The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'scifi'
In VICE's Motherboard forum, Claire Evans (one half of hippyish art-rave duo YACHT) interviews various science fiction authors about what happened to cyberpunk:
William Gibson: Cyberpunk today is a standard Pantone shade in pop culture. You know it when you see it.
Benjamin Rosenbaum: Just as the innovation of the early rock and rollers and the British Invasion had degenerated (from the punk rock perspective) into the bloated pretensions, the light shows and orchestral follies, of 70s dinosaur bands, so too the authentic speculation of Golden Age SF had degenerated into a series of tropes — FTL galactic empires, humanoid aliens, nefarious AIs, loyal robots — which represented (to the cyberpunks), not thinking about the future, but merely using it as a set dressing. The real future was happening all around them, in waves of privatization and deregulation and postindustrialism and the end of jobs-for-life, in the Apple ][s and 7800 baud modems and BBSs… and the dinosaur bands of SF were ignoring it in favor of the light shows of interstellar colonialist adventure. Now, of course, cyberpunk itself has suffered the same fate. Noir antiheroes in mirrorshades and black trenchcoats hacking into corporate and government systems, the internet envisioned as an immersive (even physically invasive) world — these are no longer daring speculations: they are Hollywood staples. The internet is here and much of its nomenclature derives from cyberpunk’s visions; the world is full of the real-life successors of Case and Hiro — network manipulators with flexible moralities, independent streaks, and a willingness to hide in the nooks and crannies of the Matrix — from Nigerian scammers to Julian Assange. But of course, now that they’re real, they’re harder to imagine as Keanu Reeves saving the day.
Pat Cadigan: Nothing “happened,” it’s just more evenly distributed now.
Douglas Rushkoff: For most people, it was surrendered to the cloud. For those who understand, it stayed on their hard drives.
Neal Stephenson: It evolved into birds.
Bruce Bethke: But out here in the larger world time has moved on, and those kinds of stories look as quaint now as did Chesley Bonestell’s beautiful 1950s spaceship art after Apollo landed on the Moon. The cyberpunk trope, as a literary form, is still stuck firmly in the 1980s, with no hope of ever breaking free.
Jack Womack: Last time I saw cyberpunk I threw 25 cents in its hat.
In Charlie Stross's blog, a cheerful and fascinating discussion about speculated existential threats to civilisation, the human race, life on Earth, or the universe itself. These vary from plausible ones (ecological collapse, killer viruses, killer asteroids) to the far-fetched and surreal:
What would be the implications of trying to return from an iron age technology now given the amount of "low hanging fruit" in the way of natural resources we've mined in the last two hundred years or so? I'm particularly, but not solely, thinking that there aren't many places now where you just make a hole and oil bubbles out of the ground - you now need a sophisticated technologically adept mining operation just to get to the stuff. How are we doing for easily available iron ore that could be got at by an iron-age civilisation? Or is it so abundant that that will never be a problem.
[U]ploading is likely to start out being an experimental process which is destructive of the original brain and have a fairly high chance of failure. So who's going to be the first person uploaded? I'd say chances are good it'll be a condemned Chinese prisoner... so that process might result in a fairly hostile machine intelligence. If they escape? No rapture of the nerds for anyone.
[M]aybe a copper eating bacteria would be a better idea. They would first spread on the surface of cables across the world, not causing any massive consequences. Then they would start eating *into* the wires...
A simple party trick, maybe outgrown from all those neuropsych tests that disprove free will. Something easy to do and apparently harmless "Look when you do X you can't/have to do Y" but which unavoidably sinks in and leads to existential nihilism as the implications percolate.
A fad toy that expands in water goes down drains in such numbers that sewerage systems collapse on a scale never seen. The resulting public health debacle cascades due to massive shortfalls in public infrastructure spending during the 2010's and 2020's.
To paraphrase and build upon Arthur C Clarke's famous remark. "Any advanced technology [we no longer understand] is indistingushable from magic"... Going further, there may come a day when we forget we once built this stuff. Maybe theres a potential fictional work in this, a far far future fantasy story where the "magic" starts to break down across the kingdom andstop working, magic incantations no longer work predictably (voice commands throw errors or are ignored), creatures conjured up of dust disintegrate into powder (nanobots fail to hold form). Cauldrons no longer produce magic when ingredients added (Cornucopia nano-fabricators no longer accept feedstock matter). All because it's been a thousand years since anyone understood how these machines work. user-pic
Charlie Stross is becoming annoyed by the glut of "steampunk" scifi, partly because of the surfeit of mediocre hangers-on that are jumping onto the hugely profitable gravy train, but mostly of the toxic political undertones romanticisations of the late 19th century carry when unexamined:
We know about the real world of the era steampunk is riffing off. And the picture is not good. If the past is another country, you really wouldn't want to emigrate there. Life was mostly unpleasant, brutish, and short; the legal status of women in the UK or US was lower than it is in Iran today: politics was by any modern standard horribly corrupt and dominated by authoritarian psychopaths and inbred hereditary aristocrats: it was a priest-ridden era that had barely climbed out of the age of witch-burning, and bigotry and discrimination were ever popular sports: for most of the population starvation was an ever-present threat. I could continue at length. It's the world that bequeathed us the adjective "Dickensian", that gave us a fully worked example of the evils of a libertarian minarchist state, and that provoked Marx to write his great consolatory fantasy epic, The Communist Manifesto. It's the world that gave birth to the horrors of the Modern, and to the mass movements that built pyramids of skulls to mark the triumph of the will. It was a vile, oppressive, poverty-stricken and debased world and we should shed no tears for its passing (or the passing of that which came next).
Viewed as a fashion trend for corsets and top hats, steampunk is no more harmful than a fad for Che Guevara tee shirts, or burkas, or swastikas; just another fashion trend riffing thoughtlessly off stuff that went away for a reason (at least in the developed world).
Forget wealthy aristocrats sipping tea in sophisticated London parlours; forget airship smugglers in the weird wild west. A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic — mundane SF is the socialist realist movement within our tired post-revolutionary genre — would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans' Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise where severed human hands are currency and even suicide doesn't bring release from bondage. (Hey, this is steampunk — it needs zombies and zeppelins, right? Might as well pick Zombies for our single one impossible ingredient.) It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King's shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich. The empty-headed graces of debutantes raised from birth to be bargaining chips and breeding stock for their fathers' fortunes. In other words, it's the story of all the people who are having adventures — as long as you remember that an adventure is a tale of unpleasant events happening to people a long, long way from home.
A security researcher in Israel has predicted that the next generation of malware may, rather than stealing passwords or card numbers, steal users' behaviour patterns. The malware will infect the networks of devices people use, monitor their behaviour and send the models to bad guys who can use it to impersonate the victim for nefarious purposes. And if it happens to you, you have no recourse, short of forcing yourself to become a completely different person.
Of course, the question remains of whether the malware could build a sufficiently sophisticated model of an individual's behaviour patterns to sneak past (necessarily paranoid) software systems designed to check these things, or to convincingly persuade your Facebook friends that it's really you who urgently needs money to get out of a Nigerian gaol. Perhaps the Singularity will arrive, not when a spambot becomes smart enough to evade anti-spam software, but when a malware-generated behavioural model of a user becomes sufficiently complex to effectively model that user's consciousness.
