What if we can take Elon Musk’s science fiction high-speed underground vision one step further, and make it work for everyone?

Have you heard about Elon Musk’s idea for an underground system of tunnels that would move cars at superhigh speeds?

Of course you have.

The idea generated a wave of hype for Musk’s brand, but what is this “underground car” concept, really?

Silicon Valley often cannibalizes and reinvents existing services, usually involving an app, in order to turn a profit. In this case, Elon Musk has set his eyes on “disrupting” public transportation using his tech-celebrity cult guru status and the Tesla brand.

His “underground car” concept is a subway for private transportation, combined with the idea of a bus stop where cars arrive to be transported underground (a “car stop”).

Do you notice the weird part of that idea, though?

Yes. The exact reason for a subway is that many people don’t have access to cars. Subways and buses exist for everyone to use, which benefits all of society at an affordable price.

Elon Musk wants to sell more cars. He also probably wouldn’t mind owning an entire private subway system. Beyond hyping his brand now, it makes good future business sense. Public transportation is also “suboptimal” to say the least, so maybe Musk could “disrupt” it and do it better.

What if there could be a public option that works for everyone, and doesn’t require digging a whole new subway just for cars?

Think about it: there are already bus stops in many urban areas around the world. There are also subways in many major cities from São Paulo to Seoul. What if we could create a compelling vision of a future where the two — bus and subway — came together?

On a busy rush hour city street, a bus-sized pod sits at the curb. The pod, however, has no tires (or maybe it does) and sits atop a platform. At scheduled intervals, the platform descends into a city subway tunnel, and is propelled inside a vacuum-sealed tube (or a regular subway track) to the next stop. Behind and ahead of the pod, a regular subway train also runs its route, along with other transport pods.

When the pod reaches the next pod-stop, it slides into the rectangular lift-space and is elevated to the curb, streetside, unloading passengers and making itself available to a new group of riders.

In this idea, you leverage existing subway tunnels to create a public transportation subsystem that’s a hybrid of bus and subway. It can

  • reduce traffic congestion and pollution
  • be mostly automated to fit into subway schedules, and
  • benefits everyone rather than only people who have private cars.

Revenue generated by this system can be used to improve other aspects of public infrastructure — bridges, roads, schools, a functional universal healthcare system, or even funding basic income for when AI and automation overtakes most human jobs.

This idea could change the world. And we — the science fiction writers, artists, tinkerers, hackers and future-fascinated engineers — could be the ones to build the vision so that society can imagine it as real and demand that it be created.

Learn More

1. The Boring Company. (28 Apr 2017). Tunnels. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5V_VzRrSBI.

2. Etherington, Darrell. (28 Apr 2017). Watch how Elon Musk’s Boring Company tunnels will move cars faster. Retrieved from https://techcrunch.com/2017/04/28/watch-how-elon-musks-boring-company-tunnels-will-move-cars-faster/.

3. Oremus, Will. (2017 June 19). Lyft Isn’t Reinventing City Buses. It’s Undermining Them. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2017/06/19/no_lyft_didn_t_accidentally_reinvent_the_city_bus.html.

4. Friedman, Ann. (26 June 2017). Lyft Shuttle: A bus, but without all those pesky poor people. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-lyft-shuttle-bus-perspec-20170626-story.html.

5. Pereira, Alyssa. (19 June 2017). Critics call out Lyft for reinventing the bus with its new ‘Shuttle’ feature. Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/technology/article/Critics-call-out-Lyft-for-reinventing-the-bus-11230357.php.

6. Drum, Kevin. (17 Jul 2017). Mass Unemployment Will Start Around 2025. Retrieved from http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2017/07/mass-unemployment-will-start-around-2025/.

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Is Cyberpunk Still Fresh and New, or Lovably Obsolete? William Gibson Answered This Question Himself. The Next Steps Are Up To Us.

Take this as a dare: dare to mention that cyberpunk is an “ancient aesthetic” in conversation with certain science fiction lovers. Predictably, someone will take umbrage at the idea, presumably for violating one of their sacred sci-fi cows.

William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” itself, and situated many of his concepts within it. Author Bruce Bethke invented the term “cyberpunk”, but even he concedes that Gibson largely invented the genre [1] [2]:

How did I actually create the word? The way any new word comes into being, I guess: through synthesis. I took a handful of roots –cyber, techno, et al– mixed them up with a bunch of terms for socially misdirected youth, and tried out the various combinations until one just plain sounded right.

IMPORTANT POINT! I never claimed to have invented cyberpunk fiction! That honor belongs primarily to William Gibson, whose 1984 novel, Neuromancer, was the real defining work of “The Movement.” (At the time, Mike Swanwick argued that the movement writers should properly be termed neuromantics, since so much of what they were doing was clearly Imitation Neuromancer.)

