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Table of Contents Introduction by Vernor Vinge
Probing the Near Future
Stones of Significance
Go Ahead, Stand on My Shoulders! Reality Check
Do We Really Want Immortality? Paris Conquers All (with Gregory Benford)
The Self-Preventing Prophecy Fortitude
The Future Keeps Surprising Us The Diplomacy Guild
Goodbye, Mir! (Sniff!)
The Open-Ended Science Fiction Story News from 2025
Seeking a New Fulcrum
A Professor at Harvard
The Robots and Foundation Universe An Ever-Reddening Glow
We Hobbits Are a Merry Folk The Other Side of the Hill
I first met David Brin in 1980. At that time, Sundiver was already published. David was
finishing up his Ph.D. at UC San Diego. (My years at UCSD did not overlap his, but David wascontinuing the grand tradition of science fiction and fantasy writers who were at thatuniversity: Greg Benford, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ray Feist, Nancy Holder, David Brin, VernorVinge, Suzette Haden Elgin . . . I leave it to others to determine if this marks UCSD as aspecial source of sff writers.)
The '70s and '80s were good years for science fiction in San Diego, with lots of writers andfans and frequent parties. I hadn't yet read Sundiver, but David pressed the typescript draft
of a new novel into my hands. I politely accepted; I knew that Sundiver was a worthwhile book,
so this new manuscript was likely a good story. There was only one problem. I hate novels in
manuscript form. I mean I hate to read them in that form. Maybe it's because that's what myown, incomplete, work looks like. Or maybe it's just that typescript manuscripts don'tencourage a friendly reader/story relationship. The pages get lost (and sometimes are not evennumbered). The homogeneous avalanche of double-spaced text conveys a promise of endlessboredom. (But I admit, things are worse if there are lots of markups, or faint ink. Andhandwritten manuscripts occupy a still lower circle of hell.)
So there I was with this highly legible, but regrettably typescript, novel. It did have a cooltitle, The Tides of Kithrup. But I was very busy and six weeks went by and I hadn't had achance to read it. David gave me a polite telephone call, asking if I had had a chance to lookat his manuscript. "Well, no," I replied. "I'm sorry! Things have been so busy around here.Look, if you need it back right away, I can send it—" David short-circuited this evasion bysaying, "Why don't you keep it another couple of weeks? Even if you can't read more than a partof it, I'd like to hear your comments."
Hmm. Okay, a geas had now been laid upon me. But it was a gracious geas that admitted of an
easy observance. I could read fifty pages, give some honest comment, and be free once more. Ofcourse, that was fifty pages of typescript manuscript by someone whose work I'd never readbefore. But hey, I could put up with that for an hour or so, right?
I dutifully set aside an hour and began slogging through the neatly double-spaced typescript .. . And after a few pages, magic happened. See, the pages became transparent. There was a worldto play in. There was an adventure that accelerated me on past page 50, through the wholenovel. You probably have read this novel yourself. It was published under the title Startide
. It won the Hugo and the Nebula for best science-fiction novel of the year. David wentRising
on to complete the Uplift series and later the new Uplift books. Along the way there were manyother awards and award nominations. The novels have become a secure part of the sf canon of thetwentieth century.
So no one can say that I can't recognize quality—at least if it's hard sf and nova bright. AndI doubt if I will ever again look askance at typescript sf from David Brin.
I later learned that David shows his draft work to a number of people. I show my drafts to fouror five friends who won't bruise my ego too severely. David shows his to dozens of others. Oneof his favorite sayings is that "criticism is the most effective antidote for error." He surelylives by that in his writing. In fact, I think it takes a special clarity of mind to avoid thecontending "too many cooks" syndrome. I admire someone who can sustain that much criticism, andwho also has such openness with his newborn ideas.
In the years since UCSD, David has had various day jobs, including university prof andastronautics consultant. Fortunately for us, his readers, he has not let that get in the way ofhis writing. We have many Brin novels to enjoy, across a range of lengths and topics. He once
he told me his strategy for What to Write Next. He liked to write a long, serious book (perhapsEarth?) and then something lighthearted and short and fun (such as The Practice Effect). I'm
not sure that David is still following this strategy, since his most recent novel (as ofSeptember 2002), Kiln People, is essentially both types of book at the same time.
