May 2012 Archives

Here, flagged up by Bruce Sterling, is an absolutely vital rant (by Dale Carrico) for anyone with even the most remotely passing interest in transhumanism, extropianism, the radiant future, etc. etc.

Manages to sum up in a few paragraphs a large chunk of my thinking on the subject since I finished Accelerando and recovered from the dot-bust hangover. Sample:

I have proposed that the "accelerating change" crowed about for the last two decades by futurologists in pop religious cadences and by more mainstream and academic New Media commentators in pop psychology and pop sociology cadences has never had any substantial reference apart from the increasing precarity produced by neoliberal looting and destabilization of domestic welfare and global economies—often facilitated, it is true, by the exploitation of digital trading, marketing, and surveillance networks—a precarity usually seen and experienced from the vantage of privileged people who either benefit from neoliberal destabilization or who (rightly or wrongly) identify with the beneficiaries of that destabilization.
Got that?

Shorter version: a big chunk of the "accelerating change" meme actually emerges from our experience of the future shock induced by our Martian invaders — the corporatist liquidation or privatisation of human social structures not mediated by money, culminating ultimately in the experience of disaster capitalism.

Yes, there is rapid technological progress in some areas. It's not all bad. But the beneficiaries of that particular shift (a narrow technological elite, and their masters in the shape of the 0.1%, the financial/social engineers who direct the new hive-organism aristocracy) have made a fetish out of change, ignoring (for the most part) the uncomfortable fact that "creative destruction" is an oxymoron:

... there is an unmistakably faith-mobilizing pseudo-transcendentalizing strain to be discerned in this very PR marketing imaginary, deranging us from our present distress into a yearning toward consumer techno-futures bathed in pastels and robots and cars and DNA helices and chocolate and glossy hair and youthful skin and golden sex.
So there! (That's us told.)

Seriously, go read the whole thing. It's an essential reality check for those who are too entranced by transhumanism to notice the sordid reality behind the curtain. (Yes, I am grumpy this morning. Wouldn't you be, if you woke from a diamond-encrusted dream of exponential progress to find yourself in a nation gripped by a double-dip recession induced by economic idiocy?)

Update: There is a rottenness at the heart of the transhuman project, and the biggest symptom of it is blindness to its own origins: a mixture of warmed-over Christian apocalyptic eschatology (which Cory Doctorow and I poke with a stick in "The Rapture of the Nerds") and the Just-So creation mythology of the smugly self-satisfied hypercapitalists who have unintentionally done so much to destroy so many of the moral and interpersonal values of post-Englightenment civilization.

This blog is a web site, within the meaning of the EU cookie law. And it uses cookies. As such, it is governed by regulations set forth by the Information Commissioner's Office.

What cookies do we use at Charlie's Diary, and why?

Well, if you're a moderator or a guest blogger, you will need to log in to exercise your special privileges, and the site will use a cookie to keep track of you and grant you 'leet access.

If you're a commenter and you log in, then the site will use a cookie to identify you ... except logging in is currently broken, so you can't do that. Ahem. It will also plant a cookie on you if you try to preview a comment before you hit the post button.

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Implied consent: if you use this blog and attempt to post comments, or are an active moderator or guest blogger, you are presumed to have given consent to the use of cookies for those purposes (and only those).

This has been a public service announcement made necessary by some damn' fool European Commission directive that confused a goal (securing web users' privacy) with a technology (cookies). Film at eleven.

We now return you to your usual viewing.

Much as any artefact exposed to the maw of a small child eventually becomes soggy and turns brown (after it stops working, if moving parts are involved), I am coming to the conclusion that any comment thread on this blog will, between 100 and 200 comments in, circle around to become a discussion of:

* Space colonization

* Automotive technology

* Things that go fast and explode (rockets, military aircraft)

* Alternative energy (from solar through wind/wave to nuclear)

* Libertarianism (and everything is worse with libertarians)

Am I doing something wrong with the moderation here? Answers on the back of a postcard, please.

