great science fiction writers imagined our world might come to be. I just think that the gaps and failed predictions are as interesting as the successes. These all are the sorts of factors that people aspiring to predict the future should look to learn from.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 20, 2019 at 11:58 pm

[NEWS] Five SF links: the novella, Kubrick on 2001, Supergirl vs Superman, TV fans, past writers

  • Jason Kehe at Wired suggests that now is the time of the science-fiction novella, not least because of their compact size.
  • Esquire links to a video in which Stanley Kubrick gives his definitive interpretation of the ending of the movie version of 2001.
  • Alex Cranz at io9 makes the argument that Supergirl, as an adult immigrant to Earth trying to find her way in an unknown world with great recent shows, resonates more deeply with the Super mythos than a more confused Superman.
  • Jessica Wong at CBC reports on how campaigns by devoted fans can save cult SF television shows like the Toronto-filmed Shadowhunters.
  • James Nicoll at Tor, looking back to the 1970s, uses a Judy-Lynn Del Rey anthology series of the era to highlight some noteworthy authors.

[NEWS] Five sci-fi links: HAL 9000, Space Seed on VHS, baseball on DS9, Civilization, AIs doing D&D

  • How did the movie version of HAL 9000, from 2001, come about? And why does HAL sound so Canadian? The National Post reports.
  • The official Star Trek website explains how the release of the episode “Space Seed” on VHS helped change the videocassette market of the 1980s, here.
  • Deadspin explains how the central role played by the sport of baseball in Deep Space 9 underlined the ways in which that show was atypical Trek.
  • Rock Paper Shotgun examines how many long-run civilization-building games, like Civilization, do a poor job of depicting stagnation and decline, and what this failure says about us now.
  • The idea that the game that artificial intelligences need to learn to play is not chess but D&D–that games involving roleplaying are good tests for general intelligence–seems obvious to me. Aeon has it.

[BLOG] Some Sunday links

  • Bad Astronomer Phil Plait suggests that strange markings in the upper atmosphere of Venus might well be evidence of life in that relatively Earth-like environment.
  • The Broadside Blog’s Caitlin Kelly raves over Babylon Berlin.
  • Centauri Dreams considers, fifty years after its publication, Clarke’s 2001.
  • Crooked Timber considers Kevin Williamson in the context of conservative intellectual representation more generally.
  • D-Brief considers “digisexuality”, the fusion of the digital world with sexuality. (I think we’re quite some way off, myself.)
  • The Dragon’s Tales considers evidence suggesting that the agricultural revolution in ancient Anatolia was achieved without population replacement from the Fertile Crescent.
  • Drew Ex Machina takes a look at the flight of Apollo 6, a flight that helped iron out problem with the Saturn V.
  • The Frailest Thing’s Michael Sacasas is not impressed by the idea of the trolley problem, as something that allows for the displacement of responsibility.
  • Gizmodo explains why the faces of Neanderthals were so different from the faces of modern humans.
  • JSTOR Daily considers if volcano-driven climate change helped the rise of Christianity.
  • Language Log considers, after Spinoza, the idea that vowels are the souls of consonants.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money engages in a bit of speculation: What would have happened had Clinton won? (Ideological gridlock, perhaps.)
  • Lovesick Cyborg explores how the advent of the cheap USB memory stick allowed North Koreans to start to enjoy K-Pop.
  • Russell Darnley considers the transformation of the forests of Indonesia’s Riau forest from closed canopy forest to plantations.
  • The Map Room Blog shares some praise of inset maps.
  • Neuroskeptic considers how ketamine may work as an anti-depressant.
  • The NYR Daily considers student of death, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.
  • Justin Petrone of north! shares an anecdote from the Long Island coastal community of Greenport.
  • Personal Reflection’s Jim Belshaw considers the iconic Benjamin Wolfe painting The Death of General Wolfe.
  • The Planetary Society Blog’s Casey Dreier notes cost overruns for the James Webb Space Telescope.
  • pollotenchegg maps recent trends in natural increase and decrease in Ukraine.
  • Roads and Kingdoms talks about a special Hverabrauð in Iceland, baked in hot springs.
  • Starts With A Bang’s Ethan Siegel shares his own proposal for a new Drake Equation, revised to take account of recent discoveries.
  • Vintage Space considers how the American government would have responded if John Glenn had died in the course of his 1962 voyage into space.
  • Window on Eurasia considers the belief among many Russians that had Beria, not Khrushchev, succeeded Stalin, the Soviet Union might have been more successful.

[LINK] Centauri Dreams’ Paul Gilster on the genesis of Arthur C. Clarke, writer

Writing at Centauri Dreams, Paul Gilster had a trio of thoughtful posts examining the development of Arthur C. Clarke (1, 2, 3). The first post, “The Vision of Arthur C. Clarke”, points to an interesting-looking new biography about the writer.

