#38 – Cyberpunk Derivatives

Cyberpunk has produced many offshoots over the years as new authors have applied the style to other historical eras and new technologies. In this episode, we tour the wide spread of these diverse subgenres.

Book recommendations:
The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

Other works mentioned: too many to name. Full list here.

Check out this episode!

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Follow-Up: Works Mentioned in Episode #38

In this week’s episode of A Reader’s History of Science Fiction, I discussed all of the various cyberpunk derivatives that have cropped up over the years. And much like the previous one about time travel, I ran through far too many titles to fit in the episode description, so I’ve written out the full list below.


Morlock Night by K. W. Jeter
The Wild Wild West (TV show)
Wild Wild West (film)
The Time Machine (2002 film)
Around the World in 80 Days (2004 film)
Sherlock Holmes (2009 film)
Atlantis: The Lost Empire
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Howl’s Moving Castle
The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (recommended)
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua


Children of the Sun (RPG) by Lewis Pollak
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
The Legend of Korra
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand


James Bond
The Jetsons
The Iron Giant (film)
The Incredibles


The Terminator
Mad Max


Mainspring by Jay Lake
The Three Musketeers (2011 film)


Treasure Planet
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild


Clash of the Titans
God of War


10,000 BC
The Land that Time Forgot
The Clan of the Cave Bear


The Zenith Angle by Bruce Sterling
Scott Pilgrim
Steven Universe
Rick and Morty


Repo Men
Resident Evil
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Twig (web serial) by John McCrae/Wildbow


Prey by Michael Crichton
Deus Ex
The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson (recommended)

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#37 – Cyberpunk

Cyberpunk was the big new subgenre of sci-fi in the 80s–the combination of “lowlife and high-tech.” In this episode, we explore the highlights of this subgenre.

Book recommendation: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Other works discussed:
by William Gibson
The Matrix
Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

My review of Ready Player Two.

Check out this episode!

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#36 – Alternate History

Alternate histories, where events in the past unfolded differently, are a fairly new genre, but it’s made large strides since it first became popular in the 80s. In this episode, we look at an overview of these works.

Book recommendation: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal.
My companion blog post on The Calculating Stars.

Other books discussed:
The Domination by S. M. Stirling
“The Road Not Taken”, The Guns of the South and Harry Turtledove in general.
The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

Check out this episode!

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How Bad Would the Greenhouse Effect in The Calculating Stars Really Be?

In Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars, a meteor hits the east coast of the United States in the 1950s, obliterating Washington DC and causing global climate catastrophe. Mathematical genius and future Lady Astronaut Elma York calculates that the climate shock will within a couple of generations tip the Earth into a runaway greenhouse state like Venus, destroying all life on the planet. (And note that it is specifically a runaway greenhouse. She explicitly mentions the oceans boiling.)

Later, the scientists back away from this claim and say that with careful control of carbon emissions, this fate may be avoidable, but they won’t know for sure until it’s too late.

Does this make sense? Well…no. While the vast majority of the book is very well researched (as far as I can determine), this part is not good science. To cut a long story short, there’s basically no way for a runaway greenhouse effect to happen on Earth. But this doesn’t necessarily negate the rest of the story. I wanted to investigate how bad this disaster would really be.

This idea falls into a fallacy that is never really said out loud, but I feel like it is implied a lot, even by scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson in the second Cosmos series: namely, that Venus is a “cautionary tale” for climate change here on Earth.

Now, I don’t want to create a strawman here. If they’re given more than sixty seconds to talk about it, most scientists will correctly qualify this by saying that a runaway greenhouse is impossible on Earth no matter what humans do. Venus is a very different environment and is more a proof of concept for the greenhouse effect in general than a specific warning. But it is enough for Mary Robinette Kowal (and she’s not the only one I’ve seen) to make this mistake.[1]

The claim here is that by hitting the ocean (well, the Chesapeake Bay), the asteroid would vaporize a large amount of water, and water vapor exerts a stronger greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.[2] The increased greenhouse effect would warm the planet, causing more water to evaporate, which increases the greenhouse effect, and so on, in a positive feedback loop. This probably is what happened to Venus 4 billion years ago.[3] It’s called a “runaway” because once the oceans start boiling, there’s no way to stop it short of putting a giant mirror in front of the planet, and the temperature shoots up several hundred degrees in a geologically short time.

