sf


I’ve never read any Christopher Priest before, and The Prestige was recommended.  The library didn’t have it, but they had The Islanders, and I figured what the hell.

First, what is it?  It’s sf, of precisely the sort that explains why I use sf instead of ‘science fiction’.  It’s set on another planet, but it could easily pass as mainstream fiction, or magic realism. It reminds me of Borges, and even more of Georges Perec’s La vie mode d’emploi, which tells the story of a Paris apartment story, room by room.

The Islanders calls itself a gazetteer, and in form it purports to be a tourist’s guidebook to the Dream Archipelago, a worldwide array of thousands of islands on another planet— though honestly it’s all so British that we’d might as well call it an alternative Earth.  The planet also has two large polar continents.  One, Nordmaieure, consists of “quarrelsome nation states” engaged in a perpetual war, which in eminently civilized fashion is actually fought in the uninhabited southern continent, Sudmaieure.  The archipelago is neutral, though to get to the battlegrounds troops have to pass through it, so it is hardly unaffected by the war.

The book is arranged alphabetically, from Aay to Yannet, giving descriptions of geography and local attractions, and a listing of what currencies are accepted. It’s soon evident that this is merely a pseudo-pedantic scaffolding for telling stories about the Islands and Islanders: love stories, a murder mystery, meditations on art, some incursions into horror. The gazetteer style is frequently abandoned in favor of news reporting, court reports, memoirs, or third-person stories.

The “Introductory” by an Islander notable, Chaster Kammeston, provides a fair appraisal and fair warning: “It is a typical island enterprise: it is incomplete, a bit muddled, and it wants to be liked.” And in fact I found it extremely readable. I finished it quickly and found none of it boring.

There are standalone stories, such as one of the horror ones, classified under the island Seevl. The manner is Lovecraftian: the story starts out as something of a love story, narrated by a man named Torm, and takes its time to get to the mystery of the ruined towers that cluster on Seevl.

But many of the stories are interconnected, though unreliably. The introducer, Chaster Kammeston, explains that no true map of the archipelago is possible, due to “temporal gradients.”  Later this is explained further: if you circumnavigate an island, you’ll find that landmarks have shifted or disappeared. Getting around can be trying, and people end up in different places than they intend.  My gosh, is there some kind of subtext here?

Mirroring this, the interconnected tales don’t quite cohere. For instance, Kammeston introduces and appraises the book, but a key event in later chapters is his own funeral. One character is described as having lived 250 years ago, and yet she is described as a lover of the artist Dryd Bathurst, who lived long enough to be interviewed by Kammeston, his biographer. Kammeston’s introduction claims that he has never left his native island, but later chapters contradict this.

A key event, narrated multiple times, is the death of a mime named Commis—  killed by a plate of glass which sliced down vertically from the loft of the theater where he was performing. Later we get an account that explains what that plate of glass was for, who left it too loosely attached, and why.  Later yet we learn that one of the suspects went by another name, one that by now we know.

In some unreliable narrator stories, the idea is to piece together the real truth behind the conflicting claims. Not here, I believe.  An in-world explanation is half-suggested: perhaps the indeterminacy which afflicts the physical world of the Archipelago affects the people too.  You return to a man or woman and they’re not the same person as before.  It’s hard to believe that the introduction from Kammeston refers to the same text we’re reading, and not just because of the funeral.  Or, probably more likely, Priest is just spitting on the notion of objectivity, as is common in mainstream lit. Real life is muddled, though it’s still rare (I think) for sf narratives to be also.

As conworlding, it’s brilliant and slapdash at the same time. There’s very little attempt to make this world different from Earth— in fact he could probably have set it on Earth making no substantial changes.  There are some sf elements, but little that affects the storytelling. The indeterminacy of the world has great thematic resonance but isn’t really taken seriously.  (E.g. it’s said that no map of the Archipelago is possible, and yet people do things like plot worldwide ocean currents, to say nothing of undertaking wars on the other side of the globe.)   And as mentioned, all the islands seem British, with a side order of Scandinavian.