Then again, Gibson shouldn’t get sole credit either. Pat Cadigan (“Pretty Boy Crossover”), Rudy Rucker (Software), W.T. Quick (Dreams of Flesh and Sand), Greg Bear (Blood Music), Walter Jon Williams (Hardwired), Michael Swanwick (Vacuum Flowers)…the list of early ’80s writers who made important contributions towards defining the trope defies my ability to remember their names. Nor was it an immaculate conception: John Brunner (Shockwave Rider), Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), and perhaps even Alfred Bester (The Stars My Destination) all were important antecedents of the thing that became known as cyberpunk fiction.

You can also download AltSciFi’s mirror of Bruce Bethke’s 2001 cyberpunk novel, available as shareware (click here).

It seems only natural, then, to commit further sacrilege and open the belly of this beast for everyone to see. This gives rise to the question:

Is cyberpunk still fresh and new, or has it become a lovably obsolete relic that still holds some relevance, if only those who care to find it?

The obviously conciliatory middle-of-the-road answer is “cyberpunk is in a state of continual renewal.” In truth, you can only reboot an aesthetic with a new face but so many times before it morphs into something else entirely. Or, until it burrows so deeply into obscure in-tribe self-references that no one but die-hard members care about or even notice at all.

For context, consider William Gibson’s own perspective. He has described cyberpunk as a byproduct of a simpler time. His answer may be a definitive one, but for the few artists and creators here, we may be the ones to take his ideas in a different direction. The question is whether we can still truly call that direction “cyberpunk”. Maybe we’re verging into something else. Something new. Something made of possible futures rather than infinite regressions to an imaginary future-past.

From William Gibson: I never imagined Facebook:

You’re considered a founder of the cyberpunk genre, which tends to feature digital cowboys — independent operators working on the frontiers of technology. Is the counterculture ethos of cyberpunk still relevant in an era when the best hackers seem to be working for the Chinese and U.S. governments, and our most famous digital outlaw, Edward Snowden, is under the protection of Vladimir Putin?

It’s seemed to me for quite a while now that the most viable use for the term “cyberpunk” is in describing artifacts of popular culture. You can say, “Did you see this movie? No? Well, it’s really cyberpunk.” Or, “Did you see the cyberpunk pants she was wearing last night?”

People know what you’re talking about, but it doesn’t work so well describing human roles in the world today. We’re more complicated. I think one of the things I did in my early fiction, more or less for effect, was to depict worlds where there didn’t really seem to be much government. In “Neuromancer,” for example, there’s no government really on the case of these rogue AI experiments that are being done by billionaires in orbit. If I had been depicting a world in which there were governments and law enforcement, I would have depicted hackers on both sides of the fence.

In “Neuromancer,” I don’t think there’s any evidence of anybody who has any parents. It’s kind of a very adolescent book that way.

[…]

So what do you think is a better way to phrase that question today? Or what would have been a better way to phrase it in 1993?

I think you would end with something like “or is this just the new normal?”

Is there anything about “the new normal” in particular that surprises you? What about the Internet today would you have been least likely to foresee?

It’s incredible, the ubiquity. I definitely didn’t foresee the extent to which we would all be connected almost all of the time without needing to be plugged in.

That makes me think of “Neuromancer,” in which the characters are always having to track down a physical jack, which they then use to plug themselves into this hyper-futuristic Internet.

Yes. It’s funny, when the book was first published, when it was just out — and it was not a big deal the first little while it was out, it was just another paperback original — I went to a science fiction convention. There were guys there who were, by the standards of 1984, far more computer-literate than I was. And they very cheerfully told me that I got it completely wrong, and I knew nothing. They kept saying over and over, “There’s never going to be enough bandwidth, you don’t understand. This could never happen.”

So, you know, here I am, this many years later with this little tiny flat thing in my hand that’s got more bandwidth than those guys thought was possible for a personal device to ever have, and the book is still resonant for at least some new readers, even though it’s increasingly hung with the inevitable obsolescence of having been first published in 1984. Now it’s not really in the pale, but in the broader outline.

The headline for this article ends with “the next steps are up to us.” It seems clear that Gibson himself has already fully moved on from cyberpunk to other aspects of science fiction. If cyberpunk is to continue, it may evolve into a new form that requires its own niche separate from that which came before.

An unexpected call from William Gibson: on Eliot Peper’s cyberpunk novel Cumulus.

Cumulus. Front Cover.
The following are excerpts from Eliot Peper’s conversation topic on Reddit. To read the discussion, click here.

