sf


I just read Idoru, and that’s sent me on a cyberpunk binge.  Re-read Neuromancer and re-cyber-read parts of Snow Crash.  Intermittently jacking into cyberrealms, keeping my eyes out for ninjas in meatspace.

Before comparing Stephenson and Gibson, I have to reference Stephenson’s own awe-inspiring account of their rivalry.

After that, my own insight is paltry: Gibson is Dashiell Hammett, and Stephenson is Raymond Chandler.  Only with the respective output level reversed: there’s lots of Gibson to read, and lots of Chandler, but only two real Stephenson cyberpunk books, and one Sam Spade novel.

I read somewhere that genre fiction invariably passes through three stages: serious, baroque, and parodic.  Gibson more or less invented cyberpunk, and he himself spans the range from serious to baroque.  What struck me in these two books is the seriousness: the situations are outrageous, but the heroes face them with utter graveness.

Stephenson goes from baroque to parodic. If anything, he’s more realistic than Gibson– YT doesn’t sport surgically implanted sunglasses, Hiro doesn’t want to marry an AI, the Metaverse makes sense to a developer.  Yet he seems to realize the ridiculousness of his situations, sharing the joke with the reader and perhaps even the characters, who never have the sense of being in over their heads that oppresses Gibson’s main characters.

I prefer Stephenson– for that sense of realism, and his sense of fun.  Gibson’s books are tenser, but the plots have the impenetrability of noir.  Neuromancer is a heist caper which depends on every eccentric character doing the right thing, which is always a disaster; this makes for a great story, but in real life someone sensible would look for a better plan. Idoru has a plethora of intersecting obsessives whose motivations never quite make sense.  A rock star wants to marry an AI… no one quite knows what that means, and by the end of the book I don’t know either.

All these books hold up pretty well after twenty years, though of course they all got significant parts of cyberspace wrong.  The main error is of course that they underestimated what can be done online.  In Snow Crash normal citizens just go to the Metaverse to party; in Neuromancer the characters go to a software store… software is apparently only sold in little crystal shards in the equivalent of Radio Shack.  Neither author could foresee that almost all retail, to say nothing of entertainment, news, and education, would simply move online.

The other error is the perpetual one of the sf writer: when he’s writing, and we’re reading, we need to find this stuff fascinating.  In the actual future, we’ll find it banal.  There will be new things to be excited about, sure, but marrying an AI?  You can buy a RealDoll now, and the Japanese will surely have the software ready for it in a few years, and all it’ll be will be a rather pathetic lifestyle choice for otakus.  Or you can log into Second Life and go have sex with a furry.

Gibson imagined cybercowboys carefully piercing their way through massive defense of important corporate data… here the irony is that the massive corporations haven’t actually bothered with ice at all.  They figure if they require your mother’s maiden name, they’ve provided more than enough security.  Oops, hackers got in and stole ten million credit card numbers anyway.

Edit: One more thing that bugs me about Gibson: the fact that hacking is done entirely visually.  It’s like he’s anticipating the movie version.  I know it’s a trope in every cyberspace movie ever, but this is a book.  I can just buy that all the corporate data has a nice geometric graphical interface; but hackers won’t look at the pretty graphics, they’ll dive down into boring-looking files and code.  (Stephenson understands this.)  And who the hell provides pretty graphics for hacked data structures?  “Johnson, you’re in charge of visualizing the database.  And while you’re at it, make sure you provide alternate, very complex graphics for when hackers invade the system.”

PZ Myers has a posting where he makes a short argument against transhumanist uploading.  This was relevant to my interests, because I think uploading is bonkers.

He has two arguments, really.  Unfortunately one (using entropy) is just wrong: entropy doesn’t prevent complex systems; it only requires that more entropy be generated to offset them. So long as you convert only a tiny fraction of the universe into computronium, entropy won’t stand in your way.

His other argument was better. but sketchy: uploaders prefer “what is good for the individual over what is good for the population”.  As he was arguing with Eliezer Yudkowsky among others, this is probably a misfire– judging from his Harry Potter fanfic, Yudkowsky does consider it an imperative that technology benefits everyone.

Still, there’s the germ of an actual good argument in there: that the uploaders think way too much about personally not dying, and way not enough about how to make what life we have worth living.  Morally, it’s hard to argue that our biggest problem is that people don’t live 1000 or 1,000,000 years.  If humans keep on with the sort of behavior and morality and economics they have right now, such lifetimes would be hellish.  Even if you have a wildly optimistic view of how well we’re doing, prolonging lifetimes even to a couple hundred years would be horrible for 90% of the population, and that’s assuming we can even keep our civilization going.  (If you want to live forever, climate change is not your grandchildren’s problem, it’s yours.)  So even if you want immortality, you’d better prioritize, well, almost everything else.

