patents

Orphan Black, the many roles of Tatiana Maslany

Tatiana Maslany as Alison, Helena, Sarah, Beth, Cosima, and Katja.

Orphan Black is a new science fiction television show produced by BBC America and Space, starring Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany. I recently discovered this series, the first season of which just finished airing in the beginning of June 2013, and I plowed through all 10 episodes in two days.  It’s a smart, complex, often dark yet at times quite funny, and well-paced show with a continuous narrative arc that explores the issues of identity and intellectual property. There is fine acting all around but the two standouts are Tatiana Maslany, who plays many roles on the show for which she deservedly won a Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series, and Jordan Gavaris, who plays the foster brother of one of Maslany’s characters.

Minor spoilers follow, but everything I mention is revealed in the first episode or featured prominently in the official publicity for the show.

The science fiction element of the show is pretty low key. You won’t see much in the way of futuristic technology in this series. Instead, the plot revolves around the controversial subject of human cloning and the early stages of body modification and genetic engineering. Who are we if we are not biologically unique, if there are others out there who are genetically identical to us? How much would our experiences and personal choices shape who we become despite this? What would you do if you encountered to your surprise not one but two or three or more other people who look exactly like you? What is it that makes us human? These are some of the questions explored in Orphan Black.

The series begins by introducing us to the main character of the show, Sarah Manning, played by Maslany. Sarah is an orphan, born in Great Britain, raised by a foster mother, and moved to Canada at an early age. Now a young woman, we meet her trying to escape a wild life of crime, drugs, and an abusive boyfriend. Sarah aims to get her life back together, reclaim custody of her daughter Kira from her foster mother Mrs. S, and scrounge up enough money to make a new life somewhere for herself, her daughter, and her foster brother Felix (played by Gavaris).

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Prometheus Unbound Podcast

In episode three of the Prometheus Unbound Podcast, Matthew and I have a fantastic interview with the wonderful Jeffrey Tucker, editor of Laissez Faire Books. It’s a long one, about an hour and fifteen minutes, and we knew you’d be eager to listen to Jeffrey, so we wasted no time with chit-chat and got right down to business. We covered a number of topics ranging from LFB, intellectual property, and Jeffrey’s favorite fiction.

We started off by asking Jeffrey Tucker what it’s been like working for a commercial publisher and bookseller after having worked for a nonprofit educational institution, the Ludwig von Mises Institute, where he was editorial vice president, for so long.

Then we went on to talk about the business model of Laissez Faire Books and the role of the publisher in the digital age as a curator and service provider (curation as a service); the compatibility of open source and business; intellectual property; the nature of competition; how many entrepreneurs and businesses misidentify the source of their profitability and don’t understand why people buy their goods or services; how copyright has held back the publishing industry; and markets as institutions of teaching and learning.

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Prometheus Unbound Podcast

In episode two of the Prometheus Unbound Podcast, Matthew and I (Geoffrey) discuss libertarian speculative fiction and introduce the Book of the Month, Today’s Tomorrows Writing Prompt, and Fiction Forecasts segments of the show.

We break the ice with some brief chit-chat about what we’ve been reading before seguing into our discussion of libertarian spec fic. The Book of the Month is Coyote by Allen Steele. In Today’s Tomorrows Writing Prompt, we turn a speculative eye on the very real possibility of an intellectual-property dystopia. And in Fiction Forecasts, we talk about upcoming (at the time of recording) television shows, movies, and books.

What We’ve Been Reading

Libertarian Speculative Fiction

We covered a lot of ground in our discussion of libertarian spec fic, but we really only scratched the surface of this broad, deep, and no doubt controversial topic. I’m sure we’ll be revisiting many of the stories and issues we covered, and many more besides, in future episodes. So subscribe and stay tuned!

Here’s a brief rundown of some of the things we covered: what qualifies a work of fiction as libertarian; libertarian themes in science fiction and fantasy; why they seem to be more common in science fiction and why libertarians seem to favor this genre; our favorite works of libertarian spec fic; the Prometheus Awards; and probably more that I’m forgetting as I write this.

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Prometheus Unbound Podcast

At long last, here is the first episode of our new, original podcast.

First, Matthew and I break the ice by briefly talking about what we’ve been reading recently. I had just finished Kameron Hurley’s debut novel God’s War. Overall, I think it’s a good effort with an interesting story and world-building but is not without its flaws. Matthew had recently finished Live Free or Die by John Ringo. It was a 2011 Prometheus Award finalist, not a winner as I mistakenly thought while recording the podcast and, according to Matthew, didn’t deserve to be.

Our interview with Stephan takes up most of the episode. It’s around 53 minutes long and starts 9:40 minutes in. For those who don’t already know him, Stephan Kinsella is a patent attorney and prominent libertarian legal scholar. He is best known for his opposition to intellectual property.

We invited Stephan on the show to discuss the problems of intellectual property and piracy in the Digital Age. But first we had to ask him about his love of science fiction and fantasy. We got him to mention some of his favorite authors and books (see below for a list), and we even talked about the Hobbit movie for a bit.

