KIC 8462852

KIC 8462852

The designation above is, for those not rabidly following astronomy news, the name of a star that may end up being the biggest scientific discovery of our lifetimes. An article dropped recently on The Atlantic that every SF-nal person should check out. The short form: the Kepler telescope discovered a star called KIC 8462852, which contains a bizarre enough light signature to attract in-depth study from scientists since 2011. Generally light flicker patterns are used to search for planets, but this particular flicker is unlike anything seen before. A paper came out earlier, concluding that the only plausible explanation within our current knowledge is that another star wandered through that system with fantastically good timing, depositing a wreath of comets around KIC. Not impossible, but, apparently, rather implausible. Bigger news: another paper is about to be published suggesting that this light signature is more suggestive of gargantuan, artificial structures orbiting the star. Not conclusive of course, but it is still a bombshell.

Nobody is calling this a definite thing of course. I think all of us are fully aware that we shouldn’t see something strange in the night sky and say, “Hey! Ringworld!” Still, there is an opportunity to find more evidence. And if the evidence mounts? What happens then?

In practical terms, very little I think. KIC 8462852 is 1500 light years away from us, give or take. Thus, we are seeing today events that took place shortly after the fall of Rome. Unless this mysterious race has faster than light travel, and everything we currently know says that FTL is impossible, it will be awhile before they wander over here. Why? Well, the first signals our planet gave out that anyone is here are less than one hundred years old. I’m hazy on whether or not radio/TV waves attenuate over long distances, but even if they are detectable, Flash Gordon episodes aren’t due to KIC 8462852 until 3400 AD or thereabouts. If we decided to meander over and take a look, we’re currently talking about multiple thousands of years. Acceleration to, and slowing down from, an appreciable fraction of the speed of light is still beyond us. We can probably put first contact fears behind us for now, at least for this prospective civilization.

I’m very curious about the possible effects on our society though. A surprisingly large number of people in my fair country have yet to fully process the existence of dinosaurs. How will they deal with a civilization capable of ringing its sun in power satellites while we were still hacking at each other with iron swords? I doubt it would dent religion at all, but there would be entertaining debates over where Jesus/Mohamed/Buddha/etc. fit into a universe where we are no longer God’s only children. Would this bring about the same level of change as the heliocentric solar system did? Would it spur us to greater scientific achievements, knowing that it was already possible for someone else? I don’t give much credit to the idea that we’ll all curl up in an emo ball of malaise because someone else is better than us; that doesn’t seem like the way humanity responds to crisis.

Experts disagree on how we should feel about extraterrestrials. And by “experts,” I mean “SF writers and fans,” because, really, who else is thinking seriously about this? I used to be part of the optimistic bunch that assumed that any civilization who had progressed enough to build Dyson spheres had probably also gotten rid of war, inequality, starvation, and all that sort of thing. It makes some sense, if one charts straight line growth into the future vis a vis how far we as a species have come. More and more though, I find myself aligning with the tribe that assumes that we’ll take most of our warts with us into the future, that enlightenment probably won’t follow naturally on the heels of technology. I think things will get better, but will probably level off at some point.

These groups have directly opposite views of aliens, naturally. The first welcomes First Contact on the assumption that anyone advanced enough to find us will have already put utopia together. The second fears the same Contact, suspecting that it will lead inevitably to subjugation or extinction. While the Culture is a possible future (and one worth hoping for!), imagining what would happen today if a Bronze Age society appeared and said, “Hi folks! Let’s be friends and initiate one-sided trade and technology exchange,” leaves me skeptical. It someone is indeed at KIC 8462852, it may be in our best interests to hold off on the signal flags until we know what we’re potentially dealing with.

I realize that I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. Still, with all the recent news close to home – water on Mars, details about Pluto, and more – the KIC 8462852 news really stirs the pot. How will we feel if this really is it? What if we know that we aren’t alone? I’m preparing for disappointment, but the thought of something artificial orbiting a (barely) visible star is enough to fire up the wildest imaginings.

2012 Seiun Awards

2012 Seiun Award Winners

The Seiun Awards (星雲賞), Japan’s rough equivalent to the Hugo, were just announced for 2012. Here are the results and some explanation. A complete list in Japanese of all nominees is here, since I will only cover the winners in this post. Note that the foreign SF is determined by publishing date in Japan, which is why the novel nominees include J.G. Ballard and Dhalgren. Anyway, I’ll get the foreign stuff out of the way first and get to the fun bits. I’ll also try to give some sort of description and/or explanation of the Japanese winners, though I haven’t read either of them and am pulling my information off of Japanese Amazon and random websites.