But this isn’t the way things are on Earth. The hottest recorded temperature in history was only 57°C, and I can’t find a definitive figure, but the hottest sea surface temperatures seem to be 35-40°C. We have a lot of buffer between here and the boiling point of water. And on one level, it should be obvious that an asteroid impact wouldn’t cause a runaway greenhouse because the Chicxulub impact that killed the (non-avian) dinosaurs 66 million years ago didn’t—and that was also a water impact.

“But what about that positive feedback loop?” you may ask. Well, here’s the thing. Even if a feedback is positive, it can still be subject to diminishing returns, and that’s exactly the case with the greenhouse effect. Warmer temperatures cause more water to evaporate, yes, but not enough to cause an equal or greater gain in temperature again. If you iterate the process, you get smaller and smaller changes until it converges to a hot, but still-habitable temperature.

I reached out to Dr. David Catling at the University of Washington, who studies paleoclimate on Earth and Mars, to get a clearer picture of the greenhouse effect as it relates to asteroid impacts, and he pointed out three things that would prevent a runaway greenhouse from occurring.

First the amount of water vapor produced is not that great. It takes a lot of energy to boil water, and even a Chicxulub-sized asteroid only has so much of it. Do the math, and you find that if 25% of the asteroid’s kinetic energy goes into boiling water, it will add about 0.3% water vapor to our atmosphere.[4] This is on top of the typical value of 1% we have now.

Second, water is a strong greenhouse gas, but it’s a very short-lived one. Methane sticks around in the atmosphere for ten years. Carbon dioxide for a hundred. But most of that excess water vapor would rain out in a couple months, while the dust clouds are still blotting out the Sun.

Finally, a large asteroid impact also releases large amounts of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, and sulfur dioxide is a cooling gas. It blocks light coming from the Sun so that it never reaches Earth. It would be gone in a couple years, and the CO2 produced by the impact would cause a longer-term warming, but not to catastrophic levels. All of this adds up to a few years of low crop yields and brutally cold winters (which the book describes) followed by some nasty global warming of the kind we’re trying to prevent today (which the book also describes), but not an existential threat.

But let’s go one step further. How much warming would we expect from this impact. Or better yet, since we’re going for maximum drama, what’s the worst case scenario?

First, the water vapor. Water vapor rains out very quickly—in the troposphere (the lowest part of the atmosphere). But an impact of this size will eject at least some of it into the stratosphere. There is a “cold trap” at the troposphere-stratosphere boundary (around where airliners fly)—a minimum in temperature that makes it less efficient for water vapor to cross through it. Water vapor in the stratosphere can stay there for five years or more.

What happens if that 0.3% of water vapor all gets into the stratosphere? Well, you have to follow the thread through a few different equations to do it,[5] but it works out to about 2°C of warming.

The impact would also eject a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. How much varies a lot depending who you ask, but here there is an important difference from the real Chicxulub impact. We have a lot less CO2 in our atmosphere than there was 66 million years ago, and that means the atmosphere is a lot more sensitive to adding more. The climate sensitivity is a figure used in climate science to estimate the amount of warming expected from a doubling of CO2 over preindustrial levels. There is a very good chance that a Chicxulub-sized impact would double Earth’s modern CO2 level, and that climate sensitivity factor would predict another 3°C of warming.

Now, put those together, and it’s already looking bad, but the worst case scenario in fact or fiction is a catastrophic release of methane from Arctic permafrosts. This area of climate science is still very speculative in terms of how much it contributes to natural feedbacks. It’s one of those wildcards that the IPCC has historically been slow to address. However, some models put the effect of a catastrophic methane release at as much as 6°C.

Well, now, we have the makings of a real disaster story. Climate scientists say that 6°C of warming would be catastrophic and would greatly reduce Earth’s ability to support human civilization. Our total here of 11°C is larger than we have reliable evidence for in the past, and it would render large swaths of the tropical and subtropical parts of the world uninhabitable. The heat would kill anyone who wasn’t in an actively air-conditioned environment, and I’m sure it would do a number on all the other life on Earth too. Nature can adapt to those temperatures, but not overnight. That means collapsing crop yields, and even for people who survived in the temperate zones, famine might get them.

