27 September 2009

Hiatus

It looks as though I, the last active poster on this blog, am going to have to put the site on hiatus until the school year is done. Anyone who happens across this site can expect posting to resume circa May or June of 2010, sometime after my wedding and honeymoon conclude (priorities, you know!).

Until then, readers - write your lives in the pages of life well, for who knows who may read them.

31 August 2009

Long Bets - There will be a Chernobyl National Park by 2035.

Long Bets - There will be a Chernobyl National Park by 2035.

The minipost - to what extent are our predictions self-fulfilling? We already can see that they reflect the hopes and fears of some people at a given point in history, but how often do predictions such as the one above materialize their own truth, and to what extent does this phenomenon place responsibility in the lap of the speculative author?

It seems to me that the author must not be fettered by any restraints save those of their own personal design, but I also think this is the trivial problem the question raises - most people would agree.

The more troublesome knot is to what extent we should factor our own storytelling into our own telling of what the future might be like? If humans dream of interstellar empires and imperialist wars, they will probably get them if it proves possible. If we envision a future in which our technology escapes our control, it will happen. Except that we have already begun working on imagining futures in which we avoid this fate - the process is recursive, a cultural engine regulator. It obfuscates causation - and so our own storytelling about the future proves to be one of the fog banks obscuring our proper understanding of it.

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21 August 2009

Mainstreamin' it!

So this past week I got my hands on a copy of Regina Spektor’s new CD Far (By the way is it a good one so feel free to check it out). And one of the songs on the album got me thinking.


I listened to this and wondered, will true science fiction always have only a relatively niche following due to the fact that mainstream depictions of it seem to be such simple caricature of the genre. Now, this song is not really all that simple in its message; but it seems to me that most mainstream representations of Sci-Fi are very stunted and tell the same story.
Of course this is the nature of the mainstream. As the large river of culture that it is, it is bound to water down everything it touches. And that serves an important function of broadening the experience of the people of our culture, but what about depth? In an age where less people are reading this stream may introduce people without the reading background to have a caricatured view of the genre as a whole.
So is mainstream media a blessing or curse on the real cultures that it tries to reproduce? The answer may be somewhere in the middle I guess, but as less people have the attention and discipline to read great depths of a culture I have a feeling that the mainstream is washing away the banks of culture more than it may be cutting away some depth.

12 August 2009

Toward Accurate Definitions of Near and Distant SF

There's been quite a bit of debate lately in the SF community over a perceived lack of effort on the part of SF authors to tackle the "difficult" problems of both "Distant-" and "Near-" Future science fiction. The most amusing thing about this debate is that proponents of both complaints argue that their preferred chronological measurement is the harder of the two to handle.

On the one hand you've got people like William Gibson, whose prose retreats toward the event horizon of the present as the supposed coming singularity gathers momentum, lamenting the "rate of change fog" that clouds his ability to see further into the future. On the other, you've got people like Jetse De Vries, who not long ago complained that authors are hiding in the comfortably distant corners of the future timeline, refusing to close with the present due to the supposed danger of making predictions which stand a good chance of being proven untrue and thus making the work irrelevant.

They're both right. Gibson and authors like him get around the problem of making unlikely predictions that could be proven false by making few or no predictions in the realm of pure science. When it comes to technology, they can make plenty of important and non-trivial predictions which, if proven untrue, are more easily forgiven because natural laws do not impede the possibility of their being "true" if things had gone a little differently.

Authors that write distant-future SF - like Charles Stross - get around the problem of predicting what came after Singularity generally by supposing that baseline humans also succeeded in surviving the ordeal (and Singularity gives them lots of room to play with unfounded concepts of godlike AI, posthuman beings, etc.). Thus they can continue to write narratives and make predictions meaningful and possible based on extrapolation of human history. They don't have to worry about what would concern beings vastly more intelligent than humans very much, because these beings are not the protagonists of their stories.

Both strategies can be seen as "cowardly" in that they avoid certain aspects of the future in order to retain relevance/verisimilitude, but far be it from me for an unpublished, unprofessional author such as myself to criticize the imperatives of people who make part of their living from a fickle and over-saturated market. Instead, I wish only to provide an additional framework for understanding the compartments of the SF genre. Add "Technological" and "Scientific" to "Near" and "Distant" SF, and you have a more meaningful division of the genre. Unfettered by the restraints of time, these new labels allow us to see more clearly what a so-labeled work is predicting - new applications of already-known science, or new discoveries/applications of postulated - but as yet unproven - science.

After all, I would humbly submit that the interest of most SF consumers in reading about author's predictions is not so much "when" they are supposed to come true, but "how" they will come true (not to mention why, where, and whence). The glory of 2001: A Space Odyssey's predictions for AI, space travel, extraterrestrial intelligences, and the true origin of human consciousness is not diminished by the fact that the supposed year has passed. It remains, in all its terrible wonder, because of how Clarke (and Kubrick) told/showed how they will come to pass, whenever they do.

25 July 2009

Miasma? I Think "Potpourri" Sounds Friendlier


If nanomachines are the dangerous grey goo of the physical, then websites are undoubtedly the grey goo of the informational. And, just as dangerously, they sometimes get people thinking in the right directions...

Which is why you should visit these places:

h+ Magazine Editor's Blog - A blog attached to a zine about the merging of SF and the now.

Shine Anthology Weblog - About optimistic SF (seemingly concerned with near-future varieties).

The Speculist - A blog about... speculation, really. Plenty of multimedia to sink your teeth into, by the looks of it.

Gravity Lens Weblog - A veritable forest of quality links, all served up with very little overhead. Great reading on a slower mobile connection.

Robotic Technology Incorporated - Everything this company wants to do is made of win. Pay special attention to the EATR tech, which is getting some press recently: Story 1, Story 2


And you have to love this quote from one of their recent press releases: "We completely understand the public's concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission."




15 July 2009

Worldbuilding: the Hidden Subgenre?

One of the things that you realize after you read/watch/play/create alot of SF is that plot, characterization, message, and imagery are all great, but if you don't have a nifty setting it just seems like a rehash of something else that probably did it better years before.

This makes sense from the standpoint of Lit Crit - there are only a certain number of plots and they have been categorized, analyzed, and grouped. Same goes for characters - if you don't believe me check out TVTropes.org. As for the message, SF seems to be especially undiversified in that area. Sure, it does a heck of a job investigating nuanced questions of ethics, morality, theology, philosophy, and the sciences via the quasi-magical deus ex machina of Technology, but the fact that it reuses that deus ex machina so often means that some messages inevitably reappear far more often than we would like as consumers or creators of the genre.