But that’s a discussion for another day.  I was caught up short by this comment, by one Gregory in Seattle:

There is a growing belief among memory researchers that the brain relies on “archetypes.” You actually have only one or two physical memories of the taste of bacon: all of the apparent memories of bacon link back to them. REM sleep is when the brain recompiles, tossing out actual memories from short-term storage and integrating the day’s experiences into long-term storage with heavy object reuse (pardon the computerese.)

According to this model, children learn faster because they have fewer archetypes: they are building a “library” and links into them are pretty straightforward. As we get older, though, the ability to store and link novel information becomes more difficult and memory begins to ossify. Someone who pursues life-long learning can stave this off, but not completely. To use another computer example, the problem does not appear to be one of storage so much as the storage becoming fragmented. The ability to link begins to suffer, and memories begin to get lost in the shuffle.

Without a major redesign of how the brain stores memories, very long lifespans will probably bring us to a point where novel experiences cannot be integrated at all. We see this sort of slow down in people who are 90 and 100; I cannot imagine what it would be like for someone who is 200, much less 500 or 1000.

I’d never heard about this theory, but then I don’t know anything really about memory research.  But it’s a fascinating idea, and one that makes a lot of sense as a way for a creature of limited brain to organize the reams of sensory data that swamp it daily.

Though it’s not so much an argument against long lives as an argument that if we want to have them, we’ll have to change some basic facts about ourselves.  That’s why, in the Incatena, I have people doing a kind of brain reboot every century or two: throw out a bunch of memories, loosen the connections, re-adolescentize the brain.

To put it another way, your basic personality, attitudes, ideology, politics, etc. are generally pretty well firmed up by the time you’re 30.  You can adapt to new things after that, but with increasing difficulty– by the time you’re 80, you’re a curmudgeon who hates the kids’ music and clothing and votes for reactionaries.  That’s acceptable when lifetimes are 90 years, but not if they’re 900.  If you refuse to die, then you have to do something to regain your adaptability, for your own benefit and for that of society.

This looked really great: Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross collaborate on a story that celebrates and/or parodies the Singularity.

It might well be to your taste.  Here, have a sample:

[Huw] mutters transhuman curses in groaning harmony at the battered teapot– no longer hosting the avatar of a particularly annoying iffrit, but evidently hacked by Ade and his international cadre of merry pranksters.  “Why South Carolina? G’wan, you. Why there, of all places?”

He isn’t expecting a reply, but the teapot crackles for a moment; then a translucent holo of Ade appears in the air above it, wearing a belly dancer’s outfit and a sheepish expression.  “Yer wot? Ah, sorry mate.  Feckin’ trade union iffrit’s trying to make an alpha buffer attack on my sprites.” The image flickers then solidifies, this time wearing a bush jacket again. “Like, why South Carolina? To break the embargo, Huw. Ever since the snake-handlers crawled outta the swamps and figured the Rapture had been and gone and left ‘em behind, they’ve been waiting for a chance at salvation, so I figured I’d give them you.” Ade’s likeness grins wickedly as red horns sprout from his forehead. “You and the back channel to the ambassador from the cloud.  They want to meet God so bad, I figured you’d maybe like to help the natives along.”

I don’t know which of them to blame, but basically every sentence is trying terribly hard to be clever, cool, and faintly outrageous.  It’s tiring, and I was only able to make it about a third of the way through.

The book seems to take the same strategy as the weakest issues of Transmetropolitan: try to communicate that The Future will be 100% wacky 100% of the time.  So, let’s see, there’s the friend of Huw’s who rearranges her sentient house at a whim, the huge anarchist ant colony that’s taken over the eastern US, the zeppelins, the backwards Islamic socialists of New Libya, the genetically engineered oil-creating trees that are useless because people don’t use oil anymore, the rednecks in South Carolina who worship God and Ayn Rand… who actually shows up in the last pages of the book… and that’s to say nothing of the singularity itself, which has turned the solar system into computronium as in Accelerando– all the other oddities, as in that book, are just tales of the insufficiently evolved.

I feel like I dodged a bullet, because I was thinking of doing the same sort of thing in a new Incatena novel.  Instead of telling stories about the frontier, I was going to show up some of the high weirdness on one of the more advanced planets, like Mars or Sihor itself.  Oh, the satirical hijinx that would ensue!

The thing is, it’s a cheat.  The culture you grow up in doesn’t feel alien to you.

