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Essential Reading

I don't usually advertise stuff on this blog (except myself), but I got a book through the mail this morning that ought to interest anyone who reads SF: Rewired: The post-cyberpunk anthology. Back in 1988, Bruce Sterling put together a seminal anthology, Mirrorshades, which provided a whistle-stop tour of the roots of cyberpunk SF in a single volume; it's still worth reading, but this new anthology, which Jim Kelly and John Kessel bolted together, provides a much-needed update on the state of the art since 1988. (Lest we forget: back in 1988 the internet was a spam-free file transfer net for big computer corporations and academic departments, modems — remember those? — ran at 2400 bits per second, mobile phones were the same size as bricks, and the Cold War was going to last until 2050, at least.Things have changed, slightly.)

Obligatory declaration of interest: Jim and John picked one of my stories, "Lobsters", for their pot. They also chose stories by the likes of Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Michael Swanwick, Greg Egan, and relative newcomers such as David Marusek and Mary Rosenblum to round out their survey of the post-cyberpunk scene. It's a fascinating anthology,

Highly recommended.




For those who're interested, the lineup is:

  • Introduction: Hacking Cyberpunk by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel
  • Introduction: Kessel-Sterling Correspondence by John Kessel
  • Bruce Sterling "Bicycle Repairman"
  • Gwyneth Jones "Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland"
  • Jonathan Lethem "How We Got Into Town and Out Again"
  • Greg Egan "Yeyuka"
  • Pat Cadigan "The Final Remake of The Return of Little Latin Larry"
  • William Gibson "Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City"
  • David Marusek "The Wedding Album"
  • Walter Jon Williams "Daddy’s World"
  • Michael Swanwick "The Dog Said Bow-Wow"
  • Charles Stross "Lobsters"
  • Paul Di Filippo "What’s Up, Tiger Lily"
  • Christopher Rowe “The Voluntary State?
  • Elizabeth Bear “Two Dreams on Trains?
  • Paolo Bacigalupi "The Calorie Man"
  • Mary Rosenblum "Search Engine"
  • Cory Doctorow "When SysAdmins Ruled the Earth"

    Some pretty damn good stories in there, although if you follow Gardner Dozois' regular anthologies you've probably read at least ten of them.



    ...for the tip off about Mirrorshades -- I had somehow missed that one.

    ...the Accelerando! eBook -- reading it now and really digging it.

    ...keeping your blog real -- It's becoming a daily stop.


    I like a few of those authors, but for some reason I never got much into Sterlin and Gibson. Walter Williams has some things I really like (Aristoi) and some things that bored me to death (the metropolitan thing). Greg Egan, Stross himself, rule. Personally I think Egan is a for-real philosopher :-) Cory Doctorow's stuff with Stross I enjoyed, as well as Eastern Standard Tribe. However, some of his other stuff seems far too absurd for my taste.


    Cool. I still have my dogeared paperback copy of MirrorShades... And loved Mozart in Mirrorshades.

    Another golden oldie I enjoyed was Semiotext(e) SF... which is apparently still available on Amazon. Maybe someone wants to update that?


    Cold war over? Ha, there is enough tension in the world for 30 cold wars or so.


    Of course, all our predictions will look just as lame in 25 years.

    That's the nature of SF; it gets the future right only by accident, on the shotgun principle.


    Kareem @5: yes, exactly. But the Soviet Union is no more -- even though back in 1988 it looked like a monolith that would endure for decades.

    Steve's right about the shotgun effect.



    Three years into Gorby's perestroika? Nobody anticipated then that it would have collapsed inside three years - but did anyone (bar the hard core Cold Warriors west of the Elbe) consider it a monolith?


    Looks good, I'll have to get it. Of course, I now have an entire bookshelf of things I've bought and haven't read yet, but never mind that.

    Of course, as you've pointed out in your recent talks, it's getting harder and harder to write stuff that won't be obsolete in a year or two. For instance: have you seen this? A critical element of augmented reality--small, fast motion tracking, tied into graphics software--appears to have arrived. I expect Manfred Macx's goggles to hit the market in a year or two.


    I was working on a WWIII novel with Jerry Pournelle in 1989. I was convinced the USSR was bye-bye about 6 months before he conceded, but then Jerry was an adult in the 50's and 60's, when the threat was at its height.

    These things are always obvious in retrospect.

    Back in 1848, Metternich, the arch-reactionary Austrian chancellor, remarked just before the revolutionary explosion that swept Europe that he wasn't surprised at the riots in Paris but that he'd calculated on every possible political eventuality in Italy except the election of a (relatively) liberal Pope.

    Likewise, it was probably Gorbachev who precipitated the systemic crisis of Leninism, tho' it might have occurred eventually anyway. Who'd a thunk the Soviets would elevate a man who actually _believed_ in the system's promises?