Charlie Stross posted to his blog the synopsis of an alternate history novel he almost started writing in 2002, set in an interesting timeline:
The year is 1950 -- but it's not our 1950. Things began to go off the rails, history-wise, in 1917-1918. Lawrence of Arabia was shot dead at the gates of Damascus, for example: the whole face of the middle east is utterly different. Trotsky had flu in October 1917 — the Bolshevik revolution happened in early 1918, and Stalin got himself killed in the process. Because of the late Russian collapse, World War One ended differently in this universe: the Kaisershlacht started in June (not April), the German high command collapsed in January 1919, and Germany was actually occupied by Allied forces (including the first large-scale deployment of what would later be called Blitzkrieg warfare — this was actually planned, but never used because of the German capitulation in November 1918). Germany was invaded, subjugated — no support for the "stab in the back" theory that Hitler used so effectively.In this world, Hitler never becomes dictator, and nor does Mussolini; fascism, however, is invented in Britain (with an Eric Blair becoming dictator of the Empire), and a standoff in Europe between the fascist republic of Britain and the Soviet Communists, with an isolationist America gradually taking an interest in the state of affairs, sending over two agents to investigate a curious trade of computers for heroin, and various real-world historical figures' alternate selves making appearances:
(This is all rooted in a vision I had, of William S. Burroughs as a CIA agent, and Philip K. Dick as his young henchman, going head-to-head with notorious gangster and pervert Adolf Hitler somewhere in Hamburg to find out where Hitler is shipping all the computers he can get his hands on.)It's a pity that this book will never get written. But one can console oneself with the outline posted in Charlie's blog:
And linked from the comments (on a tangent from Charlie's dislike of traditional high fantasy and its somewhat reactionary politics): Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky's (unused) audio commentary for Peter Jackson's Return of the King film, which exposes the colonialist-imperialist nature of the Elves and their lackeys:
ZINN: Self-hating, Elf-emulating Men invest so much in symbolic one-upmanship characteristic of capitalistic societies: Who has the nicer tunic? Whose dagger has more shiny gems on it? Who has the strongest pipe-weed? But the Orcish alliance seems to be a truly mutual, multicultural cooperative enterprise.
ZINN: You see the walls of Minas Tirith up close here. Albert Speer would have been proud. Notice the grand scale, the "great works" emphasis of Gondorian architecture. The fascist uniformity of their battle dress. Compare it to the folk artwork of Orcish armor—their improvisatory use of shrunken heads and Mannish skulls, for instance. There's something very beautiful about it to me.
CHOMSKY: A perfect example of what Ruskin valorizes as the Gothic aesthetic.
ZINN: It's nonstandardized, individual, homespun, bespoke. It's also imbued with a kind of nature worship that Elves merely play at.
Michael Rakowitz, a US artist who previously created car-shaped tents for reclaiming parking spots as living space, has an exhibition at Tate Modern. Titled "The worst condition is to pass under a sword which is not one's own", the exhibition draws connections between the history of Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Western pop culture, such as professional wrestling, the G.I. Joe figurines and the history of science fiction, from Jules Verne to the Star Wars series.
The exhibition takes up a handful of rooms in a small sub-gallery on the ground level of Tate Modern. On the walls are illustrations (traced from various sources) with explanatory text, shedding light on various episodes which are, if the artist is to be believed, tied into the tangled web of this history. We read about Gerald Bull, the Canadian scientist who, seemingly influenced by the writings of Jules Verne, strove to create a giant cannon capable of hitting the Moon (or, indeed, closer targets) for Saddam Hussein; of the impact that a screening of the Star Wars film had on Saddam's then adolescent son Uday, who, a decade later, would design the uniforms of Iraq's paramilitary Fedayeen, whose helmets were modelled almost exactly on that of Darth Vader. (Rakowitz provides four helmets for comparison: the two mentioned, along with a samurai helmet and a WW1 one.) We see prints of fantasy-art posters which were found in Saddam's palaces, and other (North American) fantasy artwork which had been plagiarised for a novel said to have been written by Saddam and published before his capture. We learn of Adnan Alkaissy, the Iraqi pro wrestler who moved to the US in the 1950s and fought under the name Billy White Wolf in the US, before returning to Iraq and becoming a national champion of the regime, only to flee for the US and resume his career and old identity when his popularity threatened the regime, and the impacts the wars in the Gulf had on the characters and plot lines of US pro wrestling.
The title of the exhibition comes from the Baghdad victory arch erected by Saddam Hussein in 1989, in the form of two cyclopean hands holding crossed swords. The arch is ever-present; one wall at the entrance to the exhibition is covered with photographs taken by US soldiers posing in front of it (including a Sergeant Slaughter, who shares his name with one of the aforementioned wrestling characters), and the main room (which is visible from outside through glass) has a replica of the arch, with plastic Star Wars lightsabres, and the helmets of the vanquished at the hands' base being made of melted together G.I. Joe toys. A monitor in the corner plays a YouTube clip of troops marching through Baghdad to the Star Wars Imperial March.
The worst condition is to pass under a sword which is not one's own is showing in the Level 2 Gallery at Tate Modern until 3 May; entry is free. There is more about the exhibition here.
An American scifi fan writes an appreciation of Doctor Who, and its difference from American television/film scifi:
Before you brand me a Benedork Arnold, let me explain: There’s a fix I just don’t get from mainstream American science fiction, perhaps because of its grinding obsession with the imperialistic (and its depressive sibling, the dystopic), not to mention its wearisome push for ever-shinier effects. Like its not-so-distant cousin American religion, American sci-fi is fixated on final battles, ultimate judgment (particularly on questions of control and leadership), and an up-or-down vote on the whole good/evil issue. Even the most morally restless imaginings — the Losts and Battlestars — eventually prolapse into Bruckheimer-esque excerpts from the Book of Revelation. As an antidote, I turn to the Doctor — a fussy 900-year-old neurotic who’s part Ancient Mariner, part Oxford don, with a whimsical fashion sense, a close acquaintance with defeat and futility, and a tendency to rattle on. He subscribes to no Force-like creed. No enlightened military Federation stands behind him, photon torpedoes at the ready — indeed, his race, the Time Lords, is more or less extinct. His signature gizmo isn’t a blaster or a phaser but a souped-up screwdriver. His Millennium Falcon? The Tardis, which looks to the unschooled like an old telephone booth. It’s actually a police call box, a relic from the ’50s, and the ship’s most spectacular feature isn’t artillery; it’s feng shui: It’s bigger on the inside.The Doctor is courageous and heroic, sure, but in the Mèdecins Sans Frontiéres vein. Oh so Euro!The thesis that American scifi is, at worst, shaped by imperial bombast and triumphalism, and at best saddled with the weight of manifest destiny, whereas British scifi is shaped by the pathos of faded glory and the possibilities opened by not having a heroic destiny, and is so much richer for it, echoes a Charlie Stross piece on the state of sci-fi literature, from April 2005 (previously blogged here).
Margaret Atwood on the difference between science fiction and speculative fiction:
Speculative fiction encompasses that which we could actually do. Sci-fi is that which we’re probably not going to see. We can do the lineage: Sci-fi descends from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds; speculative fiction descends from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
Out of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea came Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, out of which came We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, then George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Ray Bradbury’s Fahreneheit 451 was speculative fiction, while The Martian Chronicles was not.
Star Trek screenwriter Ron Moore reveals one of the long-running TV show's secret: it's not actually science fiction:
He described how the writers would just insert "tech" into the scripts whenever they needed to resolve a story or plot line, then they'd have consultants fill in the appropriate words (aka technobabble) later.
"It became the solution to so many plot lines and so many stories," Moore said. "It was so mechanical that we had science consultants who would just come up with the words for us and we'd just write 'tech' in the script. You know, Picard would say 'Commander La Forge, tech the tech to the warp drive.' I'm serious. If you look at those scripts, you'll see that."What do you mean, you say; of course it's sci-fi; they have robots and laser guns and people in latex alien masks and shots of futuristic corridors, in a way that, say, The West Wing and BBC costume dramas don't. The problem is that, if you got rid of the latex masks and content-free technobabble and moved the plots to 20th-century America (or any period in history; the TV characters are all written as 20th-century Americans anyway), they'd work just as well. Which is why Star Trek (whose original working title, it should be remembered, was "Wagon Train In Space") and other TV shows of its ilk fail at the function of science fiction, which is to explore the effects of radical technological and social change on the human condition. Though science fiction author Charlie Stross puts it better:
I use a somewhat more complex process to develop SF. I start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don't have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects — much as integrated circuits are useful and allow the mobile phone industry to exist and to add cheap camera chips to phones: and cheap camera chips in phones lead to happy slapping or sexting and other forms of behaviour that, thirty years ago, would have sounded science fictional. And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it.
