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Living through Interesting Times

We are living in interesting times; in fact, they're so interesting that it is not currently possible to write near-future SF.

I don't believe this is an over-generalization. It takes time — weeks at a minimum, more usually months — for even a short story to work its way from your desktop to a magazine or a website. Novels are far worse, for book publishers run a production cycle that expects a novel to take roughly a year from acceptance to publication; if you then front-load it with the time it took the author to write the thing in the first place, and yet more time for their agent to haggle over the initial book proposal with their editor, it can take three years for a writer's idea to find its way onto the bookshelves.

Pity the authors responsible for the rash of cold war novels that came out in 1990-91 — novels in which a strong USSR typically reasserted its rivalry with a weak and fractured west by invading through the Fulda gap/building a Dr Evil grade super-weapon/hijacking a space shuttle/otherwise engaging in ideological chest-beating of a kind that had become forever impossible months before these obsolete futures landed on the bookstore shelves.

It wasn't their fault; these books had been commissioned years earlier, in the 1980s, in the backwash of late period Reaganism, the Evil Empire, and the futurist fantasies of Star Wars and ballistic missile defense (which I will note still haven't delivered much more than the ability to plink at short-range theatre missiles like the long-obsolescent Scud-B). None of them were paying attention to the real picture. As Yegor Gaidar explains it, the collapse of the USSR was down to a series of catastrophic grain harvests and the decision by Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani to open the stop-cocks on the Saudi oil wells. Hamstrung by heavy military spending and unrealistic foreign policy commitments, the USSR needed foreign exchange in order to buy grain and food to feed its people: it had become overly reliant on oil and gas exports, the "Spanish curse" of being resource-rich but poor in the means of production and over-extended abroad. The system badly needed reform, but as Gaidar put it:

Unable to realize any of the above solutions, the Soviet leadership decided to adopt a policy of effectively disregarding the problem in hopes that it would somehow wither away. Instead of implementing actual reforms, the Soviet Union started to borrow money from abroad while its international credit rating was still strong. It borrowed heavily from 1985 to 1988, but in 1989 the Soviet economy stalled completely.
Does this remind you of anyone? (If not: substitute "American" for "Soviet" and move the goal posts forward a decade or two ...)

The US government is currently hemorrhaging over 600Bn a year on military and security spending, against a domestic budget around the $350Bn mark. It's uniquely credit-worthy because of the dollar's status as a de facto planetary reserve currency, and because when you get down to it, the USA is still one of the most productive nations, with around 25-30% of planetary GDP and only 5% of planetary population.

But the US government has been spending money faster than its economy could earn it, while the hollowing-out of its financial infrastructure continued, and we're now seeing the biggest financial crisis since 1929. Even in August, about 9% of all mortgages in the USA were in arrears or in default, and that's before the latest round of ARM resets. It's the collapse of a gigantic credit bubble, and it's hard to see where the US government is going to turn for the money it needs to keep those overseas military commitments going.

As John Gray put it in The Guardian

Outside the US, most people have long accepted that the development of new economies that goes with globalisation will undermine America's central position in the world. They imagined that this would be a change in America's comparative standing, taking place incrementally over several decades or generations. Today, that looks an increasingly unrealistic assumption.
I suspect he's been reading Kennedy too (The Rise and Fall of the Great PowersWikiPedia digest, for the impatient). Normally empires decline slowly; it took nearly half a century for the British empire to descend from planetary hegemony to the edge of bankruptcy in 1945, for example. The USSR took a decade from the first serious worries about its balance of trade to the final abortive Putsch and Gorbachev's resignation. But the US Empire has developed a uniquely unstable financial system over the past two or three decades, and we may be witnessing a catastrophic collapse. (I hope not; this sort of event is deeply uncomfortable and unpleasant to live through, even when it doesn't coincide with major environmental crises, a power vacuum, and a disciplined cadre of apocalypse-obsessed religious fanatics waiting in the wings to seize power if they can.)

But anyway: that's a depressing prospect to contemplate (not least because, as an SF writer, I earn more than 50% of my income in US dollars: I really don't want to see a dollar collapse!). So let me retreat hastily back to the praxis of Science Fiction.

In 2005-06, I wrote a novel titled "Halting State". It's set circa 2017-18, in a future independent Scotland, and I knew going into the project that it would look horribly quaint only five or six years after publication. I'm no longer sure about the independent Scotland (paradoxically, largely because of the way the Scottish National Party — currently the Scottish government — is running things), but I'm having a quiet gloat over the Amazon.com reviewers who marked the book down for having the temerity to suggest that in 2017-18, the United States wouldn't be the sole planetary hegemonic power, but would be having major headaches rebuilding itself after an economic/infrastructure crisis. However, next year I'm supposed to write something approximating a sequel to "Halting State", set circa 2022-23, and right now I'm just glad that I don't have to start writing for another six months.

Put yourself in the shoes of an SF author trying to construct an accurate (or at least believable) scenario for the USA in 2019. Imagine you are constructing your future-USA in 2006, then again in 2007, and finally now, with talk of $700Bn bailouts and nationalization of banks in the background. Each of those projections is going to come out looking different. Back in 2006 the sub-prime crisis wasn't even on the horizon but the big scandal was FEMA's response (or lack thereof) to Hurricane Katrina. In 2007, the sub-prime ARM bubble began to burst and the markets were beginning to turn bearish. (Oh, and it looked as if the 2008 presidential election would probably be down to a fight between Hilary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani.) Now, in late 2008 the fiscal sky is falling; things may not end as badly as they did for the USSR, but it's definitely an epochal, historic crisis.

Now extend the thought-experiment back to 1996 and 1986. Your future-USA in the 1986 scenario almost certainly faced a strong USSR in 2019, because the idea that a 70 year old Adversary could fall apart in a matter of months, like a paper tiger left out in a rain storm, simply boggles the mind. It's preposterous; it doesn't fit with our outlook on the way history works. (And besides, we SF writers are lazy and we find it convenient to rely on clichés — for example, good guys in white hats facing off against bad guys in black hats. Which is silly — in their own head, nobody is a bad guy — but it makes life easy for lazy writers.) The future-USA you dreamed up in 1996 probably had the internet (it had been around in 1986, in embryonic form, the stomping ground of academics and computer industry specialists, but few SF writers had even heard of it, much less used it) and no cold war; it would in many ways be more accurate than the future-USA predicted in 1986. But would it have a monumental fiscal collapse, on the same scale as 1929? Would it have Taikonauts space-walking overhead while the chairman of the Federal Reserve is on his knees? Would it have more mobile phones than people, a revenant remilitarized Russia, and global warming?

There's a graph I'd love to plot, but I don't have the tools for. The X-axis would plot years since, say, 1950. The Y-axis would be a scatter plot with error bars showing the deviation from observed outcomes of a series of rolling ten-year projections modeling the near future. Think of it as a meta-analysis of the accuracy of projections spanning a fixed period, to determine whether the future is becoming easier or harder to get right. I'm pretty sure that the error bars grow over time, so that the closer to our present you get, the wider the deviation from the projected future would be. Right now the error bars are gigantic. I am currently guardedly optimistic that the USA will still exist as a political entity in 2023, and that the EU (possibly under a different name; certainly with a different political infrastructure) will do so as well. But in planning the background for that novel set in 2023, I can't rely on the simple assumption that the USA and the EU still exist. We're living through interesting times; I just hope (purely selfishly, wearing my SF author cap, you understand) the earthquake is over bar the aftershocks by next March, or I'm going to have to go back to my editor and suggest she markets the new novel as fantasy.

213 Comments

1:

I'm glad to hear someone else, with a lot more fiction credits than me, express this sentiment so vigorously. I've got a couple of things I'd like to be writing and I just can't, because they rest on extrapolative developments for the next few years and nothing I extrapolate feels right. I'm not worried about being right - no predictions here, since both products involve supernatural elements anyway. I'm just worried about not being wrong in laughable ways.

I also find myself less willing to engage in fictional doomsaying (and both of these projects involve more bad stuff, and then some more bad stuff, coming right up) at a time when the real-world prospects seem so bleak. Some part of me...no, it's not that I believe anyone reading my stories would read them and just give up. But it's a time when good people have to do a lot of things without a lot of confidence that it'll all work out, and I feel guilty about feeding fantasies of escaping responsibility for doing one's part. So I'm moving my doomsaying to frameworks that don't start with "well, from here...".

2:

Luckily I have a project I'm working on that is not impacted by these global events. But I have two other projects that ... well, one of them depicts a disaster overrunning the USA in an alternate-2003, and getting my teeth into it while the current mess is unfolding feels wrong: we're living through science-fictional events unfolding on a global scale, and what I was going to write simply feels inadequate. As for the second project, the sequel to "Halting State", I guess I'll just have to wait and see.

I don't mind writing a novel that will be laughably obsolete ten years after the publication date, but I dread writing the equivalent of one of those "USSR attacks USA in 1994" thrillers that came out in 1991.

3:

I can see where your difficulty lies, Charlie. I've heard similar complaints from other authors -- trying to guess politics in a decade as well as technology would seem to be a recipe for having your book forgotten in a year. Who in 1998 would have expected the War on Terror, for example? Or such a rapid modernization of China?

Regarding predictions about the US, most people in the US can't even agree on what our budget really looks like. It all depends on how you classify things like health spending, social security, and other entitlements. There's also the problem of state spending and taxation being considered -- I suspect our state governments are larger and stronger than most sub-national governments in Europe. For example, going by national budgets, the UK government spends twice the percentage of GDP as the US government does.

The US budgetary problems are ideological in nature. One party wants strong defense and low flat taxes, the other wants moderate progressive taxes and strong social programs. As a political compromise we get low progressive taxes with strong defense and social spending. We could change our tax rates slightly, or lower some spending slightly, and the problem would go away. Sadly, a balanced budget doesn't have much traction with the electorate right now.

4:

The "alternate Earth" approach may be best. It worked pretty well in Ken MacLeod's "Execution Channel". The bizarreness of actual current events made the nudges in the book unremarkable. And by the time we got to the spindizzies I just said "OK".

Writing this stuff must be difficult in these surreal times. We live through these crises and they seem (to me anyway) simultaneously banal and absurd. Could a character in a novel believably say, as SEC Chairman Christopher Cox did on Friday, "The last six months have made it abundantly clear that voluntary regulation does not work"? How can you achieve verisimilitude without seeming Dadaist?

Maybe you should just write "419" et al. in "LOLcat".

5:

Charlie, whether subconciously or not, your analysis indicates (or even advocates) a kind of deterministic fatalism. Taking to the Nth degree, what's the point of planning anything if the future is so unpredictable?

I fully agree that the future event scatter plot is complex, but while I enjoy your fiction immensely, and while I'll grant that you do not aim for the gadgetmania of Verne (JuleS), I did not presume, in the past, that you aim for the social commentary of Wells.

But if you do, surely there are no worries. 1984, after all, remains timeless, even though Winston and Julia don't text each other, and the title is 24 years in the past.

6:

Charlie, whether subconciously or not, your analysis indicates (or even advocates) a kind of deterministic fatalism. Taking to the Nth degree, what's the point of planning anything if the future is so unpredictable?

I fully agree that the future event scatter plot is complex, but while I enjoy your fiction immensely, and while I'll grant that you do not aim for the gadgetmania of Verne (JuleS), I did not presume, in the past, that you aim for the social commentary of Wells.

But if you do, surely there are no worries. 1984, after all, remains timeless, even though Winston and Julia don't text each other, and the title is 24 years in the past.

7:

Just curious, how do you think the SNP government has made the prospect of independence less likely?

8:

Andrew G: on the war on terror ...

In 1999 I was writing the first draft of "The Atrocity Archive" (which later became most of "The Atrocity Archives"). Along the way I wanted a bunch of mad bastards who'd try to summon up a Lovecraftian horror just to fuck with California. So I did some research and picked a promising candidate.

Two years later, in late 2001, the book was being edited for its first publication, as a serial in the short-lived Scottish SF magazine "Spectrum SF". I got an email from the editor. "Charlie," he said, "I think this was a really good prediction, but do you think you could maybe find someone a bit more obscure for the scene in Santa Cruz than Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida?"

It was obvious back in 1999 that ObL and AQ were mad bastards who wanted to attack America. So obvious that they were the #1 candidates for a work of fiction.

As for China -- you know that in the USA, 90% or more of House Representatives are lawyers by training? And in the UK, 70% of MPs are lawyers or senior corporate managers by training? In China, the central committee are all science and engineering PhDs. They're the cadre Mao called for in the mid-1960s, in the wake of the failure of the Great Leap Forward, when it was obvious that China needed science/engineering managers if it was going to get anywhere. They trained in the 1960s, were driven out and persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, rehabilitated under Deng Xiaoping, and finally hit the big time as senior managers and party bosses in their 60s. Hence their shitty record on social policy and civil rights, obsessive focus on stability, and emphasis on technology and modernization. In other words, our failure to predict China's current modernization is due to our failure to look at the type of people who were rising to the senior ranks.

On the ideological nature of the US budgetary problems ... I agree up to a point. That's how the crisis evolved, and why it's still gridlocked. But the current situation isn't sustainable.

My take on it is that in a best-possible-outcome, the USA could reduce military spending substantially, pull back, divert resources to reconstructing civilian infrastructure, and come out a decade or so down the line as a kind of super-Germany (a rich, industrial Federal republic with a strong economy and a high quality of life for its citizens, but relying less on force and more on soft power and international treaty organizations for its diplomatic muscle). Alas, I don't think that's the likeliest outcome by a long way ...

9:

JDC @ 4: An "alternate future" is certainly a good possibility. I think John Barnes did something similar in his "Century Next Door" series. IIRC, the wrote the first book before the fall of the USSR, and had to retroactively make it an alternate history in later books.

Pournelle's "CoDominium" books are a good example too -- retroactively making it an alternate future.

10:

Of course, given the way the Russians have been acting recently, the Fulda Gap is suddenly looking slightly under-defended...

11:

Esther @7: by effectively re-focusing attention on the West Lothian Question, which opens a huge can of worms. What currency does an independent Scotland run on (given that 80% of our trade is with the rest of the UK)? What does the defense policy of Scotland look like? What constitutional structure does it have -- does it remain a Monarchy (remember, Lizzie Windsor is not only Queen of England, she's Queen of Scotland) or would Scotland become a republic? What about EU membership? (Some EU states -- notably Spain and Belgium -- are shit-scared of the idea of regional states fissioning off and acquiring full EU status in their own right because of the precedent it would set for e.g. the Basque region.)

Scottish independence is actually a really complex headache which, even if it goes ahead, will take years of delicate negotiation to achieve. I suspect the span of such negotiations may exceed the duration of any SNP majority in Holyrood, and as Labour (the other governing party up here) is opposed (for strategic reasons -- they'd lose a huge number of MPs in Westminster) I think it's questionable.

The one thing that might make it work would be a Tory landslide in Westminster ... but that's a wildcard that isn't going to be turned over until 2010.

12:

Charlie @ 8:

I agree, I don't think it's very likely the US will reduce military spending by much. Perhaps in 2011 or so we will mostly out of Iraq and if we aren't somewhere else we could reduce spending a little. But seeing how there's strong public support for a strong, modern military I don't see that happening. Just paying troops and keeping equipment up to day will call for a large budget.

More likely is a tax increase, probably letting by the Bush tax cuts lapse. Though there are other unpopular taxes that may be lowered or removed that would probably cancel out any effect, such as the Alternative Minimum Tax or lowering the corporate tax rate.

13:

Just another little observation, I noticed while watching the Presidential debate on Friday that both McCain and Obama referred to the Corporate Tax Rate as "business taxes". It's an obvious move to conjure up images of small business when discussing the tax rather than large corporations. I won't be surprised if we see a big push to lower "business taxes" in the next Congress.

14:

Imagine trying to do strategic planning for any large corporate anywhere. Awfully hard now.

James Fallows did a US future projection for The Atlantic a few years back that's a bit uncanny now - 'countdown to a meltdown'.

Here's a recent blog where he describes it:

http://jamesfallows.theatlantic.com/archives/2008/09/from_the_archives.php

Maybe Fallows could try his hand at the science fiction realm.

15:

In 1988 I was a senior in high school, on the debate team. I remember one debate tournament in particular, hosted at a local college. When debating the negative, a common technique is to find some plausible link on the affirmative's case to some outcome that has horrible negatives. I don't actually remember the specifics of the affirmative's case, but the negative case we ran was something like:

This will cause [x].
[x] will lead to the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The USSR breaking up will lead to lots of little countries with nukes, which is obviously a bad thing, with predictable contents.

We had totally destroyed our opponents, they literally had not been able to respond to anything in the case. It was a negative they were wholly unprepared for.

And then we get the results. We had lost. Because our proud, leftist, college journalism professor who was the debate judge said "Nothing can break up the USSR, so your case falls apart".

I still have that judging sheet somewhere in my old files. When only a few years later it actually happened, I felt like looking up that professor, just to scream at them.

BTW Charlie, your figures on US spending are grossly wrong, per wikipedia at least. Mandatory expenditures on welfare programs are somewhere north of a trillion and a half dollars, far, far eclipsing military spending.
The total budget is almost three trillion dollars, so spending twenty percent on military expenditures doesn't seem that grossly out of line, with a war going on.

16:

Fascinating post, Charlie; thanks for bringing the challenges of writing near-future SF to light.

If I understand correctly, you are saying that the current volatility of the political and economic climate makes it harder for any neat-future SF novel written today to be seen as prescient tomorrow.

