Archive for November, 2012

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Kim Stanley Robinson on 2312

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

Winner of multiple awards including Hugo and Nebula, Kim Stanley Robinson is an American Science Fiction writer, popularly known for his award-winning Mars trilogy. Based on ecological and sociological themes, his novels appear to be the direct result of his scientific fascinations that he explored during his years of research on the planet Mars. For his major achievements as a Sci-fi writer, in 2010, Robinson was called to be the guest of honor at the 68th World Science Fiction Convention, held in Melbourne, Australia.

With nominations on twenty-nine occasions, Robinson’s novels have won eleven major Science Fiction awards. He won the Hugo Award for Best Novel with Green Mars (1994); and Blue Mars (1997); the Nebula Award for Best Novel with Red Mars (1993); a John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel with Pacific Edge (1991); and Locus Awards for The Wild Shore (1985), A Short, Sharp Shock (1991), Green Mars (1994), Blue Mars (1997), The Martians (2000), and The Years of Rice and Salt (2003).

In his latest novel, 2312, Robinson takes us across the Solar System to investigate the destruction of a habitation on Mercury and its unfolding consequences that ripple through human occupied space from the neighborhoods of the Sun to Saturn.

We recently got an opportunity to expose some questions to KSR on his latest novel 2312, including a few personal queries of public-interest. Here go the excerpts from the interview:

Give a brief review of 2312 for the readers who are yet to read the book.

2312 is set around that year, throughout the solar system.  It tells the story of two people, one from Mercury, one from Saturn, who travel together to Earth and throughout the solar system to solve the mystery of the destruction of the only city on Mercury, which runs on tracks in the zone of the dawn.  Artificial intelligences on the loose seem to be responsible, but what are they, and how can they be stopped?

What is the central theme of the book?

That human beings are on the edge of really big changes, both for better and for worse, all happening at the same time.  When you think of how much has changed in the last 300 years, and then multiply that by however many times, and cast that forward into the next 300 years, it should be rather startling to contemplate.  That’s what 2312 is about.

What kind of ideology 2312 would spark off to a reader who never have read a Science Fiction before?

It would help if they had read John Dos Passos’ great novel trilogy USA, published in the 1930s, because I used the form of the Dos Passos masterpiece, which has four different kinds of story-telling stranded together, to structure my novel, in the hope it would work like it did for Dos Passos to convey an entire culture.  With Dos Passos in mind, the things that would be shocking in 2312 for a first-time science fiction reader would at least have a framework for understanding them better.  No matter what, reading it as one’s first science fiction novel would definitely be jumping into the deep end of the pool.  But I wrote it for anyone to understand, so I hope that will work, and encourage first-timers to try it and see what they think.

2312 is widely considered as an environmentally-oriented Sci-Fi novel. How did you manage to create that genre?

There is an environmentalist strand in science fiction that runs from Bradbury and Simak and Pangborn through the new wave and the work of Ursula Le Guin, so I am just a part of that tradition.  It’s very easy to focus science fiction on the environment because so often science fiction is concerned with the relationships between people and planets, and that’s precisely what environmentalism is about.  So there is a great congruence there.

How far do you think the book can influence the thought of those less entail with the Earth’s ecological health?

That’s a good question which can’t be answered, but my hope is that the book would make people think about the Earth and humanity’s future on Earth in a new way, from a new perspective.  So I think it can influence people who read it, yes.

Tell us about the lead characters in the book. Who do you think is closest to you?

None of these characters are ones I feel particularly close to, although I felt I had a good understanding of the two principals, Swan and Wahram. Their characters are mercurial and saturnine, in keeping with their home towns, and while I could imagine them in the sense of hearing them talk to themselves, I’m not much like either—or I’m like both but have abstracted them out of my confusions.

How did you come up with the idea of writing about the situation 3 centuries ahead?

I wanted to write about a romance between a mercurial from Mercury and a saturnine from Saturn, and so I needed to go three centuries out to make it likely that people would be living in those places.

2312 seems to share a lot of themes and ideas with your Hugo and Nebula awards-winning Mars trilogy. To what extent they are being related?

They are similar in that they both tell a story about people inhabiting the solar system, and by the end of Blue Mars the story has gone out a couple of centuries.  2312 takes it a further century, but the history that led to this year 2312 is not the history in the Mars trilogy, especially for what happens on Mars.  Still they are similar enough that 2312 can be seen as a kind of thematic or spiritual sequel to the Mars trilogy.

What is the basic difference between the Kim Stanley Robinson who compiled the Mars Trilogy and the KSR who wrote 2312?

Twenty years or so!  As a writer, I think that has made me less patient, and more interested in trying different structures and narrators.