It can feel rushed, dangerous, like everything’s changing too fast, sure.  That’s what people have felt for the last hundred years.  I can definitely see the people of 2493 complaining that man, things are hectic these days, why can’t we have the calm of the 2460s back.  But people adapt.  We don’t react to the novelties of 2013 as if we were born in 1827.  We’re not continually freaking out.  When we do freak out, it’s not usually because of the rapidity of cultural change.  Usually it’s our old primate nature: family drama, can’t find the good bananas, mating is hard, the alpha males are assholes.

Stross has already written a satirical book about the Singularity, Accelerando, so I’m not sure what he felt he was adding here.  One thing at least has been subtracted: a plot.  Stuff happens to Huw, it keeps happening, but a third of the way through there is no predicament he has to solve.  He gets into situations, they’re solved by a deus ex machina (of the ancientest type: an actual machine), he gets into another one, and I couldn’t even tell you if there’s an overall villain in the book.  Could be anyone he’s met, I guess, because, you know, 100% wacky 100% of the time.

This sort of thing can be done; the best examples are mostly by Alfred Bester.  The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man are convincing portraits of a world that’s even more whirlwind than ours.  But Bester knew how to keep the wackiness valve throttled.  Douglas Adams was also a master at this– he could pitchfork in the wackiness, and yet you always had the impression that a sufficient sense of irony– like Ford Prefect’s– could take it in stride.  Or there’s Snow Crash, which hits just the sweet spot between this world is neat and this world is appalling.

Plus, Stross on his own is much better at thinking through all the details.  That ant colony, for instance.  The book treats it like a ’50s horror movie– it just eats through everything.  First, what the fuck does this have to do with the Singularity?  Second, what happened to predators?  Third, how does the colony stay alive in any region once it’s consumed all the biomass?

Oh, and Huw is chosen by the AI cloud as an interpreter because his larynx is particularly developed… because he speaks Welsh.  Good godda fuck.

There’s also a weird xenophobia to the book.  There’s an orientalist twinge to New Libya, a feeling that there’s just something too funny about hackers and high tech appearing in the sand dunes.  And the fundies in South Carolina make no more sense than the ant colony.  They mix Baptists, charismatics, and Catholics, they talk funny, they’re somehow simultaneously backwoodsmen and Randites.  This isn’t even satire, it’s just a huge lazy self-indulgent wink at the reader.

And then we meet the Bishop of the First Church of the Teledildonic, which believes in nudity and free love… srsly Cory and Charlie?  From fundie jokes to laughing at the pervs?  I guess I kind of expected what sounded like a satire of the Singularity to be, well, a satire of the Singularity, not a chance to unload on right-wingers, Arabs, and nudists.

But as I said, I couldn’t finish it, so maybe they finally get around to their ostensible topic later on.  I expect that tolerance for 100% wackiness varies by person and by previous reading, so you might do better with the book than I did.

I read John Scalzi’s Redshirts last night. In one big gulp. It looked fun and it was fun, though there was an adjustment period of about three chapters where I had to get into the right mindset. This is basically Christopher Moore territory, so if you like him you should like this and vice versa.

The premise: The redshirts on a ship greatly resembling the Enterprise have an alarming tendency to die on away missions. And they know it. A paranoid culture develops among the underlings on the ship.

Premise including spoilers that aren’t spoiled on the dustcover, but which are spoiled a little further on in my review: One smart redshirt, Ensign Dahl, finds out that the ship is actually fictional. Sometimes the Narrative takes over.  Physics goes out the window and plot contrivance rules instead.

It’s a quick read– most of the book is conversation, much of it snappy– with an extremely affectionate satirical streak.  If you liked Galaxy Quest, it’s that, with an entirely different plot.

I worry about things getting all meta, because I think the author can get carried away– as in, say, Alan Moore’s Black Dossier.  The emotional temperature drops and the work’s own Narrative goes off in a corner to sulk.  I think Scalzi takes on the challenge pretty well.  He treats the redshirts’ dilemma as an sf problem and figures out what smart people would to about it.  If he verges into a little meta-meta territory at the end, well, arguably it would be dishonest not to.

The book has a somewhat odd structure, especially if you’re used to some modern novels where the climax hits approximately two pages from the end.  Scalzi wraps up the plot and then adds a three-part coda that makes up about 1/4 of the book– wrapping up loose ends.  This isn’t bad, it’s just unusual.  In effect he thought of three more ways to play with the idea, and I think it does deepen the book and add human interest.

I picked up the habit of referring to sf, from a period when many people insisted it could as well be “speculative fiction” or “science fantasy” as “science fiction”.  Redshirts is kind of a poster child for that policy, as it sure isn’t about science.  It does what most sf does: take an idea and run it through its paces.