Thus it would seem your goal in writing near-future SF is to 'get it right', as it were, and to accurately predict how events will play out. But doesn't the very volatility that makes this so hard right now also present you with the maximum flexibility in telling any tale you wish to tell? You're not restricted as a writer in 1983 would have been; you can conjecture and describe any variation of possible outcomes given today's factors, and not be constrained by near certain probabilities.

I don't know; instead of feeling restricted by the free-fall nature of the current moment, I might instead feel liberated.

17:

Skip @ 16. It doesn't really matter whether the military expenditure is reasonable vis a vis social expenditure when you just don't have the money to pay the whole bill, the unwillingness to accept that you either raise taxes or cut programs (unless you adopt a truly Keynesian solution of capital spending your way out of the recession), various addictions to McDonalds, SUVs and useless military spending, and have just received a letter from your bank manager foreclosing on your loans because of those addictions.

Don't worry, Charlie. Just remember that those we are allowed to elect are too venal and stupid to actually do anything - if anything can be done. Your books will be fine.

Just don't expect too many of us to be able to afford them.

18:

Phil @16: written SF, like all other literature, is an exploration of the human condition; but the human condition isn't a constant and doesn't exist in glorious isolation. If you want to write an exploration of what it's like to live hand-to-mouth as a survivor a generation after a nuclear war, then it helps to have some background in mind as to what exactly happened. And it enhances the immediacy of the reading experience -- makes it more real for the reader -- if you anchor events to the present, with some sort of "how we got from there to here" story (even if it's never explicitly documented; just having it in the background will affect your narrative).

SF isn't, really, an attempt at predicting the future; for that, you need to go look at futurology. But in the specific case of near future SF, you are by definition writing a story anchored in the present and set in times we can hope to live to see. We may not be trying to predict the future accurately, but there's a certain scope for embarrassment if we get it ludicrously, ridiculously wrong.

19:

Charlie @ 8

Re: the Chinese, one does wonder if China will be able to pull off a hybrid central planning model longer term, however, as wealth starts to concentrate.

In the US, politicians and their consultants have been mastering the election of "regular people" -- even Clinton's victory fits this model, Bush more obviously so. Without taking a position on the current election, it's clear that neither candidate is "regular people", perhaps that's a good start.


20:

Skip @15 --

It's not a war.

If there's a war on, you raise taxes. You have rationing, economic and industrial rationalization, you mobilize, and you (likely) have conscription.

What y'all have got isn't a war; it might be a continuation of policy by incurring casualties, it might be an exercise in insecurity management by a narcissistic nihilist, it might be a live propaganda exercise, but it's not actually a war.

Charlie --

All you have to do is postulate a couple-three additional overwhelming events, that will obscure the current one.

So, let's say, Greenland goes much faster than anyone expected or would dare predict; it turns out there's a big volcano down there, and take just enough ice pressure off it and _whoomp_. (something has to explain the mountains-round-the-outside topography; make it a Yellowstone scale supervolcano crater, and the rumbles get sufficiently mistaken for ice mass changes that this is a surprise...) So the EU has been refocused on resettlement (no matter how good the Dutch dikes are, suddenly they have to get not only higher but _wider_, very fast, plus North Germany and nearby regions; the Danes are moving to Greenland but there's no dirt yet, and so on.)

The US finally has the second civil war, for whatever accumulated mass of reasons; 60 million dead (they used nukes) later, there are five or six little regional nations, variously damaged, and a global financial system twitching at the loss of New York, Boston, Baltimore, and LA.

While the US is distracted by the Civil War, the Chinese make a grab for Taiwan. The Taiwanese respond by setting off a global firmware kill switch installed in everything with an IC in it they've ever made. Excruciating politeness is used to note that their own defense hardware is not subject to the kill switch; the one Japanese (Japan has gone dark and stopped moving...) SSBN who launches at them only gets 4 off before being sunk by the Chinese navy (standing orders are standing orders) and laser anti-missile defenses prevent a detonation. East Asian markets take some time to recover even so; Taiwan, while _officially_ reunited with Greater China, is actually primus inter pares in a league of coastal city states that have effectively declared independence from the interior.

At that point, you can postulate what that would do to your independent Scotland. (Moderate to severe recession, very likely, though if they're making pumps, have stable banks, or are selling engineering services for seawalls, they're probably doing pretty well.)

21:

In the US, politicians and their consultants have been mastering the election of "regular people" -- even Clinton's victory fits this model, Bush more obviously so.

Bush just came across as one, a glance at his background would have revealed otherwise to anyone awake at the time.

22:

Arthur @6: Charlie's not saying he's afraid of making incorrect predictions. He's saying he doesn't want to publish a book that's already grossly incorrect when it's published -- a phenomena unique to our times.

It's pretty clear that there needs to be a new model for near-future SF. The readership is hungry for it, but the current model disincentivises its creation -- witness its almost total absence from the current offerings. There's definitely a market there for someone with the right model.

I know "419"'s publication details are set in stone. But as for other near-future projects, if there are any, online serialization would allow a certain amount of adaptability, especially if you left the most unpredictable details unresolved. You may be forced to play continuity doctor, like the clean-up crew on a fragmented SF show, but thinking on your feet like that could be a lot of fun, too.

You could put a tip-jar on the site and say the next instalment will be made available when a lower bound is met (someone else's idea).

23:

Adrian @21 -- oh, to be sure. It's a matter of winning elections, after all, not truth in media :)

I'm a committed conservative and I have never struggled with my choice as much as I have this year. But Charlie's analysis about China's ascendandcy non-withstanding, I'm not quite ready for technocracy (if that's what it is), either.

Maybe we have to go back to some really "old" SF like Pohl's for ideas, and presume that Wall Mart and Google will be running the world.

24:

Graydon@20,

Yes, you do all of those things, if necessary. Raising taxes? If you happen to be on the left edge of the laffer curve, which I don't believe US tax policy has been since about 1916, sure. We raised taxes for WW1 sharply, WW2 somewhat, cut taxes slightly during Korea, basically lef them unchanged in Vietnam, raised them slightly for gulf war I (resulting in Bush Senior not being reelected for breaking his 'no new taxes' pledge).

So the evidence on that one's inconclusive. As for the other things, , we mostly did them for WW1 and WW2, and not for any of the others.

Now I'll certainly grant you that a large fraction of the country doesn't believe we're at war. This is, of course, due to mainly two factors. The complete incompetence in our current president in actually, oh, delivering that message, and the active opposition to the message from journalists who grew up as members of the anti-war left during Vietnam. Our journalists are so far out to the left that they wouldn't even think there was a war on if there was an attack on US soil that left thousands dead.

As far as overspending, martyn@17, sure, we're spending beyond our means right now. But when 50%+ of the budget goes to mandatory welfare programs, and only 20% to the military, it's pretty hard to blame all of the deficits on the military spending by any rational human being. If we, as a society, don't break ourselves from the over-reliance on government handouts, then yes, a blowup is inevitable.

25:

Arthur: my take on Technocracy (the US ideology of that name) is that the only reason it hasn't built the same pyramids'o'skulls as the other modernist ideologies is that it never really had the opportunity. Technocracy as practiced in China is getting its chance right now; if they keep building coal-fired power stations they way they're currently doing, I suspect a 22nd century historian will certainly find it easy to pin the "genocide" label on the donkey.

On the other hand, it's not certain what alternatives they face. China's in a cleft stick; if they don't complete their modernization within 25 years -- including the 500 million peasants they haven't touched yet -- they are fucked, but if they do modernize, the environmental damage will be colossal.

26:

I wouldn't worry about the unpredictability of the future (although I'd avoid horizon forecasting). SF's track record of predicting the future has always been wretched. All the current conditions theatens to do is to drop SF's accuracy rating from 0.01 to 0.001.

My favourite example at this second would be In The Wet, which wasn't too far off on some technical details of futuristic aircraft but which assumed India would be a loyal suppporter of the Monarchy in the 1980s, which is an interesting idea given that the book was written after India became a republic.

27:

insect @ 22

I get it. My point stands that cautionary tales appear to be nearly timeless (or else we wouldn't be still reading the Greek philosophers). I freely bow to Charlie's obvious expertise in the matter, but I would think that more people buy Charlie's books more for "the sense of wonder" that they provide, than based on the expectation of specific predictions. I, for one, remain entirely convinced that it's going to be crabs, not lobsters. I mean have you seen these things on The Deadliest Catch? They are absolutely ready to govern.

28:

It would be "interesting" to have a Balkanised China and a Balkanised US. Didn't the Chinese say some time ago that the world needs a stable China because if they have some sort of crisis that creates a refugee problem with as few as 10% dispossessed the rest of the world is stuffed? In the meantime I think I will polish off my "will code for food" sign.

29:

Once again, Charlie shows himself to be smarter than

any of our brain dead politicians. "Pull back on military

spending and become a kind of Super-Germany". Exactly what

we should do. Our stupid military interventions in Iraq

and other places are not sustainable. We are essentially

repeating the mistakes of the USSR!!!!

30:

The thought of the American media being considered "far out to the left" is truly amusing.

31:

Charlie @11: I m certain that a lot of the news media and bloggers will be thrashing out these issues once a referendum vote becomes closer (it's promised for 2010 in the manifesto), but when canvassing across Scotland, SNP activists find that even a lot of Labour-identified voters support independence or at least want to have a vote on the issue. Support for independence has remained level but support for the SNP has grown since May 2007.. looks like modest progress to me, although we do need answers on these questions.

I think that taking it slow on greatly controversial issues such as republicanism is a good idea.. Ireland has about 80 percent of their trade with the UK and do fine with the Euro, and negotiations on things like how much of the British debt we would assume will be hairy.

People also contiue to have a huge hate-on for Labour, which does translate into pro-independence sentiment in a lot of constituencies.

Your book Halting State was really delightful to read for me and a lot of other SNP supporters.. you had a realistic, non-hysterical and nuanced depiction of an independent Scotland in there, although you did have an Edinburgh train pulling into Central :)

On a side note, I think Central Station looks like Bioshock and Queen St Station looks like Portal..!

32:

I think I'd have to disagree with your central premise Charlie.

The world is getting easier to predict as events close off potential futures. Take the situation 3-4 years ago. The breakdown in the superpower position of the US was obviously on the horizon, but the when and how were totally up in the air. The current financial meltdown limits the degrees of freedom. Couple that with knowledge of the extant asymmetric threat (helped on by dubya) the vast cultural divide between red and blue states, the peak oil situation, the demographic timebomb, etc. - its easier to concoct a viable 2022 scenario to set your story in than it was before.

Plus of course it only needs to remain viable for a few years (so you can make the bulk of the money).

The remembered near future SF novels tend to focus on recognisable repeated themes anyway 1984(surveillance societies, Distraction(fragile IP 'property' and the rise of a new superpower), Snowcrash(new worlds). If '419' ends up having anything to do with the title its about fraud, something that will always be with us, and has plenty of open avenues (fraud = copy, so with a perfect copy, what's the difference anyway?)

Sit down now with the cards, take time over making the connections and consequences right, and its perfectly possible to come up with a valid and reasonable 2022 that won't be too far from the truth in any world that still exists. The difficulty will be on exactly how we get there and what happens when - but an author can sidestep those.

JMS recently put out a call for advice on the world of a million years hence - now THAT'S a difficult prediction.

33:

Charlie:

look at the bright side, at least now you know that you can't be sure about anything you write on that topic. I for one prefer this confusion to the ignorance before.

To try and be somewhat constructive:

have you considered writing novels about other areas of the world? The Middle East and Africa are in a situation comparable to China 30 years ago. Fertility is dropping, there will be a generation of young, rebellious, creative, productive people without any obligations to feed 6 children and a wife.

Or what about focusing on a smaller, more local perspective, that will be easier to predict since the major impacts of industrial change, the mortgage and (yet to come) credit(-card) crisis etc. where the of grand scale politics are shadows looming over, but not dominating the scene, while being more relevant to "the people on the ground". (And given the huge diversity of human culture you will always find at least some group of people to point out who will fulfill your predictions spot on. ;-) )

Or just change the genre and resort to a parallel of events in a similarly murky situation. Think Baroque Cycle, or The Crucible or, of course, the far-enough-future where anything goes.

34:

Arthur: I definitely agree with you on the timelessness of cautionary tales. Near-future SF is an entirely different beast, though, and scratches an itch for a large chunk of Charlie's base. It would be a shame if it disappeared due to unmarketability simply because global event speed dropped below the threshold of publication speed -- especially since many of us are reading it more for the tech than the politics. The sensawunda goes without saying.

And this is not to imply that art even has a "shelf-life". For example, older experimental electronica is still good even though faster hardware enables a broader sonic palette. It's not like the old stuff is obsolete. Obsolescence has no place in art. I'm thinking more about the artist's ability to pay the bills, which unfortunately depends more on its superficial qualities.

35:

Re: Scotland -- I visited last week (only three short days) -- and was asthounished by the amount of symbolic independence, from the blue-white flag shown everywhere to Bank-of-Scotland and Scotrail and ... to the behavior of our Scotish project partners.

36:

Is Scotland the UK's Quebec?

37:

In 2005 the housing bubble was pretty visible, and on-the-ground reports of lolrific lending and appraisals started to pour into the Internet. What we didn't have was a convenient memetic tag for it. "Subprime" is a misleading one to hang on it in a lot of ways but it's a comfortable moral narrative (especially since it could not have swept up such good, superprime citizens such as present company). Whether this framing of the facts survives as consensus reality until 2013 is unclear. Our host's national market will unwind too, and the coastal California I see out the window is ungodly leveraged ("I see debt people"). "Alt-A Crisis" doesn't sound as good and it's hard to say it with a sneer.

SDI sure looks like a resounding success from some people's points of view. "History is written by the winners", sure, but is that tautological if we're talking about memetic warfare?

38:

Charlie @ 8:
I can wish, I can hope, I can dream that something of this nature comes to pass. If I believed it truly possible, I would feel less like expatriating is my best option. But I can also be almost certain absolutely nothing of the sort will happen because those who love and support the structure of power as it is will not willingly give up the status quo. They will fight tooth and nail and drive an entire country into the ground to prove they are right, and never admit failure or hypocrisy. Unless unprecedented shifts in basic social and political ideology happen alongside sweeping changes in priority, we are not going to spend the money, time, and effort needed to rebuild the infrastructures currently decaying in the US. This includes the transit, informational, power supply, medical, and industrial. A good five or ten years of diverting major segments of GNP would do it, and leave the US in an excellent position even after the hardship.

Mind you, Germany's unemployment rates in some areas are still pretty nasty. Their take on freedoms of speech, religion, and choice are far different than those of the United States. But they have an awesome economy.

39:

But think about the one crazy thing about this whole "finacial crisis"... only 9% of people are having problems with their mortage. That means about 90% of US homeowners ARE paying their mortgages on time. What type of messed up system falls apart with "only" a 90% payment rate? Honestly the whole "crisis" stinks of bad bookkeeping and greed! This is why the Europe is quickly on its way to being more successful and important world-wide than the US.

40:

James Nicoll @ 36: Is Scotland the UK's Quebec?

Maybe it's Norway, ca 1900.

41:

I would say that it's not possible to write novels set in the present, either. By the time one is published, some of the details will have changed. If the writer is lucky, none of them will be major events.

Note: In theory, it should be possible to write about the medium-to-far future (several centuries or more) without this kind of problem. However: Jerry Pournelle and Jack Chalker (among others) had the Soviet Union surviving much longer than it turned out to manage. Chalker solved the problem by having Nathan Brazil push the universe's reset button; Pournelle hasn't had it so easy.

42:

I doubt many of those saying today's situation was easy to predict three years ago are currently living off the proceeds of investments based on those predictions, which is analogous to an author's investment in a near-future SF novel.

43:

Charlie, have you considered your first couple paragraphs as an indictment of the SF publishing industry, rather than a lamentation of the speed of current events?

Consider: Editorial cartoonists can comment on current events in near-realtime. Even faster if they publish on the web instead of on dead trees.

Television comedy shows (The Daily Show, Saturday Night Live) parody current events with only a day or two of advance notice. South Park's episode about Elian Gonzalez parodied an event that had occurred just three days earlier, and that's an animated show!

So maybe the real question should be Why does print SF take so long to get published?

44:

Charlie@11: regarding Scottish independence: What about EU membership? (Some EU states -- notably Spain and Belgium -- are shit-scared of the idea of regional states fissioning off and acquiring full EU status in their own right because of the precedent it would set for e.g. the Basque region.)

Hasn't Greenland already set that precedent? It split off from Denmark (sharing a Queen, though) but continued as an EU member for a few years until it left:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenland#Sovereignty

45:

Charlie, have you ever tried to write in a fantasy genre?

46:

Avram: So maybe the real question should be Why does print SF take so long to get published?

For a variety of structural problems relating to printed books in general and the way they are sold and marketed. This is an insoluble problem within the current structure of the publishing industry.

(Also: books take time to write -- several weeks at best, usually months, sometimes years.)

Esther @31: call me a skeptic but I don't like some of the SNP's policies. Random examples: raising the age for alcohol sales and consumption looks like a bad attack of treating symptoms rather than the underlying pathology; the local income tax is a disaster waiting to happen (and as centralizing as Maggie's poll tax ever was), the general attitude to the two big cities and Edinburgh in particular sucks, and I think their ideological opposition to nuclear power is desperately wrong-headed. They seem to share a lot of NuLab's authoritarian knee jerk instincts, combined with a parochial outlook that they badly need to shed if they want to be taken seriously as a national ruling party. Luckily I live in a Labour marginal where the challenge is Lib-Dem, so I get to vote my conscience ...