How I Wrote Neuromancer

Neuromancer was a commissioned work. I have no idea how many years it might have taken, otherwise, before I produced a novel on spec. Had you asked me at the time of commission, I would have told you 10, but then again, it might never have happened. Careers are odd, that way. (Careers are nothing but odd.)

I was 34, a first-time parent, married, a recent university graduate with a BA in English literature. I had published a few (very few) short stories in Omni, a glossy magazine from the publisher of Penthouse. Omni paid around $2,000 for a short story, a princely sum (particularly when compared with science fiction magazines – digest-sized, the traditional pulps – which paid perhaps a 10th, if that). Omni left me no choice but to write more.

Their first cheque cashed, I’d purchased the cheapest possible ticket to New York, intent on meeting the mysterious human whose editorial decision had resulted in such a windfall. The late Robert Sheckley, a droll and affable man, and a writer whose fiction I admired, took me out to lunch on the Omni tab and gave me two pieces of sage advice: I should never, under any circumstances, sign a multi-book contract, and neither should I “buy that big old house”. I have managed to follow the first to the letter.

William Gibson: how I wrote Neuromancer (click here)

Bill (William Gibson) shared insights and perspective on building a writing career, working with literary agents, and finding a place in the publishing industry. He passed on two tips that he had received as a young writer:

– Never do a multibook deal.

– Don’t buy the big house!

He also said that many of his most successful writer friends are distinguished by the fact that they KEEP WRITING, rather than getting distracted by side projects or celebrity. He’s an incredibly sweet and brilliant human being and I was humbled and honored to talk to him.

Inspiration for Cumulus

Here’s some details about the inspirations behind Cumulus that I shared in the afterward:

I’m really proud of how Cumulus came together. I moved back to Oakland in 2013. It was the city of my birth and where I grew up. Seeing how Oakland has evolved since the ’80s is at once inspiring and harrowing. Cumulus is a kind of twisted love letter to my favorite city in the Bay Area.

Over the course of the past few years, we’ve bonded with many of our incredible neighbors, sated our appetites at countless ethnic food joints, had a triple homicide on our block, installed a free little library for our community, hiked in beautiful Redwood Park, and watched a protest with thousands of people and hundreds trailing police vehicles terminate at the end of our street. We love the birdsong but hate the gunshots. Oakland feels like a special point of confluence for so many critical social issues: the implications of the growing wealth gap in American society, the extraordinary promise of new technologies and diverse world views, our failure to solve persistent social problems like poverty, racism, and homelessness, and the power of fierce, pragmatic optimism.

Writing Cumulus allowed me to explore my enthusiasm for my hometown and my fascination with how new tools like the internet are reshaping our lives in so many ways, big and small. Through years of working with startups and venture capital investors, I’ve had the privilege of seeing how some new technologies come to be and getting to know a few of the people who build and popularize them. I’ve never been more excited about the promise of human ingenuity and there’s no other time in history when I’d rather live. That said, these new developments are changing our social fabric, the texture of our personal lives, and even our geopolitics. Such change is always painful. Times like these require open-mindedness, compassion, critical thinking, resourcefulness, and creativity. I don’t have the answers but I hope that this story might contribute a few questions.

Eliot Peper’s Writing Process

Cumulus is my 4th novel. My first three constitute the Uncommon Series, a trilogy about two college students who found a tech startup and take it from garage to IPO, but get caught up in an international financial conspiracy along the way (think Panama Papers).

I started writing that story because I had spent years working in startups and venture capital and realized there was so much inherent human drama that would be a rich canvas for a novel. But most business books are dry, sterilized nonfiction. I couldn’t find that story to read, so I decided to try my hand at writing it. I just opened up Word and started typing.

Here’s some more context about the book if you’re interested in the backstory.

I wrote the first draft of Cumulus over the course of ~4 months. Revisions and edits took another 3 months or so.

I’ve found that if I write everyday, and make sure that everything I write advances the story, I can keep momentum through the creative process more effectively. The hardest part about writing is actually getting yourself to write!

100% Organic

It went straight to number one in its category, which blew my mind. First six months of proceeds go to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Chapter 510, and it’s raised thousands for both organizations over the past five days.

This was 100% organic, I didn’t even post it to Reddit. Friends started texting me screenshots of Reddit front page with the book sitting right up there. Then literary/film/tv agencies and production companies started reaching out about rights and adaptations. All in <24 hours. It was nuts. It was completely unexpected and I'm totally out of my depth.

My perspective on "harnessing the power" of any community is simply to (1) participate (not just about your stuff), (2) find ways to help people (that's what communities do for each other), and (3) make awesome things that you're proud of (why do anything else?). Rinse, repeat. With a little luck, the rest takes care of itself.

I wrote up an article on building an organic fanbase for fiction that you might find useful: How to build an organic fanbase if you write novels: You’ve written a book, but who’s gonna read it?

