Our writers pick their favourite science fiction books of all time

By its very nature, science fiction encompasses a vast and sprawling world of stories, from the galaxy-spanning novels of Iain M. Banks and Ursula K. Le Guin to the dystopias of Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro. Asking our team of dedicated staff here at New Scientist to pick their personal favourite, then, has created an eclectic and wide-ranging list to dig into. To be clear: this isn’t a definitive and all-encompassing line-up: it is our personal top picks, and we hope it will send you towards some novels you might not have come across before.

So, in no particular order, here they are: New Scientist’s favourite science fiction books of all time. We’d love to hear from readers, too, about your own favourite sci-fi. Join the conversation on our Facebook post here.

The Culture books, by UK author Banks, aren’t so much a series as a collection of stories – readable in any order – about the exploits of one fascinating, far-future, galaxy spanning civilisation. With unlimited resources, energy and, effectively, lifespans, its citizens have solved all of life’s problems, so it is usually when they collide with more primitive societies – which still have to worry about minor matters like making money or waging war – that the fireworks begin. The plots may be mind-bending, but it is the characters that are unforgettable, especially the super-intelligent, starship-embodying AI minds, whose attitudes to humans run the gamut from benevolent to downright Machiavellian. Nevertheless, if AIs ever do become sentient, I hope they model themselves on Banks’s vision.

Clare Wilson

When you think of your favourite story about an imagined future, it is probably profound and thought-provoking, perhaps beautiful, but it is rarely funny. Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, which features the hapless Englishman Arthur Dent and his reluctant jaunts around the universe after Earth is destroyed, is all of the former, but it is the rich comedic vein that has sustained it and drawn a devoted following, of which I count myself a member. Simple gags and one-liners abound, and the offbeat cast of characters summoned to accompany Dent, like the depressed Marvin the paranoid android or the gung-ho and feckless two-headed alien Zaphod Beeblebrox, are endlessly entertaining. Almost 50 years after it debuted as a BBC radio play, the books that followed have lost none of their sparkle.

Alex Wilkins

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood is a haunting novel that still gives me shivers to think about, years after I read it. It describes a dystopian, not-so-distant future where a “handmaid’s” sole purpose is to reproduce in an effort to combat society’s falling birth rates due to widespread infertility. Despite having their freedoms severely restricted, the handmaids are allowed to make daily shopping trips, during which they are faced with the hanged bodies of “rebels”. What once seemed like an unrealistic nightmare has felt a tad too close to the bone for this feminist given a recent political overturning in the US. An unsettling and gripping read in equal measure.

Alexandra Thompson

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A scene from the series The Handmaid’s Tale

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Other Butler novels may seem more obviously sci-fi, but Kindred is, I think, her best. It tells the story of Dana, who every time the life of her ancestor Rufus is in danger is somehow summoned back in time to save him. The problem is, she is an African American woman living in 1970s Los Angeles and he is the son of a white plantation owner living in Maryland in the early 1800s, a time and place when enslaved people still work the fields and brutal violence towards them is normalised. Butler is unafraid to hit where it hurts as she explores the past and our relationship with it. Kindred is the best use of time travel in a story I’ve ever read.

Eleanor Parsons

Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer is as cyberpunk as cyberpunk gets. Remarkably, it is his debut novel, and the only one to simultaneously win three of the most prestigious literary awards for science fiction. It is something of a holy text of the cyberpunk genre, which is often summarised by the phrase “high tech, low life”. Neuromancer lives up to that grim description by offering the reader a story about a disgraced hacker, a mercenary whose body was modified for violence, shadowy ex-military officers, an old friend turned into a consciousness-on-a-chip, several artificial intelligences and one last epic heist onboard a bourgeois space habitat. Having been raised on a steady diet of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, I was stunned by how grimy Gibson’s world was in comparison, how it lacked the clean, inspirational framing of more traditional science fiction, and how hard his characters, most of whom remain far removed from inspiration or virtue throughout the novel, had to work to retain some shred of human joy in an environment overrun with out-of-control corporations, crime and malicious tech. Neuromancer introduced a perfectly dystopian and rebellious aesthetic, as well as a paradigm similar to magical realism, except that all magic is actually technology, and all such magic has gone dark. As a teenager, I wanted to look as cool as Neuromancer’s protagonists, but these days the world where the metaverse, neural interfaces, smart prosthetics, designer drugs and collapsing social norms are features rather than bugs feels terrifyingly close and plausible. I was enthralled and deeply influenced by Gibson’s work as a young person who had barely experienced dial-up internet, but the punchlines that Neuromancer lands with style remain more than relevant today.

Karmela Padavic-Callaghan

A futuristic man holding a gun in destroyed city

Neuromancer is as cyberpunk as cyberpunk gets

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Ted Chiang is one of the most extraordinary sci-fi writers working today. Each of his stories is a precious gem, plucked from his mind and honed to perfection. The titular story of his first collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, inspired the brilliant film Arrival, and while excellent it doesn’t even break the top three of the book. From a reimagining of the biblical Tower of Babel myth to a mathematician who breaks mathematics, this thin volume contains more ideas than most encyclopaedias. I only wish Chiang were more prolific – he has written just 18 short stories in a career spanning over 30 years – but then of course, if we had diamonds on tap, would they still be as valuable?

Jacob Aron

Flatland is set in a 2D world where inhabitants are shapes and their number of lines determines their social status. When the narrator visits a place with one extra dimension, Spaceland, he begins to understand that the universe is more complex than he ever knew. A good chunk of the book is contrived exposition on how the 2D world works, but if you get past that, then it is part satirical look at the rigid social and gender structures of the time – Flatland was published in 1884 – and part dive into the near-impossibility of grasping the concept of higher dimensions. I’ve always thought it is also a bit of a love letter to physics and how exploring what-ifs can push our understanding of the universe; residents of Flatland are baffled about where their light comes from, something the Spacelanders intuitively understand.

Matthew Sparkes

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Bridging the gap between social satire and science fiction, Čapek’s witty parable of politics in the first half of the 20th century is an easy pick for my number one. Told through newspaper clippings, firsthand accounts and quasi-historical narration, it charts the downfall of humanity by arrogance and shortsightedness following the emergence of – of all things – a rather adorable species of impressionable, sentient, near-human-sized newts. This unusual source of aquatic labour is quickly exploited, and the scramble for profit brings the world to its knees. As onlookers react with a mix of bewilderment, high-minded philosophising and capitalistic glee, newt numbers only multiply and the amphibian apocalypse waddles inexorably on. “Hello, hello, you people,” chirps the Chief Salamander, “we will now entertain you with music from your gramophone records. Here, for your pleasure, is the March of the Tritons from the film, Poseidon.”

Tom Leslie

17776 by Jon Bois

The year is 17776. War, poverty and disease no longer exist. For the past 15,000 years, no one has died or even aged. The thing most people occupy their time with is play – and in North America, that takes the form of outlandish games of American football that would be completely unrecognisable to today’s fans of the sport. This is the premise of a bizarre and truly novel piece of science fiction published on SBnation.com, a sports blogging network. The future of the game envisioned by Bois is absurd. It is traditionally played on a field 100 yards long, but far in the future it has morphed into insane matches that extend across entire states. Some last hundreds or even thousands of years. In one, a player gets picked up in a tornado and tossed miles away. All this comes to the reader through the eyes of three defunct space probes: Pioneer 9, Pioneer 10 and the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE). These craft have become sentient and are still on the trajectories we put them on, alone in the vastness of space, except for their communications with each other and the TV show called Earth that they watch. It’s the presentation of their communications that first got my attention in 17776. They show us something that is nearly impossible to hold in a human brain: the vastness of time and space. The beginning of the story is delivered via messages displayed on a wall calendar between Pioneer 9 and 10, communicating across millions of miles. The frustration and impatience that comes from the endless scrolling as you wait to read the next response from one of the probes, who must wait hundreds of days to hear from one another, is just a glimmer of what it would actually be like to deal with interstellar communications – and it’s a fantastic demonstration of the endlessness of our universe.

The piece is meant to be read on a computer, and includes videos and maps that are blocky, awful approximations of Earth – perhaps what it would look like through the eyes of ageing satellites. The spacecraft characters are where the heart lies in the story. Yes, they watch football. But they also contemplate the nature of loss in a world where nothing dies. They wrestle with the boredom that comes with immortality. They make jokes and poke fun at the humans below. They ponder what existence means, and the things that matter, even when you’re floating alone through the stars: grief, joy, friendship and the delight of mystery. Overall, 17776 paints a surprisingly hopeful picture of the future, one that is much needed these days. It’s heart-warming and weird and funny enough that it made me laugh out loud.

Chelsea Whyte

I became a fan of the Dune literary universe after the Denis Villeneuve films. If there are any die-hard Dune devotees reading this who already dislike me for this reason, then you will dislike me more when I tell you I haven’t even read the first, original Dune book. Why not, you might be wondering. After watching, and thoroughly enjoying, the two recent Dune films, I was overcome with an intense desire to know exactly what happens to the central character Paul Atreides and so I skipped Dune and went straight to book two, Dune Messiah, which continues the story beyond that told in those movies. After that I kept reading. Friends and family told me to stop after book three because it gets too weird. Little do they know that the weirder it gets, the more I enjoy it! God Emperor of Dune is my pick for best sci-fi book of all time for one reason. Leto II, the tyrant-cum-God-cum-emperor-cum-sandworm who rules the universe dreamt up by Herbert, is, in my opinion, one of the most ambitious characters ever written in sci-fi history. The author deserves great credit for even trying to conceptualise the thought process of a being who literally has every memory that has ever been created swirling around his head. I enjoyed God Emperor of Dune so much that I may even read the first book.

Finn Grant

A scene from Dune: Part Two which features sandworms

A scene from Dune: Part Two showing the sheer size of the sandworms

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While Parable of the Sower was first published more than three decades ago, it has arguably never been more relevant than today. Set in 2024, the dystopian novel follows Lauren Oya Olamina, an African American teenager living in southern California, as she navigates a world crippled by climate change, income inequality and corporate greed. She and her family reside in a gated community, protected from the anarchy raging outside. But eventually Lauren must trek northward, to a part of the country where water, paid jobs and safety are more abundant. The perilous journey is made even more dangerous by the fact that Lauren suffers from a condition that causes her to feel the pain and pleasure of others. At certain points, Parable of the Sower can feel eerily prophetic rather than fictitious. This is what makes it such a compelling, albeit terrifying, read.

Grace Wade

Traditional science fiction – space battles, aliens, time-bending lasers, and the like – doesn’t really do it for me. But the haunting, close-to-home dystopia in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is an entirely different offering. Set in an alternative 1990s England, this novel is a tale of youth, love and sorrow that play out against a backdrop of major breakthroughs in biotechnology being used to selfish, awful ends. The first time I read it, I was just a couple of years older than Ruth, Kathy and Tommy, the three main characters doomed to die early as organ donors. Their emotional naivety, their uncertainty about what it means to be alive, to be human, struck a chord. Rereading the novel more than a decade later, having experienced more of the joy and sadness life has to offer, the book’s slow, savage heartbreak cuts even deeper.