TechSlave @38: the high unemployment and poor industrial development in the eastern bits of Germany are indeed bad ... but the question to ask is: if the USA had annexed Mexico about 15 years ago, how well integrated would the former Mexico be by now? Because that's the equivalent situation.

47:

I'm glad to hear you say that about Halting State. While I enjoyed the read quite a lot (thanks!), I did get the feeling that it was very much a story written for people like me in a time like now, and I was wondering how much of that was overt and/or intentional.

While not doing any major writing projects to speak of, I'm rather worried about the size of those error bars, too - I just got engaged to an American, and suddenly their politics is even less comedic than before.

48:

"We are living in interesting times; in fact, they're so interesting that it is not currently possible to write near-future SF."

Um. I think it's more of a call to be audaciously and clearsightedly wrong. Audacious because this is a heroic age, and our literature should probably reflect that; clearsighted because most of the phenomena we live through have solid explanations.

Also, your numbers are badly off. The U.S. federal budget is about 2.7 trillion dollars, of which about 1.2 trillion are for well-known social transfer payments, and a chunk more for less well-known sorts. (You stated, "a domestic budget around the $350Bn mark.") The military figure you give is about right.

I could go on a bit about comparative tax policy, but it's tremendously dull and filled with ideological disinformation. But the U.S. is on the low end of tax rates globally speaking -- in terms of amounts actually collected, and not listed rates -- and well to the left on the "Laffer Curve". [1]

[1] I can't believe that people of goodwill still believe in the mystic powers of an upside-down parabola drawn on a bar napkin for Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, back when they looked like Patrick McGoohan and Jamie Gillis. Do those people still believe in the domino theory too? If so, when did Thailand go Communist?

49:

As Yedgeny Gaidar explains it,

It's "Yegor Gaidar".

50:

insect_hooves: The event was widely-known and predicted, which is why it was on the cover of The Economist.

The exact timing was not, leading to many people repeating that quote about how the market can stay insane longer than you can stay solvent. Nor was (or is!) how to plan for consequences---people have been in deflation-vs-hyper-inflation flamewars for years, since strategies to profit from one could be disastrous under the other.

It's like the Oracle telling you, "the climate's feedback loop has been broken". Sucks. Now what? (Personally, I've been hiding behind the sofa; given this analogy's Kim Stanley Robinson setup, you can tell how well my genre instincts work.)

Anyway, my point isn't about prediction, it's about prediction of consensus explanation.

51:

Well, Charlie: If you have a hard time writing near-future SF, how about going for far-future hard SF again?

Of the books you have written, I like Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise the most. Maybe another one in that universe? There is enough room for more in it, I think.

Just a suggestion :)

52:

To Graydon at number 20:

It's not a war. If there's a war, you raise taxes.

The USA is spending as much money as it ever has on any war since 1945, in absolute terms and in relation to GDP, and raising taxes is the rational thing to do.

Note the word 'rational': please accept my apologies if I am being wilfully obscurantist in choosing a word that is laughably archaic in all discussions of fiscal policy and politics.

No, the US is raising borrowing, not taxes, and foreign powers that Washington seems eager, from the rhetoric, to classify as 'hostile' hold trillions in treasuries and dollar-denominated assets. Just as well they happen to be major trading partners, or the might've been turned into enemies and caused a total collapse of the government by ceasing to fund continued spending... And, perhaps, so devalued the dollar as to render gasoline completely unaffordable.

Meanwhile, the US army is breaking down - speak to a reservist, not to a Pentagon PR flack - and has long passed the point at which the difference in manpower supply and demand has forced previous administrations to impose a draft. Or withdraw from the conflict, although I am at a loss to think of an example. It's that word 'rational' again, and the irrational response of buying mercenaries in the hope that 'privatising' war will make it seem that you are not at war is exacerbating the problem: security contractors in Iraq are depleting the regular ranks by paying better money.

Not at war, indeed: perhaps, by your measures of taxation and conscription, it would be rational to say the USA ought to be at war. In terms of casualties taken - and especially in terms of casualties inflicted, which the rest of the world notices, discusses publicly, and judges far more worthy of consideration than is fashionable in America - the country is most definitely at war.

The extent to which it might seem not to be, if you depend on domestic media, suggests thatvthe wartime exigencies of censorship are rigorously applied: I can think of no other explanation for this astonishing state of cognitive dissonance.

That is, perhaps, a matter of opinion and I welcome all replies. But the facts on the ground are a massive manpower commitment, a significand body count, and the financial commitment of a war.

53:

This was the PBS News Hour episode that made the problem clear to me.

REAL ESTATE BOOM
May 17, 2005
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/economy/jan-june05/housing_5-17.html

"JEFFREY BROWN: And finally how important are these factors we're talking about the housing market, how important are those to our national economy?

NICOLAS RETSINAS: Oh, it has shored up the economy. Many of us believe even during a recession it was the housing sector that kept us through, the ability of people to refinance and take out cash. Just one specific number to give you an example: Home building accounts for about 5 percent of our economy. But over the last five years it's accounted for 12 percent of our average growth so it is disproportionately contributed to this economy."

They clearly knew that there was a problem then and did nothing.

When I saw that episode in 2005, I moved heaven & earth to retire a year early so that I would be out when the crash came.

Things will get worse when the next President comes into office and the market sees that there is no magic wand to fix things. That's when the collapse really hits, by February 2009.

The "Crazy Years" will be over by 2015 and most of your income--along with any surviving US authors--will be from EU sales, not US. Now is the time to start doing like Ian Banks, publish with one foot in mainstream fiction the other in SF/F/H. A Dan Brown style crossover series, _The Da Vinci Code_ Meets _Cthulhu_, done with your standard mix of humor and horror, would be a major hit in any market.

You could be Charles X. Stross for mainstream, and Charles Stross for SF/F/H.

Just a thought.

54:

Jay Carlson: Point taken, although I'm not saying it wasn't easy to see back then -- we were all the same news junkies then that we are now. But putting your livelihood where your pen is on global events three years hence is decidedly risky business. "Whoops! Your novel on Chinese global dominance missed China's spontaneous social implosion two years into the publishing cycle! Game Over."

55:

But... the entire 20th century has seen massive changes in virtually all realms. Think about 1908. Now think about each decade since. In 1918 the world had undergone a huge, a devastaing war that killed many, saw the first use of chemical warfare at scale and caused the decline/toppling of several governments. 1928? A decade of optimism in the US, a very tough decade in Germany. But it was GREAT. Until the next year. 1938? A decade of economic depression... 1948? We'd just been through another world war, tens of millions dead. And those are just the large scale historical events. Physics went from knowing classical physics needed revamping to special and general relativity and quantum dynamics. Biology? From pre-antibiotics to the beginnings of control over the genome. Virtually any field of knowledge you can name underwent similarly drastic advances.

So, while I see what you're saying, I don't agree that the last decade is really all that special. If there's anything that's marked the last century it's the pace of change. Given that, why even bother writing near-future fiction if you're trying for some verisimilitude? Aside from the alternate history loophole, any near future SF is bound to be provable wrong a few years after it's published. If that bothers an author, why do it? I'm not being negative by the way... I really am interested in the motivation to write speculative fiction that's set so close to present conditions versus either far future fiction or fiction in a medium term future (100 years or so away).

56:

9% mortgages in default? Where did that figure come from? Everything I've seen says that they're running 5--6% right now.

57:

James Nicoll @ 36: Quebec is Canada's Scotland.

Except without the kilts or bagpipes, and one hopes without the haggis. (You can't escape bad drunken singing anywhere, though, but *perhaps* the singers aren't seconds from heart attacks because their diets are so bad.)

58:

It can get worse than that: I've currently got a short story languishing in development hell because it features as the main plot device long term hostages being released from imprisonment by a South American guerilla army. Came up with the idea early on this year (March-ish) and had it rapidly overtaken by current events. I don't want to write contemporary fiction.

59:

Skip
The US has almost zeroed out the welfare system. It is not even a line item in the budget. I think that it is down to roughly four dollars a year per capita.
In real terms it is somewhere in importance between the subsidized grazing for ranchers and the agricultural real estate tax exemption part of the agricultural cowfare state.
Welfare the way you think of it in real terms peaked in the late sixties and early seventies. Most of the people reading this blog weren't born that far back.
I saw Alabama's welfare expenditures listed as sixteen million a few years ago. That's million, not billion.

60:

Correction of fact: It was Treasury secretary Henry Paulson who got down on his knees (to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi). Not Fed chairman Ben Bernanke.

Cite: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/26/AR2008092603957_pf.html

61:

I have to agree with the perception that painting a reasonably believable picture one to two decades hence appears to be pretty difficult right now. But then that's always the case in times of great change. Even before the recent 'adjustment' Sterling, Stephenson and Gibson all seem to have retreated from exploring those boundaries, though not necessarily because it appeared to be too difficult to predict.

However since you name checked Paul Kennnedy specifically, it's worth referring back to his thesis. That Empires rise due to factors of the time - in a post-industrial age population is all important, so he points to China and India. Any Empire as it rises tries to project its power, eventually through military adventurism, and ends up being superceded by other rising powers who haven't wasted their money on enormous defence budgets. He basically points to a cyclical sense of history, with the cycles getting shorter.

One to two decades isn't enough for a cycle, but try fifty. America falls, China rises, sure, but what else? Predictions of Soviet power into the middle of the 21st century may now seem ridiculous, but replace Soviet with New Russian and you get the same picture from the end of the 20th *and* the 19th centuries.

What matters are resources and population. America will fall, but rise again in another form. China will rise, but encounter the same problems establishing any kind of hegemony. Russia will hack out a new empire with threats and bluster. Europe will wring its hands and edge towards a stronger central government in response.

I think there's plenty to write about.

62:

I think it’s doubly difficult to predict events in the future because most of us are still in the dark about many things regarding one of the principle, if not the principle player in the near future - China. I think one of the key unknown factors, or to put it in Rumsfeldian terms ‘Known Unknowns’, is the role of religion. Although the CCP has traditionally portrayed China as a largely atheistic nation with some residual remnants of religion still remaining here and there, this is certainly not the case. In fact there has been a massive rise in China over the past few years of various forms of religions which can be described as having a millenialist outlook; these include varieties, including indigenous types, of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity, as well as Indigenous syncretistic New Religious movements operating outside the officially sanctioned religious authorities. What freaks out the CCP, who as Charlie points out is led largely by Technocrats, is that they have no idea about a) how many people follow these underground faiths or indeed who; and b) what they want or what they will do. The final point is especially alarming to the bureaucrats in Beijing since rebellions in China have often taken on a mystical or religious character from the Yellow Turban Rebellion during the Han dynasty, which had a Daoist character, to the Taiping rebellion during the Qing where tens of millions were suspected killed and the rebels led by a man claiming to be Jesus’ brother. This is one the reasons the CCP is so paranoid about the Falun Gong.

63:

wkwillis @ 59: I think Skip was including Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security as "Welfare" programs, they do make up a large portion of the debt. However, they're funded through separate taxes so funds saved there won't automatically decrease the debt.

But a lot is spent on other programs, whether good or bad is up to the reader. For instance, $28 billion on Food Stamps, another $28 billion to HUD, $67 billion for HHS, $56 billion for ED, plus more mixed into other departments.

Then there's state level funding, which varies by state. I can believe that Alabama would have low funding, that's the attitude in that part of the country. They've always been poor but proud.

64:

"9% mortgages in default? Where did that figure come from? Everything I've seen says that they're running 5--6% right now."

It's even less than that, if you only count actual defaults. When this started becoming apparent, the much-less-than-1% actual default rate among house owners (not homeowners) was increasing to almost 1% - now slightly higher. To get a scarier number, they included people who had one or more late payments in the last year or so (the majority of them will catch up in that time). That pushes the number up to about 3% in a normal year. With the "massive" increase due to subprimes (with added defaults consisting mostly of folks who bought one or more extra houses as investments and couldn't turn them around fast enough), the normal default rate is a bit higher than 1%, and the "default or late" rate pushes 6%. Note that late payments are a lot higher, but the actual default rate is still very low compared to the number of existing home loans.

This is secured credit, remember? Even when payments default and the house is foreclosed on, the house actually still exists, even though it may not be worth as much as the loan papers should indicate due to local housing market crashes.

That's why that "$700 billion" number is so funny - it's a huge amount they basically pulled out of thin air, in case most of the buyers with payment issues manage to default and the houses burn to the ground this year after the defaults, instead of being sold to lower-level bidders for 80% to 110%of appraised value.

(Yes, there are quite a few markets in the US where prices are increasing. Funny how that works, isn't it?)

65:

Before we write AMerica's obituary, let’s have some historical perspective shall we?

1. As Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government in the world, except for all the others”. We will always elect crooks and incompetents whether it’s Bush or His Honor, the former Mayor of our Detroit. Our Founding Fathers in their infinite wisdom assumed (correctly) that all politicians will always be scoundrels. Lord Acton had it backwards, power doesn't corrupt so much as corupt people want power. So they set up a system designed to minimize the damage these bastards can inflict on our country. It’s worked pretty well so far. So there is only so much damage even the worst president/congress can do.

2. You want political corruption? Then try some of the good old fashion city machines like Tammany Hall in New York, Mayor Curly in Boston (who was elected by the good people of Bean Town as he was being hauled off to the Federal penitentiary). The Daley Machine of Cooke County or even Chicago in the 1920s (which was pretty much run by Capone and the mob.

3. Speaking of mobs and criminals, the Mafia is a ghost of its former self. When Sammy “the Bull” Gravante (don’t you just love Mob nick names?) voluntarily came out of the witness protection program after bringing down the last big mobster, John “the Teflon Don” Gotti (again, with the nick names) he said he wasn’t worried about getting wacked. He said the Mob didn’t have that kind of muscle anymore, and he's right.

4. Speaking of ghosts, the KKK used to be a shadow government in most Southern and more than a few northern states, committing murders and lynchings well into the 1960s. The Klan is now a joke.

5. On a related note, northerners and Southerners haven’t killed each other in large numbers since 1865.

6. And Blacks have been allowed to vote in large numbers since my childhood. One of the m cold be our next president.

7. If anyone wants to pine for the so called “good old days” I have a cure: watch some episodes of AMC’s excellent “Mad Men” about how normal and common place racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Catholicism were back when we were kids back in the early 1960s. Nobody thought such attitudes were wrong and they would be baffled by our modern attitudes towards gender, race and religion. They’d have an aneurism if they knew a Black man had a real shot at becoming president.

8. Oh, did I mention that a Black man could be our next president?

9. Communism has fallen.

10.Fascism, Nazism and Imperialism were defeated.

11. You think American rights have been eroded? Remember that FDR put Japanese Americans into concentration camps for the “crime” of being Japanese. That hasn’t happened to any Muslim-Americans. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil war. Copper heads and other Southern sympathizers rotted in military prisons for the duration of the war without access to legal counsel. That hasn’t happened to any American.

12. Air and water pollution are much lower than they used to be in the 20th century, mostly due to government regulation. NOx and Sox emissions have fallen dramatically. Another cure for the good old days: The health and aesthetic problems created by horse drawn carriages inflicted cities of all sizes. At the turn of the (last) century, Milwaukee had a human population of 350,000 and a horse population of 12,500 that produced 13 tons of manure daily. The 15,000 horses of Rochester, New York produced enough manure each year to create a pile 175 feet high covering an entire acre. Aside from the odor, manure was a breeding ground for illnesses and the disease vectors that carried them. Now imagine what it was like in major cities such as New York, Chicago or London. In fact, the Times of London predicted in 1894 that if their present manure creation trends continued, then every street in London would be buried in 9 feet of manure by 1950.

13. All types of crime rates have fallen dramatically. When I lived on the east coast in the mid-1980s, New York was a war zone and Times Square was a cesspool. I took my family there on vacation last summer and it is now like Disneyland.

14. Mankind has never been wealthier and never have there been so few people living in poverty or in slavery. Yeah slavery still exists, but it is small time and driven into the shadows. It used to be the normal means of organizing labor.

15. No, the planet will not be over populated and become a cross between Calcutta and “Soylent Green”. Birth rates have fallen world wide (even among Mormons, Hispanics and Muslims) as women are no longer kept bare foot and pregnant (except in a few cultures). Even Mexican birth rates are falling - so no, our grandkids won’t be speaking Spanish (and Hispanics inter marry with Anglos at a faster rate than Greek and Italian immigrants of a century ago). Europe will not be swamped by fanatical Muslim hordes (the Algerian and Iranian birth rates are now lower than that of France). Japan, unfortunately, probably will be overrun by robots as their birth rates fall.

16. As a result of falling birth rates, the world population should peak at about 9 billion (give or take a billion) by 2050 and then either slowly or rapidly decline (depending on the assumptions you build into your demographic model). That creates its own problems, like a population top heavy in old geezers and pensioners who consume a lot of resources (like medical care) without creating wealth. Any potential American rival has far worse demographics and econoic consequences. But compared to an ecological collapse, these economic problems are a day at the beach.

17. Did I mention that most of mankind no longer treats women like chattel?

18. The threat of nuclear annihilation is (mostly) gone.

American and the World have never been in better shape. People living in the past "Golden Age" would kill to have our problems.

66:

Mr. Stross, you mention Kennedy's book. But I have to ask, what "imperial overstretch"? As a portion of GDP the highest peacetime budget in American history was under liberal icon John F. Kennedy. As a percent of GDP our current defense budget, including the war in Iraq, is a much lighter burden.

Like any other tool American military power has its limitations. But what it is not is a major drain on American resources. You may not like comparisons with past GDP but there seems no other metric by which to make apples-to-apples comparisons across time. By comparison with the height of the Cold War we are maintaining empire on the cheap, the cost of Iraq notwithstanding. “Imperial over stretch” is nowhere apparent.