In particular, I'm thinking of the dichotomous Technology Is Evil / Technology Is Good message. It sounds like what it is - works of SF inevitably seem to take the stance (implied or overt) that the technology enabling the situations discussed is either Good or Bad. This pratfall can be, and sometimes is, avoided by artists who take care to show that the enabling technology of their work can be used for Good or Bad by Free Agents, but we are speaking in generalities for now, and generally speaking, SF work can be split into these two camps - a fissure that often runs along the similarly deep divide between utopian and dystopian SF.

That leaves imagery and setting. Imagery is great, but what does it usually rely on? The sweeping vistas, vast stretches of time, and colossal armadas made possible by the SETTING. So if you are looking to liven up your SF, you look for a good setting.

The process of constructing this setting is known, in the parlance of the people who do these things, as worldbuilding - and it is a lot of fun. So fun, in fact, that many artists fail to ever begin their actual narrative and instead get stuck in a kind of obsessive, recursive loop.

Take, for instance, Dinotopia, by James Gurney. This series of books and its accompanying website together construct the universe of an undiscovered island of Earth where humans and intelligent dinosaurs live in harmony. A strange excursion into utopian worldbuilding, the Dinotopian universe is especially notable because most of the books that comprise its canon do not so much center around a narrative as they do around a detailed depiction of this setting. Certainly, a simple plot develops and runs to its conclusion, but one gets the sense after reading these books (and looking at their astoundingly detailed illustrations and diagrams) that the story was merely an atrophied vehicle to drive the exploration of the universe. Indeed, it seems possible that if Gurney had thought he could flaunt convention so completely, he might have eschewed the narrative entirely without significant damage to the power of his art.

Don't go thinking this is a fairly unique phenomenon either: other artists, even communities, have put narrative in the backseat while their encyclopedic dialectics working out the innards of a world that never was go for a drive. Orion's Arm, an online community dedicated to creating an SF universe with transhuman elements as plausibly as possible, is one example of a particularly long-lasting community of worldbuilders.

Even more popular universes are not immune to this sort of fiction. Star Wars features such books as The Illustrated Star Wars Universe and The Star Wars Essential Guide series. While these books use the material which fleshes out the traditional narrative expressions of their universes as a starting point, much of the information contained in these volumes is either assumed, deduced, induced, or entirely fabricated. Jumping onto this trend's bandwagon are books like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, by Newt Scamander (aka J.K. Rowling), and The Dune Encyclopedia, edited by Dr. Willis E. McNelly. It would seem that if a universe is inviting enough, there is a market made up of people who simply want to explore its niches and unmapped territories, to make it even more "real" in their minds by learning new details. After all, as any good lier knows, the least questioned stories are generally the ones with more consistent details. To achieve verisimilitude, a facsimile must be nuanced. The real world is complex, and so are the best of our fantasies.

I must confess I am not an unbiased witness - even as children my brother and I created our own fantastic universe, which you can view in this slideshow here (be sure to access the speaker's notes by opening it in a new window using the button on the lower left of the player and then clicking Actions. They provide much-needed explanations for the odd illustrations):


The point then, as it seems to be now, was to create a platform for an infinite variety of narratives to take off from in the mind. Thus in its way, the worldbuilding mode is more versatile and free than even the novel or the non-sandbox computer game. These media cannot rove over the countryside of a newly-imagined universe without considerable difficulty, because they are constrained by the rigid train-tracks of a narrative plot that must show only what is relevant to progressing the storyline if it is to maintain proper pacing and keep the reader's interest. Although many of us love the discursive examinations of esoterica found in books like Moby Dick, this sort of sidetracked writing style is often criticized. It appears ill-fit with the narrative it purports to uphold. It might often do better liberated from the shackles of its parasitic narrative structure.

In a round-about way of argumentation, I suppose I have been attempting to point out that this uniquely postmodern mode of fictive artistic expression deserves recognition as a subgenre within SF & Fantasy. Worldbuilding is a natural and valid mode in and of its own right, and offers opportunities to artists that no other present medium seems prepared to provide.


11 July 2009

Cataloguing Our Predictions & Bets

This doesn't really count as a post, but I felt the need to make a quick note of it after Geoff's last post.

The Arena for Accountable Predictions: Long Bets is a website so obviously in tune with the spirit of this blog that I'm not sure how I forgot about it until now. It too shall join the RSS links to the side of this site.

A prediction that I find completely unlikely and would bet against if I had the money? Prediction 241: The End of State Sovereignty by 2030. World governments are probably much harder to get rid of than we think, or even impossible. This person's idea of a historic trend toward larger and larger forms of government is flawed; the nation-state is dissolving and will be replaced, if it ever truly is, by corporate entities.

A significant Bet that I would back? Bet 20: By 2020 the USA will no longer be the worst contributor to Global Environmental Degradation. Obviously China and India are going to oust us from this one. China is addicted to coal and to a certain extent, you cannot avoid degrading the environment with such high population densities/numbers. Unless I am more forgetful than I think, the People's Republic has already passed the states in terms of CO2 production. The voracious industrializing appetite of billions attempting to sustain a western vision of life will prove the most damaging phenomenon of the early half of this century short of grey goo, and the autocratic government of China at least will prove an impediment to its correction. War may follow.


09 July 2009

Predict, then Verify

Heinlein is very much a connection between the past of SF and the current age. He certainly seemed to be aware of this, or at least aware of the need for his work to reflect not a realistic present but a shaped future; to wit--even his most militarist, political, technologically steered work in Starship Troopers spends an inordinate amount of time dwelling on the effect of situations upon people. (According to Wikipedia--yeah, I know--John Steakley wrote Armor because he felt that there wasn't enough action in Troopers...and note that Armor is not of the classic age of SF; see what I mean about RAH being a connection?) Almost everything he wrote had this kind of vague forward thinking mentality, futuristic in structure for reasons of setting the stage. (See All You Zombies--)

It is interesting, then, to read what he actually thought the future might hold. In Expanded Universe, in "Where To?", he expounds upon a set of predictions made initially in 1950, updated in 1965, and then updated once more in 1980. He attempts to analyze the actual process of prediction, and explicitly states that an exponential path for the future is the most likely...but that a conservative, timid path is almost always what is chosen. I can't look at all of his predictions, but some of them really stand out to me:

circa 1950 "Interplanetary travel is waiting at your front door-C.O.D. It's yours when you pay for it."
--It's heartbreaking to see his pessimism on this point by 1980, especially as it has largely been justified since. He maintains some confidence, though, mostly in the space programs of other nations, to the point of expecting some other nation to step into the gap. Have they? Not since then; maybe they might be starting, but the world has failed RAH in this regard.

circa 1950 "Contraception and control of disease is revising relations between the sexes to an extent that will change our entire social and economic structure."
circa 1980 "Most of this can be covered by one sentence: What used to be concealed is now done openly. But sexual attitudes are in flux; the new ones not yet cultural mores. [...] the current flux of swingers' clubs, group marriages, spouse swapping, etc., is, in my opinion, fumbling and almost unconscious attempts to regain the pleasure, emotional comfort, and mutual security once found in the extended family of two or more generations back"
--Not a typical SF author, indeed, but this prediction would not surprise anyone familiar with his work. Is he right? Not sure about this, but I think that this view wouldn't seem out of place today.

