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Big Ideas, Little Ideas

World-building - where do we begin? For me it's a top-down, bottom-up, sideways-in, you-name-it accretion of (primarily visual) insights. The very word insight suggests visualization. (We're mixing physics and metacognition here.)

I like weird, abstract ideas on the edge of our understanding. Previously I mentioned the arrow of time and the transactional interpretation of quantum physics. When dreaming up that particular book, these concepts suggested to me the existence of oracles (experiencing time-flow backwards in parts of their brain, interfacing with their own future perceptions), whom I chose to treat as tools of the aristocracy. That suggests lots of potential detailed scenes, but let's stay with the big picture for now.

My perception of the arrow-of-time problem is that most people aren't aware it exists. So many people switch on a light without wondering where the power comes from (Faraday's observations being at the heart of it), or use a phone/computer/whatever without understanding its nature, that they are living in a world of Clarke's-Law magic. I'm driven by a desire to shake people's shoulders and say: "Wake up! Smell the roses! Understand the evolutionary process that produced petals and pleasing scent! Imagine the nuclear heart of the Sun that drives life and all Earth's far-from-equilibrium thermodynamic complexity!"

I restrain myself, and address the desire differently, by creating worlds. Call it controlled schizophrenia.

In the case of my fictional oracles, I was not satisfied with using backwards-in-time waves (from the transactional quantum thing) as a method of carrying information. But the power of symmetry has drawn me, ever since my A-level maths teacher, Mr G.A. Dickinson, showed us two ways of solving a tension-in-bridge-struts problem: the "normal" way that examiners would expect, and a one-line short-cut justified with two words: "by symmetry."

Huw Price wrote about the Sakharov-Gold conjecture, which ties the direction of the future with a larger cosmos, and the direction of the past with a smaller cosmos. Imagine you're outside a universe (!) that you can see collapsing. Its inhabitants think they're living their lives forward, because their arrow of time always points to the larger-volume universe; but you see them living in rewind mode.

So is our universe expanding or collapsing right now?

And by symmetry, if you can't tell the difference, perhaps every big crunch generates a big bang: a bouncing-universe cyclical model. (This is a viable model that can be reached in other ways - cosmic expansion is not guaranteed to continue, although it is the most favoured view.)

Let's stay playing at this level. Dark matter is a well-known concept: there's stuff out there and we don't know what it is. More precisely, we don't know what it's getting up to.

What else? I like Charlie's FTL idea (among his many others). If relativity continues to hold but FTL exists, a tremendously powerful being would want to prevent FTL travel on the basis that editing history becomes possible. Space-time is weird.

If FTL drives are possible, but limited in where or how fast you can travel, then the light-cone of causality spreading out from an event just sprouted filaments or tendrils, representing the place-times you can travel to and possibly edit history. (Sort of a light-Cthulhu, really.)

People talk about Einstein dreaming he was riding a photon. Let's do that in our imagination now, while knowing about relativity. We're in a photon generated in a gamma-ray burster event the far side of a cosmic void. We travel hundreds of millions of light-years without subjective time passing - we are in a timeless splinter of space - and "then" we encounter Earth's atmosphere at which point time begins to flow - very, very, very slowly - before impacting a retina and we're done.

I mean, how weird is that?

And now I play symmetry games with words. If you can have timeless splinters of space, what about space-less splinters of time?

OK, let's zoom in a bit. We're building a world, what about its ecology? I want to skate on the edges of understanding for a while longer, so I'm thinking of complexity, emergent phenomena and the beginning of life, perhaps with replicating molecules on clay substrates. Ah, replicating molecules, which mix logic and data (combining the process of building copies, perhaps among other processes, with the blueprint for making those copies).

DNA? What DNA? This isn't Earth...

We know that Earth life-forms could have turned out entirely RNA-based. What other possible replicating molecules exist? And why does it have to be one molecule? Symbiosis occurs throughout organisms; emergent phenomena in chemical reactions often occur because of feedback loops, such as autocatalytic reactions. Why not a trio of interacting molecules, for example?

Our native life-forms will surely exhibit predation and symbiosis, life and death, because those are emergent phenomena. Given that amino acids are flying around the cosmos, that's the probable common starting point for long, self-replicating molecules. But there may be other building blocks, and even with amino acids, other compounds that self-replicate.

And we haven't even touched non-biochemical analogues. Inside a star, plasma and magnetic flux are bound together, forming complex patterns. Remember, we're all built of different atoms than we were just a few years back. We are patterns, like tornadoes moving through the atmosphere.

(Stretch out a length of rope on the ground and flick one end up and down. The resulting wave moves along the rope, but the rope does not shift horizontally. The wave shape is built of different molecules from moment to moment.)

Staying with natural phenomena, how about bi-coloured patterned fog? A tiger's stripes are a form of Turing pattern, emerging from interesting but inherently simple interactions between two compounds. More emergent complexity.

And the unnatural, or rather the engineered... Sometimes I interrogate a mental scene. A party takes place in a high-tech society some centuries from now. People are drinking out of... what? Glasses? Cups? Something organic? Something that floats when you let go of it?

How about architecture? Specifically, how about morphing architecture? My linguistic short-cut says everything: how about buildings made of a substance I call quickglass?

It changes the shape of human experience when a room reconfigures at command, when tables and chairs rise from the floor or melt back into it, when that cup was an extruded goblet broken from the table, filled via capillaries in the quickglass. When packing your belongings largely consists of storing data in the "tu-ring" you wear on your finger.

When a city's towers can walk...

In the subterranean, stratified world of oracles-as-tools-of-aristocrats, palaces in the upper levels form doors at will, as the smart-membrane walls liquefy to allow passage. In the lower levels, the downtrodden poor live in simple chambers carved out of rock, privacy granted by hangings of rough fabric. There's a resonance between the two environments, but it arose naturally, not from clever planning.

I've a thing about doors. We all know about Heinlein's doors, so I'm in a competition with myself to discover how many ways doors can operate without irising. Or hinges. So far I'm most proud of "dissolved in a blizzard of Koch snowflakes" but the game's not over yet.

Of course, an interesting world is really built of people, but that's another topic...

Open question time...

1) What scientific weirdness makes you go: Huh? How can that be?
2) I sort of assumed that most people here know what the Arrow-of-time problem is. Should I have done so? Should I do so in a book?
3) Do you prefer books where weird concepts are explained, or just out of reach?
4) Any scientifically impossible pet hates in SF?


P.S. Yes, I believe SF is the bridge between the Two Cultures identified by C.P. Snow.

P.P.S. Not to mention that SF reveals how "magical" the universe really is - in the sense of vistas evoking awe, a form of mystical transport based on our best understanding of its nature, the kind Richard Dawkins experiences.

P.P.P.S. To postmodernists et al: Korzybski's oft-quoted "the map is not the territory" presupposes there is a territory. (And he went on to say that "a map's usefulness lies in its structural similarity to reality.") Maps are not arbitrary; they should be rational. We understand the universe through mental models - maps - but some maps are plain wrong, while others are the best we can make so far.

P.P.P.P.S. Does anybody still read van Vogt? (I'm not saying anyone should. Or shouldn't. Just wondering.)

P.P.P.P.P.S. "Insight" in German is practically the same: Einsicht. French is rather more tactile: pénétration. But shedding insight into something - clarifying it - is éclaircir.

124 Comments

1:

"Heinlein's doors" meaning "The door into summer"? I remember being about to borrow that one from the library one summer many years ago but I obviously never got around to it judging from the wikipedia synopsis.

A building that is too flexible might trigger claustrophobia, after all who knows if that room you're in is going to turn into a closet overnight.

2:

SF is one bridge between the two worlds of C P Snow. The other mathematical philosophy... and its fun!

3:

"Heinlein's doors" meaning the advice from Heinlein that you could inclue people that this was a future world by means of phrases like "the door dilated" (he does this himself more than once).

