19 January 2011

Various Thoughts Brought on By Recent Reading and Writing

I recently read William Gibson's Zero History. This book is fantastically-written and full of great ideas, much more SF book than Pattern Recognition, which while a fantastic book in its own right was more "literary," if you will (along the lines of Lord of the Flies). It is easily a match for the starter to its trilogy, and certainly much much better than Spook Country, which has thus far been the only mediocre novel I've ever seen William Gibson write.

The big ideas in this book are that you can destroy the world economy by knowing the order queue for everything on the market a little bit in advance, and that secret advertising is the best way to catch people's attention through a sort of reverse psychology of advertising that works only in a world flooded in advertising, where a lack of said substance causes the calloused eye of the consumer to pause and take interest. In examining this phenomenon, Gibson lays bare the reason that viral marketing works so well (when it works).

The big idea, though is the first that I mentioned, and while it is undeniably the better of the two ideas he has come up with, he spends precious little time on it in Zero History, and in general makes the book a stylistic and plot-driven success that nonetheless leaves behind a shadow of philosophical disappointment. The book dodges some of the hardest questions it raises, and it really seems to me like Gibson is willfully ignoring the singularitarian implications of his own imaginations. I mean, you write a book with a name like Zero History, stick a world-altering idea in it, and then avoid doing anything with it that might smack of singularity-esque prognostication? It seems like turning a blind eye to me, if there was ever a literary example of said feat. I can't help but think Gibson is opposed to this kind of thinking by some deeply-inborn atheism, but I wish he could look at the possibility from the detached perspective of a scientific observer of the phenomenon he foresees. There is at least the chance that what he speaks of in this book is going to be one of, if not the, drivers behind a material singularity. To go into it further here would ruin the book for those who have yet to read it, but the book does a pretty clear job of intimating where it might have gone had Gibson been more willing, so I'll leave any curious readers of mine to read the book for answers.

There was one other thing about the novel that got me thinking. It was, at its base, a Quest plot in many ways, but one that felt almost like all the physical moving about was secondary to the quest that was done online in the book. The whole idea of a Quest plotline becomes increasingly quaint in a global world such as ours, and even potentially dangerous. It's no far stretch to say that our cultural mindset in the West is deeply ingrained in a Quest sort of attitude - it permeates our greatest literature from Gilgamesh to Homer to Melville to L'Engle to McCarthy. It is in movies and books and computer games, so to say that the West thinks in terms of the Quest is like saying that dogs think it terms of food. Even as a generalization it is an understatement. Going a step further, it is not too far a step to say that all of human culture is heavily invested in the mindset of the Quest narrative.

The problem with the Quest narrative is that it is all about expansion; going elsewhere to solve your own problems, either within yourself or back at home. That's not sustainable thinking. There are other plots, some more sustainable than others, but it might be worth it to think about how strongly narratives structure the way we think about our lives and our future as a society. We can't afford to fantasize just about space travel, or travel to extreme areas of the Earth, or travel outside of society when disaster strikes, as potential solutions. They form a good part of what we want to imagine for ourselves, but it seems we could use a healthy dose of imagining about what solutions might exist if through bitter fate, we are forced to make do with what we have right here for the foreseeable future.

15 January 2011

Hardware, Interface

I am an enemy of the The Singularity.

Let me rephrase that slightly - I am an enemy of The Singularity as it is currently in vogue to imagine. I don't think that the singularity will be as dramatic, as life-changing, as flashy, or, most importantly, as soon as some people imagine. Kurzweil and those who look to him as a prophet of the future are looking too hard in the wrong place.

Computing is indeed expanding in power and decreasing in cost at a tremendous rate, along with the information that it has been made to handle. Problem is, these things expand at different rates: information is the elephant in the corner, and hardware the precocious child that everyone knows will succeed but no one quite knows how or when. Between the two of them lies the invisible aspect - the interface. In my view, this is where the singularity breaks down.

I believe that The Singularity occurs when hardware is indistinguishable from interface.

