Hello there! My name is Cat Valente (Catherynne M. if you're
nasty reading my business cards) and I'll be your blogger for the next month. I hope we'll have some good times together, some laughs, some tears, and at the end we can sit back and look on our montage reel with a soft focus lens and some mid-90s comfort rock.
For those of you (which I suspect is most of you) who don't know who I am, I present a few Facts before I get into the technofuture thoughttery.
I'm mostly a fantasy writer. But I've branched out into science fiction in the last couple of years. I dig folklore all the way and a lot of what I write deals with that, even the SF, because we don't just stop telling stories to explain ourselves to ourselves when we have shinier tech. A lot of what I write features what gets variously called "rich language" "lyrical prose" or "I couldn't follow it, can't she use fewer/easier words?"
I write a lot of books for adults and have a pretty successful middle grade series going. I've done some time editing but it didn't agree with me. I write fast--I teach seminars on how to write a book in 30 days. I've won some awards, lost several, and I've been at the gig since 2004, full-time since 2006. I blog myself over on Livejournal.
I live on an island off the coast of Maine, which is both more and less isolating than you'd think. I live in a village of a few hundred people, a lot of us grow, raise, and/or fish a fair portion of our own food, and connected through a listserv, we have a unique internal economy wherein we barter for goods and services. Once an object has been brought across the bay, it is such a pain in the ass to take it back that it tends to stay on the island for more or less centuries, traded from hand to hand, sometimes bought with money, but mostly not. This includes your physical body: we have three large graveyards on an island slightly less than two miles long. But we are part of the city of Portland, only two miles offshore, and have regular ferry service.
I have two dogs (Golden Retriever and German Shepherd), two cats (Maine Coon and Stray Extremely Ill-Tempered Tabby Who Came Home from the Park with My Husband Eleven Years Ago and Will Obviously Live Forever Fueled by Her Hatred of the Universe) and six laying hens (I present their names as they probably tell you more about me than this whole post: Pertelote, Billina, Black Chocobo, Dinosaur, Ziggy Stardust and Nanny Ogg). Little known fact: my Maine Coon has a full sister and half brother owned by awesome author Seanan McGuire.
If the Maine thing didn't make it clear, I'm American--I thought I'd throw that out up front since this is a European blog and I'm, well, not. I will necessarily have a slightly different political perspective. Many of you have governments that will take care of you when you're sick! Mine would rather let me rot, most especially since I am a self-employed writer. Good times. However, I actually lived in Edinburgh, a city relevant to this blog, and went to university there (since I know you're all internet research hounds, I'll explain: I went as an exchange student? But then it turned out no one in the history of the program had ever gone in my major--Classics--and few enough in their senior year, so they sat me down and were all: "Yeah, you're going to need to take and pass the full degree exams for both Greek and Latin or you can't graduate from your American university either." And kids, those are no joke. Especially when they only tell you that two weeks before the exam. So by god I feel it's legit to say I went to university at Edinburgh, though my diploma says University of California.) so we needn't discuss cookies vs biscuits or lift vs elevator or any of that. I also lived in Japan for a couple of years when I was first publishing.
Aside from writing I'm an Italian-American woman with no kids, so naturally I cook like a fiend. I'll definitely be sharing some recipes. I'm also an avid knitter, I make pickles (because I married a Russian man and homemade pickles are love-in-a-jar for him) and jams, I sail and blow glass and I am trying to learn the accordion but damn, it is not the easiest instrument I could have chosen to pick up. Other than sailing, which I was raised with as both my parents were sailors, I picked up most of these hobbies when, like Charlie, my hobby became my day job and I suddenly needed something else to do as a hobby.
Part of the reason Charlie asked me to come over here and natter for a month because I posted about his recent series of future/worldbuilding posts a few weeks ago. Basically, he kind of freaked me out. That Stross, he is a convincing guy when he talks about the future!
The kind of science fiction I write is not as concerned with the near future. I take a folkloric approach to SF--these are the stories we are telling ourselves right now about our own nature, this is how we explain the world to ourselves. I like to take those stories apart and put them back together in strange shapes. I think in every meaningful way we are living in "the future" of the 50s, of which flying cars were never the central feature. I am thirty-two years old--I remember life before the internet, but I was a child. My adult life has been characterized by radical technological and political change I, as a classicist who did not even have an email address until she was twenty, could not have begun to predict. (Ok, not true, classicists are really good at predicting politics. It's the tech that stumbles us. I could have predicted my 8 bit games turning into Skyrim, but not that a glorified classmates.com would take over the technological world.) Now that the internet has settled into being a massive an integral part of our lives on Planet Earth, we are starting to see how it changes our culture in the medium to long term, how profoundly it skews even comparatively young predictions of 15 years ago. The internet is not a Singularity with a capital S, but it is a sea change sharing more in common with the Industrial Revolution than simply a new device.