We dominate the globe without breaking a sweat.

The American military is a juggernaut the likes of which the world has never seen. Staffed by dedicated professionals it can and has risen to any occasion. It has taken the art and science of war to a level never before achieved. To the chagrin of those on the Left, Gen Petreaus has found the key to urban counterinsurgency warfare and the Surge has succeeded (no thanks to Rumsfeld and certain other incompetents). Al-Qaeda has been shredded and its leadership cadres decimated. It’s a shell of its former self, capable of surviving in remote caves and issuing the occasional video berating their fellow Muslims to fight the Americans.

The Iraq war is over, and we have won. I wait to see if we are competent enough to win the Iraq Peace that now follows.

American legions literally cover the globe from Bolivia to Turkmenistan (yes our reach extends that far). American fleets are so dominant that no other nation even tries to catch up with us. The last time an American fighter pilot actually shot down an enemy fighter in combat was back in the 1980s, since then every enemy air force has fled before us. We are both Pax Britannica and Pax Romana rolled into one with powers that Caesar, Genghis Khan and Alexander could only envy. Soon we will be deploying battlefield lasers and space based “rods from God” that can use kinetic energy to take out any bunker, cave or fortification anywhere with only seconds of warning time and with the explosive force of small nukes. We have already deployed a microwave “pain ray” that causes no injury at all but makes the victims feel as if they are on fire. And these are just a few of our sci-fi weapons.

So set phasers on “world domination”, Mr. Sulu.

Much has been made of America as the new “Rome”. That is true neither politically nor militarily, but it does reveal our bias towards our Western heritage. If we resemble any superpower from the past, it’s the Mongol Empire of the Great Khan. Historian Archer Jones' comparison of modern tanks and aircraft with ancient knights and horse archers is instructive. The American emphasis on airpower since WWII is analogous to Mongol horse archer tactics of the 13th century. Now we didn't exactly leave a pyramid of human skulls outside the city walls of Dresden and Hiroshima, like Tamerlane did to Samarkand, but the same principles apply. Later, SAC kept the peace during the Cold War by threatening total destruction of Russian cities. The methods and purpose of such a strategy are essentially no different then the terror tactics of Tamerlane or Genghis Khan. "Total war" aimed at civilians as well as soldiers, is not a modern invention - the Mongols were quite good at it.

The American empire (there is nothing else to honestly call it) is also more Mongol in form and not like the territorial Roman Empire with its direct rule and imperially appointed proconsuls. It is more like the Mongol hegemony that included a dozen khanates stretching from Korea to Poland, each owing allegiance to the Great Khan.

So apparently, the anti-globalization protesters have it right when they view American military power, cultural influence, economic integration as part of the vast movement called globalization. America is undeniably the chief catalyst for globalization and also the primary agent of its advancement. But given the sorry state of those nations outside Globalization's embrace, can globalization and American military hegemony credibly be considered a bad thing?

As empires go, this one ain’t bad.

The time to worry about America was back in the 1970s. Back in the 70s it really did seem that the American century was about to end three decades ahead of schedule. The fall of Saigon, Watergate, the oil crisis, the Japanese auto industry, the Iranian hostage crisis, the decay of our military, disco music, inflation and unemployment all pointed to American decline and demise. We were becoming like a guest actor on an episode of the "Love Boat" - a second rate has been. Ford was building Pintos for gosh sakes - if that doesn't indicate the sorry state of our nation nothing does. The 70s sucked.

Those predicting American decline were wrong then and they are wrong now. So don’t you be pessimistic about our financial condition. It could be worse.

Disco could still be popular


67:
My take on it is that in a best-possible-outcome, the USA could reduce military spending substantially, pull back, divert resources to reconstructing civilian infrastructure, and come out a decade or so down the line as a kind of super-Germany (a rich, industrial Federal republic with a strong economy and a high quality of life for its citizens, but relying less on force and more on soft power and international treaty organizations for its diplomatic muscle). Alas, I don't think that's the likeliest outcome by a long way ...

Posted by: Charlie Stross


God, I've been saying the same thing over here for at least five years with, a few minor differences. That's the curse of Cassandra, that all of this is all so _avoidable_. And it won't be.

Suggest anywhere that military spending be cut in half, that military service becomes more of a national service, a vast pool of labor that can be deployed on a moments notice, and you get lots, and lots, and lots of people nodding. Yes, this is what should be done, they say. I agree completely. I've been saying the same thing myself. Then after a round of mutually congratulatory back-patting 'cause we're just so darned smart, the inevitable observation is made that this will never happen. It's not so much that the country as a whole likes military spending, btw. But on this topic, a very powerful minority controls the money. No one will vote for closing a base in their home district, or for cutting a program or a weapons system which lucratively employees large numbers of skilled personnel.

This is kind of like the Settler problem in Israel, btw. The overwhelming majority of citizens oppose settlements in Gaza, but woe to any party voting to suspend them or pull them back.

Skip @24: That's a bit disingenuous, suggesting that 50% of mandatory spending is on social programs, and that they are responsible for the deficit. Cutting Social Security _will_not_ cause the deficit to drop one penny. Not even if you cut it by 90%. Otoh, looking at discretionary spending, well, only 38% of the total budget is for discretionary purposes. Twenty for military spending, eighteen for everything else. So over half of all discretionary spending is for the military. You want to cut fat, cut that.

68:

Your post begs the question: who could possible replace America even if we do badly stumble? Britain has America waiting in the wings and a direct threat from a militaristic Germany. But who is our potential replacement?

From the point of view of an amateur historian such as myself, what we appear to be witnessing is the capitalist equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not that the USA will dissolve like the Soviet Union or even end its pre-eminent hegemony in world affairs. Even in our current mess we are light years ahead of any conceivable rival militarily, economically, and demographically. We are the only industrial nation with healthy demographics (high birth rate and an ability to absorb immigrants into our culture that simply can’t be done by Japanese, Chinese or Europeans).

Don’t worry about Russia, their population is imploding. By mid century there will be 50 million fewer Russians, not just due to a low birth rate (mostly the result of a casual attitude towards abortion) but also because of an increase in the death rate. They are the only industrial nation that has seen a decrease in life expectancy (mostly due to alcoholism and a rate of AIDS infection that matches that of sub-Saharan Africa). Combined with an endemic corruption (the Atlantic Monthly called Russia, “Zaire with permafrost”) and Putin’s bellicosity is just empty saber rattling.

Look for Russia to wither away back to the border of Old Muscovy.

China’s one baby policy has led to a massive gender mismatch and a looming grey tide of pensioners that will either break China’s economy before it can really get rich (or the old folks will be allowed to starve in the streets). Environmentally, China is a cesspool with hazardous waste in drinking water, rivers that are open sewers, cities lacking basic sanitation, soil contaminated by heavy metals, and unhealthy air you can barely see through. The air quality concerns of the Beijing Olympics were just the tip of the ice berg. And in a generation there will be 12 Chinese boys for every 8 Chinese girls.

China is about to become a really big version of the Royal Navy.

India has similar (those less publicized) demographic and environmental problems

Europe and Japan face serious financial problems as their birth rates continue to fall and the proportion of old geezers continues to increase. They’ll survive, but you can’t have a dynamic, growing economy with a ratio of 1 worker to 1 pensioner. Japan’s labor shortage has already started, which explains their desperate development in robotics.

Europe and Japan also suck at assimilating immigrants.

We live a few hours down the freeway from one of the largest mosques in the world, located in a cornfield outside Toledo, Ohio. My kids' pediatrician is a Muslim woman from Pakistan. The newest business in town is an import/export business run by a Muslim immigrant. In America, Muslims become doctors, entrepreneurs and commuity leaders. In Europe they riot every summer and set fire to cars. Our kids visited the local mosque and muslim kids visited our catholic church as part of a "get to know you" program at both schools. British Imams have an annoying happen of preaching hatred, killing and violent jihad against the West in general and their British hosts in particular.

Demographics alone would paint a bleak future for any potential American rival. As historian Will Durant wrote, "Politicians merely make policy, demographics make history."

69:

One last point.

Who would you rather see running the world and why? What would be your preferred world order for the 21st century besides a more or less benevolent American hegemony?

70:

It could be worse. Disco could still be popular

(sound of needle being ripped off new The Juan Maclean track)

What?

71:

OMG!!!!

Until someone mentioned it, I forgot about RAH's

description of this period as the "Crazy Years".

Except we might have a FEMALE "Nehemiah Scudder".

Makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

72:

Dan # 6,

My Dad went through TWO Ford Pinto's!

And yes, we could do a lot worse than have the USA

dominating the world. Point conceded.

But with awesome power comes awesome responsibility. (LOL)

Seriously, we have to stop electing morons.

The job is just too important.

73:

Skip @24, I assume you'd rather I died than survived because of Medicare and Social Security? How old are you?

PNH @60, Tom Brokaw, on today's Meet the Press, had quotes from both Paulson and Pelosi that it was done humorously.

74:

Charlie,
Have you considered the pivotal role an independent Scotland would play in the world? If Scotland became independent, Britian would no longer be part of the big three in Europe. France and Germany would dominate. Britian, which already has a lesser population that Franch or Germany, would fall into the second tier with Spain, Italy, and (eventually after their economies grow) Poland and Romania.

Without Britian's counterbalance, Europe would probably adopt the more centralized French version of the institution, and without Britian's power to maintain transatlantic ties, Europe and the US would most likely drift apart.

Scotland's future is actually quite import to the future direction of the world.

75:

D Williams #72

Nobody wants a moron as president, but brainiacs haven't faired very well in the Oval Office either . You want smarts? Then vote for Jimmy Carter or Herbert Hoover, both of which were engineers and failed presidents.

Harry Truman was a failed haberdasher. Abraham Lincoln was thought a frontier bumpkin without manners or sophistication. In fact the only two presidents more vilified while in office than our current president Bush were Truman and Lincoln.

Wouldn't it be ironic if history treats Bush better than his contemporaries?

76:

Dan, that's a bit triumphalist, even for me. :)

You're right on just about every point, but you're missing the way the game is changing. Apart from possibly Russia, no one wants to challenge us militarily -- we've won.

And because we've won, we've reordered the world more to our liking (an ongoing process). We prevent major conflict, promote open capitalistic economies, and promote democracy (though we'll tolerate corruption).

So the rules of the game aren't about hard power any more, they're about soft power for as long as the US military maintains the peace.

77:

I am reminded of the story that when 2001 was about to be released, Stanley Kubrick wanted to buy insurance against the risk that actual alien life would be discovered and it would spoil the plot of the movie. Lloyd's, of course, was willing to write the policy, but the premium they quoted was more than Kubrick wanted to pay.

Doesn't AIG have a political-risk division? Maybe you should give them a call. :-)

78:

I think the expectations of European ascendancy are a bit premature.

One could argue, for instance, that gas has been grossly misspriced in the States, for decades. Had we used taxation properly, we would have long been driving electric cars, with all the implications that has for the world.

But simultenously, one can and should argue that Europe in fact missprices defence, and has the luxury of doing that only because the US is what it is. If you have any doubts about that, imagine for a second that you were a fly on the wall in any defense minister's office of any Nato country when the Russian offensive into Georgia began.

79:

In Speed" (1999) James Gleick wrote about how the world is getting faster, mostly in reference to activities and things. But it seems that cause and effect events happen more rapidly now too. With the increase in education and population with education, and the dramatic increase in communications speed, there is almost a compression of time and space for people and their interactions. To take that up to the big picture, it's as though the making of history itself is compressed and concentrated, as if some law of thermodynamics of human events causes history to happen much more rapidly and human reactions and the events that result must occur sooner.

The above is conjecture of course. But it seems that is what Stross is affected by, and William Gibson stated flatly that is why he has stopped writing SF. (That was in an interview prior to publication of Spook Country.) That is, events and technology change so rapidly now that by the time a writer's vague idea of near future possibilities is realized on paper and moved to the press either the thing has already happened or its window of opportunity has passed.

In retrospect some of the technologies in Neuromancer and Snowcrash looked like pure fantasy when they were published, but now they look as though the writers didn't speculate enough. I recently read Greg Bear's "Slant", and 10 years later it looks a little - quaint. That is the risk that Stross takes and talks about.

On the other hand, Daniel Suarez' "Daemon" and Thomas Hopp's "The Jihad Virus" included technology and posited possible events (AI and genetic engineering respectively, both combined with terrorism) that worked because they were first time novelists who could not get picked up and published by any major house so they self-published and self-promoted. (Actually, Suarez didn't do much self-promotion, but his SF book took off when a few web and blog celebrities read it and publicized it. And apparently now it's being optioned for the screen.)

I can imagine that with the sedate pace of Stross' publishing flow it must be hard to keep far enough ahead of the curve of human development to be able to write about something that could plausibly happen and not seem outdated by the time it actually did happen.

80:

Charlie @ 46:
Correct, though the geographic area is much larger and the social difference is a bit more divergent, the US annexation or absorption of Mexico would be equivalent.


Overall, I think it can be fairly said that most soft power is effective due to the backing of hard power - even allied hard power, as is the case with many countries.

However, America is neglecting massive, key parts of the formula for American success. While military strength is still a key for the USA, industrial capability and one of the most modernized infrastructures in the world were contributing factors. So was a value placed on education and employee retention, giving people the confidence to plan in the long term rather than making the short term decisions which have led us to a viciously 'get it while the money is there' viewpoint. There are thousands of different views, mind you, many of whom can present well argued and concise arguments as to why exactly I am wrong and the factors they favor are correct for why the US has been successful as a world power.
Perhaps the future will prove one above others, but until such a day, I still hope for social medical care and more attention paid to infrastructure and education.

81:

On the contrary I think it is quite simple to write near-future science fiction. All that is necessary is the story to have a positive outcome.

82:

@66: THEL's been dead for a few years now, and incidentally space based kinetic weapons, as it turns out, only are about as potent as a 250 kilogram general purpose bomb. There is a RAND study about this on the internet if you are interested.

Basically if it is heralded in Popular Science: it will never come to pass.

83:

"I'm pretty sure that the error bars grow over time, so that the closer to our present you get, the wider the deviation from the projected future would be."

This is why the Singularity will never occur, if you define the Singularity as a point beyond which our predictions break down :P

84:

What about Alternate History?

It seems to be how writers such as Tom Clancy have escaped the reality problem, for some values of reality.

For genre SF, you can expect readers to have the toolset needed to deal with the idea.

It doesn't even have to be a recent change. Maybe 1994, with such things as Orange County and Nick Leeson provokes better regulation and management?

85:

#31 There ARE Edinburgh-Glasgow Central trains - but they're SLOW, and via Shotts.

#57 WHAT'S WRONG WITH HAGGIS?
( and I'm English, btw)

#65 (1) There is a good case for Geo. W. Shrub being at least as bad as Buchanan
(18) REALLY? - If Al-Q really got their act together, they could easily use a nuke - even easier if they take Saudi - and just use the money - scary, huh?

#68 There are AT LEAST 30 non-muslims per muslim in Britain. Those who preach hate will, if they carry on like that, share the fate of the catholics after 1605. They won't learn from history, so its' goodbye to them ....

Mucn more seriously, predictions ....

I think Obama will win in the end ( It's the ECONOMY STUPID! ) - but after 2 terms, we come to 2016.
Rememeber R. A. Heinlein's prediction for that year?
"Nehemiah Scudder"
Like Charlie, I'm REALLY SCARED of the religious wingnuts.

86:

Wrote dan:

"In America, Muslims become doctors, entrepreneurs and commuity leaders. In Europe they riot every summer and set fire to cars. . . . British Imams have an annoying happen of preaching hatred, killing and violent jihad against the West in general and their British hosts in particular."

Well, no. This is not true. Three or four of them, yes: several thousand, no. If you remember that the 'Eurabia' meme is end-to-end bollocks, and you'll be on the way to understanding a bit about this big and complicated continent of ours.

87:

68: But who is our potential replacement?

Tell you what, it'll (nearly) be worth suffering through a depression if all these indispensable country/last best hope of earth types have to shut up for a while.

Also, "begging the question" is something else.

88:

@44 Ed: Hasn't Greenland already set that precedent? It split off from Denmark (sharing a Queen, though) but continued as an EU member for a few years until it left

Not a precedent. Greenland was never a separate member of the EU.

Realistically, though, an independent Scotland would be bound to get let into the EU. Just compare it with recent joiners (Bulgaria) or current applicants (Croatia, Turkey).

89:

Dan, when you decide who's winning the Iraq war, look at who's agendas are succeeding. Iran is winning, America is being allowed withdraw gracefully.

The war was about the neocon agenda; see the Project for A New American Century. The project has collapsed; America isn't dictating the direction; Iran is. After bloody ethnic cleansing, the Shia basically run Baghdad and beyond; Al Qaeda in Iraq were a transient phenomenon, not present before the invasion and with little power base. They've lost to the Shia and tribal powerbases, not America.

American forces are _present_ throughout the World, but not in a position to act. This is what the invasion in Georgia shows. They're overstretched; the surge was just that, and cannot be repeated.

You missed the parallels of how the USSR collapsed. To the outside world, it looked secure in [EDIT] 1988, but was gone in 1991, because it went broke. China is propping up the US economy as it needs a market for its goods, for internal reasons. As global sovereign funds have been dumping dollars as quickly as they dare over the last 2 years, they are looking to other markets.

When Saddam moved from pricing Iraqi oil in dollars to euros, it threatened the US economy, and the US reacted immediately. Its not in a position to do so today, with multiple countries moving from dependencies on dollars.