David Brin's published writing career began with a very successful novel, Sundiver. Initially,
I thought of him solely as a novelist. The success of his novels—and his novel series—mayobscure the fact that all this time he has also been writing short fiction. And the amazingthing is that David Brin often does even better with short fiction than with novels! You'll get
to see a few of his short stories in this NESFA volume. Others are available in Brin'spublished collections (see the bibliography at Al von Ruff's ISFDB:
http://www.sfsite.com/isfdb/index.html). David's background in hard science and hard sf showsin these stories, but often in indirect ways, in setting the stage for seriously weird andsometimes disturbing points of view. Some of the stories are fairly transparent, such as thefunny and logical and optimistic "Giving Plague." Others, such as "Thor Meets Captain America,"are bizarre and effective fantasies. And then there is "Detritus Affected," which builds onsimple words to create a reality that is disturbing and mysterious and percolates for days inyour mind, until you may finally invent a context and consistency.
I have a friend who is a world-class inventor and engineer, about the closest thing you can getin the real world to the stuff of John W. Campbell's "scientist/engineer hero." This fellowlikes science-fiction very much, but recently he made the off-hand assertion that, contrary towhat we sf weenies would like to believe, virtually nothing in science-fiction has presaged the
contemplation of similar ideas within the scientific and engineering communities. Fightingtalk, that. His claim would make an interesting topic for a convention panel, where I think myfriend could make a good case for his position. At the same time, it's certainly true thatscience fiction has caught the imagination of generations of young people and drawn many ofthem into the sciences. Beyond that, a slightly more imperial claim is reasonable: Many sfwriters are voracious skimmers of current science research. Their stories may cross specialtyboundaries and act as tripwires to engage the attention of the real doers in the world. Andsince good stories involve emotions and social context as well as technical ideas, sf writerscan have a greater impact than most other commentators.
Over the last twenty years, David Brin has certainly been this kind of inspirer. But in oneway, David has gone beyond most of his fellows. He's written many essays about wider issues.Some of these are in this NESFA collection. The bright imagination that we see in his fictioncarries over into his essays.
There is a subgenre of Brinnian essay writing that consists of moral criticism of fiction anddrama. (See, for instance, the piece about romanticism and fantasy in this book.) This kind ofessay may be a surprise to some people. "It's just a story!" they might say of the work thatDavid is criticizing. It also takes a certain courage for a writer to undertake such moralcriticism. I write fiction, and I know that sometimes the drama of a story may take it indirections that violate my vision of moral truth. Sometimes I can guide it back, but sometimesI surrender and say to myself, "It's just a fun story." (And at least once, I later ran into afan who praised me because he found what I disliked to be morally positive!) In any case, even
though I don't agree with all of David's moral criticism of stories (for instance, the endingof Bakshi's Wizards is not as purely mean as David says), I find such criticism to be extremelyinteresting. Like Ayn Rand's heartfelt criticism of Plato and Kant, such essays give an edge toissues that usually seem far removed from everyday concerns.
In much of his writing, David Brin looks at hard problems, the kind of problems that turn otherwriters to dark realism or blindly sentimental optimism. But David takes these problems, turnsthem sideways, and tries to see some realistic way that happy solutions might be found. The
most striking and relevant example of this is his nonfiction book, The Transparent Society:
Nowadays, we are confronted with the choice between freedom and safety. Technology has made
appalling breaches of privacy possible, and the arguments on both sides of this state ofaffairs have become steadily more strident. Then David Brin comes along and says, "Well, whatif we lost privacy, but the loss was symmetric?"
Maybe in the past this was an empty question, since surveillance technology favored asymmetry(and favored the elites). Nowadays however, it is quite possible that technology can supportthe "ordinary people" in watching the powerful . . . as well as each other. The resulting lossof privacy is a very scary thing, but there is an sf'nal tradition for considering it (forinstance, the many stories from the '40s and '50s about widespread mental telepathy). The firstyears of such transparency would be very bumpy, but afterwards the world might not be thatdifferent—except that vice laws might be a little less obnoxious, and the worst of the badguysmight be more constrained. I would probably not buy into such a world—except that it may be byfar the happiest outcome of our current dilemma.