Best Foreign Novel: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Best Foreign Short Story: The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang

Best Japanese Novel: Heaven and Hell (天獄と地国) by Kobayashi Yasumi (小林泰三)

Best Japanese Short Story: The Singing Submarine and Peer-Peer Douga (歌う潜水艦とピアピア動画) by Nojiri Housuke (野尻抱介)

Heaven and Hell is about a world where gravity is flipped upside down, so everything falls away from the ground and into the sky. Kobayashi is a writer who straddles horror and SF, with this book falling more into Hard SF. It is a follow-up to ΑΩ, which also appears to have won a prize or two. I haven’t read anything by Kobayashi and nothing seems to be in translation, though he is fairly prolific.

According to the author’s website, The Singing Submarine and Peer-Peer Douga is the third in Nojiri’s Peer-Peer Douga series, which use Japan’s NikoNiko Douga site (rather like Youtube) as an inspiration. This one in particular was written for an SF Magazine special issue about Hatsune Miku, a virtual idol about whom more will follow. Explains Nojiri, the Peer-Peer Douga stories are built around a virtual idol that he has based around Hatsune Miku, so he was happy to write this particular series. Nojiri notes that the first story in the series also won a Seiun Award, but that the second story was panned. He seems rather surprised that the newest addition proved so popular.

As for Ms. Hatsune, let us just say that anyone who has read William Gibson’s Aidoru is about to have a wild case of deja vu. As I write this, Mrs. Pep is staring aghast at her own computer screen, watching clips of live concerts given by a hologram of Hatsune Miku, who is entirely computer generated save for her vocoder voice. Setting aside questions of what virtual idols mean for the future of pop music and the taste of the Japanese nerd public, “the logical extreme” and “deplorable,” in that order, I will just post this link to Crunchyroll. This particular song went #1 on iTunes the day after its release, after being used for a blockbuster commercial for Google Chrome. To sum up: the Seiun Award winning short story for 2012 is based on a real-life singer who is entirely digital and is pimping Google products on TV. The future, it appears, is already upon us.

NPR Top 100 SFF

NPR’s Top 100 SFF

First of all, click here to check out the Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books, according to a poll conducted by NPR. I looked at it today and had some strong reactions. First of all, the big caveat is that NPR didn’t make the selections, they merely accepted nominations and conducted the voting. Nobody claims that these are the “best,” “most influential,” or have “literary merit.” These are just whatever people tossed out there, which for many no doubt means, “whatever NYT best-selling fantasy doorstop was last in my bathroom.” All I can say is, at least Twilight was excluded.

NPR’s blog does their own analysis of the list, so I won’t belabor the points made there. After all, those people are much more well-read than I am, and probably real live literary scholars or something. Instead, I’ll just give my reactions to the list: things I liked, things that caused me to spray my Talking Rain fizzy water on my screen, and things I think were unfairly left out. As an overall reflection, I get the feeling that SF voters tended towards lifetime achievement medals and an appreciation for their forbears, while Fantasy voters went with The Tome of the Month and gave little thought to what came before and what may follow. More on these as my rant goes on.

Let’s begin with the Yes, Yes, a Thousand Times Yes Division. That has to start with #1, a very deserving J.R.R. Tolkien. According to NPR, LOTR didn’t just take first place, it crushed all comers. I think any way we look at it, nobody can deny Frodo & Co. their place at the head of the line. Dune is also well deserving of its place, though I would have it even higher. I think it is admirable that Orwell, Bradbury, Verne, Shelley, Wells and Huxley are all present, though I wonder if these authors are mentioned because the books are genuine favorites, or because well-informed SF readers know what a debt we owe to the writers. Likewise with the Big Three (Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein) and other prominent writers (Niven, etc.). Some of the selections may have got in based on name recognition rather than quality. For example, Ringworld is Niven’s best known work, but possibly not his best. I need to reread Foundation (among others) to see if it is really the 8th best series ever. Stranger in a Strange Land gets the nod of course, even though I prefer others from Heinlein. I’m glad that people remembered A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Forever War, and Hyperion, though again, Dan Simmons should be in at least the top 20. Finally, Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is a worthy addition. Readers of Two Dudes will know how I feel about those books.