The early form of the idea explored here is what if fictional characters were real people who could reflect on their situation and attempt to change it?  Now, it’s fun to play with this concept, but perhaps Scalzi realized that it was not exactly connected to the real world, as the coda more or less restates it as Authors really give their characters shit, don’t they?  What’s up with that?  Which can be an actual real-world issue for writers, and to a lesser extent for readers.  E.g. Is it cheap or bad to kill off your minor characters?

Obviously, yes, if you do it routinely.  On the other hand, it’s boring if you never put your characters in trouble, and it’s unrealistic to never deal with the pain and death of real life.  And on the third hand, unrealism isn’t a crime, it’s a challenge.

I mentioned that meta-narrative can make the emotional temperature drop– if the pretense that the author isn’t there is dropped, it’s no longer a story about how a character overcomes a problem, it’s an internal monolog within the author.  Scalzi avoids that, but partly becuase he never allows the emotional temperature to rise very much, either.  We believe in Dahl’s predicament while the book is open; when it’s closed we kind of forget about him.  He wants to escape The Narrative, but there’s nothing else he wants, or gets.  I wonder if Scalzi realized this, since the coda works hard to insert some extra human feeling.

(One minor point that bothered me was that the characters refer explicitly to Star Trek.  It’s a dumb old convention, presumably enforced by evil corporate lawyers, that obvious satires are hidden using transparent fake names, but then why also refer to the actual model openly?)

(Another minor point, but a cool one: Scalzi has figured out some techno-gobblegook that actually makes Back to the Future’s model of time travel almost make sense.  I.e. if you travel in time, an instability is created because your atoms are there already, and after a convenient interval only the ones that ‘belong there’ will remain.)  (Well, it does violate the actual physics, which tells us that atoms really are interchangeable.  Still, valiant effort.)

Edit: it occurred to me that another unusual thing about Scalzi’s plot is that he really has no villains. (There are some people who act badly, but they’re very minor.) This is hard to do, so kudos to him for trying it.

I suppose every sf writer worries that something is going to come along to invalidate their vision, fictional though it is.  I’ve been having some worries lately about whether the sort of espionage pictured in Against Peace and Freedom will actually be possible in an info-saturated world.

We already live in a world where multiple entities have data about you that would be the wet dream of a totalitarian.  And it’s not even the government.  Facebook knows your whole social network, and peeps on what other sites you visit.  Stores know what you buy down to the last bag of candy.  Games give feedback to developers on how they’re played.  Cel phone conversations have been externally monitored.  Google has created a wildly detailed map with annotations– where you can’t turn left, what paths are suitable only for foot traffic, where the KFCs are.

Let this system develop for fifty years.  Would it then be possible for an Agent to come into the country, evade the secret police, and meet dissidents?  I’ve suggested that externalities can be reduced by low-level monitoring– bullets know who fired them, pollution is chemically marked to show its source.  In this kind of info-rich society, a human being is like a bull blundering through a dollhouse– there’s no way to miss their trail.

Now, the first thought is to minimize the clues.  This might be barely possible today: pay cash, never use a computer, use other people’s houses and cars.  But will cash even exist in 50 years, much less 2500?  And retail is already being transformed; it may not be long before it’s strictly impossible to buy a plane ticket without going online.  Besides, a suspicious government might well slap a nanobug on every traveler to add to the data trail.

Surveillance can also look for missing data.  Fifty travelers arrived; we have 49 hotel rooms rented.  Look up the missing guy in the airline’s database.  If he’s lost, maybe periodically scan everyone in random restaurants, see which ones can’t be linked to a valid identity.

The next solution is false identities.  To be honest, my account of Okura was based on the mechanics of visiting 20th century dictatorships.  Even today, my understanding is that it’s not easy to simply wander around China as you like.  Unless you look Chinese.  I have a Chinese-American friend who did just that; she could ignore all the restrictions on foreigners.  A totalitarian government can watch its citizens because it has key bits of leverage– they need to work and live somewhere, they have children who go to school, etc.  Watching everyone all the time is a hard problem and they take shortcuts that work for most cases; but with care, these can be avoided.

Creating false identities in an info-rich world would be possible, but tedious.  Imagine creating a fake Facebook account.  It’s highly suspicious without a bunch of commenting friends– we either have to invent them too, or co-opt real people to recognize the impostor.  The very idea of Facebook is based on shallow but wide-ranging connections… the person should have family, grade school friends, co-workers, neighbors, and all these interactions have to be plausible.

A foreigner might not be in the local Facebook, of course– but espionage frequently requires passing as a local, and again we run into the problem of missing data: the person with no online connections looks odd, and oddity invites scrutiny.