    With a stand-pat apparatachik -- someone like Andropov or Putin -- the USSR would probably have lumbered on for another decade or two before it collapsed, getting weaker and weaker and leaking steam from the joints. It was Gorbachev who destroyed the last of the spell of inevitability and fear which Lenin and Stalin had built up. Then everyone looked around and realized that nobody was willing to kill or die for the system any more.

    The guy who really deserves credit for foresight is George Kennan. He said back in the late 1940's that if we just kept them penned up long enough, the whole thing would implode. That didn't seem very likely in the 50's or 60's or even the 70's, but by Ghu it eventually happened.

    Of course, in 1983 the Politburo very nearly convinced themselves that WWIII was starting -- a classic case of a bureaucracy delivering the news it knows is expected, and enough to make your hair stand on end, reading their internal documents in retrospect. If you tell your spies to find X, they'll find X, whether it's there or not.

    (This is an illustration of the fact that it isn't getting raw data which is the problem in intelligence work, it's analysis and interpretation. That's one reason why having several intelligence organizations is actually a good idea.)

    We were lucky to get through to 1989-91; ironically, that's another legacy of Stalin. He was a cautious bastard and never attacked anyone who had any real chance of fighting back, and even Stalin was a mad adventurist compared to his successors, with the possible exception of Khrushchev.


    SF is lousy at predicting technological change -- witness all those enormous atomic rockets and planet-sized computers -- but it's even worse at predicting political and cultural trends.

    That's partly because those are simply objectively harder to anticipate; as Catherine the Great said to Voltaire, "You only have to write on paper; I have to write on human skin, which is infinitely more ticklish and twitchy."

    And it's partly because SF writers, like other people, have their crotchets and wishes and hates and desires, and strong emotion is the enemy of rational thought. As Simon and Garfunkle put it, "Still a man sees what he wants to see/And disregards the rest".

    Present company (self included) not excepted. 'tis one reason I don't do near-future SF.


    SF is also handicapped by the fact that it arose as a literature of technological eschatology, of people full of hopes (and fears) about the revolutionary impact of science, often as a psychological substitute for similar religious visions.

    That's why the field is a patsy for apocalyptic visions like the "singularity" stuff, aka "the rapture of the geeks". The vulnerability is built into its bones.

    My own take is that technologically driven social change actually reached its peak between the Victorians and the centenary of the Crystal Palace, and that it's visibly slowing down, tho' not stopping.

    (A process somewhat disguised by the fact that it's still geographically spreading -- China, for example, is undergoing the same trek from the farm village to the great city that England underwent in my great-great-great-grandfather's time.)

    But the era that ended when my father came back from WWII was the one in which communications went from the speed of a horse to the speed of light (1840's), in which inanimate energy sources were substituted for muscle, in which it became possible to have whole countries were farmers were a minority, in which infectious disease didn't kill people at all ages, and in which most women didn't have to spend most of their adult lives pregnant, nursing or caring for a toddler.

    He and his parents and grandparents had lived through those changes. My father's mother was born on a farm where her family had lived, literally, for over a thousand years, and where they used methods that wouldn't have been incomprehensible to someone from the European Neolithic.

    Compared to that transition, everything that's happened since I was born in the early 50's has been small change.


    Great quote from Catherine the Great there. Any chance of a reference, or is it apocryphal?

    With regards to the points in post 11. China is indeed moving from a nation of peasants to one of urbanites. And it's doing so via a technological route already mapped out by the western societies your grandparents and mine were part of.

    But will it have the same consequences in terms of social and cultural consequences? Irish rural society tended to have a model of human selfhood founded on a folk psychology which assumed that human psychological traits were fixed and unchanging. I think that's been brought into the era of contemporary Ireland as well, and it's not entirely consistent with the cultural Americanisation Ireland has undergone. In America, it seems to me (and I'm open to correction on this), self and personality are widely considered to be malleable and changeable. This is the sort of thing which can have consequences for how different societies shape themselves, even if those societies share similiar technological bases.

    (the usual caveat applies - the above is all off the top of my head).


    D. O'Kane: go to www.amazon.com, look for their bestsellers, and go through the top 50 with a pencil and paper. I think you'll find that roughly 25% are autobiographies, 25% are history books, and 25% are self-help books of one kind or another. (At least, that was my impression when I went and looked at the top 100 sellers. Most fiction, even best-selling fiction, starts a long way down the charts.)

    You can take this as anecdotal support for your hypothesis.


    Pencil and paper, Charlie? I thought you downloaded this stuff directly into your cerebellum.

    Anthony Giddens beat me to it anyway, in a rather shoddy book called Modernity and Self-Identity (shoddy because he didn't cite any empirical evidence that I could see).

    There was a paper on 'self-help' and the fitness boom in China in the journal _Cultural Anthropology_ a couple of years back. The impression I got was that the leadership are happy to direct the masses to the pastures of self-cultivation, as this means they'll be less likely to challenge the state. Self-help bestsellers there seem to have titles like 'Health Secrets of the Top Leadership' and so on.