Yet it has a real sense of local color— you do get a sense of these islands as distinct places, so that this is that rare thing, an sf world which feels like it has more than one culture.  Torm at one point has a neat insight about continents vs. islands:

[On the mainland] I felt instead the lure of distance, of places I could travel to and people I could meet without crossing a sea, and an endlessly unfolding world of certainty. Islands lacked that. Islands gave an underlying sense of circularity, of coast, a limit to what you could achieve or where you might go. You knew where you were but there was invariably a sense that there were other islands, other places to be.

It’s hard not to feel that he’s describing both Britain, and various sub-worlds within Britain. What he describes as the mainland attitude I recognize in Americans. We have regions, but they always feel like secondary things that you can ignore if you choose.

 

Would you like it? If what you really like could be described as “Larry Niven again”, then probably not.  But it doesn’t have the dry cold feeling of much experimental literature; rather, it’s warm, digressive, and passionately human. I liked it (far more than the Perec, in fact).

(FWIW I spent a couple of hours reading Priest’s blog. He’s a bit of a curmudgeon, with some judgments that seem more personal than reasoned. E.g. he likes Terry Pratchett and dislikes Charlie Stross, which doesn’t seem unconnected with being an old friend of Pratchett’s. He can be pretty amusing when he rips into Martin Amis, and spectacularly condescending when he offers advice to China Miéville. Fortunately this strain of Aggrieved Blogger doesn’t get into his book.)

 

 

Here’s an interesting essay by Cory Doctorow: “The Internet Will Always Suck”.

His point is that “we always use our vital technologies at the edge of their capabilities.” The Internet sucked in 1995 because it could barely handle images; it sucks today because it can’t reliably deliver high-res movies to moving cellphones in remote areas.

1500 year old Roman comb

1500 year old Roman comb

It’s an excellent point— as technology gets better and more ubiquitous, it’s stretched, and it’ll be used in non-optimal ways, with attendant errors and frustrations. Doctorow pointedly reminds designers to plan for those error conditions… don’t succumb to the engineer’s perennial optimism that things will work as they’re supposed to, or as they do in optimal conditions at the engineer’s desk.

It’s the always that goes too far, though. We’re living in a time of hair-raisingly fast technological development, but that is almost certainly just dumb luck and won’t continue in the same way. Will the Internet still be advancing in leaps and bounds in fifty years? Maybe. In five hundred years? Almost certainly not.

Technologies do mature, and settle down in usable, predictable forms. There’s probably an example in front of you: the QWERTY keyboard, first produced by Remington in 1878, still going strong a century and a half later despite its original purpose (preventing jams on the typewriter) being entirely moot today. It’s not the best design, but it’s stable, and thus allows people to transfer their knowledge between machines and even between technologies.

Automobiles have changed in all sorts of ways in a hundred years, but the user interface of the automobile is nearly unchanged in the last half century. Your grandfather could drive your car, with maybe 30 seconds’ instruction in how to use the automatic transmission (mainly learning not to use the nonexistent clutch). As Bill McKibben points out, you’d have trouble understanding how to make a meal in the typical kitchen of 1900— but that of 1950 would be no trouble.

Many tools have had roughly the same shape and function for hundreds of years or more. The illustration is exactly what it looks like, a comb— the idea of dragging an array of hard spikes through the hair has never been surpassed.

The obvious objection is that there is improvement in automobiles, guns, hammers, pianos, coffee makers, whatever. We don’t make combs out of antler anymore. Well, of course. But we change the user-facing portions the least, and every field doesn’t see the spectacular rate of change of electronics.

Computers are still in rapid development… though I’d note that programming hasn’t advanced anywhere near as fast as computers. You can write a program in Javascript today that’s remarkably similar to the Pascal of 1970. And even if computers stop changing, business hasn’t finished thinking up all the possibilities for transforming services and production.