Of course the absolute master of incluing via new and subtly strange terminology has to be Cordwainer Smith.

4:

I just finished "Matter" by Iain Banks, and am feeling somewhat ripped off given that I actually bought the book. A medieval romp for 80% of the book, and a sudden conclusion which is essentially "everything blows up and they are all killed". Meanwhile, none of the big mysteries are cleared up. Why were the shellworlds built? Why did the Iln want to destroy them? Why is a "God" sittting at the heart of each one? Why is the Nariscene fleet converging on Shellworld? (but never shows up).
It looks like he got to the end and either got bored, could not work out what was to happen or his publisher said "finish by tomorrow or we want our advance back".
How not to do it.

5:

I read Van Vogt. Not often, mind, but I have some on my bookshelf and read them occasionally. He's dated badly but his better books are still worth trying: The Weapon Shops, for example, or Voyage of the Space Beagle. His work has an interesting stark Nietzschean flavour to it that's quite remarkable.

OTOH, I've found myself more and more unwilling to read Heinlean. His characters seem subtly damaged in a distinctly creepy way (the ones that aren't author-insertion fantasies!), the plots appear to be rather thin veils for strawman arguments about his political beliefs, and those beliefs themselves childish and selfish... although I suspect that his later books (which are dreck) have spoilt the earlier ones for me. I still think that Have Spacesuit, Will Travel is genius, not least for the first chapter, which breaks every writing rule known and is still brilliant.

BTW, Heinlein's doors refers to the phrase: 'The door dilated.' Which is apparently an example of good world-building, but it always seemed clunky to me.

6:

"The door dilated"

7:

Nestor @1 :

I was thinking of Heinlein's tendency to have doors "iris open" in space ships and elsewhere. When it appears in other folk's books, I normally assume it's intended as homage.

It formed a notable example of Campbell's dictum, about delivering the story from the viewpoint of someone totally au fait with the future culture in question, so that futuristic details only occasionally slip into conscious focus.

The title of "Door Into Summer" refers to the cat who, when the weather is bad outside, insists on every door being opened, one after the other, just in case one of them does in fact open onto summer.

I have fond memories of that, and all the other Heinlein "juveniles" I read when young. These days, I have no idea what to think about the man in Door Into Summer who, awakening in the future, romances the woman who (when she was a little girl) used to have a crush on him.

I sometimes wish I'd never read his last few books, although there's only one scene that really bothers me... But my universe is incomparably richer for his work.

Prompted by a mention from Charlie here in the blog, I'm currently reading the Heinlein biography by William H. Patterson, and finding it fascinating.

8:

The Van Vogt piece I like best is 'A Report on the Violent Male', basis for Colin Wilson's 'A Criminal History of Mankind'. VV, researching concentration camp guards, identified a kind of alpha-alpha male, prone to excessive violence.

Signature of the type is the inability to countenance being told they were wrong - about anything. Hence their alternative name, The Right Men. (An example Wilson gives is Peter Sellers.)

Wilson's book look at history from perspective of these Right Men being the drivers of civilisation - and of crime. Damn good read, even if you don't completely buy the premise.

9:

If you want a portrait of utter evil google Christian Wirth

10:

Entanglement! Does it get any weirder?

What if the photon Einstein's riding was entangled with one at his origin point (maybe the big bang). You get to Earth and someone's instrument detects you and your photon. Does a new Big Bang result?

12:

>Do you prefer books where weird concepts are explained, or just out of reach?
I definitely dislike infodumps! Reference a Koch snowflake and I'll either know what you mean (in that case, I do) or I'll look it up, or just enjoy the poetry of the phrase itself.

I really enjoyed Embassytown, which conveyed a real sense of something alien, yet real - yet there's a lot of grounding in linguistic theory behind it (which makes a change from Quantum physics). But it avoided infodumping.

And I like Ballard, because a lot of his strangeness is just never explained at all - there's no scientific grounding at all, but his world's have an internal consistency.

I also really liked The Quantum Thief for just throwing you into it's world - some people seemed to dislike it, but I think you have to be pretty slow not to pick up that Qupting is some kind of futuristic texting.

And if you've read enough SF or pop-science, you can guess that it involves some kind of quantum entanglement.

There's a danger that the more you explain how it works, rather than giving it verisimilitude, it can detract from it. I prefer the original Star Trek transporters that 'just worked' to talk about pattern buffers, doppler compensators, etc -
pseudo-scientific decoration.

Dirk - 'Matter' also seemed to have a few elements borrowed from Alistair Reynolds - the end sequence is incredibly similar to 'Revelation Space'. Which is fair enough, because 'Chasm City' owed a debt to 'Use of Weapons'. I didn't enjoy the last Culture book either. I just can't care about the characters.

13:

Cat - seems similar to Jon Ronson's most recent book on psychopaths (who exhibit many of those traits, and of course dominate a lot of our economy and politics). There's some interesting stuff on detecting psychopaths by measuring how people respond to the threat of electrocution . . . which doesn't seem a very humane way to detect them. (In fact, it's a bit like ducking witches - the non-psychopath will be more distressed by the test).

Lastly, before going to bed, I should mentuon the blog 20 Jazz Funk Greats, which I can only suggest reading (for it's mix of Cthulu, SF and drone-based music). Like Julian Cope's writing, it's often better not to listen to the music being described, as it rarely lives up to what the prose suggests. I did particularly like the Sex In The City /Blade Runner fan fiction.

14:

I've read most of Reynolds books, as I have with Banks.
However, "Matter" seemed so rushed and ill thought out at the end it has really put me off reading any more of his stuff. I would seriously like to know the story behind that screwup.

15:

Personally, I'd love to see more SF writers visualize a livable future, warts, infrastructure and all (meaning no nano problem solvers or Star Trek replicators to sweep the problems under the rug).

After all, people read this stuff, and if the best they can see for their kids is cyberpunk dystopia, what's the point in trying for better?

Heck, I'm getting to the point where I wish more SF writers could actually get a garden right. One with real plants, a soul, that sort of thing.

Probably just a symptom of pervasive nature deficit disorder among SF writers.

16:

Matter was not Banks best, but it somehow fit better into the Culture series after reading Surface Detail. You have to realize that each Culture book is somehow arguing why the Culture is a superior civilization, and by extant, why liberal enlightened civilization is superior.

However, I can't actually remember what the argument was in Matter at the moment. It was still rather weak.

17:

1) What scientific weirdness makes you go: Huh? How can that be?
A)Well, for me it's the metamaterials. When I read about how you can use them to look through solid objects, focus well below the wavelength of light you're looking at, and create an inverse index of refraction, it just tweaks that part of my brain that insists things should be logical.

2) I sort of assumed that most people here know what the Arrow-of-time problem is. Should I have done so? Should I do so in a book?
A)I think anyone reading Sci-Fi either knows what it is, or would look it up. If you're being subtle about it, it could even be a plot device. Say in a mystery or horror.

3) Do you prefer books where weird concepts are explained, or just out of reach?
A) I don't really have a preference here, barring the exception in the answer to 4.

4) Any scientifically impossible pet hates in SF?
A) I really really hate when an author doesn't understand the subject at hand well enough to even attempt an explanation, so they just throw technical jargon at the wall. If it doesn't make sense to you, are you arrogant enough to think you can explain it properly? or are you arrogant enough to think no one else understands it any better than you?
The same applies to reporters, teachers and anyone else who's job it is to explain things.

18:

Back in the Day I read all of Reynolds, Van Vogt and Heinlein. They ruined me. I keep thinking people will do the right and smart things. I think they all did real things before writing. Today it's like they read things in writing class. Then there was the English. They all did great glum. All of them.
Reynolds had a good idea of how people acted and how they should. But it slowed his stories down to much for some, but not for me.
For what its worth, back in the day of getting paid a little by the word. Van Vogt had a air defense system in one of his books. It was fleets of rotor rockets that citizens used from their towns to attack incoming a-bombs. There has been posting about those new rotor rockets here.