Madeleine Cuff

I love idea-driven sci-fi such as Cixin Liu’s incredibly imaginative body of work, but I’m going to pick  one ofLe Guin’s offerings as the greatest because she has the ideas, deep humanity and vision of what society could be. She sets her stories in entirely believable worlds and fills them with complex and relatable people. In The Dispossessed, a physicist living on the planet Anarres makes a breakthrough in fundamental and applied physics, creating the Ansible, which allows information to travel faster-than-light and so permits instant communication across interstellar distances. We learn that Anarres is one of several planets settled by humans, including Terra (Earth), which is a now an ecologically ruined world. Le Guin explores different ways humans can live and exist together, different societies, even utopias, that are possible.

Rowan Hooper

The Hugo Award-winning Vorkosigan Saga features the space opera adventures and romantic forays of Miles Vorkosigan, the scion of an imperial lord regent who is born with a teratogenic condition involving fragile bones and an unusually short stature on a planet that is highly suspicious of anything resembling genetic abnormality. Undaunted, Miles relies on his wit and relentless nature to make his mark within the feudal Barrayaran Imperium, while also navigating the politics of rival interstellar empires as an imperial agent and mercenary leader. Along the way, he and his eclectic but exceptional constellation of family and friends – including his highly capable mother Cordelia whose own story inaugurates the series – begin to slowly transform the socially conservative Barrayaran society into something more grudgingly accepting of artificial womb technology, gender equality and diversity, and even unexpected clone siblings.

Jeremy Hsu

When I was asked to pick my very favourite sci-fi book, my first move was to go look at my shelf containing every one of Pratchett’s Discworld books to figure out if any of them could count as science fiction rather than fantasy. The Long Earth, which he wrote with Baxter, is the next-best thing. It has the same untamed imagination and keen social commentary as Pratchett’s other works, grounded in Baxter’s signature science-based speculation. The book (and subsequent series) is set in a sort of multiverse in which one can “step” between a recognisable future Earth and other versions of our world, some similar and some wildly different. It deals with the consequences of this vast new frontier and how humanity – and other humanoid species across the Long Earth – have adapted to its discovery, along with dangers both familiar and strange.

Leah Crane

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While I object on principle to picking single favourite books, I very much loved Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts. The story takes place on the Matilda, a generation ship barrelling humanity’s remnants toward a vaguely outlined “Promised Land” after a similarly vague ecological catastrophe on Earth. It is like many other fictional ships for multigenerational voyages: huge, self-contained, and moving fast toward a destination its current inhabitants don’t expect to see. But it is also a story about the worst of humanity. The Matilda is racially segregated, and our protagonist Aster lives, like the other Black passengers, on the lowest and poorest-resourced decks. She is autistic, genderqueer, and traumatised by the enslavement-like conditions under which she lives. And throughout the course of the book she must unravel a puzzle that connects the decades-ago death of her mother, Lune, to the eventual fate of the entire ship. An Unkindness of Ghosts isn’t an easy read, emotionally. But it’s a riveting story, told from a singular point of view, with characters who challenge us to think bigger.

Christie Taylor

This noir thriller from Miéville is closer to crime fiction than sci-fi, but its setting – in two rival cities that occupy the same space – feels reminiscent of the quantum realm. Citizens of the “crosshatched” Besźel and Ul Qoma are banned from acknowledging each other’s existence, while those who “breach” are spirited away, never to be seen again. But when a woman is found murdered in Besźel, Inspector Tyador Borlú must team up with his Ul Qoman opposite number to crack the case. I loved this book the minute I heard its premise, which challenged my visual imagination like few novels have since. The way the characters must “unsee” people who are right before their eyes is such a revealing way to discuss how we are encouraged to view those on the fringes of society.

Bethan Ackerley

It’s 2026 (!) and 100 colonists are setting off from Earth to Mars to colonise the Red Planet. “It loomed before them in all its immense potential: tabula rasa, blank slate. A blank red slate. Anything was possible, anything could happen.” Once there, though, different factions have different ideas about how this new life should look – should Mars be terraformed as much as possible, or should humanity take a little more time to think before it bends an entire planet to its will? Things on Earth, meanwhile, are turning pear-shaped as resources dwindle while the population booms. This is a story of adventure and derring-do 225 million kilometres from home, but it is also a story of politics and science and people that is utterly gripping and fascinating, with the bonus of marvelling at the beauty and wonder and possibilities of life on another planet. It is a huge book – more than 650 pages – but I flew through it on my first reading and went on to bury myself in the sequels.

Alison Flood

Billy Pilgrim continuously gets “unstuck in time” thanks to the intervention of a Tralfamadorian flying saucer in Vonnegut’s breakthrough, absurdist, ferociously anti-war novel. Vonnegut, who served with the US Army, was  held in Dresden, Germany, during the second world war after being taken prisoner. There he witnessed the devastating Allied fire-bombing of the city, similar to the protagonist in Slaughterhouse-Five. The post-war psychological trauma and piercing black humour is woven with a narrative that darts back and forth in time, as does Billy. It is often disorientating, yet easily absorbed thanks to Vonnegut’s deeply satirical and straightforward linguistic style, along with his conversational tone. It makes for a potent mix. What has always happened, always will happen in this most poignant of reads; and one that is sadly as relevant today as when it was released in the 1960s. So it goes.

Tim Boddy

Murderbot doesn’t actually want to kill people. After all, this machine-organic hybrid is a Security Unit designed to protect human clients. Sure, it has hacked the governor module that enforces obedience to humans. Sure, it frequently tears apart anything that threatens its teammates. And fine, it is the one that named itself “Murderbot”. I love the narration in this series of books: our protagonist is snarky and grouchy, socially awkward but eminently capable. It can strategise expertly, hack almost any system, fight brutally and even murder when that is what it takes to protect the often-irritating people and bots that it, annoyingly, sort of cares about. Beyond the tentative friendships it forms against its will, Murderbot is on a quest for full personhood and independence – even if what it does with that freedom is binge-watch as much media as is (in)humanly possible.

Sophie Bushwick

We is a searing, prescient book that you have to take a step back from to truly appreciate. Zamyatin probably finished it, writing in his native Russian, in 1921. But because the tale’s dystopian nature, railing against a totalitarian OneState society, would have been taken as criticism of the Russian regime, it was published in other countries at first and didn’t get the reach it deserved until a corrected version was published in Russia in 1988 and then translated into English a few years later. Despite that, the effects of its earlier versions on dystopian sci-fi have been huge. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) was massively influenced by We and you can see its imprint in the sexual politics at play in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), for example.

The story is set in the 26th century in a city built in straight lines and ruled by a Benefactor, where everyone has a number not a name. Every hour of people’s lives is dictated, including two daily hour-long slots to be alone with your thoughts. On Sex Day, you hand in your pink ticket and meet up with your pre-allocated, rotating partner. Residents ostensibly have happiness at the cost of freedom. In this straitened – and straightened – environment, a mathematician known as D-503 is unsettled when he is hit by the curveball of I-333, a secretive and intelligent political activist he doesn’t have a pink ticket for, and he starts to question everything. Some of the lines in We are naturally of their time – as well as potentially being suited to the 26th century – but regardless, this book is an enlightening, surprising and unsettling read, packed full of clever, quotable phrases.

Chris Simms

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Read an extract from All Systems Red by Martha Wells

“I was looking at the sky and mentally poking at the feed when the bottom of the crater exploded.”

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I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.

I was also still doing my job, on a new contract, and hoping Dr. Volescu and Dr. Bharadwaj finished their survey soon so we could get back to the habitat and I could watch episode 397 of Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon.

I admit I was distracted. It was a boring contract so far and I was thinking about backburnering the status alert channel and trying to access music on the entertainment feed without HubSystem logging the extra activity. It was trickier to do it in the field than it was in the habitat.

This assessment zone was a barren stretch of coastal island, with low, flat hills rising and falling and thick greenish-black grass up to my ankles, not much in the way of flora or fauna, except a bunch of different-sized birdlike things and some puffy floaty things that were harmless as far as we knew. The coast was dotted with big bare craters, one of which Bharadwaj and Volescu were taking samples in. The planet had a ring, which from our current position dominated the horizon when you looked out to sea. I was looking at the sky and mentally poking at the feed when the bottom of the crater exploded.

I didn’t bother to make a verbal emergency call. I sent the visual feed from my field camera to Dr. Mensah’s, and jumped down into the crater. As I scrambled down the sandy slope, I could already hear Mensah over the emergency comm channel, yelling at someone to get the hopper in the air now. They were about ten kilos away, working on another part of the island, so there was no way they were going to get here in time to help.

Conflicting commands filled my feed but I didn’t pay attention. Even if I hadn’t borked my own governor module, the emergency feed took priority, and it was chaotic, too, with the automated HubSystem wanting data and trying to send me data I didn’t need yet and Mensah sending me telemetry from the hopper. Which I also didn’t need, but it was easier to ignore than HubSystem simultaneously demanding answers and trying to supply them.

In the middle of all that, I hit the bottom of the crater. I have small energy weapons built into both arms, but the one I went for was the big projectile weapon clamped to my back. The hostile that had just exploded up out of the ground had a really big mouth, so I felt I needed a really big gun.

I dragged Bharadwaj out of its mouth and shoved myself in there instead, and discharged my weapon down its throat and then up toward where I hoped the brain would be. I’m not sure if that all happened in that order; I’d have to replay my own field camera feed. All I knew was that I had Bharadwaj, and it didn’t, and it had disappeared back down the tunnel.

She was unconscious and bleeding through her suit from massive wounds in her right leg and side. I clamped the weapon back into its harness so I could lift her with both arms. I had lost the armor on my left arm and a lot of the flesh underneath, but my nonorganic parts were still working. Another burst of commands from the governor module came through and I backburnered it without bothering to decode them. Bharadwaj, not having nonorganic parts and not as easily repaired as me, was definitely a priority here and I was mainly interested in what the MedSystem was trying to tell me on the emergency feed. But first I needed to get her out of the crater.

During all this, Volescu was huddled on the churned up rock, losing his shit, not that I was unsympathetic. I was far less vulnerable in this situation than he was and I wasn’t exactly having a great time either. I said, “Dr. Volescu, you need to come with me now.”

He didn’t respond. MedSystem was advising a tranq shot and blah blah blah, but I was clamping one arm on Dr. Bharadwaj’s suit to keep her from bleeding out and supporting her head with the other, and despite everything I only have two hands. I told my helmet to retract so he could see my human face. If the hostile came back and bit me again, this would be a bad mistake, because I did need the organic parts of my head. I made my voice firm and warm and gentle, and said, “Dr. Volescu, it’s gonna be fine, okay? But you need to get up and come help me get her out of here.”

