Would You Go Back to 1889 and Take Out Baby Hitler?: Time-Travel Expert James Gleick Answers the Philosophical Question

The vast majority of us have no inclination to kill anyone, much less a small child. But what if we had the chance to kill baby Adolf Hitler, preventing the Holocaust and indeed the Second World War? That hypothetical question has endured for a variety of reasons, touching as it does on the concepts of genocide and infant murder in forms even more highly charged than usual. It also presents, in the words of Time Travel: A History author James Gleick, "two problems at once. There's a scientific problem — you can set your mind to work imagining, 'Could such a thing be possible and how would that work?' And then there's an ethical problem. 'If I could, would I, should I?'"

By the simplest analysis, writes Vox's Dylan Matthews, the question comes down to, "Is it ethical to kill one person to save 40-plus million people?" But time-travel fiction has been around long enough that we've all internalized the message that it's not quite so simple. We can even question the assumption that killing baby Hitler would prevent the Holocaust and World War II in the first place.

Maybe those terrible events happen on any timeline, regardless of whether Hitler lives or dies: that would align with the Novikov self-consistency principle, which holds that "time travel could be possible, but must be consistent with the past as it has already taken place," and which has been dramatized in time-travel stories from La Jetée to The Terminator.

Gleick doesn't have a straight answer in the Vox video on the killing-baby-hitler question above as to whether he himself would go back to 1889 and put baby Hitler out of action. "When you change history," he says of the moral of the countless many time travel stories he's read, "you don't get the result you're looking for. Every day, everything we do is a turning point in history, whether it's obvious to us or not." This in contrast to former Florida governor and United States presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who, when he had the big baby-Hitler question put to him by the Huffington Post, returned a hearty "Hell yea I would." But given time to reflect, even he concluded that such an act "could have a dangerous effect on everything else." It appears that some of the lessons of time-travel stories have been learned, but as for what humanity will do if it actually develops time-travel technology — maybe we'd rather not peer into the future to find out.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Watch Six New Short Alien Films: Created to Celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Ridley Scott’s Film

Alien came out 40 years ago this month, not that its age shows in the least. The terror of the ever-diminishing crew of the Nostromo trapped on their ship with the merciless extraterrestrial monster of the title remains as visceral as it was in 1979, and the dank, pre-digital confines of its setting have taken on a retro patina that successive generations of filmmakers struggle to recreate for themselves.

Now, in a series of brand new short films set in the Alien universe, you can see how six young filmmakers pay tribute to Ridley Scott's original film and its cinematic legacy, each in their own way. These shorts come as the fruits of an initiative launched by 20th Century Fox to mark 40 years of Alien.

"Developed by emerging filmmakers selected from 550 submissions on the Tongal platform," writes Collider's Dave Trumbore, "the anniversary initiative focused on finding the biggest fans of the Alien franchise to create new, thrilling stories for the Alien fandom."

These stories include many of the elements that fandom has come to expect — isolated and endangered spacefarers, bleak colonies on distant planets, tough women, fearsome creatures lurking in the darkness, escape pods, chest-bursting — as well a few it hasn't. Indiewire's Michael Nordine highlights Noah Miller's Alone, "which follows a woman named Hope who’s hurtling through space on her lonesome. She eventually gains access to a restricted part of her ship after a system malfunction, and you can probably guess what’s on the other side of that sealed-off door." But you certainly won't be able to guess what happens next.

Nordine also has praise for the protagonist of the Spears Sisters’ Ore: "A miner about to welcome her latest grandchild, she puts herself in harm’s way rather than risk letting the latest alien specimen make it out of the mine and threaten the colony (and, more to the point, her family) above. That’s a simple, familiar tack, but it’s well told — something true of most Alien stories."  Collectively, he writes, these shorts "emphasize what makes Alien such an enduring franchise: its industrial, working-class environs full of clunky green-screen computers and disgruntled laborers; its bleak view of the corporate bureaucrats who enable the xenomorphs’ carnage by trying to control them and writing off their underlings as collateral damage; and, of course, its heroines."

Taking pitches from fans through a crowdsourcing platform and distributing the resulting films on Youtube may seem like an almost parodically 21st-century way of extending a franchise that began in the 1970s, but testing out different filmmakers' visions has long been a part of the greater Alien project: the sequels directed in the 1980s and 90s by James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet hinted at the great variety of possibilities laid down by Scott's original, the cinematic standard-bearer for the contest of wills between man and alien — or rather, woman and alien.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

9 Science-Fiction Authors Predict the Future: How Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, William Gibson, Philip K. Dick & More Imagined the World Ahead

Pressed to give a four-word definition of science fiction, one could do worse than "stories about the future." That stark simplification does the complex and varied genre a disservice, as the defenders of science fiction against its critics won't hesitate to claim. And those critics are many, including most recently the writer Ian McEwan, despite the fact that his new novel Machines Like Me is about the introduction of intelligent androids into human society. Sci-fi fans have taken him to task for distancing his latest book from a genre he sees as insufficiently concerned with the "human dilemmas" imagined technologies might cause, but he has a point: set in an alternate 1982, Machines Like Me isn't about the future but the past.