On Self-Publishing

All thanks for the awesome cover go to Kevin Barrett Kane at The Frontispiece.

He did an incredible job with it and I use him for all of my books. If you can believe it, that was the first design idea for Cumulus! The minute I saw it, I know it was perfect.

Yes, I am self-published. I used to be published by a small press and then the rights reverted so now all my books are indie. I love the creative control and the direct interaction with readers. But there’s not right or wrong path, only the one that works best for you. From my perspective, there’s never been a better time to be a writer. Now we have options!

Cumulus. Book jacket design by Kevin Barrett Kane at The Frontispiece, http://www.thefrontispiece.com.
Digital versions of Cumulus are also available on iBooks.

Digital versions of Cumulus are also available on iBooks.

It might be surprising, but as an indie author, Amazon actually shares as much or more of the royalty share with me than most other retailers. The only way to do better would be to distribute the digital versions directly from my own website, which I don’t have the backend for (although I’d be interested in exploring it in future).

I very much appreciate the sentiment. Making a living with fiction is tough. What really gets me excited to get up and write in the morning is reader enthusiasm for the stories :).

The All-Too-Brief Life of Arene, and a Possible Future for Indie Science Fiction Short Film.

One downside of many indie sci-fi short films is that they’re too short to tell a complete story. Example: “Arene” by Henrik B. Clausen.

An enigmatic young woman, captured by paramilitary forces in a hostile future city, has no choice but to fight for her life and the survival of her tribe.

Arene (2016), by Henrik B. Clausen [4m 44s].

Arene (2016) has impressive special effects, strong performances and well-designed fight choreography. The filmmakers seem to have done their homework, as the (super)heroine protagonist uses a realistic method for breaking out of handcuffs (in this case, zipties) [1] [2].

The film “Arene” however, is too short to answer vital questions: who is Arene? What happened to the world? Who — and what — are “the tribals”?

One of AltSciFi’s main goals is to attain sufficient influence to meaningfully help crowdfunding projects, and ideally, to finance indie scifi films. Our ultimate achievement, of course, will be a faithful live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. This is part of larger process that is beginning right now.

Arene would have been a perfect trailer or first scene for a fifteen-minute short film. Perhaps it still could be.

See More

1. Brushwood, Brian. (2013, November 6). Six Ways to Escape from Handcuffs, Zip Ties & Duct Tape. Retrieved from URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Gr6HX_IKpw

2. Hacker, Crazy Russian. (2016, Jan 16). How to Escape from Zip Ties. Retrieved from URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IY1cI6shatc

Apocalypse 2.0: The Day The Daughter of Stuxnet (Nearly) Ate The World

An off-balance flowerpot teetered on its ceramic base, disturbed by a long white tail brushing past to thump insistently against the cool window pane.

“Could you stop with that, Princess?” The distracted request came from across the studio apartment as fingertips tapped keys sporadically. On the screen, an seven-page expose sat nearly complete. Its headline read, “Year 2063 and After Rs.70,000 Crore Spent, Mumbai Wants To Know: Where’s Our High-Speed Rail?”

A glance at the snow-colored cat brought sight of its sleek form standing motionless, looking intently outward. The long white tail continued its unusual pendular thump against the glass.

“If you’re so smart, why don’t I outsource the ending of this article to you? I’ll pay you in kitty treats. Then I can finish watching my movie and get some shut-eye before the exposé goes online in the morning.” A rectangular window in the screen’s lower right corner displayed an ancient Bollywood film scene: an impossibly handsome and muscular superhero flew under a collapsing building, supporting its massive structure with only two bare hands, an iron will and a rousing song in perfect autotune.

Below the desk, the computer’s backup power supply beeped, indicating an irregularity corrected by the boxy battery unit plugged into the CPU. “Not going to fry my hard drive again…” A melodic chime from the cellphone on the table signaled a new hashtag trending on Twitter with unusual speed and popularity:

#mumbaidown

“Mumbai… down?”

Princess added a loud meow to the thumping ritual, tail-pendulum tipping the pot over and sending the fern inside crashing to the floor. “That’s it! Come here, you little brat!” Jumping from the chair with cellphone in hand, the phone became a missile hurled across the apartment. Exasperation propelled a sprinting lunge toward the four-legged offender several meters away in the open living room. Princess howled and dodged, jumping from the window to scramble for the bathroom’s litterbox sanctuary.

A taunting flash of white disappeared behind the bathroom door. The door closed and decisively locked.

In mid-stride, the chase ended with a defeated sigh: “maybe they made you a little too smart…”

Retrieval of the phone from the floor revealed no major damage, yet the absence of light outside the window demanded further examination. Across the bridge between Devaloka Private City and the Megalopolis of Mumbai, a customary cacophony of twentyfour-hour light pollution silently succumbed to complete darkness.