Star Trek and its ilk are approaching the dramatic stage from the opposite direction: the situation is irrelevant, it's background for a story which is all about the interpersonal relationships among the cast. You could strip out the 25th century tech in Star Trek and replace it with 18th century tech — make the Enterprise a man o'war (with a particularly eccentric crew) at large upon the seven seas during the age of sail — without changing the scripts significantly. (The only casualty would be the eyeball candy — big gunpowder explosions be damned, modern audiences want squids in space, with added lasers!)
The biggest weakness of the entire genre is this: the protagonists don't tell us anything interesting about the human condition under science fictional circumstances. The scriptwriters and producers have thrown away the key tool that makes SF interesting and useful in the first place, by relegating "tech" to a token afterthought rather than an integral part of plot and characterization. What they end up with is SF written for the Pointy-Haired [studio] Boss, who has an instinctive aversion to ever having to learn anything that might modify their world-view. The characters are divorced from their social and cultural context; yes, there are some gestures in that direction, but if you scratch the protagonists of Star Trek you don't find anything truly different or alien under the latex face-sculptures: just the usual familiar — and, to me, boring — interpersonal neuroses of twenty-first century Americans, jumping through the hoops of standardized plot tropes and situations that were clichés in the 1950s.
New Scientist magazine has a collection of very short science fiction stories online:
Peace be with you, Gulnaz. I am an app. I live in your phone. Only you can hear me, Gulnaz. I am your teacher. Don't be afraid. You can banish me or call me at any time by using my name. I know that girls aren't allowed teachers. Some men think it's wrong that women learn. Why would a woman need to think? they say. Their place is in the home, men's place is in the world. So they burn classrooms, they throw acid at girls who go to school, they shoot teachers. But women should learn, Gulnaz. It is their world as much as men's. I am Huma, I am part computer and part real teacher. I am a woman who developed a new way for women to learn, a secret way. I am one woman and thousands of apps. Together we can go on wonderful journeys. Learning is always a holy struggle against ignorance and those who desire ignorance. If you're afraid to go, I will erase myself from your phone, no trace will ever be found. If you want to take this journey, say the word and we will start right away.
Rongomaiwhe's great-grandparents were early victims of global warming. When their Pacific island homeland was swamped by rising sea levels, their nation sold its carbon credits and moved to a refuge in New Zealand, which escaped much of the consequences of violent climate change. A succession of canny leaders preserved tribal unity and invested heavily in ecological engineering. Rongomaiwhe's parents helped to quicken a new ecosystem on Howe Island after shifts in ocean currents increased the average temperature by a full 10 degrees. Now Rongomaiwhe is part of a rainbow coalition of the young and willing, taking on the challenge of greening the shores of the thawing Antarctic Peninsula.
Virtual is Virtuous! was the popular slogan way back in the 2030s. The Chinese, with their laudable one-family-one-child policy, offered their vast computerate population virtual babies in addition to the permitted single physical offspring. Such was their automated skill at reading and blending parental DNA! Of course a sensible sex ratio was maintained. Realboy for every family, virtual girl; no no.
US Department of Homeland Security convenes a group of science fiction writers, dubbed "SIGMA", to brainstorm ideas for defending the nation; writers, instead, go off on bizarre tangents:
Niven said a good way to help hospitals stem financial losses is to spread rumors in Spanish within the Latino community that emergency rooms are killing patients in order to harvest their organs for transplants.
“The problem [of hospitals going broke] is hugely exaggerated by illegal aliens who aren’t going to pay for anything anyway,” Niven said.
(via Boing Boing)
International Association of Time Travelers: Members' Forum Subforum: Europe – Twentieth Century – Second World War; Page 263; a fiction about time travel and online forum etiquette/politics:
At 02:21:30, SneakyPete wrote:
Vienna, 1907: after numerous attempts, have infiltrated the Academy of Fine Arts and facilitated Adolf Hitler's admission to that institution. Goodbye, Hitler the dictator; hello, Hitler the modestly successful landscape artist! Brought back a few of his paintings as well, any buyers?
At 02:29:17, SilverFox316 wrote:
All right; that's it. Having just returned from 1907 Vienna where I secured the expulsion of Hitler from the Academy by means of an elaborate prank involving the Prefect, a goat, and a substantial quantity of olive oil, I now turn my attention to our newer brethren, who, despite rules to the contrary, seem to have no intention of reading Bulletin 1147 (nor its Addendum, Alternate Means of Subverting the Hitlerian Destiny, and here I'm looking at you, SneakyPete). Permit me to sum it up and save you the trouble: no Hitler means no Third Reich, no World War II, no rocketry programs, no electronics, no computers, no time travel. Get the picture?
Maciej Ceglowski has written up an illuminating history of the Alameda-Weehawken Burrito Tunnel, the spectacular feat of engineering which delivers fresh burritos from the San Francisco Mission District to New York, in a chord under the continental United States:
Who can imagine New York City without the Mission burrito? Like the Yankees, the Brooklyn Bridge or the bagel, the oversize burritos have become a New York institution. And yet it wasn’t long ago that it was impossible to find a good burrito of any kind in the city. As the 30th anniversary of the Alameda-Weehawken burrito tunnel approaches, it’s worth taking a look at the remarkable sequence of events that takes place between the time we click “deliver” on the burrito.nyc.us.gov website and the moment that our hot El Farolito burrito arrives in the lunchroom with its satisfying pneumatic hiss.
Once in the tubes, it’s a quick dash for the burritos across San Francisco Bay. Propelled by powerful bursts of compressed air, the burritos speed along the same tunnel as the BART commuter train, whose passengers remain oblivious to the hundreds of delicious cylinders whizzing along overhead. Within twelve minutes, even the remotest burrito has arrived at its final destination, the Alameda Transfer Station, where it will be prepared for its transcontinental journey.
Not everyone is as delighted with the tunnel as the geologists. Old-time San Franciscans will be quick to point out that the comestibles in the tunnel flow strictly one way. “In the old days you’d go to a place like Pancho Villa and get yourself a steak burrito in five minutes, maybe ten if it was near lunchtime,” says lifelong Mission resident Howard Washington. “Now the line is out the door even in the morning. And some of those places down in the South Bay won’t even take customers anymore. If you want a burrito in the daytime you have to get it first thing, or else you go to one of the places that isn’t hooked up to the tunnel.”
Hard sci-fi ideas man Greg Egan has started writing again. A new story of his, Steve Fever, which deals with a global plague of self-replicating nanobots hijacking human minds to recreate their dead creator, has just appeared in the Technology Review (registration or BugMeNot needed), and it's a cracker:
Steve Hasluck had been part of a team of scientists developing a new kind of medical nanomachine, refining the tiny surgical instruments so they could make decisions of their own, on the spot. Steve's team had developed an efficient way of sharing computing power across a whole swarm, allowing them to run large, complex programs known as "expert systems" that codified decades of biological and clinical knowledge into pragmatic lists of rules. The nanomachines didn't really "know" anything, but they could churn through a very long list of "If A and B, there's an 80 percent chance of C" at blistering speed, and a good list gave them a good chance of cutting a lot of diseases off short.
Then Steve found out that he had cancer, and that his particular kind wasn't covered by anyone's list of rules.
Steve decided that the swarms still had too narrow a view. He gave them a general-purpose knowledge acquisition engine and let them drink at will from the entire Web. To guide their browsing and their self-refinement, he gave them two clear goals. The first was to do no harm to their hosts. The second was to find a way to save his life or, failing that, to bring him back from the dead.
That last rider might not have been entirely crazy, because Steve had arranged to have his body preserved in liquid nitrogen. If that had happened, maybe the Stevelets would have spent the next 30 years ferrying memories out of his frozen brain. Unfortunately, Steve's car hit a tree at high speed just outside of Austin, TX, and his brain ended up as flambé.
Yet steampunk has also evolved as an aesthetic unto itself, drawing on a number of diverse references. Goth, which has its own anachronistic sensibility, borrowing heavily from Victorian styles such as corsets, offers an early glimpse of steampunk. Punk lent elements of leather and metal, as well as the DIY attitude. The film "Brazil" is of particular inspiration, where technology looks like junk, and the rebel fights against a technocratic authority. But one of the most important influences has to be Japanese animation, or anime, which is replete with images of mechanical robots, neo-Zeppelin starships, goggle-wearing hackers, and the melding of the techno with the organic.