One of the problems that is leading to some of the more dire issues Charlie brings up is memory. Not personal memory (at least not per se) or senescence, but generational and cultural memory. No one is now living who can remember the Industrial Revolution, so the West draws very few lessons from that, so few that we just assume the world created by that Revolution is the one we'll be living in in perpetuity. We think technological advancement means new toys, not new worlds. I lived in Ohio for awhile, part of what is sort of affectionately called the Rust Belt in the United States. It used to be called the Steel Belt. It was where great swathes of American manufacturing, particularly automotive manufacturing, took place. Towns thrived on their auto plants, tire plants, steel mills, came into being purely to fill jobs at those facilities. With only a few exceptions, those plants have been shut for decades now. Some shut down in the 80s, some shut down in the 70s. Yet if you talk to older folk in those once-booming towns, most will tell you that one day the industry will come back. The politicians will make it happen, or somehow they will make their town attractive enough again that magically a steel mill will appear with a big red bow on it. Some of the younger generation knows it isn't so--but only some.
Because industrial boom is normal, right? The way of life that worked for exactly one generation--the Boomers--will work for everyone from now on. Any bust or crisis is a blip, a deviation which will, which must, correct itself. Because culturally we have about two generations worth of memory, maybe three, and then the black curtain comes down and we can't imagine that life in a 20th century first world nation is itself the aberration in human experience. What do you mean you can't afford a house by the time you're 30? What do you mean there are no good entry level positions? You're just not trying hard enough. The steel mills will come back, you'll see.
Will the internet go the way of the steel mill? I don't know, maybe. We still use steel, but the way we make it, buy it, and sell it has changed profoundly and cannot change back. (Nothing changes back, only forward. I suppose this is a relevant lesson for publishing, really. Radical change is the new black.) Certainly the current state of the internet, which is itself changed pretty radically from just five or six years ago, will change enormously, no matter how many articles I read on the permanence of Facebook. (See what I mean about memory? They said MySpace was permanent, too, and that was hardly a generation ago. I remember thinking Livejournal would go on forever.) Facebook changed the culture of online interaction and it can't change back, but it will certainly be replaced by something else--the question is only how it will be changed. By government intvervention, SOPA 2: Beyond Thunderdome, by independent companies innovating or by enormous corporations cannibalizing each other. Probably all of those. I can't imagine the internet going away entirely, I don't think you can put that massive networked genie back in the bottle--but I suppose that's the point. I live in a company town. It's inconceivable right now that the company won't always be around.
I think everyone is kind of freaked out right now. Which is why they set up tents on the street last year. Why some are still there. We're freaked because we don't know what's coming--but we're reasonably sure it's going to be shitty. Dystopia is the thing to write about these days. We have more faith in dystopia than utopia. SF used to be all about utopia, Starfleet and replicators and living forever. To be honest, Brave New World seems kind of cute to me these days. At least the oppressive government thought to hand out Soma so trod-upon people wouldn't be so goddamn miserable! Our governments just say: suck it up, epsilon assholes. Might as well be stamped on our coins.
It's tough to say everything's going to be ok. Living at the end of one way of life and the beginning of another sucks. Most people just want to be fat and happy and do some meaningful work, have kids, and die. Except for dying, the ability to do all of that is up in the air these days. And that's where we are. Industrial life is in its death throes and it isn't pretty or fair. Daddy Tolkien will tell us it was no treat living in the just-post Industrial Revolution, either. After all, we all know our history: what follows Revolutions? Usually, Terror.
That's why, I think, there's been a small but concerted effort to "bring back" optimistic SF in the last few years. We're looking for ways to know it'll all work out without mass extinction or widespread horror. The trouble is that massive technological change is not optimistic for some people, it's frightening. Terrifying. And not just mainstream "mundanes," or else what is the recent newfound love of the 19th century all about? What else has driven half my generation back to spinning wheels, knitting needles, preserving jars, and livestock? Everything is uncertain--let's go back and pretend it's still possible to live in the Shire. I'm guilty of it, too, obviously.
And I guess the whole point of writing future-oriented SF is to show one possible way it could all work out. Even if that involves dystopia. In some sense, big S Singularity is such an easy answer to that. An escape hatch--we'll all uplift, upload, and upend everything, and sort of skip the problems at the end of this chapter. SF writers don't get to call the shots, but we are meant to show the way.
Of course, once we get there, memory will fade and we'll forget it was any other way.