NB: attempts to derail this comment thread into orbit around one of the above strange attractors will probably result in mockery, before I delete them. I'm serious. Bored, now: want a new commentariat. (If you want to discuss The Usual, you may continue as before in the comment thread under the previous blog entry, a serious essay about the future of genre fiction, which ended up circling the drain in well under 250 comments ...)

A week or so back I was kindly invited to contribute to an SF Signal mind-meld discussion around the question:

Are SF writers "slacking off" or is science fiction still the genre of "big ideas"? If so, what authors are supplying these ideas for the next generation of scientists and engineers?
After thinking about that for a while, I came up with a short essay which you can find below the cut (tidied up a little to remove some annoying snags from the original) ...

I collect conspiracy theories. The nature of what people are willing to believe about their neighbours tells us quite a lot about our attitude to the society we live in, our fears, our worries about deception, and so on. And the past half century has been a boom time for conspiracy theories, from the JFK assassination through the moon landings to the CIA introducing LSD/crack cocaine/AIDS/insert threat here into the USA, to Louis Mountbatten and MI5 trying to stage a coup against the British government in the 1970s ... wait, the last one was real. And, now I think about it, so was one of the CIA ones. That's the trouble with conspiracy theories: true history contains such weird lacunae of surrealism that it's very hard to sift the wheat from the chaff.

I ran across a new-to-me conspiracy theory today; on balance I think it's an urban legend, but it appeals to my credulity very neatly and I can't rule it out for sure. Let me explain why below ...

We are surrounded by stuff. Physical property, objects we use. Even the poorest of us have some basic stuff: footwear, clothing. Having possessions is one of the defining characteristics of being human—with the questionable exception of a few animal species that have been observed using ad-hoc tools in the wild, nothing else owns anything (and even the tools used by chimpanzees or crows appear to be spur-of-the-moment constructions, abandoned after their immediate use rather than retained for their future potential).

But where do our priorities lie? I am thinking that there are at least two categories: stuff we pay too little attention to, and stuff we prize too highly. And sometimes there are types of stuff that fall to a greater or lesser extent into both sets ...

Lots of meaty analysis from Paul Mason, economics editor at BBC's Newsnight, on the nature and origins of SYRIZA, the Greek leftist bloc that is opposed to German-imposed austerity measures (as opposed to PASOK, the main centre-left party, which is reluctantly going along with things).

SYRIZA is an umbrella organization with a bewildering, mangrove-like array of tap-roots. It's also quite possible that there'll be a new election in Greece next month—if the current attempt to form an emergency government of national unity, being brokered by President Karolos Papoulias, fails—and SYRIZA will get to form the next government.

As Mason notes:

the resulting government may, in effect, be little more than a left-social democratic government, despite its symbology and the radicalism of some of its voters. By forcing the mainstream parties into positions where they could not express the will of the majority of centrist voters, the EU may end up destroying the Greek party system as it has been shaped since 1974.

Meanwhile, I note with interest that Greece has the highest per-capita military budget in the EU, the military budget has barely been touched by the austerity measures devastating the rest of the Greek economy, that Greece imports most of its weapons from Germany and France (generously funded by German and French bank loans), and that the military, within living memory, have taken an over-active role in Greek political life. (One hopes that the fate of the junta will act as a salutory warning to any would-be successors.)

The smart, fashionable startup-people these days are all trying to come up with brilliant and innovative new business models that disrupt struggling industries and synergize for break-out growth potential forming new markets. (Ahem. At least that's what they say.)

I submit that it is somewhat harder to disrupt an industry that has been dead for so long that the corpse is fully skeletonized. By the time that we've got people seriously pitching for an IPO on the back of the poetry market[*], we're scraping the bottom of the barrel that started out full of brilliant and innovative new business models. What next: a dot-com startup targeting the overdue-for-disruption steam locomotive market?