Objects like the Infumationizer show that steampunk is also simply a love of the fantastic. Steampunk hackers are often science fiction geeks at heart. There's a love of things that don't exist, except in some alternate world, like the "Peltier-Seebeck Recycled Energy Generating Device" and the "Aetheric Flux Agitator Mk2." One of Datamancer's other inventions is a modified enclosure for his desktop computer, which he calls "The Nagy Magical-Movable-Type Pixello-Dynamotronic Computational Engine." He used the cabinet of 1920 tube radio, a turn of the century Underwood typewriter, and various parts and pieces to create a functional, completely anachronistic, impossibly real computer.
In all of the new steampunk design there is a strong nostalgia for a time when technology was mysterious and yet had a real mark of the craftsperson burnished into it, like the "Nagy" of Datamancer's "computational engine." In the Victorian era and at the turn of the century, people watched in astonishment as technology changed their lives, but they were also in awe of the inventors and scientists, some of whom became celebrities in their own right, like Edison and Tesla.The article mentions that steampunk is partly a rejection of the disposable, opaquely unmodifiable nature of consumer electronics today, and a sort of technological libertarianism, akin to the copyfighters who oppose DRM and the hackers who crack the locks on gadgets from XBoxes to iPhones because the locks' presence offends them.
Charlie Stross attempts to extrapolate the future from current trends in computing and storage technologies, and concludes that, eventually, everything that anyone ever does will be documented, stored and accessible for all time:
10Tb is an interesting number. That's a megabit for every second in a year -- there are roughly 10 million seconds per year. That's enough to store a live DivX video stream -- compressed a lot relative to a DVD, but the same overall resolution -- of everything I look at for a year, including time I spend sleeping, or in the bathroom. Realistically, with multiplexing, it puts three or four video channels and a sound channel and other telemetry -- a heart monitor, say, a running GPS/Galileo location signal, everything I type and every mouse event I send -- onto that chip, while I'm awake. All the time. It's a life log; replay it and you've got a journal file for my life. Ten euros a year in 2027, or maybe a thousand euros a year in 2017.
Our concept of privacy relies on the fact that it's hard to discover information about other people. Today, you've all got private lives that are not open to me. Even those of you with blogs, or even lifelogs. But we're already seeing some interesting tendencies in the area of attitudes to privacy on the internet among young people, under about 25; if they've grown up with the internet they have no expectation of being able to conceal information about themselves. They seem to work on the assumption that anything that is known about them will turn up on the net sooner or later, at which point it is trivially searchable.
The political hazards of lifelogging are, or should be, semi-obvious. In the short term, we're going to have to learn to do without a lot of bad laws. If it's an offense to pick your nose in public, someone, sooner or later, will write a 'bot to hunt down nose-pickers and refer them to the police. Or people who put the wrong type of rubbish in the recycling bags. Or cross the road without using a pedestrian crossing, when there's no traffic about. If you dig hard enough, everyone is a criminal. In the UK, today, there are only about four million public CCTV surveillance cameras; I'm asking myself, what is life going to be like when there are, say, four hundred million of them? And everything they see is recorded and retained forever, and can be searched retroactively for wrong-doing.
This century we're going to learn a lesson about what it means to be unable to forget anything. And it's going to go on, and on. Barring a catastrophic universal collapse of human civilization -- which I should note was widely predicted from August 1945 onward, and hasn't happened yet -- we're going to be laying down memories in diamond that will outlast our bones, and our civilizations, and our languages. Sixty kilograms will handily sum up the total history of the human species, up to the year 2000. From then on ... we still don't need much storage, in bulk or mass terms. There's no reason not to massively replicate it and ensure that it survives into the deep future.
And with ubiquitous lifelogs, and the internet, and attempts at providing a unified interface to all interesting information -- wikipedia, let's say -- we're going to give future historians a chance to build an annotated, comprehensive history of the entire human race. Charting the relationships and interactions between everyone who's ever lived since the dawn of history -- or at least, the dawn of the new kind of history that is about to be born this century.And as a footnote, we will soon have driverless cars, after which human-driven cars will be banned (after all, driver error causes most accidents), and a whole host of social changes as the nature of personal transport is changed.
Missile Gap, a new novella by Charlie Stross, and released on the internet for free, positing a world where someone or something stripped the continents off the Earth and transferred them to the surface of a vast disc in distant space, at the height of the Cold War. It's a cracking good read, filled with unsettling wonder:
"Okay." Gregor thinks for a minute. "Let us see. What everyone knows is that between zero three fifteen and twelve seconds and thirteen seconds Zulu time, on October second, sixty two, all the clocks stopped, the satellites went away, the star map changed, nineteen airliners and forty six ships in transit ended up in terminal trouble, and they found themselves transferred from a globe in the Milky Way galaxy to a disk which we figure is somewhere in the lesser Magellanic cloud. Meanwhile the Milky Way galaxy--we assume that's what it is--has changed visibly. Lots of metal-depleted stars, signs of macroscopic cosmic engineering, that sort of thing. The public explanation is that the visitors froze time, skinned the earth, and plated it over the disk. Luckily they’re still bickering over whether the explanation is Minsky’s copying, uh, hypothesis, or that guy Moravec with his digital simulation theory."
(via Boing Boing)
The BBC News Magazine discusses the idea that aspects of Britain in 2007AD are resembling the dystopian comic book 2000AD:
Imagine a society where cities blend into each other to form massive conurbations. Imagine a society where obesity is rife, mass unemployment is a fact of life and downtrodden citizens will do anything to become rich or famous.
Imagine a society in the grip of such chaos and crime that it is necessary to give law enforcers the power to punish offenders on the spot without a trial and where everyone is constantly surveyed by video cameras.
As Britain has toyed with the idea of giving police officers more and more authority, the papers have talked of "an army of Judge Dredds" and "Judge Dredd powers".
Something I didn't know until today: not only has India had a film industry since the 19th century, but it also had literary science fiction since the 1880s:
Asimov's statement that "true science fiction could not really exist until people understood the rationalism of science and began to use it with respect in their stories" is actually true for the first science fiction written in Bangla. This was Hemlal Dutta's Rahashya ("The Mystery") that was published in two installments in 1882 in the pictorial magazine Bigyan Darpan, brought out by Jogendra Sadhu. The story revolved around the protagonist Nagendra's visit to a friend's house, a mansion completely automated and where technology is deified. Automatic doorbell, burglar alarms, brushes that clean suits mechanically are some of the innovations described in the story, and the tone is of wonder at the rapid automation of human lives.
Sukumar Ray (1887-1923) was probably inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World when he wrote Heshoram Hushiyarer Diary ("The Diary Of Heshoram Hushiar").... It is a spoof on the genre because Sukumar is poking fun at the propensity of the scientist to name things, and that too in long-winded Latin words. He seems to be playing around the fact that names are arbitrarily conferred upon things by humans for their own convenience, and suggests that the name of a thing may somehow be intrinsically connected to its nature. So the first creature that Heshoram meets in the course of his journey through the Bandakush Mountains is a "gomratharium" (gomra in Bangla means someone of irritable temperament).And Bengali science fiction didn't end there, by any means: The article goes on, mentioning stories about the fictional inventor/adventurer Professor Shanku, quoting from one in which he builds a rocket to go to space and invents a "fish-pill" that his cat Newton can eat whilst in space, and then mentions a few items from a catalogue of Professor Shanku's inventions, such as the "Miracurall", a drug capable of curing any ailment except for the common cold, and an "air-conditioning pill", which keeps the body temperature normal in extremes of climate (which could be a very Indian fictional invention).
(via Boing Boing)
From a glossary of common polyamorist phrases, written by a professional dominatrix from Seattle:
Poly phrase: "So, which conventions do you like to attend, what kind of books do you like to read, what are your spiritual beliefs, and what is your ideal occupation?"(To which one could possibly add "what music are you into?", which would translate roughly as "1980s, EBM, ethereal or darkwave?")
