Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Kim Stanley Robinson:

Stan was here at the National Science Foundation (NSF) on June 16th, giving a brown bag lecture (of course he was also here to promote his latest book Forty Signs of Rain, but I´ll give him the benefit of the doubt...).

Several of his latest works have been influenced by his interactions with the NSF. Antarctica, Forty Signs of Rain, and its sequels (still to come) all deal with NSF, the science we fund, and our decision process.

Stan has tried to promote a positive view of science and technology, and the roles they play in society. His interest is in the uses to which S&T are put, within the context of wider social interactions and political contexts. The villains here are not the science and technology themselves, but the system within which they operate. He consciously tries to improve his readers' understanding of science - but I think he knows he is usually preaching to the choir.

Stan sees science as outside the capitalist system. In his view, and in his new book, scientists do all their reviewing of proposals for free, and for the greater good of the system. It's not quite that simple - the Federal Government does pay for the time that people spend reviewing proposals, if they spend that time in a review panel, rather than reviewing proposals from their home base, via the internet. Otherwise, his description of the review process (at least at NSF) is quite accurate. My job is very much like that of the protagonist. Only in Stan´s story, the protagonist tries to explicitly influence the selection process, while in real life all of us spend a great deal of time trying to minimize our own influence on the process until the very end, when we actually make a funding recommendation to the bean-counters that cut the Federal checks, based on a process that is as unbiased as possible.

However, science as supported by NSF is very much within the capitalist system. It might sometimes appear that it exists within its own cocoon, but it has a fairly brutal system for selection that is driven by money. If you can´t bring sufficient money into your university or research lab, you are eventually forced out, or starved. "Publish or perish," goes the saying, and you have to publish to be able to get your proposals through the review system, because the NSF review process looks at the publications record among other things as an indication that you a) are active, b) are productive, and c) are actually competent.

There are other funders of science within the Federal system that are more prone to political pressures or simply idiotic decision processes. I used to work for one of them. I once visited a satellite downlink station in West Virginia, and was stunned to see rack after rack of high-capacity batteries in the basement. Thousands of them. When I asked what was going on, the guide sheepishly explained that when language for the funding of the station had been included in legislation, some Senator's non-technical aide had included a phrase something like "the system shall ensure that 99.999% of the data from the satellite will be captured," without realizing what the engineering implications of 99.999% were. The law is the law. The result was a sextuple-redundancy against power failure, and several thousand batteries in a basement, with a 0.001% probability of ever being used. One guess as to who the Senator was.

At the same Agency, I also once participated in a meeting to decide what to do with some remaining funds. Our choices were as follows: to process the Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data from a first Shuttle flight, or to fly the SAR experiment again and not process any data. The next report to the Congress had the triumphant statement "Shuttle flies two successful SAR missions." One guess as to what Agency that was.

Sigh. But I digress.

In the Forty Days book, Stan talks about a poster in the hallway promoting a talk at NSF with the title "Antarctica as Utopia" - the inside joke here was that that talk really did happen - it was the title of his previous 'brown bag' here at NSF, when he came to talk about his book Antarctica, which he was able to write after having participated in NSF's Antarctic Artists & Writers Program.

Apparently the idea for the plot of Antarctica came to him as he sat on the Shackleton Glacier. I'm glad we were able to help - I wish I could get sent to Antarctica to sit on my duff and come up with ideas. I might get cold but I bet I´d be productive...

Stan had actually applied to the program the year before, in an attempt to get to the Dry Valleys and what he thought would be the closest approximation to conditions on Mars, since he was in the middle of writing his Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars trilogy. But NSF turned him down, stating that the Artists and Writer's Program was for people to produce works about Antarctica, and not about Mars. Always adaptable, Stan decided that his next book would be about Antarctica, and reapplied. And that is exactly how the process works - you take feedback from a review, and resubmit. With success rates for proposals between 10% and 30% depending on the program, most applicants know they may have to submit several times before making it through peer-review.

We did get Stan to comment on Stephen Hunter´s movie The Day After Tomorrow. His dismissal of it was quick: he felt it was silly, and a disservice to science. Apparently he was so distracted by the small details that were inconsistent (if it's supposed to be cold, why does no-one wear gloves?), that he couldn't concentrate on the plot. He also felt the character development was really poor, in that we are all grey - a mix of good and bad, rather than black and white. His phrase was "in the real world, we have all been Gollum," and he has tried to develop that theme in his stories.

NPR's All Things Considered sent Richard Harris, their science correspondent, to see The Day After Tomorrow rather than their usual movie reviewers. Harris' report on the movie was quite amusing with a repeated sound-bite, "...that´s unbelievable..." being played over and over. And although much of what the movie portrays is in fact scientifically un-believable, there are parts of it that are actually true - while the climate could not possibly change in a matter of days, it could well change this drastically in a matter of decades.

Stan also discussed science fiction versus fantasy as genres, and predictably he felt that at least his SF was less escapist. One interesting criticism he had of hard SF was of authors that use Star-Trek like exit strategies for situations, for example using nano-technology to do things that are physically impossible, or introducing them incongruously. These tactics often resulted in stories that were "loose cannons" and did more to raise the level of fear of technology in the general public than to raise understanding.

I tried to get him to expand on his book Years of Rice and Salt which is an alternate history where Christian Europe gets wiped out by the Black Death, and the resulting next several thousand years are dominated by Muslim, Buddhist and Animist cultures - because I knew he was in the middle of writing it when 9/11 occurred. But he demurred, and I had to leave before the session was over to host a conference call.

One other item of note - Stan wanted feedback on the Forty Days story from us so that he could change the story before it went into paperback. He really is interested in accuracy.

99.999% accuracy.


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