Then again, perhaps McEwan's novel is about the future, and the androids simply haven't yet arrived on our own timeline — or perhaps, like most enduring works of science fiction, it's ultimately about the present moment. The writers in the sci-fi pantheon all combine a heightened awareness of the concerns of their own eras with a certain genuine prescience about things to come.

Writing in the early 1860s, Jules Verne imagined a suburbanized 20th century with gas-powered cars, electronic surveillance, fax machines and a population at once both highly educated and crudely entertained. Verne also included a simple communication system that can't help but remind us of the internet we use today — a system whose promise and peril Neuromancer author William Gibson described on television more than 130 years later.

In the list below we've rounded up Verne and Gibson's predictions about the future of technology and humanity along with those of seven other science-fiction luminaries. Despite coming from different generations and possessing different sensibilities, these writers share not just a concern with the future but the ability to express that concern in a way that still interests us, the denizens of that future. Or rather, something like that future: when we hear Aldous Huxley predict in 1950 that "during the next fifty years mankind will face three great problems: the problem of avoiding war; the problem of feeding and clothing a population of two and a quarter billions which, by 2000 A.D., will have grown to upward of three billions, and the problem of supplying these billions without ruining the planet’s irreplaceable resources," we can agree with the general picture even if he lowballed global population growth by half.

In 1964, Arthur C. Clarke predicted not just the internet but 3D printers and trained monkey servants. In 1977, the more dystopian-minded J.G. Ballard came up with something that sounds an awful lot like modern social media. Philip K. Dick's timeline of the years 1983 through 2012 includes Soviet satellite weapons, the displacement of oil as an energy source by hydrogen, and colonies both lunar and Martian. Envisioning the world of 2063, Robert Heinlein included interplanetary travel, the complete curing of cancer, tooth decay, and the common cold, and a permanent end to housing shortages. Even Mark Twain, despite not normally being regarded as a sci-fi writer, imagined a "'limitless-distance' telephone" system introduced and "the daily doings of the globe made visible to everybody, and audibly discussable too, by witnesses separated by any number of leagues."

As much as the hits impress, they tend to be outnumbered in even science fiction's greatest minds by the misses. But as you'll find while reading through the predictions of these nine writers, what separates science fiction's greatest minds from the rest is the ability to come up with not just interesting hits but interesting misses as well. Considering why they got right what they got right and why they got wrong what they got wrong tells us something about the workings of their imaginations, but also about the eras they did their imagining in — and how their times led to our own, the future to which so many of them dedicated so much thought.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Isaac Asimov Predicts the Future of Civilization–and Recommends Ways to Ensure That It Survives (1978)

When we talk about what could put an end to civilization today, we usually talk about climate change. The frightening scientific research behind that phenomenon has, apart from providing a seemingly infinite source of fuel for the blaze of countless political debates, also inspired a variety of dystopian visions, credible and otherwise, of no small number of science-fiction writers. One wonders what a science-fictional mind of, say, Isaac Asimov's caliber would make of it. Asimov died in 1992, a few years before climate change attained the presence in the zeitgeist it has today, but we can still get a sense of his approach to thinking about these kinds of literally existential questions from his 1978 talk above.

When people talked about what could put an end to civilization in 1978, they talked about overpopulation. A decade earlier, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, whose early editions opened with these words: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate." With these and other grim pronouncements lodged in their minds, the bestselling book's many readers saw humanity faced with a stark choice: let that death rate increase, or proactively lower the birth rate.

A decade later, Asimov frames the situation in the same basic terms, though he shows more optimism — or at least inventiveness — in addressing it, supported by the workings of his powerful imagination. This isn't to say that the images he throws out are exactly utopian: he sees humanity, growing at then-current rates, ultimately housed in "one world-girdling skyscraper, partially apartment houses, partially factories, partially all kinds of things — schools, colleges — and the entire ocean taken out of its bed and placed on the roof, and growing algae or something like that. Because all those people will have to be fed, and the only way they can be fed is to allow no waste whatever."

This necessity will be the mother of such inventions as "thick conduits leading down into the ocean water from which you take out the algae and all the other plankton, or whatever the heck it is, and you pound it and you separate it and you flavor it and you cook it, and finally you have your pseudo-steak and your mock veal and your healthful sub-vegetables and so on." Where to get the nutrients to fertilize the growth of more algae? "Only from chopped-up corpses and human wastes." It would probably interest Asimov, and certainly amuse him, to see how much research into algae-based food goes on here in the 21st century (let alone the popularity of an algae-utilizing meal replacement beverage called Soylent). But however delicious all those become, humanity will need more to live: energy, space, and yes, a comfortable ambient temperature.