    It was actually 1986. At least here in the US.
    By the way I'm only up to page 68 in Halting State but it's great.
    I think you've hit your stride Charlie.


    "Irish rural society tended to have a model of human selfhood founded on a folk psychology which assumed that human psychological traits were fixed and unchanging."

    -- peasant cultures tend to be fatalistic and stoic, for very good reason. The US is (like Australia, Canada and New Zealand) a country which has never had much of a peasantry -- just commercial farmers, which are a very different kettle of fish.

    Of course, you can make a good argument that human psychological traits _are_ fixed and unchanging. The context in which they're expressed, of course, varies widely.

    Thus ancient Irish and modern football fans are both examples of the inate human tendency to identify with a group and support it in conflicts with other groups.

    But the football fans usually don't cut off the heads of the enemy tribesmen and nail them over the door.


    Then again, not all forms of conflict involve exciting new innovations in home decor.

    And there are undoubtedly some psychologial traits that are fixed and unchanging.

    And yet . . . in the period leading up to the revolution, Ireland North and South was a highly politicised, mobilised, militarised and militaristic society, and this was true of both of the major traditions on the island. After the revolution and partition, however, society in the south became largely demobilised, in spite of the bitterness that arose out of the civil war of 1922 - 23. It was, and remains, a highly demilitarised society as well. . .

    When I was a teenage sci-fi nerd, one of the books I read was John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar. How do you think that stands up as an example of prediction in sci-fi? I'd say it's not too bad - 'white noise parties' will be familiar to anyone who's ever had to endure rave 'music'. Brunner didn't figure on the fall of the USSR, but he did see it falling into a state of general stagnation that would reduce its importance as a world power. . .


    When I was a teenage sci-fi nerd, one of the books I read was John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar. How do you think that stands up as an example of prediction in sci-fi? I'd say it's not too bad - 'white noise parties' will be familiar to anyone who's ever had to endure rave 'music'. Brunner didn't figure on the fall of the USSR, but he did see it falling into a state of general stagnation that would reduce its importance as a world power. . .

    -- not so hot, apart from some 'shotgun principle' hits.

    It was a good example of straight-line projection, but that almost always fails.

    Eg., from the 60's through the late 80's, urban areas in the US and to a somewhat lesser extent in Europe got more and more crime-ridden and chaotic, with more and more bitter inter-ethnic conflicts. There's a plethora of SF from that period which extrapolates that to ever-higher degrees; Brunner, Spider Robinson, etc.

    Instead what happened (in the US particularly) was that crime collapsed back to early-1960's levels and inter-group relations improved.

    "If this goes on" is a standard SF trope; the problem is that this _doesn't_ usually go on, because the trend itself provokes counter-actions.

    For example, the "population explosion" was another staple, even more than the dystopic, crime-ridden Bladerunneresque urban nightmare.

    But that turned out to be a damp squib; birth-rates are collapsing all over the planet (even places like Kenya) and the world population will probably peak sometime in the 2030's and be declining substantially by the middle of the century, with planetwide demographics resembling Germany (or in many cases, Moldova) today.

    My own prediction would be that, barring catastrophe, there will probably be substantially fewer than 6 billion people in 2107 -- at a guess, 3-4 billion.

    Detail prediction is even harder. Nobody can say what wars will happen in the 2020's, or what their impact will be. It's a safe bet to say there -will- be wars; that's about it.


    To take another example, on September 26th, 1983, a computer glitch produced a fake attack report in the Soviet early-warning system.

    Soviet doctrine called for the officer in charge to order a nuclear counterforce strike against the US if incoming missiles were detected, and _then and only then_ inform the top political and military commanders of what was going on and ask for further orders. He could launch on his own authority.

    (This doctrine was probably in place because Soviet strategic nuclear forces were extremely vulnerable to a first-strike; they were designed to attack themselves, not ride out an attack and strike back. They were also afraid of being left helpless by a decapitation strike against their top leadership.)

    Soviet-American tensions were very high at the time, too.

    The officer in charge decided to violate the doctrine, insisting that it must be a glitch, because an attack of the very limited size the machinery was showing made no strategic sense. This despite everyone else in the bunker urging him to follow the standing orders and attack.

    As it turned out, he was right; a very rare conjunction of solar activity had spoofed the early-warning satellite -- this _is_ Soviet technology we're talking about.

    But if anyone else had been in charge that night -- one of the other officers who pulled that duty, for example -- World War III would almost certainly have started that night in 1983.

    Individual initiative was not, to put it mildly, encouraged in the Soviet armed forces. Despite this guy being right he was relieved of his post afterwards and retired.

    If he hadn't made that decision, if someone else had been there, most of the people who post here would probably be dead, along with a majority of the human race, and the survivors would be in a _bad_ place.


    The US is a country which has never had much of a peasantry

    How do you explain Kansas?