The US would collapse, not with a massive global war, but with the rest of the world deciding it would be cheaper to do without supporting it, relying on European/Asian/ Developing markets instead.

90:

Dan: Your post begs the question: who could possible replace America even if we do badly stumble?

Does it matter? Quite possibly no-one will replace America. You seem to be labouring under the illusion that a planetary hegemon is both desirable and necessary, whereas it's only in the past 150 years that we've had anything approaching one.

(The rest of your postings seem to distill down to "nyah nyah nyah I CAN'T HEAR YOU I'M STICKING MY FINGERS IN MY EARS" so I'm going to ignore them. Further huge screeds on the topic of why America's never had it so good will be deleted unless they come with some questions attached, or at least in the form of a conversation.)

91:

Meta questions:

To be a good prognisticator/writer of science fiction, don't you have to be a good historian?

Or is what is happening today so new and unique that ther are no guide posts from the past, no historical analogies that can be used?

92:

@76: You're right on just about every point, but you're missing the way the game is changing. Apart from possibly Russia, no one wants to challenge us militarily -- we've won.

And then there's China. China's playing a long game: they know they can't match the USA now, but their economy will probably surpass the USA's aroud 2030 and if they're prepared to accept a higher proportion of GDP going to the military, and spending it more effectively, they could match the USA militarily by the 2020s -- especially if new technology makes the installed base of weapons systems obsolete (the Dreadnought effect), which it probably will.

This is not to say that China seeks war with the USA. But military power would give them leverage, and they would probably want to get the USA to accept a Chinese sphere of influence in eastern Asia. (And maybe if they get ambitious, or need oil, they'll try to exert power over Siberia, central Asia and south west Asia too).

93:

dan @91: ah good, questions!

You don't need to be a good historian, but being aware of the existence of history is a minimum. That's partly why I'm clutching my head when I listen to the news right now; the parallels with 1988 are eerie, let alone 1929. History doesn't repeat in exact detail, but certain patterns of human behaviour typically recur with a frequency of roughly once per single human life expectancy (70-100 years) or double human life expectancy (150 years). We react against our environment, which was created by our parents' or grandparents' generation reacting against theirs, and in some circumstances we oscillate between a small number of states.

There's only one current event for which there's absolutely no precedent that I can think of: a large empire is expanding from the heartland of Europe, and people are queueing up to get in (instead of fighting, fleeing, or screaming in terror). That's a break with the past, and a welcome one, but it'll be a century or so before we know how it all pans out.

94:

Mr. Stross, without a planetary hegemon there can be no general peace. That's why they were called the Pax Romana and the Pax Brittanica.

Given the violent and rapacious nature of our species, the alternative to the current Pax Americana is endemic, large scale warfare. To use a Chinese analogy, our only choices are between an Emperor or a Period of Contending States.

95:

Mr. Stross, without a planetary hegemon there can be no general peace. That's why they were called the Pax Romana and the Pax Brittanica.

Dan, they weren't terribly peaceful if I remember correctly.

The Pax Romana encompassed a number of incidents such as the Judean rebellion(s) and various slave revolts that were put down with such ferocity that, as one bystander put it, "they create a desert and call it peace". And as for the Pax Brittanica, I suggest you find and read Late Victorian Holocausts; the British empire has much better PR than the Third Reich, and didn't intentionally massacre its victims, but probably claimed a higher death toll overall.

We're living in an age where the cost of inter-state warfare has risen astronomically high, to the point where the sort of asset-stripping raids that were still commonplace in the 19th century (and led to both the Versailles settlement war reparations and molded the background to Hitler's attitude to warfare) are no longer feasible. (The US invasion of Iraq has to date cost something on the order of ten times as much as the value of Iraq's total oil reserves at the time of invasion; so much for PNAC.)

Meanwhile, the vast majority of UN peacekeeping missions have been conducted by small units, lightly armed, with logistic support on tap, breaking up civil wars. You don't need an empire for that; you just need a world treaty organization that can call on its more stable and prosperous members to help out.

Maybe it's time to see if we can live without King-Emperors.

96:

On "The China Question", did anyone notice the significance of the Chinese Investment Corp looking buying up 49% of Morgan Stanley?

Imperial psychology being what it is, I imagine the Chinese won't be able to resist expanding the 'defence' budget, but imagine if you will a Chinese Empire that wields money as a club rather than the latest generation of aircraft carrier.

It's actually something to be desired I suspect - the last thing we need is another Cold War, as Charlie illustrated just recently. The problem is, given the interlocked nature of the global economy, what threats can they make with movements of money that won't hurt them too?

Hmm. Rather than invading Taiwan, maybe they should think about buying it?

97:

Something to think about.

Around 20% of the UK's GDP is "financial services".

What's the percentage of the USA's GDP from the same source?

And how much of the GDP will turn out to have come from the insanity of the bankers?

98:

'in their own head, nobody is a bad guy'

Pet peeve - that's both a cliche and clearly wrong, plenty of people do think of themselves as bad. Certainly one style of badness is self-delusion, but self-hate, self-pity and so on are at least as common.

'Meanwhile, the vast majority of UN peacekeeping missions have been conducted by small units, lightly armed, with logistic support on tap, breaking up civil wars.'

Such forces would, of course, be easily and visibly defeated by any organised opposition, even minor players like al qaeda. 500 foreign casualties and/or 100,000 locals should be enough, and that can be easily done with a 10 million budget and few thousand volunteers.

Lets be clear: with no US military hegonomy, phrases such as the rule of international law or universal human rights will be strictly theological outside the boundaries of the EU (at best).

'We're living in an age where the cost of inter-state warfare has risen astronomically high'

The delusion that war is mainly or usually an economic exercise is Lenin's last intellectual legacy in the west. You can find cases like the Opium wars or the medicalisation of depression, but most disease isn't summoned into existence by the desire of drug companies to turn a buck.

99:

Charlie-

Speaking of China, you're probably deluged in book suggestions, but Gordon Chang's "The Coming Collapse of China" is a must-read (if you haven't already done so).

100:

soru: Lets be clear: with no US military hegonomy, phrases such as the rule of international law or universal human rights will be strictly theological outside the boundaries of the EU (at best).

Ah, the sweet, sweet smell of self-justification: "but-but-but, you NEED us!!!"

Meshes nicely with dan's parting assumption: "Given the violent and rapacious nature of our species ..."

When I hear phrases like that, I tend to start by asking whether the speaker is indulging in that commonest of conservative rhetorical practices: projection. (Typically encountered in a context like: "X must be banned at once! If it isn't banned, I might be unable to control myself morally degenerate people might do it!" ... For example, homosexuality, which in the rhetoric of those who denounce it most vehemently is apparently so intensely fascinating and attractive that if they ever have a single homosexual experience they'll desert their wives and kids and move to the Tenderloin. Ad nauseam.)

Here's a hint: I am not violent and rapacious. (Intensely motivated and competitive at writing SF novels, I'll grant you, but that's not quite the same.) Weirdly enough, neither are the vast majority of people. Globally, the incidence of violence and conflict has been on a downward trend throughout recorded history, and it's now at an all-time low (although you wouldn't know it from the news reportage; news isn't about facts, it's about entertainment, and talking about the world being a relatively peaceful place doesn't fire up the audience's adrenal glands). While history does tend to move in cycles, the cycles don't actually repeat with exactitude, and there is room for change. A gradual drift in the direction of World Peace would be a very good thing for us all, and needs to be encouraged. A rabidly interventionist, ideologically-driven hegemonic superpower bristling with high-tech weapons is not obviously a step in that direction ...

101:

Dan's post appears to have leaked through from an alternate universe where life in the United States of Amnesia is a wonderful paradise. However, I happen to live inside that madhouse, and I can assure you that, no, we are not winning in Iraq, Americans are not doing well financially (unless you're talking about the top 1% of the economic pyramid in America), and virtually everything in America has drastically degenerated to the point of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, or pretty nearly.

Just to hit a few high points: some 30% of Americans currently graduate college with only the most rudimentary reading and writing skills and elementary math skills, as compared to about 15% who graduate high school with similar skills deficits in Europe. Meanwhile, a recent study predicts that most elementary schools in California will fail to meet basic proficiency requirements by 2014. This means skills like reciting the ABCs or the multiplication table. Unless you've read those stats, it's impossible to believe Harlan Ellison's recent rant wasn't some sort of demented satire, when he described the Emperor's New Clothes to uncomprehending UCLA students who had nary a ghost of a clue what the reference meant. It sounds like something out The Onion. But it's true. This is the level to which America has sunk.

More than half of all U.S. hospitals are now technically insolvent. Increasingly, even Americans who do have health insurance can't get access to basic health care. America boasts the second highest newborn death rate in the developed world, and the highest child malnutrtion rate and child poverty rate in the developed world. America currently lags ridiculously far in infrastructure and technology, with our broadband speeds and adoption rates far behind those of Europe and Asia. Around half of Americans, most in rural areas, as still stuck on 56K dialup. Meanwhile, Japan just announced a nationwide rollout of 1 Gbps fiber-to-the-home for $54. In America, consumers find themselves forced to pay typical $80 to $100 per month for 3 Mbps ADSL or cable internet, though apparently the recent rollout of DOCSIS3 cable modems has now allowed 150 Mbps service in some American test markets at a cost of $150 per month.

America's physical infrastructure is falling apart, with bridges collapsing, water mains crumbling, sewage lines disintegrating, and U.S. highways becoming unnavigable due to potholes and sinkholes.

The bill of rights has effectively been erased in America. Innocent citizens are now routinely beaten, tased, handcuffed and pepper-sprayed for crazy reasons, like trying to cash a legitimate check at the bank, or refusing to show I.D. to a police officer without being suspected of committing a crime. If an American actually takes it upon hi/rself to "cause trouble," (say, by engaging in a peaceful demonstration for worker rights)...why, then the savage fury of police retaliation becomes indescribable. The gloves come off at that point. People get beaten to a pulp, tear-gassed, brutalized with truncheons en masse.

American police now routinely tase grade school children. Adults get brutalized by police as matter of standard operating procedure, tortured with tasers long after they've been handcuffed and pepper-sprayed and rendered helpless; tasing and pepper-sprayed is now routinely used by American police as torture to seal the deal after handcuffing and arrest, a reminder that you don't try to stand up against the State. It's so common now that no one even comments on it. Americans now accept this kind of routine police savagery against people who are already handcuffed and defenseless and in many cases have committed no crime, just the way that Soviet citizens came to accept without comment KGB head-bashing against innocent bystanders suspected of having made a subservive remark against the State.

Meanwhile, American funding for basic scientific research continues to plummet. Tent cities are sprouting up across America. Out-of-control culture war threatens to erupt into full-scale civil violence...even as a record 258 lavish parties by financial lobbyists have been thrown for senators and congressmen voting for the bailout this yeat. And CEOs of failed banks get $20 million golden parachutes for 17 days' work.

No doubt in the happy shiny alternate universe Dan occupies, cheerful American zip around on jet packs while popping food pills and enjoying their flying cars. Out here in the real world, the U.S. mint has suspended sale of gold coins "due to exccessive demand," America is falling apart, and it looks like a Mad Max-style civil war isn't far off.

Don't get too smug over in Europe, though. Hypo Real Estate mortgage bank in Germany is close to bankruptcy, and the Bradford & Bingley bank in England, that country's biggest mortgage lender, has now been nationalized due to uncontrollable mortgage losses. Barclay's bank is currently leveraged at a ratio of 50:1 and if it goes, its outstanding derivative liabilities are equal to the entire GDP of Great Britain. Meanwhile, the German state banking system teeters on the edge of insolvency and may have to be bailed out by the German government. Then, of course, we get the financial collapse rippling outward across asia with the Little Tigers, Japan, and finally the really big dominos fall, the state owned banks in China. If that happens, it's Raquel Welch in a fur bikini and One Million Years B.C. redux.

102:

NB: got a book to write. Might be scarce around here for a few hours ...

103:

Can people please stop imagining that NATO in Europe consists or consisted of a) mostly US forces or b) mostly US funding? Had the Soviet armoured divisions poured out onto the Fulda Gap and the North German Plain, the great majority of the people who would have to stop them would have been either West German or British.

The Bundeswehr, until recently, was designed to put 500,000 men on the intra-German border in 24 hours, including 5 armoured divisions (sorry...panzer divisions!). The British Army of the Rhine included 4 armoured divisions and a division-sized artillery formation in peacetime and was planned to grow substantially on mobilisation. US V Corps consisted of 2 armoured or mechanised divisions and the 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment, in context a similar-sized force to the French First Army down in Baden-Wurttemberg.

Obviously there was a hell of a lot more US manpower echelonned back to the States under REFORGER, but then, who imagined they'd get there in time?

104:

Pet peeve - that's both a cliche and clearly wrong, plenty of people do think of themselves as bad. Certainly one style of badness is self-delusion, but self-hate, self-pity and so on are at least as common.

That bunch mostly harm themselves AFAIK.

The delusion that war is mainly or usually an economic exercise is Lenin's last intellectual legacy in the west.

Izzat so, I remember it from Starship Troopers, how wrong of RAH to thieve it unacknowledged.

105:

57: No, Newfoundland is our Scotland (previously independent, suffered a major financial setback that ended with a union with a larger country, overrun with Celts), although you could make a case for Nova Scotia as well.

Actually, you can't toss an enraged lynx in a Canadian city without it mauling a Canadian of Celtic descent. There really are a lot of us over here.

106:

I think if US hegemony does collapse, it will collapse along the lines that Jim Henley suggests here: the People's Republic of China saying "let us have Taiwan or we dump our dollar reserves on the world market". Whether the US response is "OK" or "bite me", the results would be, umm, interesting.

Although I think one distinction between the current US and the waning-era USSR is that if you take away the things that earn America foreign exchange, we do have quite a lot of "real economy"; it has holes, particularly w.r.t. energy supply, but the US is better equipped to endure a crash in the dollar than, say, the UK could endure a crash in the pound sterling.

It's also worth pointing out that there is a strong isolationist streak in American political culture, but since 1941 the isolationists have been locked out of any position where they might even have remote influence over American foreign policy. The right crisis could change all that.

107:

'Globally, the incidence of violence and conflict has been on a downward trend throughout recorded history, and it's now at an all-time low'

Which trend has taken place, under, as you say, 'ideologically-driven hegemonic superpower bristling with high-tech weapons'. Reversals in that trend (i.e. WWI and WWII) are directly tied to periods of uncertaintly about who got to declare themselves king of the world. The slave trade and the Holocaust can be considered just as symptoms of that uncertainty.

A nuclear war in 1980 would have been another. America certainly sucks, but I can't see it consciously making a unilateral decision to wipe out 92% of the population of a trading partner like the UK.

As you say, people are, in general, nice. That undeniable fact doesn't alter the other fact that that outcome was a possible outsome of a multilateral, non-hegonomic military system.

To me, that means people who advocate such a system better have more than a few ad hominems and happy thoughts to back their argument.

108:

soru, how's the slave trade to do with uncertainty about who's going to be king of the world? I'm confused.

109:

> A large empire is expanding from the heartland of Europe, and people are queuing up to get in ...

... and the doors are slammed shut!

If we were talking about power politics or strictly trying to achieve economic superiority, the gates would be wide open. Because, Adam Smith notwithstanding (*), the absolute number of people at work (especially when they don't have family to support in the same low-purchasing-power-country where they work) has a major impact on the overall strength of an economy.

* According, therefore, as this produce, or what is purchased with it,
bears a greater or smaller proportion to the number of those who are
to consume it, the nation will be better or worse supplied with all
the necessaries and conveniencies for which it has occasion.

But this proportion must in every nation be regulated by two different
circumstances: first, by the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which
its labour is generally applied; and, secondly, by the proportion
between the number of those who are employed in useful labour, and
that of those who are not so employed. Whatever be the soil, climate,
or extent of territory of any particular nation, the abundance or
scantiness of its annual supply must, in that particular situation,
depend upon those two circumstances.

110:

Charlie,

Suppose that history isn't either linear or cyclical, which are the two models I'm hearing most in this discusssion. I'm inclined more towards a model of punctuated equilibrium for a lot of reasons, one of them being that the forces that act on history, causing the fission and re-merging of states and empires for instance, are closely analogous to those of evolution.

Recent events are a good example: political, economic, and to a large extent, military, situations on the scale of the state or above were very static during the cold war, when the 2 superpowers aligned and controlled everything within their spheres. Change occurred mostly at the edges, where the "continental plates" rubbed together. Then one of them failed, catastrophically from the outside view, and over the next two decades things shifted drastically, hunting (in the control system sense) for a new metastatic equilibrium. The historians' mistake has been assuming that we hit that equilibrium with the US in the role of sole superpower in the mid '90s.

Well, maybe we have not yet hit the equilibrium; it just took a little longer than we thought for the stasis to let go in the US and around it. And now we're starting to see the same turmoil in the US sphere that we saw when the USSR's forcible maintenance of stasis in Central Asia and Eastern Europe went away. Maybe what's happening in the Middle East today is more like the (relatively) short-term spasms in the Balkans than like the collapse of the Persian, Greek, or Roman Empires.

What's that mean for an SF writer? Maybe this period of turmoil ends sometime in the next couple of decades, and it's outcome isn't sensitively dependent on current events. So skip to 2030 and you may be better able to say what's going to happen, and not be embarrased by your mistakes.

111:

'I'm confused.'