That did it. He shoved to his feet and staggered over to me, still shaking. I turned my good side toward him and said, “Grab my arm, okay? Hold on.”

He managed to loop his arm around the crook of my elbow and I started up the crater towing him, holding Bharadwaj against my chest. Her breathing was rough and desperate and I couldn’t get any info from her suit. Mine was torn across my chest so I upped the warmth on my body, hoping it would help. The feed was quiet now, Mensah having managed to use her leadership priority to mute everything but MedSystem and the hopper, and all I could hear on the hopper feed was the others frantically shushing each other.

The footing on the side of the crater was lousy, soft sand and loose pebbles, but my legs weren’t damaged and I got up to the top with both humans still alive. Volescu tried to collapse and I coaxed him away from the edge a few meters, just in case whatever was down there had a longer reach than it looked.

I didn’t want to put Bharadwaj down because something in my abdomen was severely damaged and I wasn’t sure I could pick her up again. I ran my field camera back a little and saw I had gotten stabbed with a tooth, or maybe a cilia. Did I mean a cilia or was that something else? They don’t give murderbots decent education modules on anything except murdering, and even those are the cheap versions. I was looking it up in HubSystem’s language center when the little hopper landed nearby. I let my helmet seal and go opaque as it settled on the grass.

We had two standard hoppers: a big one for emergencies and this little one for getting to the assessment locations. It had three compartments: one big one in the middle for the human crew and two smaller ones to each side for cargo, supplies, and me. Mensah was at the controls. I started walking, slower than I normally would have because I didn’t want to lose Volescu. As the ramp started to drop, Pin-Lee and Arada jumped out and I switched to voice comm to say, “Dr. Mensah, I can’t let go of her suit.”

It took her a second to realize what I meant. She said hurriedly, “That’s all right, bring her up into the crew cabin.”

Murderbots aren’t allowed to ride with the humans and I had to have verbal permission to enter. With my cracked governor there was nothing to stop me, but not letting anybody, especially the people who held my contract, know that I was a free agent was kind of important. Like, not having my organic components destroyed and the rest of me cut up for parts important.

I carried Bharadwaj up the ramp into the cabin, where Overse and Ratthi were frantically unclipping seats to make room. They had their helmets off and their suit hoods pulled back, so I got to see their horrified expressions when they took in what was left of my upper body through my torn suit. I was glad I had sealed my helmet.

This is why I actually like riding with the cargo. Humans and augmented humans in close quarters with murderbots is too awkward. At least, it’s awkward for this murderbot. I sat down on the deck with Bharadwaj in my lap while Pin-Lee and Arada dragged Volescu inside.

We left two pacs of field equipment and a couple of instruments behind, still sitting on the grass where Bharadwaj and Volescu had been working before they went down to the crater for samples. Normally I’d help carry them, but MedSystem, which was monitoring Bharadwaj through what was left of her suit, was pretty clear that letting go of her would be a bad idea. But no one mentioned the equipment. Leaving easily replaceable items behind may seem obvious in an emergency, but I had been on contracts where the clients would have told me to put the bleeding human down to go get the stuff.

On this contract, Dr. Ratthi jumped up and said, “I’ll get the cases!”

I yelled, “No!” which I’m not supposed to do; I’m always supposed to speak respectfully to the clients, even when they’re about to accidentally commit suicide. Hub-System could log it and it could trigger punishment through the governor module. If it wasn’t hacked.

Fortunately, the rest of the humans yelled “No!” at the same time, and Pin-Lee added, “For fuck’s sake, Ratthi!”

Ratthi said, “Oh, no time, of course. I’m sorry!” and hit the quick-close sequence on the hatch.

So we didn’t lose our ramp when the hostile came up under it, big mouth full of teeth or cilia or whatever chewing right through the ground. There was a great view of it on the hopper’s cameras, which its system helpfully sent straight to everybody’s feed. The humans screamed.

Mensah pushed us up into the air so fast and hard I nearly leaned over, and everybody who wasn’t on the floor ended up there.

In the quiet afterward, as they gasped with relief, Pin-Lee said, “Ratthi, if you get yourself killed—”

“You’ll be very cross with me, I know.” Ratthi slid down the wall a little more and waved weakly at her.

“That’s an order, Ratthi, don’t get yourself killed,” Mensah said from the pilot’s seat. She sounded calm, but I have security priority, and I could see her racing heartbeat through MedSystem.

Arada pulled out the emergency medical kit so they could stop the bleeding and try to stabilize Bharadwaj. I tried to be as much like an appliance as possible, clamping the wounds where they told me to, using my failing body temperature to try to keep her warm, and keeping my head down so I couldn’t see them staring at me.

Copyright 2017 Martha Wells

This is an extract from All Systems Red, published by Tor.com, the latest pick for the New Scientist Book Club: sign up here to read along with our members.


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The best new science fiction books of May 2024

A new short story collection from Stephen King, You Like It Darker, is out in May

Shane Leonard

Every month, I trawl through publishers’ catalogues so I can tell you about the new science fiction being released. And every month, I’m disappointed to see so much more fantasy on publishers’ lists than sci-fi. I know it’s a response to the huge boom in readers of what’s been dubbed “romantasy”, and I’m not knocking it – I love that sort of book too. But it would be great to see more good, hard, mind-expanding sci-fi in the offing as well.

In the meantime, there is definitely enough for us sci-fi fans to sink our teeth into this month, whether it’s a reissue of classic writing from Ursula K. Le Guin, some new speculative short stories from Stephen King or murder in space from Victor Manibo and S. A. Barnes.

Last month, I tipped Douglas Preston’s Extinction and Sofia Samatar’s The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain as books I was looking forward to. I can report that they were both excellent: Extinction was a lot of good, clean, Jurassic Park-tinged fun, while Samatar’s offering was a beautiful and thought-provoking look at life on a generation ship.

There are few sci-fi and fantasy writers more brilliant (and revered) than Ursula K. Le Guin. This reissue of her first full-length collection of essays features a new introduction from Hugo and Nebula award-winner Ken Liu and covers the writing of The Left Hand of Darkness and A Wizard of Earthsea, as well as her advocacy for sci-fi and fantasy as legitimate literary mediums. I’ve read some of these essays but not all, and I won’t be missing this collection.

This isn’t science fiction, not quite, but it is one of the best and most important books I have read for some time. It sees Jacobsen lay out, minute by minute, what would happen if an intercontinental ballistic missile hit Washington DC. How would the US react? What, exactly, happens if deterrence fails? Jacobsen has spoken to dozens of military experts to put together what her publisher calls a “non-fiction thriller”, and what I call the scariest book I have possibly ever read (and I’m a Stephen King fan; see below). We’re currently reading it at the New Scientist Book Club, and you can sign up to join us here.

Forty years ago, William Gibson published Neuromancer. Since then, it has entranced millions of readers right from its unforgettable opening line: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel…”. Neuromancer gave us the literary genre that is cyberpunk, and we can now welcome a huge, two-volume anthology celebrating cyberpunk’s best stories, by writers from Cory Doctorow to Justina Robson, and from Samuel R. Delaney to Philip K. Dick. I have both glorious-sounding volumes, brought together by anthologist Jared Shurin, on my desk (using up most of the space on it), and I am looking forward to dipping in.

You could categorise Stephen King as a horror writer. I see him as an expert chronicler of the dark side of small-town America, and from The Tommyknockers and its aliens to Under the Dome with its literally divisive trope, he frequently slides into sci-fi. Even the horror at the heart of It is some sort of cosmic hideousness. He is one of my favourite writers, and You Like It Darker is a new collection of short stories that moves from “the folds in reality where anything can happen” to a “psychic flash” that upends dozens of lives. There’s a sequel to Cujo, and a look at “corners of the universe best left unexplored”. I’ve read the first story so far, and I can confirm there is plenty for us sci-fi fans here.

Not sci-fi, but fiction about science – and from one of the UK’s most exciting writers (if you haven’t read The Essex Serpent yet, you’re in for a treat). This time, Perry tells the story of Thomas Hart, a columnist on the Essex Chronicle who becomes a passionate amateur astronomer as the comet Hale-Bopp approaches in 1997. Our sci-fi columnist Emily Wilson is reviewing it for New Scientist’s 11 May issue, and she has given it a vigorous thumbs up (“a beautiful, compassionate and memorable book,” she writes in a sneak preview just for you guys).

Dr Ophelia Bray is a psychologist and expert in the study of Eckhart-Reiser syndrome, a fictional condition that affects space travellers in terrible ways. She’s sent to help a small crew whose colleague recently died, but as they begin life on an abandoned planet, she realises that her charges are hiding something. And then the pilot is murdered… Horror in space? Mysterious planets? I’m up for that.

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In Hey, Zoey, the protagonist finds an animatronic sex doll hidden in her garage

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Hot on the heels of Sierra Greer’s story about a sex robot wondering what it means to be human in Annie Bot, the acclaimed young adult and children’s author Sarah Crossan has ventured into similar territory. In Hey, Zoey, Dolores finds an animatronic sex doll hidden in her garage and assumes it belongs to her husband David. She takes no action – but then Dolores and Zoey begin to talk, and Dolores’s life changes.

Davi has tried to take down the Dark Lord before, rallying humanity and making the final charge – as you do. But the time loop she is stuck in always defeats her, and she loses the battle in the end. This time around, Davi decides that the best thing to do is to become the Dark Lord herself. You could argue that this is fantasy, but it has a time loop, so I’m going to count it as sci-fi. It sounds fun and lighthearted: quotes from early readers are along the lines of “A darkly comic delight”, and we could all use a bit of that these days.

It’s 2089, and there’s an old murder hanging over the clientele of Space Habitat Altaire, a luxury space hotel, while an “unforeseen threat” is also brewing in the service corridors. A thriller in space? Sounds excellent – and I’m keen to see if Manibo makes use of the latest research into the angle at which blood might travel following violence in space, as reported on by our New Scientist humour columnist Marc Abrahams recently.

Part of the Doomed Earth series, this follows Lieutenant Selene Genji, who has been genetically engineered with partly alien DNA and has “one last chance to save the Earth from destruction”. Beautifully retro cover for this space adventure – not to judge a book in this way, of course…

Two sets of people have had their minds uploaded into a quantum computer in the Ontario of 2059. Astronauts preparing for the world’s first interstellar voyage form one group; the other contains convicted murderers, sentenced to a virtual-reality prison. Naturally, disaster strikes, and, yup, they must work together to save Earth from destruction. Originally released as an Audible Original with Brendan Fraser as lead narrator, this is the first print edition of the Hugo and Nebula award-winning Sawyer’s 26th novel.

