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.

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