Then, at about 23:15 in, we dove into the meat of the interview. Stephan explained the historical origin of copyright (censorship) and patents (government grants of monopoly privilege, which is what copyright is now too really), how intellectual property has shaped and distorted the film and publishing industries, including Hollywood’s move to California to avoid patent disputes, and why reform is not enough. We also discussed how the Digital Age — the age of the internet, smartphone, ereader, and globalization — is making the evils of copyright and patents more obvious and acute while at the same time undermining traditional business models built around intellectual property. And finally, we explore ways artistic creators might earn a living in a world without intellectual property laws.

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EDITORIAL | Why Space Is So Important Thumbnail

Robert Zubrin

The answer: freedom and opportunity.

Dr. Robert Zubrin has long been a strong proponent of Mars colonization and he has put forth a strategy for doing so with existing technology on the (relative) cheap. Hint: We don’t need to build big spaceships in orbit or colonize the moon first. If you’re interested in this subject, I recommend you check out his books Entering Space, The Case for Mars, and How to Live on Mars. These books are understandable to the layman but also include enough nitty-gritty details and formulas to satisfy the more mathematically inclined enthusiast, and they make excellent resources for science fiction authors.

In the brief video below, Zubrin is answering a question about his book, How to Live on Mars, at the 28th Annual International Space Development Conference, held March 28-31, 2009. Watch it and then continue on after the break for my thoughts on what he had to say.

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The Lorax

Anyone who read Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax as a kid might dread the movie version. No one really needs another moralizing, hectoring lecture from environmentalists on the need to save the trees from extinction, especially since that once-fashionable cause seems ridiculously overwrought today. There is no shortage of trees and this is due not to nationalization so much as the privatization and cultivation of forest land.

And yet, even so, the movie is stunning and beautiful in every way, with a message that taps into something important, something with economic and political relevance for us today. In fact, the movie improves on the book with the important addition of “Thneed-Ville,” a community of people who live in a completely artificial world lorded over by a mayor who also owns the monopoly on oxygen.

This complicates the relatively simple narrative of the book, which offers a story of a depleted environment that doesn’t actually make much sense. The original posits an entrepreneur who discovers that he can make a “Thneed” — a kind of all-purpose cloth — out of the tufts of the “Truffula Tree,” and that this product is highly marketable.

Now, in real life, any capitalist in this setting would know exactly what to do: immediately get to work planting and cultivating more Truffula trees. This is essential capital that makes the business possible and sustainable through time. You want more rather than less capital. An egg producer doesn’t kill his chickens; he breeds more. But in the book (and the movie), the capitalist does the opposite. He cuts down all the trees and, surprise, his business goes bust.

The book ends with the aging capitalist regretting his life and passing on the last Truffula seed to the next generation. The end. However, the movie introduces us to the town that is founded after this depletion occurs. It is shielded off from the poisoned and depleted world outside, and oxygen is pumped in by the mayor who holds the monopoly on air and builds Lenin-like statues to himself. The people eventually rise up when they discover that “air is free” and thereby overthrow the despot, chopping off the statue’s head.

It was this line about how air is free that clued me in to the movie’s possible subtext. You only need to add one metaphor to see how this movie can be the most important and relevant political-economic drama of the season.

The metaphorical substitution is this: The Trees are Ideas.

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Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell

Ragamuffin by Tobias BuckellAs I mentioned in my review of Crystal Rain, I enjoyed reading Tobias Buckell’s debut novel, but I enjoyed reading the sequel, Ragamuffin (Tor, 2008), even more. This may be because Buckell has grown as a writer or it may be because Ragamuffin is more a traditional galaxy-spanning space opera, one of my favorite subgenres. But another reason is that there are more prominent libertarian themes in Ragamuffin than there were in Crystal Rain, enough that it was a finalist for the 2008 Prometheus Award.

Where Crystal Rain was set on a lost colony planet mostly devoid of advanced technology, Ragamuffin opens on an advanced planet ruled by an alien race called the Gahe, who are themselves a client race under the rule of the secretive Satraps. Human beings are officially “free” in the “benevolent” Satrapy, but in fact are forced to live on the margins of society — on space stations in the middle of nowhere, on interdicted planets cut off from the rest of the galaxy by collapsed wormholes (including Earth itself), or on reservations. On the Gahe planet, Astragalai, humans who don’t want to serve in the role of intelligent pet for a Gahe master must live on a reservation, which they can only leave when granted a temperary “human safety” pass. Woe to the human who does not return to his reservation before his temporary pass expires: the penalty is death or enslavement.

We are first introduced to the protagonist of the novel, Nashara, on one such reservation called Pitt’s Cross. Fans of Pepper and John from Crystal Rain will be increasingly disappointed not to see them at the outset, so I think it is best to go into this novel with the foreknowledge that characters from Crystal Rain do not make an appearance until about halfway through. Still, Nashara does quickly grow on you and you will get to see Pepper open a big ol’ can o’ whoop ass eventually, so hang in there. And if it’s Pepper-style whoop ass you’re after, Nashara will not disappoint.

So, anyway, Nashara escapes Pitt’s Cross and rides on an orbital skyhook and transport pod up to a space station to meet up with a group, the revolutionary League of Human Affairs, for whom she had just completed a dangerous job. The League wants to overthrow the Satrapy and achieve real freedom for humanity. But Nashara’s loyalties lie elsewhere and she has a greater mission to accomplish. Things don’t go as planned, but Nashara manages to hitch a ride on a spaceship and proceeds to be hunted in a race across the galaxy by agents of the Satrapy.

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