Pretty much every speech made in defense of slavery in parliament will have mentioned France.

http://www.historynet.com/timeline-the-abolition-of-the-slave-trade.htm/2

Abolition of the British trade could also give France an economic and naval advantage.
...
Anxiety about the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution contributed to Parliament’s conservative, gradualist decision in 1792; and the next year brought war with France. Wartime England lost her fervor for the cause. Although Wilberforce stubbornly brought his motion in Parliament each year until 1801, only two very small measures on behalf of the oppressed Africans succeeded in the first decade of the war.

The 1833 abolition of slavery throughout the empire was a pretty good match for the point where Britain felt secure as world #1. Quite likely if Trafalgar had gone the other way, Napoleon's hiers would have made a similar decision at around the same time.

A century later, the path between Kaiser Bill deciding to build some more battleships and Buchenwald is pretty short and direct. It is impossible to see the second taking place without the first, and the first was nothing other than a direct challenge to British hegemony.

You can extract a similar point from Mike Davis's book - when the Qings and Moghuls were solidly in charge, they mostly dealt adequately with crop failures. Put stress and military competition into the system, in the form of the british challenge to that hegenomy, and you get Holocaust-level famines.

Human suffering is generally not proportional to _amount_ of empire, so much as _rate of change_ in empire.

And if the doomsayers about american power are right, then we are about to witness a period of pretty high delta-empire.

The Halting State future, of unrestricted multi-way Great Power competition played for keeps and without a final arbiter that nevertheless, when all is said and done, ends up killing less people than certain football matches may well be possible.

But it does seem a bit historically unprecedented.

112:

In re declining violence, declining numbers of military actions and the U.S. relying more in the future on 'soft power':

This I think is a new condition, not cyclical. And it is here where I disagree with Charlie about an increased reliance on soft power in future U.S.-World relations. I suspect that everyone is going to go for the soft power option. Citizens in more technologically advanced and industrialized societies seem to me to be more valuable as productive citizens instead of disposable soldiers. Birth rates are down everywhere, or are in the process of going that way. There are fewer and fewer land grabs being made, at least in the sense of acquiring raw territory. I attribute this, again, to it simply not being economic to the reigning powers to do so.

Iow, the idea that war is the last stage of economic struggle is probably becoming outmoded even as we speak. True, there are a few resources still that might be fought over. But they tend to be things like oil, and I suspect that before the century is out, oil will be like spice in the later Dune novels: good stuff to have around, but not the insanely valuable commodity it once was - new technologies for synthesizing it as opposed to merely harvesting will become available, and other sectors that were once entirely dependent upon the material will be superceded by newer and completely different technologies.

113:

Alex @ 102, I've seen similar figures, and in the NATO context the US Army may not have been the number 1 for troop quality. At least, not all the time.

Besides, there's almost a myth of the Fulda Gap. Punch through fast, and get to the Rhine, is not the only way to win a war in Germany. The whole idea almost smacks of American self-importance and circular argument--we defend the Fulda Gap because it's important, and it's important because we defend it.

Nope, accident of history. The American zone of occupation was where it was, because the US Army was on the right flank on D-Day.

114:

I'd like to bring your attention to the possibility that in a very short time we may not have a future. If you've read about the recent discovery of methane outgassing from the melting under-sea permafrost in the Arctic ocean, http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/exclusive-the-methane-time-bomb-938932.html
you'll know that we are dangerously close to a global warming tipping point. Methane outgassing has been implicated in the great Permian mass extinction that wiped out 95% of marine species and 70% of land species 286 million years ago. http://www.astrobio.net/news/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=582. If this trend continues we'll see changes in our lifetimes that will inevitably affect politics and culture for the short time we'll have them.

This issue has been strangely absent from much of the U.S. media as well as internet discussions I've been reading. We seem to be suffering from a vast social ignorance/inertia.

I suggest that since SF writers have the imagination and audacity to come up with ideas nobody in their senses would have thought of, we should be having a dialogue on climate change, how to slow it before it becomes irreversible, and how it will affect humankind and the rest of the biosphere. Since fighting global warming will require mass mobilization of people around the globe we'll have to break old barriers and old paradigms for this to work.

Vandana

115:

#110 WRONG.
The Slave OWNING OUTSIDE of Britain was only legal until 1832/3 because of the economic power of the Sugar-plantation owners in the W. Indes.
That power was in decline constantly, from after 1815, and they were regarded as "rich but dangerously eccentric" even before then.

One other straw was the dating of the "Great Trek" by the Afrikanders - fleing "british Oppression" - that's right - we wouldn't let them treat the Kaffirs that way any more ......

116:

the US is better equipped to endure a crash in the dollar than, say, the UK could endure a crash in the pound sterling.

We had one of them in 1992; we actually did really well out of it. Top Secret: trying to maintain the £ as a reserve currency was probably the worst single British policy of the 20th century.

113: Indeed. Not to defend them or owt, but how did that effort to make them into better human beings by force work out, again?

117:

Anyone who thinks that slavery is a thing of the past needs to look at the debt-driven cubicle drones driving home in the rain right now.

118:

Bruce Cohen @109: I take a helical view of world events. In two dimensions it looks cyclical, but is progressing to a qualitatively different level in a third dimension. Broader news coverage is responsible for the illusion that events are collapsed into a cycle. We're not dead yet! We're getting better!

119:

Rosco @115: or, hell, just plain old-fashioned slavery. It probably doesn't get much play on CNN, but it still goes on today.

Without getting into the political morass -- William Gibson is one who seems to have largely given up on near-future SF. Not that it helps much. I read Pattern Recognition a couple of years after it came out. It's set in 2002, I think, and even in 2005 it was more of a nostalgic experience than anything else. Tommy Hilfiger? When I was in grade school in 1998, maybe. Hotmail? Who uses Hotmail any more?

40, 50 years is the way to go. It's been a while since I read Sterling's Distraction but I think it should still be holding up fairly well.

120:

The Slave OWNING OUTSIDE of Britain was only legal until 1832/3 because of the economic power of the Sugar-plantation owners in the W. Indes.

And, in the logic of the time, that economic power was only politically relevant because it could be turned into first-rates to fight the French (or, somewhat earlier, the Dutch).

121:

Charlie,

I'm an American citizen aspiring to be a writer of near-future science fiction. At 28, I decided to revisit an old space-opera short I wrote in college, rewrite/update it as a near-future solar system based story set 20-30 years from the present, and see how things went (dusting off the writing skills I suppressed as an attorney).

I've started reconsidering that idea because I find it difficult to conceive of the scale upon which changes to the Earth are occuring, in the realms of science AND politics. I'm starting to think that a space opera set thousands of years from now is the way to go. Maybe restart "history" from some giant exodus in which all prior human records were lost due to the failure of a proprietary operating system installed by a non-profit foundation blindly dedicated to helping humanity.

122:

soru, I can't see how the slave trade is any more significant than any of the other transactions that contributed to global power in the period 1550-1850. Here's some numbers, in 1000s, of Africans being taken to the New World by various Euro powers:

Before 1580
Sp 10
Pt 63
Fr 0
Neth 0
Eng 1
Tot 74

1580-1640
Sp 100
Pt 590
Fr 0
Neth 20
Brit 4
Tot 714

1640-1700
Sp 10
Pt 226
Fr 50
Neth 160
Brit 371
Tot 817

1700-1760
Sp 0
Pt 812
Fr 456
Neth 221
Brit 1286
Tot 2775

from Eltis, D. _The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas_ (Cambridge, CUP, 2000), p.9

You might be able to see a correlation between 'doing lots of slave trading' and 'being top nation'. Me, I can't.

123:

'Me, I can't. '

To summarise your figures:

number of slaves traded under a multi-polar world order: a lot

number of slave traded under a unipolar (British Empire) system: much fewer, and only in the regions outside that order

You seem to be addressing the claim that slavery was a causal factor in which empire came out on top. Some do say that, and they may even be right. But that has nothing to do with the point I was making, which is not what slavery caused or didn't cause, but what it was caused by.

On which, my view is that slavery was a symptom of a global world without enforced global laws.

124:

McLaren @ 101:

The bill of rights has effectively been erased in America. Innocent citizens are now routinely beaten, tased, handcuffed and pepper-sprayed for crazy reasons, like trying to cash a legitimate check at the bank, or refusing to show I.D. to a police officer without being suspected of committing a crime. If an American actually takes it upon hi/rself to "cause trouble," (say, by engaging in a peaceful demonstration for worker rights)...why, then the savage fury of police retaliation becomes indescribable. The gloves come off at that point. People get beaten to a pulp, tear-gassed, brutalized with truncheons en masse.

If you are going to complain how awful US has become, try at least to bother the very links you post. At random, I clicked on two of the links in above paragraph: "trying to cash a legitimate check at the bank" and "refusing to show I.D. to a police officer without being suspected of committing a crime". The check in question was forged, and the bank acted entirely properly when calling police. Trying to cash a forged check is grounds for arrest in every contry. The student who refused to show his ID was suspected -- of not being a student and thus tresspassing. Refusal to either leave or produce documentation which shows one is not tresspassing is also grounds for arrest.

I did not read the rest of your links, but I expect the quality to be about the same.

Try harder next time, McLaren.

125:

Well, the Bailout bill has tanked because the Republicans... bailed out, I guess.

126:

Andrew G. and Skip
http://blogs.abcnews.com/politicalpunch/2008/09/last-years-big.html
AFDC was 22 Billion in 2007, about $7 per capita. The big five brokerages had 39 Billion in bonuses, about $13 per capita.
There are other welfare programs in America. They are mostly for people that work for a living and don't have deadbeat dads. AFDC people do participate in food stamps and medicaid and section 8 housing.
AFDC people do not participate in old people's welfare, otherwise known as social security and medicare. That is where the real costs are, and it is totally funded by the people that collect it. More than funded, since the US charges people more than they receive no matter what color, class, race, or creed. People on minimum wage almost break even on social security and disability and medicare taxes, but not quite.

127:

My Soylent Corporation stocks soared today. They're got this new product made of krill coming out. Just shows that there's an opportunity for profit in any financial environment.

128:

number of slave traded under a unipolar (British Empire) system: much fewer, and only in the regions outside that order

You do know that the British Empire at that time wasn't at all hegemonic in the sense you mean? That, in fact, the European states-system between the Congress of Vienna and 1848 was explicitly multi-polar? The balance of power, the balance of power.

Besides, I don't think you'd argue that Charles V Spain was a force for `global order', despite being as hegemonic as post-Trafalgar Britain.

129:

soru: I am bored and you are off-topic. Take the slave-trading guff to someone else's blog. Or else. (See the moderation policy.)

130:

wkwillis @126, Social Security and Medicare do not require old age. Those of us who are permanently and totally disabled also receive them. (I've lived 15 years longer than the last estimate, so maybe I'll live long enough to get them as an old person, too.)

131:

Sorry Charlie!

Consider 128 redacted, if you will.

132:

Hello Charlie, I've been a loyal reader for some time now.

Anyways, I will probably echo the comments from earlier, but here it goes. Quality of writing trumps time-and-place, if and only if the characters and drama transcend the time-and-place. Accelerando may or may not age well in terms of technology/politics, but the story structure and dialog itself is rewarding. 2001 is obviously off-the-mark, but the book and the movie are works of art.

I have been struggling with my own writing, because personal technologies change faster than I can write, and re-write chapters. I've sat on the same story for nigh ten years, and since then, text-messaging, YouTube, electronic toll roads, and political shifts have occurred. The story I originally wrote makes no sense (why do the characters not have cell phones, and complain about expensive long-distance land-line service? Why is TV news the only source of information? Why does the city in the story not have this-freeway, that-mall, etc?)

Imagine writing science fiction in the USA, in 1964, about a scenario in 1969. Unless I'm seriously overestimating the cultural shift that occurred in those five years, your story would be hilariously out-of-date. Almost as bad as the "Nuclear War in 1995" story.

As for the space opera angle, the Foundation series is well-known, and very interesting, especially when the Mule shows up. Also, if you're OK with anime, watch some episodes of Legend of the Galactic Heroes, which takes place far, far into the future. One episode conveniently plays out for the viewer a timeline of events from 2040 through the 30th century. Both stories rely on character and drama, not technology per se. Granted, Foundation doesn't seem to get much past "nucleics", and LoGH has its own aesthetic oddity (ie, there's a war between circa-1900 Germany and circa-1988 Japan...in space).

133:

I agree that the near future (5-30 years) is extremely hard to read. There are a whole raft of ongoing changes, any one of which could be an empire changer.
But its in science as well as in politics, which is what all this discussion has all been about so far.
1) Rise/collapse of economies, and hence the rise/collapse of states (US, China, India, Russia, EU)- hard to read where this is going globally, so I won't try, other than to note that in 10 years time some of these could be almost unrecognisable politically and economically.
2) nanotechnology - whoever invests in this NOW and gets the best breakthroughs has an opportunity to change their medicine/production/economy in wholely unpredictable ways within 20 years. Not sure if US science investment is leading the way here, but a lot of what I read says that they are behind China etc.
3) Space exploration - in isolation is unlikely to be a world changer, however if the Space Elevator can get off the ground (excuse the pun), then that could be a deal breaker by bringing the price down to a usable level. Japan is (in theory) starting to put a real, funded, project in place, the US has been talking about it, but I haven't seen any real funding yet.
4) Artifical Intelligence - lots of talk on this, with the Singularity about to change everything. Or Not, depending on how cynically you view the whole AI thing. And how cynically you view the whole Singularity thing :-)

But some of those developments can redraw political boundaries around them depending on who wins each race, and what everyone else decides to do about it.

So yeah, 5-30 years have the potential to resculpt political and economic boundaries in major ways.

However, if we choose to jump our SF forward 50-70 years, which of those things should then be taken for granted in any SF for that near future period ?

134:

Charlie,

The USSR went out of its way to pack its leadership with engineers,
too. How did that work out?

I think China is going to do quite well, but I don't think it's going
to be because it's led by an engineer caste.

135:

For your consideration... Bush as Yeltsin, Obama as Putin.

136:

Marty's got a point (Hi Marty! - hope things are well with you), Charlie: check out David Edgerton's critique of the cult of technocracy, which is best set out in _England and the Aeroplane_. The industries that did best are not necessarily those with the highest proportion of engineers on the board. The countries that did best are not necessarily those that spent the most on R&D.

137:

"but-but-but, you NEED us!!!"

I'm afraid that you do. You wish America would become a giant version of Germany, demilitarized and dedicated to social spending?

Be careful what you wish for.

You see, America has a much longer tradition of isolationism than it does interventionism. And in our current financial mess we may ask ourselves why exactly are we defending a Europe unwilling to defend itself? Why should we intervene in the next Bosnia that happens in Europe's own back yard? A Europe that has been militarily emasculated to the point where it can't even stop killings in its own home.

And no, UN condemnations and diplomatic wrist slappings are ineffective against ruthless tyrants. Against the Milosovic's of the world, only force and the threat of force matter. In such instances, diplomacy and 50 cents will get you a cup of coffee.

I am not violent and rapacious. ...Weirdly enough, neither are the vast majority of people.

Individuals for the most part are decent fellows, unless they are hungry or desparate. Every human being is only six meals away from killing something or someone. Furthermore, people in groups are evil and stupid, be they soccer hooligans or Wall Street board members. And the nation state is the most evil and stupid of all. I should think that the history of the 20th century would make that obvious.

Nations are ourselves engrosse. The baser inpulses of individuals are held in check daily by a hundred safeguards such as laws, police, religious instruction, etc. Over time, and with proper indoctrination, humans can assume the habits of civilized living. But that is all they are, just habits.

Without these safeguards, humans quickly revert to their natural selves. "Man is a wolf to man" - always has been and always will be, short of altering human nature through genetic engineering. The human condition may change. In fact it has more or less continuously improved since the Industrial Era broke us free of the "Malthusian Trap".

Human nature, however, never changes.

Civilization is a recent software addition that conflicts with the basic, hardwired OS that evolved over millions of years of savage struggle. Fortunately, the state has managed to partially civilize us. But who is going to civilize the nation state?

138:

dan: I'm afraid that you do.

Go away. Bored now. Already familiar with neo-imperialist ideology. Think it's a load of self-justifying bollocks. Bored now. Go away.

PS: social darwinism sucks, and is in any case based on a grotesque misunderstanding of evolution. I suggest reading some Dawkins -- preferably the serious stuff that got him the Oxford chair, not the fluffy pop science.

139:

Man is a wolf to man? Seriously? What the fuck? Where did you grow up, you must have had an interesting childhood.

Last I knew, as an amateur, was that the majority of people are nice enough, and in no way conform to the man is wolf to man stereotype you are so happy to purvey. Instead, the ones who do are the badly wired psycopaths of film and history, who for whatever reason are incapable of actually empathising properly with other people. Now, you can act as if everyone else is like that, but you know what, everyone I know and myself, have gotten on well enough without assuming that man is wolf to man. Indeed, such a view is incompatible with modern civilisation.

140:

Charlie:

apologies for mentioning the slave trade as an aside: that was never my main point, but that was the one responded to.

If you are having difficulty predicting the future (plausibly, never mind correctly), that probably means you are just in the process of mentally processing some falsified assumptions, brewing up a new world-view.

When that process is worked through, it will no doubt be interesting to see the end result. I wonder if you will still be as optimistic as you were when you wrote 'Halting State' about the idea that an activity, such as war, being predictably economically unviable can have an influence on whether a bunch of distributed agents can avoid pursuing it.

141:

Soru: Halting State wasn't about a future in which war doesn't happen -- quite the contrary! It was about a future in which war happens by other means.