Kiln People, takes on the problem ofAt a more abstract level, David's most recent novel,
duplicate beings. Here I don't mean biological clones, but near-perfect copies, even untomemories. This is the stuff of many sf stories (Damon Knight's The People Maker, William F.
Temple's The Four-Sided Triangle . . .). The concept has almost endless possibilities for abuseand tyranny and tragedy. In the past, stories about such duplication have been close tofantasy. More recently, with the possibility of AI and downloads, the idea has moved more intothe realm of hard science fiction. We are nearing the time when the most basic "metaphysical"questions of identity and consciousness may have concrete and practical meaning. In Kiln People
, Brin imagines a (marvelously non-computational) technology to achieve duplication. Theresulting world is partly familiar and partly very strange. But—in the end—much of it seemsmore congenial than ours. I wrote a publicity quote for the novel. Normally it's hard to writeblurbs that meet the exacting standards of publicists. Writing the quote for Kiln People was
easy: Leaving aside the transcendental issues of the ending, Kiln People is simply the deepest
light-hearted sf novel that I'd ever read.
There are very few issues that escape David's advocatorial interest. Many of his ideas are inthe area of sociobiology, how we may harness the beasts within to be engines for good. Oftenhis ideas are couched in flamboyant and colorful terms. (John W. Campbell, Jr., wouldunderstand!) Simply put, David is a brilliant busybody, forever enlisting those around him in
projects that he sees will benefit everyone. Be aware of this. Be prepared to bail out with apolite "No on this one, David." But also be prepared to listen. Because almost always his ideaswill contain sidewise thinking that just might make the world a better place.
Cameras stare across a forbidden desert, monitoring disputed territory in a conflict that is sobitter the opponents cannot even agree what to name it.
One side calls the struggle a war, with countless innocent lives in jeopardy.
The other side claims there are no victims.
And so, suspicious cameras peer and pan, alert for encroachment. Vigilant camouflaged monitorsscan from atop hills or under innocuous piles of stones. They hang beneath highway culverts,probing constantly for a hated enemy. For some time—months, at least—these guardians havesucceeded in staving off incursions across the sandy desolation.
That is, until technology changes yet again, shifting the advantage briefly from defense tooffense.
When the enemy struck this time, their first move was to take out those guardian eyes.
Infiltrators arrived at dawn, under the glare of the rising sun. Several hundred little flyingmachines jetted through the air, skimming very low to the ground on gusts from whisperingmotors. Each device, no larger than a hummingbird, followed a carefully-scouted path toward itsselected target, some stationary camera or sensor. The attackers even looked like native desert
birds, in case they were spotted during those crucial last seconds.
Each little drone landed behind the target, in its blind spot, and unfolded wings thattransformed into a high resolution graphics displays, depicting perfect false images of thesame desert scene. Each robot inserted its illusion in front of the guardian lens—carefully,so as not to create a suspicious flicker. Other small spy-machines sniffed out camouflagedseismic sensors and embraced them gently, providing new cushioning that would mask the tremorsto come.
The robotic attack, covering an area of more than a hundred square kilometers, took only eightminutes to complete. The desert now lay unwatched, undefended.
From over the horizon, giant vehicles started moving in. They converged along several roadwaystoward the same open area—seventeen quiet, hybrid-electric rigs . . . tractor trailersdisguised as commercial cargo transports, complete with company holo-logos blazoned on theirsides. But when their paths intersected at the chosen rendezvous, a more cryptic purposerevealed itself. Crews wearing dun-colored jumpsuits leaped from the cabs to start unlashingcontainer sections. Auxiliary generators set to work. The air began to swirl with shimmeringwaves of exotic stench, as pungent volatiles gushed from storage tanks to fill pressurizedvessels. Electronic consoles sprang to life, and hinged panels fell away from the trailers,revealing long, tapered objects that lay on slanted ramps.
With a steady whine, each cigar shape lifted its nose from horizontal to vertical, aimingskyward, while stabilizer fins popped open at the tail end. Shouts between the work crews grewmore tense as a series of tightly coordinated countdowns commenced. There wouldn't be much timeto spare before the enemy—sophisticated and wary—picked up enough clues and figured out whatwas going on.