19:

I don't know if this is 'A Report on the Violent Male', but I passed on 'The Violent Man' back then. I just found one and read it. Dated, very dated. If it has Ruxton in it, its likely the same.

20:

For what it's worth, Surface Detail is a really good return to form. I hated Matter for the whole D&D aspect of it. A really crappy book, in my opinion. It's the only Banks novel where I reached the end and didn't think "Wow, I wish I could write a book like that".

21:

Speaking to the metamaterials, they're a lot less weird when you realise that most normal optics are linear approximations of solving the full Maxwell equations a.k.a. far field optics, and metamaterials are near field optics. They're no less amazing at what they can do, but they're still Maxwell's equations at their heart and no new physics.

22:

"Personally, I'd love to see more SF writers visualize a livable future, warts, infrastructure and all"

I am by no means any sort of fiction writer, but that would seem far more difficult to produce, as the author would have to give up an easy source of drama, and layer something compelling over the top of something that would bore most people. I guess the easiest example is that you never see the headline, "Everything Working as Advertised!"

Though, come to think of it, that would be newsworthy.

In a world where authors who wish to make a living at it seem to have to produce something saleable on a fairly regular schedule, it doesn't seem likely to happen. Not that I wouldn't love to read something by the writer who could pull it off.

"Probably just a symptom of pervasive nature deficit disorder among SF writers."

I won't even quibble about it being a matter of context and scale; astronomy and biochemistry are 'nature'. But I seem to recall that our host has written somewhere that he doesn't describe forests, or something, because he has little experience of them.

But perhaps that's the market speaking, and there's a pervasive nature deficit disorder among SF *readers*. It's a small market to begin with, right? Maybe we are just too small a sliver of a sliver of a largely non-book-buying public. Horrible thought; as the implication is that Ewoks on the Forest Moon is the best we deserve. OTOH, Avatar. Even though I'm not sure the tube-worm thingies would work.

The fact that I have to refer to film is a sad commentary, even if it's out of ignorance of wonderful things in print; an at least somewhat more than casual reader of SF can't easily locate that work.


23:

"Why not a trio of interacting molecules, for example?"

Because the more complex a system is, the more chances it has to go bad. In fact, I bet such systems did emerge in the dawn of life, but didn't survive long enough to evolve into something interesting.

But, you'll ask, why DNA and not RNA then? The former is more complex.

Yes, but it also offers redundancy. Change one atom in the RNA molecule of a virus, it's no longer the same virus. It may even stop working entirely, and it has no backup.

Nature is an engineer, it seems...

24:

A big problem with world building is vocabulary.
Consider the words we use now, compared to 100 years ago. Phone, cell, radio, wifi, PC, Net, google, Web, jet, assault rifle, nuke, icbm, laser, CD, DVD, MP3, Tablet, tank, bazooka, TV, video, fast food, stereo, surround sound, plastic, streaming, car, speeding, CCTV, terrorist, satellite, dish, pylon, email, electronics, antibiotic, supermarket...

Just regular mainstream fiction sent back 100 years would make them struggle to understand. 200 years and it would be almost unreadable

25:

Felix @23 et al

Why DNA rather than RNA? Simple. RNA isn't stable long-term. Both of them are polymeric ribose-phosphate esters, but DNA lacks the hydroxyl group on the ribose C2' carbon.

That's good, because that hydroxyl is perfectly placed to react intra-molecularly and cleave the bond to the phosphate group. The reaction rate is fairly slow, so RNA is stable enough to use as a messenger in protein biosynthesis but not good for storing genetic information for years on end.

In fact, it's only viruses that can use RNA as their primary genetic storage precisely because viruses are a lot more tolerant of mutation than living cells.

26:

Back in the Day I read all of Reynolds, Van Vogt and Heinlein.

Ah, one of those is not like the others.

And it is indeed Alastair Reynolds, who is (a) British, (b) still in mid-career, and (c) relevant when talking about Iain Banks.

Perhaps you meant Mack Reynolds (which would be a different conversation)?

27:

Likewise, particularly when the infodump consists of Character1 telling Character2 something that they both already know.

28:

A: "I'm going to call him now, using my mobile phone"

B: "That would be the small radio phone that you carry in your pocket and is linked into a global switching network?"

A: "Yes, that's the one, with options for games as well and the ability to send short text messages"

B: "Doesn't it also have some kind of recording facility so that missed calls are recorded and can play back later"

A: "Amazing isn't it?"

29:

...and so on for about 15 pages! :-(

30:

I have a colleague who is like that. It's no less annoying than it is in print.

31:

How else would you do it, assuming you wanted to translate this for an audience in 1911:

"Just popping down the supermarket in the car to pick up the new smartphone I saw advertized on the Net - it's got a built in TV and radio and comes with unlimited download"

32:

If I knew the answer to that I would be an award winning SF author.

33:

In fiction, I'd go one step at a time and mix up showing and telling.

I get into my car - a new model with the aerodynamic shell. The navigation system lights up as the engine purrs into life, displaying the map for me. "Proceed for 200 yards, then turn left." I hate the map-voice.

The traffic isn't too dense, so I only have to let a dozen cars go by before pulling smoothly out into traffic. The journey to the supermarket only takes 10 minutes, but finding a place to park and walking from it to the entrance takes nearly as long.

The details of the phone can wait until I need to use it, so we don't get bogged down in pages of techno-babble. Lets get some character and plot in there to break it up! Of course writing this for 1811 is more of a challenge; 1911 people know what a car and a telephone is, I've just got sexy sci-fi versions.

34:

Also, back on the main post: I was going to say I read Van Vogt, but I now realise that all the books actually belong to my Dad, and I haven't read them for at least 7 and possibly 10 years.

Do you prefer books where weird concepts are explained, or just out of reach?

Actually a mixture is good. I have a stronger understanding of Physics than Biology so I appreciate bio-science being explained in more detail. When people spend three pages telling each other things they and I already know, it tends to aggravate me. On the other hand, if the conversation can be used to also advance our understanding of character, then it's not so bad.

35:

A talking map? Do you take us for gullible fools sir?
This is supposed to be SCIENCE fiction, not ludicrous fantasy!

36:

"On the other hand, if the conversation can be used to also advance our understanding of character, then it's not so bad."

Unless they are a pedantic windbag

37:

It's no more fanciful than the pseudo-physics behind FTL communications and travel, which most authors ignore until/unless they're of relevance to the plot. For instance, David Weber has never described how his FTL drive works beyond naming the components, and discussing different "depths" of "sub-space", and still hasn't really described how the Manticoran FTL comms system works. You just accept that it does.

Similarly, I don't see why you wouldn't accept that the car somehow "knows" where it is, and the road layout from there to $destination, then add speech synthesis, which is just about workable by 1911 with the existance of phonographic recordings...

38:

Pet Hates?

Books that forget they're telling a story. Which is part of why I hesitate at the preachier bits of Heinlein.

I've seen some reviews which go overboard on that too. It's not wrong to disagree with the author's assumptions, but do they matter to the story. "The door dilated" doesn't have to be explained. We don't need to know how the door works. But I've seen reviewers frothing at the mouth over that sort of detail, to the extent that the reviewer loses track of other points.

39:

"The door dilated" - I never wanted it explained as to "how it works", or why they used this system rather than hinged or sliding doors, but I always took it as meaning person-sized iris diaphragms. If anyone actually does want an explanation, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iris_diaphragm .

40:

"Automobile" might work for an educated 1811 reader, just as "spaceship" worked long before Sputnik. Though "space" might be a difficult concept. One of the early words I've seen used is "aeronef".

"Telephone" might work too.

41:

About the only places I can think of having seen "aeronef" used are Jules Verne's "The Clipper of the Clouds" and possibly its sequal "Master of the World". Other than its size and rotor system, it's basically what we'd now call a helicopter. Agreed?