Just in case you still haven’t read it, Justin Cronin’s gloriously dreamy novel The Ferryman, set on an apparently utopian island where things aren’t quite as they seem, is out in paperback this month. It was the first pick for the New Scientist Book Club, and it is a mind-bending, dreamy stunner of a read. Go try it – and sign up for the Book Club in the meantime!


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Martin MacInnes: ‘Science fiction can be many different things’

Martin MacInnes, author of In Ascension

Gary Doak

Martin MacInnes is the author of the latest read for the New Scientist Book Club: In Ascension, the story of a marine biologist, Leigh, from her childhood to her adventures among the stars. He sat down with our culture editor Alison Flood to answer some of her questions about his novel. But be warned – as this is a book club discussion, there will be some spoilers about the plot ahead, so do read the novel first before diving into this interview.

Alison Flood: Martin, welcome to the New Scientist Book Club! How would you describe what’s going on in your novel?

Martin MacInnes: I’ll give a slight caveat in that, as a former bookseller, I’m quite sceptical of the ability of a quick synopsis to do justice to a book, but I’ll do my best. It’s about the story of one life and of life itself, from a young Dutch marine biologist to 4 billion years of evolution, from difficult childhoods and complex family dynamics to voyages to the seabed and far beneath, and to the edge of the solar system. It’s a novel of connections, and loneliness.

Lots going on there then! So, we are the New Scientist Book Club, and so far the books that we’ve read have all been science fiction. Are you happy to describe this as a sci-fi novel?

Yes, I am. I know that’s a difficult question for some people and maybe some readers would take issue with its science fiction status. But I love reading science fiction and I don’t have any problems saying this is science fiction. It has a spaceship in it! But just because it’s science fiction, it doesn’t limit it in any way. Science fiction can be many different things.

How about a climate change novel?

Maybe, sort of surprisingly, I’m kind of less happy with that, because I’m really against the ghettoising of fiction into climate change fiction, as if that’s something we can section off and say “here are the books that aren’t ignoring ecocide and the devastation of the planet”. Everything being published just now, regardless of what it thinks it’s doing, kind of is climate fiction, because that’s the world we’re living through. It’s less dramatically climate fiction than something like Kim Stanley Robinson‘s The Ministry for the Future, but it is a novel about ecology and about what humans have in common with the natural world. So yeah, in those senses, it kind of is a climate novel, but I kind of resist that.

Yes, I see – so we don’t need to separate it out into its own little enclave. Where did it start from, the idea to tell this story?

There are two ways of answering that one. The first would be that I visited a really special place, Ascension Island, in 2008 and as soon as I arrived there, I thought: “I’m going to write about this place.” It always stuck with me.

Then, my second novel was very difficult to write. I felt a huge sense of relief after publishing it, and I wanted to do something big, both in length and in scope, next. This was just before the advent of covid. And I thought “OK, I want to do something about a journey, I want it to be a first-person narrative, I want it to be epic”. I was thinking about circular journeys. I was thinking about Atlantic green turtles, and the impulse to return to where one was born. I was thinking about that in humans, our psychological preoccupations with our past, with childhood especially, and from that fractal patterns repeating through the animal kingdom. Then suddenly the world changed for everyone. I was living in alone in an isolated village without wi-fi, and my story grew more epic.

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A green sea turtle on Ascension Island

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How about Leigh – why tell the story through her eyes?

This is probably unusual for a writer, but character and voice come very late on for me. So I knew it was going to be someone around Leigh’s age, and I knew she would be from the Netherlands for a couple of reasons: the risk of inundation in the Netherlands is as great as anywhere in the world because of the lowness of the territory, so it was the Netherlands as a sort of advanced example of what will increasingly happen throughout coastal regions across the world. So that’s why she was Dutch. And I don’t want to say too much about this aspect of it, but Leigh does have a historical precedent. Aspects of her biography are based on a very little known, early 19th-century Dutch East India Company employee, someone I found out about when I was researching Ascension Island, who lived through a period of extraordinary loneliness. So that was a starting point.

One of the things I was looking at was, why does she need the natural world so much, what happened during her childhood, and from that the aspects of her character and her family circumstances arose.

A few of our members have found some of the early bits of the novel hard to read, about the trauma that she goes through in her childhood. I didn’t, personally, and in fact I knew I was going to love the book from the very moment that you have her go into a river and experience a sort of epiphany with nature. Can you talk us through that bit?

That’s a really important scene. She’s 9 or 10, and she’s feeling particularly hopeless and she goes for a swim, feeling a dread and a hopelessness about her life. She enters the water and opens her eyes to what’s around her and she sees that everything around her is alive. She’s a part of it. She’s not separated from it and she sees that the river is not a medium to pass through, it’s an assemblage of life itself, and that activates her sense of wonder. It’s almost comparable to what many astronauts report when they go into space and they look down on Earth, which I think is referred to as the overview effect, when you have this sense of wonder and egolessness.

At that moment, she finds something that she knows she can cling to, that will keep her alive, will possibly allow her to find some sort of satisfaction, meaning or even happiness in her life. So everything that happens in the novel is sort of made possible in that moment. In fact, I would say she experiences a greater sense of wonder in that moment than when she reaches space and looks back on Earth as well.

For me, that idea of the sense of wonder was really at the heart of the book – particularly the moment when Leigh learns about the asteroid that isn’t an asteroid, and where it might have come from.

I’m not a scientist by any stretch, but I have a similar need for wonder to Leigh. That has enriched my life in all sorts of ways, and it’s really one of the reasons I turn to writing, to evoke that sense for myself. I know that probably seems hopelessly earnest, but it’s true.

Did you ever feel slightly daunted by what you were setting out to do – moving from the wilds of space to a deep trench in the Atlantic Ocean?

Absolutely, I’ve never done anything like this before, and especially at the start, I almost gave up so many times. One of the things that helped was I wasn’t writing to contract, I was just writing for myself. Another thing that helped was being able to go on long walks every day. I had a very strict routine. I was living in a flat on my own, but with thin walls surrounded by loud flats. So I worked from about 4 to 6:30am every day, when the building was silent because everyone else was asleep. Later, I would go for a long walk towards some standing stones about 3 miles away and think about what I’d written, and it really helped me picture the scope of what I was doing. I tried to make the material more manageable by breaking it down as well, into parts, sub-parts, with quite clear distinctions, almost like separate books themselves, before integrating them all again.

Do you think writing it during the covid-19 pandemic affected your writing – the claustrophobia of the crisis compared with Leigh, who is claustrophobic in her spaceship or diving?

Definitely. And I think I was also drawn to writing about the biggest possible journeys because I couldn’t leave my own flat. I was reading a lot about mountaineering, and the idea of expansion and voyages and mystery and pushing on that was thrilling to me and was something that was sort of self-sustaining for me during this period, like, there will be other journeys to go on.

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Martin MacInnes: “I was drawn to writing about the biggest possible journeys”

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You write about all sorts of areas of science here, from marine biology to the emergence of life to space travel. Tell us a bit about your research for the book.

These are all things I’m interested in and have been for a long time. I feel especially sheepish talking about this to New Scientist because I’m a novelist, I’m not claiming to have any kind of scientific authority, I’m just an amateur and an enthusiast doing all of this with love. I think some of these perspectives, like cell biology, can have a place in fiction and so I’m just trying to experiment with that. So I did read a lot, but I was also careful not to cleave too closely to research, as I think that can have a deadening effect. My aim with research was to get to a stage where I felt I knew stuff well enough that I could also invent, and that invention would appear strong. So yeah, the science is really important, but it’s not a research book.

There was originally a lot more in the part where Leigh is talking about the emergence of eukaryote cells – that conversation went on for many more pages, and my editor was like, “people are dropping the book right now Martin, you know you really can’t do that”. So it’s become much more concise.

When the book first came out, a letter was sent to reviewers talking about how you believed that “climate disaster has been and continues to be enabled primarily through our refusal to accept human integration in the natural world”. Can you tell us a bit about what you meant by that?

I think sending that letter out was a mistake, actually, because I’m not particularly articulate as a polemicist. Fiction is where I do my thinking. But I want to talk about this particular topic and I’m trying to talk about it in every interview I do, in every event I do. I’m not sure the phrase I used was the best – “human integration”, I’m not sure that’s fluent enough.

What I’m really talking about is a total lack of separation between us and everything else. That’s how I see the world. That’s how my fiction presents the world. But a lot of the time, when I’m reading English-language contemporary fiction, I get the sense that there’s a glass wall around the characters sealing them off from everything else, with all non-human life existing on the other side of that wall. So characters occupy a sort of zone of privilege inside, one of safety, and it’s almost like it doesn’t really matter what else happens out there, because we’re the main actors in the world. The world was prepared for us and has no meaning beyond our drama, ignoring the 4.5 billion years that preceded our species. I think fiction should challenge this consensus view – it’s wrongheaded and it’s dangerous.

With those tacit assumptions, it’s easier to continue the habitual behaviours that enable ecocide. Perhaps if we keep chipping away at some of these assumptions, we might take away some of the barriers to changes in behaviour. And I’m not in any way trying to diminish humans at all – for me, it just makes our existence all the more remarkable and interesting that we are merely animal life and that we are intimately connected with not just animal life, but viral life and bacterial life, all of this recombinant matter swirling around for billions of years. And that our species can be lost just as easily as any other species.

At one point, Leigh says that life is already alien, is already rich and strange. We don’t need to say it arrived seeded on a meteor to make more so. I guess that’s the same thing right?

Yes – and that’s why I’m writing science fiction even if I don’t take my characters into space, because that’s the lens to me. It is so incomprehensibly strange that we exist.

Why did you decide to have a section towards the end of the book, set in the future and told from the perspective of Helena, Leigh’s sister?

I always knew I was going to switch things at the end. I always knew the narrative was going to return to Earth and I was going to switch narrator. Obviously, that is a very risky thing to do, 400 pages into a 500-page novel, but on an instinctive level I knew had to do this, I had to shift it. When I was writing the space parts, knowing I was going to go back to Earth from a different perspective, that made it so much more interesting for me writing the bits in space. I was thinking, “OK, this is going to be placed next to a very different voice and world.” That gave a different energy to what I was writing, so it influenced what went before it. And I wanted to just challenge the idea of Leigh’s perspective being our only access to reality – that there might be a slightly different way of looking at her childhood.

And how about your extraordinary finale, “Oceana”, when you have your astronauts returning to a much-earlier Earth, and to a new beginning? Was that always the plan, when you were writing – and how has it been received by readers? It certainly shocked me!

It definitely wasn’t always the plan, but a return to beginnings came to feel more inevitable as the writing process went on. It still wasn’t there in the first completed draft of the novel. In that original draft, the “Ascension” part was considerably longer and contained several possible “endings”, including one similar to what became “Oceana”. So the seed was there. But the decision to commit to something less ambiguous came through conversations with my editor.