Neil McAleer’s new book on Clarke is called Visionary: The Odyssey of Sir Arthur C. Clarke (Clarke Project, 2012). It’s the place to go for the background on this period, and on any period, in Clarke’s life. I call the book ‘new,’ but it’s actually a major revision and update of McAleer’s 1993 biography that adds extensive coverage of Clarke’s last fifteen years, covering a lot of material that was new to me, including insights into Clarke’s synergistic relationship with Stanley Kubrick, his reaction to the tsunami of 2004, and the almost playful way he fielded questions about his private life until a newspaper scandal based on nothing more than innuendo delayed the ceremony conferring his knighthood for two years. Throughout, McAleer’s research is exhaustive, drawing on memoirs, interviews and letters from Clarke’s many friends.

The second, “Arthur C. Clarke: On Cities and Stars”, draws from McAleer’s biography to look at the influences and experiences of the young writer, leading up to his The City and the Stars.

By the time Clarke moved from Somerset to London in 1936 he was already suffused with science fiction and in particular enraptured with Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, not to mention the second-hand copies of American science fiction magazines that were then available in England. He spoke of the ‘ravenous addiction’ these magazines inspired and the effect that Stapledon’s novel, with a time scale spanning five billion years, had upon his imagination. He was twelve years old when he first read Last and First Men, awed by its cosmic reach and its placement of the evolution of humanity against the broader backdrop of the cosmos.

Think for a moment of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Has any film ever covered a wider swath of time, from the beginnings of tool making to the apotheosis of the species in an extraterrestrial encounter? This was Clarke’s stage, but the other great discovery of his youth, David Lasser’s The Conquest of Space (1931) gave him the technology he would spend a life examining. Lasser was the founder of the American Interplanetary Society (which became the American Rocket Society and, eventually, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics). He was also, for a time, the editor of Hugo Gernsback’s Science Wonder Stories and Air Wonder Stories. If Stapledon brought Clarke the cosmos, Lasser gave the boy a focus on the attainable, the idea of space as a reachable frontier.

[. . .]

I came across The City and the Stars just a few years after it was published and was mesmerized by its setting in much the way Clarke was taken with Stapledon’s Last and First Men. Here was Diaspar, the city of the far future, the only city on planet Earth, whose inhabitants moved through a high-tech monument to stasis. Nothing changes in Diaspar even as the world around it loses its oceans and becomes desert. Clarke would have much to say about the kind of inward thinking that his characters have to overcome, but the unmistakable fact about Diaspar is that the city at the end of time is also achingly, eerily beautiful.

The third and final (so far?), “Clarke: The Rocket Man Emerges”, considers the beginning of his viable writing career and his genius as a science writer and predictors.

As his stint in the Royal Air Force drew to a close in 1945, Clarke developed the notion of geostationary satellites providing global communications. During the war he had worked on microwaves and radar, while his passion for rocketry provided the means of deployment. McAleer points to George O. Smith as a possible influence, the latter having published a series of stories in Astounding during the war years that became known as the Venus Equilateral series. Clarke even wrote an introduction to a 1976 reprint of these stories saying that they might well have influenced him subconsciously in his work.

The article “Extra-Terrestrial Relays,” whatever its sources, would appear in Wireless World in October of 1945. Worldwide coverage by radio and television would be implemented by a series of spacecraft with an orbital period of 24 hours at a distance of 42,000 kilometers from Earth center. Clarke went on to describe the equatorial orbits that would place space stations into ‘fixed’ spots in the sky (as seen by people on Earth). The predictions were bold, valid and, yes, visionary, but remained unheralded at the time except by the US Navy. Many believe the article was influential in the development of early space satellites.

Clarke’s $40 from Wireless World offered him plenty of opportunity later in life to joke about the real monetary value of the communications satellite concept, and McAleer notes that he never showed any regrets about what might have been. In any case, being a visionary was already becoming a habit for the writer, one that seemed to outweigh financial considerations. While still in the RAF and working as an instructor at a radio school in Wiltshire, Clarke often broke into soliloquies on rocket science, describing at one late night session how multistage rockets would get us to the Moon. When asked how big the rocket would be, he described it as the height of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which turns out to be within a few feet of the height of the Saturn V.

Read all three; they’re good.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 8, 2013 at 5:03 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] On the queerness of HAL, artificial intelligence, and Clarke’s worlds

io9 has featured an interesting book excerpt, “Straight, Gay, or Binary?: HAL Comes Out of the Cybernetic Closet”, taken from one Mark Dery‘s latest book. In it, Dery argues that the figure of HAL, the artificial intelligence from 2001 and sequels, is marked by a certain queerness notwithstanding the repression of sexuality in Clarke’s book and Kubrick’s movie, indeed because of this repression.