I refer to this a bit in the book– the idea is that the Incatena produces multiple, complex false identities everywhere, for Agents to step into when needed– if necessary, changing their features to match.  They’re probably mostly created by AIs, and it can be assumed that all spy agencies have been engaged for centuries in an arms race of fraudulence and counter-fraudulence.

If the systems are old enough, they might be riddled with hacks.  But I don’t buy the movie version of hacking– that any bright teenager can break into a system and make it do whatever they want.  Go and get some data, fine.  Add to a database– tricky.  Serious databases are not HTML pages you can hop in and add your anarchist message to; they’re carefully constructed to control and timestamp all access, and properly updating a web of records is actually a pretty complicated task that takes coders months, not minutes.  And adding hacked bits of code… again, a good system is housed in timestamped source control systems, and changes are looked at carefully.

(And yes, I know, systems do get hacked in grandiose ways– Stuxnet, for instance.  But Stuxnet wasn’t some kid breaking in from his mom’s basement.  I’m talking about things a single Agent can do.)

As for nanobots, I threw in a kludge– the arms race of nanobottery was statemated, and as a result no one really trusted their high-end measures and countermeasures.  In effect Okura doesn’t trust its own nanobots to stay where they’re placed; it relies on human agents to sequester travelers instead.

Another possibility is that an info-saturated society drowns in the density of the data.  It might be like the human genome: we have the data, but we don’t have the tools to understand how it all works.  It takes a long time to create new tools to dive deeper into the data, and by the time they’re written the data is denser yet, plus the databases aren’t compatible and the guy who really understood the schema quit to live offgrid in a cabin.

Anyway, APAF was set on peripheral worlds with backwards technology.  I’m tempted to set the next novel in a more central world– Earth, or Euko, or Sihor– some place that would showcase the more crazy-futuristic elements of the Incatena, and maybe a higher level of espionage.

I’ve read all the Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality there is, currently chapter 79.  I think it has, as gamers say, levelling problems.  For the first half or so, Harry runs into real challenges and real challengers.  And then, for the most part, he’s already invincible.

Yudkowsky should have realized something was up when he made Harry so powerful in Quirrell’s battle magic training wars that he had to give up 1/3 of his army to his two opponents.  That is, even two opponents can’t compete with Harry any more.  He’s out-levelled them.  That means it’s now a superhero story, and it gets old fast to read about a superhero wasting enemies that are beneath him.

There’s a long section where he tries to focus on Hermione, who decides she wants to be a heroine rather than a sidekick.  It may be trying to make a meta-narrative point, but that too is not as clever as it sounds; it amounts to saying that an author makes some chracters succeed and not others, which is a boring insight about art and not an insight at all about the rest of life.  Yudkowsky comes close to making fun of Hermione, but what I wanted to see what her levelling up along with Harry.

The thread seems to have been lost a bit, too.  There’s an intense, well done set piece involving a raid on Azkaban, and then Hermione’s escapades, but these are almost entirely action sequences parallel, in fact, to the ones in the original book.  That is, there’s little about the methods of rationality any more.

There’s also a fairly sharp critique of  Dumbledore as someone who is too ready to live with small evils for the sake of the larger war.  When Harry sees an injustice he wants to shove the pedal to the metal and do whatever it takes to fix it; he has no patience with any reasons for going slow.  That isn’t rationality, it’s bull-headedness.  Few real-world problems can be solved merely by bursts of toughness and heroism.  Bullying really gets under Yudkowsky’s skin, for instance– he objects to both Snape (for being a bully) and Dumbledore (for not stopping the bullies).  But his answer comes down to “intimidation by the powerful”.  And sure, it’s great when the powerful take the problem seriously and beat up the bullies.  But when the powerful move on to some other challenge, what happens then?  Bullies are extremely good at waiting for the moments the big boys aren’t paying attention.  Thinking that intimidation will solve all your problems is what gets you into Vietnams and Iraqs.

Hmm, all that came out more negative than I thought it would.  I still stayed up late reading this stuff, and the last chapters are a new plot arc that seems very promising.

Be careful now, the following link can corrode your time.   Yes, worse than TV Tropes.  I’ve been staying up way too late the last few nights reading it.  Here it is: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality,by Eliezer Yudkowsky.  You’ve been warned.

It’s a retelling of the Harry Potter story… if Harry was a prodigy of rationality, filled with near-adult understanding of logic and science, and possessing both the brilliance and impish wit of Richard Feynman.

Harry doesn’t live with the mediocre Dursleys… in this universe Petunia married an Oxford biochemist, and Harry is quite happy with his parents.  He goes to Hogwarts and, naturally, is Sorted into… Ravenclaw, along with Hermione.  And he despises Ron Weasley and befriends Draco Malfoy, and considers becoming a Dark Lord…

It most reminds me of an old sf novella, “In Hiding” by Wilmar Shiras, about a small group of hyperintelligent children.  Very few stories get across the sensation of what it’s like to be very intelligent, but these do.  (Which is a mystery… maybe few really smart people write stories?)

