At the end of the year our goal is to bring the audience some unusual programming, some new outside perspectives on the topics we cover. As with last year, we talk today with science fiction writer, Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Mars Trilogy, 2312, and Shaman.
Known for working with science and technology that are feasible today, Stan goes out on his yet furthest journey into the future with his newest novel, Aurora. As the novel begins, we are with the descendants of a group of people who left our solar system a couple hundred years previously for the solar system of the star Tau Ceti. This star is eleven light years away, and the novel starts as the ship begins “deceleration” with the goal of landing down not on a planet in the “Goldilocks” position, but on that planet’s moon, Aurora. We learn right away that Stan is not really in Gene Roddenberry space here (creator of Star Trek). For once the travelers begin the process of trying to settle, the biology already on Aurora isn’t what you’d call friendly or indifferent.
In Aurora, Stan faces head on a notion we’ve pursued here on Mendelspod: the field's overly reductionist approach to the study of biology. The best example I can think of here came from one of our guests, John Dupre, who asked the question, "if you took all the atoms of an elephant into space and were able to reassemble them, would it still be an elephant?”
No, is Stan’s clear answer with this latest novel.
“This idea that we’ve had for a hundred years, or two thousand years, however long—of travel to the stars: it’s an impossible idea."
Not only does Stan bit by bit deconstruct biology and ecology, arguing that earth’s ecological success has as much to do with it’s size as other factors, he also deconstructs the process of formulating narrative and of novel writing itself. On the spaceship is a computer which over the course of the first part of the book receives extensive training in doing narration. Stan reads from one of these passages where the computer is wrestling with the idea of whether to use metaphor or not.
“A quick literature review suggests the similarities in metaphors are arbitrary, even random. They could be called metaphorical similarities. But no AI likes tautological formulations, because the halting problem can be severe, become a so called “ouroboros” problem, or a whirlpool with no escape. Ah hah, a metaphor.”
In Aurora, Stan is fascinated by problems which underlie current trends in the life science industry. For example, what training will IBM’s Watson need to receive as it is used more and more in the clinic? How important is our microbiome and the environmentalome to our own health?
We also push Stan to talk about the issue of drug pricing. To fully flesh out his ideas, he has to go quite far into a post capitalist society, but he does agree that price controls at this point might be a first tool. As for the power of the new CRISPR gene editing technique, Stan says doing gene drive on humans is an old science fiction idea. "But I always thought that it was a hundred or two hundred years off. So I was wrong. Now we have to decide how to keep it safe, and what we should allow.”
It's a fun time with Kim Stanley Robinson. Enjoy.