Computing power is needed to access information and to manipulate it; right now, the manipulation is being done by Google and Pixar and any number of high-powered computing/analysis firms). What Kurzweil's singularity does is move this computing power into our hands (actually, heads), along with both the tools to utilize it and be changed by it. Pretty heady stuff, actually, but I feel that it misses a critical juncture - how does it go smoothly from 'access Google from the refrigerator' to 'hey new drivers for my eye'? We've had keyboards for ages, mice for a long time, speech recognition is not quite there yet, and let's not even bother with video...and then look at the other aspect, delivery - just one path there, really, and that's screens. Small, large, flexible, they're still the same thing. This is not technology that is ready to be implanted into our bodies in 50 years.

Why, though, do we feel so close to the information? A keyboard is a keyboard, but we work around its limitations with fantastic ease, and screens are developing in ways and directions astounding and myriad. The thing that gets glossed over in talk of the imminent and inevitable Singularity is that our interfaces must change substantially for all of the things predicted to become true, and this is not going to happen any time soon. I think that it may end up happening later on, but only for certain values of X exceeding 100 years.

Notice, though, that I said 'things predicted.' I think that we need to look at the common car as an examplar - well, actually, not the car so much as our relationship with it. When driving, one more or less internalizes the car as part of the body. 'He hit me!' instead of 'He hit my car!', avoiding the feeling of barely controlling a massive chunk of metal, and jetting in and out of crazy traffic with many other peo - there I go again, internalizing. It is also completely physical, not at all any kind of wetware interface. Keyboards, multitouch interfaces, mice, all are physical in a similar way.

The extension of our selves that we feel when using these, when driving, that is what The Singularity ignores - we can almost achieve an end result of The Singularity already, sans wetware, sans ultra-powerful external computing. Until a paradigm shift - until something quantitatively massively different and better comes along, completely replacing what already exists, this key point will prevent The Singularity from occurring as some envision. It might not prevent another Singularity, one that is perhaps more subtle and less intrusive, but it probably won't lead to the Kurzweil Singularity or another kind of man/machine interface.

While I do believe all of this, here's the best part: there is always a chance of something from left field. Something may happen, or a development may occur, and suddenly we're sitting in the modified future in 50 years, reading this and laughing at my ignorance.

07 January 2011

Never a wasteland

At a loss of what to write, I turned to my library. Here, then, is a relatively new book of mine: Land of the Dead, by Thomas Harlan. Not at all what it sounds like, fortunately; no zombies here. Instead, think Alternate History Space Opera...it's easier than you might think. I'll cover that later.

In any case, this is the third of a series, long-delayed and indifferently touted as such, much to its loss, I think. There's a lot in this book that I feel comes directly from the previous books, less in information than in tone and feeling, and given the dense nature of the universe it inhabits, you need as much guidance as it can spare. Even in the first book in the series, Wasteland of Flint, you the reader are tossed into a universe in media res, a universe that never quite stops grinding on around you.

The basics are thus: the Aztecs dominate the world, and have done so for many, many years. At their side are the Japanese--forced from Japan by a successful Mongol invasion--in what seems to be an unequal but still potent partnership. Countries never formed, or were conquered in their infancy, and the last remaining forces of the European world are either subjugated, destroyed, or on the run and fighting a hopeless guerrilla war. These books take place long after, when this world is reaching out to a small interstellar empire, and keeps bumping into things far larger and far older than it, and no less dangerous despite being the artifacts of long-gone precursors. There's other things hinted at, and internal issues of politics and religion, but the most dangerous things are also the oldest...

Given any thought, the alternate history is an essential part of the tale, despite it being something that could have taken place in a more normal universe with a more normal Earth. Not so much the external events, of course, but the interpretation of them, an obsession not with science but with science as a tool of mysticism, science that is no less advanced than perhaps ours would be, but functions with a distinctly unobtrusive edge. You end up feeling that these Aztecs would make spacecraft-temples designed in the styles of their ancestors, complete with torches and incense and everything short of sacrifices.

I am pretty sure that Thomas Harlan is not the originator of the alternate-history-future-SF genre, but it's not one that has a massive library behind it. The concept is heady and the execution excellent, as Harlan explains a lot but gives both subtle and unsubtle pointers towards what he doesn't tell. As I said, this is a universe already in motion, and he uses this conceit like a bludgeon when he must, to accent the utter inevitability of some of his situations, In the same vein, you are often left with a sense that there is a lot of detail missing from your abbreviated view, that the stereotypes that you see are not all there is to see, which I think is used mostly to provide what the writer might not have, filling in the gaps, as it were. It gets used a lot to fill in characters, I feel, as the characters are often relatively flat and simple. It's the situations that matter, ultimately.

