Wired.com: Why David Brin Hates Yoda, Loves Radical Transparency

David Brin is one of my favorite modern science-fiction authors. Not only is he one of the famous killer “Bs” ( Benford, Bear and Brin ), he is a real scientist in his own right ( astrophysicist ).

In this interview by Wired, Brin not only voices his displeasure with Star Wars, he claims SETI is doing things wrong as well:

Best-selling author and futurist David Brin doesn’t mince words when it comes to
his disdain for Yoda, the diminutive sage of the Star Wars saga.

“I consider Yoda to be just about the most evil character that I’ve ever seen in the history of literature,” says Brin in this week’s episode of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

Brin is just as unsparing when it comes to Star Wars creator George Lucas, whom he accuses of peddling “romantic claptrap about how demigods and mystic warriors are better than democracy.”

For Brin, narratives that glorify the prerogative of an elite caste are no trivial matter. His 1998 book The Transparent Society argues that current notions of privacy allow the rich to operate in secret as they dismantle democracy. “Unless we have radical transparency in human civilization,” says Brin, “this attempted putsch by a new aristocracy is going to succeed.”

Read our complete interview with David Brin below, in which he explains why SETI is doing it wrong, muses about whether self-righteous indignation is a form of addiction, and talks about his epic new first-contact novel, Existence. Or listen to the interview in Episode 66 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above), which also features a discussion between hosts John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley and guest geek Rob Bland about Batman in film, comics and television.

Wired: Tell us about your new novel, Existence. What’s it about?

David Brin:Existence is about the world of roughly 2050, and terrible things have happened, but guess what? People have reacted to the terrible things by coping, as they always have. They’re dealing with it. They’re dealing with living in a world of augmented reality, where you’d step outside and you can scroll through all the overlays of augmented reality that are laid upon the surface world. Google Glass is just heading us down in that direction, but I take it 40 years into the future.

The book is set against what I consider to be the fundamental quandary of our age, and that’s the Fermi paradox — the notion that the universe ought to be filled with all sorts of lifeforms, species that came out onto the galactic stage before us, and we see no signs of them, not even in the rocks of the Earth. The Earth was prime real estate for 2 billion years, with an oxygen atmosphere and nothing living on land higher than slime molds, so why didn’t the Independence Day aliens show up then, instead of when we happened to be able to defend ourselves?

And this astronaut in my novel, in the first chapter he’s out there using a space lariat — a tethered device that NASA’s actually developing — to remove space debris so that that form of pollution doesn’t destroy our access to low-Earth orbit. He snags something very unusual, and it appears to be a crystal, about a meter long, and it appears to be a message in a bottle. It appears to have been sent by other civilizations. And so the question — is it a hoax? What might the motives be of the aliens that appear to be inside?

Wired: Neal Stephenson has said that some mainstream critics have accused him of being grandiose for titling his novel The System of the World. Have you heard from any of those same critics about titling your novel Existence?

Brin: Not really, except in a joking way. I mean, there are people who say, “Well, Brin, you better live up to this.” And I’m pleased to say most of them have written back to me saying grudgingly, “Oh, all right, you did.” But there’s always going to be snarkers out there, and my answer to them — if they have useful criticism that I can learn from — my response is, “Great! Would you like to join my collection of pre-readers who catch mistakes? Next time you might be able to catch it in manuscript.”

Wired: This book predicts that bags of urine might be worth something in the future. Given the current economic situation, would you advise that we all dump our stocks and invest in urine instead?

Brin: The great phosphorous mines of Florida are being tapped out, and soon it’ll be just Morocco and a couple other places that have large phosphate beds left, and so in my novel it’s posited that in 40 years or so, men are expected to either pee outside, or into phos-urinals that collect the phosphorous.

Wired: In Existence, an autism plague features prominently. Why does autism interest you and what approach should we be taking to dealing with it?

Brin: The rate of discovery of autistic syndrome — or autistic spectrum syndrome — is rapidly rising. Some of it may be due to better diagnosis, and some may be due to environmental factors. I posit in the book that some of it may be simply due to the fact that they’re not dying anymore, but instead starting to flourish in a world where the online opportunities to express themselves are computer-mediated and possibly enable them to lead productive lives. In which case the question is, are they sick at all? Well, I think parts of the spectrum are obviously crippled and unhappy, but how many parts of that spectrum? Well, that’s an interesting question. Ask some of the internet billionaires, who are clearly from Planet Asperger.

Wired: The book also explores the idea that self-righteous indignation might be a form of addiction. Could you talk a bit about that?

Brin: I actually gave a talk at the National Institute for Drug and Addiction on this very topic. Believe it or not, I still do science. I was trained as an astrophysicist, but I do guerrilla raids into little areas of science that are outside my expertise, and I’m pleased to be a member of a civilization that puts up with that. The boundaries that were so rigidly defended — guild boundaries of scientific specialty — are no longer as fiercely defended as they were, and one piece of evidence of that is that we just won the right to establish the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UCSD. It’s going to be very exciting. And all the deans from all the divisions and departments at UCSD signed on to participate in this bold new endeavor that will study imagination and how it works in human beings, from neuroscience to the arts to education — especially education — and how to engender and encourage it. So keep your eyes and ears open for more information about the Arthur Clarke center.

The idea that autism is actually part of evolutionary process is interesting, but in Brin’s classic “uplift” novels, the evolutionary process is thrown under the bus.

All in all, ‘Existence‘ sounds like it would be a great modern hard sci-fi read and I would love to see how it could fit in his “Uplift” Universe.

Why David Brin Hates Yoda, Loves Radical Transparency

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