It’s easy enough to imagine the process continuing for another fifty years. But five hundred? Five thousand? Even sf writers can’t make that convincing; they just mutter about “weakly godlike entities” and talk about something else instead.

I’ll venture a prediction: as soon as you can have sex with robots, we’ll be done. Less provocatively phrased: we’re now trying to stream megapixel movies on demand. Imagine a few more iterations of that: moving hi-res holograms; involvement of other senses; responses to the user’s position and movement. When we have a sensorium that mimics real life… where else is there to go? You essentially have Star Trek’s holodeck… or the capabilities of Second Life in real life. Once you can near-perfectly fool the human senses, that’s all you need to do; there’s little point in a fourfold increase in speed beyond that.  All the engineers will move over to genomics, in order to make furries a reality.

(Well, there’s one more requirement: your 3-d printer needs to be able to create a pizza. Then we’re done.)

Charles Stross is my favorite living sf author, so I was happy to finally get a copy of Neptune’s Brood. In fact I foolishly decided to finish it last night, so I ended up with four hours of sleep, countered by buckets of caffein.

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It’s a sequel to Saturn’s Children, but set something like 4000 years later… which means it’s effectively a new creation. The characters are no longer androids but metahumans— the difference between machine and human has greatly eroded. The heroine, Krina, is made of metal and computers, but she breathes and eats and presumably excretes, she certainly has no problem with emotions, she can have sex, and though Stross has fun with the details of non-biological life, little in the plot depends on them (unlike the earlier book).

What the book turns out to be about is debt. It begins with a quote from David Graeber and this is not accidental. Stross talks about “fast money”, “medium money”, and “slow money”. Fast money is liquid cash and credit as we know it. Medium money is basically land and other long-term stores of value. Slow money is, well, even more long-term. It’s a currency designed an interstellar civilization that doesn’t have FTL. As transactions have to be confirmed by two interstellar banks, it’s very long-term, non-liquid, stable, and safe. Slow money is essentially an artifact of space colonization: the process is so expensive that a colony starts out in enormous debt, which can generally be paid off only in millennia— or by starting a colony of one’s own.

Krina is a banking historian, with a specialty in fraud. She moves to a system named Dojima (this is done by beaming her brain-state and downloading it into a new body) to do research and find out what happened to her missing sister, and almost immediately get caught up with a) a stalker trying to kill her, b) the Church of the Fragile, an organization dedicated to preserving biological humans, despite their comic in adaptation to modern life; c) an association of pirate underwriters. The last group is the most interesting… they do things like aggressively investigate insurance fraud, and audit cargos not to steal them but to do market interventions based on them. (Within a system, travel takes months but information travels in hours, so knowing what’s on a ship is valuable information.)

More details would either be spoilery or confusing. The plot is headlong and twisty. It all fits together pretty well, even if Krina is a bit more passive that the usual Stross protagonist.

As world building, it’s fantastic. Stross calls the book a “space opera”, which more or less means that he doesn’t want to be hassled if the science isn’t 100% plausible; but in fact there’s really nothing magical about his tech. He creates one exotic and fascinating environment after another, and Krina has to adapt to each one in turn. (At one point she become a mermaid. That might be a bit of a spoiler, but it’s on the damn cover.)

You can see why Stross is Paul Krugman’s favorite sf author: he takes problems of economics, money, and debt seriously. Krina, for instance, is instantiated as a slave— that is, she’s basically a clone of her mother, and forced to work for years to earn her freedom. This isn’t simply a bit of far-futuristic oomph; it’s actually straight Graeber, and relates to the main theme of the book: what debt does to people and societies.