Soon every missile was aimed . . . launch sequences engaged . . . and targets acquired. Allthey lacked were payloads.
Abruptly, a dozen figures emerged from an air conditioned van, wearing snug suits of shimmeringmaterial and garishly painted helmets. Each one carried a small satchel that hummed andwhirred, pumping air to keep the suit cool. Several had trouble walking normally. Their gaitseemed rubbery, as if both excited and anxious at the same time. One of the smaller figureseven briefly skipped.
A dour-looking woman wearing a badge and a uniform awaited them, holding a clipboard. Sheconfronted the tallest figure, whose helmet bore a motif of flames surrounding a screamingmouth.
"Name and scan," she demanded in a level tone of voice.
The helmet visor swiveled back, revealing a heavily tanned face, about thirty, with eyes thecolor of a cold sea.
"Hacker Torrey," he said, as her clipboard automatically sought his left iris, reading itsunique patterns to confirm his ID. "And yes," he continued. "I affirm that I'm doing this of myown free will. Can we get on with it?"
"Your permits seem to be in order," she replied, unhurriedly. "Your liability bond and waivershave been accepted. The government won't stand in your way."
The tall man shrugged, as if the statement was both expected and irrelevant. He flung the visorback down. There were other forces to worry about, more formidable than mere government. Forceswho were desperate to prevent what was about to take place here.
At a signal, all of the suited figures rushed to ladders that launch crew members bracedagainst the side of each rocket. Each hurried up the makeshift gantry and, slipping inside anarrow capsule, squirmed into the cramped couch with unconscious grace, having practiced themotions hundreds of times. Even the novices knew exactly what they were doing. What the dangersmight be. The costs and the rewards.
Hatches slammed shut and hissed as they sealed. Muffled shouts could be heard as finalpreparations were completed.
The countdown for the first missile reached zero.
"Yeeeee-haw!" Hacker Torrey shouted, before a violent kick of ignition flattened him againstthe airbed. He had done this several times before, yet the sheer ecstatic rush of this momentbeat anything else on Earth.
Soon, he would no longer even be part of the Earth . . . for a little while.
Seconds passed amid a brutal shaking as the rocket clawed its way skyward. A mammoth handseemed to plant itself on his chest and shove, expelling half the contents of his lungs in a
moan of sweet agony. Friction heat and ionization licked the transparent nose cone just inchesfrom his face. Shooting toward the heavens at Mach 15, he felt pinned, helplessly immobile . .. and completely omnipotent.
I'm a freaking god!
Somehow he drew enough breath to let out another cry—this time a shout of elated greeting asblack space spread before the missile's bubble nose, flecked by a million glittering stars.
Back on the ground, the last rocket was gone. Frenetic cleanup efforts then began, even moreanxious than setup had been. Reports from distant warning posts told of incoming flyingmachines, racing toward the launch site at high speed. Men and women sprinted back and forthacross the scorched desert sand, packing up to depart before the enemy arrived.
Only the government official moved languidly, using computerized scanners, meticulously addingup the damage to vegetation, erodible soils, and tiny animals. It was pretty bad, butlocalized, without appreciable effect on endangered species. A reconditioning service hadalready been called for. Of course that would not satisfy everybody . . . .
She handed over an estimated bill as the last team member revved his hybrid engine, impatientto be off.
"Aw, man!" he complained, reading the total. "Our club will barely break even on this launch!"
"Then pick a less expensive hobby," she replied, and stepped back as the driver gunned histruck, roaring away in a cloud of dust, incidentally crushing one more small barrel cactusenroute to the highway. The vigilant monitoring system in her clipboard noted this and made anaddendum to the excursion society's final bill.
Sitting on the hood of her jeep, she waited for another "club" to arrive. One whose memberswere just as passionate as the rocketeers. Just as skilled and dedicated, even though bothgroups hated each other. Sensors announced they were near, coming fast from the west—radicalenvironmentalists whose no-compromise aim was to preserve nature at all costs.
The official knew what to expect when they arrived, frustrated to find their opponents gone andtwo acres of precious desert singed. She was going to get another tongue-lashing for being"evenhanded" in a situation where so many insisted you could only choose sides.
