sf


The novelist Charles Cumming laments that modern technology has made the traditional spy novel impossible:

If, for example, an MI6 officer goes to Moscow and tries to pass himself off as an advertising executive, he’d better make sure that his online banking and telephone records look authentic; that his Facebook page and Twitter feeds are up to date; and that colleagues from earlier periods in his phantom career can remember him when they are contacted out of the blue by an FSB analyst who has tracked them down via LinkedIn.

And that’s before you consider the smartphone, which maintains a frightening amount of data about its user, but also makes it hard for the novelist to keep that user out of the range of help.

I considered the problem myself, for the Incatena. It occurred to me today that the counter to all this is to spam the databases with fake data. Right now this would be tedious and probably not convincing… you can create a fake Facebook account, but you can hardly create two hundred fake friends for it.

But a fake-data industry could. There are fake social media accounts now, of course, but imagine a mature technology. Basically it would create a social media AIs which do almost everything humans do.

That seems like a lot of effort to make a few spies happy. But I think almost everyone would see the advantage of having multiple, realistic net avatars. You might want to keep certain activities from your parents, or your boss. Or you just don’t like everyone knowing everything about you. In the Incatena, not only Agents would wish, sometimes, to adopt another identity, and it’d be much easier if that identity already had a history, a credit account, and friends.

The corollary would be that the virtual world (the Vee, in the Incatena) would have a population several times that of meatspace– it’s a mixture of multiple avatars, AIs, and spam.  That sounds like a drawback, but I’m not sure it is– even today you don’t necessarily expect your other gamers, debate partners, fellow geeks, clients, and romantic possibilities to intersect.  Plus, whatever oddball game you play, you can find a full server for it!

Could advanced data mining see through the fakery and find the real individuals?  In part, yes, though it’d also face more advanced data fakery. But in part no, because any given avatar is ‘real’ at least part of the time. Besides, if your data mining gets too good, you invite retaliation against your own spies.

To put it another way… I don’t think the future fifty years down the road, much less 500, is the no-privacy panopticon some people fear, or seek. Very few people want that, and there will be a lot of effort to make sure it doesn’t happen.  Even today some governments are doing work offline or in person that would once have been written down or e-mailed, and others are demanding separate rules for their own nationals, whether to keep them from hearing of the existence of non-government points of view, or to keep them from being watched by the NSA. Maybe we’ll go back to the cyberpunk notion that all data is protected by vigilant daemons with beautiful graphics…

 

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.

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