In the movie, the few female characters who flit through the novel have lost even their chauvinist, neo-colonial charm: Clarke’s “charming little stewardess” from the “largely unspoiled” island of Bali, who entertains Dr. Floyd with some zero-gravity dance steps during his flight to the moon, is reimagined by Kubrick as a weirdly sexless creature in a white uniform and bulbous cap that gives her a distinctly brachycephalic look, somewhere between an overgrown fungal spore and one of the walking, talking sperm in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex by Woody Allen.

Still, the repressed has a nasty way of returning. If HAL could cry digital tears, as the AI theorist Rosalind Picard speculates in Hal’s Legacy: 2001’s Computer as Dream and Reality, wouldn’t he also be capable of sexual arousal? Although her inquiry into machine emotion leads her to conclude that “emotion appears to be a necessary component of intelligent, friendly computers like HAL,” noting that “too little emotion wreaks havoc on reasoning,” Picard gives love a wide berth (many researchers don’t consider it a “basic” emotion, she says) and studiously avoids any mention of sexual desire, save for a passing remark about the slipperiness of a concept like “lust.”

This is a notable sin of omission, since the question is less laughable than it sounds. Turing believed that a true thinking machine would be a feeling machine, too—a computer with a sex drive as well as a hard drive. In a 1951 radio broadcast, he epater’d the bourgeoisie by declaring that a machine that thinks would be capable of being “influenced by sex appeal.” It seems only likely that an ultra-intelligent computer like HAL would, as Sir Geoffrey Jefferson put it in a lecture Turing was fond of quoting, “be warmed by flattery, be made miserable by its mistakes, [and] be charmed by sex.”

As for the question of HAL’s sexual preference, it seems significant, somehow, that the modern chapter of cybernetic smartness—Turing’s 1950 essay, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”—opens with a tongue-in-cheek bit of gender-bending, dreamed up by a gay man. Although the scenario commonly known as the Turing Test is usually envisioned as a human interrogator in a room with two terminals, one connected to a computer, the other to a human, attempting to determine by sending and receiving messages which of the unseen conversationalists is a machine, Turing’s original “imitation game” involved an isolated interrogator trying to decide, through written communications, which of two people in another room was male and which was female. Intriguingly, the woman is instructed to tell the truth and the man to lie, which means that he has to engage in a sort of electronic transvestism, or MorFing, as on-line crossdressing is known (“MorF” = “Male or Female”).

Turing writes, “We now ask the question, ‘What will happen when a machine takes the part of [the man] in this game?,” reformulating the question of gender identity as one of machine intelligence. As the cultural critic Hillel Schwartz points out in The Culture of the Copy, “Turing reframed the debate about the limits of mechanism in terms of the limits of our ability to see through social simulation. Without surgery but from close-up, onstage or at a party, a woman can pass as a man, a man as a woman. What we think we know about maleness and femaleness is a social knowledge.” And so, by extension, is what we think we know about human intelligence or, alternatively, hetero- and homosexuality.

Is HAL queer? As Dery suggests, his tone of voice and choice of language is suspicious, as is the stridently and entirely male environment in the halls of the military and academia where HAL grew up, and his multi-year mission on the spacecraft Discovery with its all-male crew. And, well, there’s the music:

When Dave unplugs HAL’s brain, the computer’s swan song is easily the movie’s most powerfully affecting moment (and a close second, for Wagnerian romanticism, to the dying android’s soliloquy in Blade Runner). In Hal’s Legacy, Clarke recalls, “In the early 1960s at Bell Laboratories I had heard a recording of an Iliac computer singing ‘Bicycle Built for Two.’ I thought it would be good for the death scene—especially the slowing down of the words at the end.” If we presume HAL’s homosexuality, however, the song begins to sound like a deathbed confession of star-crossed love.

I’d made note myself back in 2005 of the queerness of Arthur C. Clarke’s fictional universes expressed via lacuna, in the description of heterosexual relationships that take place outside the scope of the book or don’t take place at all (the homosexual relationships that actually are explicitly described play a secondary role in this case, and are not themselves necessarily diagnostic of anything).

I really quite like seeing Clarke’s impressive body of work be explicitly reclaimed in a queer context; I like the recuperation, or perhaps reconstruction, of themes which could have been/should have been explicit yet are easily recovered.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 24, 2012 at 1:06 am

[BRIEF NOTE] On the queerness of HAL, artificial intelligence, and Clarke’s worlds

io9 has featured an interesting book excerpt, “Straight, Gay, or Binary?: HAL Comes Out of the Cybernetic Closet”, taken from one Mark Dery‘s latest book. In it, Dery argues that the figure of HAL, the artificial intelligence from 2001 and sequels, is marked by a certain queerness notwithstanding the repression of sexuality in Clarke’s book and Kubrick’s movie, indeed because of this repression.

