Sunday, September 29, 2013

Annalee Newitz, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember

It's a great slogan, we come from the future, and the site's whole aesthetic makes io9.com one of the more reliably interesting sites out there. Annalee Newitz is the site's editor in chief, so frankly she very nearly deserves your cash on that basis alone for her new book Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, but the book's subtitle clinches it: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.

Even if I wasn't teaching a course this spring about fears of the apocalypse, I would've really enjoyed this book. Newitz gives you a great tour of planetary history, emphasizing the five mass extinctions that mark Earth's evolutionary record, then spending lots of time on human evolution over the last million years. Worth writing home about? The section explaining just how narrow is our species diversity, compared to that of mice, and the reasons behind the situation.
xkcd!
But the key to this book is that Newitz keeps reminding you that if we want to think usefully about the future, we need to think about the long term. At a minimum, this means matching our million years of recognizable evolution since H. ergaster with the next million years. En route to our current biology, we've changed a great deal, and since science says that our genes are still undergoing fairly active selection, we might as well think blue-sky about where we'll go next.

At bottom, Newitz' thesis is that we'll be heading for the stars, probably just as soon as we figure out how to build a space elevator. (Mind you, George Dvorsky has explained on Newitz's own site just why we'll probably never build one....) If we don't manage a space elevator, though, we'll either build a singularity or in fact turn into one, and either way, extinction just won't be able to touch us again because we'll be such fricking geniuses that we'll eat the universe to spread everywhere.

When does science become magical thinking, and can it even count as a critique to say that? In amongst all the fascination are batches of staggering arrogance, not Newitz' but of the scientists she interviews, so it's a fun exercise to pick through the egos and ideas. It'd be great if someone humble was right, and if we'll be able to survive indefinitely with humility, but wow, the chances of that seem low.

Me, I'm just going to keep trying to nurse my tomatoes past their blossom end rot; I'll make another batch this fall of crabapple jelly; and I'll wish for genuine humaneness in the world. It can't hurt, can it?

Of course, maybe we should just read David Brin's thoughts about all this, or check in briefly with Pictures for Sad Children, and get over ourselves.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Extinction fiction: book order day

UPDATED, December 2013

So … when I broke English 478 in half and proposed to Continuing Studies that we could offer each half through them to community members, I got the dates backwards. Accordingly, I've had to reverse the intended reading sequence for the main course. If you started reading them out of order, well, great work to get started this early, and I apologize for misleading you.

The sequence below is the official sequence.

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Original post, heavily edited for a corrected sequence
Amazing poster by June Cloud Photo

Time for an update for my extinction fiction course, The End of the Human! The deadline for textbook ordering for January courses was September 20th (the date of this post), so I've had to crystallize some of the possibilities that I've been sharing with people over the last while. There's still lots of time to figure out what kinds of approaches are worth trying with these works, but her's the basic shape for the course, and some tips for what people should buy you for Christmas.

Plus, it's looking like the first and third months of the course will run module-style for Continuing Studies, with a students-only piece in the middle, so here's how the schedule will run (assuming everything goes through!):

Module A: Hope in the Dark
  • the title's drawn from Rebecca Solnit's book of that name (which grew from her brave essay "Acts of Hope"), about the good news we tend not to notice in amongst the genuinely terrible news that's everywhere
  • Cormac McCarthy, The Road
  • PD James, Children of Men
Module B: student choice
  • maybe you want to read Brian Aldiss' 1960s far-future novel Hothouse?
  • maybe you want to read Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield's webcomic Freak Angels?
  • either way, you're free to choose, but the majority choice will get the majority of class time, and I suspect we'll be doing Freak Angels together
Module C: Bring on the apocalypse
  • the title's drawn from George Monbiot's book of that name (based around this essay) emphasizing humanity's self-inflicted wounds
  • Nevil Shute, On the Beach
  • Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake
In the first module, we're looking at two seriously (seriously!) depressing novels, but we're going to be reading them through the frame of Rebecca Solnit's hopefulness. 

In the third module, we're going to be talking about how we've brought apocalypse upon ourselves, and about what that does to our imaginations, especially the way in which it closes down our sense of what we can achieve together.

And in between? Two mad texts to choose from: we'll focus the majority of our class time on the one that the majority of students decide to read, but you'll have to educate the other side a bit about the one you've chosen.

Yeah, I'm looking forward to it -- once this term's two great classes are done, of course!