circa 1950 "We'll all be getting a little hungry by and by."
circa 1980 "Not necessarily. In 1950 I was too pessimistic concerning population [...] But no one in the United States should be hungry in 2000 A.D.-unless we are conquered and occupied."
--He was very much a man of his time, but he saw it for what it was later, where others didn't.

circa 1950 "Your personal telephone will be small enough to carry in your handbag. Your house telephone will record messages, answer simple inquiries, and transmit vision."
circa 1980 "This prediction is trivial and timid. Most of it has already come true and the telephone system will hand you the rest on a custom basis if you'll pay for it. In the year 2000, with modern telephones tied into home computers (as common then as flush toilets are today) you'll be able to have 3-dimensional holovision along with stereo speech. Arthur C. Clarke says that this will do away with most personal contact in business. I [...] disagree with his conclusion; with us monkey folk there is no substitute for personal contact [...]"
--Once again, a man of his time and undoubtedly a writer of his time, but his realization of the 'timidity' of the prediction is accompanied by more of his sociological insight. We still don't have 3-dimensional holovision, but everything else, pretty much; it's technologically timid in the same way, but just happens to be right.

circa 1950 "A major objective of applied physics will be to control gravity."
circa 1980 "I stick by the basic prediction. There is so much work going on both by mathematical physicists and experimental physicists as to the nature of gravity that it seems inevitable that twenty years from now applied physicists will be trying to control it. But note that I said "trying"-succeeding may take a long time. If and when they do succeed, a spinoff is likely to be a spaceship that is in no way a rocket ship-and the Galaxy is ours!"
--Always the optimist, he cannot pass up a chance to cheer lead for his preferred future, even while hedging. I think, however, that he falls down some here, mostly because he hits the frontiers of science that are suddenly, as of today, more poorly defined than ever. Control of gravity is as far away now as it was then; we just want to understand it!

More than any of his fiction, these predictions give us insight into Heinlein's mind, and consequently the predictive power of current SF writers. He stumbled across reality when it came to mobile phones and arrived at the present state of science through a simple lack of progress. His predictions when it comes to family and sexual freedoms are, however, about as good as it gets, in my opinion, which is utterly unsurprising, and may actually be an artifact of his libertine vision of the future rather than any predictive ability. I think that the surface lesson to learn here is that we don't live in RAH's future...and his future can still be THE future.

08 July 2009

Canon

In stumbling across Wikipedia, I happened upon the page for Irulan Corrino, and noted something that was a little baffling to me: the Dune Encyclopedia is apparently not considered canon for the series. (Canon mostly means "the official version," at least when it comes to what the author(s) say(s) actually happened in their universe) This was a bit of a disappointment to me, mostly because the Encylopedia is one of the most fascinating pieces of in-universe detail that I have ever seen--it handles things with a respect that usually only reality engenders, providing backstory for the entirety of the universe of Dune, 'past' and 'present.'

Fortunately for me and my piece of mind, exactly who declared it non-canon was not Frank Herbert. He apparently did not feel constrained by it, and did not hesitate to write whatever he wanted to, later, but he apparently approved of it at publishing, writing a foreword praising it. It was only later declared non-canon after the new series, starting with Dune: House Atredies. This made me feel a lot better: I really did not like those books, despite whatever use of notes from Frank Herbert they used.

I thus felt that I could ignore the 'true' canon. It's not as if I have any legal obligation to adopt it--as a consumer, I am welcome to be as irrational as I want, as long as I acknowledge the authors. To me, these new books took the characters as they were in Dune and pasted them callously into the past, never giving them enough room to breathe, which is, to me, very much the opposite of Herbert Sr.'s careful pace. To them, the Corrino Emperors were always impotent bunglers; the Butlerian Jihad was always a simple rebellion; thinking machines were always just mechs.

Why, then, does canon matter? I listen to what my favorite authors say because, well, they're my favorite authors. Most of the time, they come up with things that I could never imagine; that's why I read them. It's when I can easily come up with something more...interesting that I begin to lose faith in the primacy of the author's opinon. It's only the text that matters, not what anyone says afterwards. Fiction is not a narrative of what happens elsewhere, but instead exists entirely within the pages of the book. Once words are written, edited, and published, there is nothing that the author can do to further change them--their characters are what they are, speak what they speak, and generally exist only ever in the mind of the reader. There is no objective reality of a book.

I've had several rather intellecutally violent discussions with others who acted as though there was some independent reality within the pages of a book, where things can only be taken wholly or not at all. I would suggest that these are the people to whom canon is prime, to whom only the author can define what they read, because the author's vision is more important. I simplify, of course, and sneer a little as well.

What to take from this? I'm not sure at all, but it serves to highlight my occasional disconnect from other readers. When looking at SF as a whole, maybe, we need to keep in mind that what we see as readers searching for the future, it may not be what the author sees.

Maybe.

03 July 2009

In Soviet Russia, worker lead you!

Since SF society has come up, I feel the need to look closer at the aspects of what I have read, and maybe introduce some of my favorite books as well.

The issues that fiction of any kind faces are issues of precognition - nothing in the future can be known, and, since people tend to overestimate effects in the near future and underestimate them in the further future, we end up with a variety of societies that are all very interesting and all likely wrong. Infinite variations on the "In the future, everyone will...." theme, commonly built upon the personal preference--or personal fear--of the author. Heinlein's future, as addressed before, is often one of enlightened, individualist, psychologically stable polyglot adults, which very much reflects his views; Alan Moore always manages to work in the triumph of his brand of anarchy over the illiberal fascist governments of his nightmares; and Iain M. Banks writes of the new liberal frontier of free love, infinite free time, and acceptance of everything in his Culture books.

Banks in particular is worth spending time on. I adore his books, despite his absurd Scots liberalism, precisely because his society is so complete, and utterly dependent on his technologies; it literally could not exist today, at least not on Earth. Murderers are punished by drones that follow them around passively for the rest of their life, more or less sentencing them to a lifetime--a potentially infinitely extended lifetime--of being socially outcast, as everyone knows exactly what that drone means. Work does not exist, and everyone has infinite free time to spend doing almost literally whatever they want. Actually, work does exist, but only because people need to feel useful, and so, the great AIs that run everything cheerfully run about the galaxy with 'crews' and poll them constantly as to what to do next. Voting is done by those who are directly affected by whatever is put to a vote, and the only failures of the Culture are caused by ignorant meddling in societies that they fail to understand.