Oh well, she thought. It takes a thick skin to work in government nowadays. Nobody thinks you
.matter much. They don't respect us like in the old days
Looking up, she watched the last of the rocket contrails start to shear apart, ripped bystratospheric winds. For some reason it always tugged the heart. And while her intellectualsympathies lay closer to the eco-enthusiasts, a part of her deep inside thrilled each time shewitnessed one of these launches. So ecstatic—almost orgiastic—and joyfully unrestrained.
"Go!" She whispered with a touch of secret envy toward the distant glitters, already arcingover the pinnacle of their brief climb and starting their long plummet toward the Gulf ofMexico.
Hacker Torrey found out something was wrong, just after the stars blurred out.
New flames flickered around the edges of his heat shield, probing every crevice, seeking a wayinside. These flickers announced the start of re-entry, one of the best parts of this expensiveride, when his plummeting capsule would shake and resonate, filling every blood vessel withmore exhilaration than you could get anywhere this side of New Vegas. Some called this the new"superextreme hobby" . . . more dangerous than any other sport and much too costly for anybodybut an elite to afford. That fact attracted some rich snobs, who bought tickets just to provethey could, and wound up puking in their respirators or screaming in terror during the longplunge back to Earth.
As far as Hacker was concerned, those fools only got what they deserved. The whole point ofhaving money was to do stuff with it! And if you weren't meant to ride a rocket, you couldalways find a million other hobbies . . . .
An alarm throbbed. He didn't hear it—his eardrums had been drugged and clamped to protect themduring the flight. Instead, he felt the tremor through a small implant in his lower jaw. In asimple pulse code the computer told him.
GUIDANCE SYSTEM ERROR . . .
FLIGHT PATH CORRECTION MISFIRED . . .
CALCULATING TRAJECTORY TO NEW IMPACT ZONE . . .
"What?" Hacker shouted, though the rattle and roar of re-entry tore away his words. "To hellwith that! I paid for a triple redundancy system—"
He stopped, realizing it was pointless to scream at the computer, which he had installedhimself, after all.
"Call the pickup boats and tell them—"
COMMUNICATION SYSTEM ENCRYPTION ERROR . . .
UNABLE TO UPLOAD PRE-ARRANGED SPECTRUM SPREAD . . .
UNABLE TO CONTACT RECOVERY TEAMS . . .
"Override encryption! Send in the clear. Acknowledge!"
No answer came. The pulses in his jaw dissolved into a plaintive, juttering rhythm as sub-processors continued their mysterious crapout. Hacker cursed, pounding the wall of the capsulewith his fist. Most amateur rocketeers spent years building their own sub-orbital craft, butHacker had paid plenty for a "first class" pro model. Someone would answer for thisincompetence!
Of course he'd signed waivers. Hacker would have little recourse under the InternationalExtreme Sports Treaty. But there were fifty thousand private investigation and enforcementservices on Earth. He knew a few that would bend the uniform ethics guidelines of the CopGuild, if paid enough in advance.
"You are gonna pay for this!" He vowed, without knowing yet who should get the brunt of hisvengeance. The words were only felt as raw vibrations in his throat. Even the sonic pickups inhis mandible hit their overload set points and cut out, as turbulence hit a level matching any
The angle of re-entry isn't ideal anymore, hehe had ever known . . . then went beyond.
realized. And these little sport-capsules don't leave much margin.
I could be a very rich cinder . . . any moment now.
The realization added a new dimension that had not been there during any of his previousamateur sub-orbital flights. One part of Hacker actually seemed to relish a novel experience,scraping each nerve with a howling veer past death. Another portion could not let go of thegalling fact that somebody had goofed. He wasn't getting what he'd paid for.
The world still shook and harsh straps tugged his battered body when Hacker awoke. Only now theswaying, rocking motion seemed almost restful, taking him back to childhood, when his familyused to "escape civilization" on their trimaran wingsail yacht, steering its stiff, uprightairfoil straight through gusts that would topple most other wind-driven vessels.