It’s obviously a really grandiose, melodramatic ending, and I was a little uncomfortable with that at first because I’ve never done anything like it before. Ultimately, I think it works as a scaled-up version of a theme that’s there more intimately throughout the novel: we are connected to everything around us. This is never clearer than in the moment of death, which is not an ending, but a transformation. And I think it’s possible to see something beautiful and optimistic in this.

As for how it’s been received by readers, this is something I’ve deliberately stepped back from. Readers can interpret it in their own way, and I don’t want to get in the way of that. I don’t think it’s healthy for writers to examine reviews and reader responses – you can’t please everyone, and you shouldn’t try to.

Martin, is there anything else you’d want to say to our readers?

First of all, I would say like thank you for reading, that’s a real honour for me. And hopefully I’ve given the sense in this interview that I don’t see this as being a dystopian novel or a doom-filled one. Writing it was celebratory for me, and it occasionally had moments with a sense of the ecstatic, and I hope that comes across. That’s really important to me, that one should ideally leave the novel with a sense of possibility and looking around slightly differently, even on a moment of hope.


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Read an extract from Julia by Sandra Newman

Suzanna Hamilton as Julia in the 1984 adaptation

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Fiction, along with a dozen other departments, had its Hate in Records. Records had the space; half the office had been cleared out in the Small Adjustment of ’79. It also made a nice break for Fiction, because they worked in the lightless depths, while Records was on Floor Ten, with banks of windows on all four walls. The catch was that they weren’t to use lifts – healthy exercise, comrades! To add insult to injury, there were three “ghost” floors, which had once contained bustling offices but now stood empty, so Floor Ten was really Floor Thirteen. This meant not only three extra flights, but that you had to pass those floors-of-the-dead.

Every landing on the stairs was dominated by a telescreen. Syme and Ampleforth, who struggled with the climb, kept pausing to comment in apparent fascination on whatever the telescreen was saying, while panting and mopping the sweat from their brows. Julia had a habit of smiling at each telescreen as she passed, imagining some bored man in surveillance being cheered by her appearance. Stairs held no terrors for her. At twenty-six, she’d never been stronger, and certainly never so well fed. Today she was especially lively after the long, dull hours of idleness, and trotted up, chattering with everyone she met, pressing hands and laughing at jokes. Syme’s name for her was “Love-Me”, which sometimes gave her pause, but could have been far worse. Only at the end did she slow abruptly, when she saw she might overtake O’Brien. As a result, she was right on his heels when the group came pouring into Records.

The first thing she saw was Smith – Old Misery. He was moving chairs into rows, and, absorbed in this chore, looked surprisingly likeable. A lean man of roughly forty, very fair and grey-eyed, he resembled the man from the poster “Honour Our Intellectual Labourers”, though of course without the telescope. He appeared to be dreaming of something cold but fine. Perhaps he was thinking of music. He moved with obvious pleasure, despite his slight limp; you could see he liked to have physical purpose.

But then he noticed Julia, and his mouth thinned with revulsion. It was startling how it changed him: hawk to reptile. Julia thought: “Nothing wrong with you a good shag wouldn’t fix!” This almost made her laugh, for of course it was true. His real trouble wasn’t that his parents had been unpersons, or that he couldn’t keep up with Party doctrine, or even his nasty cough. Old Misery had a bad case of Sex Gone Sour. And naturally the woman was to blame. Who else?

Without giving it much thought, when Smith sat down, Julia went to sit directly behind him. She justified it to herself because it was the seat right by the windows. But when he stiffened, uncomfortable with her presence, she was meanly pleased. Beside her was a low bookshelf with only one book: an old Newspeak dictionary from 1981, now lightly rimed with dust. She imagined running her finger through the dust and writing on his nape with the dirt – perhaps a J for Julia – though of course she never would.

The only trouble was, from here, she could smell him. By all rights, he ought to smell like mildew, but he smelled like good male sweat. Then she noticed his hair, which was thick and fine and might be quite nice to touch. So unfair that the Party warped the good-looking ones. Let them take the Ampleforths and Symes, and leave the Smiths to her.

Then, wouldn’t you know, Margaret came to sit next to Smith, and O’Brien followed after and sat on Margaret’s other side. Margaret and Smith ignored each other. All the Records people were like that. It was a treacherous job, reading oldthink all day, and Records workers kept each other at arm’s length. But what troubled Julia now was the question of why O’Brien was tagging after Margaret. Surely he couldn’t enjoy plain Margaret simpering and sighing at him?

Julia looked away – always the safest option when anyone was doing something peculiar – and gazed out of the bank of windows. At that moment, a scrap of newspaper sailed past, hectically spinning in the air, before it abruptly spread itself and dived to the rooftops far below. From this height, you couldn’t tell prole neighbourhoods from Party neighbourhoods; that was always queer. It also took a moment to pick out the gaps where bombs had fallen; on the street, they were all around you, and London sometimes seemed more crater than city. There was a private-use fuel ban for daylight hours, and you could make out the rare wisps of smoke where the A1 dining centres were. Electricity cuts were in force as well, and the grubby, unlit windows of office buildings had the gloomy radiance of the sea.

A little chunk of the view was obstructed by the massive telescreen on the nearby Transport building, whose moving pictures created the illusion that the daylight kept flickering and subtly changing. The images repeated on a simple loop. First one saw a group of pink-cheeked children innocently playing in a playground. On the horizon, a shadowy group of perverts and Eurasians and capitalists grew, reaching towards the children with brutish hands. Then a cut-out of Big Brother rose and blotted the villains out, and a slogan appeared in the sky: THANK YOU, BIG BROTHER, FOR OUR SAFE CHILDHOOD! After this, the same children reappeared, now in the uniform of the children’s organization, the Spies: grey shorts, blue shirt and red kerchief. The jolly Spies marched past with an Ingsoc flag, and the slogan in the sky became: join the spies! Then all faded, and the first image returned.

Weaving busily above this scene were helicopters. First you noticed the large ones, whose passage was audible even behind thick windows. These were manned by a pilot and two gunners, and you sometimes saw a gunner sitting casually in the open door of a copter with his black rifle resting against his knee. Once you thought of copters, you started noticing the flocks of microcopters below; then the big ones looked like the little ones’ parents. The micros weren’t manned but operated by remote control. They were only for surveillance, and in Outer Party districts, you’d often glance up from a task to find a micro hovering by your window like a nosy bird.

But by far the most striking thing in the view was the Ministry of Love. It rose from the jumble of ruins and low houses like a white fin breaching turbid brown water. On its gleaming surface, you could make out the tiny figures of workmen, attached to a slender tracery of cables, scrubbing its eerily snow-white flank. Apart from the tiny detail of those workmen, the building was so white it gave the impression of being an absence: a portal to nothingness cut through the shabby city and the cloudy sky. Love had no windows at all, giving its austere beauty a suffocating effect. Julia had heard a story that the mice there had no eyes; with no light, they had no need. That was bollocks, of course. Even when there was a power cut, the four big Ministries always had electric light. Still, those mythic blind mice troubled her. They stood for the real terrors behind those walls, terrors one couldn’t see and must imagine in ignorance.

Julia by Sandra Newman (Granta) is the latest pick for the New Scientist Book Club. Sign up and read along with us here


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What ancient Earth tells us about surviving the climate crisis

The following is a transcript from New Scientist’s CultureLab podcast. Subscribe and listen for free here.

Christie Taylor: Hello and welcome to Culture Lab, I’m Christie Taylor. This is a show all about how science plays out in our cultural creations. Sometimes we talk about the science behind popular TV and movies, other times we talk to artist and authors about the research that influenced their works. Today’s interview is with University of Pennsylvania, climate scientist and activist Michael Mann, who’s newest book called Our Fragile Moment came out last week. It’s a sweeping history of the earth’s climate and how climate change has shaped humans’ societies, both for batter and for worse. Environment reporter James Dinneen spoke with Mann about the climates extremes we’ve seen this year, what the deep history of earth’s climate tells us about our future and why climate doom is now a bigger threat than denial for taking action.

James Dinneen: Michael Mann, thank you so much for joining the new scientist podcast. Before getting into the book and all the paleo climate business, I want to ask you about our climate at present. As you know, 2023 has been a big year for extreme weather. July was the hottest month on record, June, July and August were the hottest three month period on record. There have been extreme heatwaves on three continents. Huge temperature anomalies in parts of the ocean, millions of people breathing smoke from massive wildfires in Canada. Antarctic sea ice has reached new record lows. How are you making sense of all the extremes we’ve seen in 2023 in relation to climate change?

Michael Mann: Yes, thanks, it’s good to be with you and you know, it does, sort of, put an exclamation mark. This past summer and everything we’ve seen, it feels like climate change has shown us it’s hand in the form of these disparate extreme weather events, devastating extreme weather events that communicate the fact that the climate crisis isn’t twenty years away, it’s not ten years away, it’s here and it’s a matter at this point of how bad we’re willing to let it get. I often frame the challenge in terms of duelling principles. In this case for example, there is urgency. We understand the urgency because we see the devastating consequences of climate and action already, but there’s agency too. It’s not too late to prevent the worst impacts and this book in its own way really gets at that by looking at the record of past natural climate changes. It allows us to look at the various lessons that earth history has to offer us about the climate crisis today and some of those lessons are indeed about urgency, about the bad things that happen when the planet heats up and when it heats up rapidly. But one of the things it also conveys is that, you know, I call it this fragile moment because all of human civilisation essentially was born during this roughly 4,000 year period, 6,000 year period, if you want to extend it a little further back, a fairly stable, global climate and that’s what allowed us to build this massive infrastructure to support what is now more than eight billion people on the plant, but that infrastructure is dependent on the conditions in which it was built remaining so.

And what we’re seeing is a rapid departure because of fossil fuel burning and the warming on the planet. We’re leaving that envelope of variability and it’s the rate of warming and the impacts that it’s having that presents such a challenge. So, the question is, what do we see from past climate events and what it collectively tells us is, yes, if we fail to act, if we continue on the course that we’re on, then we will see something that stats to resemble the dystopian futures that Hollywood and science fiction have given us. But if we do act and we act rapidly and concertedly then we can still remain in this fragile moment.

James Dinneen: One theme and a point that you make throughout the book is the importance of embracing uncertainty, at least in the way that we communicate about climate change and what’s behind particular anomalies. I know there’s been a huge amount of debate around all of the different factors lining up this year to contribute to heat extremes. Whether it’s changing in shipping emissions. Whether it’s volcanic eruptions and climate change and climate change from rising concentrations of greenhouse gasses all adding up together. So, how do you talk about uncertainties that are inherent in any complex science, like the science of climate change without feeling denialism or alarmism? How do we embrace uncertainty in how we communicate about climate change?