I refer to him because of this: there are no 'laborers' in the Culture. AIs have rights even while being potentially godlike in their power, and create machines and processes at the drop of a hat, and in the time it takes for it to drop, that care for everything. This is admittedly where technology becomes very much a front for magic from the modern human perspective, but I feel that it illustrates an important point--that labor is nothing more than Work, which is the amount of energy needed to accomplish something. With virtually infinite power at their hands, the Culture needs no laborers. One AI ship in particular spends its time recreating vast, historically accurate panoramas of ancient battles with the (waivered!) bodies of hibernating individuals within its holds, and is particularly proud of its solution to simulating smoke--using a repulsor field on each individual particle!

We, on the other hand, certainly will not be facing this particular form of utopia any time soon. That said, we do have steadily increasing amounts of energy available, and steadily decreasing amounts of laborers are needed. American farm production manages to increase even while the number of workers in it decreases drastically; the number of people it takes to make a car, and the time it takes to do so, have both decreased greatly from the days of Ford...all because labor that once was done by men can now be done by the intelligence of men, though machines and innovation. The Culture remains distant, of course, because at certain points manpower is still more cost efficient than mechanical labor, but the thought is there. Banks' genius lies not in predicting the future, but instead in extrapolating along an exciting path.

Heinlein's ideas in Stranger in a Strange Land are still rather strange to us today, but in different ways. His larger message is perhaps not so strange, though, in the light of what happened in the 60s and 70s, and his work in Starship Troopers, while very much outwardly perpendicular to Stranger, follows a similar path, where what was controversial then is perhaps not so much now. Alan Moore's visions of the future are nothing if not 'wrong;' he himself has stated that V for Vendetta was based on a somewhat gloomy prediction after the election of Thatcher and a right-wing government that he sees as being overly pessimistic and reactionary, but even then, his vision has aspects that delve into the very matter of the soul, and extract meanings that can be taken on a small scale. Banks, well, he wants most of what the Culture stands for, and while his future is not THE future, hopes that he can spread his general ideas when they are ripe for being spread.

02 July 2009

The Possibilities and Realities of SF

Science fiction does not predict the future. At least, in my experience it does not try to predict what might happen as much as say what is in the realm of possibility. And even this only comes with a lot of assumptions about the foundations of what is really possible. It is popular culture that takes many of these ideas and runs with them. This is why in the 1950’s we were supposed to have helicopters to drive to work. Currently there is debate about when we will have singularity, or a dyson sphere. I would make the argument that we, as a civilization, will never accomplish anything close to this. The reasons why are simple; first, these SF ideas never look at the real big picture with society. And secondly, they rarely look at the big picture of science.

So to begin, human society is a complex and unpredictable beast. We tend to be nationalistic, irrational, and selfish. But what is more important than this is that modern human society has settled itself into a cycle of consumption. What I mean by this is that it is in every nation’s interests to always have a growing birth rate in order to produce more people who will then consume goods which can be produced. This is the engine of the world economy. It is based on growth without end. The only reason why we were able to survive to produce more than six billion people is due to the invention of artificial nitrogen in the 1920s. That single invention increased the ability of the land to produce the food required by today’s population. But this system does not work on the same function of growth without end. There is still a set limit of how much food the earth can produce. Of course, water is another major concern. There is a finite amount, and even in this country we are starting to see the affects of water shortages. A few years ago two states started fighting over water rights of a shared river. And according to USA Today, (http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2003-01-26-water-usat_x.htm) we are going to see worse before long. Add to all this ideas of a world of governments sworn to try and keep only their own populace alive and we have a powder keg. The world will not achieve SF levels of technology because it would require us to change our self serving set of morals which include the idea that maintaining human life is a high priority.

And of course this does not even begin to describe the hurdles that socioeconomics play into this tangled web of humanity. The world has a class system. And this system does not allow for everyone to be equally prosperous. With only a few exceptions (Sweden being one), this system does not allow for the government to function with the idea of moving everyone forward together. Economic progress comes at the price of widening the gap between rich and poor. If this is the case than there is little political room for abandoning the poor, because it is both heartless and foolish to do so. The foolishness comes from the fact that any economy (SF or otherwise) will need laborers to create goods. I would argue that the world of SF would not be possible without first advancing the world into a level, and educated playing field. Good luck with that.

Secondly, SF likes to ignore some key scientific facts in order to put forward a big idea. Again this is a product of popular culture. The fiction is allowed to do so, it’s fiction; there should be a level of suspension of disbelief. But these ideas are then treated as possible by the media who disseminate this information to the public. But the media doesn’t exactly think that the viewing audience is “Science Savvy,” so things are left out and then forgotten in any debate about plausibility. A good example of this is the Dyson Sphere (or shell or ring or whatever you like). It just can’t happen, even if we ignore the immense logistics of putting such a structure in place it won’t work. This is for one simple reason: Solar flares. The huge ejections of matter and energy can knock out satellites orbiting the earth. The only thing that is protecting our own satellites now is the earth’s magnetic field. Even assuming that satellites could survive a solar flare from one AU away, they would need to produce a massive magnetic field to protect them. This alone would negate any energy gains made by the satellite.

SF is fine for fiction. But in the real world, little of it is really possible. I find this is due mostly to the fact that the ideas of SF are too big for their britches. To us as readers, these ideas are sexy. They are made to be. But if we are to talk about what is possible let’s be frank, the big sexy ideas that fix everything and make the world a better place are never going to happen.

30 June 2009

Biology In Science Fiction



So it is taking a bit longer than I had hoped to get what I needed out of that last poll. Make sure to supply your own opinion, and bring your friends here too!

Today: a mashup of stuff related to one of the most current sciences in science fiction: Biology. This stuff is everywhere - from the heated evolution vs. creationism debate to the moral quandaries we face concerning abortion, cloning, stem cell research and genetic manipulation, to the world-arresting problem of global warming and the fantastic possibilities in exobiology that are emerging as we discover more about the planets of other stars and even our own planets and moons.

But I'm not actually going to talk about any of that. If you want to keep up with that battery of essential information (and so much more!) you can head over to Biology in Science Fiction, an excellent blog that is dedicated to just that topic. It even has a bookstore. From now on, it will have a link aside this blog, amid a (hopefully) ever-growing collection of like-minded observers.

In the information age, perhaps the most important/interesting Big Idea to come out of Biology is the theory of evolution through natural selection. Not only does it provide much of the supporting framework for the work being done with the above topics, but it actually has proven to be a surprisingly well-adapted metaphor for explaining the propagation of certain patterns in networks of information. For the theoretical background, I refer the reader to Wikipedia's article on Memetics and the Heath brother's Made to Stick. This second source serves as a "how-to" application of the theory set down in the Wiki article for business/viral marketing. In the brief (but incredibly fruitful) time I was able to e-collaborate with the Heath brothers during college, they assured me that their work rested upon the model of culture built by Hawkins, Dennet, Blackwell, and others. Hell, you can even read my own application to the study of literature if you like - it has a great bibliography on the topic at least, and is the method of analyzing literature you are most likely to see used by me later on here.