Bleary disbelief was interrupted by the phone’s increasingly rapid notification chime.

#mumbaidown

Page after page scrolled down the screen — panicked messages, links to hastily written news stories, and images of varying resolution showed perspectives similar to the view outside the window. “Holy shit…”

Bare footsteps backed away from the window, nearly stumbling over the fern’s sprawling carcass, then tracked soil across the hardwood floor to the computer.

The phone vibrated and shone a London phone number labeled “Ammi”. Then, pre-empting a response, a ringtone interrupted:

Mumbai Independent News, Inc.

“Hi. Yes, I’m finishing tomorrow’s story now. Do you know what’s going on?”

The reply was excited, breathless. “Forget your story. Drop everything. We need you here at the office. Now. Just come now!”

Oversized sweatshirt. Warm, tight black yoga pants. Pale pink scrunchie to hold back an unwashed mane of long black hair. No time for makeup.

The bathroom door remained locked. “Kitty? Princess?” No answer.

“There’s a can of food on the counter; don’t worry, it’s open so help yourself. Don’t cut yourself on the lid. I can’t say how long I’ll be away, so eat slowly, okay?”

The toilet swooshed once and while its bowl refilled, the door opened. A small snow-white face looked up, emerald eyes gleaming worriedly in the semi-darkness.

“Awww…” Kneeling down, the two companions touched noses. “You’re such a smart kitty. I’ll be back before you know it.” Princess batted coyly at loose strands that escaped the hastily-arranged scrunchie, then traced the trail of soiled footprints and nimbly clambered up to stand watch at the window sill.

A quick towel-wipe of dirty soles preceded slipping feet into a pair of vintage canvas Chuck Taylor II’s before shouldering a tattered brown pleather handbag and leaving the apartment.

Texts from “Ammi” had become an unremitting barrage. A thumb pressed the “Down” button on the hallway elevator panel, then entered “i’m ok mom. busy now talk later” in response to seven urgently identical queries. The UDesi national taxi app offered a cab only two minutes away and available for transport to the bridge.

One block from the bridge entrance, a checkpoint loomed on a slight upward slope. Plainclothes security personnel engaged in terse conversation with military police and soldiers encased in ten-foot-tall suits of cybernetic armor.

The cab rolled to a stop. “Thanks… I’m no good at tipping, but I hope that’s enough. It’s such a nice touch that your service still uses human drivers.”

“Only the best for residents of Devaloka City. Thank you, ma’am. Stay safe tonight.” Credit accepted, the taxi door opened automatically.

The taxi headed back from whence it came as canvas sneakers started down a remaining hundred meters to the bridge’s pedestrian entranceway. Adjacent to the entrance, an officer stood in a fortified booth, flanked on the opposite side by an armored guard.

“We’re closed,” the officer stated from behind bulletproof glass. “State of emergency in the city. No pass, no pass.”

“I’m a member of the press.” A media badge barcode appeared on the cellphone screen, then pressed to the glass. “Verify me if you want. The people of Mumbai deserve to know what’s happening.”

The ten-foot-tall armored suit stepped forward and leaned down, an amplified rumble resonating deeply enough to pop sensitive eardrums and ripple loose folds of clothing. “The city is under military curfew. Independent journalists are strictly forbidden without special government permission. Turn around and go home.”

The sonic battering alone was enough to demand a “surrender” gesture of hands up in the air, as the cellphone nonetheless captured and streamed the event to the newspaper’s office across the river.

“Okay, okay,” a cringing, conciliatory smile greeted the vaguely humanoid faceshield. “I’ll go home. Okay?”

“Thank you for your compliance.” The armored suit stood at attention, then strode back to the opposite side of the gate.

A half-block from the checkpoint, the newspaper editor’s face appeared on-screen. The office was alive with sounds of newscasts and phones ringing at multiple desks. “Reports say it’s some kind of attack. Mehul is here, but even he can’t keep up. We need all eyes on the data pouring in. You’re the only one with any chance of getting here in time.”

“The checkpoint is closed. You saw it. I’m no good to anyone in jail, and frankly, hiding under the bed with my cat sounds like a damn fine idea right about now. I’m sorry. I can’t. There’s no way.”

The editor looked away for a moment, shouting into a speakerphone, then turned back with a look of inspiration. “I know. Yes. Yes. You can.

You’re going to have a baby.”

The choppy waters of Devaloka Bay churned, bringing a briny scent to the evening air.

“What?!” Incredulous eyes narrowed at the image onscreen. “Is that some kind of joke?”
The plan only grew more inspired with each word. “No, no. Look, just tell them you’re pregnant. It’s perfect. They’ll have no idea.”