Michael Mann: Yes. We’ve seen an effort to hijack the discussion of uncertainty by climate deniers and contrarians and delayers and what I call inactivists, the forces of climate inaction and again, it’s always been a fallacy this idea that uncertainty is a reason not to act. When in fact, it’s a reason for even more concerted action because of the very real possibility that the impacts will be even worse than our models predicted. Now, when it comes to the warming of the planet, it’s right in store. The warming is what we expected it would be at this point if we continued on this fossil fuel driven path that we’re on, but what we’ve been surprised by are some of the impacts of that warming and the ice sheets are losing ice faster than we expected and sea levels rising sooner than we expected and the great ocean conveyor is slowing down earlier than we expected in part of as a result of that melting ice and the freshening of high latitude waters. And those extreme weather events that we’re seeing and some of our own research involves understanding the mechanisms, the complex behaviour of the jet stream and how it is creating these very persistent stuck weather patterns where the same regions. As we’re seeing right now, areas in Southern Europe, in the Mediterranean that have just been dumped on. Where those weather systems just remain in place for day after day and you get that extreme flooding. Or a heat dome remains in place for weeks on end, and so, you get the extreme drying and the extreme heat and they combine to give massive wildfires.

This goes beyond what we predicted at this point. So, uncertainty to reiterate that message is not our friend. If anything, it’s our enemy and it’s a reason for even more concerted action and the episodes that we look at in the deep past of earth’s climate history, reinforced that message because there are examples of mechanisms that instil a certain amount of resilience in the climate system and that’s a good thing. There are homeostatic mechanisms that keep earth within liveable bounds, but if you push the system too hard, if you hit it too hard, you can leave those bounds and that resilience gives way to fragility and that fragility can give way to a runaway climate scenarios. In fact, we talk a lot about runaway warming and that that would be very difficult to see here on earth because we’re not like Venus, we’re further from the sun. We probably can’t create a runaway Venus like greenhouse effect, but we don’t need to extinguish all life on earth. We just need to warm the planet by another ten degrees or so and we will start to see the vast majority of our planet become unliveable.

That’s on the hot side, but on the cold side we actually do see runaway scenarios. It was a snowball earth episode about two and a half billion years ago. The sun was less bright then, the earth had a tendency to run colder. Although the greenhouse effect warmed it up, so that life could exist, but we did see this one incident where there was a massive increase in oxygen due to photosynthetic bacteria that emerged at that time that filled up the atmosphere for the first time with oxygen. The oxygen scavenged all the early methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas and the earth cooled down rapidly and more ice formed, and the formation of ice cools the planet more because it reflects more sunlight to space, and you get a runaway effect. You get a vicious cycle and earth literally ran away into a-, it become a snowball. It was entirely encased in ice and life only survived through certain, like hydrothermal vents and maybe shallow pools of water at the tropical ocean surface on top of the ice. So, it’s a reminder. You hit the system too hard and in this case, it was life itself hitting the system too hard and what are we doing today? We are life. Human beings and if we hit the system too hard, it will exhibit, you know, maybe not a runaway warming event but a dramatic enough warming of the planet to make it very difficult for human civilisation to continue.

James Dinneen: As you just mentioned there, the story of climate change on earth is far, far longer and more accident than the past few millennia or even the past century. This is just the most recent and unprecedented chapter of a much longer history of earth climate. Stepping back from that, I mean, you just mentioned snowball earth there. You alluded to the faint, young sun. What to you is one of the most fascinating or misunderstood periods in our planet’s epic climate history?

Michael Mann: That’s a great question. We could go in so many different directions with that question and I do think earth history is fascinating. We’ve got more than four billion years of lessons. We might as well look at them, you know, and too often we focus on a shallow period of time. Maybe the past few millennia. The hockey stick reconstruction that we published 25 years ago showed that the warming is unprecedented in 1,000 years, but we’ve got much more than 1,000 years to look at. We’ve got billions of years and there’s so many lessons in those billions of years and we could spend a lot of time trying to unpack them all. But in terms of what events are the most misunderstood. I would point for example, to the so called PETM or the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum. We call it the PETM. It’s about ten million years after the asteroid impact that killed the none avian dinosaurs and I say none avian because birds are technically dinosaurs. They’re still with us, so next time you see a bird in the sky, you’re seeing a dinosaur, that’s what’s left of them. Actually, any larger than a dog died off in this massive what was the equivalent of a nuclear winter. It was an impact event, but it was similar to what would happen if we had a global thermos nuclear war and there’s all the chapters, chapter four on those parallels, which I think are very interesting.

But the most misunderstood, probably the PETM. It was a period of rapid warming and by rapid, we mean over tens of thousands of years. There’s nothing in the geological record that compares to the rapidity of the warming we’re creating today. I mean, we’re warming the planet by degrees over tens of years, not tens of million or even tens of thousands of years. So, we call the PETM is, sort of, our best analogue for a rapid global warming event in the geological record, but it was slow by comparison with what we’re doing today. Rapid from a geological standpoint, planet warmed maybe four degrees, five degrees Celsius, nine degrees Fahrenheit, warmed quite a bit over ten thousand, twenty thousand years. It was due to a massive input of carbon from volcanic eruptions that tapped into a reservoir of a very carbon rich reservoir in the solid earth, not in the vicinity of Iceland. It’s a volcanic region today because it’s a spreading centre and a hot spot combined, and it was a source of great volcanism. And so, there was all this CO2 that was spewed into the atmosphere over a fairly short period of time. It’s our best natural experiment for what we’re doing today, but it was run a thousand times slower, or at least a hundred times slower then today.

One of the things that’s misunderstood here, you’ll often hear climate doomers or doomists. They don’t deny climate change, which is problematic. They deny we can do anything about it. They insist that we’re seeing runaway warming from methane that is escaping from the arctic into the atmosphere. It’s another one of those vicious cycles and we’ve started it, and we can’t stop it. So, we’re all going to be extinguished, all life on earth will be extinguished in a matter of a decade or so, no matter what we do. There are prominent voices in the community who have literally made that claim. It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, what’s happening today, but one of the things they’ll often do is they’ll point to past events like the PETM, and they’ll say, ‘Look, that’s what happened back then, it’s happening to us now.’ That’s not what happened. There wasn’t a massive release of methane into the atmosphere. The latest studies suggest that methane feedback added maybe 10% to the carbon output. What was the carbon? It was CO2. The same CO2 that we’re producing today at an even faster click from fossil fuels burning. So, the real lessons of the PETM are that CO2 was the cause of the problem and we are the cause of the problem, as long as we continue to burn fossil fuels, but there’s no evidence for a runaway, you know, methane driven warming that would, sort of, you know, it feeds this notion that there’s nothing we can do about it, that we have no agency. It comes back to agency and it’s one of the continued messages. There’s urgency and there’s agency and these past events actually reaffirm the agency. They contradict the claim that these past extinction events imply runaway warming today that we can do nothing about. They imply just the opposite.

James Dinneen: It’s interesting. As you say, the PETM is misunderstood both from a doomist, sort of, standpoint but you sometimes also hear a misunderstanding from the opposite side, from the denialist standpoint saying, you know, ‘We shouldn’t be especially concerned about climate change today because earth has been warmer in the past than now. Or the concentration of CO2 has been higher than it is now.’ So, to that I say, it’s the rate, stupid.

Michael Mann: It’s the rate at which we’re adding carbon to the atmosphere and the rate of the warming that’s resulting from that because these past events, even the PETM, it was relatively slow. 100 times slower than today and actually, it turns out it was favourable for us in the sense that this rapid warming, that started from an already baseline, very warm greenhouse climate and it warmed even more, maybe the planet got maybe got as hot as 90 degrees Fahrenheit on average. Steamy, hot planet and it actually favoured small mammals. Especially small arboreal mammals that lived in the rainforest and the very first primate emerged in that hot house PETM climate and if not for that innovation, the development of primates, you know, she was our great, great, great, great ancestor and without that climate innovation, we probably wouldn’t be here today. So, in the sense we’ve benefited from that, but that was such a slow change that life could adapt. And the way it adapted is over tens of thousands of years mammals got smaller and smaller and ultimately, you got these very small family of mammals, the primates that emerged. Today, we are warming far faster than the adaptive capacity or the evolutionary capacity of organisms to change in response to it.

James Dinneen: I’m glad, I was waiting for you to bring up the point about how this human evolutionary lineage may have benefited from the PETM. That’s a core theme of the book is that climate change isn’t all just one thing, especially when viewed across the whole sweep of earths history. Can you explain that aspect of climate change? Maybe beyond the PETM and our earliest rodent ancestors.

Michael Mann: Absolutely. I mean, okay, we were the beneficiaries of the great dying of this great extinction event that happened 250 million years ago at the end of the Permian, the end Permian extinction. We called it the great dying because 90% of all species died out and it was another rapid warming event. Dude, guess what? Carbon dioxide, CO2 from massive volcanic output at that time and there were a number of aspects of that event which are not good analogues for what’s happening today. So, comparing to the end Permian is problematic. Much of the ocean biota probably died because of the equivalent of a global stink bomb, hydrogen sulphide filling up the oceans, and that is in part due to massive de-oxygenation of the oceans. And so there are some things that aren’t analogous to anything that’s happening today, but it turns out the evolutionary pressures of the PTM actually gave rise to that subclass of megafauna that would become the dinosaurs. And so the dinosaurs were beneficiaries of the end Permian extinction, but they were killed by the event that happened 65 million years, a massive cooling event from an asteroid strike.

The KPG Boundary we call it or it used to be called the KT Boundary and a whole chapter, chapter four about that and the parallels with nuclear winter and the group The Police and the song Walking In Your Footsteps which was a cautionary tale about all of this. And most people probably didn’t realise that. The Police, they were ahead of their time. They were, actually Sting was, amazingly. Sting, Gordon Sumner wrote that song in a Caribbean island in winter of 1982 which was long before the great Carl Sagan popularised the threat of nuclear winter. And yet, in an odd way it presages, the song almost seems aware of the threat of nuclear winter. But at that point we really were only thinking about the nuclear radiation and the destruction that would be caused and not so much the longer-term environmental impact. And in 1980 we discovered that an asteroid had killed the dinosaurs and so you had those things come together, our understanding of that event that extinguished the dinosaurs and our growing understanding of the potential similarity of what would happen, a nuclear winter if there were an all-out nuclear war. And, you know, the title of that Police album was Synchronicity.

James Dinneen: Well what you’re saying there just talking about he extinction of the dinosaurs, nuclear winter really highlights how looking at paleoclimate holds enormous insight for how we might end our changing the climate today.

Michael Mann: Yes, and there are winners and losers right, the dinosaurs were winners in that first extinction event and they were the losers in the next one. So you live by, you know, the major extinction event, you die by the major extinction event. And that theme of winner and losers, you know earth will go on, life will go on. If we continue on this trajectory we could be the losers. Climate change and you were alluding to this, I provide a lot of examples a long way, the ice ages helped lead to the development of bigger brains so that we had greater behavioural plasticity and could evolve to these rapidly changing climates. And so that’s part of what made us human, what gave us our big brains was the stress and the challenges of climate variability. So all along the way we had various assists from climate change, it created the conditions that ultimately led to, you know, our species. But what’s ironic is that the climate changes that we are creating today could again if we don’t act lead ultimately to the end of our species as we know it.