I'll wait here while you read up.

Now that you are familiar with the concept of Memetics, let's take a look at one biology-related meme as it propagates through the culture(s) of the internet. This video:

Chernobyl Fish



As you might surmise, this meme is counting on the sensational presupposition that it is the radioactive nature of the fishes' locale (which has enabled them to grow so unusually large) in order to replicate - an old SF plot device so common it has implanted itself into the collective unconscious of our culture as "true" even though evidence is scarce; these fish are well within the normally recorded ranges of length and weight, as it turns out (Well's Catfish).

Nonetheless, veracity is only one reproductive strategy in the ecology of ideas, and so we find this video making its rounds on the internet (even here!), evolving, and so on. A rather short video from the same bridge appears 10 months ago, then about 6-9 months later a flurry of new videos (1, 2, 3) from the same bridge but with better quality and longer times supercede it. The original idea was good, like exoskeletons, and it hit its own little cambrian explosion which both diversified and further propagated its ilk across the internet.

The interesting point for us as we witness how SF produces and is produced by the cultures it exists in is that the (in this case bad) fiction lent an air of believability to this urban legend.

Not only does SF use science to predict the present and the future, but we use SF to enhance our understanding of what is scientifically plausible. Knowing this, it would seem to place an onus upon SF artists to represent the facts as we know them accurately - or perhaps readers should be more skeptical?

Hey, now that I think of it, does SF with bad (false so far as we know) science behind it even qualify as SF, or is it a form of fantasy that takes itself seriously?

24 June 2009

The silicon portal

Escapism is very much part of my life with fictional works. There are several computer games that offer this to me, games that I play far more for the feeling of being there rather than any abstract challenge, because they offer more than the sum of their parts.

One in particular is, perhaps unsurprisingly. a game with a lot of text in it: Planescape Torment. Never--and I mean never--has an RPG managed to so completely enthrall me. The way the universe works is mind-boggling yet coherent, and the characters entirely believable within their realms. There's an element of black-and-gray morality that lurks here without ever entirely taking over, functioning along with the other aspects of the game that are just as well done, such as the music or the voice acting. This game made me fall in love with the Planescape universe to the extent of reading every single AD&D sourcebook and adventure module backwards and forwards. Sigil is not a happy place, but somehow it makes me want to go there.

Another game is Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, and this one is just...wow. The game is far less of a game than it is an interactive novel; there's not really a lot of freedom in it, and the 'action' sequences are pointless, often literally so, but the story, oh the story. It manages to be compelling and coherent without giving away much of anything, and there are aspects that are almost breathtakingly subtle. The characters are, once again, compelling and believeable, although in this case the main impetus lies in the main character. Zoey could have been a typical buxom action girl heroine, but instead she is a person, specifically a late-teens/early twenties girl who is thrown into a massive situation far beyond her, or anyone else's, comprehension. She solves some aspects but encounters others that seem massively incomprehensible except in the slightest of ways. Being the second game in a planned trilogy, it ends in a manner that is satisfying but piles on the mysteries to the point of making one doubt even the solved portions; I ended up with the feeling that there was something very, very large moving just beneath the surface of the plot, and that takes skill and effort to pull off.

I played the first game, The Longest Journey, after encountering this one, and the parallels between the two are satisfying and stunning in their complexity, a connection that makes both better than their parts. I should also add that both games have a sense of humor about them that is realistic and utterly endearing without going overboard.

The thing that ties both of these, and others, together is their quality of story, of course, but not just that; their problems, protagonists, villains and allies, solutions, and methods are entirely within their universes. Zoey, April Ryan, and The Nameless One face challenges that are complex because of interactions within their world are similarly complex. The Nameless One, for example, literally cannot die, and the player is never penalized beyond having to navigate a couple of screens for doing so--this is literally an integral part of the story, beyond its use as a mechanic. Were one to remove his immortality, the story would make no sense whatsoever. Zoey and April face problems that are on par with the real world's unfortunate tangle of issues; imagine, for example, of the complexities of the American reporters in North Korea and why they cannot, or perhaps just should not, simply be rescued by force of arms, and why Japan would be so worried about the whole issue, and why China is involved, or may be....and so it goes, history, politics, personalities, all tangled together. The universe of The Longest Journey is not reality, but it has that same feeling, and keeps its pace alongside narrative.

Whenever I play these games, I want to go there, wherever there is. They are not fantasy or science fiction, although they both have aspects of such...they are stories, and places, which is exactly what all tales should want to be.

23 June 2009

Your blue may be my green

I am not entirely sure that how I read is, well, normal. I read with great fervor and eagerness, but I also do not read like most people I know, with the possible exception of my brother.

It goes like this: when I read, I read in chunks, large segments, sometimes 3 or more lines at a time, sometimes paragraphs. I almost always ignore articles and other regular grammatical words, perhaps because the simple volume of what I have read before gives me a good sense of what to expect. When I run into understanding issues, I will backtrack, but by and large I can continue on in this manner indefinitely to the end of a book or article. My comprehension is high but not absolute; I would estimate that an initial reading tends to produce something like 80%, but that is for the larger aspects...I have considerable trouble with remembering small details, such as character descriptions, colors, general descriptions, and ultra-specific quotation.

To offset these disadvantages, I am a voracious re-reader. It is unimaginable for me to read a book just once, unless it fails to capture me, and even then, there is no absolute cutoff. My favorite books I have read almost uncounted times, and nearly every book that I own has been read more than once, front to back.

This all means a couple of things for how I approach books. For one, I end up filling in a lot of what I miss, particularly in the area of description and characters. There's books that have managed to force their visions on me, of course, and I do not tend to invent things wholesale, but commonly I end up with impressions that stick and are entirely specific to me. As a whole, then, I tend to comprehend books in a very cinematic manner, its focusing dependent on how the writer writes. Another, and more important, result is my tendency to quickly fall in love with a universe rather than a specific story. Sometimes when I read and re-read books, I end up 'getting' the mechanics of that universe, seeing the characters and locations and situations as parts of a greater whole. I read the book then not so much for the tale it tells but for the chance to return there.

A logical extension of these habits and tendencies is that I sometimes willfully ignore that which the author has put in front of me (in fiction!). The text is everything, indeed, but I feel that it is often the character of a work that is its strongest point rather than what is embodied in specific words. One cannot control the precise meanings of a word, and neither can one control the imagination of one's readers. I do read for enjoyment, after all.

There is no possible way that my modes of comprehension are unique to me, but I still end up feeling lost and alone sometimes because of it. No, I wasn't paying attention to the color of the suit that so-and-so was wearing; no, I don't care about that particular subplot; what do you mean you didn't get why he had to do that, and so on. It leaves me with a zero-man audience all too often, unless I am talking to my brother, who I also suspect reads in a manner very similar, although likely not identical.