Even though our solar system is one the farthest area of interest among all sorts of readers, Earth’s nearest planetary neighbors have been captured in much science fiction. What do you think makes our solar system to exert such a pull on a Sci-fi writer’s imagination, especially yours?

I think it’s due to the fact that the solar system is real, and now visible to us in a way completely impossible just fifty years ago, and it’s all within our reach, more or less; easier for robots than people, but not impossible for us to visit and inhabit these places.  This gift of new landscapes is precious to any writer who likes thinking about landscapes.

Your works are always seemed to be intent on eliciting some sort of politically supported issues. What do you want to say on your being thought of as a ‘political’ SF writer?

It’s okay, all writing is political, and the best fiction cannot be the best without its political element.  The test of course is to be sure that it is something more than politics somehow.  But the novel is a good art form for folding in all kinds of realities.

Who is/are your major influences as a Sci-Fi writer?

Science fiction’s new wave writers, especially Le Guin, Wolfe, Delany, Russ.  Then also novelists Cecelia Holland and Joyce Cary, and Peter Dickinson and Patrick O’Brian, and Garcia Marquez and Virginia Woolf, also poets Gary Snyder and W.S. Merwin.  Many many novelists also, I like all novels and try to learn things from them.

Is there anything you want to ask or urge to the nascent Science Fiction Writers?

No, they will have their own agendas, and that’s fine.  Actually given the way science fiction has been nearly overwhelmed by fantasy in the last decade or so, I would only want to encourage any beginning science fiction writers and cheer them on.

Any message for the Sci-Fi enthusiasts?

Thanks!  Keep reading!

Finally, inform us about the alleged movie adaptation of your award-winning novel Red Mars.

My film agent and friend Vince Gerardis continues to work with an exciting team on adapting Red Mars for a television series format.  We’ll learn more as that goes forward, and I hope for the best.

Now we would like to thank Mr.  Robinson for taking some precious moments out of his busy schedule to being caught up with us.  

What You Don’t Know About People

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Guest Author: Sam  Sommers

You’ve been lied to.  Or, at the very least, misled.  It’s simply not true that everything you need to know about life you learned in Kindergarten.

Because I remember Kindergarten.  And as much as loved Mrs. Peerless’s class, even after completing her rigorous academic curriculum, the 5-year-old me still thought of the other people in my social universe in terms of stable, defining characteristics: Michael was the smart kid.  Lauren the lousy listener.  Katie was the nice girl who always shared snack.  Kevin was the kid who turned his arts supplies into snack.

As adults we keep this up, thinking of those around us as more or less predictable personalities.  But you don’t know people as well as you think you do.  How else to explain the ubiquitous yet empty mid-scandal assurance that so-and-so couldn’t have done the deed in question because he simply isn’t capable of it?  Or the double-take we do upon seeing the supremely accomplished surgeon exhibiting supreme incompetence when it comes to parallel parking?

When our worldview remains stuck within the confines of personality type, we never grasp the true nature of human nature.  We fail to appreciate the ways in which ordinary situations—like where you are or who you’re with—transform what we think, how we act, and who we really are.

What’s so important about the power of context?  Well, for starters, when you overlook it, getting what you want in life becomes that much harder.

Your negotiation with the airline customer service rep tanks.  Because when you see the person behind the desk as an intractable bully giving you a hard time just because her uniform and nametag allow her to, all you wind up with is frustration.  And then she digs in even deeper.

Instead of yelling or stomping off—even when yelling or stomping off is justifiable—force yourself to take a step back.  Analyze the situation objectively.  This isn’t the person who sent your luggage to St. Paul instead of St. Louis.  She’s just following procedure.  Stay calm and suss out the details—and loopholes—of that procedure, and you’re much more likely to get the concession you’re asking for.

Paying attention to context turns your assumptions about the social universe upside-down.  So you’re a free-thinker who does what’s right, not what’s popular?  Of course you are.  But that’s what everyone says.  Actually, it’s surprisingly easy to be swayed by crowds unless you recognize and avoid the situations that promote a herd mentality.

Men are from Mars and women from Venus?  Not so fast.  Of course there are biological explanations for sex differences in aggression, sense of direction, and who we’re willing to mate with.  But many of these supposedly fixed (or interplanetary) differences between men and women shrink or even disappear with just the tiniest of tweaks to context.

Even our most intimate of thoughts and instincts are shaped by situations.  Take love.  Many of us pine for Mr. or Mrs. Right.  Or pay dating websites to find “just my type.”  But falling in love is also all about context.  Like proximity: just sitting near someone in a lecture hall makes students more attracted to certain classmates.  And arousal: don’t approach that possibly special someone at the office; ask him out at the gym while he’s on the elliptical.  The science says you’ll get a better reaction that way.

