Cat Valente: January 2012 Archives

It is a strange thing to post at such a well-known techy econo-futurist blog. That's not my usual hat, see. I'm a fantasy writer, and more particularly, a folklorist and historian. It is literally my job to find value in old things, to show people versions of themselves in ancient stories. Nobody asks me what I think about the future.

It's not that I don't have a dog in this race. I am, I know you'll be surprised to hear, a human living in the early 21st century with a vested interest in continuing at least one of those states (human or living in the 21st century--I'm not super picky which). And having just written a time-sprawling posthuman AI novella, it's fairly clear I have thoughts on the subject. It's just that, to belabor a metaphor, your dog is a SuperLabrador with paw-rockets, a tail that can hack wirelessly into the holorabbit whipping around the track, and an honest, loving, loyal cyborg heart. Mine is an old herd-dog, shaggy, dark, beautiful and uncanny, primeval and enormous--and every once in awhile, even though her heart is blood and muscle, she wins as if by magic.

A friend of mine said the other day that he'd surprised himself by starting to write a fantasy novel rather than his beloved SF. He felt it was a story he needed to tell, but also confined by what he saw as the limitations of fantasy: that it is essentially about the past and therefore not concerned with possibility in the same way--in fact, by definition a genre of the impossible. A genre of might-have-been instead of could-someday-be.

I had a request for some Russian recipes, so I'm gonna hit you with Salad Olivier over the quiet internet weekend.

The problem with Russian Cuisine and Me is that I don't like dill and I don't like sour cream. These ingredients are prominent in like 90% of Russian dishes. So I end up altering things a lot, because I want to be able to eat it. I'll eat the cow tongue and the pickled herring and dammit, I'll even have the chicken jello if I get salt and some thick bread to put it on, but the smell of dill turns my stomach and unless it's swirled in borscht, sour cream is just foul.

All of this brings me to Olivier, which is a traditional and much beloved Russian/Ukrainian adaptation of a French dish (far more of Russian cooking is French-derived than you'd think, thanks to pre-Revolution courtly connections with France) often served at holidays. And how you feel about it depends on how you feel about potato salad in general.

As I was watching the finale of Sherlock last night, a fun little thought experiment popped into my head and I thought you folks would be the perfect lab to try it out in. I hemmed and hawed for a little while over whether this was too hard or too easy--which is probably a good sign. So. On to one of the more overused tropes in any genre!

How would you go about faking your own death?

Like any good story, there have to be some restrictions, of course.

1. You must appear to die in front of witnesses. No simply sending a mass email from a fake account. The method of death, however, is up to you. You must appear credibly dead for at least a brief period of time.

2. You cannot use anything or anyone you do not actually have access to in your real life. If you don't know someone who is amazing at Hollywood-level makeup and could keep your secret, or aren't besties with a coroner, you can't manifest them out of thin air for this scenario. (If you do, however, knock yourself out.)

Oddly enough, this has come up in my family. The minute I mentioned that I was thinking of asking Charlie's commenters to fake their own deaths, my husband said: Oh, we kind of had to do that back in Russia! He may actually be the child of some kind of Soviet superhero breeding program, given how often he busts out these kinds of stories.

Turns out, in order to immigrate to the United States, Dmitri's father, despite being in his 40s, had to secure either his father's permission or his father's death certificate. They did not have either. Why? Because apparently, "his father's disappearance was a mystery." I'm quoting directly so you will know how very like the beginning of a Holmes story this sounded.

Thus, the family had to bureaucratically fake a death which none of them could be sure had actually occurred and produce a death certificate out of nothing.

Obviously, I'm asking you for a slightly tougher task, with a pesky body to swap or mangle or vanish. But do consider to whom you will be faking your death: who in your life would have to believe you are beyond this mortal coil in order for you to be effectively deceased? Who would keep your secret? This is where the too hard/too easy thing comes in. People are really more likely to believe anything they're told or see that's remotely plausible, I think, than kids in murder mystery shows. But at the same time, if a death is too flashy, in the real world there's usually an investigation, which would sink you unless you were very good.

But I have faith in you! The game is afoot!

Edit: Please be as elaborate as possible--that's part of the fun. Also, no more boating scenarios, we're full up. And as the conversation has evolved, feel free consider how one lives in the world post-death.

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 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.



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This page is an archive of recent entries written by Cat Valente in January 2012.

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