I have a few quibbles, mostly related to narrative. It’s a long convention in first person novels that no one really explains why they’re writing out their story, but I think Krina is particularly messy here. She explains things that should be obvious in her world, she talks as if she’s researched her own story but doesn’t really give any metanarrative on why, the book changes to third person in a few spots, a few things are sometimes told in a weird order, as if Stross suddenly realized he needed to give some backstory to an event but didn’t feel like rewriting earlier bits.

Except in the Laundry novels, I think Stross has an ongoing problem making his antagonists smart enough. Of course we want the heroine to be smarter and later threats to be larger than earlier ones, but some of the antagonists here end up being just not very clever or dangerous.

It could be argued that Stross underestimates “Fragiles”— biological life— and overestimates how stable and durable metal and electronics are. Once you can play with genes like Javascript, who knows what limits biological transhumans have? But of course this isn’t a prediction of future development; it’s just a given of this universe that civilization has become non-biological, while (as systems do) retaining the traces of its origins.

But these aren’t biggies. It’s a fun book, it goes fast, and I wish there was a Volume Three…

One of the muses finally spoke– I’m not sure which Muse has the portfolio for science fiction.  Anyway, I suddenly have the plot for a new Incatena book.

Well, “plot” is too strong a word. “Predicament” maybe.

Areopolis-MapMorgan decides to quit the exciting but inconvenient life of an Agent, and on a whim decides to go back to Euko Teknik, in the α Centauri system, which is having a reunion for its alumni. The ex-Agent has changed sex (to whatever it wasn’t before) and had a half-mind-wipe in order to put diplomacy and espionage behind. But as we know, you can never really get away from the profession, especially in a spy novel. The boss activates some overrides in Morgan’s neurimplant. One more mission.

α Centauri, by the way, has the somewhat clunky traditional name Rigil Kentaurus. But it turns out to have the name Toliman too, and I’m considering using that. When you’re actually there, you probably don’t want to say “α Centauri A” every time you refer to the sun.

Anyway, the system contains two Incatena planets, Euko and Novorossiya, which have fought a few wars before. They have entirely different approaches and values. Euko is all about human or transhuman potential– they want to explore every possibility and rework humanity to match, and as  Euko has no native ecosphere they can rework the planet too. Novorossiya is into embracing our primate heritage, recreating the ancestral environment in the planet’s mixed alien/earthly ecosphere, and keeping a small technological footprint. (With Incatena technology, you can make your planet look like a jungle if you want– neurimplants are invisible and the high-tech infrastructure is only visible when you need a piece of it.)

But they each have their own planet, so it was not obvious how to get them into a major conflict. Finally I thought of something: The α Centauri is a double system (triple with Proxima, but it’s very far away), and orbits within it may not be stable indefinitely. So let’s say the system is getting unstable– perhaps a passing brown dwarf has destabilized it… only it turns out neither planet wants to take action to fix it. Thus Morgan’s interrupted retirement.

Now, I haven’t actually written a word yet, and it’s in line after a couple of other books anyway, so the two or three of you who’ve read APAF will have to wait a bit. But at least now I have a situation and not just a setting…

cyranoFirst, read this neat article on “cyranoids”.  The semi-stupid name is based on the play Cyrano de Bergerac; the title character provides the words to woo a woman, Roxane, on behalf of an inarticulate friend. This does not work out well.

(Linguistic note: Roxane is one of the few names we borrow from Ancient Persian; Rokhsāna was the Persian wife of Alexander the Great.)

In the contemporary experiment, it works great. Subjects are introduced to a 12-year-old boy and encouraged to talk to him; in fact all his words are provided by a 37-year-old professor via a radio receiver in his ear.  People didn’t suspect, despite the boy’s evident deep knowledge of European politics and Dostoevsky.  The reverse substitution– the professor being given lines by the 12-year-old– worked just as well.

This is mildly surprising, but as the article notes, we didn’t evolve in a situation where people are being remote-controlled by someone else.