The book takes the opportunity to give lightning tours of all sorts of issues of rationality, from the elementary scientific method to Bayesian probability to timeless quantum mechanics, all in the context of Harry attempting to confront a universe that turns out to work very differently from what he’d imagined.  He’s shocked, but also delighted: a scientist loves a good puzzle.  Plus he’d like to fuse magic and science and become a god.  And help everyone else become one, too.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, though the Hogwarts characters he meets are based on Rowling’s, they’re all rather smarter, and though Harry overturns many of their expectations they are up to the challenge.  So far his most important mentor has been Prof. Quirrell (who’s rather a dolt in Rowling’s version).

Describing it, it seems like it shouldn’t work.  But Yudkowsky is really a hell of a writer.  Though his passion is rationality and his prose is never lyrical, he’s very good at getting into the minds of various different characters, and above all at one of the things beginning writers (especially those with A Message) fail to master: making the antagonists into worthy rivals.

Yudkowsky uses the four Houses as symbols of whole personalities: Gryffindor is for would-be heroes; Ravenclaw for the studious; Hufflepuff for the friendly and hard-working; Slytherin for the ambitious strivers.  His Harry is torn between Ravenclaw and Slytherin– though he has good thoughts about all four.  It’s not hard to make Ravenclaw into an attractive portrait; it’s a heaven for geeks.  What’s more interesting is that he makes an excellent case for Slytherin.  It’s not just for nasty people and Dark Lords.

This is best seen by contrasting his and Rowling’s treatment of Draco Malfoy.  Draco is described as what a nice young boy would be like if he had Darth Vader as a doting father.  He’s prejudiced, yes, but he’s quite smart, and he’s been well trained in leadership and diplomacy; he has near-instinctive social skills that geekish Harry can barely understand.  And he has some valid reasons to distrust Dumbledore and the Gryffindors.  Harry can see that he could go bad, and he makes it one of his many missions to get him past his prejudices and to choose good.

Rowling’s Draco is simply a little bully, fated to be ever the foiled foil to heroic, unstoppable Harry.  Rowling is not without moral depth– after all, the main lesson of Book One is not to take unpleasantness and greasy black hair as signs of Evil– but Draco is ultimately a pathetic figure, a near-meaningless pawn for Voldemort.  There isn’t really anything her Harry could learn from him.

Yudkowsky’s version of rationality can be bracingly close to Slytherin cunning.  Harry likes plotting; he understands the appeal, the fun, of making other people do things, and with plenty of experience of being smarter than everyone around him, he sees the appeal of looking down on the rest of the world.  But he has a strong sense of justice too, and won’t countenance sadism, abuse, or death.

It’s tempting to say that Yudkowsky’s vision is actually more compelling than Rowling’s– that he makes a more interesting Harry, certainly a more interesting Draco and Slytherin, and more realistic versions of most of the magic.  (The Sorting Hat, for instance, can talk not because it’s really sentient, but because it borrows intelligence from the mind of the child it’s on.)

But that’s not really right.  Rowling is I think more inventive; she after all created this whole sprawling, fascinating, amusing and horrifying world, as well as these compelling characters.  And her approach to magic is in its own way as much an act of deconstruction as Yudkowsky’s.  If magic really worked like this, of course it would replace technology, and be used all day long in a thousand creative ways.  And things like the anti-Muggle sentiments and the house elves show a modern horror of old medieval ways.  The annoying kind of magic is that of too many novels and video games: epic fantasy minus Christianity, minus medieval technology, but plus magic, dragons, and dwarves.  Magic is effectively free energy, and it would transform medieval society as much as science did.

Anyway, there’s lots more to say, but I’d really like to go read Chapter 51.  And if you’re the type of person who likes my blog, you should go and read Chapter 1.

Ready to geek out? I knew you were! What’s the best order to watch the Star Wars movies in?

This dude Rod Hilton claims to have solved the puzzle.  And you know, I think the man makes sense.

His solution: 4, 5, 2, 3, 6.  This combine two ideas:

  • It keeps the Vader reveal, and deepens it with a two-movie backstory.  Two movies about Luke, two about Vader.   The cliffhanger at the end of 5 works even better.
  • Bag 1 entirely.  None of it turns out to be necessary, and you lose the most annoying parts of the series (Jar-Jar, midichlorians).

He admits that 2 isn’t very good, but it’s necessary to understand 3.