The touch of the author is heavy and light, stiff and flexible, all in the right places. If only more could capture me in this way.

02 January 2011

The novellas of Scalzi and Sanderson

Novellas are suddenly (for certain values of suddenly) back into vogue. I've recently read two such, both SF of the spaceship variety--well, wait on that characterization. One was Brandon Sanderson's Firstborn, the other John Scalzi's The God Engines, and while both involve spacecraft, one is nominally fantasy. It's really something of switch between the two, as Sanderson is the fantasy maven, tapped to finish the Wheel of Time series, and Scalzi was the presumptive heir to the Heinleinian military SF crown until people realized that he is far more his own author than just another Starship Troopers clone manufacturer, but each works in its own way.

Reading a novella is not quite the same as any other format, a problem that exists for me simply because I don't get nearly as many of them, or perhaps I just don't see them. The way I tend to read--that is, exceedingly fast, with multiple re-reads and a lot of internal glosses--they are closer to a short story than a novel, consumed in a single sitting, although not necessarily absorbed as such. Now that I've had a chance to absorb both, however, I have some things to say.


Except, if Dennison was a god, his specialty certainly wasn’t war.

His education kept him from making any disastrous mistakes, but before long, the battle had progressed to the point where it was no longer winnable. His complete lack of pride let him order the expected retreat.
The theme, as with any Sanderson book, is personal development. The main character never really gets any better at commanding starships, but he develops as a character and as a man, quickly, but not too quickly, realizing where his true talents lie. Sanderson's style is simple and easy to read, with hidden depths that he uses to tuck away clues for his inevitably logical and satisfying Reveal; I suppose that the main theme of this story is "if you suck at commanding spaceships, don't command spaceships!" but Sanderson makes it feel like a revelation of stunning power. Don't think that I am being glib--he does this while making the reader satisfied at being led along by the nose willingly. The mystery isn't enough to really keep anything concealed, but for the sake of the tale, it is rewarding to ponder nothing except that which is right before you.

So I like it. But does it work as a novella? The answer lies in the definition of a novella, which really seems to me to mean "longer than a short story" or, maybe slightly more accurately, "really long short story". Accepting THAT definition, then, yes, it's an excellent story that fits its assigned length almost perfectly, although the lack of any real denouement makes it feel slightly rushed. This isn't a type of story, in Sanderson's hands, that differs in any real way from a short story, mostly because he wrote something that many would classify as fantasy in space, bypassing the love of detail that SF authors usually have for a focus on events and individuals. It's self-contained and almost exactly as long as it needs to be.

Free version here

The God Engines
Where either the gods or their followers would go from there was another matter entirely. The inner city of Bishop's Call was sealed by The Lord Himself, a mosaic ring of first-made iron circling it. No enslaved god, weakened and stripped of its native power, could hope to pass. Nor would The Lord's followers approach the ring, although for another reason entirely. While even the smallest nugget of first-made iron could bring a man more copper than he might see in a year, stealing iron from the Sealing Ring condemned the thief to have his soul consumed. Death beyond death.
No way around it--despite starships, this is fantasy. Scalzi is not Scalzi here, which is all the more amazing and perhaps a little expected from him. You could perhaps ferret out that he normally writes SF, given his focus within the story on things military and communication and, sure, starships, but his writing in this is far more that of a new author than the confident voice we see in his other works. It's refreshing.

It's also, however, what holds this story back some. As a newcomer to fantasy, and, more importantly, as an infrequent writer of short stories, his voice seems to have adapted better to the long form tale, rather than the compression of a novella. I think that if he had made this as an Old Man's War story, it would have worked gloriously well, simply because of his comfort, but as it is, I ended up feeling that there is a lot of glory in here that was stifled because of the format. It didn't compress perfectly, leaving novel-like sections interspersed among the short story-like sequences.

Don't get me wrong, though, this does what fiction ought: make you boggle a bit and want to perhaps set it down to ponder the implications of what you've just read. The fact that it made me want to read it rather as a novel is a triumph in itself, and maybe suggests that I am just grousing.