If you want to make a billion dollars, my advice is, monetize this. My prediction is that in a hundred years, or perhaps in the Incatena, this will be commonplace.  Some easy applications:

  • Learning seduction, as in the play. Or salesmanship, or politics, or law– anything that requires verbal eloquence and social skills.
  • Teaching: channel a better teacher, or call on one when you’re stumped.
  • Politics: respond to challenges better than you could with your own brain. Never make gaffes or forget someone’s name!
  • Business deals or ambassadorships: send a human for the face-to-face interaction; control them from the head office during the hard negotiations.
  • Real-life avataring: try out life in a different race or gender.
  • Acting: never forget your lines!
  • Interviewing: send out someone handsomer / prettier (or who merely lives in the area).
  • Confrontations: get expert words when you need to stand up to someone who stresses you out.
  • Police or detective work, or journalism: do routine in-person investigations without people recognizing your face or voice.
  • Management: micromanage your employees’ very words!
  • Sex: imagine the possibilities for role-playing or dominance. Also a nice loophole: swap spouses without physically doing so.

The obvious difficulty is the pause while the avatar receives the other person’s instructions. The Wired article isn’t clear on how this was handled, but there are ways to stall for time imperceptibly; also, perhaps, the controller could go phrase-by-phrase instead of sentence-by-sentence. Possibly, with practice, the avatar could acquire the simultaneous translator’s ability to listen and speak at the same time.

The avatar also needs the acting ability needed to bring someone else’s words to life. However, this is a lot easier if you’ve just heard someone saying the words in your ear– it’s far easier than trying to bring a written text to life. (Still, there are people who can hear something and just can’t reproduce the intonation… I recall my high school drama teacher trying to coach a wooden student actor; it was excruciating.)

Would people feel alienated and suspicious if they knew that the people they talk to might be using such services? I don’t think so, any more than we’re weirded out by the fact that small metal devices issue out human-sounding words. If anything, people would probably be surprised if someone– a politician or an interviewee– turned out not to be using an expert in their ear.

More interestingly, it might be that people retreat a bit from our present-day absolute individualism. In ancient times, or in certain other cultures, it was assumed that gods or demons might speak inside your head. (The Romans believed that a spirit called a “genius” dictated ideas to people; we’ve kept the world but absorbed the spirit as part of our notion of the self.) Maybe in such a world, the idea that you had to come up with your own words to speak would seem as strangely burdensome as thinking that everyone had to cook their own meals.

Edit: A Twitter conversation pointed out that I may not have communicated that the idea is kinda creepy. And it is! But then, cel phones can be kinda creepy too (as you may notice if you try to have a RL conversation with someone who can’t keep messing with theirs). I suspect if the option was available, though, it’d be used in some of the ways described above.

There was a discussion on Mefi about plausibility in fantasy (and related genres, like superhero comics). As there is inevitably in these discussions, some people argued that there’s no such thing. It’s all made up! It’s idiotic to expect any of it to make sense!

Retcon: this is so improbable that the Death Start actually ran on an Improbability Drive

Retcon: this is so improbable that the Death Star actually ran on an Improbability Drive

Since I write conworlding books, you can guess that I think this is a silly position.

  • It amounts to making all criticism of plot, story, and setting impossible. If anything goes, nothing goes better than anything else.
  • Implausibilities cause the reader to be confused, or to actively smirk at you. C.S. Lewis compared writing to driving sheep down the road: the sheep will go into any open gate to the left or the right. You don’t want to create diversions; it spoils the effect you’re trying for.
  • When anything goes, the story evaporates. If a danger is conjured up out of nothing on one page and disappears by authorial fiat on the next, the emotional temperature drops.
  • The idea that there are no constraints on a genre can really only be held by people who don’t understand it well– or at the least, by those who have never written it.
  • Let’s not discount the biggest reason fans argue about this stuff: it’s fun. We like to argue about why the eagles couldn’t carry Frodo and whether Superman’s toenail clippings remain invulnerable.