More recently, I've seen the same basic idea (but not the name) used as the British flying aircraft carriers in "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow".

42:

A scientific idea that confuses me is the notion of the fabric of space time. I know.... I know... What an idiot! But, if you'll indulge me a moment.

I once asked if nothing can go faster then the speed of light how does gravity escape a black hole. Did gravity achieve escape velocity while light was trapped? They answered that the fabric of space-time was warped around the black hole causing the effect that we know as gravity.

But, doesn't warped space just describe the path that an object will take when a force it applied to it not the actual force?

My example. Take a sheet of paper and form it into a cone with the open end up. Take a ball and send on a circular path at the opening of the cone and watch it speed up as it falls. Take the same paper and ball to a micro-gravity situation like the ISS and repeat the experiment. Doesn't it just stay at the top because gravity isn't applying a negligible force.

If I looked at drawings of curved space-time they alway showed a single plane. But, since orientation is not a concern and the object is a three dimensional mass couldn't I draw a perpendicular plane as well as a upside down plane that would disturb the described path of the original plane once their effects were examined? Or do they cancel out?

I'll admit to being fairly ignorant on the topic so any explanations would be greatly appreciated.

45:

For instance, David Weber has never described how his FTL drive works beyond naming the components, and discussing different "depths" of "sub-space", and still hasn't really described how the Manticoran FTL comms system works.

Then I suggest you've been skipping some of his 'info dumps' The unknown science part is the ability to create and manipulate gravity plus the dimensional translations between hyperspace geometries (second deened a consequence of the first). Depths of subspace is E.E.'Doc' Smith rather than Weber

Back to your scheduled programming

46:

It's been a while since I read Matter, but I liked it. Yes there're medieval stuff, but I don't think it is as high as 80%, besides that's not the first time medieval society appears in Culture series. There a lot of interesting description of other alien civilizations, comparing them to Culture is interesting.

As for mysteries, I don't see why we need a definite explanation (except the last one about Nariscene fleet, I don't remember there is such a scene), the author already gave some speculations.

This is related to the question "Do you prefer books where weird concepts are explained, or just out of reach?", if the author have an outstanding explanation that can make reader have a wow moment, then by all means, explain it. But if the author couldn't think of an interesting way to explain it, then it's better to leave it as a mystery.

47:

I think you've misunderstood me rather than me skipping infodumps.

What I meant was that we know that a Weber FTL ship has to have $McGuffin_list to manipulate subspace, but there is no discussion of the pseudo-physics by which they work, other than of the results of them suddenly stopping working.

Similarly, even given the ability to manipulate gravity, the handwavium that allows the Manties to manipulate gravity to heterodyne a significant signal bandwidth onto it is glossed over; it's just "something they've discovered and no-one else has yet".

48:

Deeply unsatisfying.
IMHO I see SF as the literature of ideas, so plotlines and characterization etc are all fine, but if the neat ideas and explanations are missing it's a fail.

BTW, there's one neat idea in Alistair Reynolds books used for cooling ships down to below background, which he calls "arithmetic engines". Turns out that it has recently been discovered that some types of quantum computation might do just that - cool the computer rather than heat it. Not quite what Reynolds described because of other limitations, but impressive.

49:

BTW, there was an old TV series called "One Step Beyond" from the 1960s that took the approach of "weird shit happens, no explanation, the end". I found it rather disturbing as a kid. Creepy music as well. Check it out on YouTube.

50:

You hit the point, I think.

I wrote few blog entries on the subject of visualizing a sustainable future, and the best response I got was "hmmm, that's interesting."

So far, the best-known "livable future" we got is Star Trek, which does, incidentally, sell a *lot* of books. However, they use magic to solve the serious problems of keeping people alive, so I'm not sure how much that counts.

To me, this is the biggest, nastiest, ugliest hole in science fiction:

Right now, the future sucks. If you're a science fiction writer.

Oh yeah, and sales of SF are falling. Sob sob. Except that SF normally dominates the summer movie blockbusters, so clearly the demand is there. Throw in fantasy, and SFF regularly runs rough-shod over the best-seller lists.

The funny thing is that ordinary literature regularly deals with a livable world: ours. That's with the warts, the infrastructure, and all. It's eminently possible to write such a story, it's just that few SF writers are bothering, and few publishers are willing to take a chance on a book where the drama doesn't come from the universe hating the protagonist in a generalized, non-specific way. That's what's so sad about the zombie-infested, cyber/nano cesspit of futures science fiction currently portrays.

This isn't a critique of Charlie's books. I'm just pointing out the elephant in the room. Science fiction writers have surrendered in the battle for our future vision. It's too fucking bad, too.

51:

As for the discussion of the pseudo physics. I think we risk getting deep into a very small niche. Most readers wouldn't know, or massively care whether their magic comms boxes worked by the end result of ten million man years of progress in physics or a team of highly trained demons.

I agree about the bandwidth thing. In less than twenty t years they went from hand cranked morse equivalence to high def full colour video (Honour of the Queen to 'Ashes of Victory') in what was originally sounded like a pulse modulation scheme. Given the contortions modem makers went through to reach a practical 56Kbs I can swallow audio, but video?

52:

The future is extremely difficult to write about as SF these days because we can see forward far enough to know that science and technology are going to render it radically different, maybe literally beyond our imagination, even in a few short decades, let alone centuries. The Singularity is killing SF

53:

I'm trying to not discuss pseudo-physics; it's space opera, so it doesn't matter beyond being internally consistent in a universe.

Yeah, but modems were designed to work over c@rp copper telephone lines with about 2kHz amplitude. Pulse-Division Multiplexing telemetry at radio frequencies could do 2Mbaud simplex 30 yeara ago. I didn't have much of an issue with that one because there was a war on, and I know a bit about telemetry (not a huge amount, but I've been on courses for work [mostly because a Unix guy had to audit them to support the electronics folk when it came to the sysadmin]).

54:
1) What scientific weirdness makes you go: Huh? How can that be?

The double-slit experiment.

55:

One of the characters in my finished-not-yet-out next book actually delivers a lecture on the double slit experiment (in 1940s Oxford).

It's even got diagrams (her chalk sketches on the blackboard)! I am so skating the edges of what you can get away with while keeping the story flowing.

The hopefully-more-than-infodump is in the spirit of elucidating the problem more than providing a solution - you're bothered by the double slit experiment precisely because you understand how weird it is - while hopefully serving a literary purpose.

(Her take on it is that the dark fringes are most startling than the bright lines - the places where probability drops non-classically to zero - which resonates with the main mystery that lies behind the actual story.)

56:

The implications of an infinite multiverse

57:

Hi Dirk,

The singularity is killing SF only if you believe in it.

I come at this from a biological background, which means I look at constraints such as energy, food, etc. While I agree that we're going through a period of rapid technological advancement, these constraints are always going to apply.

Here are some examples:
--It's always going to take energy to provide clean water (or clean anything) and move it to where it's needed,
--we're going to have to either get fusion or fission to work, or we're going to have to depend on the 1360 watts/m2 that the sun gives the Earth, as expressed through wind and solar power.
--We're going to have to get carbon out of the air and into the ground (note for writers: Albert Bates' The Biochar Solution is a great book for reference in this regard, if you want a radical and techy solution).
--We've got to feed and clothe some significant fraction of humanity. Ideally we want to feed and clothe everyone, since that's cheaper than wars.
--We've got to get to sustainability, which means that, basically, we're going to have to start mining our own shit and trash in a truly comprehensive way.

None of these are affected by the singularity. All the singularity means is that technological progress will be slower after it than it was before it. (Note that, in my most recent novel, the singularity ended with the Earth becoming a black hole--I'm not a believer, just so you realize where I'm coming from).