Asimov's suite of proposed solutions, the explanation of which he spins into high and often prescient entertainment, includes birth control, solar power, lunar mining, and the repurposing of some of the immense budget spent on "war machines." The volume of applause in the room shows how heartily some agreed with him then, and perspectives like Asimov's have drawn more adherents in the more than 40 years since, about a decade after Asimov confidently predicted that the world would run out of oil,  a time when an increasing number of developed countries have begun to worry about their falling birthrates. But then, Asimov also imagined that Mount Everest was unconquerable because Martians lived on top of it in a story published a seven months after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made it up there — a fact he made a rule of cheerfully admitting whenever he started with the predictions.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Pioneering Sci-Fi Author William Gibson Predicts in 1997 How the Internet Will Change Our World

"What's the one thing that all great works of science fiction have in common?" asks a 1997 episode of The Net, the BBC's television series about the possibilities of this much-talked-about new thing called the internet. "They all tried to see into the future, and they all got it wrong. Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: all, to some extent or other, wrong. And there's another name to add to this list: William Gibson." But then on strolls Gibson himself, fresh off the writing of Idoru, a novel involving a human who wants to marry a digitally generated Japanese pop star, to grant the interview above.

In it Gibson admits that computers hadn't gone quite the way he'd imagined thirteen years earlier in his debut novel Neuromancer — but in which he also offers prescient advice about how we should regard new technology even today. "The thing that Neuromancer predicts as being actually like the internet isn't actually like the internet at all!" Gibson says in a more recent interview with Wired. "I didn't get it right but I said there was going to be something." Back in the mid-1980s, as he tells the BBC, "there was effectively no internet to extrapolate from. The cyberspace I made up isn't being used in Neuromancer the way we're using the internet today."

Gibson had envisioned a corporate-dominated network infested with "cybernetic car thieves skulking through it attempting to steal tidbits of information." By the mid-1990s, though, the internet had become a place where "a really talented and determined fifteen-year-old" could create something more compelling than "a multinational entertainment conglomerate might come up with." He tells the BBC that "what the internet has become is as much a surprise to me as the collapse of the Soviet Union was," but at that point he had begun to perceive the shape of things to come. "I can't see why it won't become completely ubiquitous," he says, envisioning its evolution "into something like television to the extent that it penetrates every level of society."

At the same time, "it doesn't matter how fast your modem is if you're being shelled by ethnic separatists" — still very much a concern in certain parts of the world — and even the most promising technologies don't merit our uncritical embrace. "I think we should respect the power of technology and try to fear it in a rational way," he says. "The only appropriate response" is to give in to neither technophobia nor technophilia, but "to teach ourselves to be absolutely ambivalent about them and imagine their most inadvertent side effects," the side effects "that tend to get us" — not to mention the ones that make the best plot elements. Seeing as how we now live in a world where marriage to synthetic Japanese idols has become a possibility, among other developments seemingly pulled from the pages of Gibson's novels, we would do well to heed even these decades-old words of advice about his main subject.

via Big Think

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Daily Routine: The Discipline That Fueled Her Imagination

ursula k le guin writing advice

Image by Gorthian, via Wikimedia Commons

"Some of us are Norman Mailer," said Ursula K. LeGuin in a 1976 interview with science-fiction fanzine Luna Monthly, "but others of us are middle-aged Portland housewives." And though Le Guin may have thought of herself as one of the latter, "middle-aged Portland housewife" is hardly the way the rest of us would describe her. Over a nearly 60-year-long career, Le Guin produced an enormous body of literary work, including but not limited to the six books in which she created the world of Earthsea and other acclaimed sci-fi novels like The Left Hand of DarknessThe Dispossessed, and The Lathe of Heaven. And somehow she managed to write all of it between 7:15 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. each day.

Or that's what her ideal writing schedule dictates, anyway. Recently tweeted out by writer Michael J. Seidlinger as "the ideal writing routine," it first appeared in an interview she gave in 1988 (and more recently reappeared in Ursula Le Guin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations).

Beginning at the early hour of 5:30 in the morning, the time to "wake up and lie there and think," it continues on to breakfast — and "lots" of it — at 6:15, and the commencement of the day's "writing, writing, writing" an hour later, which lasts until lunch at noon. After that, Le Guin considered what we consider her main work to be done, moving on to such pursuits as reading, music, correspondence, "maybe house cleaning," and dinner. Past 8:15, she said, "I tend to be very stupid," a state in which nobody could write the sort of books we remember her for.

But however originally she wrote, Le Guin was hardly exceptional in living this way while doing it. "Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work," said Gustave Flaubert, a maxim true for enough writers that we also worked it in when we featured an infographic on the daily routines of famous creative people. In both Flaubert and Le Guin's case (or in the case of a writer like Haruki Murakami, who rises famously early and runs famously hard when working on a book), their domestic lives, well-ordered to the point that an outside observer would find them boring, facilitated the creation of literature like none that had ever come before. This despite the fact that, on the surface, few novels could seem more dissimilar than Flaubert and Le Guin's, but each writer would have seen what the other had in common: specifically, that they knew what it took to get the imagination well and truly fired up.

via Michael J. Seidlinger

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Oodles of Classic Doctor Who Episodes Streaming Free Online This Month

A quick fyi: This month, Twitch is presenting a marathon streaming of classic Doctor Who episodes. Continuing through January 25th, they plan to broadcast "11 to 12 hours of new episodes per day (~27 episodes), repeating once so you can catch Doctor Who nearly 24 hours a day, every day..." Stream the episodes right above, or here on Twitch.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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via BoingBoing

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