Black helicopters flew invisibly against the night sky as whirring rotor blades made their presence known while passing overhead. “Mumbai is under martial law. You must be completely mad.”

“Our office is in the municipal center of the city.” A map came onscreen, depicting Samudra University Hospital only a few blocks from the office. “They might even airlift you and skip the gridlock completely. Look, be here in an hour and I’ll double your per-word rate.”

“No way. Fire me. I’m going home.” A thoroughly unimpressed thumb hovered over the “End Call” button.
“Okay! Triple. Triple your rate!”

“Tri… triple?” The Chuck Taylor II’s stopped walking. “Keep talking.”
“And. And, you get exclusive access to our data for the cover story. After proofing, we’ll…” More shouting into a speakerphone, then back to the screen with a fiendish determination. “I’ll personally send the story to the London home office and it will run in all territories. Worldwide.”

Long black hair shone in the moonlight as the scrunchie slipped from ponytail to wrist. “Alright.” Four deep breaths brought readiness for the improvised performance. “Time to watch me give birth or die trying.” The shoulder-slung brown pleather handbag found a new home hidden where a not-yet-newborn baby would usually be.

A quick pivot toward the bridge squeaked canvas sneakers on concrete, charging headlong at the armored soldier with no obvious plan or premeditation. The soldier’s massive rifle immediately rose to target the intruder. “Halt!”

As if on cue, the apparently pregnant runner let out an anguished scream and fell to the ground, clutching a bulging abdominal region while making sure to covertly film the whole episode. A spotlight from above snapped on and bathed the scene in harsh white light.

Parked cars stretched as far and wide as streets could hold, horns blaring and engines growling while going nowhere fast. Upon verification of the press barcode, double doors slid apart in one of the few metropolitan Mumbai buildings that still had power.

The newsroom was a curious scene of light and sound, but little movement. Only two humans occupied the space amid a chaotic dervish of visual and auditory data overload.

“Brilliant.” The editor emerged, smiling and clapping. “I never knew you were an actress as well as a writer. You were more pregnant than my wife when she had identical twins!”

The handbag reappeared from below the sweatshirt. “I guess it was just a matter of haggling over the price, after all.” Black yoga pants’ right leg revealed a bloodstain at the knee. “Once they saw I had insurance, they gave me oxygen and admitted me right away.” Sitting at a desk, the rolled-up pant leg revealed a deep purple bruise. “I even got an extra Band-Aid while waiting to see a doctor.”

An adhesive bandage gingerly covered the wounded knee. “Getting in was easy. Sneaking out was the hard part. Your plan worked a little too well; everybody loves helping a pregnant lady. Oh, and here’s a little parting gift.” The phone displayed a hospital invoice. “Ambulance ride plus a Band-Aid cost as much as the paper was paying for the high-speed rail article. Consider this as part of my bonus for getting here in an less than an hour.”

Remnants of a desperate combover fell from place as hands waved like magic wands, large round head bobbing from side to side atop sloped shoulders. “Fine, fine. Just come and look at the screens. It’s like some kind of disaster movie.”

Ponytail properly scrunchied, a wall of computer monitors drew nearer upon approach through the cluttered office’s winding labyrinth. Mehul, a skinny youth with a full head of messy dyed blondeish-brown, hunched in front of the firehose of data arriving from sources around the world. The most high-relevance bits were sifted into view by London home office’s artificial intelligence and sorted into each foreign branch’s locality.

Mehul nodded ‘hello’ at the familiar feeling of an affectionate touch on the shoulder. “See this picture?” Mehul said, pointing to a infographic at standing eye-level, three screens to the right. The animation replayed a time-lapse of successive Mumbai electrical zones going dark. “It’s accelerating. The grid goes down like dominoes — even solar power systems were taken offline.”

“Mehul, wait. Look at where it all began.” Hands framed the time-lapse epicenter and spread apart, zooming into a detailed street view.

Mehul shrugged. “The city department of energy. Eleven blocks from here.”

The editor ran fingers through uneven tendrils of combover. “I’ll be damned. That’s not just the department of energy. The building sits on top of Mumbai’s small modular reactor. It was installed when population numbers overwhelmed the traditional power plants. Construction was kept quiet so most people don’t even know it’s there.”

Mehul brought up statistics on a screen below. “It’s also the oldest commercial-use nuclear reactor in the country. Their systems must be thirty years old, at least.”

A gesture zoomed out, showing the entire globe with major population centers highlighted. “These reactors prop up megacity infrastructure all over the world. Delhi, São Paulo, Shanghai, Mexico City… without nuclear power, they’ll fall back to the 19th century.”