"Idiots!" Hacker's father used to grumble, each time he veered the agile craft to avoidingcolliding with some day-tripper who didn't grasp the concept of right-of-way. "The only ones
out here used to be people like us, who were raised for this sort of thing. Now the robofacsmake so much stuff, even fancy boats, and everybody's got so much free time. Nine billion damn
!"tourists crowding everywhere. It's impossible to find any solitude
"The price of prosperity, dear," his mother would reply, more soft-heartedly. "At least
."everybody's getting enough to eat now. And there's no more talk of revolution
"But look at the result! This mad craze for hobbies! Everybody's got to be an expert at
best at something! I tell you it was better when people had to work hard tosomething. The
"Except for people like us?"
"Exactly," Father had answered, ignoring his wife's arch tone. "Look how far we have to go
."nowadays, just to have someplace all to ourselves
The old man's faith in rugged self-reliance extended to the name he insisted on giving theirson. And Hacker inherited—along with about a billion New Dollars—the same quest. To dowhatever it took to find someplace all his own.
As blurry vision returned, he saw that the space pod lay tilted more than halfway over to itsside. It's not supposed to do that, he thought. It should float upright.
A glance to the left explained everything. Ocean surrounded the capsule, but part of thecharred heat shield was snagged on a reef of coral branches and spikes that stretched far tothe distance, filled with bright fish and undulating subsea vegetation. Nearby, he saw theparasail chute that had softened final impact. Only now, caught by ocean currents, itrhythmically tugged at Hacker's little refuge. With each surge, the bubble canopy plungedcloser to a craggy coral outcrop. Soon it struck hard. He did not hear the resulting loud bang,but it made the implant in his jaw throb. Hacker winced, reflexively.
Fumbling, he released the straps and fell over, cringing in pain. That awful re-entry wouldleave him bruised for weeks. And yet . . .
And yet, I'll have the best story to tell. No one will be able to match it!
The thought made him feel so good, Hacker decided maybe he wouldn't take everything, when hesued whoever was responsible for the capsule malfunction. Providing the pickup boats came soon,that is.
The bubble nose struck coral again, rattling his bones. A glance told him a hard truth.Materials designed to withstand launch and re-entry stresses might not resist sharp impacts. An
ominous crack began to spread.
Standard advice was to stay put and wait for pickup, but this place would be a coffin soon.
I better get out of here.
Hacker flipped his helmet shut and grabbed the emergency exit lever. A reef should mean an
island's nearby. Maybe mainland. I'll hoof it ashore, borrow someone's phone, and start dishing
Only there was no island. Nothing lay in sight but more horrible reef.
Hacker floundered in a choppy undertow. The skin-suit was strong, and his helmet had been madeof Gillstuff—semi-permeable to draw oxygen from seawater. The technology prevented drowning ascurrents kept yanking him down. But repeated hits by coral outcrops would turn him intohamburger meat soon.
Once, a wave carried him high enough to look around. Ocean, and more ocean. The reef must be adrowned atoll. No boats. No land. No phone.
Sucked below again, he glimpsed the space capsule, caught in a hammer-and-vice wedge andgetting smashed to bits. I'm next, he thought, trying to swim for open water, but with each
surge he was drawn closer to the same deadly site. Panic clogged his senses as he thrashed andkicked the water, fighting it like some overpowering enemy. Nothing worked, though. Hackercould not even hear his own terrified moans, though the jaw implant kept throbbing with clicks,pulses and weird vibrations, as if the sea had noticed his plight and now watched with detachedinterest.
Here it comes, he thought, turning away, knowing the next wave cycloid would smash him againstthose obdurate, rocky spikes.
Suddenly, he felt a sharp poke in the backside. Too early! Another jab, then another, struckthe small of his back, feeling nothing like coral. His jaw ached with strange noise as someoneor something started pushing him away from the coral anvil. In both panic and astonishment,
Hacker whirled to glimpse a sleek, bottle-nosed creature interposed between him and the deadlyreef, regarding him curiously, them moving to jab him again with a narrow beak.
This time, he heard his own moan of relief. A dolphin! He reached out for salvation . . . and
after a brief hesitation, the creature let Hacker wrap his arms all around. Then it kicked hardwith powerful tail flukes, carrying him away from certain oblivion.