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


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.


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.