But the biggest reason is that fantasy depends on realism. We accept the fantastic elements because the rest of the story is realistic, and canny authors increase the realism in order to allow the fantasy. The classic example is LOTR. The plot structure is that of a quest; this only works as a story, and only has an emotional effect on the reader, if undertaking the journey takes time and effort. The novel underlines and relies on the facts that walking takes time, that people get hungry and tired, that swords hurt, that weather and darkness are dangerous, that baggage is not unlimited.

On a deeper level, LOTR works because it acknowledges that empires fade, that kings and leaders are fallible, that fighting battles scars soul as well as body, that gods can come to seem remote or weak, that the bravest may come from humble and unexpected quarters.

Tolkien is actually very miserly about doling out supernatural elements. Gandalf probably uses fewer spells in the entire trilogy than a beginning D&D wizard deploys in a single day. Rarity increases value, so the displays of power or terror are all the more effective.

It’s also widely realized that a good deal of the book’s power derives from its  deep worldbuilding. The allusions seem real (because, more often than not, they are real; they refer to something buried in Tolkien’s notebooks); the languages are gloriously real; the maps and appendices please our pedantic side.  (A lot of us probably know more about the history and geography of Middle Earth than, say, that of China.)

And the thing is, this use of realism is not a pure novelty of Tolkien’s; it’s a periodic infusion into fantasy and related genres. The very setting of most fantasy– medieval kingdoms, dusty cities, dark forests– was simply the everyday world of the Middle Ages. Alice and Oz updated the setting to modern times. Fritz Leiber’s sword & sorcery stories threw in a noir cynicism and grittiness. Game of Thrones keeps the medieval kingdoms but insists on the power politics, sexism, and brutality of the period. Writers like Neil Gaiman and Tim Powers toss out the medievalism to set stories in the present world, where magic is simply cleverly hidden.  China Miéville updates the politics with a healthy distrust of the old kings and lords. Star Wars, which is basically fantasy set in a science fiction atmosphere, was novel and believable in part because things looked battered and worn.  Frank Miller threw out the camp Batman of the ’60s and inserted realistic ’80s concerns, such as psychopathic criminals and nuclear war.  The latest Tomb Raider threw out the plastic dangerless pseudo-archeology and created a Lara Croft who was young, scared, and unsure of herself.

This sort of realism insertion is why Grant Morrison is wrong when he bellows ” ‘Who pumps the Batmobile’s tires?’ It’s a fucking made-up story, you idiot! Nobody pumps the tires!”  You can insert realism wherever you want to.  Focusing on the people who care for the Batmobile could be a great story.  (No, Alfred doesn’t create and polish all those gadgets by himself.)  Maybe they’re loyal little munchkins, but maybe they resent their nutball employer and can be bought out by the Penguin.

Now, let me get a straw man or two out of the way.

Most importantly, conworlding can get out of hand.  Tolkien himself was a victim: in his lifetime he never produced a sequel to LOTR, because he could never stop tinkering with the world. You do not need genealogies and flags and languages and train schedules for every nation on your planet. And even if you have all that, you shouldn’t try to cram it into your novel, since readers will choke on it.  Make a wiki or something.

(As a side note, though, Tolkien’s anglicization is probably an anachronism. Translating Jules Verne, you probably shouldn’t turn Jean Passepartout into John Goesanywhere; and similarly if a dude is named Maura Labingi, that’s just fine, you don’t have to turn it into Frodo Baggins.  I think readers these days allow or expect a little more conworlding in their stories.)

Also, you don’t have to explain everything.  Gaiman is my go-to example here: he rarely explains how his worlds work, and they’re all the better for it.  Some things can remain mysteries.

Next: realism isn’t all-or-nothing.  Obviously, we want at least some of the fantastic elements, otherwise you can’t put “fantasy” on the cover.  More subtly, you can be more realistic in some areas than others.  As I said, Tolkien’s quest depends on the journey to Mordor being a long, hard trek. For narrative reasons, he didn’t want to sprinkle welcoming inns or towns along the route. Thus the handwavium of lembas, an elven food that’s preternaturally light and filling. Still, it’s used honestly: when you’re out of lembas, you’re out of food.