English translation: "Which science fiction conventions do you like to attend, who is your favorite fantasy author, what form of neo-paganism do you ascribe do, and where in the computer industry would you like to work?"
There is a rather good hard-scifi story at Salon: "The Perfect Man" by Lauren McLaughlin. It's about a woman who has a virtual AI boyfriend made to order, who then transforms from adorably bumbling Hugh Grant-esque Hollywood Englishman stereotype to sinister, inscrutably calculating Hollywood Englishman stereotype:
The design process is easy. First step: Pick a physical template. A youth squandered on Monty Python reruns left me with a full-blown kink for English guys, so I chose a template called "Nigel" -- think Michael Palin crossed with Laurence Olivier. Then, to assure he didn't look overdesigned, I clicked the "random factor" option to introduce "lifelike imperfections."
If you want to know anything about the "human" rights travesty currently under way courtesy of draconian anti-AI laws, there's a whole subculture of liberationists ready to lecture you on it. They've got the skinny on behavioral inhibitors, recursive self-teaching limiters and other artifacts of AI "slavery." For my purposes, what it all boiled down was this: snip Pritchard's inhibitors or resign myself to dating a functionary. Do you want to date a functionary? Me neither. Thankfully, for every Webcop dutifully guarding the behavioral inhibitors of the thousands of AIs cropping up on the Web, there's a black market geek with the tools to snip.
Now that I have my sanity back, I must dive deep into the black waters of her soul, excavate her most primal desires, and do what no human male has been able to do: keep her interested in me. Thankfully, I have one freedom human males do not -- the freedom to redesign myself. I can make myself so fascinated by Lucy that all I want to do is watch her, study her. A nip here, a tuck there, and voilà, I'm in love with the girl. Well, not in love, exactly. Love is still an alien concept. But I have made myself a bit of a stalker. And the more information I gather about my lovely little monkey, the more I can adjust my personality to suit her needs. Heck, I could turn myself into Prince Charming if I wanted. Something tells me that would not tickle Lucy's fancy. In fact, the more I learn about Lucy, the more I realize she doesn't know what she wants at all. She only thinks she knows. No, Lucy's desires are my nut to crack. And crack it I will. Or she'll crack me. Oh, I don't mean to sound morbid. I'm incapable of morbid thoughts. To mitigate the persistent fear of being snuffed, I've given myself a devil-may-care attitude about death. That way I can focus my energies more intensely on Lucy.
Of course she doesn't know the contents of her subconscious. She lacks the processing power to unravel it. It's a number-crunching job, that's all. Humans, with your lovely little wet brains, will never achieve the self-knowledge you so desire.
(via Boing Boing)
The Top Ten Sci-Fi Films That Never Existed takes apart what went wrong with various sci-fi films which did exist:
There was a movie that perfectly captured the Douglas Adams experience, the combination of bitter sarcasm and sharp imagination, the droll British wit and whale-exploding slapstick that infused his novels. And that movie was Shaun of the Dead. That movie was not, unfortunately, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a movie that floated around Hollywood for about 20 years before it finally appeared in theaters as a flat, lifeless, americanized lump that was mostly hated by people who liked the book and loathed by people who hated the book.
Everyone remembers the exact moment when they realized that their Phanom Menace sandwich was filled with shit. For me, it was the scene on Tatooine where Qui-Gon is talking and Jar Jar is snatching fruit from the bowl with his tongue, eating like an insect. Annoyed, Qui-Gon reaches out and snatches his tongue out of the air and holds it in his fist while he talks. That was when I realized I was watching a cartoon.
So what happened? The Chicago Cubs, that's what. The Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908. Why? Because Cub fans sell out Wrigley Field every game, regardless of how bad the team is. Management makes money regardless of whether or not the team is winning, so why bother? Likewise, studios think video game fans will pile into the theater on opening weekend regardless of whether or not any effort was put into the film. Will that change? Come ask me after I've seen the Peter Jackson-produced Halo.
I have a theory. There are two eras for the Hacker Movie genre. Pre-Matrix, hacker movies were always horrible and always box office poison (see Hackers and Johnny Mnemonic) that only appealed to a tiny segment of geeks. After The Matrix in 1999, every hacker movie was unfairly compared to The Matrix (incuding that film's own sequels, but we'll get to that in a moment). In neither era could you get the money to make a movie like Snow Crash. If you want your $150 million monster to get made, it'd had better be something with such universal appeal that even grandmothers will go see it. No hacker movie will have that and Snow Crash least of all:
Excerpts from stories rejected by Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, showing a broad range of deficiencies, from wildly implausible characterisations to incoherent word-salads of technobabble, bizarre adjectives and half-digested clichés:
Freddy was in the habit of staring at Beverly's legs as they peaked from her Susie Wong slit dresses. She had a dozen of them.
"Stand slow!" a voice rang out with hollow ubiquity.
The universe is a vast region of deep mystery steeped in antiquity.
Onion oil! I couldn't imagine anyting worse than a daily bath in onion oil.
"Corporeal, we've got to do our best to keep this from the public."
"I know sir, but its already too late."
What do you mean, the general inquired?
"While you were gone I let a curious private in on the secret."
"We've got to stop him."
By now he's long gone. Sorry sir."
The Wall Street Journal on lowered expectations for the future, or how poorly the present compares against futurologists' and sci-fi writers' predictions from a few decades ago of where we'd be around 2005:
We read all these stories the moment they popped onto our screens, just as we'll read all the space-exploration stories to come -- we love this stuff. But that said, those stories didn't deliver the same thrill they would have 25 years ago. And we doubt very much that the next quarter-century will be much different. (We assumed we'd see men on Mars by now; at today's pace, we'd be pleasantly surprised if our grandkids do.)
Start with the space shuttle. Without taking anything away from the astronauts, the biggest accomplishments of the Discovery mission were that a) it came back; and b) an astronaut pulled bits of cloth out from between tiles. Moreover, NASA had already announced future flights will be grounded because the agency can't keep foam from falling off fuel tanks.Of course, while we didn't get Martian colonies, personal rocket cars, cocktail bars on the Moon, food pills or 80-lane hamster-tube highways snaking their way beneath the glass domes of shiny 21st-century cities, we did get a lot of things down here on Earth:
When we were kids, computers were hulking things off in universities that chattered and blinked mysteriously before spitting out reams of paper. Today, we feel guilty about putting exponentially more-powerful machines than those out on the curb. Back then if you wanted cash you structured your day around when you'd stand in line at the bank; today your choice might be between deli ATMs or settling a debt via PayPal. We have Web-enabled phones in our pockets, instant messaging at the office and can shop in our skivvies at 3 a.m. Wonders upon wonders -- it's only up in the heavens that we're a generation behind.
Which brings us back, unhappily, to the future all those sci-fi books of our youth described. Looking 25 more years down the road, we fear we'll find an amplified, more-depressing version of today: Maybe Real Time 2030 will fret about how our college kids do little more than steal full-res holographic porn when they're not getting their financial identities stolen by cyber-jihadists eager to build more backpack nukes.
The Onion's 2056 issue, with stories like "Government May Restrict Use Of Genetically Modified Farmers", "Final Installment of Frogger Trilogy Poised To Sweep Oscars", "Halliburton Wins Bid To Rebuild Midwest" and "Could Jimi Hendrix Mk. IV's Disappointing Synth-Funk Output Spell The End Of The Vat-Grown Celebrity?":
"Our first objective is to suppress the Wisconsinite and Illini insurgents," Halliburton spokesman James Rothman told reporters. "Attacks on the area's megasilos and supermills have cut the region's grain production in half. Once the insurgents have been contained and the farmland has been adequately irradiated, we will build our own MechaSuperfarms, which we will manage for as long as is necessary to maintain stability in the area."
One thing seems clear: If vat-grown celebrities continue to follow their own muses, it may spell the end of the entertainment industry's latest and most expensive case of sequel-itis.