I am calling this a bubble economy in startup bullshit, and it's just about ready to pop; we are now at the stage of the shoe-shine boys offering stock tips, and if I had any money invested in hyperparasites like Zynga I'd be yanking the eject handle as hard as I could.

[*] I have nothing against poetry; it's just that it has been impossible for anyone to earn a living as a working commercial poet in the English language for close to three-quarters of a century and counting. For various reasons, we just don't seem to consume the stuff any more. Or we give it a backing track and call it rap or rock music or blues. Gramophone killed the poetry star.

I'm going to be a bit scarce around here this week.

That's because after my last blog entry, I had a bad attack of RSI (subtype: numbness and tingling in fingertips, rather than shooting/stabbing pains in wrists) and need to lay off typing for a bit, and save what keystrokes I've got for the actual day job—that's the novel that is a few months behind schedule and facing a looming deadline.

No, I don't need your helpful tips on how to deal with RSI via furniture, posture, work breaks, or physio: I already have a recovery plan and know what to do. No, speech recognition software will not help me write fiction. (However, once I've trained it and learned all the speech commands, Dragon Express will probably do fine for blog entries—they're more conversational in tone and thus more compatible with dictation.) I just need to lay off the keyboard long enough to heal, then change the bad habit that's triggered this attack. You will not help me maintain my AFK status and recover if you ask me questions or attempt to engage me in discussion, so although I'm going to allow comments on this blog entry I probably won't respond to them.

This is not the blog entry you are expecting.

Science Fiction literature is unusual in that much of the work within the field exists in constant dialog with other works. Author A writes something; Author B reads it and writes something else by way of an oblique rejoinder. (For example: you won't get all the jokes and references in "Saturn's Children" unless you've read Heinlein's "Friday", to which it is in part a response. Again: Jo Walton's Among Others—on the Hugo shortlist this year, and I'm voting for it—contains numerous references and discussions of the sort of SF/F that a bright, bookish child growing up in the UK in the 1970s would be familiar with: and indeed, it spoke to me, because I was reading many of those works at the same age and time ...)

Authors responding to one another isn't unusual. But in SF/F it's particularly visible. It got started in the pages of the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s and continues today, both in short fiction (we're unusual insofar as we still have a vibrant short fiction ecosystem) and at novel length.

So you probably began reading this blog essay expecting a cunning reference to Elizabeth Bear's essay in Clarkesworld, Dear speculative fiction, I'm glad we had this talk ... or to Abi Sutherland's response in "Making Light", on talking it over. Both well worth reading, I should add: Bear's conceit is that SF is reified into personhood and is of course having one of those annoying mid-life crises, wanting to be taken seriously and consequently dressing in black and reading too much bad goth poetry while hanging out outside the doors of literary award bashes thrown by that cool kid, Mainstream.

Well, that's not what I'm here to talk about. I'm here to talk about something much more concrete: the likelihood that within another decade, two at most, science fiction as a literary genre category may well die.

The hidden easter egg in "Halting State" is that at no point does the book use the words "computer" or "software". Despite it being a book engaging with the social consequences of distributed computing and virtual reality.

(I do this sort of thing as a discipline, to focus my writing. The reason for the second-person voice in "Halting State" should be obvious to anyone who has even briefly played an adventure game: the second person is the natural voice of that particular game genre. Deliberately not using those particular words forced me to bear in mind that I was writing about people in a near-present where those particular signifiers have been so seamlessly absorbed into our culture that we don't think about them. Any more than we think about catching a train in terms of the procedural aspects of driving a train.)

I've been reading my reviews again. This is always bad for the authorial blood pressure. However, we have a technical term for an author who argues with reviewers: "idiot". So I'm not going to do that.

However, below the cut, I'm going to put some bullet points for those of you who've read "Rule 34", just to draw your attention to some aspects of the novel that you might otherwise have skidded past.

Specials

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