So, no, a Chicxulub-sized impact could not start a runaway greenhouse and destroy all life on Earth. However, it is possible that it would make it categorically impossible to feed the three billion humans who lived on Earth at that time if things went badly.

Is the response to that moving to another planet? Eh…probably not. It would make more sense to develop indoor farms and new agricultural techniques here on Earth, if for no other reason than the sheer logistics of physically moving three billion people off world. However, that’s another story that would need it’s own post.

[1] And really, this whole thing seems to have stemmed from an attempt to put her earlier novella, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”, on a solider scientific footing, where it describes Earth still shrouded with dust decades later.

[2] Without greenhouse gases, Earth’s average temperature would be about -18°C (0°F). Water vapor and clouds increase the temperature by about 24°C, carbon dioxide by 6.5°C, and other greenhouse gases like methane about 1.5°C.

[3] Or possibly as little as 500 million years ago, according to some models.

[4] Taking a 10 km diameter asteroid impacting at 18 km/s, along with the energy needed to heat water to its critical point of 647 K and its heat of vaporization.

[5] See here and sources therein for converting atmospheric water vapor to radiative forcing. From there, you can use the 24°C figure I listed above.

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Negative Mass Part II

I finally finished the follow up video to my discussion of negative mass for the Summer of Math Exposition. Check it out.

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Writer’s History #5 – Annie Geever Interview

In this episode, I interview Annie Geever, the author of the Undead Age trilogy of zombie novels.

Annie’s website.

Annie’s book recommendations:
Thirteen or Black Man by Richard K. Morgan
Fallen Dragon by Peter F. Hamilton
Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder

Check out this episode!

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#35 – Time Travel Part II: Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey

Time travel has used in many different ways by many different writers across history. In this episode, we take a whirlwind tour of ten common time travel tropes to see how they have contributed to the genre.

Book recommendation: The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter.
TV recommendation: “Blink” from Doctor Who.

Other works mentioned: too many to name. Full list here.
PBS Space Time on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Check out this episode!

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Follow-Up: Works Mentioned in Episode #35

In this week’s episode of A Reader’s History of Science Fiction, I discussed ten common time travel tropes, with examples of each. However, this means I ran through far too many titles to list in the episode description, so I’ve offloaded the list here. I actually don’t know myself how long it is as I write this, but you should be able to see everything I talked about substantially.

Note: some of these were given as examples for multiple tropes. In those cases, only the first instance is included.

1. Rip Van Winkle

“Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving
Honi HaMe’agel
The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus
Tau Zero by Poul Anderson
When the Sleeper Wakes by H. G. Wells
Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan
Flight of the Navigator
Gene Roddenbery’s Andromeda

2. Letter from the Future/Fixing a Bad Future

Memoirs of the Twentieth Century by Samuel Madden
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Timescape by Gregory Benford
The Terminator
X-Men: Days of Future Past

3. Back in Time to Stay

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
Island in the Sea of Time by S. M. Stirling
1632 by Eric Flint
A Time Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter
Terra Nova

4. Time Tourism

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (Previously recommended)
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (Previously recommended)
A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury
Time Enough for Love by Robert Heinlein
Doctor Who
Dinosaur Train
Peabody’s Improbable History
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
12 Monkeys
Avengers: Endgame

5. Meddling with Time

Back to the Future
The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov (Previously recommended)
DC’s Legends of Tomorrow
Time Patrol by Poul Anderson
Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock

6. You Can’t Fight Fate

Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling
“By His Bootstraps” by Robert Heinlein
The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter
“Blink” from Doctor Who (Recommended)

7. Alternate Timelines

Star Trek
The Butterfly Effect
The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter (Recommended)

8. Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (Previously recommended)
Happy Death Day
Peggy Sue Got Married

9. Altered Flow of Time

Superman: The Movie
Inverted World by Christopher Priest (Previously recommended)

10. The Timey-Wimey Ball

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

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#34 – Time Travel Part I: The Classics

Time travel had a long history in science fiction, but it noticeably ramped up beginning in the 80s. In this episode, we explore some of the classic and iconic time travel stories of recent decades.

Book recommendation: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis.

Other works discussed:
Timescape by Gregory Benford
Eon by Greg Bear
Back to the Future
The Terminator
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

See also the Jimmy Kimmel Back to the Future sketch.

Check out this episode!

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