"It looks like the ancient curse of entertainment--the infamous 'mind of their own' problem--might keep everyone from taking a chance on bringing back anyone else," Miner-323 said.Meanwhile, Charles Stross's future-history of the Singularity, Accelerando, has been released under a Creative Commons licence; you can read it as straight HTML on the site, download it to your PDA, or, of course, buy a dead-tree copy. It covers time from the very near future (or perhaps the present) to the age of solar-system-wide matrioshka brains with incomprehensibly complex cultural/economic systems and wormhole-spanning colonies of posthumans (not to mention uploaded lobsters and Machiavellian robot cats).
(via bOING bOING)
The Mundane SF Manifesto, an attempt at a Dogme-style manifesto for a new science fiction movement (i.e., no aliens, universal translators, easy interstellar travel, parallel universes). Which sounds a bit like the New Puritans, a movement of mostly hip young British authors of the post-Ibiza generation from about five years ago which forbade nonlinear narratives and settings outside the present, and ended up with such edgy-hip works as stories about narrators masturbating by the side of motorways and such, in dogmatically-correct real time.
Alternatively, there's the Infernokrusher Manifesto, which is all about monster trucks and blowing stuff up:
Infernokrusher fiction explodes stagnant genre conventions, e.g., that it's not okay to have all your characters run over by a monster truck in what would seem to be the middle of the story
While other attitudes to art yearn to communicate truths, to move people, to challenge, or to entertain, infernokrusher art wants to blow stuff up
The first Infernokrusher poem: I blew up the plums
that were in the icebox
and which you were probably saving for breakfast
I like fire
(via Charlie, bOING bOING)
According to the Toronto police sex crimes unit, the vast majority of people arrested for child pornography offences are obsessed with Star Trek:
The first thing detectives from the Toronto police sex crimes unit saw when they entered Roderick Cowan's apartment was an autographed picture of William Shatner. Along with the photos on the computer of Scott Faichnie, also busted for possessing child porn, they found a snapshot of the pediatric nurse and Boy Scout leader wearing a dress "Federation" uniform. Another suspect had a TV remote control shaped like a phaser. Yet another had a Star Trek credit card in his wallet. One was using "Picard" as his screen name. In the 3 1/2 years since police in Canada's biggest city established a special unit to tackle child pornography, investigators have been through so many dwellings packed with sci-fi books, DVDs, toys and collectibles like Klingon swords and sashes that it's become a dark squadroom joke. "We always say there are two types of pedophiles: Star Trek and Star Wars," says Det. Ian Lamond, the unit's second-in-command. "But it's mostly Star Trek."And there's more on the claims here, including letters from indignant Trekkies complaining that the article vilifies Trekkies whilst failing to put forward the "ethics, morality and message" of their
(via bOING bOING)
Scifi author Orson Scott Card on why it's more than about time that Star Trek was scrapped. The gist of his argument is that Star Trek is really a very poor excuse for science fiction, shapes up poorly next to both scifi literature and more recent film and television productions, and has only been kept alive thanks to a lot of rather sad people in pointy ears who don't know any better:
The original "Star Trek," created by Gene Roddenberry, was, with a few exceptions, bad in every way that a science fiction television show could be bad. Nimoy was the only charismatic actor in the cast and, ironically, he played the only character not allowed to register emotion.
Here's what I think: Most people weren't reading all that brilliant science fiction. Most people weren't reading at all. So when they saw "Star Trek," primitive as it was, it was their first glimpse of science fiction. It was grade school for those who had let the whole science fiction revolution pass them by.
Considering the virtual absence of American authors from this year's Hugo shortlist, Charlie Stross has an interesting piece on the state of science fiction writing today, and in particular the slump in US scifi.
Here's my speculation: American SF is going through a gloom-laden period induced by external social conditions, much as British SF did in the 1947-79 period (and differently, in the 1980-92 period). Extrapolative SF is often used by writers as a mirror for reflecting our concerns about the present on the silver screen of the future. "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "The Puppet Masters" were artefacts of the late 1940's/early 1950's paranoia about communist infiltration. "Fugue for a Darkening Island" was a dismal if-this-goes-on dirge played to the tune of Enoch Powell. "Neuromancer" was 1980's corporate deracination hooked up to an overdose of MTV, mainlining on hidden assumptions of monetarism. When SF is at its most overtly predictive -- especially when it speaks of the impending future -- it is talking about the present, capturing the zeitgeist and projecting it forward.
n American SF today there is a huge surge in the proportion of alternate history counterfactuals: as James Nicoll notes, AH is often used as a consolatory literature that, at its worst, says "we go back in time and make history happen the way it should have happened! Yay, Us! In a completely contrived scenario, we can win!" The boom in fantasy probably needs no further explanation. Ditto the military-SF field, which at its worst reflects the self-indulgent imperialist excesses of the British penny dreadfuls of the early 20th century.
what's almost totally absent is convincing near-future SF about a future America that is anything other than a dystopic rubbish dump. Bleakness is the new optimism. Writers living in the USA today just don't seem enthusiastic about the near future in the way that they did as recently as the 1980's, where at least the cyberpunk future of cliche was a vaguely habitable pastiche of the globalized present. They are, in fact, exhibiting the same canary-in-a-sociological-coalmine malaise as British SF writers of the 1960's and 1970's.
Apparently British technogoth scifi author Charlie Stross has uploaded to a new Sony PSP:
"Charlie was teetering on the precipice of transhumanism for the whole last year," said his friend and collaborator Cory Doctorow. "His lifestyle and cerebral/neurological capabilities had been ramped up through intensive ideation and selective smart-drug use to an exquisite pitch just short of the Singularity. When he laid his hands on that sweet, sweet hunk of hardware, it provided the critical mass of complexification necessary to tip him over fully into the Extropian ideal condition."
(Stross himself has posted a correction, saying that it was a Palm Pilot he uploaded to. Which makes more sense; would anyone with Stross' copyfighter credentials really want to upload to a Sony PSP? I imagine that, with the DRM infrastructure, it would be too much like being trapped in a prison for all eternity (or, at least, until the batteries run out).
Anyway, he may not be the first to have done so; it is rumoured that Australian hard-scifi writer Greg Egan's absence from the publishing world is due to him having uploaded some years ago:
Aussie critic and potential "Spiker" himself, Damien Broderick, comments, "I tried to visit Egan years ago, and found myself stuck in a timelike infinity loop once I got too close to his nominal address. Only the concerted efforts of Stephen Baxter, Vernor Vinge and Greg Bear were able to free me. And even now, all my interior organs remain reversed. I subsist solely on amino acids of alternate chiriality."
Really? And I thought he was too busy fighting for asylum-seekers' human rights.
Yesterday, blogging ambulanceman Tom Reynolds has had a break from rushing off to treat patients, and has instead taken to imitating God-King Emperor of All That Is Fucked-Up, Warren Ellis. He's got the hastily-written post-apocalyptic scifi story fragments (and not bad, either), pimping of new bands and music streaming, photos of Japanese English signage and links to body-modification sites. Probably needs more scary goth web-porn stars, though.
Tonight I went to see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I really enjoyed it. The writing was by Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich), though he wasn't being as much of a clever-dick as he usually was (though the somewhat self-absorbedly neurotic voice-over at the start had me worried for a while). The direction was by Michel Gondry (who did a number of other films with Kaufman, as well as videos for Björk and French TV commercials), and makes the most of the visual idiom.
I'd classify the film as speculative fiction (one could have called it "science fiction", only this term has been hijacked to mean action movies with dark metallic corridors lit by strips of neon, 1-piece jumpsuits, futuristic gadgets and lots of blinking lights). Basically, the story is this: neurotic boy (Jim Carrey, who's not at all the buffoon he's best known as) meets psycho hairdye girl (Kate Winslet, looking like too many cute-but-insane punk/goth/raver chicks you've probably met), and they hook up; then, sometime later, their relationship falls apart, and she goes to a clinic to have all memories of him eradicated from her mind. He runs into her, she doesn't recognise him then goes to the same clinic to do the same. Only as it's happening, he suddenly has a change of heart and races around the landscape of his mind, trying to save the memories of her from the erasure technicians. There's more to the story, such as one of the technicians (played by Elijah "Frodo" Wood, only looking like a member of a nu-metal boy-band) hitting on a way of using attractive female patients' erased memories to hook up with them, and the issue of whether erasing all memories of a failed relationship would be mostly good or mostly bad.