HINT FOR SF WRITERS: Since I know a bit about the waste and recycling industry, my prediction is that, in a sustainable world, the waste-to-feedstock industry will have the same power that the oil industry does now. Given how cut-throat the current international recycling industry is, given that parts of the existing garbage industry are (or were) controlled by organized crime, and many of the current big garbage companies are fairly routine scofflaws...Get the point? There's plenty of potential drama in such a future. You've just got to get your hands dirty and make control of the sewers the new OPEC battleground. Make mining the landfills the new mining opportunity, with all the loss of history that implies. And make it enjoyable for your target audience. If you like this idea, run with it and have fun.

58:

I disagree.
Artificial Intelligence, effective nootropics, brain computer interfaces and (later) germline genetic engineering will utterly transform not only technology but what it means to be Human. The future is not going to be a rerun of the past with a raygun instead of an assault rifle, or a spaceship instead of a sailing ship.

59:

im liking the idea with the demons as the scientific mcguffin.. a Laundry space drive?

60:

How is what I described above in any way a rerun of the past?

The point you missed is that the technological singularity is irrelevant. Life and technology are always constrained by resource and energy flows. Those don't change. Only our response to them changes. Currently we're having huge problems, because we have carbon coming out of the ground linked to our energy consumption, and we're not particularly good at maintaining high-quality, sustainable feedstocks of anything, whether it's water, food, or whatever. We've got to get the carbon back into the ground (again, see the Biochar Solution if you want to see a radical idea), and we've got to work out processes for maintaining our feedstocks, whoever or whatever is using them.

From these assumptions, I conclude that the route to a sustainable society involves getting our shit together, literally, and recycling it efficiently. That's a huge industrial ecosystem and choke point, just as information, energy, and transportation are in our current society. As such, the brown ecosystem makes a great setting for people to write novels about, at any stage in our future history. Given the way the existing brown industries act, I think it's also a great place for drama and conflict.

At present, I don't know how to write that story, but I'm hoping that it might inspire someone else who does. Note that I do not want a cut in the proceeds, although an acknowledgement would be appreciated.

61:

"Life and technology are always constrained by resource and energy flows."

No, you are missing the point.
1kW of 100% efficient computation will get you better than 10,000x the processing capacity of the Human brain. So maybe we will only ever get 1% efficient...

62:

I get your point, I just think you're wrong.

Here's a better analogy for what more efficient computing means in a real world nanomachine. Back a few years ago, I published a computer model of how a plant grew in an international botanical journal. I'm not the first nor the last person to do that. The thing I learned, is that something as simple as a corn plant is far more efficient at allocating energy and resources than the model I created. I'm not the only person who thinks this, either. Other modelers have had the same experience.

Now corn, for a singulitarian, is a carbon-based, self-replicating nanomachine that runs on sunlight and requires 17-20 different elements to grow properly.

This is what efficient computing on a nano-level really means. This is what you're striving for, so far as I can tell. And yes, I can tell you that it's freaking difficult to properly model (and control) the growth of a corn plant. A highly inbred corn plant, one that has been bred for decades to be as predictable as possible.

Dude, your techno-dream is already here, and farmers have been depending on this technology for millenia. Every breath you take depends on it. All your hyper-efficient nano-whatever computing substrate can do, really, is make something that can accurately replicate a corn plant. Or I can go down to the store and get some seeds for a few dollars.

Now, of course you're going to point out something about deforestation, and you're right: any complex technology can be destroyed by idiots who are bent on replacing it with something they think is better. That's why I call them idiots. Luddites, if you prefer (yes, singulitarians are luddites, if they don't understand that they're contemplating replacing the billion year old nanotech ecosystem called the biosphere with something new and simple that's "better"). Those dreams typically fail, except for the ones that succeed long enough to achieve epic fails. For example: is the Fertile Crescent still fertile? That's an instructive failed dream right there. Understand the complexity of nature before you tell me that technology is better at doing the same thing.

63:

I'm not talking about computing a corn plant better than a corn plant. I'm talking about the situation where raw general purpose machine computing power is thousands or millions of times greater than the sum total of all biological neural structures on earth. That will likely occur sometime this century and represents a massive qualitative discontinuity in history.

64:

As a science fiction reader, I'm very jaded towards such grandiose claims about "singularities" and radically transformed futures. Go back and read SF from the 1930's (e.g. Stapledon, Huxley), and realize that the ideas you're talking about have been around for a long time, yet the human condition hasn't really changed and we don't seem any closer to changing it. Maybe this is why SF is not so popular these days; if the futures they imagine never arrive we might as well be reading fantasy.

65:

The point you missed is that the technological singularity is irrelevant. Life and technology are always constrained by resource and energy flows.

A truism, but what are the energy flows. On earth that is the tiny fraction of the sun's output intercepted by the planet. We could focus more of that light on parts of the planet and use that to extract a lot more energy for our needs w/o causing damage.

Plants as efficient light trapping nano machines. As a conversion device they are not exactly efficient. They also have a lot of constraints in how they use energy which are modified, but not eliminated, by farming and breeding effects.

66:

I'm on board with heteromeles about the Technological Singularity: uploaded human brains or human-like AI are not coming any time soon, if ever. If a future computer can run LINPACK a million times faster, using 1/10 the energy of today's computers, that is very useful but it's not a "weakly superhuman AI" or even the rough suggestion of one. Tomorrow's computers will be better, tomorrow's AI will be more useful and best humans at lots of practical tasks, but AI is still not going to be something that falls in love, agitates for the vote, or takes over the world. It's not going to fill the dramatic roles traditionally given to gods or rubber-forehead aliens.

I'm less sanguine than heteromeles about what he calls livable futures being nice futures. For example, if recent history is livable, it includes not just life in pleasant, peaceful places like Canada but the Second Congo War. That war killed about 5.4 million people and the combatants had shoestring military budgets compared to the OECD, so I'd hesitate to declare that providing food and clothing for everyone is cheaper than fighting wars. Bullets are less than a dollar each. Some people know how to fight wars that are cheap and deadly. That doesn't mean that I welcome war, but appealing to rational economic self-interest doesn't seem like a great way to protect vulnerable people against war or smaller-scale violence.

I agree that today's trash heaps are tomorrow's resource caches and rich points for conflict. I have a vague sketch in my mind of the story of a young Canadian joining a company founded on automated recycling and resource reclamation being sent to oversee the mining of a huge Texan landfill. The dramatic conflict is that although the company has purchased legal title to the location and all its trash, and its practices are environmentally sound, the squatters who made their living sorting through and burning the formerly unclaimed trash are fighting the encroachment on their livelihood. The company employs increasingly severe measures to protect their machines and the valuable trash against destruction and theft. For all I know someone has already written this story in full; it seems as obvious an idea as conflicts between foreign resource extraction companies and poor locals today.

Or, for something less grim, I'm sure someone could write a Mars Trilogy's worth of words about the centuries-long project to turn the Sahara into a livable, vegetated place that's intended originally to capture CO2 as biochar but develops into a distinct new society. Why colonize space when there's still all that open land in deserts? This could be the story of desert colonization. It's terraforming without leaving Earth.

67:

3) Do you prefer books where weird concepts are explained, or just out of reach?

Explanations should be used if the story hinges on the effect. I am thinking of the old Asimov mystery stories that often turned on understanding the science. If the science/tech is background scenery, then no.
But ultimately, the story must flow and hold my attention.

4) Any scientifically impossible pet hates in SF?

I think I more hate the recycling of tropes or ideas. In the US, the Syfy channel's fare is really just costume drama without an original idea for months (years?) on end. (Who writes these scripts?) Techno babble is a lazy technique that grates too.
What I want is new ideas, or older ideas rethought. I find it hard to believe that the well ideas is running dry. Pick up any issue of Nature and there will be one paper that could be at least a piece of the story background, even the core idea of a story.


68:

Maybe we are just too small a sliver of a sliver of a largely non-book-buying public.

Worse, the SF section of the US big box book stores are being filled with war stories, vampires & werewolves, and other non-SF material.