Given a sample size of two, then, the Novella might as well not exist. Firstborn is closer to the short story end of the continuum, and The God Engines sits much closer to an actual novel; both tales work, but Scalzi's desires to be a novel far more than Sanderson's wants to be a short story.

Why, then, did they release them in these forms?

Authors have to eat, you know, and I think this relates exactly to said consumption. The novella--not a novel but more than a short story--is a good, substantial freebie, while also retaining worth as a product for sale. Scalzi's is not free and probably will remain so, but the price is less than that of a true novel, and its cachet of being his first effort at Fantasy makes it worth the risk for the devoted fan. Sanderson's is free, although I bought it on Amazon for $0.99 for my shiny new Kindle, which wasn't a ripoff in the slightest, given how much I love his writing. The profit here I think lies in the fact that Sanderson knows who butters his bread, and allowing Tor to expose people to his skill was worth spending some time on.

The novella, then, is an experiment, an attempt to branch out to new things, or an attempt to reinforce the old. It's an artificial definition in many ways, but at the least, they're easier to consume, easier to expand, and easier to sell, all of which tell me that, with the rise of the ebook, we might see more of them from established authors.

01 January 2011

Fictions in Fiction

Everyone loves being lied to--but they hate it too. Take a look at the second word in this phrase: Science Fiction. For the blind, that's 'Fiction', which means 'falsehood', among other things. We can make it almost as pejorative as we want, going perhaps with 'lies', or simply leave it at 'not real'--the point is that everything we read and see within our chosen literary field that is not explicitly nonfiction is an untruth.

Obviously, this isn't much of a problem.

I would say that when I read a book, or even watch a series, I substitute logic for 'truth', accepting the overall falsehood of the work to float on its own logical raft. It's not a perfect substitution; I've never really felt lied to, but rather felt misled, like it took me down a path that wasn't real, or maybe required a couple of leaps that were too hard to take, but within a work that flows consistently, the illusion can hold remarkably well. When you can start to make predictions and judgments about characters, and begin to predict what they will do next, the chain is complete, and you know with great certainty that that which is not logical is probably illogical within the world of the work, rather than an oversight. (perfect is unattainable; ask any Wheel of Time fan what happened to Asmodean and you might see where this breaks down)

However, just because something is logical doesn't mean that it is necessarily correct. Stories need bad guys, and bad guys have serious issues with truth-telling, so how can they lie without misleading the audience? Here I tend to have the same issue that everyone else does: when a character says something, when the author describes something, it is automatically assumed to be true by the audience. To be honest, sometimes it's just plain the fault of the creator: they thought they were clear, they thought it was obvious. As all readings are equally valid--not correct, just valid--it can be said that the reader/viewer is never at fault, although we know this is an abstraction that falls apart upon reading a dedicated forum. Sometimes, the work is blatantly lying to you.

Most authors don't have problems with this, however, or they wouldn't be selling their work. They get around it and work with their audience, either through a character's actions or thoughts, or, when working with a limited omniscient perspective, simply informing the audience. Some authors are good enough that they can get away with lies that aren't lies, truths cloaked in distraction that are later revealed. That last part is a real deal-breaker sometimes...leave too big a lie unrevealed or cloaked in subtlety, and you can lose the audience. It doesn't even have to be all that important to be a distraction, either, so the better creators generally adopt a policy of either being explicit about the solution or about the lie.

There's another kind of lie out there, though, and this one is the most maddening for the creator simply because it's virtually impossible to catch: What Happened To The Mouse? To quote:
A "What happened to the mouse" occurs when a minor character, action, or very minor plotline is suddenly dropped for no apparent reason, without resolution.
The audience will sometimes focus on the smallest, most inane things, and decide that they are critical to the understanding of the plot, and when they don't get resolved--mostly because they're, you know, irrelevant--they get thrown for a loop. I tend to fall into this a lot, because I get distracted and start to construct my own logical framework sometimes; I presume others have the same issue.

When it comes down to it, I like being lied to when I read or watch; it makes me feel, well, normal, normal in the sense of participating in the world of the work and walking alongside the characters. Just as we lie to ourselves, to be part of a living, breathing world, the characters of a book, series, or movie need to lie as well...or at least seem to.