A Question for (Any) Readers

Think back to the days when video games and computer games (if
you care to make the distinction) were making their presence felt.
A new medium for storytelling, these games did not take their
stories seriously, nor would the literary establishment have taken
them seriously if they had tried. Many (including myself) would
argue that with video games this is still the case. No Harold
Bloom or Oprah's Book Club is going to treat S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear
Sky with anything close to the degree of critical respect The Road or even The Matrix got. It
was the same with film, and the same with novels before that. Each new medium must prove
itself capable of carrying the tripe before it is permitted to carry the jewels of culture. What
is interesting about this state of affairs from the point of view of an SF afficionado is that SF
(along with other non-mainstream genres such as Fantasy and Alternate History) seems to me to
be more prevalent among the early titles of these genres (with perhaps the exception of the
novel). Or maybe not. What do you think?

I will publish the results of this poll as soon as I get a substantial (20? 100? I can dream!) number
of replies, so tell your friends and family to get over here and answer the question for me. The
potential "so what?" of this poll: if the perception exists that SF and other unconventional
(un-literary) genres lead the way in introducing a new genre, the following useful questions
appear:

1. Why does this phenomenon exist?
2. What effect does this phenomenon have on the cultural perception of the emerging
medium?
3. Does this phenomenon contribute to the continuing refusal of the literary canon to include
unconventional genre literature (or at least admit that it already contains unconventional
genre literature)?

And doubtless many others. If any occur to you, please list them in the comments below, along
with the usual.




20 June 2009

On the Mohs scale of SF, Ben Bova eats diamond

Something written by Ben Bova in his column (talked about it before here) has been bothering me:
I admit that if the only science fiction you’re aware of is what you see in movie theaters or on television, you have every right to be skeptical. That stuff isn’t based on scientific fact; it’s based on comic strips or the dreams of juveniles.

[...]

When I say “real science fiction,” I mean stories based solidly on known scientific facts. The writer is free to extrapolate from the known and project into the future, of course. The writer is free to invent anything he or she wants to — as long as nobody can prove that it’s wrong.
Man, this guy believes in the hardest of hard SF. I obviously disagree with what he is saying, but then, he's a well known author, while I post in some forsaken corner of the internet...but I'm a consumer of SF, too, which gives me some rights, yeah? I always value insight into others' mode of thought, besides.

But specifically--what's wrong with comic strips? The word used to compare them is 'juvenile,' wielded in a manner that drips condescension. I suspect that Mr. Bova thinks that all comics are basically The Family Circus, and therefore unworthy of his attention, which is an attitude that is very much prevalent in the American public. Some of the most interesting SF storytelling today is being told through an animated medium, and is often only tenuously related to scientific fact. I love it precisely because there is no pressure of reality upon it, either visually or thematically, and imagination is allowed to run free.

But enough about anime and comics for now. What about this requirement that science fiction be based upon something that cannot be 'proven false'? I find this silly for very similar reasons to the other assertion, but there's something more to this belief than simple condescencion. Ben Bova made his name in 'hard' SF and man, I can see why. That's a hard goal to live up to; virtually impossible, I would think, but it seems to work for him. I also think, though, that this is a remarkably narrow view, and more importantly potentially ignores the very function of writing, that of storytelling. Not saying that he has failed on this account, but there's a reason that I don't much enjoy the diamond end of hard SF and I suspect that this is it.

Ben Bova's viewpoint is that of a minority, however, and part of me is a little saddened by this. I see him and his ilk--Benford and...and...well, there's others that I can't think of right now--as being the ballast of the SF community, keeping it distinct and separate from other more fantastic genres by injecting a dose of (over)realism into the mix. I am a consumer, but I am not the consumer base...good thing, eh?

17 June 2009

Ray Kurzweil, SF Author

I do not believe in The Singularity.

Those of us who spend too much time on the internet, and the blogosphere in particular, cannot avoid excited talk of the upcoming Singularity, where man and machine merge into something more than just men and their peripherals. It is not really a moment, more a stretch of time when telling apart 'manmade' from 'computer made' will become less and less easy, where Turing Test-defeating machines are possible and easy to manufacture, if indeed they do not already manufacture themselves. The Singularity is simultaneously hoped for and worked towards.
If there is one thing that it lacks, it might be humanity, but really, it has humanity built in. Literally.

The problem is this: exponential progression is impossible when attempted by men. Predictions of the year 2000 had steam horses and rigid airships and other things similarly advanced, flying through the aether to Mars and beyond, perhaps to land on Jupiter. These are linear predictions, the kind that Kurzweil tells us is not only impractical, but worthless.

I would suggest that men working towards a future of the Singularity are laboring under the same misbeliefs. I think that Kurzweil moves his predictions closer, unbeliveably close, in hopes of circumventing this lack of imagination, but in the end his predictions are still functionally worthless. Take his prediction of a Turing Test capable machine: we know what that means, from a technological standpoint, but remember that years ago it was discovered that the simplest of looped response scripts can be incredibly convincing...this does not show limitation in the techology, but it does demonstrate the critical failure point of any predictions, namely that while we understand the technology, the mechanics of humanity continue to elude us.

This is where I think that Kurzweil's predictions suffer. He predicts artificial blood that increases oxygen carrying capacity by thousands of percent or more, while I suggest that what REALLY may happen is something completely different, unpredictably different. Artificial blood is the hyper-advanced airship, and whatever happens for real is the Concorde, because not only might new uses come up but other challenges may evolve that were literally unthinkable ten years before. Remember the idea of videophones? Who even thinks about those any more? We have devices that carry video, often shockingly high-def video, and phones that can transmit that in realtime--but we don't have videophones because we don't want them! Who wants an unavoidable video connection; voice is one thing but getting a midnight call on a videophone is quite another.

Basically, I think that Kurzweil is thinking like an SF author, a possibly misguided, probably genius, and certainly prolific SF author. He is taking what he knows, and adjusting it to what he predicts. While others publish novels, however, he publishes the predictions in non-fiction form. Same thing, different presentation--and who gets taken seriously? All negativity about his ideas aside, I think that he is on to something, and something big, but it's not something that is unique to him.

SF Apocalypses






If there were one thing the apostle John would appreciate about Science Fiction, it would probably be the genre's propensity for apocalyptic prophecy. From H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds to Dynamix's Earthsiege Universe, the genre has compiled an impressive number of attempts at the ultimate prognostication - the end of the world as we know it. The artists of the last ten years are certainly no exception - here's a (surely incomplete) list of Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic SF published in the last decade:

11. WALL-E

Take a look at this list for more (not genre-specific or within the last 10 years): http://www.quietearth.us/postapoc.htm

And this is leaving out all those great pre-millenials like Armageddon, Deep Impact, The Andromeda Strain, The Omega Man, etc., so forth, ad nauseam.