(My local Barnes & Noble doesn't even have a single Stross on the shelves, let alone "Rule 34").

Finding good SF (hard stuff mostly) requires other sources.

My observation is that this trend has paralleled the decline in the size of the science section, and the mixing of pseudo-science in the science section.

As people my me turn away from the stores, no doubt those sections will further deteriorate.


69:

I read the "The door dilated" was a hook to get you into the story. I'm sure it was Heinlein and he wrote that was how he used it. It was used a lot on TV.
Until they make computers that are faster than electricity we will not see the things that people want to happen. No matter how big they will be they will be to slow. In fact the bigger, the slower.
I will not see it but I hope for a Star Trek times. I am afraid it will be a David Drake one like "Lacey and His Friends"
CS may find "French Intellectuals And Politics From The Dreyfus Affair To The Occupation" by David Drake of interest. If he can find one. I can't that I can pay for.

70:

I haven't actually managed to get all the way through Matter yet, it's probably the weakest Culture novel to date. Surface detail on the other hand is excellent, with a big emotional payoff for long term fans on the very last page.

71:

Until they make computers that are faster than electricity we will not see the things that people want to happen.

I am puzzled by this statement. Do you mean that we require quantum computers*, or did you mean to use the word semi-conductors in place of electricity? I pass over the question of what people want to happen.

(Asimov of course suggested positronic brains which I eventually decided would be exactly as fast as electronic ones, and many million times more dangerous. Maybe the control panels on Star Trek are positronic rather than electronic, which is why they explode when containment is lost.)

* Which might be instantaneous, but as they would almost certainly powered electricly, the limiting factor would be the electricity propagating at the speed of light.

72:

I don't know about 'faster than electricity' either, but software bloat is real. People have been complaining about inefficiently written code since at least the '80s, and we've learned from experience that computer performance does not map linearly to Moore's Law but instead increases much more slowly.

There are some reasons for this, but the point is that just getting a computer 1000x faster doesn't mean that it will do even 10x as much as the old one.

73:

1) What scientific weirdness makes you go: Huh? How can that be?

All of nature constantly makes me go "Huh? How can this be" on a daily (or sometimes hourly) basis as I look at it on my piece of land. So, no particular text on scientific weirdness usually makes me go "Huh?" The author has to do a very special effort for this. It's all about how you tell the story around that particular scientific weirdness.

2) I sort of assumed that most people here know what the Arrow-of-time problem is. Should I have done so? Should I do so in a book?

No. I'm not interested. I don't even understand what you're talking about when you use that term. This is odd because usually when a pro writer gives examples I can understand things. I thrive on examples.

3) Do you prefer books where weird concepts are explained, or just out of reach?

I don't care as long as they don't make it a point of being out of reach (leave that to the poseurs or to the creators of Japanese anime and manga) or as long as they don't go to the other extremity and spoil the story by wasting too much time on explanations.

4) Any scientifically impossible pet hates in SF?

None. I've enjoyed Star Trek forever even though it was based on an absurdly unscientific and illogical use of transporters, in the long run. What counted was the elegant execution of good science fiction stories, now and then.

Same thing for Star Wars. I loved the very first film (1977) because it was a ripping visual yarn. Of course, it wasn't science fiction at all.

74:

P.S.

Don't ever, ever, and I mean EVER use the word "pénétration" in French when you want to say "insight".

75:

"Life and technology are always constrained by resource and energy flows."

Yes, but we're talking about totally different constraints here.

Biological life is out of competition in suitable environments and is likely to continue to be so for quite some time.

But self-organizing technology could survive essentially all over the solar system. Either sunpowered or fission powered. (No need for true intelligence, if it is entering an ecosystem in waiting, that's still absolutely empty.)

Similar story for the oceanfloor(think manganese nodules).

Corn: Part of the complexity of a corn plant is not intrinsic. To grow well, it needs natural soil and that is a vast multitude of microscopic lifeforms.

Apply that to technology: It's not only about intrinsic complexity, but also about the patterns of interaction. Same goes for interaction between life and technology. Patterns of interaction matter and different patterns compete.

So the "singularity" likely to happen first is a point where we could still control technology, but are too lazy to be bothered as long as it can't threaten us. (Sudden wake-up calls possible...)

At the same time, we are able to do more and more things to biological life, but only with an amount of effort, that will not be applied to all lifeforms equally. Not even to all human beings equally.

Liveable: for baseline humans or for modified fellows?

And then there is another thing: "classical" SF was powered by hard science, rockets, machines, the next generation was powered by "cyberspace" and the like. By "pure coincidence" both Neal Stephenson and Charlie are programmers.

The big changes of the future will be in biotech, biology and ecology. Even technological ecologies will be unfathomable for a classical engineer. To visualize this stuff, you need the knowledge base.

And it's not exactly a coincidence, that I really like Peter Watts. If you write SF with a biology background, I should probably read your books as well...

76:

Ah, that Heinlein door, yes now I recall reading that somewhere.

-Banks always seems to break his toys at the end of his books. As a kid, I disliked authors that mistreated their characters. As an adult I understand that can be limiting but the sentiment's still valid. His tendency to go "Last chapter! Rocks fall, everybody dies!" always leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

-This thread made me want to read a contemporary novel framed as a science fiction yarn for an early 20th century audience.

-I always thought the point of the singularity will be intelligence, right now the design space of possible intelligences is bottlenecked through homo sapiens and possible descendants, higher mammals if you want to be generous. What we're doing right now with technology is breaking this bottleneck and widening the possibilities to unexplored areas of this possible design space.

This TED talk from Ken Slavin set me thinking that maybe the singularity is/has already happened and we're just not aware of it yet. Particularly the idea that out of control processes we have set in motion are driving real world reshaping of the landscape. Kinda scary.

77:

You know, everyone keeps gushing about how great the Culture novels are but I tried reading Excession and found it tedious. All the nonsense about ships talking to one another and 30 pages of what a drone is doing nearly put me to sleep. I know I'm horribly anthrocentric, but I want relatable human characters in my doorstop novels, not talking spaceships and guns with genius level IQs. Plus, Banks' style seems to be stereo instructions with the occasional adverb, cementing my opinion that most people are so ill-schooled, they have no clue know good writing even tastes like, let alone how to spot it in the wild.

78:

Watched that TED.
Pretty good.

79:

I read Brit glum. IT WAS ALWAYS "disliked authors that mistreated their characters." And boy do they get it bad! I read their 50's and mid 60's work. But most did not make me do a happy dance. Boy did everybody get it bad!
The singularity is no how, no way close to the state of the art. I don't believe in it or SANTA. There will be a lot of things that I can't imagine. But how many can pay for them?

80:

"There are some reasons for this, but the point is that just getting a computer 1000x faster doesn't mean that it will do even 10x as much as the old one."

No, but it does mean that the new computer can do things that the old one could never do effectively. For example, there is an iPad app that translates speech in real time between English and Mandarin. And I mean spoken language, not text. Try doing that 1000x slower!
That is an example of speed leading to a qualitative leap, not just a quantitative one.

81:

Well, if nothing can escape from a black hole, why can gravity?

That is a profoundly useful question, I'd have thought.

82:

I posted a couple of URLs explaining

83:

My post #43 and Dirk's #44 in this page.

84:

There's also digital data storage which has seen a quantum leap in speed and capacity over the past thirty years or so.

Back in 1987 we were dismantling the SF Worldcon in Brighton and moving our stuff out of the hotels and exhibiton halls. The show following us into the conference centre was entitled "Very Large Database Conference". From the promotional material being unrolled on the display boards a Very Large Database was 100 to 200 megabytes in size. No, not gigabytes, MEGAbytes. Times have changed, haven't they?

There's an old aphorism that says "work expands to fill the time/money/manpower etc. available for it" and that's true of computing too. Modern cheap very powerful computers actually achieve more than old slow computers did by using more complex software. This is sometimes called software bloat but it's actually functionality bloat, functionality such as multitasking, threading, even the GUI which most folks today would be loath to lose.