Walking across the room, the editor spoke quickly. “We have generator power for three days here since we’re in the same building as the city clerk’s office extension. After that, it might be time for somebody to have another baby.”

“My poor cat…”

A cubicle had been prepared in advance; its computer was turned on and ready. The editor pulled out a chair, beckoning with a smile whose nervous intensity erased decades from a middle-aged face. “Time for you two kids to earn your first Martha Gelhorn.”

Mehul yawned and stretched. “I have a feeling that this data has all the plot twists, spy games and political intrigue we could possibly need. Who knows. We might even bag an honorary Pulitzer.”

Black yoga pants settled into the cubicle’s chair and long stray strands fell over dark brown eyes. “And I have a headline in mind already.”

The editor, on the phone back to the London office at a desk nearby, perked up and paused to listen. “Hit me.”

“The Day the Daughter of Stuxnet Nearly Ate The World.”

“Nearly?” Mehul queried.

“The only way anyone will read this story is if the power grid is back online by the time we’re ready to publish. If it’s not back by then, we’ll be the only ones reading this story anyway — so I’ll take the ‘Nearly’ off just for you.”

Thumbs-up. The editor turned back to the phones and Mehul returned to sifting through data for tips and clues.

Sitting at the keyboard, the story’s first sentence came forth as narration of the information flows streaming into the office. “It all began with an innocent flicker of lights that led, inexplicably for billions, to what must have felt like the beginning of the end…”

END.

===

“It all began with an innocent flicker of lights that led, inexplicably for billions, to what must have felt like the beginning of the end…”

This is almost certainly a headline that none of us wants to see. How close are we to the dawn of the Daughter of Stuxnet?

One fact is certain: we won’t have to wait until 2063.

Excerpts from three news articles indicate the risk:

Recognition of such threats exploded in June 2010 with the discovery of Stuxnet, a 500-kilobyte computer worm that infected the software of at least 14 industrial sites in Iran, including a uranium-enrichment plant. Although a computer virus relies on an unwitting victim to install it, a worm spreads on its own, often over a computer network.

This worm was an unprecedentedly masterful and malicious piece of code that attacked in three phases. First, it targeted Microsoft Windows machines and networks, repeatedly replicating itself. Then it sought out Siemens Step7 software, which is also Windows-based and used to program industrial control systems that operate equipment, such as centrifuges. Finally, it compromised the programmable logic controllers. The worm’s authors could thus spy on the industrial systems and even cause the fast-spinning centrifuges to tear themselves apart, unbeknownst to the human operators at the plant.

Although the authors of Stuxnet haven’t been officially identified, the size and sophistication of the worm have led experts to believe that it could have been created only with the sponsorship of a nation-state, and although no one’s owned up to it, leaks to the press from officials in the United States and Israel strongly suggest that those two countries did the deed. Since the discovery of Stuxnet, Schouwenberg and other computer-security engineers have been fighting off other weaponized viruses, such as Duqu, Flame, and Gauss, an onslaught that shows no signs of abating.

Source: The Real Story of Stuxnet

Stuxnet didn’t only strike once, but was probably re-released to become more virulent.

“Obviously, it spread beyond its intended target or targets,” said Roel Schouwenberg, a senior antivirus researcher at Kaspersky Lab, one of the two security companies that has spent the most time analyzing Stuxnet.

Most researchers have agreed that Stuxnet’s sophistication — they’ve called it “groundbreaking” — means that it was almost certainly built by a well-financed, high-powered team backed by a government.

Kaspersky’s Schouwenberg believes it’s because the initial attack, which relied on infected USB drives, failed to do what Stuxnet’s makers wanted.

“My guess is that the first variant didn’t achieve its target,” said Schouwenberg, referring to the worm’s 2009 version that lacked the more aggressive propagation mechanisms, including multiple Windows zero-day vulnerabilities. “So they went on to create a more sophisticated version to reach their target.” In Schouwenberg’s theory, Stuxnet’s developers realized their first attempt had failed to penetrate the intended target or targets, and rather than simply repeat the attack, decided to raise the ante.

Stuxnet evolved over time, adding new ways to spread on networks in the hope of finding specific PLCs (programming logic control) hardware to hijack.

With the proliferation of Stuxnet, Schouwenberg said that the country or countries that created the worm may have themselves been impacted by its spread. But that was likely a calculated risk the worm’s developers gladly took. “Perhaps they knew that their own critical infrastructure wouldn’t be affected by Stuxnet because it’s not using Siemens PLCs,” Schouwenberg said.

Source: Why did Stuxnet worm spread?

As you see embedded above, infographic video on Stuxnet by Patrick Clair sums up the questions facing all of us in the forseeable future:

The most important question may not be ‘who designed it?’, but ‘who will re-design it?’