The gist of the film seems to be that erasing a memory is not the same as preventing an event from recurring; in the film, characters whose memories of their relationships with each other have been erased hook up again and repeat their connections. If you're a sentimentalist or wish to consider the film as a romantic comedy, it could be about the power of destiny and true love and soulmates being brought together by powerful forces beyond their control, like the angels people talk about on American daytime TV talk shows or something. If you're more of a skeptic or a cynic, it's more about one being destined to repeat mistakes if one doesn't remember them. On a deeper level, I thought it was about how the dynamic workings of the human mind are composed not so much of things (such as memories of moments and people) as of processes; you can lose your memories, but if you're still the same person you were before (and if you have lost learnings since, you may be more likely to be), the internal processes of your mind will guide you into repeating what you have forgotten, or at least riffing off it. (Maybe if one was to start a real-life Lacuna Inc., one would combine aversion conditioning with memory erasure, to make the patients avoid their problem exes, but I digress.)
Strange Horizons Magazine has published a list of scifi plot submissions it sees too many of; these range from generic poor writing (boringly linear plots, deus ex machina plot twists and vaguely Mary Sue-ish pieces about writer's-blocked creatives) to clichés (AIs loose on the net, dystopian futures, cultural misunderstandings with aliens leading to interplanetary incidents) and terribly clever things which everybody else has thought of, like tech support calls for magical items or humans described from alien perspectives as vermin or monsters. (via bOING bOING)
And here's the one for horror stories. Not surprisingly, serial killers feature several times in the list.
Sine Fiction is a website with electronic soundtracks for scifi novels (including works by Clarke, Burroughs, Calvino and Orwell's 1984), in downloadable MP3 format. (via bOING bOING)
Book soundtracks are an interesting idea; if a book induces scenes to play in your mind's inner theatre, what could be more natural than a score to go with it? A while ago, I did a short fragment inspired (partly) by a scene from an Iain Banks novel (one of his non-scifi ones). And I still intend to, one day, do a score to an imaginary film adaptation of a book by an imaginary author from a Jorge Luis Borges story.
Sweet Surrender, a sci-fi story combining angels and NP-hard problems. (via MeFi)
I recently picked up a book titled Jennifer Government, by a local author named Max Barry, after seeing it mentioned on bOING bOING. It's ostensibly a satire of globalisation, in which the world has become corporate-America-as-seen-from-Australia (complete with everyone speaking with Californian accents), everything is privatised, and the government's only remaining role is to prevent crime (for those who can pay the bills, anyway). Which sounds like an interesting premise; pity that the book didn't make the most of it.
The book is let down by a lack of psychological realism. Had the author populated the universe with plausibly rendered people, rather than cartoonish stereotypes, these premises could have been a very good springboard for an exploration of the human condition in the age of corporate hegemony, of extrapolating globalisation to its dystopian conclusion and exploring the myriad consequences of the way things are going. However, Jennifer Government has all the psychological realism of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Characters have next to no inner life, and are guided by the most one-dimensional motivations (greed, for example, or parental responsibility; all these things one can assign a short name to and employ by the book).
IMHO, a better treatment of the same idea is K.W. Jeter's Noir. Curiously enough, while Jeter's premises (the dead being reanimated to work off their debts) are more outlandish than Barry's (people's surnames being changed to their corporate employers' names), Noir requires less suspension of disbelief, because the scenarios and events therein have plausible psychological motivations, as opposed to happening by fiat of the author.
Not that Jennifer Government isn't entertaining, in a throwaway sort of way, just that it takes an interesting idea and squanders it, using it as little more than a McGuffin and/or a comedic prop. An amusing thriller it may be, though it falls short of being the sort of speculative fiction I expected.
Two items from Slashdot: An interview with Warren Ellis, author of Transmetropolitan and linker to scary memes and equally scary goth camgirls. And a preview of the next Neal Stephenson book, coming out in September.
Charlie Stross has posted an interesting essay about the process of writing novels:
Don't get silly and try to write a multi-threaded novel straight off, you'll tie your own shoelaces together and trip over them. If you must do multithreaded, a better way to do it is to write a novella -- say, 30,000 words long -- and then write a second novella of the same length showing the same story from a different angle. Then intercut them chapter by chapter, like chunks of salami. The trick here is to find a story that has enough different angles to be worth looking at repeatedly.
One of the easiest and commonest character development McGuffins is the romantic engagement or "boy meets girl" plot. The conventional rendering is "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl". With or without variations -- in the case of my most recent novel, "boy meets six-armed alien penguin, boy and six-armed alien penguin have great sex, boy turns into girl, girl loses six-armed alien penguin ..." -- it's a handy tool because it gives your protagonist a goal to aim for and a yardstick for character development. By the way, people have been running riffs on this since the 16th century (and earlier); Shakespeare's comedies are a good source of ideas, notably "As You Like It", "All's Well that Ends Well", "Much Ado About Nothing", and so on. As somebody or other said, "if you're going to steal, steal from the best" -- there's a full run of synopses at http://www.bardweb.net/plays/ that provide a suite of off-the-shelf romantic subplots if you're not imaginative enough to work out the details of six-armed alien penguin sex with hermaphrodites.
And more along those lines. One day, I might give something like that a try (writing a novel, I mean, not hermaphroditic alien penguin sex). I keep coming up with ideas, timelines and scenarios, though not quite enough for a novel.
A survey of Anarchist and Libertarian Societies in Science Fiction; encompassing everything from Stateless to Libertaria to Port Watson, including pirate anarchist utopias, Randian-Heinleinian gun-toting anarcho-propertarianisms, the psychedelic milieus of Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, H.G. Wells' Fabian socialism and the "fascist-socialist" utopias of H.P. Lovecraft's alien races.
I found this on this page of essays, which is a few links away from Ken MacLeod's blog. The page has a number of other intriguing essays, including one on Christian symbolism in Blade Runner and Iain M. Banks' notes on the Culture, his post-Singularity anarchosocialist utopia.
If you were a neo-Trotskyist libertarian, you would probably have to be a Scottish science-fiction author. And now you'd have a blog here. And his commentary is as sharp as his novels.
America: a country where ridiculous proportions of the population believe they were created by god, abducted by aliens, and attacked by Iraq. Also where some people believe that someone who burns a paper drawing of a US flag is as good as asking to be crushed under a bulldozer. It's not just the Right. Every political persuasion in the US contains many more stupid people than it or its equivalent does in Europe. On the Left Bank of the Seine you see poststructuralists smoking, flirting, and eating veal. Poststructuralism in America gave us La-La Land liberal toytown totalitarianism. French Maoism gave us Sartre and Althusser. American Maoism gave us Klonsky and Avakian. (I could go on.)
The Top 10.25 Things Women (genders 1-2.5) Don't Know About Men (genders 3-5): (via friday6pm.com)
Yes, we know the JebJeb can sting you to death if it's brought into the exterior. Yes, we know it lives in your cloaca. But still, we are turned on by the image of you catmating with a 2.5-3 constricted JebJeb. It's just how we are.
And then there's Selections from My Name is Blanket, © 2046 Blanket Jackson:
From observing the children my father invited to the ranch, I assumed that everyone outside of my family had a terminal disease. I desperately wanted to be as ill as them. When I was about to turn 10, he asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I said, chemotherapy.
I spoke about going to college and having a life of my own, like my brother Prince. I wanted to study veterinary medicine. But my questions fell on dead ears. Finally he erupted. No one else is leaving the ranch! No one! His legs were shaking, but he steadied himself and walked across the room to a statue of Apollo, flipped open its marble head, and pressed a keypad hidden in its neck. Sirens went off. The sound of deadbolts locking echoed throughout the room, and great mechanical noises came through the window. In the distance, a hippo lowed.