The traditional state-on-state blitzkrieg style of war is obsolescent partly because the huge capital cost of modern warfare renders it uneconomic, but also because our industrial base (upon which such warfare relies) is distributed internationally to such an extent that damaging another country is likely to cause similar or even greater damage to the economy of the aggressor. This doesn't mean that aggressive actions are out of the question or won't happen -- just that they'll take a different form.

We've outgrown tribal war parties with stone axes stealing the women of rival tribes. My thesis is that we're in the process of outgrowing armoured divisions and guided missiles, too. But that won't signify an outbreak of peace: it'll just mean the tools of coercion have changed. (And the threshold for using them and the exit conditions for putting them away again.)

142:

Charlie, your comment at 141 reminded me of a thought brought on by your Petrov post. Suppose Reagan's Star Wars actually, 99/100% worked and the Russians sent us a full volley of ballistic missiles. Blam! SDI takes out all the missiles. What next? Were we going to say nah, nah, you missed me? Or were we going to send in our own retaliatory wave? I suspect the latter. Even if that wave was more "surgical" than the initial attack, just how much of that charlie foxtrot rebounds on us and our allies. Maybe the Intelligent Designer only lets you have the specs on SDI if you are smart enough to figure out the next logical instruction in the manual.

143:

Dave Moore@#74, you underestimate how centred on London the UK economy is. Losing Scotland definitely would *not* push it down to the level of Italy or Spain. It'd be a knock, but not a big one. (I hate this London-centring profoundly, but it's a fact of life.)

G. Tingey@#85: if you need to ask what's wrong with haggis you are already beyond hope. You probably like blood pudding too. (Mind you, English cooking is famed for its awfulness across the globe, and Scotland partakes of that too. If you want food, visit the mainland.)

Scudder became First Prophet in 2012, not 2016, IIRC (but ICBW).

James Nicoll@#105: Yes, a good case for Nova Scotia being Canada's Scotland would be, well, the name... :)

Charlie@#138: That 'bored now' is scaring me. Please don't skin anyone.

guthrie@#139: Teenage boys are wolves to other teenage boys, certainly (although I suspect most here were more wolved upon than wolves). Most people get saner as they grow older.

144:

'It was about a future in which war happens by other means. '

That's just terminology - is a conflict with a handful (on-screen, First World) deaths a war? Were a lot of people get blown up off-screen in other countries, Cold-War style? If not, why not?

'distributed internationally to such an extent that damaging another country is likely to cause similar or even greater damage to the economy of the aggressor'

This is relevant, I suppose, if you for some reason you believe that economics is a major cause of war, instead of just one of several influences on who wins.

To me, that view seems to require an unsustainable belief in the global rationality of distributed decisions. Certainly, the obvious predictability of the credit crunch doesn't seem to have been any help in avoiding it.

sarcasm:

If the Invisible Hand of Jehovah Mercantalis can prevent (major) war, why can He not also solve global warming, cause speciation without evolution, and cure cancer without stem cell research?

Have you suddenly gone all Red State on us?

145:

guthrie@139: Last I knew, as an amateur, was that the majority of people are nice enough, and in no way conform to the man is wolf to man stereotype you are so happy to purvey.

The majority of wolves are nice enough too, for that matter. All that nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw stuff that the Dans of the world like to spout is as obsolete as the rest of their worldview.

"Mam is a wolf to man" isn't a bad description. Social animals and all that. It's just that Dan reads it the wrong way because he doesn't know crap about either species.

146:

Suppose Reagan's Star Wars actually, 99/100% worked and the Russians sent us a full volley of ballistic missiles. Blam! SDI takes out all the missiles.

Not those cheeky little Topol-Ms. They dodge around randomly as they come in. Lovely things.

147:

[DELETED BY MODERATOR]

148:

[DELETED BY MODERATOR]

149:

dan: I refer you to the moderation policy.

This blog is my soapbox, not yours.

Go away.

150:

Adrian 146

Think bulletproof vest.

151:

A blanket of extra-strong Kevlar supported by skyhooks covering the entire North American continent, you say? Think even the American taxpayer would have a few questions to ask about that, plus it'd be pretty dark underneath it.

152:

ha -- no, I'm saying that the bulletproof vest does not guarantee that you don't get shot in the head. But it provides a measure of protection.

153:

Mainly against people who don't realise you're wearing it.

154:

# 143 Haggis is very tasty -IF PROPERLY prepared.
And yes, "Blutwurst" is common across most of Europe - there are Scottish, English (2), French, German, Polis abd Spanish versions that I know of, at least.
But then I've looked at my teth in a mirror - I'm an omnovore, and I'm going to enjoy my sausages and mushrooms, with garlic, thank you very much!

#145 & others - Wolves
Remember, ALL domestic dogs are, genetically, wolves.
Wolves can be tamed quite easily.
Their supposed viciousness is greatly over-rated, though they ARE a carnivourous pack-animal.
If you want a REALLY TOP predator try a CAT.
http://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2008/02/big_cats_in_britain_2008.php

155:

""Man is a wolf to man" - always has been and always will be, short of altering human nature through genetic engineering. "

Oh god. The furries are coming for us...

156:

Apparently soru and dan are part of what you get from being listed on SF Signal. Ya gotta wonder: is it worth the hassle?

157:

Whoa! Maclaren, that seems overly pessimistic.

We're obviously headed for some tough times with the financial melt down and all, but don't a lot our current problems stem from the last 8 years of Bush where deregulating finances and preventing gays from marrying was the most important thing? That could change real soon.

As far as "Just to hit a few high points: some 30% of Americans currently graduate college with only the most rudimentary reading and writing skills and elementary math skills, as compared to about 15% who graduate high school with similar skills deficits in Europe. Meanwhile, a recent study predicts that most elementary schools in California will fail to meet basic proficiency requirements by 2014. This means skills like reciting the ABCs or the multiplication table."

Yea, I've noticed that Americans seem increasingly more insane and stupid than I remember them being. Here's one example. Is that for real, or is it just an illusion caused by increased communication channels allowing every idiot to have a say?

158:

Who says all times aren't interesting? Is it because the propaganda is wearing mighty thin and the tarnish is showing all over or s it that we are here, now?. What ever happens, 'now' will seems as strange and as naive a place as it always does when we get to 'then'. There wil be some babies, some deaths, lots of fun in between; please. (there are too many competing hard/soft/wetwares, meme complexes, for everything to turn on a dime and become something unrecognisable)
Never the less emergent properties tend to emerge…
complexity endures, unless you reduce everything to the cockroach level

159:

I gave up writing near-future SF a long time ago.

In point of fact, I had a WWIII novel (co-authored with Jerry Pournelle) in the works in 1989.

(It was based on Soviet weakness, not strength; everyone who studied the issue knew the system was wheezing towards some sort of catastrophe.)

160:

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161:

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162:

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163:

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164:

I haven't had time to read all the comments but why not focus on people who are too young/poor to be affected by the global economic situation but are still on the cutting edge of tech? I'm not suggesting writing 'young adult sci-fi' or anything but something focusing on the web/mobile phone culture/MMORPGs/ etc would be neat
Sure, youth slang and culture is outdated quickly... but its also so quick-changing that whatever you come up with sounds plausible... and i find stuff like virtual worlds more interesting then eoncomic crisies
I realize that might be a sign of global collapse itself

165:

S.M. Sterling: 5%-6% is an illusion in so many ways. First, it doesn't include the entire expenditure for the invasions of Iraq and Afganistan (or the so called "black budget", or maintenance of the nuclear arsenal, or Veteran's Affairs, or ... no shortage of hidey-holes). Second, you're talking about percentages of a GDP inflated by none other than the housing, credit and stock market bubbles. Third, what wealth there is to be had is way disproportionately concentrated in the hands of this clusterfuck's architects, creating the broadest class gap in a century. Taken together, "crushed" is a meme that absolutely shouldn't be "gotten rid of" it by US you mean "we the people".

166:

Wow, I just read through the new posts on this thread.

Dan, old buddy, WAR SUCKS! and any TRUE warrior avoids

it at all costs. Given that, we live in the real world.

A certain amount of self defense is necessary. The bad

thing that happened is the military-industrial complex.

My country is controlled by corporate interests that

control our government with money. I LIVE HERE. IT SUCKS.

They control the media, except for the net, and they

are trying to get control of THAT. I hate the monstrous

WASTE of lives and money that our wars have caused. We

should pull all of our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan

now. They are just tar pits that will consume our best

men for years to come. If we spent the money on improving

our security tech HERE AT HOME, we would have much less

to fear from terrorists. I hope this is not too much

"soap box" ranting for you , Charlie, but I love my

country and I hate what has been happening to it.

Many times, I read your books and stories to escape

from all of it. It works: I thank you for that.

167:

Charlie, I see the usual suspects have turned up.

168:

APOLOGY

I mentioned this thread and your blog to the estimable Prof. P. Z. Myers

You may be getting quite a bit more traffic!

169:

WARNING:

Off-topic comments will be deleted without notice. Also: sequences of what look like boilerplate postings will be deleted on sight.

I am a wee bit fed up with the warmed-over sabre rattling, hence the Reading of the Riot Act.

The original topic was, "is it possible to write near future SF right now?" ... Stick to it, or stick to some other thread, or I'll close comments down.

(And hello to the folks from MetaFilter and elsewhere ...)

170:

What IS the minimum lead-time for an SF story, realistically?

From your comments, it would seem that if you are writing for a magazine, say a short-story, it will still be a few months (?)
For a novel, you are suggesting AT LEAST 18 months (?) possibly longer.

So, when you sit down, you are going to be looking at AT LEAST 3 years into the future, yes?
DIFFICULT, but it depends upon the setting.
The bigger the picture, the more world events will intrude, and the more dificult it gets.
That was one of the joys of HALTING STATE - but, as you commented at the time "reality is gaining - I'm going to have to write faster".

Hence, if you were to take my nightmare dystopic scenario, where McCain "wins", followed by Palin taking over on his death in ofice - or the fundies put a "winning" candidate up in 2016 - and they DON'T stop at the USA's borders, but invade Canada and us - they have a LOT of bases here, and plenty of useful idiot sympathisers.
And trash the Nat. Hist Mus, and put all the biologists in camps, and .....
But the TIMING for such a novel would be even more difficult, now, than when I first got the creeps about it, about 4 years back ....

171:

[DELETED BY MODERATOR]

Dan, pace my publisher moderation policy: this is my soap box; I am under no obligation to provide you with a microphone for the promulgation of views I find reprehensible.

Also, I feel under no obligation to be polite to someone who shows up in a conversation and accuses me of "cry baby whining".

Consider yourself banned.

-- Charlie

172:

Charlie, you could write almost anything today, and it would turn out wrong.

On the other hand, SF writers can do clever things with the Alternate History toolkit, which the Tom Clancys of this world would miss.

Something to throw out: The Grapes of Wrath with wifi hotspots. That could be near-future without being predictive, much as Nineteen Eighty-Four might be. And, looked at from some angles, both books are about states of mind, with the physical world a set to display that on.

So it would be possible to write a book about the aftermath of a Great Depression, where the predictive value of the setting is largely irrelevant.

Bugger. Most of this was done in Firefly: horses and starships, TGVs through Tombstone.

173:

It is certainly possible to write near-future SF right now. Most stories have at their center a group of characters and a plot. While science fiction often makes a technological innovation central to these, it does not have to be so prominent that it will quickly date the story.

Keep in mind, too, that science fiction which takes place in a world full of computers should generally respect the notion that new technologies exist alongside the older ones. For every conversation between avatars in a dungeon, there is a similar conversation in an IRC channel that has been in operation longer than I've been born. Mix the old and the new and you'll date more slowly.

Dystopia is in the details. You don't need to have a single named figure in your book to capture a situation that is instantly recognisable as contemporary to the reader.

For example, take what I'm working on - a small community of hipsters from the internets are trying to be cool, radical and innovative while grappling with the slow collapse of society around them as the jobs and cash leak out of their small cities. You can put Bush and Palin in there if you like, but you can evoke the same 'now-ness' with brand names and recognisable "lifeways". Put in petty movie piracy. Put in the way we use our gadgets on a daily basis. And then push the envelope just a little bit - what happens to the Internet-people as you expand the level of poverty?

Another way you can do near-future work is to mix your near future with something else - some aliens, or vastly advanced or primitive people, or an AI. The excellent new Stephenson, Anathem, does this.

Speaking of Anathem, another way to do it is write in right now and make your innovation a less obvious form of technology, such as the technology of consciousness.

Further speaking of Anathem, you can make your near future by putting recognisable features of today and tomorrow on an entirely different planet.

174:

Esther, you may write it, but can you sell it?

(That's an implicit assumption underlying my head-scratcher: I am a commercial author, after all.)

175:

Good question I have no idea whether I could sell it or not. Certainly you can sell it - you have a name brand and a set of established fans that will understand what you're doing.

Less wiggle room in Halting State than the Laundry, though. Make comments on the geek culture is what you do. My friends are all having children and raising them with computers. What the hell is that going to do?

To take the metaphor further, what happens to those shared worlds in ten years?

The kids raised in different shared worlds will have some culture clashes worth seeing- and writing about.

Mm, Vinge did a bit of that in Rainbow's End..

It may be that people who like near-future sci-fi are the same bunch that read the Soviet technothrillers at the beach during the 1980s. They don't stop buying because the stress written about in the book is different from the stress Spy vs spy and nuclear brinksmanship are a more timeless bugaboo than market volatility, I suppose. Then there's all the literary fiction folks coming into the readership - they'd like The Grapes of Wrath with wifi hotspots for sure!

176:

er.. something ate a sentence.

"..isn't different enough from the stress written about in the newspapers!"

177:

Oh, I see it's gonna be called 419. Ha! Scammer shared world. And scam-baiter shared world. See this excellent This American Life episode regarding an epic bait: http://thislife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?sched=1260

and the relevant 419eater thread: http://forum.419eater.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=133890

178:

Charlie @174

We have gotten so accustomed to change and a rapid flow of events, I would think that the bigger issue with near-term SF is the difficulty in tapping into the sense of wonder, and not necessarily predicting events.

We're about to elect an African American President -- Hollywood has already taught us that this is the future. If you published that two years ago, you'd have to have marketed that as SF :)

179:

Given what has been said above, I think the easiest way to write a near future SF novel would be to take one small thread of reality, set in a small chunck of the world, and write it specifically to point up some dangers, whether environmental degradation, or the dangers of having financial crashes. Then it will be clear that you aren't trying to predict the future in a broad sense, merely get across one facet of possibility.
The themes should be as general as possible, such as the badness of big bureacracies, or the greediness of mankind; and no attempt should be made to accurately forecast the broad sweep of technology.
Which seems to me to be similar to what Esther Sassaman is suggesting in #173 above.

Maggie #158- all times are interesting on a small scale. The difference here is that people can see large scale things unravelling on their TV's, and know viscerally that this will impact on them. Rather than watching the results of a hurricane half way across the planet, or considering the effect a small rise in interest rates has on their mortgage payments, the scale of this is so much larger.

Oh, and bye bye Dan, it wasn't fun knowing you.

180:

Charlie, what's the line between a "techno-thriller" (even if many of them are neither technology-driven nor particularly thrilling) and S.F.?

Question inspired by Arthur@178, and I should add that I don't read much of either these days.

181:

Not that I'm charlie, but I would imagine that a technothriller takes known or experimental technology and assumes it works perfectly well and integrates it into a story. Whereas SF is more about projecting/ predicting/ expanding, and assumes that some unknown or merely suggested technology works well.

182:

Guthrie: "... and no attempt should be made to accurately forecast the broad sweep of technology."

Hrm, I'd say that that's near-future SF's unique advantage, and precisely what makes it crack-tastic for the tech set -- its value-added service, so to speak. It's the fictionalization of one of our favourite pastimes.

183:

Guthrie is mostly on-target re. technothrillers, but doesn't go far enough.

My take on it is that the key distinguishing characteristic is that technothrillers are thrillers first; they play against the background of the world as we know it (albeit the world of drama and espionage and public affairs) without considering the way the technology trappings they rely on might change the human condition. The high-tech stuff is therefore largely window dressing.

Near-future SF does different things with the same tools; they come front-and-centre -- or rather, their effects come front-and-centre, and the world is changed thereby. (And they're not necessarily such obvious new technologies as smart bombs and wrist-watch radios; they might equally well be a new way of looking at the memetic spread of fashions, as in Connie Willis' "Belwether", or social network mediated economics, as in Bruce Sterling's "Maneki Neko".)

There's a key scene in "Halting State" where I play with this: Jack and Elaine are walking through Edinburgh, circa 2018, and Jack is explaining how it would outwardly look mostly familiar to someone from 50 years ago -- except that underneath the building facades and differently styled cars and clothing, everything works differently. (Whereas in a traditional technothriller, everything works the same but the cars are very gosh-wow and all have machine guns behind the headlights, so to speak.)

184:

The more I think about it, the more I believe that writers CAN continue with near-future speculative fiction, but they might have to abandon old models of publication and distribution to stay relevant these days. We live in a time not only of the kind of turbulence you have mentioned, but also one in which the time it takes for human knowledge to double is decreasing (some suggest an exponential component to this), so in the short term, near-futurists might be doomed to immediate obsolescence unless they adopt media that take less time to publish. There are lots of short-form or serialized web productions that fit this bill, and I think this is probably the way to go until we find something better. That's not to say I won't buy books and read them, but before we know it, the largest consumers of mass media (I'm talking late Gen Y, Millennials, Digital Natives and beyond) will look at books the way late Gen Xers and early Gen Ys look at things like vinyl records (quaint). In other words, the way I consume media now is already dying, and web and mobile distribution will be the platform of choice going forward.