James Dinneen: On that point what happens if we don’t act? We talked about how paleoclimates can offer insights, lessons into, for instance, what might happen to the climate if we double the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. But you also use this word, blueprint, that paleoclimate may hold a kind of blueprint for how to maintain the fragile climate from which we’ve benefited for the past several millennia. What is that blueprint and what does it tell us beyond the broad idea that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, does it offer something more concrete and specific?

Michael Mann: It does, thanks for that question. There’s a concept called climate sensitivity, it’s a measure of the warming effect of greenhouse gases, defined specifically as how much warming do you get if you double the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and you allow the climate to equilibrate to that new level of CO2. It’s a fundamental metric that we use, you know, and it’s intrinsic in any future projection of warming, implicit in that is some climate-sensitive and models differ. Different climate models make different assumptions about some of the processes that impact that climate sensitivity, parametrisations. And different modellers make different assumptions that are consistent with what we know that led to, you know, different conclusions, there’s the uncertainty. And so we can’t say, ‘There’s going to be this much warming if we continue to increase carbon dioxide concentrations.’ We give a range, ‘It’s going to be somewhere between this amount of warming, between four and five degrees Celsius or seven to nine degrees Fahrenheit.’

If we continue on the historical fossil fuel burning trajectory that we’ve been on, fortunately, we’re making some progress, we’re probably headed towards less warming now with the policies in place. But the policies in place aren’t enough to stop catastrophic warming of, you know, one and a half Celsius, three degrees Fahrenheit where we’ll see far worse impact. So what the paleoclimate record can do is we’ve got a short historical record, there’s a lot going on, there are natural factors like volcanos and changes in solar outputs. There are multiple human factors, there are increasing carbon dioxide concentrations, but there’s the cooling effect of aerosols, sulphur aerosol that you alluded to earlier in fact. And all of these are competing with each other over this short period of time, so it’s hard to tease apart from the short time period the sensitivity of the climate. We can try to compare models and observations and figure that out but there’s this uncertainty, so one of the things we do is we look for other experiments that nature has one where we have an idea of what the changes in CO2 were and we have an idea of what the changes in temperature were. And they can inform our estimate of this key quantity, climate sensitivity that in the end tells us how much warming are we going to get if we continue with, you know, different scenarios of fossil fuel burning.

And what the paleoclimate does collectively is tell us that the models probably have it about right, there’s no room, you know, the observations, the PTM, the end Permian extinction and all of that four billion plus record, year record. Collectively it doesn’t support the idea of runaway warming, that we’re going to get a runaway warming effect from the CO2 we’ve already emitted as doomers claim. The paleoclimate record doesn’t support that, it actually supports conventional estimates from climate models that tell us that if we continue to burn carbon the planet will continue to get warmer and warmer and it’ll do so at a rate that does threaten us.

You know, I use this phrase originally it was coined by my good friend and mentor who’s no longer with us, Steve Schneider, who I talk about in the book, his legacy, his contribution to the science. Steven Schneider had all sorts of aphorisms that he introduced into our lexicon and one of them was, the truth is hard enough. And that’s it, the paleoclimate record that’s the truth, and the truth is bad enough. It’s easy to envision an essentially civilisational collapse. And there are lessons there as well and I talk about those in the book, of past collapses of human civilisation early on and what they tell us again about the fragility of the moment, of this moment that were in. So that’s the bottom line, truth is bad enough, if we don’t reduce carbon emissions substantially over the next decade then yes, we will leave behind that fragile moment and we will imperil human civilisation.

Christie Taylor: Thanks again for listening to this episode of Culture Lab from New Scientist Podcast. That was reporter James Dinneen in conversation with climate scientist Michael Mann. I’m Christie Taylor. If you liked this interview make sure you subscribe to our feed for more like it, plus our weekly news podcast and the incredible Dead Planet Society all dropping right here every Friday and Tuesday. Find more stories from new scientists on our website at newscientist.com. Bye for now.


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Turkish century: History looms large on election day

ISTANBUL — From the Aegean coast to the mountainous frontier with Iran, millions of Turks are voting at the country’s 191,884 ballot boxes on Sunday — with both President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his main rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu warning the country is at a historical turning point.

In the last sprints of the nail-bitingly close election race, the dueling candidates have both placed heavy emphasis on the historical resonance of the vote falling exactly 100 years after the foundation of the secular Turkish republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923.

In the Istanbul district of Ümraniye on the final day of campaigning, Erdoğan told voters the country was on “the threshold of a Turkish century” that will be the “century of our children, our youth, our women.”

Erdoğan’s talk of a Turkish century is partly a pledge to make the country stronger and more technologically independent, particularly in the defense sector. Over the past months, the president has been quick to associate himself with the domestically-manufactured Togg electric car, the “Kaan” fighter jet and Anadolu, the country’s first aircraft carrier.

But Erdoğan’s Turkish century is about more than home-grown planes and ships. Few people doubt the president sees 2023 as a key threshold to accelerate his push away from Atatürk’s secular legacy and toward a more religiously conservative nation. Indeed, his campaign has been characterized by a heavy emphasis on family values and bitter rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community. Unsurprisingly, he wrapped up his campaign on Saturday night in Hagia Sophia — once Constantinople’s greatest church — which he contentiously reconverted from a museum back into a mosque, as it had been in Ottoman times.    

The state that Atatürk forged from the ashes of the Ottoman empire in 1923 was secular and modernizing, often along Western models, with the introduction of Latin letters and even the banning of the fez in favor of Western-style hats. In this regard, the Islamist populist Erdoğan is a world away from the ballroom-dancing, rakı-quaffing field marshal Atatürk.

The 2023 election is widely being cast as a decisive referendum on which vision for Turkey will win through, and Erdoğan has been keen to portray the opposition as sell-outs to the West and global financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. “Are you ready to bury at the ballot box those who promised to give over the country’s values ​​to foreigners and loan sharks?” he called out to the crowd in Ümraniye.

This is not a man who is casting himself as the West’s ally. Resisting pressure that Ankara should not cozy up so much to the Kremlin, Erdoğan snapped on Friday that he would “not accept” the opposition’s attacks on Russian President Vladimir Putin — after Kılıçdaroğlu complained of Russian meddling in the election.   

All about Atatürk

By contrast, Erdogan’s main rival Kılıçdaroğlu is trying to assume the full mantle of Atatürk, and is stressing the need to put the country back on the path toward European democratic norms after Erdoğan’s lurch toward authoritarianism. While Erdoğan ended his campaign in the great mosque of Hagia Sophia, Kılıçdaroğlu did so by laying flowers at Atatürk’s mausoleum.

Speaking from a rain-swept stage in Ankara on Friday night, the 74-year-old bureaucrat declared: “We will make all of Turkey Mustafa Kemal’s [Atatürk’s] Turkey!”

In his speech, he slammed Erdoğan for giving Turkey over to drug runners and crony networks of oligarch construction bosses, saying the country had no place for “robbers.” Symbolically, he chided the president for ruling from his 1,150-room presidential complex — dubbed the Saray or palace — and said that he would rule from the more modest Çankaya mansion that Atatürk used for his presidency.

Warming to his theme of Turkey’s “second century,” Kılıçdaroğlu posted a video in the early hours of Saturday morning, urging young people to fully embrace the founding father’s vision. After all, he hails from the CHP party that Atatürk founded.

“We are entering the second century, young ones. And now we have a new generation, we have you. We have to decide altogether: Will we be among those who only commemorate Atatürk — like in the first century — or those who understand him in this century? This generation will be of those who understand,” he said, speaking in his trademark grandfatherly tone from his book-lined study.

At least in the upscale neighborhood of Beşiktaş, on Saturday night, all the talk of Atatürk was no dry history lesson. Over their final beers — before an alcohol sale ban comes in force over election day — young Turks punched the air and chanted along with a stirring anthem: “Long Live Mustafa Kemal Pasha, long may he live.”

In diametric opposition to Erdoğan, who has detained opponents and exerts heavy influence over the judiciary and the media, Kılıçdaroğlu is insisting that he will push Turkey to adopt the kind of reforms needed to move toward EU membership.

When asked by POLITICO whether that could backfire because some hostile EU countries would always block Turkish membership, he said the reforms themselves were the most important element for Turkey’s future.

“It does not matter whether the EU takes us in or not. What matters is bringing all the democratic standards that the EU foresees to our country,” he said in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of a rally in the central city of Sivas. “We are part of Western civilization. So the EU may accept us or not, but we will bring those democratic standards. The EU needs Turkey.”

Off to the polls

Polling stations — which are set up in schools — open at 8 a.m. on election day and close at 5 p.m. At 9 p.m. media can start reporting, and unofficial results are expected to start trickling in around midnight.

The mood is cautious, with rumors swirling that internet use could be restricted or there could be trouble on the streets if there are disputes over the result.

The fears of some kind of trouble have only grown after reports of potential military or governmental involvement in the voting process.

Two days before the election, the CHP accused Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu of preparing election manipulation. The main opposition party said Soylu had called on governors to seek army support on election night. Soylu made no public response.  

Turkey’s Supreme Election Council (YSK) has rejected the interior ministry’s request to collect and store election results on its own database. The YSK also banned the police and gendarmerie from collecting election results. 

Erdoğan himself sought to downplay any fears of a stolen election. In front of a studio audience of young people on Friday, he dismissed as “ridiculous” the suggestion that he might not leave office if he lost. “We came to power in Turkey by democratic means and by the courtesy of people. If they make a different decision whatever the democracy requires we will do it,” said the president, looking unusually gaunt, perhaps still knocked back by what his party said was a bout of gastroenteritis during the campaign.

The opposition is vowing to keep close tabs on all of the polling stations to try to prevent any fraud.

In Esenyurt Cumhuriyet Square, in the European part of Istanbul, a group of high-school students gathered on Saturday morning to greet Ekrem İmamoğlu, the popular mayor of Istanbul, who would be one of Kılıçdaroğlu’s vice presidents if he were to win.

Ilayda, 18, said she would vote for the opposition because of its position on democracy, justice and women’s rights.

When asked what would happen if Erdoğan won, she replied: “We plan to start a deep mourning. Our country as we know it will not be there anymore.”

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100 Year Old Lady At Florida School Board Better Patriot Than All Book Banners Put Together

Earlier this month, the school district in Martin County, Florida, purged at least 84 books from school libraries after complaints from the head of the local Moms for “Liberty” chapter under the state’s school censorship law, HB 1467, passed last year. PEN America notes that most of the books were removed following challenges by a single objector, “who filed forms indicating that she did not actually read any of the books in question.” No problem; in keeping with the law, a DeSanctified “media specialist” in the district reviewed the books, or at least the list, and the books were gone.