Sometimes the unrealism is not in the fantasy elements, but in emphasis and omission. I just read the Council of Elrond chapter, and I have to say, there are peculiarly few allies that Elrond & Co. trust. The Fellowship turns out to be small enough to make a standard fantasy quest, with no more characters than we can keep straight.  It’s a bit like Mass Effect: the stakes affect the whole galaxy, everyone is amassing flotillas of spaceships, and yet every single crisis is handled by sending in a three-man commando team.  I’m not actually bothered by this, though I appreciate a little authorial handwaving to smooth things over.

As a corollary, Tolkien is of course not the only model. You can get away with a lot! The Princess Bride works despite its unreality– though good characters and good writing keep it from merely being twee.

(We have higher standards about plausibility these days… we’re used to naturalistic fiction, we don’t accept the supernatural quite so easily.  On the other hand, bear in mind that in their own fields, our predecessors were probably just as demanding. If the people listening to the Iliad heard the poet messing up details of bronze age armor or horse anatomy, I’m sure they let him know.)

Next: any fantasy or sf story come with certain gimmes— things we don’t question because they’re part of the basic scenario.  There’s no use worrying about how the One Ring affects the world physically– it’s supernatural, OK, and it’s what the story is about.  Do you accept the time travel in The Anubis Gates?  You’d better, because again, it’s what creates the story scenario.

The general rule, though, is that creators have to play fair.  Suspension of disbelief is not an infinite resource.  LOTR would have disintegrated if, on page 906, Tolkien had created an Anti-Ring which destroyed Sauron’s Ring. (Introducing it on page 56 is OK.)  Once Powers sets up the rules of time travel in Anubis, he respects them and never deceives the reader with them. In such worlds, it’s an added pleasure for the reader to try to understand the rules of the world and predict how they’ll play out.

We can also inherit a few gimmes from earlier literature. We still use the dragons and wizards and magic weapons of medieval epics.  Superman has eyebeams because, basically, that was what science was like when he was invented: new physical fields and forces were being discovered at a dizzying rate. Comics just never got the memo that it’s now all about reducing everything to a few phenomena.

I should also note that just as you can inject more realism, it’s sometimes effective to take it out. The Saints Row video games are a good example: they were never exactly journalistic-level exposes of criminal gangs, but they only improved as they downplayed the gang warfare and emphasized the fantasy (and characterization).  However, this move generally works best when you’re moving into comedy, or at least less seriousness.   (Though it can also be a welcome respite from too much grimdark.  After Miller, there wasn’t much to gain in making Batman nastier; thus the relatively lighter tone of the animated series.)

I think there’s two kinds of plausibility gaps: those we notice while reading or watching, and those that only come up while discussing the work over pizza.  On the whole, only the first kind is really harmful to the experience.  I was disgusted in the movie theater when the Force turned out to be a bacterial infection.  On the other hand, I don’t really care when playing Oblivion that there are obviously more bandits than citizens in Tamriel.

Of course, it’s nice when a conworld is convincing enough that it stands up even to rigorous prodding.  And I’d add that conworlding doesn’t, as one might expect, impede storytelling.  On the contrary, it creates storytelling opportunities.  I remember looking at the maps in LOTR and wondering what Harad and the Sea of Rhûn were like. I’ve been asked many questions about the less documented areas or ages of Almea. The more you know about a place, the more questions there are. (Star Wars or the Marvel Universe aren’t impeded by the weight of conworlding; they’re impeded by the sheer bulk of story.)

If the guidelines above seem vague– well, that’s the final lesson.  Despite the tone of some nerd arguments, these are matters of art and skill, not ISO standards.

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…

 

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