Science Fiction has been a primary vehicle for the darkest fears of our imaginations. When was the last time you saw a movie, read a book, or played a game that posited the destruction of this universe because of magic or mysticism? Take a look at ExitMundi, an amusing collection of eschatology. The category of apocalypses with the most entries is Science. The next highest is Space, and the third Earth. Note that most of the apocalypses in these categories would remain completely hidden from us without the aid of scientific inquiry. Certainly nearly every culture in the world circulates some form of the end times or another, vastly outnumbering the presently conceived scientific armageddons. That is not my point. The point is that we, as a western culture, are more and more concerned with the potential for annihilation revealed and/or created by the reaches of science.

Why the shift in interests? Is it because we have begun finding plausible threats? Hardly: civilization has known of the perfectly scientific apocalypses of disease, natural disaster, and Malthusian overpopulation for centuries. Is it novelty? Surely scholarly research into the eschatologies of obscure world cultures has kept apace. What about a growing sense of our own hubris, a sort of premonition before the fall? Perhaps, although civilization seems to be steaming along at a fairly unstoppable pace at this point.

The answer may be that we are more interested in exploring the options we have the capacity to resist or avoid. Take a look at the list above: it runs the gamut from malevolent god-like AI, nuclear holocaust, disease, global warming, gray goo, various natural disasters in space and on earth, malevolent aliens, portals into other less amenable dimensions, and pollution. The link between all of these calamities is that the stories that tell us about them argue that there is something we can do to rectify, avert, or minimize their negative impact on the chances of survival for our species (often by using more science!).

Where they get their science wrong, we laugh, deride, and forget them. But when these stories have frightened, inspired, and most of all - convinced us, we began to pay attention.

In the past decade, for example, we have successfully identified the trajectories of roughly 85% of large Near Earth Orbit (NEO) objects in our solar system. That feat, considering that the attempt began in 1998 with almost nothing, is remarkable.

What is more remarkable, perhaps, is that Deep Impact and Armageddon were both released in 1998.

"Printer's ink has been running a race against gunpowder these many, many years. Ink is handicapped, in a way, because you can blow up a man with gunpowder in half a second, while it may take twenty years to blow him up with a book. But the gunpowder destroys itself along with its victim, while a book can keep on exploding for centuries."

- Christopher Morley

16 June 2009

Do not read this. It makes no sense!

A previous post spawned an interesting point:
[...] Then, since storytelling is a form of communication and the intent of all communication is to share information, the most useful interpretation is the one with the best information that the most people can understand.

I'll leave you to determine what makes some info better than other info, but at least by looking at it from this standpoint we can say that yes, all interpretations are valid but not all are equally useful.

In other words, why talk about what Janet thinks of Alice in Wonderland if what Janet thinks has little utility to us?
Ideas necessarily exist independent of utility, and as such, can only 'gain' it through application. Application in this case, as near as I can see, is use of the interpretation of others as a medium for understanding of larger things, and as such, validity (utility) is indeed not infinite but is instead limited to a generalized palette. Thus, if Janet is a paranoid schizophrenic who interprets the rabbit hole as a metaphor for her personal hell of persecution by rabbits and clocks, her interpretation is fantastically useless in analyzing the text. Valid, but useless, as stated in the comment above.

However, how might one determine that her interpretation is, in fact, useless, if not exactly invalid? We have no a priori knowledge of this interpretation.

Basically, this is the process of deciding an interpretation. See the image to the left: moving from 1 to 3 results in something that is easy to understand, a 'natural' progression that is anything but natural, but has the advantage of avoiding an overcomplicated explanation of every other possible 'end' result. I believe that we do this every time we interpret something, and therefore end up presenting 3 as a completed interpretation, having pared a massive tree down to something more manageable. (image modified from this)

B could be any one of the end points and 3 would always end up looking the same; that is, all are valid, because the process of creating an interpretation is identical in all cases. But is it useful? We cannot tell until we see where A and B were, originally. Without a priori knowledge of the interpretation, we only have 3 to go by.

My god, the point, finally: if interpretations are presented to the world as #3, knowledge of other interpretations can help shape a more complete knowledge of #1. As long as Janet arrives at B from A along a path that can be abstracted to #3, the interpretation is both useful AND valid. In fact, assuming adherence to the text and analyzation of the whole, all possible interpretations are both! Ultimately I would suggest that the definition of usefulness that is brought up in the comment is usefulness applied to some midpoint, one of the boxes that are unlabled. Certainly, progressing along one of the initial two division trees when the point or the idea that one is interested in is on the other is a path to confusion and uselessness. Thus only some would be useful, but still valid.

Relation of this to anything: non-zero but closer to 0, but these are the things that keep me up at night.

15 June 2009

According to Ben Bova, reading more Science Fiction could have saved a lot of grief over the years. To wit:

If our political leaders had been reading science fiction, we might have been spared the Cold War, the energy crises, the failures of public education and many of the other problems that now seem intractable because we were not prepared to deal with them when they arose.

We could be living in a world that is powered by solar and nuclear energy, drawing our raw materials from the moon and asteroids, moving much of our industrial base into orbit and allowing our home world to become a clean, green residential area.

Yes, and get me those flying cars while you are at it. He's on to something here, of course, but I think that he doesn't quite extend the article to the conclusion that I take from it all: no one reading SF is a symptom, not a cause.

The real problem is a lack of imagination, a lack of insight on the part of humanity and the United States in particular, or perhaps more an overabundance of the here-and-now. The worst insult that can be thrown at a visionary--or best, depending on one's view--is to call them 'impractical.' Impracticality is certainly something to look out for, but these generalized tossers of insults, the majority of Americans, I think, do not mean 'impractical over the long term.' No, they mean 'impractical NOW.' This attitude, coming from people who use computers and drive cars with GPS units in them and watch HD television, is silly and pointless, as virtually nothing that they use was very practical in the past, sometimes in the very near past, even. What is useful now is not necessarily worth beans in the future, and vice-versa.

With this holding us back, we are limited to the (comparatively) slow, steady pace of normal technological progress, a recombinatory process which extends from the present to the near future. Science fiction bypasses all of this, ignoring the slow process to look to at an end product of sorts. Sure, everything past the nearest future is often wildly impractical from a modern perspective, but, first of all, where's the fun in that, and why not try to take the path and see what else comes along? The end product is, after all, NOT an end product, but instead a transitory stage, an accumulation of other pathways that are all independently variable.

[...] The writer is free to extrapolate from the known and project into the future, of course. The writer is free to invent anything he or she wants to — as long as nobody can prove that it’s wrong.

Thus science-fiction stories can deal with flights to the stars, or human immortality, a world government, settlements on other worlds. All of these things are possibilities of the future.