Now for the AAAUGH Fer Ignert! Division, which is more fun. My first thought when reading this list was, “When did Neil Gaiman take over the world?” I’ve read one of his books, and it was alright, but the man is holding even with legends like Asimov, Niven, and Vonnegut. I guess I should pick up American Gods so I too can fall in line. My next thought was, “Fantasy types, I know you are weird, but this is too much, even for you.” I will say nothing of George R.R. Martin, since I didn’t finish Game of Thrones and probably never will. But Patrick Rothfuss in the Top 20? Ahead of Malazan, Phillip K. Dick, Zelazny, and LeGuin? Good heck, people. And who is this Brandon Sanderson, and why is he out-polling The Book of the New Sun? There is no accounting for taste.  (To be fair, I haven’t read Sanderson, and he may be amazing. But I doubt he’s Gene Wolfe amazing.) Oh, and did I mention Robert Jordan? At #12? Aaaaarrrrghghghgh. I’m not going to comment on Xanth or Shannara, but I will mention in passing that any list where Drizzt books top Rendevous with Rama and Iain M. Banks is not one to take to the bank.

In a category all itself, what to do with #2? I love Douglas Adams books. Zaphod and Marvin have been heroes to me for decades. But I suspect that Adams himself would be puzzled to find himself the second best SFF (and first best SF) writer of all time.

And now for those left home, alone, on Prom Night. I’m not going to create my own Top 100, because it would take a long time and accomplish nothing, but there are several authors that I think should be on there. They should be far ahead of anything mentioned in the last paragraph, though I suppose I risk the wrath of Wheel of Time disciples everywhere. (We live on the edge here at Two Dudes in an Attic!) In (mostly) alphabetical order, here are some Better Than Terry Goodkind Winners. How about Poul Anderson? I’m less a fan than in the past, but surely he’s worth a mention? Or Greg Bear! Blood Music and The Forge of God are pretty good. Alfred Bester anyone? He won the first Hugo. I seriously can’t believe that Brin’s Uplift isn’t on there. Chalker’s Midnight at the Well of Souls and Cook’s Black Company are better than most of the fantasy on the list. CJ Cherryh? David Drake might deserve a spot, though he may be more divisive. I wonder if Andre Norton was relegated to the YA list. Speaking of fantasy, Patricia McKillup (especially The Riddle Master books) and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast are better than The Sword of Truth. Frederick Pohl! They passed up Pohl for Terry Pratchett? Alastair Reynolds may only be my favorite, but surely Tad Williams deserves to have a doorstop on the list? I’m starting to froth.

To sum up, this is a puzzling list. I alternately nod my head in wise agreement, then frantically try to prevent that same head from exploding. The contrast between SF, where Jules Verne and H.G. Wells hold prominent positions at the expense of younger writers, and Fantasy, where pioneers like Fritz Leiber and Fred Saberhagen are tossed off a cliff in favor of (teeth gnashing) Robert Jordan, is telling. Are fantasy readers that ignorant or apathetic about their heritage? Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser will abide long after The (Weapon) of (Noble Quality) has passed into obscurity. Oh well. I will now invoke several spells of protection around the house, lest it be burned to the ground by furious Wheel of Time acolytes.

Rating: Wayne Rooney. There’s some great stuff going on, but R.A. Salvatore’s books and a string of World Cup red card inducing frothy outbursts go hand in hand.

2011 Seiun Award Winners

2011 Seiun Award Winners

The Seiun Award (星雲賞) is one of Japan’s major SF awards. The 2011 winners have been announced, so here they are in English.

Japanese Novel: Yamamoto Hiroshi – Last Year Will Be a Good Year
山本弘 去年はいい年になるだろう

Japanese Short Story: Ogawa Issui – King Arisuma’s Beloved Demon
小川一水 アリスマ王の愛した魔物

Foreign Novel: Michael Flynn – Eifelheim

Foreign Short Story: James Lovegrove – Carry the Moon in My Pocket

Media: District 9

Comic: Arakawa Hiromu – Full Metal Alchemist
荒川弘 鋼の錬金術師

Art: Kato Naoyuki

Non-fiction: Tsukasa Shikano – Sa is for Saiensu (Science)
鹿野司 – サはサイエンスのサ

Open Category: The return of the Hayabusa Probe by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

Both Japanese winners, Yamamoto and Ogawa, have other books published in the US. Yamamoto’s is reviewed here. A review of Ogawa’s book is coming soon.