Now personally I’d go with: 4, 5, 6.  Then go play KOTOR.  If you’re insomniac in cable hell some night and 3 is on, watch it, drinking some J.D. from the little fridge, otherwise leave the prequels alone.  But if that seems too severe, follow Hilton’s advice.

OK, m’man Stross has written an intelligent, reasonable post on predicting the future, concentrating on the degree of weirdness (what he calls unknown unknowns).  And he convinces himself that we really can’t predict anything more than forty years out.  He concludes:

And by 2052, the unknown unknowns will have driven the world to be a very different place from anything I can predict today.

Really, Charlie?   A little more than one generation?   I think he’s wrong, and I think the best way to show this is to look backwards instead, to a hypothetical sf writer of forty years ago– 1972.  And let’s say that this writer is kind of conservative in her predictions.  In fact, let’s say she predicts that the year 2012 will be exactly like 1972.

How far off would she be?  Well, let’s look at some of her successful predictions.

  • The richest and most powerful nation in the world will be the US.  The most important language for world communication will be English.
  • The richest regions will be North America, Europe, and Japan.
  • The US will be a republic whose politics is dominated by two parties: the Republicans who largely favor the rich and prefer small government, and the Democrats who prefer liberalism (that is, a middle class society with a strong safety net).  On many issues the young will be much more liberal than the elderly.  A minority will despise the Democrats for being lamely centrist.
  • The president will be seeking another term despite a recent recession and plenty of voters who see him as the embodiment of evil; the other party will be divided and widely accused of radicalism.  Republicans will campaign against social spending, abortion, and the media; there will be the threat of a populist third party run.
  • There will be much tacit acceptance of pot, but it won’t be legal.  Other recreational drugs will be more actively repressed.
  • The US will be involved in wars with nations much smaller than itself, largely facing guerrilla opponents, and will be unable to convince the rest of the world that the war is worth it.
  • Oil reserves will give disproportionate importance to the Middle East.  The long conflict between Israel and its neighbors will continue to brew.  India will be a democracy; Russia will be run by an authoritarian regime with a backwards economy propped up by oil revenues.
  • Fidel Castro will still be defying the US from Havana.  North Korea will still be a bizarre communist holdout.
  • Liberals will worry about how industrial civilization is greatly harming the ecosphere; conservatives will largely dismiss the notion.
  • Major corporations will include General Motors, AT&T, Du Pont, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, United Aircraft, and Exxon.  [Not gonna penalize our predictor for a couple of mergers and name changes.]
  • The economy of the richer nations will be capitalist (with a fairly big government largely devoted to defense and the social safety net), the most important sectors being manufacturing and services.  Ships, planes, and trucks will distribute goods; people will get around mostly by cars and planes.  Computers will be increasingly important in business and science.  People will communicate often by phone. 
  • Most Americans, at least, will live in the cities and suburbs, in their own house if they can afford one, as a nuclear family.  The work week will be about forty hours; domestic appliances will ensure that the family has plenty of leisure.
  • The chief entertainment sources will be movies, television, and recorded music.  One might cynically add that another source of entertainment is gossip about entertainers’ lives.  Popular music genres will include rock and country.
  • There will be exciting but (unfortunately for sf fans) marginal exploration of space.  However, movies about much more advanced space exploration will be popular.
  • The vast majority of people will aspire to marriage, though some people will be happy to just live together as couples.  Women will be an important component of the labor force, but on average they won’t be paid as well as men.  Birth control will allow a high degree of sexual freedom and experimentation; this will be opposed by some, who will somehow blame women more for it.  Gays and lesbians will be creating their own subculture and organizing for more recognition. 

Not a bad job really… much better than the efforts of actual sf writers!

So what are the major things she got wrong?

  • The fall of communism
  • The rise of China as a capitalist manufacturing powerhouse
  • The personal computer
  • The Internet
  • The smart phone
  • The microwave oven
  • The defection of the South to the Republican Party
  • Gay marriage
  • The election of a black president
  • Rap as the dominant pop music

I’m not going to try to balance the lists, because it’s too subjective.  Some of the items on the second list are pretty significant.  On the other hand, again, my hypothetical writer was making no actual attempt at prediction.  It wasn’t that hard to predict the fall of communism– I did it myself though I got the date way wrong.  The Southern Strategy had already been mooted by Nixon; Stonewall had already happened; nobody quite got the transformation of economic life by electronics but many came close– hell, bits of it were predicted in Looking Backward in 1887.

I freely admit that I cooked the list a bit, partly for the amusement value.  On the other hand, I could have extended it quite a bit.  The point is, despite how fast things seem to change, our everyday lives really have not been revolutionized that much in forty years, and our political and economic system is barely different.  Many of the major changes of modern life, especially the accompanying changes in values and mores, happened earlier. 