Among the familiar suspects like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Beloved,the banned books also included 20 by a single author, Jodi Picoult, who writes novels for the young adult market. Picoult notes in an op-ed that the complaints — again, all from the one Moms for Censorship lady — inaccurately described all her books as “adult romance that should not be on school shelves.” Picoult, who we suspect knows her books better than the mom who didn’t read them, points out that most of the books that were targeted “do not even have a kiss in them.,” but they do deal with social issues that make rightwingers sad, and they “encourage kids to think for themselves.” Can’t have that.

Picoult also notes that one of her books marked for culling was The Storyteller, a novel about the repercussions of the Holocaust.

It chronicles the growth of anti-Semitism and fascism in Nazi Germany. There was a strange irony that a parent wanted this particular book removed, because it felt a bit like history repeating itself.

Julie Marshall, the Mom for Purity who lodged the complaints, told the Washington Post by email, “At this point, we believe we have challenged the most obscene and age inappropriate books,” but didn’t specify what her issues with The Storyteller were. Apparently there’s sex, including depictions of Nazi guards committing sexual assault, so maybe we wouldn’t want kids thinking Nazis were rapists.

The removal of all those books meant that Tuesday night’s Martin County school board meeting was packed, with about 200 people there. Many of the 40 who spoke at the meeting called for the books to be restored, although a few also worried about all the nasty sex in books available to high school readers, giving the very laziest local news stations an excuse to present one quote from each side and call it good coverage.

Marshall was there, in a Wonder Woman T-shirt, to explain that while she filed almost all the complaints, she works with many many concerned parents both locally and nationwide, and sadly she didn’t actually say “There are dozens of us! Dozens!” But she did say

“If you guys want to continue making me out to be the sole parent in all of this and give me the power that I can have all these books removed and make me out to be Wonder Woman, so be it … Persecute me for standing on morality, I really don’t care.”

We really do hope someone lets her know that Wonder Woman is a queer icon, that Lynda Carter thinks bigots suck, and that the character was created in the first place by William Moulton Marston, who lived very happily in a throuple and deliberately included a LOT of bondage references in the comic, what with that Lasso o’ Truth and all. (He was also a lie-detector crank who always looked for a way to cash in on his dubious inventions, so there’s that.) Marston included this illustration, by Harry G. Peter, of what a real Wonder Woman believes, in his article “Why 100,000 Americans Read Comics” in American Scholar (1943-44):

Image: Harvard College Library via NPR

Happily, among the many folks calling for freedom to read, there was a real wonder woman at the school board meeting, 100-year-old Grace Linn, who knows far too well why fascism has to be nipped in the bud whenever it arises. Her husband was killed in action fighting them in WW II, and by god she’s not going to allow any book burners in her America, thank you very much.

Linn brought along a quilt she had made to honor books and ideas that the current round of fascists are trying to snuff out; in January, as America’s censorship crusade was well under way, she had shared a photo of her quilt with MSNBC’s Ali Velshi for his show’s “Banned Book Club” feature.

The quilt includes censored titles like Beloved,Maus, Fahrenheit 451, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Gender Queer, Two Boys Kissing, and more. Linn told Palm Beach TV station WPTV — one of the non-lazy ones! — “When I showed this to adult women, they’ll say, ‘Oh, no they didn’t do that to The Color Purple.‘”

Now, let’s get out of her way and listen:

A few highlights (full transcript of Linn’s remarks at AlterNet):

Good afternoon folks. I am Grace Lynn. I am a hundred years young. I’m here to protest our school district’s book-banning policy. My husband Robert Nichol was killed in action in World War II, at a very young age, he was only 26, defending our democracy, Constitution, and freedoms.

One of the freedoms that the Nazis crushed was the freedom to read the books they banned. They stopped the free press, banned and burned books. The freedom to read, which is protected by the First Amendment, is our essential right and duty of our democracy. Even so, it is continually under attack by both the public and private groups who think they hold the truth.

Linn noted she’d made the quilt last year in reply to the Right’s mania for book banning, and urged her fellow citizens not to knuckle under to today’s fascists, who seek power by trying to make us afraid of other Americans:

Banned books, and burning books, are the same. Both are done for the same reason: fear of knowledge. Fear is not freedom. Fear is not liberty. Fear is control. My husband died as a father of freedom. I am a mother of liberty. Banned books need to be proudly displayed and protected from school boards like this. Thank you very much. Thank you.

And that’s what we all need to be saying at every school and library board meeting in America, the end.

UPDATE: Well silly me, I didn’t include anything about the school board’s reactions to the two hours of public comment. According to the local paper, the board didn’t take any action on the banned books at Tuesday’s meeting, and no board members responded to the comments.

[PEN America / Daily Beast / WaPo / JTA / NPR / AlterNet / TC Palm]

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Why We Grieve Our Favourite TV Shows: Psychologists on ‘Post-Series Depression’

“After I finished reading all the Harry Potter books, I was heartbroken. I waited for the movies to come out, but then those got over too. And I was left feeling: what now?” says Anoushka Rajesh, a 26-year-old journalist.

Anoushka – like many of us who love binge-watching TV shows, going on movie marathons, and reading thriller novels – says she is often left with a “sense of loss, imbalance, a sort of void” when something she enjoyed watching or reading comes to an end.

“Sometimes, it affects me so much that I avoid watching the ending altogether – even if it’s a show I had been following for years, like Naruto,” she says.

This feeling of ‘loss’ and ‘sadness’ is more common than you think; psychologists refer to it as ‘post-series depression’ or PSD.

When HBO show Succession aired its finale in India on Monday, 30 May, social media was flooded with posts about how the show would be missed dearly. With the Apple TV show Ted Lasso also coming to an end on Wednesday, 31 May, conversations about PSD are important now more than ever.

FIT spoke to experts about this state of mental health and ways to tackle it, and here’s what we found out.

What Exactly Is PSD?

Nishtha Budhiraja, a child psychologist, describes post-series depression as a feeling of “profound sense of grief, loss, or emptiness,” which is usually experienced after the end of a TV show, movie, or book.

“PSD can also involve feelings of being confused. It is an emotionally dysregulated sort of experience,” she tells FIT.

Budhiraja explains that most of us tend to identify with characters in TV shows, books, and movies, and may even relate to them at a “very deep level.” Often, we also create fantasies around a show or a character and grow emotionally attached to them.

“These feelings tend to get projected on the character or the storyline. And that is why it gets difficult once it ends. There is this sense of loss – that you will no longer be able to experience this again. It’s grief, but it’s a different kind of grief – because you’re grieving someone fictional. So, it can get a bit confusing as well,” she adds.

PSD isn’t really a new phenomenon, though it’s become more common with the rise of OTT and binge-watching culture, says Budhiraja.

“Even when our parents and grandparents were watching those old Ekta Kapoor shows, they felt really strongly about them when they ended. And they went on for years!” she says.

Now, multiple people go through a shared experience of grief because of the accessibility and relatability of OTT content, she adds.

She, however, explains that PSD isn’t just limited to books or TV. “During the lockdown, when they had banned the game PUBG, the adolescent population had become so anxious, so emotionally unregulated. Why? Because they didn’t have the one thing they really looked forward to. This is PSD as well.”

No Watching or Rewatching?

Twenty-six-year-old Archana Shaji, a PhD scholar, tells FIT she has the habit of keeping a tab on the number of episodes of any show before watching it.

“I always check the number of episodes of a show before watching it, just to prepare myself. And the despair starts around the last three episodes. By the time the series is over, I feel very low, even if the theme of the series is positive and it ended on a good note,” she says.

Archana says she’s felt this way with many shows, but the despair is worse when she’s seen the characters grow on screen, like in Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Derry Girls.

“If it’s a show that I really liked, I would immediately start rewatching it. Going back to those episodes is comforting.”

But like Anoushka, Tushar Kaushik, a 32-year-old writer, has a different approach to dealing with the “emptiness.” He says there have been several shows that he has left midway because he couldn’t bear to come to terms with the end.

“And this feeling doesn’t just apply to shows or books. I have been religiously watching all FIFA World Cup matches for the past month. Now that the final is here, I have no idea how I will deal with it once it’s all over!”

Tushar Kaushik, Writer

For Anoushka, watching a TV show isn’t just about identifying with the characters or enjoying the plot – it’s a way to escape the mundane. “I tend to jump to another show as soon as I finish the one I’m watching. Sometimes, I don’t even finish it – I’ll leave the last episode out because I don’t want it to end. I always need a parallel world I can slip into, so I don’t have to deal with reality. It’s like a safety net.”

Explaining why we tend to do this, Nishtha says, “When we talk about escape or avoidance-based mechanisms, PSD tends to come up. There would be one series that a person would go back to. Two series are extremely common in this regard – Friends and Bojack Horseman. It either helps people process their feelings about something, or they just want to avoid it and be in a fantasy world for a while.”

How Does One Tackle This?

Dr Syeda Ruksheda, a psychiatrist, says there are several ways one can transition out of PSD.

“First thing you can do is talk about it. Share your experiences, your thoughts, and feelings with other fans or on social media. It makes it easier for you to let go. When you’re talking about it, the show and the characters come alive again. Then it’s easier for you to let go,” she tells FIT.

Some people even write fan fiction to deal with PSD productively, she adds. “Fan fiction has grown more and more popular over the years with Harry Potter. It’s a productive way of keeping the character alive while letting go of them as well.”

Connecting with people outside the fictional world may also be helpful to some, says Dr Ruksheda.

“You got a dopamine hit while watching something you liked. And now that’s missing. So, it takes some time for your brain to recalibrate. Stepping away from the fictional world can help speed up the process.”

When Should You Be Worried?

“PSD is almost like a grief period. But it is also dependent on your overall mental health, quality of life, etc. The lower your quality of life, the higher the chances of you being severely affected by PSD. We may call it a mild adjustment disorder, depending on the level of symptoms that you have, the duration, and the intensity,” Dr Ruksheda explains.

Nishtha concurs, and adds that PSD doesn’t really have to be addressed, “unless and until it creates a sense of dissonance or emotional instability in your life.”

“When it comes to any sort of potential depression or mental health related issue, what we usually look at are: First, is it an intense episode that has lasted more than a month? Second, does it come and go over six months, and when it comes, is a person is unable to be functional? In both these cases, seek help.”

Nishtha Budhiraja, Child Psychologist

In short, if you find yourself struggling hard to accept that a series or book has ended, and if this feeling is affecting your day-to-day functioning, you may need professional help, according to experts.

(This story was originally published on 20 December 2022. It has been updated and republished from The Quint‘s archives as hit shows Succession and Ted Lasso end their run.)


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