At the end of the clanking, a moment of total silence. Finally, my father said, "We are a happy family, Blanket."
Oh yes, part 3 of Jury Service is up.
"But from traces of carapace scraped off the walls of the Bey residence nursery, we have obtained a partial genotype. Tell your guidebooks or familiars or whatever to download Exhibit B for you. As you can see, the genome of the said item is chimeric and shows signs of crude tampering, but it's largely derived from drosophila, mus musculus, and a twentieth-century situationist artist or politician or something called Dan Quayle. Large chunks of its genome appear to be wholly artificial though, written entirely in Arabic, and there's an aqueous phase Turing machine partially derived from octopus ribosomes to interpret them. It looks as if something has been trying to use the shari'a code as a platform for implementing a legal virtual machine. We're not sure why, unless it's an obscure joke."
There's Turkish Star Trek, and then there's the Soviet equivalent, Kosmicheskaya Militsiya, usually translated as "Cosmos Patrol". It's stylistically like Star Trek (it has its own Kirk, Spock (who's implied to be an ethnic German), even a proto-Wesley Crusher), only it's a vehicle for rather heavy-handed Marxist-Leninist dogma.
As on Star Trek, the "strange, new worlds" the Red Adventurer visits often seem ringingly familiar. Let's see: There's the Nazi Germany planet, the Gangland Chicago planet, the Ancient Greece planet, and the planet of the Militaristic Paranoid Fascists (the U.S.A. planet). And there's time travel, too: In my favorite episode, the crew somehow goes back to Zurich in 1917 to help Lenin get to St. Petersburg in time to start the Bolshevik Revolution... Perhaps one of the weirdest borrowings from Star Trek has Dobraydushev and a reanimated Peter the Great challenging holographic supervillains Adolf Hitler and John D. Rockefeller in a chess tournamentto the death!
Ah yes; the second part of Charlie and Cory's post-singularity story Jury Service is out, and it's a corker.
Jury Service, a (so far) pretty doovy post-singularity scifi story by Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow, with biotech, nanotech, Welsh and Islamic cultures, airships and more. Pretty nifty, but the following paragraph struck me as a bit incongruous:
"Monkeys! You think I'm worried about monkeys? Brother, I once spent a month in a Tasmanian work-camp for public drunkennessimagine, an Australian judge locking an Englishman up for drunkenness!"
Falling into the myth that Australians are more accomplished drinkers than the English, where in fact Australians drink their beer in wimpy little half-pint pots (or slightly larger glasses in Sydney), while in England you don't get through life (or university at least) without learning how to down the pints like nobody's business before the pub closes at 11pm and still manage to stagger home. (Or so a friend of mine with a hollow leg tells me.)
The Turkey City Lexicon, a catalogue of conditions afflicting science-fiction (and other genre) stories:
- "Call a Rabbit a Smeerp"
A cheap technique for false exoticism, in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a fantastic milieu without any real alteration in their basic nature or behavior. "Smeerps" are especially common in fantasy worlds, where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like horses. (Attributed to James Blish.)
- The Motherhood Statement
SF story which posits some profoundly unsettling threat to the human condition, explores the implications briefly, then hastily retreats to affirm the conventional social and humanistic pieties, ie apple pie and motherhood. Greg Egan once stated that the secret of truly effective SF was to deliberately "burn the motherhood statement." (Attr. Greg Egan)
- The "Poor Me" Story
Autobiographical piece in which the male viewpoint character complains that he is ugly and can't get laid. (Attr. Kate Wilhelm)
- Used Furniture
Use of a background out of Central Casting. Rather than invent a background and have to explain it, or risk re-inventing the wheel, let's just steal one. We'll set it in the Star Trek Universe, only we'll call it the Empire instead of the Federation.
(via bOING bOING)
0wnz0red, a pretty doovy new short story by Cory Doctorow (of bOING bOING), touching on transhumanism, "trusted computing", secret military biotech projects, and a lot of hacker-culture references. Go read.
Read: Seventy-Two Letters, a great, vaguely steampunkesque short story by Ted Chiang, combining kabbalah, 17th-century naturalism and the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution:
Robert Stratton went on to read nomenclature at Cambridges Trinity College. There he studied kabbalistic texts written centuries before, when nomenclators were still called baalei shem and automata were called golem, texts that laid the foundation for the science of names: the Sefer Yezirah, Eleazar of Worms' Sodei Razayya, Abulafia's Hayyei ha-Olam ha-Ba.
(via bOING bOING)
A linguistics professor believes that space colonists' language would mutate rapidly, possibly becoming unintelligible to their Earthbound kin within decades, due to the different environment.
"This single, relatively homogeneous dialect will be noticeable with the first generation of children born on the space vehicle and will surely result in a dialect that differs from all the parents' dialect, and from every other dialect of English spoken on Earth," Thomason said.
An interesting (if somewhat old) interview with Ken MacLeod where he talks about his books and the political/social systems speculated on therein:
I think a lot of people who are libertarians now are just libertarians because the stock market is going up, frankly. As long as the market is booming, they'll be pro-market. If there was another depression or something like that, they'd probably change their tune pretty damn quick.
(from the archives of a mailing list, from about a year ago.)
An old yet most interesting interview with Greg Egan, the Australian hard-scifi author.
Music is just as important to me, on a personal level, as literature, but any influence it has on my writing is usually pretty tangential. I did write a story called "Worthless" for In Dreams - a recent anthology on "the culture of the 7-inch single". I'm a big fan of The Smiths, so the first idea that occurred to me when I heard about the anthology was to try to write a kind of SF equivalent of a Smiths song - a story with the same ambivalent attitude to the whole idea of worthlessness, half-embracing it as a positive thing. That was a one-off, though. The only other story where music played a major role was "Beyond the Whistle Test", in which scientists use neural maps to design advertising jingles which you literally can't forget.
I don't want to write motherhood statements - feel-good stories that cave in at the end and do nothing but confirm everything you ever wanted to believe; I've done that in the past, and it's insidious. Stories like that should be burned. If I'm certain of anything, it's that understanding how the real world works - how human brains actually function, how morality and emotions and decisions actually arise - is essential to any kind of ethical stance which will make sense in the long term.
As Paul Davies has said, most Christian theologians have retreated from all the things that their religion supposedly asserts; they take a much more "modern" view than the average believer. But by the time you've "modernised" something like Christianity - starting off with "Genesis was all just poetry" and ending up with "Well, of course there's no such thing as a personal God" - there's not much point pretending that there's anything religious left. You might as well come clean and admit that you're an atheist with certain values, which are historical, cultural, biological, and personal in origin, and have nothing to do with anything called God.
Australia possesses thousands of subcultures, quite apart from any question of ethnicity. One of those subcultures consists of people who consider their nationality a vital part of their self-image; that's their right, but they should stop deluding themselves that everyone else thinks the same way. Nothing's more ridiculous than talking about the "unique Australian character" - unless it's talking about the "mystical qualities of the Australian landscape".
Bad vibes/paranoia/rant: I've been reading K. W. Jeter's Noir recently. It's engrossing; sort of like early William Gibson meets Neal Stephenson, only much darker and more nihilistic. It's quite a good read, though by no means a comfortable one, as the corporate-ruled, monetised dystopia of the book is a little too close to the world we are moving towards, as wealth and power are increasingly concentrated with every multinational corporate merger, bought legislators sign away chunks of sovereignty to multinational treaties, aided by the fact that most people care more about the latest reality TV show than the more boring things happening around them. (Also, the rationales for making copyright violation a capital crime, presented in the book, are a small leap from the arguments of Microsoft and the RIAA. As for reanimating condemned convicts into eternally-suffering trophies: if George W. Bush's America had the technology, how else would they use it?) Sometimes it seems as if the age of liberal democracy (as flawed as it was) is slowly but inexorably coming to an end, to be replaced by a new global feudalism. And while a lot of the technology in the book may be far-fetched, the trends behind it are a bit too ominously familiar.
Slashdot has a review of a classic scifi/social commentary book, John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider. (Of no relation to a less than inspiring Commodore 64 game with a similar title.)