Stross is too smart to be pinned down to specifics.  But I’ll still wager him that he’s wrong: 2052 will be more like than unlike 2012, and most of its politics, economics, and everyday life will be entirely recognizable if we could see them right now.  Of course there will be interesting changes, but the really radical civilization-changing ones will be much farther off.

 

 

 

 

I just read the first two books of the Merchant Princes series, by Charles Stross: The Family Trade and The Hidden FamilyStross explains here that these were written as one book, and the series was more or less designed to be science fiction disguised as fantasy.

Miriam is a Boston tech journalist who’s fired from her job in an infuriating way– in order to prevent her from publishing a sensitive story.  Visiting her stepmother for consolation, she’s given an old family locket which has the power to take her to other worlds.  (Always rebellious, even to authors’ nudges, she puts it away when she first gets it, and doesn’t try it out till page 35.)

She finds herself on an altenative, medieval Earth, and soon learns that she’s part of a family (the Clan) with the world-walking talent… a messed-up family with the manners of aristocrats and the morals of mafiosi.  And then people start trying to kill her.

Stross finds most fantasy too conservative, too in love with the stone walls and the trees and the pretty velvet dresses (to say nothing of pointy ears and dragons, both blessedly absent here).  He obviously not only prefers the future; the present is too hidebound for him.  His novel Glasshouse is in part an acerbic satire of the American midcentury.  So Miriam very quickly decides that she needs to modernize the other world.  The theme of the extended series turns out to be development economics.

It’s probably not fair to critique that aspect based on just two books.  However, it’s kind of a slightly more realistic Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  As an example: a good portion of the second book consists of Miriam getting a foothold in New Britain– yet another planet accessible by worldwalking , with steampunk technology.  It’s a pretty good procedural on how you might proceed in an 18th century society: what tech you could choose, how you’d set up a corporation, how you’d treat the help, who you’d ally with. 

Stross is good at this sort of thing– a long buildup of procedure was also the heart of Glasshouse.  He’s also good at adding in intrigue; Miriam has plenty of enemies.  But in some ways she does almost as well as Twain’s engineer, and I’m not sure I buy that.  For one thing, there seem to be no technical snafus… her designs just work, and just interface perfectly with New British tech.  I’ve researched the history of technology, and the big problem with time travel would be the host of supporting tech and industry that just isn’t there.  If you wanted to build boilers in ancient Rome, the steel wouldn’t be strong enough, the pistons wouldn’t fit, no one would know how to make the valves.  Technology proceeds incrementally, and with frequent failures. 

The other problem is the social context.  In our own world, we’ve found that just importing technology doesn’t create development… not even importing college courses.  You can set up a car plant in Upper Volta, but it’s just a very remote extension of Detroit.  Stross depicts a world so alien to entrepreneurship that every company must be formed by an Act of Parliament.  A few lucrative patents aren’t going to change that.

There’s also the problem of technological unemployment.  Miriam talks about tripling the output of the Clan’s estates.  Sure, but modern agribusiness would employ 3% of the peasant workforce… what do the displaced workers do?  You’d better have factories ready for them to move to.  And what are the factories going to make, when the middle class barely exists yet?

Stross really seems to like working with female protagonists.  (Even if they’re not born female, as in Glasshouse.)  His feminism is impeccable.  He likes to underline how horrible premodern societies were for women… then he goes and create a bunch of omnicompetent Valkyries who do what they want anyway.  Miriam is so resolutely practical that she sometimes comes off as a Heinlein character in drag.  She falls in love, but even that is a minor subplot, and her love interest frankly is unbelievably patient with her.

Fantasy seems to insist on interminable series these days, and I’m not sure it’s good for the genre or for Stross.  The plot sometimes feels bolted together… the story that leads to Miriam’s firings points to the Clan, which is a huge improbable coincidence.  A subplot about her journalistic career just peters out.  Stross spends a lot of time making characters looks suspicious who later turn out to be perfectly cuddly, while the actual bad guys are mostly just stupid.  The Clan’s internal opposition to Miriam just crumbles in the big confab at the end.  Did this really need to be a six-book series?  Zelazny’s Lord of Light, which tells a not dissimilar story, fits a whole epic into a slim 300 pages.

I don’t mean to be negative; I enjoyed the books.  Stross is good at depicting culture shock, and demythologizing kings and dukes.  (Well, mostly good; he can’t help depicting one duke as a steely, canny old bastard with a heart of gold.)  His forte, I think, is problem solving.  He puts his protagonist in a deep dark hole and figures out how they’ll claw their way out of it.  And they’re generally very clever, so it’s interesting to watch them do so.

 

 

 

 

 

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