Then again, I could be completely off base here.

185:

i dunno...just reread Gene Wolfe's "Seven American Nights" (1979). not only is it still scary, it looks more plausible now than when it CAME OUT.

m.

186:

Norman@157: My wife recently returned to teaching college freshmen level English after a several year term as a technical writer. She has noticed and commented (ranted, to be more precise) at length on the deterioration in quality of her students over that five year period.

187:

Aaron @184: writers CAN continue with near-future speculative fiction, but they might have to abandon old models of publication and distribution to stay relevant ...

If you can tell me how to do that and still pay my bills I would be ever so grateful.

That's the elephant in the living room for those of us who write for a living these days. Information wants to be free but authors want to be paid.

188:

Set it in a favela or near-future nairobi, ie in places where the course of world history that's throwing you for a loop would be mostly a remote concern, ill-understood, seldom-heard of, and rarely having any directly attributable impact on the lives of the character.

EG: what happens if:
- some shantytown guy accidentally invents a simply-constructible perpetual motion machine (and doesn't even get what it is)
- some super-stealth-bomber crashes in a shantytown and is looted before the recovery team arrives (the old crashed-alien-ship story, but all human all around)
- the outmoded, virus-ridden digital detritus (used computers / cell phones / etc.) find a second life in some shantytown, only to unexpectedly evolve into a singularity-esque ai (of motives ill-understood and unrecognized by the locals, who in turn are used as its arms and legs via forged text messages and fake news and so on). How does the social contrast between some near-future third-world quasi-transhuman elites (think hgh+cosmetic-surgery+life-extended to the max) and the left-behinds in the shantytown impact the willingness together (or not) against a common threat (or is it?)?

Or make it a microscale story: some near-future bio researcher covertly splices a (non-green) chlorophyll into their genes and something similar for absorbing water vapor from the atmosphere, obtaining near 100% food security. What is near-future life like for someone who can "afford" to be homeless in it?

189:

Steven @186, I'm writing some frivolous rubbish, and people are telling me it's great. They're saying that about the first, barely edited, draft.

And these aren't the people taking Freshman English courses. Some of them are older than I am.

Now, is the story commercial? I rather doubt it. Could I write something that would sell? Maybe. But I'm a Brit-fan: I've schmoozed in bars with some of the best there are; and I maybe have set a too-high standard in my mind.

On the other hand, if money gets tight, what chance will new authors have? Even if some people will read almost anything.

190:

Charlie #183- Toys in technothrillers versus structural supports in SF?

191:

On the US budget issue, while I agree that the US is overextended militarily, my understanding is that what is really breaking the US budget is the so-called entitlements. Even the war is dwarfed by those costs. And I think that this is a demographic storm that is shared by all of the West, and possibly even China, as well. Not that that changes the underlying issue of my country living beyond its means. Indeed, if anything, it suggests that the problem is less tractable.

192:

Charlie, on forecasting you need to read "The Black Swan" on Nicholas Nassim Taleb - he writes about the effects of unpredictable events (the "black swans" of the title) and the various scientists and philosophers who worked on problems of prediction and related stuff.

Very interesting book, and very topical, since Taleb started out as a quant managing risk.

193:

Charlie @187: Monetizing your writing is an issue, of course. But it's an issue that has analogs in other media industries, and perhaps there are some lessons there. In Japan, people pay to download books a chapter at a time on their mobile phones. Why wouldn't people do that in Europe and the US (they might already). Some bright minds are working on how to deliver the content of textbooks over (rich) electronic media (and I'm not simply talking about PDF-based textbooks) and still maintain some level of profit, so I know we will solve these problems. In the mean time, plenty of people will write what they want to write and let people read it for free; that works to a point as well, but it lowers the bar for entry into the industry.

That is a bit off the original topic, I guess, but it is speculative :)

194:

Some breif thoughts for writing SF set in the near future.

Refuge in audacity: Make huge sweeping crazy changes, stuff that is plausible but unlikely. Sure it becomes AH pretty damn fast, but it can still be interesting. Borders on fantasy.

Example: Assume that some smart-ass sociopath develops and releases a highly communicable form of brain cancer (OK, a virus that triggers it with high likelihood) tomorrow. Incubation is months to years, and no one notices before infection rates are high. Treatment is tricky and expensive. By 2014, the PTSD survivors are living in a very different world.


Refuge in obscurity: Don't make a lot of specific references outside of the areas you care about, and don't make these areas things that are likely to change unpredictably. Several people have mentioned this already. Borders on "serous literature."


"If this goes on:" Write about something that's threatening and inevitable. Even if you get the details wrong, the predition and viewpoint may remain interesting. Borders on futurism.

Example: An SF political thriller about the collapse of social security in 2016. Sure it will be wrong in many details, but it will attract readers merely because it is such a relevant issue.

Enforced primitivism: Setting is the future, but protagonists are Amish, or Uzbekistanis, or someone else who can distantly see macro effects but won't be close to the modern world.

195:

I think it's perfectly possible to write good near-future SF now. The details of the near-future setting will be demonstrably wrong or at least unlikely within a year or two (or perhaps within weeks, depending on what type of action is taking place in the story), but that is absolutely okay, and is not that different from what has always been the case with SF. SF has never been accurately predictive, either in the short or long term, except occasionally and accidentally, and that has never really been its purpose either. To the extent that SF even has a didactic purpose rather than a purely literary one, it's always been to provide possibilities, scenarios, thought experiments, very, very few of which can ever turn out to be accurate predictions. In fact, isn't the very purpose of many 'if this goes on' scenarios specifically to stimulate thought that may contribute to averting the scenario presented?

Which is not to say that it won't be annoying when your rigorously researched near-future scenarios go from plausible projections to alternate history in the time between writing and publication, mind you.

196:

Charlie, you could write a story set in a part of the world sufficiently divorced from your readers' experience that even if it is invalidated politically or economically, they won't notice. Example: Africa is currently being 'colonized' economically by China. Whatever happens in the US, that doesn't look like that is going to slow down. Postulate a new biotech-based 'Green Revolution' there, and you've got plenty of room to play.

A related factoid: Nigeria currently produces more movies each year (~1200) than Hollywood (~600) or Bollywood (~900). They are fairly uniformly awful, but history shows that is a temporary condition. You might find that useful for '419' as well. There is a bit in the middle of 'Good Copy Bad Copy' (~ 00:25:00 to 00:33:00) about that

Closely related: Consider a near-term future where, say, India and China are playing 'The Great Game' against each other both in meatspace and MMORPGs. For most purposes the Fate of the West could be effectively ignored. Optional: At least one of the game-worlds is itself set in a steampunk version of the British Empire.

Atrocity Archives can be read as either secret history or alternate history. You can probably come up with something similar, in any of a variety of historical settings including the near future, based on technology rather than magic that would sell (and age) well. No shortage of technological conspiracies both real and imagined to go around.

So far as monetization is concerned... Have you thought of launching your own Online RPG? There are many small ones that are nicely profitable, and I don't doubt you could attract an artistic and technical crew (not to mention funding) to execute on a compelling creative vision.

197:

++185! ++Gene Wolfe! ++"Seven American Nights" !

198:

Has believable SF then become impossible? Near-future or not?

Near-future politics has become hard to project, as you say. Though since most descriptions of national politics in SF are so absurd, perhaps it's not a loss.

Near to mid future projections of believable technology are at least possible. A pipeline of applied research, exploratory development, development, commercial release, broadening availability, and large impact. Several decades deep.

Digital was showing around nice working prototypes of internet appliance tablet computers in the late 1980's, with accompanying projections that they would become economically plausible in about two decades. The tech future at least isn't some magical black box. One just has to do one's homework. There's lots of nice literature.

But SF isn't even managing to keep up with the present, let alone project. How many stories even have the social dynamics of people who can text message or twitter? One gets the feeling SF authors are all land lines, cell phones, and "I use computers, I've a word processor". Vinge at least sort of tries. Most SF doesn't even bother. I'll call you from my space ship to remind you about the 3pm meeting to discuss our plans. 1970's business, in spaaaaace.

And SF has never managed to do believable deep future, which would require describing thought in a different culture.

So, on the principle that authors should stick to writing about things with which they have experience, perhaps most SF writers should stay away from tech, politics, other cultures, and, well, the future in general.

199:

I think the safest way for a traditionally published author to deal with the near future in fiction is to be limited in scope when writing.

If you're dealing with something relatively small, say the exploration of a man going off to college in 2021, you can leave many of the details in the backgound. Focus on how technology intersects his life without the need to explain geopolitical trends. Make him a history major or something, who thinks more about 19th century China than 21st century China...

200:

@188: something like the "stealth bomber crash in shantytown" scenario happened in Iraq a few years ago, when a US Army Bradley AFV broke down in a marketplace. According to the Army press reports afterwards it was filled with sensitive electronics and documents and in danger of being looted by the locals after the crew was evacuated.

So they sent in a couple of Apache helicopters and blew it up with Hellfire missiles, killing and maiming a bunch of locals in the process.

201:

Michael @196: Charlie, you could write a story set in a part of the world sufficiently divorced from your readers' experience that even if it is invalidated politically or economically, they won't notice.

That would be an epic FAIL -- I want to get my readers by the short and curlies: I want them to be able to visualize themselves living through those circulstances. Why else would I want to write near-future SF?

Have you thought of launching your own Online RPG? There are many small ones that are nicely profitable, and I don't doubt you could attract an artistic and technical crew (not to mention funding) to execute on a compelling creative vision.

Not Interested. (I have pretty much complete creative control over a novel, but MMOs are almost by definition group efforts.)

202:

Is'nt all fiction, whether historical, futuristic or fantasia, really about the present. I found Halting State amusing not as futurology but as a view of the present. Another poster here mentioned Orwell, 1984 was not about the future (now past) but about the present circa 1948. At the moment even writing online cannot keep up with events, but then that itself should perhaps be the leitmotiv.

203:

Charlie @183: that makes sense. Thank you.

Holy Fire would be medium-term SF, I take it? With the caveat that I have not yet read Halting State, it and Russian Spring are the only two novel-length not-far-future pieces from my past as an S.F. reader that stick with me.

One, of course, turned out to be a complete miss. The other, well, is quite brilliant.

For whatever it's worth, Charlie, your thread seems to have shifted. It's asking the wrong question. You seem to be implicitly trying to get the future right.

You just want to get the future interesting. That's hard because writing is hard; not because taking and running with an interesting question about the future is hard.

The science fiction novel that I might want to read? My father told me that he read Primary Colors imagining that it was still 1968. I don't know what behooved him to do that, but when I did the same thing, it was astounding. Even if nothing had happened the way the book laid out, it was astounding.

I'll stop there, because I have no idea where I'm going.

204:

Noel, my take on near-future SF is that it's SF about times we can reasonably expect to live to see (and will probably remember the SF set then, too). The defining point being, you can get there from here.

There's SF set not so very far in the future that doesn't qualify as near-future SF by this definition. 1984 doesn't qualify (by that yardstick) even though it was written in 1948, and many folks alive in 1948 lived through 1984 -- because Orwell explicitly distanced it from an attempt at depicting the real then-future 1984; it was a moral parable and a cautionary tale, not an attempt at a plausible depiction. (I'd put any post-catastrophe future in this same basket.)

Sterling's Holy Fire is about as far future as one can get and still call it near-future SF by my yardstick. (And yes, it's brilliant: I don't think his latest, The Caryatides, quite lives up to it, although it's the best thing he's done in some time.)

Thinking about it, my problem is this:

Suppose I want to write a novel set in 2020. I write it in 2009, and make reasonable inferences about the likely shape of 2020.

But my readers don't get a chance to read the book until 2010 or 2011.

The future they see in the book is a frozen snapshot of the future that was plausible a couple of years ago. And it may still be plausible if I got the broad trend of events right, at least for the first couple of years out. But if there's a black swan event, like the USSR imploding before Russian Spring came out, 90% of the readers aren't going to read the book imagining that it's still 2009; they're going to throw it at the wall and say "that Charlie Stross, he got it laughably wrong".

And that's the spectre haunting near-future SF in a nutshell: the windage between the time of writing and the date of publication is enough to throw you off target these days.

205:

Charlie @201: Does "getting your readers by the short and curlies" require that you use a setting that is close to their experience in both time and place?

I mean, for suspension-of-disbelief purposes, is there a big difference between setting a character in an African shantytown trying to get a job with a Chinese subsidiary, and in an American tent city with the same goal?

I understand your desire to insure against Black Swans, but how else to you propose to 'pay' for that insurance other than moving the story to a setting where the Black Swans the readers have experienced won't have much of an effect, and where they won't be familiar with the Black Swans that would affect the setting (ie. given that Apartheid has already ended, by setting in Africa you can be sure most of your readers won't notice incongruities introduced by local regime changes of a scale less than a full-blown jihad or crusade marching across the entire continent)?

Perhaps you could define the geographical boundaries you *are* willing to stretch to.

206:

Robert @200, vehicles like that should have a self-destruct mode.

207:

That's the elephant in the living room for those of us who write for a living these days. Information wants to be free but authors want to be paid.

"At that point, Bob noticed Mo's eyes had turned black...

[Next installment will be released when account hits $15,000. Click {PAYPAL HERE} to contribute]"

208:

guthrie#179 re 158 (p.s. still not dead yet)
No I was suggesting that all times are interesting in big ways. Only ordinary people are usually too busy having babies, scratching a living to notice much. It takes an awfully big elephant,( huricane, battle-front, fashion des vêtements invisibles,) in the room for anyone to notice. And the PTB are usually having their own fun making sure we don't notice.
I think that this particular car crash situation involves ideas that impinge on things, rather than things that are changed by new ideas - sorry how did the 3 day week crop up again? So it snuck up on the status quo.

Is the world getting smaller and therefore gossip travels further?
the news of the defeat of napoleon apparently travel faster across England via BSL than spoken english.
Since Vietnam apparently we can find out more about 'the war' on the news-headlines than the suit's know.
apparently - it maybe a small sound bite world , but there isn't much depth of analysis going on ( or why has the bank of ireland become so popular with small investors all of a sudden?)( what % of Uk investors have more that £45k stuff down the back of their sofas. Discuss.

I seemed to off topic-ed myself.
If nothing happens hat's the point of having Historians if there are no narritives to concoct, no interesting times to paw over- At one point everyone seemed to agree with the idea that there are no more stories to tell, and we couldn't live in interesting times
I bet Mr 'End of History's ears are burning , that's if anyone still cares who he is.

209:

Of course, I've just remembered one of the First SF novel I read, which was both near-future, and ran on towards the heat-death of the Universe.
I've still got my Father's original 1937 "Pelican" edition ....

210:

Actually Europe is about to have a pretty major financial crisis when its real estate bubble pops especially the UK. However, they do not have two government sponsored and backed entities (Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae) that hold 42% of all mortgages in the U.S. and are corrupt to the core. Had some of the biggest account scandals in history (4B+ USD, and 10B+ USD), and were then allowed two years latter to keep buying risker loans still buying up more debt and making even risky investments owning even a larger % of the residential debt market. They almost single handily created the market on wall street for sub-prime loans. Thus it will be more like 2007 U.S. with a bit more banks going bust than the U.S was in 2007. Then again I do not follow financial regulations in Europe so some nations could have there own government entities with way to many bad loans (although I don't think it could be as bad as China banking system is right now. Now that is a house of cards ready to fall also.)

Also is it just me or is anyone else not shocked that knows history that debt brought on this huge economic downfall? How many nations (and firms) in history have fallen because of debt? Actually I am glad it is happening now when everything else in the economy was doing decent in the U.S.. If this house of cards had been another decade or two in coming America would have a lot more debt and the problems would be a lot worse. Then again I am assuming we Americans will learn our lesson and not take on so much debt in the future.

211:

Actually Europe is about to have a pretty major financial crisis when its real estate bubble pops especially the UK. However, they do not have two government sponsored and backed entities (Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae) that hold 42% of all mortgages in the U.S. and are corrupt to the core. Had some of the biggest account scandals in history (4B+ USD, and 10B+ USD), and were then allowed two years latter to keep buying riskier loans still buying up more debt and making even risky investments owning even a larger % of the residential debt market. They almost single handily created the market on wall street for sub-prime loans. Thus it will be more like 2007 U.S. with a bit more banks going bust than the U.S was in 2007. Then again I do not follow financial regulations in Europe so some nations could have there own government entities with way to many bad loans (although I don't think it could be as bad as China banking system is right now. Now that is a house of cards ready to fall also.)

Also is it just me or is anyone else not shocked that knows history that debt brought on this huge economic downfall? How many nations (and firms) in history have fallen because of debt? Actually I am glad it is happening now when everything else in the economy was doing decent in the U.S.. If this house of cards had been another decade or two in coming America would have a lot more debt and the problems would be a lot worse. Then again I am assuming we Americans will learn our lesson and not take on so much debt in the future.

212:

This posting has been regurgitated by The Australian newpaper's very annoying "Defrag" column in the IT pages today (with correct attribution). I would not consider this a desirable citation sadly, because the quality of that column is traditionally very low, full of puns and low grade industry jokes and observations.

see:
http://www.australianit.news.com.au/story/0,24897,24494643-15419,00.html

|

213:

Charlie@11, "What constitutional structure does it have -- does it remain a Monarchy (remember, Lizzie Windsor is not only Queen of England, she's Queen of Scotland) or would Scotland become a republic?"

False dichotomy! Stuart restoration all the way!

(In all seriousness, the Liechtenstein royals have a decent claim to be the Stuart heirs, and they're actually pretty good at running their country.)

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on September 28, 2008 12:48 PM.

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