Science Fiction is not an instruction manual; it's only a guidebook. Impractical, even--but knowing what might be at the end should excite anyone, and if it doesn't, well, then SF writers just need to write a little better.

12 June 2009

Society and SF, or, why, in the future, we will all have a society of our own

It strikes me that if there's one thing that SF does relatively poorly, it is in creating believable societies. I don't mean societies that are believable in the scope of the tale; I mean societies that can really stand up to more than a couple minutes' examination and avoid the tendency towards fridge logic that can take up residence in fictional stories at the drop of a hat. Star Trek is very much the poster child for this, as it is basically a universe built around a single ship and filled in on an ad-hoc basis. The Federation doesn't seem to really work so much as simply exist, which is forgiveable within the tale but falls apart if one spends any time pondering it on the way to the kitchen.

The classic SF authors avoided this through a simple expedient of writing their own society into the future. This isn't a cop-out, not in the slightest, because they knew at the very least that something had to change to maintain a modicum of suspension of disbelief while keeping familiar environs. I would call Asimov's Foundation series a prime example, from a 21st century perspective, because, once one strips away all the spacecraft and interstellar-ness, the dialogue and setting is a little archaic to modern sensibilities. Heinlein did this often, particularly with his Future History tales, but he also adopted another conceit: an ideologically triumphant society.

What I mean by an "ideologically triumphant society" is a society that is less an attempt towards belivability and more an attempt to transform one's personal belief system into a viable and transcendent system. In Heinlein's case, Starship Troopers is the exemplar (I seem to recall Stranger in a Strange Land as being one, too, but it's been a long while, and I didn't much like that book in any case). The society of Starship Troopers is, well, one of soft facism, what one today might call Libertarian Paternalism. The chaos of the past has been banished by application of Heinlein's belief in individualistic responsibilities, so much so that they look upon 'past' systems with a mix of fear and pity. A lecture by a professor in the book is actually a lecture by Heinlein himself about the failings of the juvenile justice system; it's all in the past, in this book, and this quietly confident society sails on through rough waters of warfare and tragedy to a calmer sea of peace.

This kind of society is generally easy to read if the rest of the story is up to the task. Starship Troopers is very much a product of genius and is undeniably a science fiction war novel before anything else, and as such succeeds. However, I see this as being only one side of the coin. Heinlein used it positively, to portray what he believed should be, but it can be used negatively, as well, in dystopian fiction. This is the most common method today, I think, and it is hard not to see why: drama feeds off of disaster. Things going wrong is ever a catalyst for heroism.

Movies have very much adopted this perspective, mostly because it allows for explosions. In V for Vendetta, a militant fascist society, Norsefire, controls all of England, and has carried out various iniquities upon its people until brought down by the machinations of V. Alan Moore, the writer of the graphic novel, is very much a dyed-in-the-wool anarchist, and it shows (The graphic novel is far more careful and interesting, by the way, but condensation is necessary for a movie. Remember what I said about reducing interpretations?).

All of this does not mean that there is not hope for belivable societies in SF. Neal Stephenson's latest book, Anathem, avoids most of this ideology. The reversed perspective of what are basically technologically philosophical monks thrives within its limits, never quite allowing the reader to see past the prejudices of the protagonists while still allowing details of realism seep through. Arbe is obviously--and literally--a literary stand-in for Earth, to the point of almost innumerable parallels, which allows Stephenson the luxury of combining the simple fuctionality of writing modern society with the more-or-less neutral ideological views of his protagonists.

Despite what I said before, I see that Science Fiction does actually do fine with society, but only to a point, the point to where it serves the story, and not the other way around. Neal Stephenson wanted to write about philosophy; Asimov wrote about people and technology; Heinlein wrote about the effects of lifestyle and war. Different skills and talents produce different results, leaving the SF field scattered with methods that are varyingly believable and may or may not be worth embracing. Learning from a fictional tale is possible, but adopting it wholesale is impractical...because there IS nothing else other than the story. More on that later!

11 June 2009

Science Fiction as Thought

Science Fiction is robots, spacecraft, aliens, and Science! all wrapped into a package of epic storylines and a generous helping of buxom ladies, often in various states of undress. Science Fiction is Asimov and Clarke, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Star Wars. Science Fiction is brightly colored and shows the future. It is HG Wells and Independence Day.

Watch this and reconsider the above. No spacecraft. No robots. Nothing that men of the 40s and 50s SF explosion would recognize as being their chosen theme. Certainly no epic storylines, even given that the music is Led Zeppelin.

In order, I was reminded of: plants, ice caverns, glaciers, fountains, the moon, Halley's Comet, the great pyramid at Giza, European cathedrals, a mandala, bells, a suspension bridge, stairs, and endless plain, bronze in a furnace, lake of fire, the sun, an Incan calendar, The War of the Worlds, a single-celled organism, a dreamcatcher, dragon's teeth, the fall of night, Tron, monoliths, drill bits....

My list has a definite hint or two of Science Fiction, what with the moon, strange landscapes, and Tron all wrapped up together; there's some Fantasy in there, too, and some history, with some science thrown in for good measure, and an extraneous hardware reference. I saw a lot in there. I'm sure of two things: first, that people watching this for the first time will likely as not be reminded of things completely different, and second, that, if exposed initially to my list of perceptions, that they will suddenly be able to see the same things I saw, and perhaps even be unable to see others.

Any human being whose eyes work more or less properly and whose mind is more or less on spec cannot help but see something at work in those colors and shapes; it's not colors moving on a two-dimensional plane, but instead is a collection of objects moving through a three-dimensional space, alternately simulating motion of the observer and motion in the observed.

If I manage to influence people into seeing those things, does that make it Science Fiction? Assuming that someone else produces a list that is vastly different, does that make my list invalid? Would their perception of whatever they saw make it that? Certainly not! I could only succeed in convincing others of its science-fictional nature by forcibly eliminating a myriad of ideas, all equally valid. Ideas are all that matter, and, in the absence of a chosen, specific narration, there are virtually endless ideas in every piece of media.

This is why artists have a chosen medium--to alternatively limit or expand potential interpretations. Modern art often errs on the side of ambiguity, while classical art is (more) narrowly focused on a real thing, or place, or kind of person. Movies are the most constrained, showing and telling in a very directive manner, and writing falls somewhere in between.

Science Fiction, however, as a concept, straddles all of these, from the video I linked here to a carefully crafted movie narrative. I validly interpreted the video through the screen of my experience, which is very much suffused with classic and modern SF, just as I can watch a movie such as, oh, The Running Man, which has Science Fiction aspects but is mostly a rail-bound by-the-numbers Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and has a very small number of valid interpretations.

What is Science Fiction, then, if not robots and spacecraft? I said all of that so I could say this: SF is nothing more or less than a mode of interpretation, and while it often includes the aforementioned robots, it can just as often include almost everything else.