Yes, I did use the words "quantum leap". And?

85:

That's a good example of computing/memory capacity reaching a threshold and triggering a revolution. First felt by the music industry, and latterly Hollywood. Which they may not survive.

86:

Well, if nothing can escape from a black hole, why can gravity?

"Nothing" ranks alongside "infinity" as a useful-but-dodgy concept... speaking as a non-Platonist, who regards ideal concepts as approximations that help us build useful models. (But I'll leave it up to someone else to answer you more directly. Too challenging at the moment!)

I once (being a smart-arse, while teaching a group of *very* bright software engineers) explained cosmic inflation like this:

According to relativity theory, nothing can move faster than light. According to inflation, that's exactly what the nothing did.

And one of the guys said, "Do you know, that finally makes sense! I pondered over this for years..."

87:

Alain @ 73:

Thank you! There's a fine line between assuming specialist knowledge (and explaining nothing) and being condescending by delivering an unnecessary explanation. Derren Brown would add here, "'Condescending' means talking down to someone." :-)

I can in fact make the arrow-of-time interesting with examples, but I didn't when I asked the question.

If I show you a video of a billiard ball moving through space, you can't tell whether the video is in reverse or normal-play mode. But if the video shows a broken egg leaping up from the floor and reforming itself in someone's hand, that is most definitely in reverse... even though the egg is made of particles moving (sort of) like billiard balls.

The equations that govern motion - that usually seem fundamental - have no notion of future or past.

Well, I'd spend more time and take more care on than that, but you get the idea... The main point is, if it were necessary for you to know this in order to understand something important in the book, then you deserve an entertaining explanation. But it needs to be elegant enough to entertain both you and someone who knows it already.

I like a challenge!

Alain @ 74:

Er, thanks again... My Oxford French Dictionary is old! I can travel around in France without expecting people to speak English, and even converse over a business lunch... but that's not real fluency. When I wrote a recent novel set partly in near-future Paris, Alastair Reynolds' wife Josette picked apart and changed virtually every sentence of French dialogue. Very kind of her, too.

88:

"SF as the literature of ideas": I agree completely, however in the context of Matter, the idea is shellworlds and the alien civilizations around them, what's actually missing is a definitive explanation, which I don't think is necessary. A lot of SF has no explanation for their super science/technology ideas (FTL travel, Superluminal communication, Human level AI, etc), especially the old classics (back then there's no real science about wormhole physics, GR solution to warp space, Moore's law, quantum computing, so they couldn't explain it even if they want to).

89:

The difference is that with "Matter" none of the mysteries that are key to the plotline are resolved.

90:

"Death machine out of nowhere! WTF?"

I got the strong feeling that the author just woke up one day and decided he couldn't be bothered with writing any more.

91:

It's a pity.
Matter was just getting interesting.
He closed the entire plotline in about 20 pages, like you say, "Death machine out of nowhere, everybody killed. The End". And the super-AI death machine itself being killed by a trick that would not fool a chimp.
The book should have been about 120 pages longer, with some reasons given as to why everything was happening. Or not happening in the case of the missing Narascene fleet.
Banks ought to pulp it, apologize to fans and do a decent ending for it.

92:

I hope that the publisher will let you put in some illustrations and/or links to YouTube videos. I think I'm not the only one who understands things better if illustrations are provided, and properly exploited in the text.

On the other hand there are some people who can do without illustrations. For several long years Isaac Asimov stopped writing science fiction completely and made a living writing books which popularised Science and other branches of human knowledge. Obviously, there must have been quite a lot of people who got to understand a lot of things through his books.

Out of curiosity, over the years, I picked up several of those books at sales (at 50 cents or a dollar per book) even though the Science in them was often outdated. I found that, given my need for imagery, all of the books were completely obscure. I never understood what he was trying to explain, even though I did my high school and junior college in science concentrations.

93:

One way of avoiding a detailed explanation of how that super trans-warp drive works is to view it from a character’s standpoint – if they have only a rudimentary understanding of its process (such as most people might do about a hybrid car’s engine). Maybe throw in a bit of technical info further into the book at certain points, thus avoiding the info dump. But then the author can’t presume to be an authority. Yes that word: verisimilitude.

BTW: I’ve been having my doubts about the Copenhagen and many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics – all those parallel universes constantly being created. Perhaps the uncertainty is a temporal one: past and future indeterminate until observed, though i’d need to research that more.

94:

Not directly relevant but I thought folks might like this video, it depicts a circular saw designed to stop before it cuts flesh - it reminded me of worlds like Niven's future where everything is engineered towards total safety.

95:

Oh good lord.. Matter was alright. Not his best, but the whining that it wasn't all tied up a neat bow for you with clear explanations of everything is a bit juvenile. Sometimes, things don't work out, people die and the mysteries aren't explained.

To the person who didn't like Excession... you started with the wrong book. Try Consider Phlebas or Player of Games. Maybe Use of Weapons.

96:

That is extraordinary. I have exactly the opposite opinion of Asimov's science books. I think they are models of clarity. They are certainly outdated, but the fundamentals are still mostly correct and are explained in a way that are remarkably transparent. I would compare them favorably to any modern, US High School textbook. The best are the one topic books. His encyclopedic "Guide to Science" is too lightweight for my liking and more suited as a pre-Wikipedia source.

97:

"Sometimes, things don't work out, people die and the mysteries aren't explained. "

And whole plotlines and setups are arbitrarily curtailed. It's as stupid as if one were reading Lord of the Rings and about halfway through Tolkein ends the book with a gigantic meteorite taking out Mordor, and wiping out the Fellowship of the Ring. The End.

98:

I actually have written a novel based on ecology. It's effectively a sword-and-planet novel, where the conceit is that the planet's organisms find our industrial polymers and lubricants to be delicious and nutritious. Machines get destroyed by bacteria and fungi, but Gaian life can survive with great effort. It's called Scion of the Zodiac, and it's available on Amazon and Smashwords. Charlie got an acknowledgement for helping me out on a critical detail.

It's pertinent to this discussion in that I put a huge amount of effort into building the alien world, and as a result, it's strange for some readers, rather than engaging. That's one real issue in worldbuilding: it's tricky to get people engaged in a place that's properly alien (48 hour days, 0.5 g, set on the moon of a gas giant, that kind of thing), even though that's what explroers are likely to find around other stars. It's also true that more people are comfortable with Medieval Europe than with the Andes and Papua New Guinea, which were my my major models.

I set my next book on Earth, and I've gotten much better response from my beta readers. People expect novels to be familiar, I guess.

Check it out if you like, and feel free to post rants and critiques on my blog. Think of this as an example of world-building where ecology trumps engineering. It's not an classic example, but it is readable.

99:

Theres a new book named Genticks, it is about the future, this book is about an adventure of a character that was born in Mars. The interesting about this book is that explain some theories about space traveling, the use of the DNA and the human nature. It really very interesting, I think you can find it on amazon.

100:

heteromeles @57 ff. – I can't write a lick, let alone any of the story ideas suggested by your post– but that there's a huge patch of fertile soil for tales which I think I'd enjoy reading (imagining an unlikely hybrid with Metatropolis and Zodiac in its roots).

If you could suggest any pointers re: interests in reclamation tech/industries by parties who favor shady spots, would greatly appreciate if you could forward any this way (zbp.yvnzt@056lryjnup).
[correction: "\that\ way." -ed.]

 
<sidetrack>
Matter is one of the most challenging IMB novels I've read thus far, yes. Is it unrealistic? Not so much, unless your universe has a lot more prettily-tied bows in it that does mine, or even this one. I tend to do poorly when history is involved, but for me a significant part of the book lay in how reasonable starting assumptions and reactions could lead to increasingly preposterous developments and consequences that became antithetical to their precursors' ideas. [This never happens in real life, of course.]
</sidetrack>

101:

@98: the synchronicity, it burns!