The evolution has been so fast that nine months after its detection, the first virus that could crash power grids or destroy oil pipelines is available for anyone to download and tinker with.

You can watch people on Youtube pulling Stuxnet apart. It’s an open-source weapon. And there’s no way of knowing who will use it… or what they will use it for.

Thanks for enjoying the story. Become a monthly member through the AltSciFi Patreon page (click here) and spread the word. The more members we have, the more stories and cool sci-fi/cyberpunk style we can bring you.

Thanks for reading. See you next time. ;)

Dystopian Daily, Issue Zero.

In a media environment focused almost exclusively on Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt, we don’t need to reach for sci-fi futurescapes to find dystopian themes.

What if we could see past the FUD and focus on stories shaping our future world, as it unfolds right here and now? If we rightly see news as entertainment, it may help us find facts while being more amused and less afraid of the typical media rhetoric.

Here, you’ll find selected stories that could spur your imagination to spin up your own cyberpunk realities, or get motivated to foment social change in the real world… before it’s too late.

Welcome to the Dystopian Daily.

Once you’ve fed your brain and read to the end, tell a friend and become a monthly member through the AltSciFi Patreon page.

P.S. This is a prototype. Tell us what you think in the Comments below.

Dystopian Daily

+ How did Amazon’s monster erotica book ban help shape CloudFlare’s stance on censorship?

In the seemingly monolithic debate on encryption, you’re either for it — and you hate the police — or you’re against it and you favor terrorists. Second, there is an emerging threat of “data integrity”, where hackers will screw around with your numbers and figures, and potentially upend the stock markets.

The third issue takes some explaining.

“I worry about Jeff Bezos’ bizarre obsession with dinosaur sex,” said Prince, towards the end of a long conversation in our New York newsroom.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard a chief executive — hell, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say anything like that before,” I said. […]

+ Top European Court Rules That NSA Spying Makes U.S. Unsafe For Data. The lawsuit against Facebook was about transparency and user control. It could not be determined exactly what was being done with consumer data — which goes against the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights. […]

+ Are the Social Media Girls Really the Industry’s “It” Girls? With the exception of a few brands, such as Chanel, Givenchy, Balmain and Sonia Rykiel, Paris-based brands tend to steer clear of the industry’s famous social media faces. So, we put this to the test to see how the industry’s most notable Insta-girls (Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, and Bella Hadid – Cara Delevigne is out because she retired from walking) fare. […]

Comment: The “it” girls of haute couture are now judged by the size of their social media following, rather than careers built on walking elite fashion’s top runways.

+ Discover: Automate Penetration Testing Tasks. […]

+ RSAC CyberSafety Videos. Cyber Professionals share tips with kids about safe and responsible internet practices. […]

+ Public BSODs, crashes, and other errors.. r/PBSOD. […]

Soon you’ll be able to enjoy the Dystopian Daily every day. Become a monthly member through the AltSciFi Patreon page and spread the word. The more paying members we have, the more stories and cool sci-fi imagery we can bring you.

Thanks for reading. See you next time. ;)

Three Things Money Can’t Buy: AltSciFi, Authenticity, and You

Three bots attached themselves to the AltSciFi Twitter account yesterday.

The pesky parasitic little software machines were quickly zapped. That did lead, though, to a more vexing question: “can anyone tell how many bots have slipped through?” Surely there was at least one brilliantly realistic fake user in our midst.

As it turns out, there were only two (very clever) bots hiding amongst us. They, too, have been identified and zapped.

Update: there were four fakes. Now there are none. AltSciFi’s Twitter membership is now 100% authentic.

Note: Despite the endearingly sappy headline, AltSciFi really is at least partly about money. We exist to help connect independent science fiction creators (writers, motion/graphic/visual artists, musicians, and technologists) with the best kind of audience: people who value your work enough to pay for it.

Our authenticity comes from the fact that we refuse to compromise anyone’s right to privacy in the pursuit of profit. We want everyone to feel the same way about our community — that we are proud to be part of this project. Money can’t buy a sense of purpose and the feeling of being among like-minded people, even virtually connected as we are via the Internet.

You can do periodic housecleaning as well via StatusPeople, a website that divides your followers between the fake and the real:

Find Out How Many Fake Twitter Followers You Have With StatusPeople (click here)

Remember to revoke their access to your account when you’re done.

AltSciFi has a foundation of nearly one hundred real artists and techies, future-loving kinksters, oddball outsiders, and generally unusual people. Perfect.

The number itself doesn’t matter as much as knowing that you’re part of something that no robot could claim as its own… until, of course, robots become as real and sentient as we humans are. Thankfully, though, that moment is far enough in the future that we can still enjoy calling it sci-fi.