Situations Matter.  Everywhere and all the time.  It’s the central lesson (and title) of my book —one that just might change the way you see the world around you.  And it’s a lesson that will turn you into a more effective person, whether you’re negotiating with customer service, talking your boss into a raise, looking for love, or, yes, even trying to help poor Kevin kick his paste-eating habit.

Sam Sommers (www.samsommers.com) is an award-winning teacher and researcher of social psychology at Tufts University outside Boston. His research specialties include how people think, communicate, and behave in diverse settings, as well as psychological perspectives on the U.S. legal system.

Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?

Monday, November 5th, 2012

Guest Author: William Poundstone

In 1957 William Shockley, one of the three men credited with inventing the transistor, moved west to create the first Silicon Valley start-up. One of the first people he interviewed was Jim Gibbons. As Gibbons remembered it, the first thing Shockley did when he came in to the interview was to pick up a stopwatch. Without much in the way of chitchat, Shockley posed this problem:

“There’s a tennis tournament with 127 players. You’ve got 126 people paired off in 63 matches plus one unpaired player. In the next round, there are 64 players and 32 matches. How many matches, total, does it take to determine a winner?”

Shockley then clicked the stopwatch on.

Gibbons was a pretty smart guy. In a matter of seconds, he answered: 126 matches.

That was the right answer. But Shockley was almost infuriated. He demanded to know how Gibbons had gotten the answer so quickly.

Gibbons explained that every match has one loser; therefore it takes one match to eliminate one player. You’ve got 127 people and need to narrow the field to one. So you’re going to need 126 matches, no matter how you schedule them.

Shockley almost threw a tantrum. He said that was exactly how he would have solved the problem. Gibbons had the distinct impression that Shockley didn’t care for other people using “his” method.

Shockley’s use of extremely difficult interview questions proved to be influential. Ironically, that’s because Shockley was a holy terror to work for. His engineers soon mutinied and quit to start their own companies. They included the founders of the first generation of Silicon Valley companies. While I imagine they all vowed under their breath to manage their own companies as differently from Shockley’s as possible, many of these companies did end up tossing a few puzzles into their hiring interviews.

Among the companies that eventually followed this lead were Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook. And today, in a tight job market, a lot of non-technology companies are asking difficult, unusual, and just plain weird questions. A few examples:

1. “On a scale of 1 to 10, how weird are you?”

2. “How many ridges are on the edge of a quarter?”

3. “You leave home and make three left turns. When you get back, you’re facing two masked men. What’s going on?”

I began hearing about such questions from friends about a dozen years ago. I’m known as someone who is good with puzzles, so a few friend contacted me to check whether they’d given the correct answer. I’ve since written two books on this subject: How Would You Move Mount Fuji? (Little, Brown, 2003) and Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? (Little, Brown, 2012). I don’t think anyone knows whether curveball questions help identify capable employees, though there is a lot of evidence that standard interviewing techniques are poor predictors of job performance. For that reason many interviewers want to try something a little different. Anyone looking for a job today would do well to prepare for the unexpected.

I suspect that interview questions say as much about the interviewer as about the interviewee. In fact, that’s a good way to handle unusual questions. Figure out why the interviewer is asking such a crazy question, and that will often help you come up with an answer. I’ll give you a head start.

1. “On a scale of 1 to 10, how weird are you?”

This question is about “culture fit.” Many employers are obsessed with finding the “perfect” employee, like foodies looking for the perfect gastropub. Companies envision themselves as having distinct personalities and want employees who will fit in. This is ironic, given that employers are more “diversity” conscious than ever—yet also more concerned with hiring employees whose personalities are exactly like those they’ve already got.

Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, explained that an answer of 1 on the weirdness scale is “probably a little too straight-laced for us” but a 10 “might be too psychotic.” Somewhere around 5 is a good answer.

2. “How many ridges are on the edge of a quarter?”

A U.S. quarter has exactly 119 ridges, known as “reeds.” BUT DON’T SAY THAT IN THE INTERVIEW. An interviewer who asks this question isn’t looking for a Human Wikipedia. He wants to see how well you can make quick mental estimates. A good answer would run: “A quarter is about an inch across, and that means its circumference is pi—a little more than 3 inches. I’d guess there might be about 40 ridges to the inch, so the answer would be a little more than 120.”

3. “You leave home and make three left turns. When you get back, you’re facing two masked men. What’s going on?”

This sounds like a riddle, and it is. The interview wants to feel he knows something that you don’t. Humor him (if you really need the job and can bear the prospect of working alongside that interviewer). The intended answer is “you just hit a home run.”

William Poundstone is the author of 13 books, including Fortune’s Formula, Amazon Editors’ pick for the #1 nonfiction book of 2005. He lives in Los Angeles.

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