Off to work, then shop. Thanks for the link.

102:

Hi Christopher,

Um. What I know I'm is fairly local, very complicated, and not something I'm particularly interested in sharing. It has to do with how certain landfill operators cut corners on certain landfills in a certain large urban center.

You can get an interesting overview by googling "garbage indictment", "landfill indictment", "recycling indictment" and similar searches.

I'm interested in how South Korea is both recycling and mining their landfills for fuel and materials. Google will show you a lot in this regard.

103:

I read the first null-a book a while back because Larry Niven mentioned it as an example in an essay about teleportation. I got the book from the library and a while may as well be a decade.

104:

another author that just ends things is stephen king, massive long run up, then the main part of the story is rushed, its like he's trying to write a trilogy , but runs out of paper

105:

That's why I have only ever read one stephen king book. Big on characterization, short on ideas.
My next Banks book will be coming from the local library in case its another stinker.

106:

To the person who didn't like Excession... you started with the wrong book. Try Consider Phlebas or Player of Games. Maybe Use of Weapons.

Strongly seconded; In fact, start with those 3 in that order.

107:

I have to be in a very small portion of a Venn diagram: A ^ B where A={big I M Banks fan} and B={people who think Use of Weapons is a bad novel on many levels}

So the epilogue in Surface Detail was annoying, but not enough to ruin the book for me.

One thing I appreciated about Chasm City (which is a good, but not great Reynolds novel) is that he used a similar plot device without appearing to think he was being super clever or likely to be fooling us for any significant amount of time. (And it is great to see a distinctly unfriendly, unsympathetic, psychotic dolphin for a change.)

Something that speaks to Banks' great strengths as a writer is that he took the most laughable conceit of Use of Weapons, toned it down and tweaked it a lot, then actually sold me on it (mostly) in Inversions.

Matter, I liked, but I let the scientification of Galactic Space Operas mostly whoosh by; I am generally in it for the plots, the characters and the opportunity to play with history type elements on a grand scale.

Consider Phlebas, Player of Games and Look to Windward are all wonderful. Inversion is too, in my opinion, but it will not appeal to those who hate the para-medievel settings in principle. (And the deep idea behind Against a Dark Background really got me thinking.)

However, I do hope he will never write a third novel where the bad guy's penis is a pharmacological delivery system of control/torture. "Not until you see the irony..." Well, we have, Iain, we have.

108:

I think "B" might also be labelled "People called PrivateIron"? ;-)

109:

Well I think they should attack the lower classes, er, first with bombs, and rockets destroying their homes, and then when they run helpless into the streets, er, mowing them down with machine guns. Er, and then of course releasing the vultures. I know these views aren't popular, but I have never courted popularity.

110:

What are you trying to achieve? genocide or "regime change"?

In the latter case, a surgical strike that simply takes out $dictator and $minister_of_interior will be adequate.

111:

this regime change thing bothers me, in a lot of cases the 'regime' has grown out of the people.. like mushrooms from mycelia , cf the nazis.
what happens when you chop off the mushrooms?

112:

Mushrooms aren't a good analogy, in my opinion. I'm one of the people who think that leaders can actually make a movement, since there's this thing called charisma. If a strong leader is the only one keeping a bunch of sociopaths, psychopaths, crazy ideologues, and ordinary people marching together, killing the leader off will stall the movement, particularly if that charismatic leader made sure that he didn't have strong successors.

To go the whole Godwin's rule route, Nazis are a decent example of this phenomenon. When we killed Hitler, the Nazis didn't entirely disappear. However, they haven't yet come back to power, and it's unlikely that they will ever reform as they once were.

113:
To go the whole Godwin's rule route, Nazis are a decent example of this phenomenon. When we killed Hitler, the Nazis didn't entirely disappear. However, they haven't yet come back to power, and it's unlikely that they will ever reform as they once were.

Yes, but how much of that is really "because we killed Hitler", and how much is because the German country was entirely smashed militarily and economically by one of the most unlikely military alliances ever formed. And then smashed politically in the aftermath, and divided into four parts ruled by the conquering nations. Might groups (in any country) who would like to follow the example of the Nazis not consider the final outcome something of a warning? (Just because someone is a nutter who thinks Hitler was a great hero, that doesn't mean they want to commit suicide in their bunker in the bombed-out remains of a once-great city.)

Aside from which, parties with Nazi-style behaviour are not entirely unknown in the post-WW2 world. There was this guy in Iraq, for one.

114:

Agreed, Chris. We could point to Hussein, or Genghis Khan, or Alexander the Great, or any number of other dictators as examples of systems that fell apart when a charismatic leader died.

Getting back to the post I commented on, the point is a mushroom in your example is the reproductive structure of a fungus, usually formed by the fusion of two separate mycelia. That's totally different than a group headed by a totalitarian leader. Given the way mushrooms form, they're actually not great metaphors for a lot of things, but that's okay. Remember, mushrooms don't eat manure either, any more than flowers do. They're reproductive structures.

115:

One of the oldest problems ever:  Once the current small-b bastards are deposed/contemplating the joys of early retirement/whatever, there remains the small problem of selecting worthy replacements. Failure to do so almost guarantees successors whose most notable quality is the ability to climb over any obstacles in their path, rather than leaders who address the needs of the governed. Sometimes the problem is not even perceived or is carefully overlooked; at others it gets deferred as a detail to be handled after the glorious revolution.

It occurs to me to wonder whether humans are even neurologically capable of handling the task of intelligent leader selection. Our track record for doing so under contentious circumstances suggests that we probably aren't. Even in the calmest political climate we don't do so well … The next time you read a "Politician drummed out for _____" story[1], ask yourself how many people helped select that politician or failed to spot their weakness.

(Topic drift? What topic drift?)

________________
[1] Fill in the blank: "lying", "stealing", "molesting children", "failing to keep it trousered" (or out of the papers!), or "practicing unbelievable stupidity".

116:

Cultural pride and multiculturalism are not mutually exclusive. I happen to come from a country that (mostly) happily exhibits both. AND demonstrates a fair amount of national pride at the same time.

117:

Note to "Anonymous": your comment has been unpublished because this blog has a moderation policy and you explicitly violated it (section 3: racism). You might have just pulled a yellow card and a smack-down if you'd bothered to use a real name, but anonymous trollery doesn't deserve engagement.

If I think you're posting here again under another sock-puppet identity you will have your comments nuked.

118:

Unfortunately, I'm not very good at reading Spanish. Are you associated with this book?

119:

Germany dug up Rudolph Hess' bones, burned them and dropped them at sea. Too many neo-Nazis were hanging out around his grave and worshipping it.

120:

It is a self-deprecating quote from Monty Python re: the unpopularity of my views on one Iain Banks novel. The way the response has grown from that is mutation (or saprophytic activity?) in the extreme. But carry on, it is way more interesting than my original posts.

121:

Fascism and National Socialism are alive and well.
China and Singapore spring to mind.
Just because they do not persecute Jews or invade Poland does not mean that they are not classic, and successful, examples.

122:

Fascism and National Socialism are just top down power. "Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power." Benito Mussolini.
Hitler did not start National Socialism. He took over the party with money from the Corporations. What he ended up with is more or less what Mussolini did. I think. BUT MEANER.

123:

The Romans have trading records of shipping from river ports in the Sahara. Within history it was livable. Think about that. Will it happen in Kansas?

124:

#120 :Redface: - I'm a big enough MP fan that I should have recognised that quote. Still, as you say, the results of my #110 were interesting.

#123 - We have previously discussed whether or not it would be possible to refill the Qattara (sp?) Depression with salt water by tunnelling through to the Mediterrainian Sea.

Also, the Nile and at least one of the major "West African" rivers are still navigable well into the Sahara using vessels with 10 feet of draft.

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This page contains a single entry by John Meaney published on July 25, 2011 10:09 PM.

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