In the movie, the few female characters who flit through the novel have lost even their chauvinist, neo-colonial charm: Clarke’s “charming little stewardess” from the “largely unspoiled” island of Bali, who entertains Dr. Floyd with some zero-gravity dance steps during his flight to the moon, is reimagined by Kubrick as a weirdly sexless creature in a white uniform and bulbous cap that gives her a distinctly brachycephalic look, somewhere between an overgrown fungal spore and one of the walking, talking sperm in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex by Woody Allen.

Still, the repressed has a nasty way of returning. If HAL could cry digital tears, as the AI theorist Rosalind Picard speculates in Hal’s Legacy: 2001’s Computer as Dream and Reality, wouldn’t he also be capable of sexual arousal? Although her inquiry into machine emotion leads her to conclude that “emotion appears to be a necessary component of intelligent, friendly computers like HAL,” noting that “too little emotion wreaks havoc on reasoning,” Picard gives love a wide berth (many researchers don’t consider it a “basic” emotion, she says) and studiously avoids any mention of sexual desire, save for a passing remark about the slipperiness of a concept like “lust.”

This is a notable sin of omission, since the question is less laughable than it sounds. Turing believed that a true thinking machine would be a feeling machine, too—a computer with a sex drive as well as a hard drive. In a 1951 radio broadcast, he epater’d the bourgeoisie by declaring that a machine that thinks would be capable of being “influenced by sex appeal.” It seems only likely that an ultra-intelligent computer like HAL would, as Sir Geoffrey Jefferson put it in a lecture Turing was fond of quoting, “be warmed by flattery, be made miserable by its mistakes, [and] be charmed by sex.”

As for the question of HAL’s sexual preference, it seems significant, somehow, that the modern chapter of cybernetic smartness—Turing’s 1950 essay, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”—opens with a tongue-in-cheek bit of gender-bending, dreamed up by a gay man. Although the scenario commonly known as the Turing Test is usually envisioned as a human interrogator in a room with two terminals, one connected to a computer, the other to a human, attempting to determine by sending and receiving messages which of the unseen conversationalists is a machine, Turing’s original “imitation game” involved an isolated interrogator trying to decide, through written communications, which of two people in another room was male and which was female. Intriguingly, the woman is instructed to tell the truth and the man to lie, which means that he has to engage in a sort of electronic transvestism, or MorFing, as on-line crossdressing is known (“MorF” = “Male or Female”).

Turing writes, “We now ask the question, ‘What will happen when a machine takes the part of [the man] in this game?,” reformulating the question of gender identity as one of machine intelligence. As the cultural critic Hillel Schwartz points out in The Culture of the Copy, “Turing reframed the debate about the limits of mechanism in terms of the limits of our ability to see through social simulation. Without surgery but from close-up, onstage or at a party, a woman can pass as a man, a man as a woman. What we think we know about maleness and femaleness is a social knowledge.” And so, by extension, is what we think we know about human intelligence or, alternatively, hetero- and homosexuality.

Is HAL queer? As Dery suggests, his tone of voice and choice of language is suspicious, as is the stridently and entirely male environment in the halls of the military and academia where HAL grew up, and his multi-year mission on the spacecraft Discovery with its all-male crew. And, well, there’s the music:

When Dave unplugs HAL’s brain, the computer’s swan song is easily the movie’s most powerfully affecting moment (and a close second, for Wagnerian romanticism, to the dying android’s soliloquy in Blade Runner). In Hal’s Legacy, Clarke recalls, “In the early 1960s at Bell Laboratories I had heard a recording of an Iliac computer singing ‘Bicycle Built for Two.’ I thought it would be good for the death scene—especially the slowing down of the words at the end.” If we presume HAL’s homosexuality, however, the song begins to sound like a deathbed confession of star-crossed love.

I’d made note myself back in 2005 of the queerness of Arthur C. Clarke’s fictional universes expressed via lacuna, in the description of heterosexual relationships that take place outside the scope of the book or don’t take place at all (the homosexual relationships that actually are explicitly described play a secondary role in this case, and are not themselves necessarily diagnostic of anything).

I really quite like seeing Clarke’s impressive body of work be explicitly reclaimed in a queer context; I like the recuperation, or perhaps reconstruction, of themes which could have been/should have been explicit yet are easily recovered.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 23, 2012 at 9:06 pm